Monday, December 31, 2007

Japanese Cinema Classics: Mikio Naruse's "Repast"

Repast (Meshi). 1951. Directed and edited by Mikio Naruse. Written by Toshiro Ide and Sumie Tanaka, based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi. Scenario supervised by Yasunari Kawabata. Produced by Sanezumi Fujimoto. Cinematography by Masao Tamai. Music by Fumio Hayasaka. Art direction by Satoshi Chuko. Sound by Masao Fujiyoshi.

Cast: Ken Uehara (Hatsunosuke Okamoto), Setsuko Hara (Michiyo Okamoto), Yukiko Shimazaki (Satoko Okamoto), Yoko Sugi (Mitsuko Murata), Akiko Kazami (Seiko Tomiyasu), Haruko Sugimura (Matsu Murata), Ranko Hanai (Koyoshi Dohya), Kan Nihonyanagi (Kazuo Takenaka), Keiju Kobayashi (Shinzo Murata).

Repast, Mikio Naruse’s first adaptation of the work of celebrated Japanese novelist Fumiko Hayashi, is one of his very finest films, a deceptively simple examination of a troubled marriage, told with the penetrating insight and elegant images that made Naruse such an extraordinary artist. It features one of the greatest performances by the luminous Setsuko Hara, who was a master of gesture and glances which reveal her character without any dialogue needing to be spoken. Her line readings and inflections, sighs, and exclamations all draw us in and make us sympathize with this often opaque, mysterious and forbidding character. At the outset, Michiyo (Hara) is growing bored and frustrated with what she sees as her endlessly monotonous existence, cooking, cleaning, and looking after her husband, Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara). She seems to reserve most of her affection for her cat, Yuri. However, the couple seems to have reached a state of equilibrium in this situation, in which they have managed to submerge their mutual unhappiness beneath banal pleasantries.

This delicate balance is upset by the arrival of Hatsunosuke’s niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki), a flighty young woman who comes to their house for a refuge from her father and her impending marriage. To Michiyo’s dismay and growing anger, Hatsunosuke begins to lavish attention on his pretty and flirtatious niece, going with her on a bus tour of Osaka (which includes one of the film’s loveliest moments, when the cheerful tour guide suddenly breaks out into song), and seeking his own refuge from his unexciting home and office life. These and other events drive Michiyo to the breaking point, until she finally leaves home and stays at her parents’ house in Tokyo and even considers staying there to find a job.

Like most of Naruse’s films, most of the characters are unhappy, and this is their default mode. But as the final sublime moments prove, it is possible to find small moments of grace and greater meaning within this existence. As such, for me personally, this is a great film with which to end the year. Although as meticulous and precise in its own way as that other great master of Japanese cinema, Ozu, Naruse’s style is nearly invisible and quite naked, all the more for us to feel intensely for these characters and their struggles, even though it may on the surface seem quite artless and mundane. And as presented in a beautiful transfer from Masters of Cinema, which includes a nicely written booklet with articles by Audie Bock, Catherine Russell, and Phillip Lopate, and insightful audio commentary by Lopate and Kent Jones, Repast never ceases to amaze with its nearly effortless sublimity, representing the art of cinema at its finest.

Repast is included in a box set which includes two of Naruse’s other 50's films, Sound of the Mountain (1954) and Flowing (1956). Taken together, they are an excellent introduction to one of cinema’s greatest artists.

Masters of Cinema's Naruse box set can be purchased from

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ladies of the Night

Whispers and Moans (Singkungtsoktse supyat tam). 2007. Directed by Herman Yau. Written by Yeeshan Yang and Herman Yau, based on the book by Yeeshan Yang. Produced by Ng Kin Hung. Cinematography by Puccini Yu. Edited by Yau Chi Wai. Music by Brother Hung. Art direction by Raymond Kwok.

Cast: Athena Chu (Madame Coco), Candice Yu (Jenny), Mandy Chiang (Nana), Monie Tung (Aida), Patrick Tang (Tony), Dan Li (Joey), Yan Ng (Elise), Misia Chan (Happy).

Despite its rather misleading title, Herman Yau’s film is no soft-core, exploitative extravaganza, but rather an un-romanticized depiction of the lives of several prostitutes who work out of a hostess club. The film’s sense of realism is due in large part to its source material, as it is based on Yeeshan Yang’s book of interviews with real-life sex workers. The business is constantly threatened by most of the other clubs moving to Shenzhen, China, and Mainland Chinese girls flooding the sex-trade market, leaving everyone in a financially and emotionally precarious state. Visual depictions of the sex act are almost completely elided in this film, to highlight the fact that everything is strictly business. One of the girls, who calls herself Happy (Misia Chan), prides herself on remaining clean and professional, and when that is compromised by one of her colleagues, she launches into an angry rant about all of the sacrifices she has put herself through for her profession.

Much of the material here is quite familiar from other films depicting the sex trade. In fact, there are some interesting comparisons to be made with another film, Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales. However, while that film depicted a bright fantasy world filmed on a soundstage, Yau’s film strives for greater verisimilitude. Although there are many elements that could be easily played for melodrama – Nana (Mandy Chiang) hides her work from her boyfriend, Aida (Monie Tung) is a raging heroin addict who is soon reduced to plying her trade on the streets, Madame Coco (Athena Chu) is embroiled in successive romantic entanglements with different men – at every point this is undercut with a sense of world-weariness imparted by these women who have seen everything, and have gained experience well beyond their years.

Money is the lifeblood of this scenario, and the subject around which everything in this film revolves. Everyone needs it, tries to save it, loses it, gives it away, and everything is negotiable. The threat of disease hangs over it all, and the anxious time while waiting for the test results for syphilis or AIDS is the most agonizing occupational hazard. One man infected with syphilis causes extreme anxiety for two of his sex partners: Madame Coco, who at one point pulls her daughter out of daycare to get tested, afraid that she may have infected the girl with her tears; and Joey (Dan Li), his transsexual consort.

The large cast is quite good, and their conflicts are deftly woven into the fabric of this vibrant world. There is an admirable lack of moral judgment and exploitation, and everyone is sympathetic in their own way. Even Elise (Yan Ng), the social activist attempting to organize the girls into a union in order to defend their rights and fight the societal stigmatization and law enforcement harassment that they must endure, and who could easily be held up for ridicule because of her do-gooder naïveté, is treated with as much dignity and respect for her views as any of the other characters. In all, this is a remarkably mature and subtly observed work from a director who has made some of the most extreme and outré films in Hong Kong cinema, such as The Untold Story (a serial killer cooks his victims into pork buns) and Ebola Syndrome (self-explanatory). Be forewarned: viewers in search of cheap titillation will have to look elsewhere, as there isn’t a single sex scene in this film. But those who can get over their disappointment at the lack of naked flesh will find an intelligent and perceptive work. Even though the film’s aggressively materialist approach to its subject, as well as the lengthy speeches given by some of the characters, sometimes threatens to tip over into didacticism, Whispers and Moans nevertheless impresses with its bracing humanism and its freewheeling, Altmanesque style.

Whispers and Moans can be purchased from

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Role of Her Life

Ad-Lib Night (Aju teukbyeolhan sonnim). 2006. Written and directed by Lee Yoon-ki, based on a short story by Azuko Taira. Produced by Lee Yoon-ki and Yun Il-jung. Cinematography by Choi Sang-ho. Edited by Kim Hyeong-ju. Music by Kim Jeong-beom. Art direction by Kim Seong-dal. Costume design by Jeon Hong-ju. Sound by Steve R. Seo.

Cast: Han Hyo-ju, Kim Yeong-min, Choi Il-hwa, Kim Jung-gi, Shin Yeong-jin, Yoon Hee-seok, Yeo Min-gu.

Lee Yoon-ki’s third feature Ad-Lib Night, based on a short story by Japanese author Azuko Taira, is an intimate and beautifully observed drama which takes place, as per the title, mostly over the course of a single night. Within this compressed time frame, Lee’s searching and perceptive camera-eye shows us a world of pain, humor, and revelation, delivered with the finely honed attention to detail and human psychology he was so adept at in his first feature, This Charming Girl (2004), and in his second, the underrated Love Talk (2005). His latest film, like his debut, has a woman (Han Hyo-ju) at its center, whose true identity isn’t revealed until a startling and poignant scene near the conclusion. She is accosted while on her way to meet someone by two men who mistake her for Myeong-eun, the long-estranged daughter of a dying man. After a protracted, and nicely staged, scene in which after much argument back and forth they slowly realize that she is not who they thought she was, they convince her to pose as this long-lost daughter in order to fulfill the dying man’s wish to see his daughter one last time. They travel far from Seoul to their small town, where the other members of the family are keeping a night-long vigil, since he is so near death.

The set-up is quite simple, but this works all the more to highlight this film’s considerable virtues. Ad-Lib Night is shot almost entirely handheld, with the camera often very close to the actors, and both the family conflicts and the provincial nature of the small town are laid bare over the course of this long night. The scenes of the family arranged in a circle, first debating over whether to go through with the plan to deceive the dying man, and later fighting amongst themselves over long-simmering internal grievances, are vividly rendered by the excellent ensemble cast. In these scenes, the missing daughter looms even larger by her absence. And as we do with many of the characters, aspects that are revealed about them force us to cast aside our initial judgments of them. Myeong-eun, who at first seems to be “unfilial daughter,” as one family member puts it, becomes a more sympathetic figure as we get to know more about the family she left behind. “Now I see why she went away,” one of the young men observes late in the film, as he talks to Myeong-eun’s stand-in.

This film, as much as anything else, is about acting, or more precisely, performance, in both art and life. Interestingly, both the Korean title, which translates as “A Very Special Guest,” and the English title contain references to the performing arts. The young woman is indeed a “special guest” actor in the intense family drama she witnesses, and she must “ad-lib” her way through this night. She rehearses her one line – “Father, I’m sorry” – repeatedly on the long drive to the family home. In one funny scene, after one of the men criticizes the young woman for not being convincing enough, the other retorts, “We’re not shooting a film.”

The young woman, whose role is supposedly so essential, is quickly shunted to the side and is kept peripheral to the family’s squabbling. She spends most of her time in Myeong-eun’s room, searching through her possessions and trying to get some sense of who this lost daughter was. She remains a silent enigma throughout the film, raising many questions, not the least of which is why she allows herself to be brought along on this unusual trip.

“Everybody has their reasons,” Jean Renoir famously stated in Rules of the Game. This film is a wonderful expression of that statement, proving that films need not be sensational and action-packed to be engrossing and suspenseful. Even the smallest gesture, like the young woman exchanging her own socks for the lost daughter’s socks, speaks volumes about character and irresistibly draws us in. Poetic and beautifully crafted, Ad-Lib Night is one of the very best of recent Korean films.

Ad-Lib Night can be purchased from Seoul Selection.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis -- "There Will Be Blood" -- Post-Screening Q&A, 12/11/07

Paul Thomas Anderson's masterful new film There Will Be Blood opens on December 26, and has already been topping numerous year-end critics' lists. Based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, the film is simultaneously epic and intimate, and a terrifying vision of the greed and violence that are the primal underpinnings of American history. Besides the prodigious command of sound and image present in nearly every frame -- from the bravura opening sequence that is as great an example of pure cinema as I've seen in recent memory, to the final astonishing sequence that fulfills the promise of the film's title -- the film makes frequent and canny use of perhaps its greatest asset, the volcanic performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, brilliantly essaying a role that most nearly recalls his only slightly more evil character in Scorsese's Gangs of New York.

Much like Walt Whitman's famous description of himself in "Song of Myself," There Will Be Blood is indeed large, and contains multitudes. I saw the film two weeks ago, and am still struggling to wrap my head around it. So until I can put together a proper review, I've posted below some video highlights of Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis discussing the film. Appearing with them are moderator David Schwartz of the Museum of the Moving Image, which hosted the screening, and actor Kevin O'Connor.

In this clip, Anderson discusses the influence of John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre on his film, and Day-Lewis explains how clothing can reveal character:

In this next clip, Day-Lewis discusses the relationship between his character Daniel Plainview and his adopted son:

In this last clip, Anderson and Day-Lewis talk about their working relationship while making the film:

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Notes on Hong Sang-soo's "Woman on the Beach"

Woman on the Beach (Haebyonui yoin). 2006. Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo. Produced by Oh Jung-wan. Cinematography by Kim Hyung-ku. Edited by Ham Sung-won. Music by Jeong Yong-jin. Sound by Lee Seung-chul.

Cast: Kim Seung-woo (Kim Joong-rae), Ko Hyun-joung (Kim Moon-sook), Song Sun-mi (Choi Sun-hee), Kim Tae-woo (Won Chang-wook), Choi Ban-ya (Sun-hee’s friend), Lee Ki-woo (Beach resort caretaker), Oh Tae-kyung (Waiter at sushi restaurant).

One of the very best films of 2006, Hong Sang-soo's sublime Woman on the Beach will finally receive a U.S. release on January 9, when it begins a two-week run at Film Forum. Below are notes I wrote for my presentation of this film at Korean Cultural Service.

Successful film director Joong-rae is struggling to come up with a scenario for his latest film. Feeling blocked and needing a quiet place to write, he travels from Seoul to Shinduri Beach, a resort on Korea’s west coast. He asks his art director Chang-wook to keep him company. Chang-wook brings along his girlfriend Moon-sook, a music composer who is a fan of Joong-rae’s films. The three spend most of the day wandering around the nearly deserted beach talking, eating, and drinking. As the day unfolds and everyone becomes increasingly inebriated, they reveal significant facets of their personalities and personal histories. As Moon-sook observes, Joong-rae turns out to be very different from his philosophical art films. He is a cynical, abrasive man with a barely concealed rage that erupts with little warning. Nevertheless, Moon-sook and Joong-rae experience a mutual attraction that they act upon when they sneak away from Chang-wook to spend the night together. The next day, however, Joong-rae coldly rebuffs Moon-sook and returns to Seoul. Two days later, a regretful Joong-rae returns to Shinduri hoping to reconnect with Moon-sook. He then meets Sun-hee, a café manager. On the pretext of interviewing Sun-hee for his film, he begins a fling with this new woman whom he is convinced resembles Moon-sook. Complications ensue when Moon-sook herself returns to the beach that night.

Woman on the Beach, Hong Sang-soo’s seventh feature, is his funniest and most accessible film to date. Just as in his other films, male selfishness, egotism and cruelty are put mercilessly on display. However, in this new film Hong gives his material a much lighter touch than usual, with a playful approach to cinematic form. Hong is unique among Korean filmmakers for eschewing flashy visuals and outré subject matter in order to foreground his witty dialogue and the naturalistic performances of his actors. Hong’s deceptively simple style makes use of recurring narrative patterns, which richly rewards multiple viewings. His perceptive and brutally honest depictions of male and female relationships have drawn comparisons to Eric Rohmer. Woman on the Beach features excellent performances, most notably Ko Hyun-joung, a popular TV drama actress making her film debut. Her portrayal of Moon-sook, a woman who remains optimistic despite being emotionally bruised by the men in her life, is a revelation.

Hong Sang-soo was born in 1960 in Seoul. After studying film at Chungang University in Korea, he continued his education in the U.S., earning an MFA degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. Hong also studied for a time at the Cinemathèque Française in Paris. Upon his return to Korea he worked at the SBS television network. In 1996 Hong released his debut film The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, which received much critical acclaim and immediately established him as a major talent. Hong’s films have won numerous awards at film festivals around the world, and have been critically lauded at the Cannes, Berlin, and New York film festivals. His other films are The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), Turning Gate (2002), Woman is the Future of Man (2004), and Tale of Cinema (2005).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Korean Cinema Classics: Kwak Ji-kyun's "Portrait of Youth"

Portrait of Youth (Jeolmeun nalui chosang). 1991. Directed by Kwak Ji-kyun. Written by Jang Hyeon-su, based on the novel by Lee Mun-yeol. Produced by Lee Tae-won. Cinematography by Jung Il-sung. Edited by Kim Hyeon. Music by Kim Young-dong. Art direction by Cho Young-sam. Sound by Kim Kyeong-il and Yang Dae-ho.

Cast: Jeong Bo-seok (Young-hoon), Lee Hye-sook (Jung-nim), Bae Jong-ok (Miss Yoon), Ok So-ri (Hae-yeon).

This film is about one man’s long journey, often across snowy roads and sometimes near death, to enlightenment and self-awareness. However, the English title Portrait of Youth points to what this film truly is, which is a larger portrait of a turbulent period and the responses of young people towards it. Young-hoon (Jong Bo-seok), the protagonist, at the film’s outset has returned to his family home, and to his brother, who is disappointed with him for dropping out of high school. He gives Young-hoon his share of their deceased mother’s inheritance, and sends him on his way, as Young-hoon promises to pass his college entrance examination. “You are the hope of our family,” his brother tells him. No pressure there. Young-hoon goes through the grueling process of working menial jobs to put himself through school. He chooses to major in Korean literature, and aspires to be a poet. However, his lofty ideals run afoul with the tenor of life on campus, which is roiled with conflict, due to the massive student protests going on at the time. In one scene, he is taken to task by the leader of the student movement for writing an article in the school newspaper criticizing activists for denigrating literature in favor of rigidly doctrinaire ideology. His girlfriend Hae-yeon (Ok So-ri) is a French literature major, and their relationship is going well at first, but Young-hoon’s internal confusion soon wrecks things, as he begins to see everything in terms of class conflict as much as the student activists do, criticizing Hae-yeon and her friends for failing to be more conscious of the plight of the lower classes.

Young-hoon’s confusion and despair grows as he witnesses the deaths of two of his friends as a direct result of the protests, and the authorities’ predictably repressive response to them. The campus is shut down, and Yong-hoon takes to the road, carrying a bottle of poison in his pocket. All throughout the film, Yong-hoon is haunted by the memories of his unrequited first love Jung-nim (Lee Hye-sook), dreaming of her often. Yong-hoon arrives at a village, where he works in a brothel, and is drawn to one of the prostitutes, Miss Yoon (Bae Jong-ok). He also meets a mysterious knife-sharpener. Both of them have tragic and complicated pasts, which are revealed as circumstances compel all three to become traveling companions on the harsh, snowy roads.

The film is beautifully shot, with careful attention paid to natural surroundings – lush cherry blossom groves, snowy mountains, rocky and rugged terrain – and how they mirror the psychological states of the many characters we are introduced to in this film, which is essentially a road movie, a very common narrative mode in Korean cinema. The clear and powerful message this movie sends is that life is always worth living, despite tragedy, despite “chaos and confusion,” as Young-hoon describes events in his running voiceover. The core of the human spirit is to carry on in spite of everything, and, as Young-hoon learns, it is not necessary to have all of life’s answers to survive.

Portrait of Youth can be purchased from

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Korean Cinema Classics: Kim Hong-joon's "La Vie en Rose"

La Vie en Rose (Jangmi bit insaeng). 1994. Directed by Kim Hong-joon. Written by Yook Sang-ho. Produced by Lee Tae-won. Cinematography by Park Seung-bae. Edited by Park Soon-duk. Music by Jo Dong-ik. Art direction by Kim Yu-jun. Costume design by Kim Yun-suk. Sound by Kim Kyeong-il and Yang Dae-ho. Martial arts direction by Kim Yeong-mo.

Cast: Choi Myung-gil (Madam), Choi Jae-sung (Dong-pal), Cha Kwang-su (Kee-young/Jee-ho), Lee Ji-hyung (Yu-jin), Hwang Mi-sun (Miss Oh).

Not to be confused with the recent Edith Piaf biopic of the same name, this particular film with the French title La Vie en Rose is a Korean film set in 1987, when the country was gearing up for next year’s Seoul Olympics, and the repressive regime of Chun Doo Hwan had to at least make a show of respecting democratic rights. And as this film powerfully argues, it was indeed very much a show, as student protestors continued to be tear-gassed, and anti-government activists were still forced to lay low and hide out from the authorities. On the evidence of this film, one apparently common place to hide out was the sort of comic book rental shop run in this film by the Madam (Choi Myung-gil), where the almost exclusively male clientele stay overnight, paying an extra fee for the privilege (and for the Madam to risk being shut down by the police), and enjoying after-hours porn flicks. The Madam is dissatisfied with the life she leads, and feels trapped in this existence, but can see no alternative. A friend helpfully sets her up with a businessman for a marriage meeting, to no avail.

Soon, however, three men come into her life, and turn her life and her business (in one scene late in the film, literally) upside down. One of them is her half-brother Jee-ho (Cha Kwang-su), a labor activist wanted by the government and hiding out under an assumed name. The second is Dong-pal (Choi Jae-sung), a gangster wanted by both the police and a rival gang who believes he killed their boss. He beats up other patrons in the shop, and rapes the Madam one day when they are alone in the shop. However, the Madam is so beaten down by her life that she passively accepts this rape, feeling as powerless in stopping it as in leaving the town to live a better life. The third man is Yu-jin (Lee Ji-hyung), a shy, sensitive poet who is also a fugitive from government authorities, having written a satirical anti-government novel, that while being very popular with the public, raised considerable ire in official circles. Yu-jin pines for Miss Oh (Hwang Mi-sun), a pretty coffee-shop delivery girl, whom he comes to learn is not all she seems.

La Vie en Rose was the debut film of Kim Hong-joon, who went on to be a celebrated professor and film scholar, as well as a member of the Korean Film Commission, and the founder of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan). Kim has made only two subsequent features to date: the rock-music film Jungle Story (1996) and the documentary My Korean Cinema (2003). Kim’s film is an absorbing work that gives us a vivid picture of life during this period of Korean history. The news reports Jee-ho obsessively watches (as the other patrons ignore them, or call for changing the channel), form a background running commentary courtesy of the government propaganda that contrasts sharply with life on the ground. Comic-book culture is very wittily referenced in this film, for example with the scenes of Dong-pal fighting his gangster foes, which could easily have been scenes from the popular martial arts comics the Madam rents out. In a nice little scene, the Madam is taking inventory of her comics, and stops to read one of them, a smile playing across her face, as it obviously has been some time since she has actually sat down to enjoy reading the comics that surround her all day.

At the film’s conclusion, the Madam is resigned to her fate of never leaving her little shop in Seoul, and the run-down neighborhood that surrounds it. However, she takes some comfort in her solidarity with the downtrodden people she serves, offering them shelter and a brief respite from the harsh world outside. The Madam wanted so much to leave this place, with “the shabby houses, and those who barely live.” But, she says, “Now I’ve realized that I’m one of them.” She can help people forget their worries, ply them with food and liquor, and titillate them with erotic comics and porno flicks. She can assure herself that politically and morally, she is ultimately on the right side. And after the despair and tragedy that we have seen over the course of this film, Kim leaves us with a glimmer of hope in the film’s very last shot, an optimistic note that points toward the time that the film was made, under a truly democratic government, the country beginning to recover from a turbulent time that wasn’t so far in the past.

La Vie en Rose can be purchased from

Friday, December 14, 2007

Review: Toshio Masuda's "Like a Shooting Star"

Like a Shooting Star (Kurenai no nagareboshi). 1967. Directed by Toshio Masuda. Written by Kaneo Ikegami and Toshio Masuda. Cinematography by Kurataro Takamura. Music by Hajime Kaburagi. Art direction by Takeo Kimura.

Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Ruriko Asaoka, Kayo Matsuo, Tatsuya Fuji, Ryotaro Sugi, Jo Shishido.

Japan Society’s film series “No Borders, No Limits: 1960’s Nikkatsu Action Cinema” continues with a rare screening of Toshio Masuda’s 1967 film Like a Shooting Star, tonight at 7:30. The title of this film aptly describes its main character, Goro (Tetsuya Watari), a cooler-than-thou gangster, who burns brightly and is gone just as fast. “If I don’t kill you, someone else will,” Goro is told at one point. At the film’s outset, he is sent to maim a rival gang boss and ends up killing the man. He is hidden away by his yakuza family in the port city of Kobe, and told he will be sent for in six months, which stretches to a year. He is bored with the slow pace of Kobe, and listlessly hangs around, occasionally beating up unruly drunken U.S. soldiers on leave from Vietnam at the bar he runs. Goro passively endures a casual romance with his girlfriend Yukari, who constantly begs him to tell her he loves her. He mouths the words, but with little feeling.

Soon enough, however, he gets the excitement he craves. Unbeknownst to Goro, someone is shadowing him. Also, a jewelry trader, Kojima, arrives in town, and soon after disappears. Meanwhile, Usu, a Tokyo detective who has been on Goro’s tail for a long time, waiting for him to slip up so he can throw handcuffs on him, pops up every now and again to taunt him. After Kojima’s disappearance, his fiancé Keiko (Ruriko Asaoka) shows up, and Goro is instantly smitten. He takes her around, knowing full well Kojima has been killed, but pretending to ask around to learn his whereabouts. He bluntly voices to Keiko his desire to sleep with her, and Keiko resists. Nevertheless, they are drawn to each other, and Goro begins to reveal a deeper side that he has heretofore resolutely kept hidden, beneath the veneer of the whistling, icy, detached yakuza. However, he fails to see that his destined end is about to reach him.

Like a Shooting Star is very much a rewrite of Godard’s Breathless, even down to the betrayal at the film’s conclusion. It was a remake of director Toshio Masuda’s 1958 film Red Quay, which itself was inspired by another classic French gangster film, Pépé le Moko. In this film, Keiko extols the virtues of Paris to Goro, who strenuously refutes her romantic notions. Masuda relies less on action scenes than the snappy repartee of its leads, as both the haughty rich girl and the self-consciously cool gangster trade barbs that at first disguise the passion they begin to feel for each other. The film boasts highly stylized cinematography by Kuratoro Takamura, and the production design is just as striking, courtesy of Takeo Kimura, who also designed the distinctive sets of Seijun Suzuki’s films. Lead actor Watari also starred in one of Suzuki’s most famous films, Tokyo Drifter (1966). Like a Shooting Star also features a notable appearance by Jo Shishido, one of Nikkatsu’s biggest stars, as the hitman pursuing Goro.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Family Viewing

Kazoku Cinema (Kajok shinema). 1998. Produced and directed by Park Chul-soo. Written by Woo Byeong-kil, based on the novel by Miri Yu. Cinematography by Lee Eun-kil. Edited by Park Kok-ji. Music by Byung Sung-ryong. Sound by Lee Tae-kyu.

Cast: Yang Seok-il (Soji Hayashi), Hiroko Isayama (Kiyoko), Eri Yu (Motomi), Ichio Matsuda (Yoko), Shinobu Nakajima (Kazuki), Kim Su-jin (Katayama).

A typically odd film from Park Chul-soo, one of Korea’s most original filmmakers, Kazoku Cinema satirically takes on the idea of artifice and “reality” being one and the same. The film starts off with Yoko (Ichio Matsuda), a porn actress who is dissatisfied with her work (and constantly criticized for her unnatural acting), and wants to do something more respectable. She hits upon the idea of making a documentary/fiction hybrid starring her family. She enlists Katayama (Kim Su-jin), an ambitious director, to take on the task of filming her family. Yoko engineers a family reunion, bringing the camera crew along. Yoko prides herself on having a “unique” family, and the characters we meet bear this out. The most reluctant is Motomi (Eri Yu), Yoko’s older sister, an advertising executive who thought she had successfully left her family and past behind. Her brother Kazuki (Shinobu Nakajima) is a taciturn, virginal misfit, whom their mother Kiyoko (Hiroko Isayama) likens to “keeping an expensive pet.” Kiyoko is a real estate broker who has long been divorced from their father Soji Hayashi (Yang Seok-il), a pachinko parlor manager. With the intrusive presence of the film crew, the family reveals their secrets and idiosyncrasies over the course of the film shoot, trying to stick to the script (and endure the ministrations of the over-eager script girl, who takes every opportunity to shoot rolls of still shots), but not succeeding very well. Katayama enthusiastically encourages all the deviations, sometimes filming the family surreptitiously, at times when they are unaware that the camera is rolling.

Katayama tells the family that his conception of this reunion is “like a festival,” but the family’s tortured history puts an end to that notion very quickly. In a brief flashback scene, we are shown the major conflict between the parents: Soji’s constant money problems, failure to provide for his children, and his violent nature. This forces Kiyoko to work as a cabaret hostess to supplement the family income, and leads to her eventually leaving Soji. Soji, in turn, resents his wife for doing this, calling her a whore, and in one scene, while Kiyoko is in the bathroom, he gathers his children around him and relates on camera how he once caught their mother with another man in their house. He also says that Kiyoko often slept with other men.

One very interesting detail about the family, only briefly alluded to, is that this is an ethnic Korean family, even though at first they seem like typical Japanese. In a telling scene, the script girl asks Katayama if they should mention that this family is Korean, and the director discourages it. Given the tortured history of Japan and Korea, there seems to be some subtext to this turmoil-filled family that relates to their ethnic background, which is all the more intriguing for mostly being left unspoken.

Based on an autobiographical novel by Korean-Japanese author Miri Yu, Kazoku Cinema was a Korean-Japanese co-production, gaining distinction for being the first Korean film shot in Japan with Japanese actors. The film anticipates the explosion of “reality” television, and shows why that word should most definitely be in quotes. As much as the family manipulates, and is manipulated by, the camera recording them, Park manipulates the viewer as well, always causing us to wonder whether the family is showing their true emotions or acting for the camera. The film ends with the most startling fake-out of all, after which the mother looks directly into the camera. “Shameful!” she says accusingly, and she could as easily be addressing the audience as well as her director.

From his breakthrough film 301, 302 to his most recent film Green Chair, Park Chul-soo excels in offering us decidedly odd characters that we nevertheless end up caring for. There is always the sense that even with the outlandish behavior they often exhibit (including, in this film, a bizarre subplot involving an artist who indulges a butt fetish), in the end they are not all that different from “normal” people, and in fact are more honest about their true natures than most. This lends Kazoku Cinema, as well as Park’s other films, a generous vision of, and ultimately a love for, humanity, with all its messiness and idiosyncrasies.

Kazoku Cinema can be purchased from HK Flix.

Friday, December 7, 2007

She's Not There

Before We Fall In Love Again (Nian ni ru xi). 2006. Written and directed by James Lee. Produced by Tan Chui Mui and Lorna Tee. Executive produced by Amir Muhammad, Nyu Ka Jin, Ho Yuhang, and Yasmin Ahmad. Cinematography by Teoh Gay Hian. Edited by Jimmy L. Ishmael. Art direction by Eleanor Low. Music by Ronnie Khoo.

Cast: Amy Len (Ling Yue), Pete Teo (Tong), Chye Chee Keong (Chang), Cheong Wai Loon (Chong Siew Fai), Koo Chi Kien (Travel Agent/Hotel Manager/Motel Manager), Patrick Teoh (Mr. Wong), Seiya Shimada (Japanese Gangster), Berg Lee (Dyed-Blonde Hair Gangster), Jackie Lim Hiu Hoon (Woman On the Run).

The title of this film from Malaysian filmmaker James Lee could easily serve as that of a grand romantic epic, or perhaps one of the Korean television dramas extolled in one scene by a travel agent as a reason for the popularity of Korea travel packages. At once melancholic and hilarious, devastatingly precise and dreamily surreal, Before We Fall In Love Again is an exhilaratingly inventive confirmation of this director’s talents, and by extension, the extraordinary fecundity of talent in current Malaysian cinema. (The producer credits are a virtual roll call of the Malaysian new wave: Amir Muhammad, Yasmin Ahmad, Tan Chui Mui, Ho Yuhang.) The film seems to reinvent itself with each scene, indeed, almost with each shot, as layers of the characters’ histories are peeled away in a continually surprising fashion.

The film’s premise is familiar enough to be almost cliché. Chang (Chye Chee Keong), a seemingly colorless office drone, depressed over the disappearance of his wife Ling Yue (Amy Len) one month earlier, is told by his boss to take a vacation, his moping around apparently trying the patience of his coworkers. “It would be best for all of us,” Chang’s boss says. He goes to a travel agency, greeted by cheerful staff with plastic smiles, who are introduced to us with a priceless sight gag in which the travel agents stand in perfect harmony with cardboard cutouts. This begins a very funny running motif involving service workers’ interactions with the film’s characters. Chang insists on going to Prague (the significance of this locale is revealed later), despite being told that there is a dangerous civil war occurring there. Afterward, he runs into a stranger, Tong (Pete Teo), who is also looking for Ling Yue. Chang invites him to his apartment for coffee (“Would you like some coffee?” is invariably his initial query to people he invites to his home), and finds out that his missing wife had been having a long-term affair with Tong, who had known Ling Yue before she met Chang. For most of the film they sit across from each other drinking coffee, relating their experiences with this woman, who we see in flashback scenes with both men.

And it is these flashbacks that are the heart of the movie, and Lee is so deft at weaving them into the present story that it is stunning to watch. Lee often cuts directly to a flashback scene as a character walks into another room, a beautiful expression of how this missing woman haunts both men and how she is now even more present by her absence. And it is Ling Yue, this impenetrable enigma, who is the true center of this story. Ling Yue is always impossible to read, flitting back and forth between the two men effortlessly. They can have her body and her affection temporarily, but there is an inner essence to her that will forever remain unreachable. She is not the sort of conventional stunning beauty who would normally be the center of such an intense focus; in fact she is rather plain looking. But her mysterious nature gives her an allure and attractiveness that is magnetizing for both men. She serves as a tabula rasa upon which Chang and Tong can inscribe their fantasies and hopes; in one scene, Ling Yue and Chang are in a car, and as they look into each other’s eyes, they both say to each other, “I see myself.” Ling Yue in one scene casually tells Tong that she is going out on a date with another man, and when Tong protests, says in the most deadpan tone, “But I still love you.” Just as casually, Ling Yue reconnects with Tong shortly after she marries Chang. In each interaction with her men, there is always a sense that Ling Yue is not quite there, and has already begun disappearing even before she is gone. At a certain point in the film, one wonders if we can believe anything we see. Is this woman even real? Or is she a mutual hallucination, a nonexistent creature similar to the main female character (also played by Amy Len) in an earlier film by Lee, The Beautiful Washing Machine? In fact, there is a direct reference to that film in a brief scene in which Chang and Ling Yue shop for a washing machine after they marry. Buttressing the idea of this ambiguity about Ling Yue’s existence is the surprising lack of rancor between the two men. Even after learning that his wife had been cheating on him almost throughout their entire relationship, Chang retains a disturbing equanimity.

Lee’s film, shot on black-and-white digital video, is beautifully composed and his style is surprisingly fluid, for a film which mostly consists of soulless, anonymous spaces – hotel rooms, offices, featureless cafes – with very little musical accompaniment. These environments perfectly mirror his two male characters, rather nondescript men, whose only distinguishing traits are their memories of their mutual missing lover. Lee imbues his scenario with a marvelous deadpan humor that reminded me of Jim Jarmusch. Even minor characters – a hotel manager who presents Tong with a bottle of wine for being a “regular customer,” an apologetic Japanese gangster, a woman hiding out from her angry boyfriend – leave a great impression, conjuring an absurdist universe. The film’s visual scheme dramatically changes late in the film, and when this happens, it is quite a startling moment. Adding to the richness of the film is Lee’s willingness to leave very significant details ambiguous, obscure, and unrevealed, lending the film intriguing layers of meaning, making it an open-ended work that rewards multiple viewings. Before We Fall In Love Again is the first installment of Lee’s “Love Trilogy,” exploring themes of unfaithfulness in relationships, inspired by Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. The film won Best Asean Feature at this year’s Bangkok International Film Festival. The second film of the trilogy, Things We Do When We Fall in Love, screened this year at the Singapore International Film Festival, the Deauville Asian Film Festival, and the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Julian Schnabel: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- NYFF Press Conference, 9/17/07

Below is a video clip and quotes from the New York Film Festival press conference for Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which opened this past Friday. Moderating was Richard Pena from the Film Scociety of Lincoln Center, who was also on this year's selection committee.

In this clip, Schnabel discusses his strategy for directing Mathieu Amalric, who potrays Jean-Dominique Bauby, the subject of the film and the author of the memoir on which the film is based. Well, sort of. You'll see what I mean when you watch:

As you can see, Schnabel loves to talk about himself as much as his film, and while this may come across as self-aggrandizing and offputting, and perhaps justifiably so, this is entirely in keeping with all three of his features, which are artist portraits that are as much about himself as their subjects.

Below are quotes from Schnabel on the film, plucked from the sea of his rambling personal anecdotes and digressions. "Did that answer your question?" was a constant refrain as Schnabel got continually sidetracked in his responses.

"Fred Hughes, who used to work for Andy Warhol, had MS, and when Andy died, he got progressively worse, and finally ended up in his house on Lexington Avenue in a bed in the middle of his living room, like Miss Havisham. And I used to go and read to him -- he was locked in, he was inside his own body --and I used to read to him, and Darren McCormick, who was his nurse, gave me the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as a gift. Well, some years later, my father, who was married to my mother for sixty years, and never had been sick in his life, he had prostate cancer for awhile, but they figured he was old enough that it wouldn’t grow so quickly, so they didn’t do anything about it, but when my mom died at eighty-nine and a half, he immediately got sick. And he lived another two years, but I usually took him to Mexico for Christmas with the kids, and I couldn’t take him that year, so I called Darren McCormick and asked him if he would watch my dad and write down whatever my father said. So he stayed with my father, but the day he arrived, which was December of 2003, the script came from Kathy Kennedy, so I was very familiar with the book. When my father died, he was terrified of death, and I felt like I had failed him, because I couldn’t help him through that. And I really made this movie, I think, as a self-help device. I’ve always had a problem with death, and I think that Jean-Dominique Bauby actually helped me out a lot. I couldn’t help my dad, but I thought it could help somebody else. So I really made it for my father."

"I talked to Bernard, and he said, 'You know, Jean-Do said to me, I have been reborn as someone else.' And I think at that moment, I mean, he really felt like, okay, he was a good writer, he had a good job, he was very competent, but there was something ordinary about who he was. And he had the chance to be a great artist. And I think he might have, if he had the hubris and the chutzpah to do it, he might have said, okay, take away my body and I will be conscious, and I will look into my interior life. And I think that in a sense, when he was healthy, he was quite superficial and very normal, and I think once this happened to him, he really – you know, I know this rinpoche that can actually meditate in his dreams, you know, I can’t do that, but it’s interesting if you – Necessity is the mother of invention, I mean, all of a sudden this guy was out at this vantage point that was very, very unique, and he was able to speak back from that place, and I think he reported back some things that were able to help all of us."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sidney Lumet: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" -- NYFF Press Conference, 9/19/07

Below is a video clip and quotes from the New York Film Festival press conference for Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Moderating was Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, who was also on the festival's selection committee.

In this clip, Lumet discusses casting Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as the brothers:

And in the quote below, Lumet explains why he has completely sworn off shooting on film:

"When the studios and the exhibitors settle on who’s going to pay for the electronic projectors, I think that’s the end of film. I don’t think there is one director who has ever liked film, except as a tactile thing. It’s wonderful when you’re in the cutting room, and it’s running through the Moviola, and you’re rewinding it, and it feels great on your fingers. But it’s a pain in the ass! It’s cumbersome, it’s rigid in its rules, and you’re constantly at the mercy of not just the cameraman, you’re at the mercy of the lab. John Schlesinger once told me that on Midnight Cowboy, he went through sixteen answer prints before he got one that satisfied him. Now, I don’t know if you know what that means. The answer print can only be made with the original negative. You know what you’re risking there, every time that’s run to make a print? And then when you’ve got a good print, then you can make your inter-positive and your inter-negative, but not until you’ve done that.

"There’s another problem with film. On a picture like Dog Day Afternoon, I was going crazy, because the first obligation of that movie is, hey folks, this really happened. If you don’t know that it really happened, then it’s just going to be an exploitative, silly movie that you won’t believe. Too outrageous. Now, one of the ways I can let you know that it really happened is through the sense that you get from the photography. And all we could do was try to defeat film. For example, as you know, when you shoot the sky on film, the blue of the sky is never the same as the blue that your eye sees. You go out to Central Park, you shoot the grass, that green is not the same color on film as it is to your eye. Now look, I’m not a fool, there’s been a hundred years of glorious movie photography. But naturalistic photography does not exist, in anyone’s picture, to get what the eye sees. With high-def, of course you do, there’s a reason for it. You may remember from your high school class that there are only three forms of energy, correct? Electromagnetic, which is what light is; chemical, which is what film is; and thermal, which is what heat is. That’s it, that’s all that exists in the universe that we know of. When you’re using film, you are going through two of those three forms. You start with electromagnetic, which is what light is. It records on a chemical base, and then when it’s projected, you’re going back to electromagnetic. Now in each one of those stages, you’re losing so much, I cannot tell you. And it’s for that reason that film requires so much more lighting than high-def. It’s for that reason that the color is different, because you have changed the energy form. It went from light to a chemical, and that chemical will never be the same as what the light was. If you want another reason, I’ll keep going. (laughs) It’s for that reason that to me high-def is it, I love it. That’s why I did the television series [100 Centre Street], I wanted to find out about that Sony camera that I first saw."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Korean Cinema Classics: Lee Yong-min's "A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng"

A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng (Maeng Jinsa-daek gyongsa). 1962. Directed by Lee Yong-min. Written by Oh Yeong-jin. Produced by Lee Seong-geun. Cinematography by Yeong Kim. Edited by Yu Jae-won. Music by Kim Dae-hyeon.

Cast: Choi Eun-hee, Kim Seung-ho, Kim Jin-kyu, Gu Bong-seo, Kim Hee-gap.

(Note: The following is an expanded version of notes written to accompany a screening of the film earlier this year at Korean Cultural Service, which I introduced and after which I led a post-screening discussion.)

Jinsa Maeng, the patriarch of a village household in the Chosun era, is obsessed with his social status and constantly schemes to elevate it. To this end, he arranges to marry off his daughter Gahb-boon to Mi-un, the son of Minister Kim, a member of the nobility in neighboring Doraji Village. Jinsa Maeng is showered with lavish gifts sent by Minister Kim, and considers it a minor detail that he has never actually seen the man that will soon wed his daughter. Ib-boon, devoted servant to Gahb-boon, hopes to serve in Minister Kim’s home. In sharp contrast to the greedy Jinsa Maeng and the vain, superficial Gahb-boon, Ib-boon is a warm and pure-hearted woman who embodies the traditional Confucian virtues of chastity and loyalty. However, her values are soon to be tested. A visiting scholar from Doraji Village spreads the rumor that Mi-un is crippled with polio. Jinsa Maeng refuses to allow his daughter to marry a lame man, and forces Ib-boon to pose as Gahb-boon and marry Mi-un in her place. Everyone soon learns that all is not what it seems.

As Ib-boon, Choi Eun-hee gives a lovely and riveting performance that is this film’s major strength. This luminous star of the 1950’s and 1960’s is best known for the films she made with her husband, the great director Shin Sang-ok, such as A Flower in Hell (1958), Seong Chunhyang (1961), and My Mother and Her Guest (1961). The rest of the film’s cast deliver great comic performances, especially Kim Seung-ho as Jinsa Maeng. Kim also portrayed the same role in an earlier filmed version of this story.

A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng, a delightful comic fable, is the second of three film adaptations of a story written by Oh Yeong-jin in 1942. It was originally performed as a stage play in 1944, and was first filmed in 1956 by Lee Byeong-il as The Wedding Day. Following Lee Yong-min’s version in 1962, it was filmed a third time, as Wedding Day, by Kim Eung-cheon in 1977. This practice of retelling popular stories is a fairly common one in Korean cinema history. The 1962 film features beautiful color photography, and engaging visual and narrative detours from this quite simple tale. Some examples of this include the musical sequence celebrating Gahb-boon’s marriage, and the very funny scenes with Jinsa Maeng’s hard-of-hearing, narcoleptic father. While the film is rooted in the unique characteristics of Korean culture and history, comparisons can be made with certain Western stories, especially the identity-swapping scenarios of some of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Lee Yong-min was born in 1916 in Seoul and studied film at the University of Japan. He worked as a cinematographer before his debut with the documentary Topography of Jeju Island in 1946. A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng was the rare comedy in an oeuvre that mostly comprised thrillers based on Korean folktales, such as A Flower of Evil (1961) and Headless Lady (1966). Lee Yong-min’s other films include: The Gate of Hell (1962), A Bridegroom from a Grave (1963), A Devilish Homicide (1965), Devil and Beauty (1969), and Black Ghost (1976).

A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng can be purchased from HanBooks.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

African Diaspora Film Festival Review Round-up

The 15th edition of the African Diaspora Film Festival screens through Dec. 9. Below are reviews of some of this year's selections.

A Winter Tale (Frances-Anne Solomon)

The festival's opening night film, this is a painfully earnest story of ghetto life, guns, and the endless circle of tragic violence, set among the Caribbean community of Toronto. The central conceit concerns the main character putting together some sort of therapy group for black men after a young boy dies after being caught in the crossfire of a gun battle. However, this film goes nowhere countless others haven’t gone before. The leaden speechifying of the film’s characters becomes quite numbing and tiresome, and mutes the emotional impact it strains so hard to reach. And for a film which is supposedly thoroughly opposed to the violent nature of the drug-fueled warfare occurring on the streets, the denouement, which involves an eye-for-an-eye comeuppance of one of the film’s more villainous characters, comes across as a profound contradiction. (Nov. 25, Dec. 1)

Do U Cry 4 Me Argentina? (Bae Youn Suk)

Bae's film crisscrosses the destines of several members of Buenos Aires’ “1.5 generation” of Korean immigrants, that is, children born in Korea to parents who emigrated to Argentina in the mid-80’s. The film follows various characters: Bo-rum (Kim Bo-rum), a morose teenager whose father runs a garment sweatshop employing illegal aliens; Duk-kyu (Cho Duk-kyu), a young man whose mother is harassed by the landlord of her grocery store; Hyong-sik (Bang Hyong-sik), a blond-haired punk who dabbles in petty crime with his two friends, and finds himself in way over his head when he goes for bigger game; Tina (Cristina Um), a violin player constantly rejected from conservatory who cannot ever seem to finish a song. Bae is spot-on in capturing the existential and physical alienation that results from being part of an isolated, ghettoized minority often looked upon with hostility and suspicion by the larger society. This situation also causes the affected group to prey on its own, cannibalizing itself from within and creating a rank Darwinist environment where the strong prey on the weak, and the weak attempt to fight back, often failing miserably. And in contrast to the tired homilies employed by A Winter Tale, Bae comes up with a much more artful approach to his material, breaking the narrative frequently for music video sequences that articulate the character’s fantasies, fears, and joyful montages. One of the more interesting of these sequences occurs when Bo-rum, in a pot-fueled reverie, imagines coming upon her doppelganger in a vast forest. In a more disturbing sequence later in the film, she imagines being raped by masked men in the sweatshop. Do U Cry 4 Me Argentina? seems an odd selection for an African diaspora festival (it is part of the festival’s Latin American selection), but it is one of the stronger films, and the themes of an isolated minority far from its home are well in keeping with those of many of the festival films. (Nov. 28, Dec. 2)

Empz 4 Life (Allan King)

Veteran Canadian documentarian King has one of the festival’s strongest entries, which also has as its subject black youth in Toronto turning to crime in impoverished and dangerous circumstances. Brian Henry, the film’s central figure, takes upon himself the Herculean (and, as the film’s conclusion powerfully shows, Sisyphean) task of attempting to steer youth away from this and toward education to improve themselves. A former convict himself, Henry becomes increasingly frustrated with both bureaucratic resistance to his efforts and some of his charges’ unwillingness to take advantage of the help they are being offered. King’s penetrating camera effectively renders the complexity of this situation, where the harsh realities of politics, socioeconomics, and racial profiling all conspire to make a mockery of any attempt to transcend this fate. Nevertheless, there are some small victories along the way, especially with a volunteer after-school math teacher who successfully gives his students a glimpse of their heretofore untapped potential. In the end, however, we are left with the image of unbreakable concentric circles of despair, where people outside the prison walls are just as surely trapped as those inside. (Trailer)

Youssou N'Dour: Return to Goree (Pierre-Yves Borgeaud)

The festival centerpiece film, Borgeaud’s film follows the world music superstar as he travels from his home in Senegal to Atlanta, New Orleans, Luxembourg, and back, to assemble musicians for a concert on the island of Goree. This was a major port for the transport of slaves to America, and the film makes connections between this historical circumstance and the music that resulted, and the massive influence on American jazz and blues. The film’s impact, however, is lessened by its very conventional structure, and its lack of clarity on the exact project N’Dour is creating: is it a concert, a recording, or part of a multimedia project? Also, one wishes there were a little more information on the musicians themselves, especially Moncef Genoud, the pianist who accompanies N’Dour. Nevertheless, the documentary shines in its sequences of the musicians putting together this great music, and is quite astute in its demonstration of the remarkably similar rhythms in the music of N’Dour’s global travels. (Nov. 29)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

DVD Review: Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep"

Killer of Sheep. 1977. Written, directed, produced, photographed, and edited by Charles Burnett. Sound by Charles Bracy. Released by Milestone Films.

Cast: Henry Gale Sanders (Stan), Kaycee Moore (Stan's Wife), Charles Bracy (Bracy), Angela Burnett (Stan's Daughter), Eugene Cherry (Cherry), Jack Drummond (Stan's Son).

Could it be that the best film of 2007 was made in 1977? Charles Burnett’s masterpiece Killer of Sheep, finally receiving a proper theatrical release 30 years after its premiere, makes its own powerful argument as an indispensable work, one of the finest made in America in any medium. Its black and white images, recalling the photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Frank, are like nothing else you’ll ever see. Dispensing with plot almost entirely, the film is so full to bursting with odd, funny, and poignant moments that multiple viewings are necessary even to begin to appreciate its abundant riches.

Made by Burnett as his master’s thesis film as a student at UCLA, the film was shot in Watts, Los Angeles (where Burnett himself grew up), and it so accurately captures the feel of its environment, it’s almost as if you can taste the dirt that the children constantly play in. The film’s central character, Stan (Henry Gale Sanders), works in a slaughterhouse, and lives in a constant state of anxiety, so much so that he cannot sleep, and walks around with a dazed, nearly catatonic expression, feeling disconnected from the world around him. The first time we see him, he is puttering around the house, fixing odds and ends, lamenting to his friend about how he cannot sleep or get any peace of mind. His marriage is strained, because his wife (Kaycee Moore) feels he neglects her and finds her unattractive. He goes with his friend to buy a car engine, and fends off an offer from some local hustlers to make money from a robbery and murder. But that’s about it in the way of plot. The film is truly an experience, rather than something to simply watch. It captures better than nearly any other film I can think of the natural rhythms of daily life, the endless quotidian grind of going to the same unfulfilling job, trying to keep your head above water, and not sink to the depths of despair.

The film, as befits its title, is interspersed with recurring images of lambs being led to slaughter, and it’s not hard to read a metaphor for life in America in this. But Burnett is after much more than such facile comparisons. He creates a complex and endlessly fascinating world, in which all its characters are vividly memorable, even those with the briefest screen time, lending the film an effortless, unforced authenticity that comes from an artist observing actual people in the world, rather than copying other films.

Even though the vernacular of the characters may now seem dated, there are still some memorable bits of dialogue and incident that will linger long in the memory. Stan in one scene chases down a man who owes him money, who protests, “I ain’t got nothin’ but my good looks!” Stan at one point says, “I ain’t poor! I give away things to the Salvation Army! You can’t give away nothin' to the Salvation Army if you’re poor!” The most priceless moment to my mind is a brilliant sight gag in which a group of people sit in the front seat of a car, and a man reaches through the windshield to grab a beer, revealing that there is no glass there. It makes me laugh every time. Stan’s young daughter (Angela Burnett) is the source of some of the film’s loveliest moments: early in the film, she has a literal hangdog expression, wearing a hound dog mask; she sings loudly along with Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Reasons”; she delicately puts on a dress. There are so many others I could cite, and this is part of the pleasure of watching the film.

Another rich source of pleasure is the film’s great soundtrack, which alternately serves as resonant accompaniment and ironic counterpoint to Burnett’s images. A couple of examples are: the scene in which Stan dances with his wife to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth”; the slaughterhouse killings set to Little Walter’s “Mean Old World.” These and other songs, such as Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” and Paul Robeson’s “The House I Live In,” convey the intertwined pain and joy felt but not articulated by the film’s characters. This soundtrack, such an essential element of the film, was the reason the film has remained nearly unseen for thirty years, because of the laborious and expensive process of clearing the music rights for these songs.

Richly deserving of its honored place as one of the first selections in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, Killer of Sheep, now being released on DVD in a beautiful 35mm restoration from Milestone Films, after being a sizeable arthouse hit earlier this year, is the film discovery of the year. More than just one of the most vivid depictions of black ghetto life ever committed to film, it is a lovely and lyrical work of art which was quite influential. Best of all, it has ended the woeful critical and popular neglect of Charles Burnett, finally recognized as one of America’s very finest filmmakers.

Killer of Sheep is part of Milestone Films’ “The Charles Burnett Collection,” which also includes both versions of his 1983 feature My Brother’s Wedding, and four short films, including his latest, “Quiet as Kept,” about Hurricane Katrina.

Killer of Sheep trailer:

Bonus clip: Angela Burnett's performance of "Reasons":

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Sex, Crime, and All That Jazz

The Warped Ones (Kyonetsu no kisetsu). 1960. Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara. Written by Nobuo Yamada. Cinematography by Yoshio Mamiya. Edited by Akira Suzuki. Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi. Released by Nikkatsu.

Cast: Tamio Kawaji (Akira), Eiji Go (Masaru), Noriko Matsumoto (Fumiko), Yuko Chishiro (Yuki), Hiroyuki Nagato (Kashiwagi), Chico Roland (Gill), Chigusa Takayama (Yuki's mother).

Japan’s Nikkatsu Studios is best known for their wild, kinetic action films, especially those of Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill). However, there were a number of other directors at this studio whose works rival Suzuki’s. These films are featured in Japan Society’s monthly film series, “No Borders, No Limits: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema,” screening through May 2008. The series, consisting of films screening in the U.S. for the first time, is curated by Mark Schilling, film critic for Variety and Japan Times, and based on Schilling’s recent book of the same title. The series began in September with Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport (1967), starring popular action star Jo Shishido, and continues with Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones (1960), screening November 9 at 7:30.

The Warped Ones definitely lives up to its title (literally "Season of Heat" in Japanese), as it is a jazz-filled portrait of nihilistic youth, playing at petty crime and prostitution with reckless abandon. The camerawork is as restless as these young people who storm through the streets, leaving destruction in their wake. Akira (Tamio Kawachi) is a jazz-obsessed delinquent whose grand ambition in life is to do absolutely nothing. He hangs out with his friends Masaru (Eiji Go) and Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), the hooker Masaru shacks up with. Contrasted with them are artist Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto) and her reporter fiancé Kashiwagi (Hiroyuki Nagato), who get caught up in the mayhem after Kashiwagi informs on Akira to the police, landing him in juvenile reformatory for a short time. Akira spots Kashiwagi and Fumiko on the street, and immediately sets out to get his revenge, enlisting his friends’ help. They kidnap Fumiko, and take her to the beach, where Akira rapes Fumiko. But the story doesn’t end there. Fumiko returns to find Akira, informing him she is pregnant with his child, demanding that he do something to repair her “defilement.” Akira’s revenge is turned on its head, as he becomes entangled in Fumiko and Kashiwagi’s own twisted relationship.

Even though Seijun Suzuki is considered the director who most bent the conventions of the Nikkatsu house style, on the evidence of The Warped Ones a case could be made for Kurahara as well. The protagonists are analogous to the amoral hero and heroine of Godard’s Breathless, to which this film shares some superficial affinities. However, the amorality shown here goes much further than in the Godard film. In contrast to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character, still very much a glamorous hero and all cool detachment, in this film the young people depicted are modern savages, living only for animalistic needs and desire, and all glamour is stripped away.

The Warped Ones is a very unusual film, on the surface hewing to genre films of this kind. However, the film focuses more on the corruption of everyone we see, viewing it all with a cold, dispassionate eye. At the film’s conclusion, both the respectable and the irresponsible end up in the same place, at an abortion clinic, to prevent new lives from entering this spiritually dead society.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Korean Cinema Classics: Park Kwang-su's "Chilsu and Mansu"

Chilsu and Mansu (Chilsu wa Mansu). 1988. Directed by Park Kwang-su. Written by Choi In-seok, based on the short story "Two Signpainters" by Huang Chunming. Cinematography by Yoo Young-kil. Edited by Kim Hyun. Music by Kim Su-chol.

Cast: Ahn Sung-ki, Park Joong-hoon, Bae Jong-ok, Jang Hyeok, Hong Seong-min, Nan Han-il, Ju Ho-seong.

(Note: The following is an expanded version of notes written to accompany a screening of this film at Korean Cultural Service, which I introduced and led a post-screening discussion.)

Chilsu and Mansu begins with the piercing sound of a civil-defense drill siren, a common feature of daily life for Koreans under the military government of Chun Doo Hwan in the 80’s. The film quickly introduces us to the title protagonists, Chilsu (Park Joong-hoon) and Mansu (Ahn Sung-ki), billboard sign painters working in Seoul. Chilsu is the source of much of the film’s humor, as he fights with his boss (“We’re living in a democratic society. I can quit whenever I want!”) and doggedly pursues Ji-na (Bae Jong-ok), a young woman he meets during the drill and begins courting at her job at Burger King, drawing her picture and posing as an art student to impress her. He is obsessed with all things American, taking Ji-na to see Rocky IV and putting up posters of his idols James Dean and Marlon Brando. He drops English phrases in his speech to make himself sound sophisticated and brags about moving to Miami with his brother. However, all of Chilsu’s bluster and bravado serve to mask his shame at his background, as the estranged son of a pimp who ran a brothel serving U.S. soldiers. He hides the real facts about himself from others, especially Ji-na, whom he fears will reject him if she learns his true circumstances.

Mansu, on the other hand, is older than Chilsu and conducts himself in a more sober, level-headed manner. His equanimity slips, however, when he gets drunk, which is his usual nightly ritual. He must constantly hustle for work, calling employers each morning in search of assignments. Mansu is also estranged from his father, who is serving a long sentence as a prisoner of conscience. Mansu is himself apolitical, and in fact resents his father for causing his family hardship and retarding his own career progress. His family background has prevented him from obtaining a passport to travel abroad for more lucrative construction work.

After Chilsu quits his job painting movie theater posters, he cajoles Mansu into having them work together and letting him stay at his place. He enlists Mansu’s help in impressing Ji-na, convincing him to pretend to be a famous artist from Paris. Their work painting huge construction projects and advertising billboards is dangerous, high-rise work that keeps them barely above a subsistence level, living off instant ramen noodles and soju. They are compelled to take a job painting a billboard on a tight deadline and for a low wage. Their simmering frustrations force them to confront the truly miserable nature of their lives, and they finally stop putting on an act for others. They stop working, climb to the top of the billboard, and begin shouting, expressing their anger at the world below. Curious passersby stop to stare at them, causing an instant commotion. Because they are so high above the ground, no one can hear what they are saying, and eventually the police are called, leading to a misunderstanding that has tragic consequences for the two men.

Chilsu and Mansu was based on a short story by Taiwanese dissident writer Huang Chunming, called “Two Signpainters.” Huang’s writings were banned in Korea at the time, thus his name does not appear in the film’s opening credits. Released in 1988, the year of the Seoul Olympics, Chilsu and Mansu was a key film in the 80’s new wave of Korean cinema, in which filmmakers took advantage of the fervor for democracy sweeping the nation and the gradual relaxation of governmental censorship to create works that tackled the daily reality and struggles of Korean people during this period. The years immediately preceding the film’s release saw many labor strikes and a general agitation for freer democratic expression. The mainstream cinema of the time mostly consisted of soft-core pornography, and political expression was very strictly censored. Directors such as Park Kwang-su, Lee Chang-ho, Bae Chang-ho, and Jang Sun-woo, among others, rejected the escapism and triviality of much of the decade’s cinema to create challenging and politically incisive films that, while not always commercial successes (Chilsu and Mansu was in fact a box-office failure), nevertheless were quite compelling and gained much attention overseas, which helped set the stage for the remarkable renaissance of Korean cinema that began in the late 90’s. Chilsu and Mansu’s two stars, Ahn Sung-ki and Park Joong-hoon, exhibited a great chemistry that would see them reunited in later films, including Two Cops (1993), Nowhere to Hide (1999), and most recently, Radio Star (2006). Bae Jong-ok went on to notable roles in such films as Jealousy is My Middle Name (2003), Love Talk (2005), and Herb (2007).

Park Kwang-su was born in Sokcho, Kangwon Province in 1955, and grew up in Pusan. While majoring in Fine Arts at Seoul National University and studying sculpture, he became interested in film, making short films on Super-8. After graduation, Park founded the Seoul Film Group to create underground films that opposed the military government of Chun Doo Hwan. He continued his film study in Paris, at the ESEC Film School. He was exposed there to other politically-minded world cinemas and returned to Korea determined to create similarly socially-conscious feature films. He has cited Lino Brocka of the Philippines as a major influence on his work. Park worked as an assistant to Lee Chang-ho on The Man With Three Coffins (1987) before making his feature debut with Chilsu and Mansu, which won the Young Critics Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival. His other films have screened and been awarded at many major film festivals, including the Berlin and Karlovy Vary festivals. Park’s subsequent films include Black Republic (1990), Berlin Report (1991), To the Starry Island (1993), A Single Spark (1995), and The Uprising (1999).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New York Film Festival Review Roundup #2

A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol)

With every film, each one more of a lazy trifle than the last, Chabrol makes it easy to forget that he was once the surviving member of the French New Wave with the most wickedly comical wit, his string of thrillers puncturing the duplicitous posturing of the bourgeoisie. His latest is a pale shadow of what his work once was. His portraits of upper-class Parisian society are as empty as the characters that inhabit his films. The titular “girl” (the title is explained in the film’s conclusion with a literal-mindedness which is jaw-dropping) is Gabrielle De Neige (Ludivine Sagnier), a TV weather woman divided, as per the films title, between the affection of the much older novelist Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand) and the foppish, arrogant pharmaceutical heir Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), the latter of whom pursues her with an obsessiveness that can only be called stalking. All the characters go through their mechanical motions with what passes as wit nowadays in Chabrol’s films. At the end, this concoction is far less than the sum of its parts.

Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)

Bracketed by stunning, surreally beautiful shots of a sunrise and a sunset, Reygadas’ new film, set among the Mennonite community of Chihuahua, Mexico, contains passages of similar uncommon beauty to the opening and closing shots. Reygadas’ two previous films, Japón and Battle in Heaven, also proved his prodigious command of composition, but his gifts were married to much more provocative subject matter than can be found here. This is both a good and a bad thing. Good, because Reygadas finds exquisite visual poetry in a beam of light, shadow play on grass, and a man’s impromptu dance to a pop song; bad, because the material can seem so gossamer-thin as to nearly disintegrate. My first reaction to the film was disappointment that it seemed to lack the revelatory power of his previous films, but the more I think about the film, the more I suspect a second viewing may be in order. Filmed with an unsettling serenity, Silent Light sets a lulling mood that is violently broken a few times: for a central sex scene and two passages of copious weeping. Cast with Mennonite non-actors, some from the film’s northern Mexico setting, others from as far away as Canada and Kazakhstan, the story is exceedingly simple. Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) deeply loves his wife Esther (Miriam Toews), yet carries on an affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), which in this community is a nearly unthinkable transgression. However, the film focuses less on the taboo-breaking nature of this relationship than on the daily tasks of tending farm and other work which is often mesmerizing to watch. Appropriately for the religious community where this story is set, the film culminates in a miraculous event, which recalls Dreyer’s Ordet. The impact of this is lessened by the fact that the viewer is kept at such an arms-length, observatory distance that in the end one can greatly admire this film, but not quite love it.

Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara)

Opening to the exuberant strains of Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up,” Ferrara’s strip-club fantasia can be said to be a lighter version of Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as directed by Robert Altman. Taking place over a couple of nights, Ferrara’s film traffics in nostalgia for the seedier New York of the recent past. Adding to the fantasy feel is the patently inauthentic New York set, built on the Cinecitta Studios lot. The restless camera (courtesy of cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti, brilliantly capturing the shadowy blue neon and harsh spotlights of the interiors) becomes its own character, voyeuristically observing the frenetic activity. On this particular night poor Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe), proprietor of gentleman’s club Ray Ruby’s Paradise, can’t catch a break. He spends the night avoiding his landlady (Sylvia Miles, shrill and hilarious), who threatens to shut down the place and sell it to a Bed, Bath, and Beyond; his strippers are on the verge of striking because of his failure to pay them; and his foolproof scheme to beat the lottery is defeated when he loses his winning ticket. Despite all this he harbors grand dreams, and his fatherly generosity extends to his dancers, for whom he becomes for one night a week the Ed Sullivan of go-go joints, closing down the club to put on a showcase for the girls’ talents to help them achieve their own dreams to leave the stripper life. Willem Dafoe delivers one of his most charming and funny performances as the doggedly (and often foolishly) optimistic Ray Ruby. Ferrara is as generous a director as Ray Ruby’s character (who is also a director in a sense, and who can be read as a stand-in for his creator), investing his film with a lively improvisational air and giving us extremely colorful characters and incident. Well worth the price of admission (surely less than the funny money supplied by Ray Ruby’s club) is Asia Argento’s strip routine, co-starring a rottweiler.

Redacted (Brian De Palma)

Or, Casualties of War II. Containing performances that rarely rise above the level of a high-school play, De Palma’s Iraq war film, despite its impeccably liberal credentials, manages to have nothing to say about the conflict, and is a collection of audience-baiting gimmicks rather than an actual film. Slightly better than the embarrassing mess that was his last film, The Black Dahlia, Redacted nevertheless is a histrionic creation as full of hot air as the apologists and war cheerleaders it is against. Inspired by the actual rape and murder of a 14 year old girl and the murder of her family by American soldiers in 2006, the film uses this potent material to pull off the sort of stunt one would expect from some young hotshot fresh out of film school, eager to show off his shiny, digital toys, rather than by someone who was once a great filmmaker. Constructed from fake found footage – a soldier’s video diary, You Tube-type footage of strident antiwar video bloggers and terrorist recordings, a French documentary – Redacted is little more than old wine in a not so new bottle. The film recently caused some minor controversy when De Palma publicly clashed with his film’s distributor, Magnolia Films, for “redacting” his photo montage of actual Iraq war casualties that concludes the film. Magnolia’s justification that this is to avoid potential lawsuits is admittedly weakly argued and an overreaction. But De Palma’s eagerness to puff his chest with self-important outrage and repeatedly state, clearly relishing the irony, “My film Redacted was redacted,” is to me equally distasteful. Exploiting dead and wounded Iraqis to lend your film a power and sense of tragedy that you have utterly failed to do on your own is hardly a principled stance. For true insight on what went wrong in Iraq and why, I suggest skipping this nonsense and instead seeing Charles Ferguson’s meticulous, brilliant documentary No End in Sight (out on DVD today).