Friday, August 31, 2007

This Film Could Be Your Life

Mutual Appreciation. 2005. Written, directed, and edited by Andrew Bujalski. Produced by Ethan Vogt, Morgan Faust, and Dia Sokol. Cinematography by Matthias Grunsky. Sound recording by Randall Good. Songs by Justin Rice and Kevin Micka, Bishop Allen, Omzo, Matty & Mossy, The Common Cold, and Brandon Patton.

Cast: Justin Rice (Alan), Rachel Clift (Ellie), Andrew Bujalski (Lawrence), Seung-Min Lee (Sara), Pamela Corkey (Patricia), Kevin Micka (Dennis), Ralph Tyler (Jerry), Peter Pentz (Scotty), Bill Morrison (Walter), Tamara Luzeckyj (Esther), Mary Varn (Rebecca), Kate Dollenmayer (Hildy), Keith Gessen (Julian), Salvatore Botti (Ron).

Andrew Bujalski, with only two films so far to his credit, has established himself as a major artist, and is now the (reluctant) center of a loose independent film movement, or rather, collective that has been termed as “mumblecore.” The filmmakers working under this rubric, such as Joe Swanberg (LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs), Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City), and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair), make films that are analogous to certain trends in indie rock, appropriately enough for the milieu that Bujalski captures in his latest film, Mutual Appreciation. Bujalski’s films concern young people in their 20s and early 30s who are still figuring out what to do with their lives. They often talk in halting, tentative speech, their conversations filled with seemingly trivial details and digressions that very thinly mask their anxiety and apprehension. Bujalski’s first film Funny Ha Ha made quite an impression on observers for standing out immediately from the slew of hackneyed and cliché-ridden “indie” films that flood arthouse and film festival screens. Filmed on 16mm with close friends and associates with money raised nearly entirely outside of the industry, Bujalski captured the awkwardness and confused romantic entanglements of his characters with a sharp eye and an unforced wit.

Mutual Appreciation is superficially much in the same vein, but Bujalski has made a great leap forward with this new film. Even though it exhibits many of the same qualities of his previous film, the elements fit much smoother here, and what sometimes seemed like affectation in his previous film here feels much more in tune with the situations and the characters. Filmed in 16mm black and white, the film’s set-ups and camerawork are quite simple and functional, but this enhances the film and directs our concentration toward the subtleties of his characters’ words and behavior, and Bujalski doesn’t try to distract us with show-off visuals. This shows his confidence in his material and his growing assurance as a filmmaker.

Alan (Justin Rice) comes to Brooklyn shortly after his band The Bumblebees breaks up after an EP that got some attention. He has booked a gig at Northsix, a Williamsburg rock club. He does a radio interview with Sara (Seung-Min Lee), who takes Alan to her house afterward and is not shy about acting on her attraction to him. Alan needs a drummer to play with at his gig, having come alone without a band. Sara hooks him up with her drummer brother Dennis (Kevin Micka). Alan, still pining for his ex-girlfriend, is not really interested in a relationship with Sara, although he hesitates to tell her so. Alan also spends time with two close friends, Lawrence (Bujalski) and his fiancé Ellie. Alan’s gig at Northsix is sparsely attended, and after the show he, Sara and Dennis are invited to the home of Jerry (Ralph Tyler), a friend of Alan’s father who has some connections in the music business. They get drunk and have odd conversations, and Alan, after speaking to his ex-girlfriend on the phone, seizes the moment to break up with Sara.

There are many other incidents in the film, including a monologue one of Lawrence’s students asks him to perform, but Bujalski eschews plotting in favor of a looser, improvisational feeling that captures his characters’ crossed signals and attempts to make sense of situations that bewilder them. Mutual Appreciation is a film that isn’t so much watched as experienced. There are none of the tried-and-true genre safety nets that so many filmmakers fall back on. The generosity of Bujalski’s working method and the beautiful and surprisingly emotional work that results are what makes his films such a joy to see. His work is obviously done out of a love of the craft and from a very authentic and human place.

Mutual Appreciation is released on DVD by Home Vision Entertainment and available for purchase from Amazon.

Mutual Appreciation trailer:

Interview with Andrew Bujalski:

Saturday, August 25, 2007

2007 New York Korean Film Festival Review Round-up

Our School (Kim Myung-joon)

This documentary follows a year in the life of a Korean school in Hokkaido, Japan, one of 60 such schools in Japan that educate the third and fourth-generation ethnic Koreans born and raised in Japan. The schools were created after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonization at the end of World War II. These schools have mainly been supported by North Korea since the country’s division after the Korean War. These schools are more than simply educational institutions: they are a source of national pride, a way for the students to discover their identity as Koreans, and also an escape from the discrimination they experience as Koreans in Japan. Because of the North Korean support, there is much talk of unification between the two Koreas, and a ritual for the 12th grade students is a trip to the “fatherland” of North Korea. This occasions an epiphany for the director while making this film. Since Kim is a South Korean citizen, he is not allowed to accompany the students on their trip to North Korea. “I understood for the first time in my life that my country is divided in two,” he remarks in a voiceover.

Kim examines in great depth the lives of the students and the various circumstances that have brought them to this school. Korean schools have a very hard time in the larger Japanese society, since they are only considered vocational schools, and as such don’t count in the Japanese school system. These schools are also denied the tax benefits that Japanese schools get. Korean-school graduates wishing to go on to Japanese universities must take an extra exam in order to qualify for admission. Nevertheless, these schools afford many benefits for the students. They come to feel pride in their own identity, and they learn to not be ashamed of being Korean in a society that is often hostile to them. The final scenes, in which the graduating class tearfully bids farewell to their school, are very moving, and we feel their apprehension at having to leave this nurturing environment. (Aug. 26)

200 Pound Beauty (Kim Yong-hwa)

This very silly farce would make an interesting double-bill with Kim Ki-duk’s Time, since both films deal with the phenomenon of plastic surgery. Based on a manga by Yumiko Suzuki, the film’s farcical premise concerns Hanna (Kim A-joong), an overweight singer who provides the offstage voice for haughty non-singing pop star Ammy (Seo Yun). She spends her life hidden away from public view, using her voice to make a living; she moonlights on a phone-sex line. She is in love with Ammy’s stage director Sang-jun (Ju Jin-mo). After overhearing a humiliating conversation about herself between Ammy and Sang-jun, she decides to undergo liposuction and full-body plastic surgery, emerging as “natural beauty” Jenny, whose true identity is initially known only to her best friend. Now a conventional beauty, she returns to her old employer incognito to pursue her dream of being a singer. This film owes practically all its virtues to Kim A-joong’s wonderful comic performance. She previously made a great impression in her earlier film When Romance Meets Destiny, and carries this film with great charm and timing, even underneath layers of prosthetics and despite rather cheap jokes based on her size (she falls through a stage; doctors cannot lift her into an ambulance after she OD’s on diet pills). Her first day in her new body is beautifully acted, as she revels in finally being able to buy a dress she coveted in her heavier days, ecstatically twirling in the street to the quizzical stares of passersby. She makes this predictable premise believable, and is a continually riveting presence. The film tries to have its cake and eat it too (pardon the pun), seeming to decry the rigid standards of beauty that women feel compelled to conform to, but at the same time having its happy ending predicated on her physical change. Nevertheless, the film was deservedly a massive hit upon its release in Korea earlier this year, again entirely due to Kim’s flawless performance. (Aug. 24 and 27, Sept. 1)

Unstoppable Marriage (Kim Sung-woo)

This is a rather hackneyed Romeo-and-Juliet romantic farce about a young couple, Eun-ho (pop star Yoo Jin [Eugene]) and Ki-baek (Ha Seok-jin) who has obstacles placed in their path by their bickering potential in-laws: Ki-baek’s mother, a nouveau-riche landowner (veteran actress Kim Soo-mi), and Eun-ho’s father (Lim Chae-moo), a martial-arts instructor and former marine. Kim Soo-mi’s patented foul-mouthed shtick can work in the right circumstances (for example in the far superior comedy Mapado), but here she simply comes off as shrill and grating. Ki-baek’s mother has her sights set on land for a new golf course, but she is thwarted by Eun-ho’s father, who refuses to sell the last bit of property she needs for her course. The romantic comedy clichés come fast and furious: the couple hates each other at first, but after a few plot machinations and a pair of reflective montages, they realize that they’ve found their soul mates. The leads are very attractive and appealing, so the film isn’t quite as painfully banal as it could have been. Still, the mustiness and rather retrograde qualities of this scenario is quite palpable. (Aug. 24 and 29)

Paradise Murdered (Kim Han-min)

This atmospheric thriller is a ghost story crossed with an Agatha Christie locked-door murder mystery. The tiny island of Geukrakdo, or “Paradise Island,” which quickly turns out to be anything but, has its idyllic state ruptured by a series of brutal murders, which seems to dovetail with an old story about a woman who was locked up and starved to death, and whose ghost haunts the island. A young doctor Jae Woo-sung (Park Hae-il), and his assistant Gwi-nam (Park Sol-mi), investigate the murders. While it is a little slow going at first, the careful setting up of characters, as well as the rather shady secrets of the island, pay off in a big way. The denouement is genuinely surprising, and the film as a whole is a diverting, well-written work.

Herb (Huh In-moon)

This melodrama pushes all the familiar buttons, but is no less affecting for that. Sang-eun (Kang Hye-Jung), a 20 year old woman with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old, lives with her loving and patient mother Hyun-sook (Bae Jong-ok). Her imagination filled with visions from the fairy tales she loves, she meets her prince, rookie cop Jong-bum (Jeong Kyeong-ho). Kang, looking startlingly different than in such previous films as Oldboy, Rules of Dating and Welcome to Dongmakgol, successfully embodies the mannerisms and demeanor of a very young girl, and she looks very much like an anime sprite here. The film also adopts a bright children’s book-style palette with fantastical touches. Hyun-sook contracts cancer, a situation that provides the tear-jerking moments of the film. Another complication occurs when Jong-bum sees Jang-eun’s disability card and realizes her condition (although before this happens, he implausibly mistakes her for a lawyer). The film is an effective manipulation machine, and although the scenario is very obvious in its methods of pulling the viewer’s emotional strings, it still hangs together, thanks largely to Kang’s spirited performance, and Bae Jong-ok’s affecting portrayal as the mother.
Between (Lee Chang-jae)

This documentary follows the lives and rituals of the mudang, female shamans who perform exorcisms and help people communicate with their deceased loved ones. Lee’s film focuses on the initiation of In-hee, a young woman who has the ability to communicate with these spirits, and out of obligation to these spirits, decides to become a mudang, which entails self-sacrifice and often physical and psychic damage. The film begins with a startling scene in which In-hee, crying and shaking with fear, receives a spirit while her mentor, Lee Hae-gyong, guides her through it. This is not a life of choice for most mudang, who are often ostracized from their families as a result. The film goes into great detail about the various shamanistic rituals. However, the film’s repetitive structure presents this fascinating material in a rather numbing way. There is also very little insight about the place of these rituals in society, and since we are always looking at this from the outside, it remains a mysterious, impenetrable process. Perhaps this is appropriate to the nature of shamanism, but an earlier documentary on the same subject, Park Ki-bok’s 2003 film Mudang (which screened at this festival in 2004), is much more successful in conveying the emotional nature of these rituals and is much more interesting visually. (Aug. 24 and 29)
Come, Come, Come Upward (Im Kwon-taek)

This film is part of a four-film Im Kwon-taek retrospective. Come, Come, Come Upward (1989) is a Buddhist parable in which Soon-nyeo (Kang Su-yeon, who also played an acclaimed performance in Im’s Surrogate Mother) enters a Buddhist temple to escape her troubled family life and pursue a path opened to her by a kindly priest she meets. She struggles to follow the teachings, but her life in the convent is complicated by a man she saves from suicide who insists on clinging to her for his personal salvation. Soon-nyeo’s superior then sends her out into the world, so that she can decide if she is truly ready to live an ascetic life. Soon-nyeo’s path to enlightenment is contrasted with that of another nun, Jin-sung (Jin Yong-ming), who diligently follows the written teachings and follows the rituals, but still finds herself blocked. She is sent out into the world also, but unlike Soon-nyeo, who throws herself into the hustle of the outside world, with all the sexual and emotional entanglements that entails, Jin-Sung decides to live mostly in isolation from the outside world, interacting with only a sister who accompanies her part of the way, and with two very different men. One is an activist who exhorts her to participate in the social struggles of the nation, and the other is a hermit monk who castrated himself to free himself from worldly desire. Im sets up the two women’s opposing experiences as a dialectical debate about the most effective way to apply Buddhist teachings to the messiness of everyday life. The film seems to be tipped in favor of Soon-nyeo’s position, if only because her story gets considerably more screen time. At the film’s conclusion, the two face each other and stake out their positions. Jin-sung dismisses Soon-nyeo’s actions as “pathetic delusion.” Soon-nyeo counters, “Without any delusion, how can you bring salvation to a deluded public?” We are left with these two irreconcilable paths: Jin-sung’s detachment from the world as a way to think clearly without influence from the world’s turmoil, and Soon-nyeo’s approach of full engagement with the world and the search for beauty within a painful universe. Im’s parable-like approach to storytelling and graceful visuals make this a rich film that resonates with each repeat viewing.

2007 New York Korean Film Festival Review: Lee Joon-ik's "Radio Star"

Radio Star. 2006. Directed by Lee Joon-ik. Written by Choi Seok-hwan. Cinematography by Na Seung-yong. Edited by Kim Jae-beom and Kim Sang-beom. Music by Bang Jun-seok. Released by Cinema Service.

Cast: Park Joong-hoon, Ahn Sung-ki, Choi Jeong-yoon, Han Yeo-woon, Lee Seong-woo, Hwang Hyeon-seong.

An entertaining tribute to the power of radio and music, Radio Star re-teams popular actors Park Joong-hoon and Ahn Sung-ki, this being the fourth film they have starred in together, after Chilsu and Mansu, Two Cops, and Nowhere to Hide. Park this time is Choi Gon, a washed-up former rock star managed by Min-soo (Ahn), reduced to singing in cafes and getting arrested due to his violent temper. After the latest of these episodes, Min-soo arranges the bail money for Gon’s release from jail, with one catch: he must work as a DJ at the local radio station in Yongwon, a sleepy backwater town. Gon sees this as the ultimate humiliation, but has no choice but to accept. He has a rough time with his first show, due to his unwillingness to participate, a relatively untested young producer (Choi Jeong-yoon), and an expletive-filled on-air phone call from the man Min-soo borrowed the bail money from. However, the show quickly gains popularity, and becomes a community center, a source of advice, and a bulletin board. The townspeople are wonderfully drawn, and are generously given their moments to shine. For example, there is the coffee-shop girl Sun-ok (Han Yeo-woon), who tearfully apologizes to her mother for running away from home; a flower-shop worker who enlists listeners’ help in wooing the bank teller he is smitten with; a group of older women squabbling over the rules to their card game. Throughout the film, the corporate world of Seoul is contrasted with the more down-home qualities of regional towns.

Radio Star is Lee Joon-ik’s follow-up to his historical drama The King and the Clown (also screening at this year’s festival), the top box-office hit of all time in Korea before Bong Joon-ho’s The Host bested it last year. His first contemporary story after his historical films, including his debut Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield, his new film nicely balances humor and more poignant moments. Ahn Sung-ki is especially fine as Choi Gon’s long-suffering manager, whose intense loyalty to his charge causes him to neglect his own family. Despite their dissimilar settings, Radio Star shares some interesting affinities with The King and the Clown. Both films concern performers and how their art impacts their personal lives. The court jesters of King and the Clown and the musicians of Radio Star are passionate about their art; in the latter film the aspiring rock band East River doggedly pursue their idol Choi Gon, petitioning him to help them get their big break. Also, both films are affecting portraits of male friendship, and the complex relationships, breakups and reunions of the male characters are given center stage. Radio Star confirms Lee’s considerable talents at making effortlessly entertaining films told with visual flair and vivid attention to character.

Radio Star screens at the 2007 New York Korean Film Festival on August 26.

Radio Star trailer:

Thursday, August 23, 2007

New York Korean Film Festival Review: Im Sang-soo's "The Old Garden"

The Old Garden (Oraedoen Jungwon). 2006. Written and directed by Im Sang-soo, based on the novel by Hwang Seok-young. Produced by Park Jong and Kim Jung-ho. Cinematography by Kim Woo-hyung. Edited by Lee Eun-soo. Music by Kim Hong-jib. Production design by Song Jae-hee. Sound by Kim Suk-won and Kim Chang-sub. Visual effects by Jan Seong-ho. Released by Lotte Entertainment.

Cast: Yeom Jung-ah, Ji Jin-hee, Kim Yu-ri, Yoon Hee-seok, Eun-seong, Yoon Yeo-jeong, Park Hye-sook.

The Old Garden, based on a novel by celebrated dissident writer Hwang Seok-young, recreates the turbulent period of the 1980’s, represented by the memories of Hyun-woo (Ji Jin-hee), who at the film’s outset has been released from jail after serving a 17-year jail sentence for anti-government activism. He gets out of prison to learn that his lover and the mother of his child, Yoon-hee (Yeom Jung-ah) has died from cancer. This occasions a trip to the place where they met, and also a trip through his memories of their relationship. Yoon-hee, an art teacher at a nearby school, is a disillusioned ex-activist. She nevertheless agrees to hide Hyun-woo, wanted by the government, at her house, because of her outrage at the recent massacre of activists at Kwangju. Quickly they begin a relationship, which is troubled due to Hyun-woo’s insistence on traveling to Seoul to check on his comrades, and Yoon-hee’s feeling that he puts his political convictions above his feelings for her. After Hyun-woo is caught by the police and begins his long jail sentence, Yoon-hee struggles to come to terms with both her anger at him and her still strong feelings for him. She now has a daughter by him, a fact which Yoon-hee hides from Hyun-woo for the rest of her life.

Im Sang-soo revisits a wound which is still fresh on Korean history, much as he did with his previous film, the darkly satirical The President’s Last Bang, which re-imagined the assassination of authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee. The Old Garden examines the era of Park’s successor Chun Doo-hwan, who proved to be just as intolerant of dissent and brutal toward activists, if not even more so, than Park. While the government’s extreme tactics and violence toward the citizenry are vividly captured in the scenes of protest, and of Hyun-woo’s prison torture, the activists themselves are not free from criticism. In an especially barbed scene, the activists’ pompous rhetoric and own authoritarian tendencies are held up for ridicule, with extreme close-ups of the debating mouths spouting empty political platitudes. The film casts a rather jaundiced eye on these idealists who often forced members to sacrifice themselves for the sake of media exposure, and who are now disillusioned and apathetic. The mood of the piece, exemplified by the truncated romance between Yoon-hee and Jung-woo, is one of exhaustion, disillusion, and regret for lost time.

While the film is beautifully shot, especially in its images of rain and snow, the film has considerable weaknesses, the most significant being the muted emotion and schematic quality of its scenario. Im’s previous films excelled in creating vivid, brilliantly drawn characters who felt like fully formed human beings, for example in A Good Lawyer’s Wife, his best film to date. The President’s Last Bang, although pitched in a quite different register than this new film, brought its historical figures to life as complex humans. His new film lacks these qualities, and each character seems rather shallow and unformed. The Old Garden strives for more dramatic heft than his other work, but the almost mechanical shuttling back and forth between the present and the past prevents us from fully sympathizing with the characters or feeling anything for their tragic fates. This flatness also carries over into the performances. Yeom Jung-ah’s character is the heart of this story, but there is a rather stiff and forbidding quality to her performance that puts us at a remove. Ji Jin-hee is less than convincing in his present-day scenes as the older Hyun-woo, who has survived years of torture and isolation. He looks basically the same, just with grayer hair. These actors have both acquitted themselves well in other films, so the fault must be placed on Im’s inadequately developed script. Also, the wicked sense of humor that existed alongside the more somber elements of his other films is oddly missing here. Im has made a worthy attempt to evoke this painful period of history, but he has failed at making it a compelling vision of this time and in fully conveying the tragedies that were common features of this period.

The Old Garden screens at the 2007 New York Korean Film Festival on August 26 and September 2.

The Old Garden trailer:

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Sins of the Father

After This Our Exile (Fu Zi). 2006. Directed and edited by Patrick Tam. Written by Tian Koi-leong and Patrick Tam. Produced by Chiu Li-kuang. Cinematography by Mark Lee Ping-bing. Music by Robert Jay Ellis-Geiger. Art direction by Patrick Tam and Cyrus Ho. Sound by Kinson Tsang.

Cast: Aaron Kwok (Chow Cheong-shing), Charlie Young (Ling), Gow Ian Iskander (Boy), Kelly Lin (Fong), Qin Hailu (Ha Je), Valen Hsu (Jennifer), Lester Chit-Man Chan (Strong Man), Qin Hao (School Bus Driver).

Patrick Tam, one of the finest filmmakers of the 80’s Hong Kong new wave, with his Malaysia-set masterpiece After This Our Exile, has returned from his own 17 year exile from filmmaking to deliver an epic melodrama which unfolds with uncommon grace, delicate patience, and mesmerizing beauty. Aaron Kwok, as the central character Cheong-shing, a perpetually down-and-out, dissolute gambler who can’t help dragging himself and everyone else around him into abject degradation, delivers a commanding performance, a magnetic presence even as he exhibits shockingly selfish behavior.

At the film’s outset, Cheong-shing’s wife, Lin (Charlie Young) has made an unsuccessful attempt to leave him, stretched beyond the limits of her patience with Shing’s gambling habit and irresponsible ways, often neglecting both her and their son (Gow Ian Iskander), who is referred throughout as “Boy.” She is also angry that he refuses to enter into a legal marriage. Cheong-shing works as a cook in a local restaurant. After Boy skips school to find his mother packing up her things, he runs to retrieve his father. Cheong-shing forcibly pulls Lin out of her cab, and locks her in their bedroom, leaving Boy to keep an eye on her.

Cheong-shing is in deep debt to gangsters he continually tries to keep at bay with futile promises to repay. He is a bully and a blowhard, constantly yelling at those around him, and has an incredibly short-fused temper. Yet he is also an anxious, fearful man, afraid of abandonment by those he mistreats so carelessly. Lin finally is able to leave him for good, along with the lover she has been keeping on the side, by feigning sickness before they are to go on a cruise, letting Cheong-shing and Boy go on without her. Shing rages at her departure, and in a heart-wrenching scene, sobs in front of his son, demanding to know why Lin has left him. At this point, the film truly embodies its original Chinese title, “Father and Son,” focusing intensely on this central relationship. Cheong-shing proves to be a poor caretaker for Boy, gambling away all their money, letting the light bill lapse, and leaving Boy unable to ride the bus to school, since his father cannot pay the monthly fare. The gangsters show up, looking for Cheong-shing. They move from their shabby, spartan home to an even shabbier hotel room across town. There Cheong-shing meets up with Fong (Kelly Lin), a neighboring prostitute with whom he initiates a torrid affair. Meanwhile Lin, in her new home with her new husband and a baby on the way, tries to reconnect with Boy.

Patrick Tam is in full command of every element of his prodigious artistry. The melodrama is quite moving, but never tips over into bathos, thanks largely to Aaron Kwok’s tough performance that doesn’t angle for audience sympathy. Cheong-shing thinks nothing of using other for his needs, from pimping Fong out to an elderly gentleman to forcing Boy to rob people’s homes while he acts as a lookout. He embodies a tragic figure who weaves a path of destruction all around him, always making feeble promises to change his ways. The moody and lush images are provided by ace cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, whose images of Malaysia’s beautiful landscapes form a counterpoint to the human misery and heartache we witness. These natural sights are contrasted with the decayed hotel rooms, restaurants, and dreary bus stations that the characters inhabit. After This Our Exile is a welcome return for this influential filmmaker, an early mentor to Wong Kar-wai, largely responsible to the development of Wong’s style of filmmaking. Tam’s film shares more than a few affinities to Wong’s Days of Being Wild (for which Tam served as an editor). Tam jettisons Wong’s swooning nostalgia for a rawer form of chamber drama, which highlights his character’s capacity for extreme cruelty. After This Our Exile proves that Hong Kong cinema, while currently somewhat in decline, is still capable of producing brilliant work.

After This Our Exile trailer: