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).