Monday, December 29, 2008

The Pusan International Film Festival (and Busan) In Pictures

This past October, I had the great opportunity to attend this year's Pusan International Film Festival, Korea's huge and sprawling film festival. It was a series of firsts for me: my first trip to Korea, my first international film festival coverage. Beyond my jet lag, general lack of sleep, and a few logistical problems, it was a tremendous, overwhelming, and exciting experience, one which I hope to repeat next year, hopefully for longer than the few days I was able to spend this year. I'm still working on some more pieces I hope to publish soon. In the meantime, over at my regular haunts at Meniscus Magazine, you can find my festival overview/travel guide, and reviews of two festival films: Roh Gyeong-tae's lovely film Land of Scarecrows (my favorite of the fest), and Claire Denis' exquisitely textured 35 Shots of Rum. As a supplement to this material, I thought I'd post here some pictures I took during the festival.

First, here's a view of Busan from my hostel window:

Haeundae Beach, Busan's main tourist attraction:

The entrance to the PIFF Pavilion, where festivalgoers can relax, have some coffee, do a little shopping, and enjoy a leisurely stroll along the beach between screenings:

More photos from the PIFF Pavilion:

Outside the SfunZ (Special Fun Zone) shopping mall in Haeundae, home of the Megabox Haeundae multiplex, one of the main PIFF venues:

Not too far from SfunZ and Haeundae Beach is the Haeundae Market, where besides shopping for clothes and other items, you can find some great fried seafood stalls and some great little restaurants:

The entrance to the Outdoor Theater, PIFF's open-air screening venue located at the Busan Yachting Center, following the screening of Shinobu Yaguchi's latest film Happy Flight:

Introducing Happy Flight were, from left to right, director Shinobu Yaguchi and actors Seiichi Tanabe and Haruka Ayase:

And finally, here's the Happy Flight trailer:

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Martin Scorsese, "Who's That Knocking at My Door" (1967)

Who's That Knocking at My Door (aka I Call First). 1967. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Martin Scorsese and Betzi Manoogian. Produced by Haig Manoogian, Betzi Manoogian, and Joseph Weill. Cinematography by Richard H. Coll and Michael Wadleigh. Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. Sound by John Binder and F. James Datri Jr.

Cast: Zina Bethune (Girl), Harvey Keitel (J.R.), Lennard Kuras (Joey), Michael Scala (Sally Gaga), Anne Collette, Tsuai Yu-lan, Saskia Holleman (Girls in dream fantasy), Harry Northrup (Harry), Bill Minkin (Iggy), Catherine Scorsese (Mother).

The opening moments of Scorsese’s first feature encapsulate the iconography/obsessions that would inform the rest of his career. Over sharp booming sounds that reverberate like the hand of God, these images occur: a set of Catholic figures adorning a mantle; a mother (Scorsese’s own mother Catherine, of course) bakes and serves food to her children; and over a burst of 60’s pop music, a gang fight is shot with a restless camera. The associative, free-form editing, derived from the French New Wave that broke just a few years before, binds these images in an iron bond. The mother figure, which doesn’t appear again until a brief shot at the end of the film, exists outside of time – it is unclear whether this is a flashback or present scene – and becomes a vision of ideal, pure womanhood, which in the mind of the film’s protagonist J.R. (a baby-faced Harvey Keitel), is unattainable for any other mortal woman, including to his disappointment his girlfriend (Zina Bethune, standing in for the Hitchcock blonde epitomized most memorably by Kim Novak), known here as simply “The Girl.” That the main female character isn’t even given a name epitomizes the film’s sexual politics in a nutshell, a rather crude Madonna/whore dichotomy that would resurface again and again in Scorsese’s subsequent films. Arguably, he’s never fully transcended this rubric; he’s simply dressed it up in ever more sophisticated cinematic technique.

The film’s original title was I Call First, referencing a scene in which J.R. and his pals argue over who will be the next to bed two women they have lured to an apartment. J.R.’s childish and unsophisticated relationships with women make him a very distasteful character and keep us at a distance from him, most disturbingly in the way he reacts to The Girl’s tale of rape, first blaming her for it, then obsessively replaying it in his mind, and finally, after telling her “I forgive you, and I’ll marry you anyway,” and after she rebuffs him, calling her a whore. All of which is to say that such details will hardly please feminists. But beyond this, the film exhibits an infectious energy that retains its freshness, which its stylistic lapses (including an awkwardly inserted sex scene included at the behest of the film’s distributor) only serve to enhance. The roving camera, as it would do so often in Scorsese’s other films, is a prominent co-star, and the film contains rehearsals of movement that would culminate in such later celebrated set pieces as Ray Liotta’s nightclub trip in Goodfellas and the camera literally following the money in Casino. The movie-madness of Scorsese is also in full force: J.R. and the Girl meet-cute in a lengthy scene of dialogue while waiting for the Staten Island ferry, which includes J.R. excitedly discussing John Wayne and The Searchers; later he takes her to see Rio Bravo. Of course, it is no accident that these are both films revered by the famous gang of Cahiers du Cinema critics-turned-filmmakers. As Roger Ebert famously foresaw, Who’s That Knocking at My Door was not only a significant film in its own right, but a harbinger of greater things to come.

Who’s That Knocking at My Door is part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center series “Scorsese Classics,” which runs until December 31. The film screens again on Dec. 29 at 7:15.

Here is the film's most impressive sequence, a party scene set to Ray Baretto's "El Watusi," the camera circling the room in languorous slow motion with overlapping dissolves as the scene descends into violent chaos. The end of this scene culminates in a brilliant bit of editing (one of many great ones by Scorsese's editor Thelma Schoonmaker) which leads from John Wayne and Dean Martin to Junior Walker and the All-Stars' "Shotgun" (although that last bit is missing from this clip).

J.R.'s dream, set to the Doors' "The End" (also famously used in Coppola's "Apocalypse Now"):

Thursday, November 27, 2008

2008 African Diaspora Film Festival: Review Round-up

The 16th annual African Diaspora Film Festival (Nov. 28 through Dec. 14, 2008), screening in New York at various venues including Anthology Film Archives, the Thalia Theatre and the Teachers College at Columbia University, features 88 films from 14 countries. Below are reviews of a few of this year's selections.

Gospel Hill (Giancarlo Esposito)

Actor Giancarlo Esposito makes his directorial debut with the festival’s opening-night film Gospel Hill, which concerns the controversial gentrification of Julia, a southern town still gripped by its violent Jim Crow past. The town remains haunted by the assassination of 60’s civil rights activist Peter Malcolm (Samuel L. Jackson, in black-and-white flashbacks), a crime which was never solved, mostly due to the non-action of the bigoted former sheriff Jack Herrod (Tom Bower), who continues to refer to black people as “niggers” without shame. Malcolm’s brother John (Danny Glover, good as always), has retreated from activism and involvement with his community, dwelling in despairing cynicism. He refuses to join the protest against the construction of a golf course that will displace the residents of Gospel Hill, a black neighborhood in Julia. This protest is spearheaded by John’s wife Sarah (Angela Bassett), who continually exhorts John to pull himself out of his existential funk. Sarah’s nemesis is Dr. Ron Palmer (Giancarlo Esposito), a rapacious real-estate profiteer who is a fervent supporter of the development. Palmer’s bored wife (Nia Long) is having an affair with Jack Herrod’s son Carl (Adam Baldwin), while Carl’s brother Joel (Taylor Kitsch) strives to distance himself as far as possible from his racist father’s legacy. Joel’s relationship with Rosie (Julia Stiles), a very earnest and liberal schoolteacher, is strained when she realizes who his father is. The cast here is very good, including Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA, who impresses in his brief scenes as one of the townspeople, and Esposito proves to be a perfectly adequate director. The problem is with the flat script by Jeff Stacy, Jeffrey Pratt Gordon and Terrell Tannen, which is oddly lacking in dramatically compelling conflict. Every problem is solved as if by magic: the unrepentant racist ex-sheriff suddenly sees the error of his ways, and even the confrontation between John Malcolm and his father’s killer feels anticlimactic. Ultimately, Gospel Hill doesn’t go anywhere stylistically or thematically we haven’t already been, and the “struggle still continues” conclusion, instead of being inspiringly uplifting, feels truncated and incomplete. (Nov. 28, 30 and Dec. 5)

Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker)

This is by far the most impressive of the festival films available for preview. Baker’s last film Take Out examined the milieu of Chinese take-out deliverymen, and his latest film is set in another environment populated by immigrants, this time the world of street sales of counterfeit and stolen handbags, sneakers, and other merchandise in Manhattan’s garment district. Many of the hustlers and hawkers of these goods are illegal African immigrants and Prince of Broadway focuses on one with the ironic moniker of Lucky (Prince Adu), who lures customers into a storefront owned by Lebanese Armenian Levon (Karren Karaguilian), where they are taken through a secret door in the back of the store, where much cajoling, hustling, haggling, and negotiation occurs. These two immigrants’ lives are a story of stark contrasts: Levon lives in a plush apartment, where he regularly fights with his flighty wife Nadia (Victoria Tate), while Lucky sleeps on the floor in a bare apartment where he must share the bathroom with other tenants. Despite his spartan existence, in which he must look over his shoulder for police and keep a low profile so as not to alert immigration authorities, Lucky prides himself on his skills as a hustler, and he regularly enjoys the company of his extremely patient and beautiful girlfriend Karina (Keyali Mayaga). Lucky’s life is thrown into chaos when ex-girlfriend Linda (Kat Sanchez) presents him with an infant son (Aiden Noesi) that she insists is his and that he must look after for a couple of weeks while she takes care of unspecified life business. As the two weeks stretch to a much longer time, Lucky must juggle this unwanted responsibility while he goes about his hustling workday. Baker, who co-wrote the film with producer Darren Dean and also shot and edited, has clearly studied this world carefully and perceptively, and it shows in every frame. The restless camerawork stalks its characters Dardenne Brothers-style, beautifully rendering the desperation and precariousness of all of these characters’ lives, which can easily be shattered in an instant. Prince of Broadway traffics in the New York neorealist style that is a hallmark of the films of Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop), another independent filmmaker who creates rough-hewed yet aesthetically dynamic films featuring the sort of characters that exist under most people’s noses yet are usually invisible. Also similarly to Bahrani, Baker allows his actors here, which included actual street sellers, to improvise their dialog, which also adds to the freshness and urgency of the piece. (Dec. 4)

The End of Poverty? (Philippe Diaz)

The question mark at the end of the title of Philippe Diaz’s documentary perfectly encapsulates the stance of the film towards its subject, and its depiction of this as an elusive, if not impossible goal. A despairing litany of the origins and current state of the massive inequality between rich and poor in the world, this film systematically lays its facts and statistics before us, buttressed with a gallery of talking heads, including Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, and stentorian narration by Martin Sheen. A globe-trotting portrait of despair, from the silver mines of Bolivia and the gold mines of Brazil to the swamps and tea fields of Kenya, the film exhaustively explains the origins of how the labor of the poorest countries subsidizes the richest, and the legal and social structures that have kept these circumstances in an ossified stasis. That’s all well and good as far as it goes, but … any solutions, people? Any insights into how to change things? You will search in vain for any of that in Diaz’s film. While The End of Poverty? is impressively filmed and put together, it ultimately is an unenlightening, earnest “eat your spinach” documentary that you leave in a depressed state about the world’s fate. We go all around the world only to end up exactly where we began. Presumably, any talk of actual remedies will be reserved for post-screening discussions, of which there will be one on Dec. 10 at Cowin Center, Columbia University. (Dec. 3, 10)

Chaos (Youssef Chahine and Khaled Youssef)

Youssef Chahine’s final film (co-directed with Khaled Youssef, who took over the reins as Chahine was ailing; Chahine died this past July) exhibits all the hallmarks of this celebrated Egyptian filmmaker’s work: devastating social critique, outsized drama, and distinctly Egyptian soap-opera theatricality. The villain of the piece is Hatem (Khaled Saleh), a corrupt police chief who regularly takes bribes, treats his prisoners with naked brutality and throws his weight around everywhere. He is obsessed with Nour (Mena Shalaby), a kindhearted teacher who in turn is enamored of Sherif (Youssef El Sherif), the local DA. Sherif is in an ill-advised engagement to Sylvia (Dorra Zarrouk), a woman with loose ways who is the polar opposite of Nour. Chahine paints a panorama of a society gripped by rampant corruption and pervasive injustice. The filmmaking is unabashedly over the top, with loud musical stings at dramatic moments, and the villainy depicted with very little nuance. Realism has no place in this scenario: the prison includes a harem of voluptuous dancing women who parade in front of a hole in the wall separating them from the male prisoners, and there are frequent fantasy sequences that skirt and sometimes cross the line of parody. Hatem is an especially cartoonish character, drooling after and stalking Nour and sniffing her stolen undergarments. The film has a flat and crudely rendered look, which matches the simple morality play that unfolds. Despite all this, Chahine makes his points about the pervasive problems of Egyptian society in unmistakable terms, and the film ends with the rousing sight of the long-terrorized populace rising up to vanquish their oppressors. (Dec. 9)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Yoji Yamada -- "Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp": Q&A at Japan Society, 10/17/08

Yoji Yamada has become of late one of my favorite directors. This prolific Japanese filmmaker creates films that are old-fashioned in the very best sense. He is a humanist in every sense of the word: the relationships and struggles of common people are solidly at the center of his works, and all of his stylistic choices are in the service of this focus. Yamada's recent "samurai trilogy," The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and Love and Honor, based on the novels of Shuhei Fujisawa, proved that his talent remains undimmed after 72 films (and counting). Yamada, however, will forever be best known as the director of the 48-film series featuring as its main character Tora-san, the itinerant traveling salesman played by Kiyoshi Atsumi. Yamada collaborated with Atsumi on all except the third and fourth films in this series, which ended with Atsumi's death in 1996. All of these films followed the same template: Tora-san returns to his home after a long period away, and stumbles into adventures, always meaning well yet managing to make a mess of things. He invariably falls in love with a woman along the way, but ultimately a lasting relationship is not to be. Yamada assembled an impressive stock company with these films, playing family and friends of Tora-san, most notably the exquisitely lovely Chieko Baisho, as Tora-san's sister Sakura, and brief appearances by Chishu Ryu, Ozu's frequent lead actor, as a priest. These actors also frequently acted in Yamada's non-Tora-san films. All of these films exhibit the qualities that makes Yamada's films so special: a deep love of humanity, a generosity of spirit, and an engaging mixture of humor and sentiment that makes these films always a pleasure to watch.

On October 17, 2008, the Japan Society in New York launched their monthly film series, "Best of Tora-san," running through May 2009, and consisting of eight episodes selected by Yamada himself. The first screening was of the very first film in the series, Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (1969). Yamada gave a live Q&A after the screening via digital video feed from Tokyo's Keio University. Below are clips of that conversation.

Yamada's opening remarks:

On the transition from a television series to a film series:

On how the character of Tora-san relates to certain Japanese cultural concepts (Part 1):

(Part 2):

On the influence of rakugo (Japanese storytelling art) on the conception of Tora-san's character, and the origin of his name:

Yamada's answer to my question about the casting of Chishu Ryu:

On the connection of the Tora-san films to the social and political realities of the time (Part 1):

(Part 2):

On the status of Tora-san as a national icon:

And finally, Yamada joins the Japan Society audience for a virtual photo-op:

Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: Shin Han-sol's "Art of Fighting"

Art of Fighting (Ssaum-ui gisul). 2006. Directed by Shin Han-sol. Written by Shin Han-sol and Min Dong-hyun. Produced by Lee Seo-yeol. Cinematography by Yim Jae-soo. Edited by Moon In-dae. Music by Yoon Min-hwa.

Cast: Baek Yoon-sik (Oh Pan-su), Jae Hee (Sung Byeong-tae), Kim Eung-soo (Byeong-ho), Choi Yeo-jin (Young-ae), Park Won-sang (Ahn Gye-jang), Hong Seung-jin (Paco), Park Gi-woong (Jae-hoon), Jeon Jae-hyung (Boong-eo), Kwon Byung-gil (Assi), Son Byeong-uk (Yong-ho).

The title of Shin Han-sol’s debut feature, Art of Fighting, proves to be quite an ironic one, since the fighting on display is anything but artful. Byeong-tae (Jae Hee, from 3-Iron), a supremely underachieving student who has been transferred to a succession of trade schools, is a willowy and delicate young man who finds himself the punching bag of bullies at each school he has been sent to. His father (Kim Eung-soo) is a distant presence, a widowed police officer who is at a loss as to how to communicate with his son. Byeong-tae assiduously studies martial-arts manuals to learn how to fight back, but he is unable to translate the advice found in these books to the real world. While attempting to learn the technique of fighting with coins, he comes across Oh Pan-su (Baek Yoon-sik), a man with a vaguely shady past who reluctantly agrees to become his mentor. Art of Fighting at first glance seems to follow the familiar outlines of The Karate Kid and countless martial arts student-teacher scenarios. However, where this film departs from its models is the often cringe-worthy brutality on display. Absent are the balletic, graceful fighting moves of classic wuxia pian films; instead there are many scenes of brutal street fighting. Bats, knives, and kicks to the head and stomach are the lingua franca of this film. Adult authority is almost completely absent; a rank social Darwinism of kill or be killed abounds here, as Byeong-tae is constantly beaten to a pulp in teacher-less classrooms. The only instance of teacher discipline is merely an act of revenge by one instructor who had a flowerpot thrown at his head during one of the gang fights.

Pan-su’s instructions for Byeong-tae consist of little technique, but an attempt to encourage Byeong-tae to get over the fear resulting from constantly being beaten by several people at once, and to be willing to do whatever is necessary to prevail. As Pan-su constantly reminds his student, there are no rules in fighting: everything is acceptable, from sand in the eyes to using whatever is around – a chair, a broken bottle – as a weapon. What is most important is being the first to strike. Shin makes sure the viewer feels what this sort of dirty fighting is like, a desperate quest to subdue your opponent as viciously and quickly as possible. Despite Pan-su’s instructions, Byeong-tae, to the film’s great credit, does not instantly gain invincibility over his enemies; he still holds back, gripped by his fear. Also raising this film above its standard scenario are the performances of its leads. Baek essays his role as the wizened, world-weary mentor effortlessly, as he has of late become the go-to actor for this sort of role (The Big Swindle, Tazza, Like a Virgin). Jae Hee’s quavering vulnerability and doe-like eyes convey his character’s isolation and quiet desperation quite effectively.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Night 2008

The nearly two years-long presidential campaign has been a drama and spectacle against which any film I've seen recently pales in comparison. Populated by a cast of indelible (and sometimes frightening) characters, full of unexpected and unpredictable turns (remember when people thought it would be Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani?), and including a third-act plot twist courtesy of the governor from Wasilla, Alaska, this real-life saga has never been less than fascinating to watch. And like the greatest of films, it had a logical, beautiful, and deeply satisfying ending.

For commentary on it all, I humbly defer to the ever eloquent and astute Tavis Smiley, who sums it up far better than I ever could:

And here is that ending (which, of course, is really a beginning):

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears A Crown"

W. (2008). Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Stanley Weiser. Produced by Bill Block, Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff, and Paul Hanson. Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. Edited by Julie Monroe. Music by Paul Cantelon. Production design by Derek Hill. Costume design by Michael Dennison. Sound by John Pritchett.

Cast: Josh Brolin (George W. Bush), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush), James Cromwell (George H.W. Bush), Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), Toby Jones (Karl Rove), Stacy Keach (Earle Hudd), Bruce McGill (George Tenet), Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice), Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell), Ioan Gruffudd (Tony Blair), Noah Wyle (Don Evans), Dennis Boutsikaris (Paul Wolfowitz), Michael Gaston (General Tommy Franks), Brent Sexton (Joe O'Neill), Paul Rae (Kent Hance), Rob Corddry (Ari Fleischer), Marley Shelton (Fran), Colin Hanks (Speechwriter #1), Jason Ritter (Jeb Bush), Sayed Badreya (Saddam Hussein).

How many thousands of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush'd with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull'd with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common 'larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene 1

In a late scene in Oliver Stone’s W., the latest in Stone’s presidential portraits (having some interesting parallels, but more contrasts, with his previous biopic Nixon), George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), lies in bed with his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), and laments to her about how no one can understand the sacrifices and pressures he must contend with daily. Not too long after his triumphant “Mission Accomplished” media show has been snowed under by the intensifying debacle of the war in Iraq, he recalls the advice of his father, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell) that he should have “stayed out of the barrel,” that is, not take on matters and responsibilities beyond his ability. But as Stone’s film argues incessantly, such a thing is impossible for its protagonist. The most interesting aspect of W.’s approach to its subject is how it views Bush as a character out of classical Greek tragedy (with allusions, of course, to the Prince Hal/King Henry of Shakespeare’s plays), who as much as he tries, is unable to escape his preordained destiny. The succession of the young Bush’s failed exploits – the construction job, owning the Texas Rangers, etc. – as well as the drinking and debauchery he indulges in, is no more and no less than a desperate desire to avoid the family business of power, influence, and authority that dogs his every step, but is as impossible to shake as his own shadow.

With W., Oliver Stone has created a work that will probably anger people at all points of the political spectrum, as well as confuse and confound most audiences, who will go in expecting one kind of film and be presented with quite another. Neither an outraged j’accuse that will please the Michael Moore crowd nor the sort of flag-waving hagiographic study akin to Stone’s World Trade Center (a film so timidly reverent it may as well have been a Republican Party commercial), W. is instead a surprisingly rich and complex psychological portrait that puts the tortured father-son relationship of W. and H.W. front and center, positing it as the Rosetta Stone with which one can understand the source of the disaster that was (and is) the Bush administration. By no means a perfect or even entirely coherent film – there is a palpable tension between presenting a rounded human portrait and the caricature that creeps in almost despite itself – W. nevertheless is never less than fascinating, containing two great performances at its core: Josh Brolin as the junior Bush and James Cromwell as the senior.

Brolin, especially, is quite mesmerizing, navigating what must have been a rather daunting tightrope walk of a performance nearly flawlessly. His Bush is a creature of nervous energy, always in motion, like a shark that will die if it stops moving. In many scenes, he is either eating or drinking something, feeding an emptiness at his core that can never be fulfilled. He lacks introspection in the extreme, a character trait that reaches its logical climax in the long painful pauses, hesitations, and stalling that constitutes his response to a reporter’s query about mistakes he has made. And even though the script too often calls on him to repeat the most mocked of Bush’s famous malapropisms and coinages – “I’m the decider!”, “misunderestimate”, “Is our children learning?”, “Fool me once … you won’t get fooled again” – Brolin deftly weaves all these elements in a portrayal that gains poignancy as it progresses. He admirably avoids Saturday Night Live-style parody to render key moments of Bush’s biography (most notably his born-again Christian conversion) with astute sensitivity.

In sharp contrast to the phantasmagoric near-surrealism of Nixon, Oliver Stone in W. presents his material with an almost fastidious conventionality, structuring his film in the tried-and-true present/flashback/present biopic style. However, this proves to be a smart approach, allowing Stone to (mostly) stay out of his own way. Of course, as Stone is not exactly the most subtle of filmmakers, he sometimes can’t help underlining certain points, just in case we don’t quite get it – for example, the playing of the “Robin Hood” theme on the soundtrack as Bush begins his great misadventure in Iraq; and a rather ill-advised dream sequence late in the film, in which the Iraq quagmire becomes, much like his drunken crashing of cars in his youth, yet another example of Junior screwing things up yet again. But Stone more or less adheres closely to a straightforward style, which brings into vivid relief Bush’s quest to get through to his cold, distant father, a conflict and rivalry that eventually pulls the entire world into this Oedipal drama. And while its value as a historically accurate work is dubious at best (it credits W., instead of Lee Atwater, with the blatantly racist Willie Horton ad that helped his father ride into the White House, while the 2000 election and Hurricane Katrina rates nary a mention), as a dramatic evocation of the concentration (and corruption) of power in the hands of a few, it is extremely credible and compelling, and more than a little disturbing. The film ends on a great metaphor representing where Bush has taken himself and the country (and by extension, the world), made crystal clear by the current dire state of our economic system. We’re all waiting for that pitch that will probably never come.

W. trailer:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Passion of Bobby Sands

Hunger. 2008. Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen. Produced by Laura Hastings-Smith and Robin Gutch. Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt. Edited by Joe Walker. Production design by Tom McCullagh. Music by David Holmes and Leo Abrahams. Sound design by Paul Davies. Costume design by Anushia Nieradzik.

Cast: Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands), Brian Milligan (Davey Gillen), Liam McMahon (Gerry Campbell), Stuart Graham (Raymond Lohan), Liam Cunningham (Father Dominic Moran), Laine Megaw (Raymond's Wife), Karen Hassan (Gerry's Girlfriend), Frank McCusker (The Governor), Helen Madden (Mrs. Sands), Des McAleer (Mr. Sands), Ciaran Flynn (Twelve Year Old Bobby).

Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s impressive feature debut Hunger, screening at this year's New York Film Festival, is not your normal biopic. And that’s a very good thing. McQueen’s film, which won the Camera d'Or (best first film) at this year's Cannes Film Festival, examines the final days of IRA activist and political prisoner Bobby Sands, as he slowly perished from a 66-day hunger strike in 1981, a pivotal event of the “Troubles,” the protracted war involving Northern Ireland’s struggles against the British for independence. After the briefest of opening titles to quickly set the historical background, it becomes immediately clear that McQueen isn’t aiming for the outraged agitprop of, for example, Ken Loach, who also tackled this conflict in his film The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Politics obviously interests McQueen less than the human story being told here. McQueen channels his prodigious visual skills honed from his previous video artworks to astound and assault us with indelible images edited with a nearly unbearable razor’s edge. The film begins not with its putative subject Bobby Sands (he doesn’t even appear until a third of the way into the film), but with prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), as he peers with haunted eyes into a mirror, exchanges fraught glances with his fearful wife, washes his bloody knuckles in a sink (the result of years of beating prisoners), and, after carefully checking his car for hidden explosives, drives off to work. Once there, Raymond wanders in a permanent daze, separating himself from the garrulous chatter of his colleagues, and wanders off by himself to have a smoke in the snowy cold.

Much of McQueen’s video art are silent works, and in “Deadpan,” one of his most famous pieces, the artist himself restages a scene from one of Buster Keaton’s films by having the façade of a house falls on top of him, McQueen preserved from harm because he is standing where an open doorway falls. “Deadpan” directly addresses McQueen’s artistic debt to silent cinema, and this style carries over to Hunger. McQueen almost entirely dispenses with dialog in this film, with the major exception of a key scene in the middle of the film (more about that later). Sound and image, especially sound, are given primacy here. The film’s main setting is the notorious Maze prison, where the imprisoned IRA members were kept. The visceral images, mostly involving bodily fluids – blood, urine, excrement – are rendered with stark, tactile immediacy, rubbing the viewers’ faces into the muck and grime of the prison, everything beautifully composed but no less difficult to watch. This filth is directly connected to the main political grievances of the prisoners. Before the hunger strikes (there were actually two major ones; the one depicted in the film was the second and more effective) were two other protests, known as the “blanket” and “no wash” protests. The blanket protest stemmed from the stripping from the prisoners of special political status, which recognized that they were different from common criminals and more akin to prisoners of war, which gave them such rights as free assembly, exemption from work detail, and the right to wear civilian clothes instead of prison uniforms. In protest to the elimination of these rights, which was part of Margaret Thatcher’s unrelentingly hard-line methods, the inmates refused to wear any clothes and would only take blankets to cover themselves. Prison guards retaliated against this action by not allowing them to use the toilets, which led to the “no wash” protests, where the prisoners refused to bathe themselves and urinated and defecated inside their cells, smearing the excrement on the walls. In Hunger the camera lingers on long shots of the cells caked with feces, in one case arranged in a very artful bull’s-eye pattern.

The impact of these protests are given form and character in Hunger in the guise of two prisoners we follow in the film’s early scenes. Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a new prisoner, is shown the ropes by cellmate Gerry Campbell (Liam MacMahon), and through their experience, we are witness to the excruciating details of brutal life in the prison, in the scenes where the prisoners are forcibly removed from their cells and washed down and their hair savagely cut, with bloody chunks of scalp taken off with it. They pass messages and other items with visitors from outside the prison by hiding and transporting them through various bodily orifices. This illustrates the film’s major theme: the body, specifically the male body, as the vessel and site of resistance to authority. Often stripped naked, beaten and dragged through the corridors by the prison guards, their bodies are literally all they have, and the hunger strike becomes the ultimate form of self-sacrifice and martyrdom to their cause. These methods recall such disparate phenomena as those who immolated themselves to protest the Vietnam War, and (for of course very different reasons) present day suicide bombers. Considering that McQueen and his co-screenwriter Enda Walsh began writing their script well before the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib, the present-day parallels are even more remarkably prescient.

After following the two prisoners, we are introduced rather offhandedly to Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), as he is visited by his parents. This serves to ground him and counteract against seeing him as a special person and reinforce the fact that as celebrated (and notorious) as Sands was, he was part of a movement that was much larger than one person. Bobby Sands also, as with the first two prisoners in the film, is subjected to prison brutality, undergoing a vicious cavity search by the guards. Yet there is something singular about Sands, and he does consciously see himself as a symbol. The rest of the film demonstrates this, and quite surprisingly, it reveals itself as very Catholic work, and Sands emerges as a Christ figure. An irreverent, indeed sacrilegious one, to be sure (he rips up his copy of the Bible to use as rolling papers for his cigarettes), but a Christ figure nonetheless. The suffering and physical deterioration of Sands’ hunger strike render this in intricate detail, the sores on his skin looking like nothing less than stigmata.

Sands directly argues the rationale behind his decision to go on the hunger strike in an extraordinary scene in the center of the film, in which he debates a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham) over the wisdom and effectiveness of the strike. After virtually no dialog up to that point, we are confronted with an avalanche of speech as the two men verbally parry in their dialectical debate. Sands is uncompromising in his refusal to negotiate or settle for less than the full reinstatement of their special political status, while the priests stresses the importance of compromise. Their conversation is filmed in a side view of the two men in profile, in a static shot that runs about ten minutes. It represents a breather from the stark violence and an opportunity for the viewer to reflect on the greater meaning of this struggle, and indeed, what it really means to die for a cause.

Unconvinced by the priest’s arguments, Sands goes through with the hunger strike, in which nine other prisoners died. The film focuses on Sands, as he slowly deteriorates, eventually unable to get around without help, as his vision and hearing fail him, and as he begins seeing visions of himself as a young boy appear to him. Again like Christ, he resists the temptations put before him, this time of the plates of food that loom before the camera, as Sands turns away, hurtling toward certain death with steel-like resolve. As he dies, Sands’ image is superimposed with a flock of birds, representing the freedom that death has given him, a rather trite and clichéd image that is the film’s only misstep.

While the sight of a man wasting away from starvation is no one’s idea of a fun night out at the movies, Hunger rewards those able to endure the extreme imagery with a compelling artistic vision. McQueen’s images (aided by Sean Bobbitt’s precisely rendered cinematography) have a cold beauty that forms a striking contrast to the grimness (and griminess) of their content. McQueen, unlike other visual artists transitioning to cinema, has a sure hand with the form, especially in working with his actors. Michael Fassbender (best known to U.S. audiences from Zack Snyder’s 300) as Sands especially impresses in his scene with the priest and in navigating the physical challenges of his role (he clearly actually fasted for the film’s latter scenes).

Hunger screens on September 27 and 28 at the New York Film Festival, and will open in early 2009.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Jean-Luc Godard, "Breathless" (1960)

This post inaugurates a new feature on this blog, where I will offer thoughts on the works of significant directors, in chronological order, if possible. And what better place to start than with one of the most influential films ever made, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, the nouvelle vague shot heard round the world. Cinema hasn't been the same since.

Breathless (À bout de souffle). 1960. Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, based on an original treatment by François Truffaut. Produced by Georges de Beauregard. Cinematography by Raoul Coutard. Edited by Cécile Decugis. Music by Martial Solal.

Cast: Jean Seberg (Patricia Franchini), Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Poiccard), Daniel Boulanger (Inspector Vital), Henri-Jacques Huet (Antonio Berruti), Roger Hanin (Carl Zumbach), Van Doude (Van Doude), Liliane David (Liliane), Michel Fabre (Other Inspector), Jean-Pierre Melville (Parvulesco), Claude Mansard (Used Car Dealer), Jean-Luc Godard (Informer), Richard Balducci (Tolmachoff).

“After all, I’m an asshole.” Such is the self-description of Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the central figure of Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature, which was, at least in part, a loving homage to the then American gangster B-pictures beloved by Godard and his cohorts at Cahiers du Cinema. The film is in fact dedicated to Monogram Pictures, one of the “Poverty Row” studios that often supplied the bottom half of the bills for the more prestigious mainstream Hollywood features shown in American movie theaters. Thanks largely to the Cahiers critics, those films have been celebrated long after the A-picture super-productions have been relegated to forgotten footnotes of film history. The America-philia carries over into the presence of Breathless’ leading lady, Jean Seberg. The star of Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse and Joan of Arc is a pixie-like presence floating though the luminous Paris of the film’s setting, the irrepressible yang to the aggressive, brutish yin of Poiccard. “J’aime beaucoup la France,” Poiccard opines while cruising in his stolen car, and so does Raoul Coutard’s camera. Long traveling shots of the city abound throughout, supplying the romanticism that this film revels in, drunk off the mystique of the City of Lights. The ghost of Humphrey Bogart hovers over Breathless, in Poiccard’s emulation of that actor’s persona. Poiccard is the lead of not only the movie we see, but the movie in his head, as he gleefully indulges his criminal activities and his quest to enlist his sometime girlfriend Patricia (Seberg) as his own leading lady. But Patricia goes off the script when she informs on him to the police, and refuses to go off into the sunset with him. Instead, after a comically protracted death dance, he is reduced to childish insults. “You make me want to puke,” he tells Patricia before he dies. “What does that mean?” Patricia asks as she emulates Poiccard’s habitual gesture, running her thumb over her lips. She turns her back on us, and the film fades out.

The non-stop jaunty jazz score by Martial Solal is the perfect accompaniment to the improvisational style of Godard’s film. A manifesto in opposition to the studio-bound productions of most French films, Godard took his camera to the streets, writing his actors’ dialogue day by day. “I never knew what would happen to Poiccard next,” Belmondo says in an interview included on the Criterion DVD. Godard’s first cut of the film was very long and unwieldy, and he knew he needed to cut extensively, but found it difficult to get rid of necessary scenes. Godard came up with the idea of cutting within shots, breaking continuity, a technique that became known as the jump cut. It was a radical visual style, well in keeping with the radicalism of the project. This technique has now been overused to the point of cliché, but seeing it here in this context, it retains a startling freshness. As does the entire film.

Breathless trailer:

The beginning:

The ending ("Qu'est-ce que c'est 'degueulasse'?"):

Friday, August 22, 2008

2008 New York Korean Film Festival Review Round-up #2

My Father (Hwang Dong-hyuk)

A recent true story is the inspiration for My Father, whose premise at first glance threatens to be yet another occasion to wallow in syrupy melodrama. Daniel Henney (cue the screaming teenage schoolgirls), a Korean-American star who first made his name in the Korean television series My Name Is Kim Sam-soon, is James, an adoptee in America who travels to Korea (as an army soldier, for reasons that are a little fuzzy) to search for his birth parents. He appears on a television program with other orphans searching for their parents. He soon finds out his mother is dead and that his father (Kim Yong-chul) is on death row for murder. The rest of the film depicts his discovery of his father’s and his own past, the deceased mother an elusive ghost only seen in flashbacks and eventually a photo. James goes through the usual identity struggles and connects with his Korean heritage by discovering his Korean name (Gong Eun-chul), learning Korean to communicate with his father, and befriending a fellow Korean soldier (Kim In-kwon). The premise is unpromising, and the film has a few flaws, the most serious being, unfortunately, the limited acting ability of its star. Henney has an easygoing, affable persona that has considerable appeal, but when he is called upon to perform very emotional scenes, this still remains a bit beyond his ability. Also, the depictions of the ugly American GIs are crudely over the top, and a cheap attempt to give James an easy foil. However, the acting deficit on Henney’s part is more than made up for by Kim Young-chul’s turn as the condemned father. Kim provides a compelling gravitas and sense of tragedy and quite effectively conveys the shifting nature of his character, as we find out that he is not all he seems to be. Hwang’s script deftly avoids the myriad pitfalls inherent in this material with a smart script that takes unexpected turns, as the full situation is gradually and surprisingly revealed, overall making this a strong film. The film’s end credits feature documentary footage of the actual adoptee whose story inspired the film (a device, incidentally, also employed in Forever the Moment). (Aug. 23, 29)

Spare (Lee Seung-han)

This is a down-and-dirty, and, as per its title, spare action flick inspired by Hong Kong gangster films, as is the similarly minded City of Violence, Ryu Seung-wan’s last film. The opening is quite promising, featuring an elegant gliding shot through a set of corridors and Japanese-style sliding doors, set to an ominous soundtrack of booming drums. The film mostly follows Gwang-tae (Lim Joon-il) who owes a lot of money to loan shark Myung-soo (Kim Su-hyeon). Gwang-tae is sought after by Sato (Mitsuki Koga), a yakuza who offers to pay him an astronomical sum to be a kidney donor for his ailing boss, since Gwang-tae has the rare blood type necessary for a successful transplant. Gwang-tae eagerly agrees, since this will cancel his debt. However, his friend Gil-do (Jeong-woo), promising to be a middleman to deliver the money to Myung-soo, instead steals the money and uses it to fuel his raging gambling addiction. This provides the occasion, or should I say excuse, for the exciting “100 percent real action” the film’s promotional material promises, making pains to point out the film’s lack of CGI effects. Those expecting something similar to Ryu’s City of Violence will be sorely disappointed, although both films share two actors (Lim Joon-il and Jung Woo) and a cinematographer (Kim Yeong-chol). Unlike Ryu’s film, which enlivened its standard scenario with impressively staged and brilliantly choreographed fight sequences, Lee’s film has surprisingly few fight scenes, and the ones it does have are ineptly edited and staged, most notably a seemingly endless scene in which Gwang-tae and Sato fight a rival gang in a parking garage, which is awkwardly cross-cut with action elsewhere. The film strenuously attempts to distract us from the woefully underdeveloped story with gimmicky visual tricks and an odd device of snarky off-screen audience members which completely falls flat. The cruddy digital video with which the film is shot adds to the cheap, throwaway feel. (Aug. 24, 25)

Going by the Book (Ra Hee-chan)

Going by the Book, scripted by director, screenwriter and playwright Jang Jin (Guns and Talks, Someone Special, Murder, Take One), is a sly, sharply observed comedy that exhibits the patented humor of Jang’s other films. Jung Jae-young, a frequent star of Jang Jin’s own films, plays Do-man, a traffic cop in the small town of Sampo who is a strict stickler for procedure, a character trait that fuels the film’s humor. Do-man used to be a detective, but ran afoul of certain higher-ups, and was consequently demoted to traffic cop, a duty which he performs with the same enthusiastic gusto and heightened sense of justice as he did in his previous position. A new police chief (Son Byung-ho) comes to town, and Do-man greets him by giving him a traffic ticket for making an illegal left turn. Sampo has recently been plagued by a spate of bank robberies, and the chief decides to respond to this by staging a simulation of a bank robbery for training purposes, and he drafts Do-man to play the robber. Hilariously, this turns out to be a grave error on the chief’s part, as Do-man plays his role to the hilt, giving the exercise much more realism than anyone involved bargained for. This farcical premise is injected with rather barbed satire directed toward authority figures, police procedure, and rapacious media. Jung delivers a funny, remarkably nuanced performance, conveying intriguing shadings to his character, all throughout maintaining a deadpan Buster Keaton-like persona. The excellent supporting cast, especially Lee Young-eun as the young female bank-teller, also impresses here. The style of Going By the Book is practically indistinguishable from that of screenwriter Jang Jin’s own films, and very little of the director’s own personality comes through here, making Ra little more than an interpreter of Jang’s vision. Ra has said as much in interviews, confirming the obvious fact that notwithstanding the actual director who has signed his name, Jang Jin is in fact the true auteur of this film. (Aug. 23, 25, 30)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

2008 New York Korean Film Festival Review Round-up

The 2008 New York Korean Film Festival, screening from August 22 to August 31 at Cinema Village and BAM Cinematek, is a mixed bag, much like Korean cinema in general these days. These are tough times, both creatively and financially. According to a recent piece in The Hollywood Reporter, the lowest point this year came this past May, when Korean films accounted for just 7.8% of the box office, the lowest since records began being kept in 2000. This is far from the heights of the so-called “Korean wave” just a few short years ago. Things are turning around, thanks to two recent hits: Kang Woo-suk’s Public Enemy Returns, the third installment featuring Sol Kyung-gu in the lead role; and The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, Kim Jee-woon’s mega-budgeted “kimchi Western” which is on track to perhaps be this year’s biggest hit. Whether the industry can build on these successes to become truly profitable once again is anyone’s guess. To be continued, as they say. However, there are still some interesting films being made, and a few gems here and there, as is borne out by this year’s films, the most impressive so far being the Jung Brothers' historical Gothic tale Epitaph, which I reviewed here when it screened earlier this year at New Directors/New Films. Below are reviews of some of this year's selections.

Once Upon a Time (Jeong Yong-gi)

Once Upon a Time, like Epitaph, is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, in this case, the very late stages of this period, just before Japan’s surrender and Korea’s concomitant liberation. However, Jeong utilizes a strikingly different strategy in representing this historical time, trading the somber, moody scariness of Epitaph for lively, lighthearted adventure and derring-do that takes more than a few cues from the Indiana Jones films. Much like that 1940’s adventure serial-inspired series, Once Upon a Time revolves around a treasure coveted by the film’s characters, in this case “The Light of the East,” a large diamond that was a legendary relic of the Silla Dynasty, doggedly sought after by a Japanese general (Kim Eung-soo) who wishes to bring it back to Japan as a colonial prize. The general’s quest is complicated by Bong-gu (Park Yong-woo), also known as Kanemura, a conman and master thief who trades in stolen jewels and other treasures on the black market. Bong-gu schemes to steal this diamond, as it will be his biggest game as a treasure hunter. However, a mysterious masked serial thief, known as “Haedanghwa,” gets there before him and swipes the diamond. A major player in this caper is Choon-ja (Lee Bo-young), also known as Haruko, a sexy nightclub singer who is not all she seems. Throw in a pair of hapless resistance fighters and you have the ingredients for breezy, fairly uncomplicated entertainment. However, some elements unique to the historical period of the film carry deeper resonances. For example, there is the suppression of Korean culture by the Japanese, represented here by the Korean taegukgi flag furtively hidden from the authorities and the taking of Japanese names by major characters, which was historically forced on the populace (even though it is treated much more lightly here). The sign outside the nightclub where much of the film is set reads “Koreans and Dogs Not Allowed.” Also, a scene late in the film shows Japanese soldiers gunning down civilians indiscriminately in the street. The film doesn’t dwell on these details too much, concentrating more on action, humor, and the flirtation between Bong-gu and Choon-ja. Once Upon a Time is diverting, unpretentious entertainment with the curiously strong flavor of Hollywood films of the same period, down to the ending which has distinct echoes of The Maltese Falcon. “The stuff that dreams are made of,” indeed. (Aug. 28, 29)

May 18 (Kim Ji-hoon)

Another evocation of Korean history, this time of a more recent period, is provided by May 18, a major hit in Korea last summer. The titular date occurred in 1980, in a tragic incident in which thousands of students and other civilians in Kwangju were massacred by General Chun Doo-hwan’s forces, as the military carried out a virtual civil war against its own populace. The film drops us directly into this situation, with no explanation or background given about the student movement that grew as a result of the brief window of democracy provided by the assassination of President Park Chung-hee the previous year, as well as Chun’s quest to graduate from the head of the military to the country’s new ruler. For Korean audiences familiar with this history, such explanation is unnecessary. For foreign audiences, this will be confusing – a brief trip to a bookstore or library’s Korean history section, or, at the very least, a quick Wikipedia search is recommended before viewing. The historical macrocosm serves as a backdrop to the rather crudely sentimental story of cab driver Min-woo (Kim Sang-kyung, from Turning Gate and Memories of Murder), working to put his younger brother Jin-woo (Lee Yoon-ki, The King and the Clown) through law school. Min-woo tries to set his brother up with Shin-ae (Lee Yo-won, Take Care of My Cat, When Romance Meets Destiny), a pretty nurse at the local hospital, although Min-woo is obviously the one in love with her, always arranging to meet with her under the cover of concern for his studious brother’s lack of a social life. Shin-ae’s father Heung-su (Ahn Sung-ki), a former Special Forces commander, gets wind of the military’s plans to brutally crush the antigovernment protests, and tries to use his influence to stop them, but to no avail. The military occupation soon arrives, a nuclear bomb dropped upon the lives of the film’s characters, as the soldiers beat and shoot people indiscriminately, and the media parrots the government propaganda depicting the entire populace of Kwangju as communist rebels. The first half of the film alternates between crude humor and the budding romance between Min-woo and Shin-ae. After the bloody, brutal suppression by the military, and the civilians’ resistance, led by Heung-su, the film unnecessarily attempts to wring even more tears and emotion from the situation by relentlessly underlining the violent impact of these events on the film’s characters. As significant as the film is, being the first major feature to directly take on the subject of the Kwangju massacre, restraint, subtlety, and nuance are apparently words that don’t exist in the vocabularies of director Kim or screenwriter Na Hyeon, at least as far as this film is concerned. The only thing that prevents May 18 from completely drowning in its soap opera theatrics, which are extreme even by Korean standards, are the appealing performances by its cast, which partially temper the sentimentality. There is a great film yet to be made about this event, but sadly, this isn’t it. For a truly great film that touches on this tragedy, I refer you to Lee Chang-dong’s 1999 masterwork Peppermint Candy. (Aug. 24, 27, 31)

Forever the Moment (Yim Soon-rye)

May 18 screenwriter Na Hyeon also penned the script for this film, also based on a true story. Director Yim Soon-rye's previous films Three Friends and Waikiki Brothers were excellent, sensitively directed character studies that established Yim as one of Korea’s best directors. She is also one of the very few working woman directors in Korea. In sharp contrast to the overwrought schmaltz of May 18, Forever the Moment is infinitely more successful in rendering recent events with sentiment that is truly earned. The film tells the story of the Korean women’s handball team who competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics. It goes far beyond the typical sports-film clichés with beautifully written characters given life by the wonderful quartet of actresses featured here – Moon So-ri (Oasis, A Good Lawyer’s Wife, Family Ties), Kim Jeong-eun (Marrying the Mafia, Blossom Again), Cho Eun-ji (The President’s Last Bang, Driving with My Wife’s Lover), and Kim Ji-young (Innocent Steps, Old Miss Diary). As in her previous films, Yim focuses closely on the vicissitudes of her characters, in this case privileging this over the mechanics and process of the sport that is the presumed subject. At the outset, Mi-sook (Moon So-ri), despite having been part of a team that won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, has come upon financially rough times. Her husband is basically absent from the family, cheated by a former business partner and on the run from loan sharks, leaving Mi-sook to raise her son alone, and forcing her to take a rather humiliating job at a supermarket, barking out the produce specials of the day. Her former teammate Hye-kyung (Kim Jeung-eun) has had a far more successful career coaching in Japan. She is brought back to Korea by the team owner, who drafts her to coach a team that can win gold again at the Olympics. She persuades the reluctant Mi-sook, unwilling to return to a sport which has done very little for her financially, to return to the team. However, Hye-kyung has a rough time getting the team into shape, mostly due to internal conflict between the older star players and the jealous younger upstarts. Her perceived lack of satisfactory progress prompts the owners to replace her with Seung-pil (Eom Tae-woong), a hard-assed male coach who seeks to whip the team into shape using methods learned from European coaches, with strict training regimens and diet supervision. Seung-pil also happens to be Hye-kyung’s ex-boyfriend; she initially quits, but decides to swallow her pride and rejoin as a player. Still, she frequently clashes with Seung-pil over what in her opinion is a needlessly harsh coaching style.

Despite these challenges, the team eventually reaches the Olympics, leading to the final showdown with the Danish team. Even though the outcome of the match is already well-known to Korean audiences (I won’t give it away to those unfamiliar with this story), the latter scenes still retain a sense of tension and suspense. But the sports are mostly a backdrop to the vivid portraits of these women’s difficulties and conflicts with themselves and others, for example fellow player Jeong-ran (Kim Ji-young), a tough woman who runs a restaurant with her husband Jin-gook (Jeong Seok-young), yet who has a more vulnerable side, unable to conceive due to her misuse of pills to manipulate her menstrual cycle so it would not interfere with her training. Much comic relief is provided by team goalie Soo-hee (Cho Eun-ji), who is perennially on the search for a boyfriend, occasioning a nice little scene where she exacts revenge on a blind date (popular star Ha Jeong-woo, in a cameo) who ditches her and whom she overhears insulting her over the phone. With a bracing realism and a refreshing lack of emotional manipulation, Forever the Moment puts these women front and center, allowing the small, moving moments to resonate throughout the piece. Moon So-ri is great as usual, but the real revelation here is Kim Jeong-eun’s performance. This popular TV and film comedienne has recently moved into more dramatic roles, and here she builds on her previous work in Blossom Again to deliver an impressively nuanced and complex role. The film’s Korean title translates as “The Best Moment of Our Lives,” but despite the rather sappy title (slightly better that the nonsensical English one), it is a truly rousing and inspiring film. Millions of Koreans obviously agreed, making this a major hit when it was released this January. (Aug. 24, 27)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

"Japanese Screen Classics: In Honor of Madame Kawakita": Review Round-up

"Japanese Screen Classics: In Honor of Madame Kawakita," a series of 24 classic works of Japanese cinema, screens at the Walter Reade Theater through August 14. The "Madame Kawakita" in question is the late Kashiko Kawakita, the film programmer, distributor, and all-around champion and promoter of Japanese cinema. The series is organized around the eight directors who have won the Kawakita Award, honoring lifetime achievement in Japanese film, including such towering figures as Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, and Shohei Imamura, as well as relatively lesser-known directors as Kaneto Shindo and the documentarian Sumiko Haneda. Yoji Yamada and Kon Ichikawa are also featured in the series; each director is represented by three films apiece. Below are brief reviews of notable films in the series.

Her Brother (Kon Ichikawa, 1960)

Shot expressively in widescreen and muted but incredibly textured color, Ichikawa’s film about the complex and tortured relationship between two siblings, Gen (Keiko Kishi) and Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), is one of his greatest films. Anchored by the beautifully nuanced and volcanic performances by Keiko Kishi as the older sister Gen and Kinuyo Tanaka as the ailing, hyper-religious stepmother, Ichikawa makes full use of his wide frame to depict the warring family members in monumental close-ups, alternating with scenes of kinetic and chaotic movement (e.g. Gen being doggedly stalked by a police officer), and wonderfully comic sight gags (e.g. the gaggle of geese that interrupt the policeman’s attempts to seduce Gen). In the film’s latter scenes, as the brother slowly dies of tuberculosis, the camera framings are less claustrophobic, and convey the unbridgeable separation of the family members from each other. Hekiro’s death elicits a numbed response from Gen, finally separated from her true soulmate. The great cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, that great color artist of postwar Japanese cinema (e.g. Ozu’s Floating Weeds), contributes a burnished look that is perfectly commensurate to the film’s period setting. The nuances of the sibling’s relationship are quite fascinating. Gen’s self-sacrificial actions toward her brother, bailing him out and covering for him, are very much self-serving, since by caring for her brother, she can avoid fully growing up. Hekiro’s pathetic attempts at petty thuggery only very thinly disguise the scared and vulnerable person underneath, which comes fully to the fore as he goes through the stages of dying from TB. In the film’s cruelest irony, the family only exhibits a sense of humanity toward one another when they are gathered around Hekiro’s deathbed. (Aug. 4)

A Last Note (Kaneto Shindo, 1995)

Shindo’s last feature starring his wife, the great Nobuko Otawa, this is a genial, charming film – surprisingly so for a film dealing with aging, suicide, and dementia. The title refers to the suicide of a carpenter who left a terse note – “It’s over” – before hanging himself. He places a large stone next to the note, to be used to pound nails into the coffin that he had made himself before committing suicide. The film features a trio of wonderful veteran actresses, including Haruko Sugimura, who plays Yoko Morimoto, an actress staying at her usual summer retreat. There are several surreally comic set pieces, including a foiled robbery attempt, and the subsequent commendation by the police. The film moves smoothly, maybe a little too smoothly, but is a pleasant enough experience. The story focuses on elderly characters that are very rarely seen on screen. Eighty-three years old at the time he made the film, A Last Note has a freewheeling, digressive air, mixing odd characters and incident, including an erotically charged wedding ritual right out of an Imamura film, frequent allusions to Chekhov, and a celebration of the resilience of older people. Touchingly, the film also serves as a tribute to Otowa, Shindo’s frequent star, who was suffering from terminal cancer during the shoot, and died just days after its completion.

Tora-san’s Sunrise and Sunset (Yoji Yamada, 1976)

Opening with a hilarious parody of Jaws, this installment, the seventeenth, of the beloved series of films about Tora-san, the genial everyman, continually underestimated by his family members and his friends, who turns out to be the wisest and most perceptive of all the other characters, is an enjoyable and touching film, that made me want to go out and see the rest of the series. At the outset, Tora-san takes serious umbrage upon hearing that his nephew was teased at school because Tora-san is his uncle, whereupon he goes out to get drunk. He comes upon a seemingly destitute old man (Jukichi Uno), who attempts to leave the bar without paying for his drinks, angering the proprietress. Tora-san gallantly pays for drinks, and they go out on the town barhopping. They both come home stinking drunk, in the old man’s case quite literally. The man angers Tora-san’s family, ordering everyone around. Eventually Tora-san sits him down, explaining “This isn’t an inn,” which surprises the old man, who thought that was exactly what it was. To make amends, he draws a doodle on a piece of paper, telling Tora-san to sell it at a bookstore. Tora-san is dubious, but does so, and learns that this alleged vagrant is actually the world-famous artist Ikenouchi. Tora-san returns home, displaying the large sum he received from selling the drawing, and his family is ashamed over how quickly they leapt to conclusions about the man based on appearances. Tora-san crosses paths with Ikenouchi again, and they spend time together, where Tora-san gets a taste of a life of riches and luxury. He meets and falls in love with Botan (Kiwako Taichi), a giggling geisha who has a semi-tragic back story, having been swindled out of 2 million yen by an arrogant businessman who refuses to return it. Kiyoshi Atsumi played Tora-san for nearly three decades, until his death in the mid-1990s. The films definitely followed a formula, and these films weren’t especially innovative stylistically, but Yoji Yamada, who directed most of the episodes, found remarkable variations on this scenario, as the series reflected changes in Japanese society over the years, as well as preserving a somewhat idealized and nostalgic sense of the past. Tora-san, the genial and kindhearted, if uneducated and impulsive, itinerant salesman always had a home among his family – his sister Sakura (Cheiko Baisho) and his family’s humble sweets shop. The filmmaking is solid and functional, with little flash, but this works very well in the service of the scenario, and is a very entertaining entry in this popular and long-lasting film series. Keep an eye out for a cameo by Chishu Ryu, the great actor most famous from his numerous roles in Ozu’s films, as a rather eccentric priest. (Aug. 2)