Tuesday, January 22, 2008

They Lost It at the Movies

Gagman. 1988. Directed by Lee Myung-se. Written by Lee Myung-se and Bae Chang-ho. Produced by Lee Tae-won. Cinematography by Yoo Young-kil. Edited by Kim Hyun. Art direction by To Yon-gu. Music by Kim Su-cheol. Sound by Lee Young-gil.

Cast: Ahn Sung-ki (Lee Jong-sae), Hwang Shin-hye (Oh Seon-yeong), Bae Chang-ho (Moon Do-seok).

“We live in an age without masterpieces.” So laments Lee Jong-sae (Ahn Sung-ki), the stand-up comedian and aspiring film director who is the central figure of Gagman, the debut film from Lee Myung-se. Jong-sae has spent his life channeling Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp, down to the signature mustache. He has a grand dream to make a film, and at one point insinuates himself on a movie set, where he collars the director to give him a script, and tells an TV interview crew that he will make his next film with this director. He enlists his barber Do-seok (Bae Chang-ho) to be his lead actor. Do-seok immediately takes to the idea, selling his barbershop to fund the enterprise, trading his business for loud Hawaiian shirts, shades (“Do I look like Jack Nicholson?”), and eyelid surgery. They are soon joined by Seon-yeong (Hwang Shin-hye), who Jong-sae meets when she sits next to him in a movie theater, kissing him with feigned passion in order to hide from some gangsters who are chasing her. Seon-yeong moves in with Jong-sae, and after she finds the machine gun Jong-sae has hidden in his guitar case, conspires with the two men to rob banks to raise the money for their film.

Although Lee’s prodigious visual talents would come to their full flower in later films, especially First Love (1993), and his recent masterpieces Nowhere to Hide (1999) and Duelist (2005), Gagman is a tremendously impressive debut, and Lee's dizzying mixture of dreams, fantasy, pathos, satire, and canny appropriation of film references proved him to be a unique talent right out of the gate. The characters of Jong-sae and Do-seok, according to an interview Lee gave to critic Tony Rayns, were inspired by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Although Jong-sae, this odd, and perhaps mentally ill, third-rate cabaret comedian tilting at cinematic windmills at first blush seems to be merely a figure of ridicule, this character also elicits sympathy as someone wanting desperately to make a name for himself and matter to the world. This is conveyed by both the witty screenplay by Lee and Bae Chang-ho (a great director in his own right for whom Lee was an assistant), and the mesmerizing performance by Ahn Sung-ki, one of Korea’s finest actors, who truly embodies a character, rather than being simply a collection of quirks and bizarre behavior. His two co-stars are also quite impressive and ably match Ahn note for note. Bae, as Jong-sae’s dimwitted sidekick, and Hwang Shin-hye, as the sexy, devious femme fatale, transform what would be, in lesser hands, merely stock characters into people much deeper and more interesting. All these elements are melded with an arsenal’s worth of cinematic allusions, combining wicked parodies of Korean films (a TV interviewer speaks to an actress who is “known for acting in bed,” and a director who claims his formulaic film as social realism), and appropriations of Hollywood screwball comedy, westerns, and gangster films. Jong-sae evokes not only Charlie Chaplin’s mustache and Little Tramp duck-walk, but in his grasping at fame, Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. As the three set out to prove Godard’s axiom that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun, Lee Myung-se uses these materials, and much more, to deliver a great love letter to the movies.

And if you’re in the New York City area, I urge you to see this film on screen at the Imaginasian Theater, where it will screen on January 24, as part of the series “Chungmuro Express: Classic Korean Cinema.” This film series, organized by Korean Cultural Service, will begin with a four-film tribute to actor Ahn Sung-ki. The series’ curator, and my good friend, Hyun-Ock Im, will introduce these screenings and conduct a Q&A afterward. The next screening, on February 28, will be Jeong Ji-young’s Vietnam War drama White Badge. All screenings are free admission and you can RSVP at (212) 759-9550. For more information about Gagman and the film series, see the press release.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Review: Jia Zhang-ke's "Still Life"

Still Life (Sanxia Haoren). 2006. Directed by Jia Zhang-ke. Written by Jia Zhang-ke, Sun Jianmin, and Guan Na. Produced by Xu Pengle, Wang Tianyun, and Zhu Jiong. Cinematography by Yu Lik-wai. Edited by Khung Jinlei. Art direction by Liang Jindong and Liu Qiang. Music by Lim Giong.

Cast: Han Sanming (Sanming), Zhao Tao (Shen Hong), Li Zhubin (Guo Bin), Wang Hongwei (Wang Dong Ming), Ma Lizhen (Missy Ma), Lan Zhou (Huang Mao, Motorcycle Taxi Driver), Xiang Haiyu (Mr. He), Zhou Lin (Brother Pony), Huang Yong (Little Yong), Luo Mingwang (Old Ma).

The title of Jia Zhang-ke’s latest feature would seem at first to be grimly ironic, since the Three Gorges Dam, around which the film’s bifurcated narrative revolves, has caused the lives of everyone around it to be anything but still. At the same time, Jia’s moody, contemplative camerawork forces us to pay attention to the impact of China’s rapid progress, especially in the year of the Beijing Olympics, which is shaping up as China’s symbolic coming-out party as an economic and cultural world power to be reckoned with. The vagaries of U.S. film distribution are such that no less than three significant Chinese films from 2006 and 2007, each provocative in its own unique way, will be released this month. The first is Still Life, one of the strongest works to date by one of China’s, and indeed the world’s, finest filmmakers. (The others are Li Yu’s Lost in Beijing and Lou Ye’s Summer Palace, both of which angered Chinese authorities, earning its respective filmmakers, and mutual producer, an official ban from the Chinese film industry).

In Still Life, Jia’s loose structure unfolds with the uncommon grace and unforced lyricism which is his forte. Almost everything we see is in an advanced state of decay and disrepair, yet possesses its own unsettling beauty. This brings to mind two recent documentaries set in China, both vivid evocations of this country’s twenty-first century industrial age: Jennifer Bachiwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, about the photography of Edward Burtynsky, and Jia’s own documentary Dong, the reality companion piece to the (mostly) fictional Still Life. As Jia told me in an interview I conducted with him last year, “I see movies as a tool to record memory.” Memory of what is rapidly being lost is one of the many eloquent themes of Jia’s film, and the loss of the past is what links the two non-converging stories he tells in Still Life.

In the first story, Sanming (Huang Sanming), a coal miner, travels from Shanxi province (also Jia’s birthplace) to the town of Fengjie to search for the wife and daughter he lost 16 years ago. Along the way he meets, and sometimes befriends, an array of fascinating characters, each of whom could be the subject of their own film. The first address Sanming searches (written on the carton of a long-defunct brand of cigarettes) is now only a strip of grass in the vast body of water created by the dam. To earn money, he participates in the same destruction that consumed his old home, helping to tear down buildings earmarked for demolition to make way for the dam. Sanming looks every inch his age, and every year seems to have taken its toll on him. Yet, there remains within him an irrepressible spirit, and he strives to make amends for neglecting important matters in his younger years. Despite being a willing agent in the destruction of his country’s memory, his efforts to mend his personal life and to fully connect his past and his future place him in sharp contrast to his government and its headlong rush to destroy centuries of culture in order to pursue an insanely rapid pace of prosperity. The death of one of the men he befriends leads directly to his own symbolic rebirth, when at the conclusion of his story he returns to Shanxi with a renewed life purpose. Jia’s beautifully nuanced rendering of Sanming’s story eschews simple despair and agitprop anger in order to create a more poetic vision of life’s circularity and ability to encompass humor and melancholy, tragedy and beauty.

In the second story, Shen Hong (Jia regular Zhao Tao, marvelous), a nurse, searches for her husband Guo Bin (Li Zhubin), who abandoned her two years before. She goes to his workplace, where her husband, much like Sanming, works on demolishing buildings. Unlike Sanming, however, Guo Bin is in a much higher social class, overseeing of a large staff. To complement his official employees, he also hires local thugs to persuade those reluctant to leave their homes to make way for the demolition. As Shen Hong searches for her husband, she incessantly drinks water, filling her bottle along the way, a sly reference to the vast body of water that is submerging Fengjie as a result of the dam. Shen Hong’s story ends with a subtle twist that is remarkable for the almost throw-away manner in which it is delivered. This clues us in to the fact that Jia is less interested in narrative than he is in the palpable mood of loss and disappearance.

Although Sanming and Shen Hong never meet, their stories are connected by an odd visual trope (which I won’t give away), which counteracts the downbeat realism of the film’s scenario, and exhibits a playfulness of form that tempers the sadness which permeates the film. Still Life, which earned Jia a Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, continues an extraordinary body of work that always privileges humanism over politics and ideology, and uses cinema as a tool for this quest to powerful effect.

Still Life is released by New Yorker Films and opens in New York on January 18 at the IFC Center.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Love, Malaysian Style

Love Conquers All (Mo shi mo wang). 2006. Written, directed and edited by Tan Chui Mui. Produced by Amir Muhammad. Cinematography by James Lee. Art direction by Eleanor Low Chia Yee. Sound design by Steven Leong.

Cast: Carol Ong Li Whei (Ah Ping), Leong Jiun Jiun (Mei), Stephen Chua Jyh Shyan (John), Ho Chi Lai (Hong Jie), Ramanamohan (Gary), Chong Shun Yuan (The Guy on TV), Ng Meng Hui (The Girl on TV), Gandii Nathen (Old man on the bus), Tham Siew Kai (Man in the hotel room), Gan Hui Yee (Ah Ti the hawker), Yap Siou You (Gary's Girlfriend).

Tan Chui Mui’s remarkable debut feature Love Conquers All is a beautiful, unsettling, baffling, and subtly surreal work that confirms the considerable talent to be found in contemporary Malaysian cinema. Just like her fellow Malaysian filmmaker (and frequent collaborator) James Lee’s film Before We Fall in Love Again, Tan’s film also contains “love” in the title, and this concept is used in fascinating and multifaceted ways.

The film introduces its protagonist Ah Ping (Carol Ong) in a typically odd and funny scene on a train in which she gives up her seat to an old man (Gandii Nathen) with a mess of carry-on baggage who complains of a headache. She is traveling a long way from home, for reasons we can’t quite discern, to work in a restaurant run by her aunt Hong Jie (Ho Chi Lai). Ah Ping rooms with her grade-school aged niece Mei (Leong Jiun Jiun), who has been carrying on a pen-pal correspondence with someone she calls “Mystery Man,” and this long-distance relationship parallels the equally mysterious and unsettling relationship Ah Ping later has with John (Stephen Chua), a gangster whose vaguely shady activities are kept mostly off-screen. Ah Ping has a boyfriend back home that she calls often at a red pay phone, a recurring setting in the film. This is where she meets John, who doggedly stalks her and more or less kidnaps her, driving her to his grandmother’s house, introducing her as his wife. Ah Ping resists at first but passively and cheerfully (as indicated by the word “cheerful” on a T-shirt she often wears) goes along with her abduction. John introduces her to his cousin Gary (Ramanamohan), who he says is a pimp and often scams women he meets, forcing them into prostitution, and eventually selling them to human traffickers. “They think their love can conquer all,” is John’s cynical evaluation of Gary’s victims. As things progress, we feel a sense of dread and inevitability as Ah Ping seems to be headed inexorably toward the same fate.

But how much of this is really happening? And if it is happening, what is the order of events? These are the ambiguous questions raised by the film’s narrative, which as it progresses, more and more seems like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. After the scenes of Ah Ping’s abduction, where she seems resigned to her fate as John’s unwilling paramour, there is a cut to Ah Ping in front of a fan at the restaurant, seeming to be awakening from a dream. She meets John again, and the dynamic between them has changed subtly. She begins an affair with John, who accompanies her as she continues to call her boyfriend, continuing to tell him she loves him, while John kisses her.

So what is really happening? And how much of what we see can we really believe? Tan’s intriguing and elliptical scenario ultimately raises more questions than it answers, which is what makes Love Conquers All such a memorable work. The film’s visuals encourage us to approach it as a tone poem more than anything else, its narrative and visual rhyming patterns echoing in all directions. In one particularly beautiful shot, Ah Ping looks upward as we hear the loud sound of rain and the see the light changing on her face. In another scene late in the film, she stands still with her back to us, staring out at the vast ocean in front of her. There are also many odd scenes peppered through out the film: Ah Ping staring at and then flushing away a cockroach; scenes from a romantic soap opera; Mei playing with Ah Ping’s sanitary pads. These mysterious and unexplainable insertions lend a comic surrealism that transforms what at first seems to be a formulaic, predictable scenario (the innocent girl seduced by the magnetic bad boy) into something much more wonderfully strange. “You have no choice. Unless you jump,” John tells Ah Ping twice in the film. And Ah Ping’s uneasy state of paradox, simultaneously following her predetermined fate and throwing herself headlong into the unknown, reason be damned, is as good a definition of love as any I’ve seen.

Love Conquers All has received awards at numerous film festivals, including the New Currents Award at the 2006 Pusan International Film Festival, the VRPO Tiger Award at the 2007 International Film Festival Rotterdam, and the Golden Digital Award at the 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Life During Wartime

Spring in My Hometown (Areumdawoon sheejul). 1998. Written and directed by Lee Kwang-mo. Produced by Yu Seon-ho, Jeong Dae-sung, Kang Seong-kyu, and Jeong Tae-sung. Cinematography by Kim Hyung-ku. Edited by Ham Sung-won. Music by Won Il. Art direction by Kim Byeong-chan and Lee Su-geun. Costume design by Kim Gi-cheol, Yun Jun-sik, and Bong Hyeon-suk. Sound by Lee Seung-chul and Yang Dae-ho.

Cast: Ahn Sung-ki (Sung-min's father), Bae Yu-jeong (Chang-hee's mother), Kim Jung-woo (Chang-hee), Lee In (Sung-min), Oh Ji-hye (Teacher), Song Ok-sook (Sung-min's mother), Yu Oh-seong (Sung-min's uncle).

One of the best, and certainly most visually impressive, cinematic depictions of the Korean War, Spring in My Hometown takes a very different approach from other films on this subject. Lee Kwang-mo’s first feature, set in a small village adjoining a U.S. Army base, is quiet, contemplative, and nostalgic, taking place far from the battlefields, although no less lacking in drama and tragedy. The film’s compositions use a mostly static camera, long takes, and stunning landscape shots reminiscent of Breughel and Friedrich. The events of the war, relayed in title cards between the film’s episodes, are seen through the prism of the experiences of two boys, Sung-min (Lee In), and his friend Chang-hee (Kim Jung-woo). The film’s narrative is seen through Sung-min’s eyes, and is structured by Sung-min’s memory of events.

The fortunes of the two boy’s families are sharply contrasted. Sung-min’s father (Ahn Sung-ki) works on the army base, taking advantage of his privileged position by earning extra money on the side smuggling goods from the base and pimping out local women for the U.S. soldiers. His father’s hustling allows Sung-min’s family to live comfortably, and in a much nicer house than their neighbors. Chang-hee’s family, on the other hand, lives under far less favorable circumstances. At the beginning of the film, Chang-hee’s father is dragged from a well and beaten by the other villagers, suspected of being a communist collaborator. Chang-hee’s father is eventually imprisoned, driving his family into increasingly desperate circumstances, leading to a major tragedy around which the film pivots.

There are many arresting and memorable images: black military uniforms on clotheslines dotting the landscape; fighting bugs; peephole shots of the boys spying on the GIs having sex in an abandoned mill with the women supplied by Sung-min’s father; and landscapes that bring to mind those in the films of Tarkovsky and Kiarostami. The U.S. presence in Korea is pervasive in this film, and appropriately, American objects and representation play a major role: the radio Sang-min’s father smuggles from the base; the American history lessons in the village schoolhouse; the army jeeps parked outside the mill; the lighter Chang-hee steals from a soldier, which fuels the film’s tragedy.

Although Spring in My Hometown has been criticized for subsuming the horrors of war beneath its stately pace and impeccable compositions, the film nonetheless beautifully captures the way children would perceive such events. Their relative innocence and ignorance of politically significant events (supplied in the film’s title cards alongside Sang-min’s memories) allows then to find humor and beauty amid desperation and tragedy. Lee was inspired to make this film, which he began writing ten years before eventually realizing it, by reading his father’s diaries. This material has allowed him to craft a visually arresting portrait of a time that remains an open wound in Korean history.

Spring in My Hometown will screen at the Korea Society on January 24 at 6:30.

Additional reading: Offscreen's interview with Lee Kwang-mo. (If you are spoiler-averse, read this after seeing the film.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Review Archive: Bruno Dumont's "L’Humanité"

Happy New Year!
This year is already looking very promising, with many interesting new releases, film series, and retrospectives. While I work on some new pieces, I thought I would post some of my older reviews, some of which were written for a film website that is now defunct. Now they'll finally have a home, along with some previously unpublished reviews. I'll begin with my very first published review.

L’Humanité. 1999. Written and directed by Bruno Dumont. Produced by Rachid Bouchareb and Jean Bréhat. Cinematography by Yves Cape. Edited by Guy Lecorne. Music by Richard Cuvillier. Production design by Marc-Philippe Guerig. Costume design by Nathalie Raoul. Sound by Jean-Pierre Laforce and Pierre Mertens.

Cast: Emmanuel Schotté (Pharaon De Winter), Séverine Caneele (Domino), Philippe Tullier (Joseph), Ghislain Ghesquère (Police Chief), Ginette Allegre (Eliane), Daniel Leroux (Nurse), Arnaud Brejon de la Lavergnee (Conservationist).

In this age of digital cinema, hi-def, and ever-increasingly sophisticated special effects, and in many cases, increasingly soulless and mind-numbing popcorn-and-soda movies, it is a bracing blast of fresh air to see a film that eschews all of this smoke-and-mirror action to focus on real, plausible human characters. This is exemplified by a beautiful, baffling, ambiguous, and ultimately courageous little film called L’Humanité, from French director Bruno Dumont [whose latest film Flanders I reviewed here last year]. Dumont’s previous film was La Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus), which dealt with a brutal, none-too-bright punk living in a small, rural town whose life is inexplicably touched by divinity. At the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, L’Humanité, along with the top prizewinner, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta, was one of The Little French Films That Could, coming from seemingly out of nowhere to grab all of the top prizes.

L’Humanité was quite controversial and unpopular at Cannes, and understandably so. Dumont’s film brazenly flies in the face of just about convention of storytelling, character, pacing, and mood we have been used to seeing in films. The basic skeleton of the film’s “plot” (in quotes for reasons that will soon be clear) is one we’ve seen in thousands of films: a police investigation of the rape and murder of a young girl (in this case, very young, about 11 or 12). This is a scenario which has just about been done to death, and the predictable outlines of this type of story are too familiar to even bother rehashing here. L’Humanité, far from being even a radical interpretation or variation on this tale, almost completely ignores the conventions altogether.

A brief description of the film’s opening, an arresting set of images, will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. The first image is a field, a high grassy hill. We hear footsteps on the soundtrack, but can’t tell where they’re coming from. After a couple of minutes, we see a tiny figure walking across the top of the hill; the camera rests, unmoving, until the man walks out of the frame. Cut to a close shot of the man walking, the camera following him closely. Suddenly, the man falls, hard. He lies on the ground, unmoving. Cut to a close-up of the man’s face, eyes staring blankly. At first, it looks as if he is dead, until we see he is breathing. Cut to the dead girl’s body, lying in the grass. Then an extreme close-up of the girl’s spread-eagled legs, the camera looking straight up into the girl’s vagina. Back to the man, who gets up, crawling on the ground. We think: is he the murderer? But then, he crawls over to a police car, opens the door, and speaks into the walkie-talkie, and we realize he is a cop. This is Dumont’s style: sharp, often raw images that force us to continually question what we are seeing. Just when we think we’ve caught on to a thread that will explain things, Dumont will throw an image at us that completely unsettles us. Dumont sustains this sense of ambiguity throughout the entire picture, quite a remarkable achievement.

Dumont also flouts the conventions of the police procedural by almost completely abandoning the investigation for over an hour, as we follow the daily life of the investigator, which oddly seems to consist of very little actual police work, other than a very cryptic scene early on at the police station where his boss chastises him for being out of it, and slacking off. The investigator, whose name we learn is Pharaon (Emmanuel Schotté), lives with his mother in a small house. We see minute, mundane details of his activities. He goes biking, eats an apple and nearly chokes on it, watches a soccer game. Dumont seems to almost perversely rob his story of any conventional action or suspense. Eventually, we see Pharaon interacting with a woman named Domino (Séverine Caneele) who lives a few doors down. Domino, not a particularly attractive woman in the conventional sense, works at a factory in town. It soon becomes clear that Pharaon is attracted to Domino. Domino, however, has a boyfriend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier), who visits frequently. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Domino and Joseph engage in rough and extremely vigorous sex, while Pharaon watches them outside her open bedroom door. Domino seems to have genuine affection for Pharaon, and often invites him along on her dates with Joseph, who puts up with Pharaon for Domino’s sake, but treats him with barely concealed contempt. We are given very little information about these characters. For example, we learn that Pharaon “lost” his wife and daughter some years ago, but exactly what happened to them is never explained.

The performances in the film are quite unusual. It’s almost a misnomer to term what we see in this film “acting.” What Schotté, especially, does in this film seems too raw, too naked, too unpolished to be termed acting, at least in the normal sense. Schotté retains a wide-eyed, penetrating stare throughout the film, like an overgrown child. In fact, we wonder if his character is slow, or even slightly mentally retarded. And if so, how does someone such as this become a police superintendent? Such speculations, however, soon become increasingly unimportant. I interpret this character as an empath, someone who seemingly feels all of the world’s pain, to the extent that it may have wrecked his own mental health. The film’s title clues us in to the purpose of Pharaon’s character. We are meant to see him as a representative of humankind itself, in all its mystery, its ambiguity, its sexiness, its kindness, its evil. Pharaon, whose guilelessness and naked displays of emotion invite us to see him as a completely open book, nevertheless retains an unfathomable inner core. Dumont offers in L’Humanité an unflinching, unsettling look at people that we can believe actually exist. They are not forced to fit into pre-molded boxes, or packaged to be attractive people we can vicariously pretend to be. In a way, we are forced to look at ourselves and question our own knowledge of what we are. It is as if the film’s nominal subject, the rape/murder investigation, is only a red herring to bait us into this questioning of ourselves.

The film’s visual style perfectly matches its philosophy. Yves Cape’s beautiful widescreen photography and the sharp, precise editing by Guy Lecorne effectively illustrate the tension between the beauty of the landscape and the evil that occurs within it. There is an earthiness and rawness to the images that key in perfectly to Dumont’s themes. Pharaon’s face in the dirt, the dead little girl, Domino’s rough sex: Dumont practically rubs our face in the fact that these are all aspects of, and inseparable from, the “humanity” of the film’s title. The images provocatively link sex and death, but never in a pretentious or heavy-handed way. Dumont in this film (even more so than the more overtly religious La Vie de Jésus) proves himself to be a worthy cinematic heir to Robert Bresson, making a similar use of Bresson’s signature use of nonactors, direct sound, lack of music, and themes of transcendence and grace, despite certain major differences between the two in their approaches. Appropriately for a film that so sublimely uses its indelible images to tell its story, L’Humanité contains all its themes within its first image: the tiny figure walking on the hill. That figure is all of us: ultimately alone, surrounded by a vast landscape, a universe that, with our limited senses, we can hardly hope to completely understand.