Thursday, February 26, 2009

Film Comment Selects 2009 Review Round-up

The 2009 edition of "Film Comment Selects," the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual survey of world cinema, selected by the editors of Film Comment, screens at the Walter Reade Theater through March 5. Below are some brief reviews.

A l'aventure (Jean-Claude Brisseau)

One of the more baffling quirks of “Film Comment Selects” programming is the continued fascination with the films of Brisseau, which are an awkward mix of soft-core sex tableaux and long stretches of pseudo-philosophy. Brisseau delivers his silliest and least accomplished film yet, following a woman’s search for “freedom,” which in this film’s conception consists of following a decidedly ethically-challenged psychotherapist and his coven of women searching for the perfect orgasm. The ridiculous dialogue is delivered woodenly, and the sex scenes just barely succeed in keeping the viewer awake, but they do nothing to make this film much more than a waste of time. The story, such as it is, concerns Sandrine (Carole Brana), a sexually unfulfilled young woman whose relationship with her boyfriend collapses when he becomes shocked, shocked, that Sandrine likes to augment their lovemaking sessions with her vibrator. She soon becomes involved with Greg (Arnaud Binard), the aforementioned psychotherapist, and after meeting him in a café to discuss psychoanalysis, they retreat to a hotel room together. After promptly telling her boyfriend about it, she leaves him, quits her job, and accompanies the good doctor in his bondage sessions with a succession of willing paramours. The proceedings are interrupted periodically by Sandrine’s bull sessions with a philosophical cab driver (Jocelyn Quivrin). Nothing here bears the slightest resemblance to recognizable human behavior or logical sense. Brisseau, based on this film and his previous work, The Exterminating Angels (2006), would be well-advised to go into full-blown pornography – that at least would be a little more honest in its aims than the false profundity he indulges in here. (Feb. 28, Mar. 4)

Jerichow (Christian Petzold)

Petzold’s gloss on The Postman Always Rings Twice is an economical, un-flashy work, with some intriguing twists on its fairly standard plot. Thomas (Benno Furman), a taciturn ex-soldier, at the outset has his money taken away from him by a pair of creditors, and he struggles to find work. This soon puts him in touch with Ali (Hilmi Sozer), who runs a candy vending machine business. Thomas soon catches sight of Ali’s attractive German wife Laura (Nina Hoss), and any one who’s seen the original film or, for that matter, any similar noir-derived plot, can quickly do the math. In fact, Ali practically drives Thomas into Laura’s arms, commenting on how he noticed Thomas glances her way, and even drunkenly exhorting them to dance together. This, of course, makes Ali’s inevitable outrage at discovering their affair more than a little absurd. A late twist to the plot, which throws some monkey wrenches in the lovers’ murder plot, is played quite cleverly. Ali is much more than the typical film noir heavy; his status as an immigrant and outsider is drawn in a way that makes one sympathetic to him, even though he is a crudely violent drunk who beats his wife regularly. Interestingly, Petzold mostly eschews neo-noir theatrics (except for a stormy-night love scene) in favor of a more unadorned, naturalistic style. Jerichow is a solid, unfussy film that doesn’t exactly wow one with cinematic brilliance, but is quite diverting nonetheless. (Feb. 27, Mar. 2)

Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke)

Eimbcke’s second film is a slice of wryly deadpan humor made up of a succession of static tableaux. As in his previous film Duck Season, Eimbcke excels in capturing the feel of a lazy summer day, suffused with youthful ennui. Juan (Diego Catano, who also appeared in Duck Season) crashes his car into a pole and searches for help in fixing it. Along the way he runs into such characters as Don Heber (Hector Herrara), an eccentric, elderly mechanic with only a dog as a companion; Lucia (Daniela Valentine), a single mother who runs an auto-parts store with David (Juan Carlos Lara), a martial-arts enthusiast who loves to quote Shaolin monks and Bruce Lee. Along the way, we learn that Juan and his younger brother recently lost their father, leaving their mother a catatonic, depressive wreck, basically leaving her children to fend for themselves. The story is as slender and slight as can be, and is perhaps a tad too derivative of masters of the deadpan Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki. However, the film is quite visually arresting and nicely constructed, benefiting from Alexis Zabe’s elegant cinematography. (Feb. 27)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Korean Cinema Classics: Yang Joo-nam's "Sweet Dream"

Sweet Dream [aka Lullaby of Death] (Mimong). 1936. Directed and edited by Yang Joo-nam. Written by Choi Dok-bong. Produced by Shujiro Wakashima. Cinematography by Hwang Woon-jo. Art direction by Kim In-seon. Sound recording by Lee Pil-woo. Costume design by Byeon Eok-man.

Cast: Moon Ye-bong (Ae-soon), Lee Keum-ryong (Lee Seon-yong), Yoo Seon-ok (Jeong-hee), Kim In-gye (Kang Chang-geon), Hong Seung-ok (Buddhist nun), Im Woon-hak (Yoon Byeong-ha), Choi Woon-bong (Kim Won-ho), Cho Taek-won (Park Kyeong-rim), Na Woong (Hoon-do), Park Kyeong-joo (Driver).

Yang Joo-nam’s 1936 film Sweet Dream currently has the distinction of being the earliest surviving Korean film. It was found in the China Film Archive in 2005 (along with several other films), and the Korean Film Archive restored these films, which were in various states of disrepair. The final results premiered at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2006. Sweet Dream had its first U.S. screening recently at the Museum of Modern Art as part of its series “Korean Films Made During the Japanese Occupation,” which represented a rare opportunity to view these valuable examples of a crucial period which has heretofore been a lacuna in Korean film history, most pre-WWII Korean films lost from destruction in wartime, or through neglect.

The brief 48 minutes of Sweet Dream reveal a skilled filmmaker with the ability to tell a story concisely, with evocative and moving symbolism. The film begins with a bird in a cage, which is connected to the character of Ae-soon (Moon Ye-bong), the restless wife at the heart of this story. She is a haughty, materialistic “modern woman” with expensive tastes. In the first scene, her long-suffering husband Seon-yong (Lee Keum-ryong) berates her for being neglectful of their daughter Jeong-hee (Yoo Seon-ok), as she goes out clothes shopping. She protests to her husband, “I am not a bird in a cage!” after which the camera cuts to a bird in a cage. Jeong-hee loves her mother unconditionally, regardless of how cruelly or neglectfully she is treated. She is a good, pure-hearted girl, the opposite of her mother. Ae-soon’s wandering spirit takes her through the many different social spaces and levels of society, representing her ambition to elevate her status by latching onto a rich man. She believes she has found one in Chang-geon (Kim In-gye), whose shady character is immediately revealed when he steals her purse at the department store, and later “finds” it, using this to insinuate himself into her life. Her angry husband throws her out of the house when she finally returns. Jeong-hee cries for her mother as she leaves the house, and after her mother is gone, she cries out for her in her sleep. This may be one of the meanings of the film’s title: the daughter’s longing for reconciliation with her lost mother. The “sweet dream” could also be that of Ae-soon, who is constantly looking for a better circumstance for herself, and bases all her relationships on hooking up with those who can get her there. She often has a sneer on her face, contemptuous of all around her, refusing to be the model wife. The mother and daughter in the film are connected by dreams: Jeong-hee has feverish dreams crying for her mother, and Ae-soon wakes up in her new lover’s hotel room, telling Chang-geon that she has “strange dreams.” Ae-soon has no loyalty to anyone – after Chang-geon abandons her during a dance performance, she goes backstage to flirt with the lead dancer, bringing him flowers (which the dancer dismissively rejects after Ae-soon leaves, giving them to one of his female assistants – “Pretty flowers have thorns,” he says, sizing up Ae-soon immediately). After she finds out Chang-geon lied to her about being rich (he is a petty thief who lives at a laundry instead of the extravagant hotel room he has rented as part of his ruse), Ae-soon turns him in to the police without batting an eye. She then speeds away in a cab to the nearest train station, exhorting the driver to go faster, an act which leads to the film’s tragic ending.

What makes the discovery of Sweet Dream such a valuable thing is that with its many street scenes, and scenes set in cafés, hotels, department stores, and theaters, we can see what Seoul looked like in the 1930’s. Through Ae-soon’s journey, we are privy to the many different social spaces of the time. In this occupation period, there seems to have been, at least to my untrained eye, a mix of traditional Korean and Japanese architecture. Also, modern traffic was a new phenomenon in Korea at that time, and one scene in the film features a teacher giving a traffic lesson to his students, instructing them on how to navigate the now potentially dangerous roads. This seemingly incongruous scene sets up a tragic occurrence later in the film.

Moon Ye-bong, who plays Ae-soon, was a major star of the time – she also appears in three other films that also screened in the MOMA series: Military Train (1938), Angels on the Street (1941) and Straits of Chosun (1943). In Sweet Dream, Moon played a very different character than in her previous film, a 1935 adaptation of Chunhyang, the classic pansori tale of a virtuous wife which was Korea’s first talkie. The faithless character of Ae-soon makes Sweet Dream a precursor to another classic Korean film, Han Hyung-mo’s Madame Freedom (1956), which also dealt with a woman straying outside of her marriage. However, this later film is a little easier on its female protagonist, sparing her the cruel finality of fate visited on Ae-soon in Sweet Dream.

The Korean Film Archive did a terrific job restoring this film, as can be seen on the DVD of Sweet Dream, which is part of the box set “The Past Unearthed: The Second Encounter Collection of Chosun Films in the 1930’s,” which also includes two other films from the 1930’s that screened at MOMA: Military Train (1938) and Fisherman’s Fire (1939). As with every aspect of Korean society during this period, the film industry was controlled by the Japanese colonial government. And although the descriptions of these films may give the impression that these were simple propaganda films, this is not always the case. Certainly that could be said of Military Train, which centers on a train that is enlisted to carry soldiers and munitions to Manchuria (the Second Sino-Japanese war was well underway), but even that film contains elements that complicate its ostensible status as uncomplicated propaganda. Sweet Dream contains no discernible pro-Japanese ideology, but instead is an elegantly filmed melodrama. Yang Joo-nam, who made his debut with Sweet Dream, didn’t make a second film until twenty years later, and made only five films in total, although he worked as an editor on other films throughout his career. Not only a potent melodrama, but a valuable visual documentary record of Seoul in the 1930’s, Sweet Dream is a richly textured gem well worth seeking out.

The DVD box set can be purchased from YesAsia.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Oscar Micheaux, "The Exile" (1931)

The Exile. 1931. Directed by Oscar Micheaux and Leonard Harper. Written by Oscar Micheaux. Produced by Oscar Micheaux and Frank Schiffman. Cinematography by Lester Lang and Walter Strenge. Original music by Donald Heywood.

Cast: Eunice Brooks (Edith Duval), Stanley Morrell (Jean Baptiste), Celeste Cole (A Singer), Kathleen Noisette (Madge), Charles R. Moore (Jack Stewart), Nora Newsome (Agnes Stewart), George Randol (Bill Prescott).

The Exile will screen on February 14 at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's retrospective, “Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and Black Pre-War Cinema,” highlighting work of independent black filmmakers from the first half of the 20th century. As indicated by the title of this retrospective, the films of Oscar Micheaux are a major focus. This former South Dakota homesteader turned novelist went into filmmaking almost on a whim, and became one of the most influential pioneers of the early decades of cinema. One of his earliest efforts, 1920’s Within Our Gates (screening Feb. 19), was a direct response to, and repudiation of, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), providing a much needed corrective to the latter film’s depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic figures. Micheaux in his novels and his films (many of which were adaptations of his own novels) restaged autobiographical details in their scenarios, and this can clearly be seen in his 1931 feature The Exile, Micheaux’s first sound film.

The Exile fascinates not only with its vivid snapshot of black experience in America at that time, but also with its eccentricities of narrative and visuals. The now-scratchy sound of the film (which sometimes renders dialog inaudible) makes it seem like an archaeological find, which is the case of many of the films in this series – it is a miracle that any of them now exist at all. In The Exile, as in many of his other films, Micheaux used this medium to work out personal and social issues concerning race and the complex matrix that existed within black communities. The film’s protagonist, Jean Baptiste (Stanley Morrell) is a morally upstanding man about to marry Edith Duval (Eunice Brooks), who has just inherited a cavernous mansion, which she plans to turn into a decadent nightclub, which causes Jean to break off the engagement and travel to South Dakota and become a homesteader. While there, he meets Agnes Stewart (Nora Newsome), a woman from Scotland who has moved nearby with her father Jack (Charles R. Moore). After one of Micheaux’s time-traversing ellipses, they are declaring their love for one another, exchanging a passionate kiss. Since Agnes is initially identified as a white woman, this scene at first reads as a shocking (for its time) breaching of the taboo against miscegenation, which at that time was legally punishable. Jean, in fact, returns to Chicago soon afterward, telling her in a letter that he cannot in good conscience subject them both to the ostracism they will experience because of their relationship. Unbeknownst to him, Agnes’ father reveals to her that her mother was of “Abyssinian” (Ethiopian) extraction, making her black as well. Jean seems by all appearances to be of mixed race as well, and when a white friend asks him about it, he tells him in a key line of the film, “It’s all the same, you’re considered all colored.”

After Jean returns to Chicago, he falls back in with the old crowd, although it is clear that he doesn’t truly belong. He lives up to his nickname of “the exile,” and longs to return to South Dakota. He tries to bring Edith back with him, but she is murdered by a jealous, darker-skinned rival, and Jean is at first accused of the crime. Agnes hears about it and rushes to Chicago to rescue him, but in the sort of deus ex machina dénouement that Micheaux was quite fond of, the actual murderer is discovered and Jean is cleared. Agnes meets Jean soon after, and after another ellipsis, the last scene shows them together on a train back to South Dakota, where they will live together happily, since they can now live together freely, since their relationship does not in fact break color taboos.

Micheaux’s filmmaking style leads to some rather eccentric techniques of framing and editing, most notably in a scene where after Edith’s murder, her murder goes out the door followed by Jean going up to the door and knocking on it, all in the same shot. Also, major plot elements, such as Jean and Agnes falling in love and Agnes’ revelation that she is in fact of African descent, are hidden behind offstage ellipses. Many of Micheaux’s films often revealed color differences within the black community. Darker skinned characters were often the villains, such as Jango, the Ethiopian who murders Edith. The protagonists were light-skinned characters such as Jean who are thrown off track by a woman who leads him into temptation. However, there was some nuance to these characterizations; Edith, a light-skinned character, isn’t exactly angelic, since she initially drives Jean away by her insistence on making money off vices such as gambling and drinking. Even the murderer Jango was a studious man with great ambition who was diverted from his path through his relationship with Edith. Micheaux restaged autobiographical details of his life in all his films, often featuring protagonists who move back and forth from the city (usually Chicago) to the rural West, highlighting the contrast between the decadent city and the wholesome Western farmlands.