Saturday, November 28, 2009

Best Japanese Films of the 2000s: Masahiro Kobayashi, "Bashing" (2005)

Bashing. 2005. Written and directed by Masahiro Kobayashi. Produced by Masahiro Kobayashi and Naoko Okamura. Cinematography by Koichi Saitoh. Edited by Naoki Kaneko. Music by Hiroshi Hayashi. Sound design by Tatsuo Yokoyama.

Cast: Fusako Urabe (Yuko Takai), Ryuzo Tanaka (Mr. Takai, Her Father), Takayuki Kato (Iwai, Her Lover), Kikujiro Honda (Ueki, Her Father's Boss), Teruyuki Kagawa (The Hotel Owner), Nene Otsuka (The Stepmother).

Masahiro Kobayashi's Bashing takes as its inspiration the ostracism experienced by Japanese humanitarian workers in Iraq after surviving kidnapping there. The film's protagonist, Yuko (played with quiet intensity by Fusako Urabe), an aid worker recently returned after being freed, is a withdrawn and sullen woman plagued by constant harassment by strangers and threatening anonymous phone calls at home. As the film begins, Yuko in short order loses her job as a hotel maid, and her boyfriend coldly rejects her, astonishingly telling her that if she had been killed, she would have been a hero, but having returned alive, she is now simply "an embarrassment to all Japan." Yuko's father (Ryuzo Tanaka) also loses his factory job of 30 years due to the negative attention his daughter’s return has caused. The film, set in the cold landscape of Hokkaido, hones in with laser focus on Yuko's oppression, aided by the roving, stalking camerawork that at times recalls the Dardenne brothers. Minute, repetitious details of her drab existence dominate: trudging up the steps to the apartment where she lives with her parents; making her soup order at the local minimart; lying in her bed, curled up in a fetal position; and staring wistfully at the ocean, contemplating a return to the place that, however dangerous, was the only place she felt useful and loved. Interestingly enough, the film, as harsh as it is in condemning Yuko's treatment by society, does not make her simply a helpless victim. Yuko is not entirely sympathetic. She often walls herself off even from those closest to her, especially her parents, who, unlike everyone else, are mostly supportive of her work. It is also clear that her aid work is not entirely altruistic; Iraq was an escape from a country where she felt a failure, and a place where she was adored by the children she worked with and fed sweets.

Kobayashi's film is a rather blunt but compelling critique of some of the intolerant and cruel elements of Japanese society. The film, other than an opening statement saying that the film was based on true events, does not attempt to put its scenario in a larger context (Iraq is not mentioned at all), which may make the film's oppressive sense of claustrophobia seem irrational and farfetched. Being aware, for example, that in 2004 (when the true events that Bashing takes as its inspiration occurred) then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made public statements blaming the hostages for their predicament, greatly enhances one's understanding of the situation the film presents. Nevertheless, Kobayashi, aided by Fusako Urabe's complex performance, and strong work by the supporting cast, intensely portrays the persecution suffered, especially in rigid and moralistic societies, by those who step outside of that society's constricted roles.

Bashing is available on DVD from Amazon.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

2009 African Diaspora Film Festival: Review Round-up

The 17th edition of the African Diaspora Film Festival screens from November 27 through December 15. Below are brief reviews of some of this year's selections.

Nothing But the Truth (John Kani, South Africa, 2008)

The title of South African actor Kani’s film, which he wrote and directed based on his stage play, makes reference to the truth and reconciliation trials that occurred in post-apartheid South Africa, in which people accused of crimes during apartheid confessed fully in exchange for amnesty. The purpose of this was to cleanse the society of the bitterness caused by the horrors perpetrated on black South Africans, and to deal with this not by punitive or vengeful measures, but in a spirit of healing and forgiveness. This approach was understandably controversial, and divisions sprung up between those who were ready to move forward and work to build a new society and those who insisted that those who committed crimes should be made to suffer the consequences. Kani’s film points out another societal division, between those who left the country to become exiles, either by force or choice, and those who remained behind. Sipho (Kani), a librarian, receives the cremated body of his younger brother Themba, an exile for many years overseas. Sipho has long harbored resentment toward his brother, the favorite of their father, who sent Themba to college, while Sipho struggled through life – now at 63, he fails to be promoted to head librarian. The truth and reconciliation trials depicted in the film (with actual footage) parallel Sipho’s struggles to reconcile with his brother after death. The details of the plot are less important, and less interesting, than the scenes of the elaborate funeral rituals accompanying Themba’s posthumous return from exile, demonstrating the persistence of tradition in the face of the often contentious and bewildering changes in South African society post-apartheid. Nothing But the Truth is short and sweet, not overstaying its welcome, and greatly benefits from Kani’s remarkably lived-in performance; his presence conveys the resilience of his character, who has survived violence and terror, yet remains hopeful for the future. This no doubt mirrors Kani’s own life, and it shows in every moment he is on screen. (Nov. 27, 28)

The Harimaya Bridge (Aaron Woolfolk, Japan/US/South Korea, 2009)

Like Nothing But the Truth, Woolfolk’s film is also one of reconciliation, this time between cultures and races, forming an eloquent plea for cultural bridges and understanding and against prejudice. Also, like Kani’s film, The Harimaya Bridge features a fine central performance, in this case by Ben Guillory, who plays Daniel, who travels to Kochi, Japan after the death of his estranged son Mickey, who went there to teach English. Mickey did this against the wishes of his father, whose own father died in a Japanese POW camp, leaving Daniel with a deep hatred for the Japanese. Daniel therefore goes to Japan with a huge chip on his shoulder, and has to adjust to the very different culture. However, there is very little Lost in Translation-like whimsy here, except for the presence of an irrepressibly bubbly secretary (pop singer Misono); Daniel’s experience is very much colored by the contentious relationship with his son. As Daniel learns more from Mickey’s colleagues about the life he led in Japan, especially with his Japanese wife (Saki Takaoka), Daniel’s anger slowly falls away, and he is deeply transformed by the people he meets. This is a very rare portrayal of black people’s experiences in Japan, and would be a remarkable film for that reason alone. But that is not all The Harimaya Bridge has to recommend it. Woolfolk displays a sure hand with this material and an admirable handling of tone, preventing the film from venturing into sappy bathos. The Japanese folktale that lends the film its name is beautifully transformed into a celebration of different cultures bridging their differences, and transcending them to create a beautiful vision of humanity. The film also benefits from very good performances all around, especially from Guillory, the great Japanese actress Misa Shimizu (The Eel, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge) as Mickey’s colleague, and co-producer Danny Glover in a smaller role as Daniel’s friend. (Dec. 6, 13)

When the City Bites (Dominique Cabrera, France, 2009)

The practice of human trafficking is given visceral form in When the City Bites, Cabrera’s episode of “Suite Noire,” a series for French television. Sara (Aïssa Maïga, Bamako) is tricked into prostitution along with her cousin, and after her cousin is beaten to death, she escapes from her captors and spends the rest of the film on the run from the dangerous people who smuggled her into France. Sara, an aspiring painter, idolizes Jean-Michel Basquiat, and dreams of using her talents to escape her prison. However, both her aspirations and newly-found freedom prove illusory, as this leads only to various concentric circles of enslavement. Maïga is riveting in her role, and Cabrera renders the atmospherics of the streets and cheap hotels and bars in gritty, vivid visuals. (Dec. 3, 4)

Fright of an Angel (Brigitte Roüan, France, 2009)

Roüan’s “Suite Noire” episode is a witty and faintly parodic gumshoe tale that begins with its hero, private detective Corbucci (rapper Ysae), being beaten by a pair of thugs in the best Philip Marlowe fashion. He communes in his head with his Corsican father, a police detective who died in the line of duty. Corbucci’s mother is an African from the Ivory Coast, and although the film references his mixed background, this isn’t the subject matter of this story. After the brutal opening scene, we backtrack to see how Corbucci ended up here. Corbucci hangs his shingle as a private detective, and soon an old lawyer friend throws him his first case, involving a woman (Sarah Biasini) whose mother died in a plastic surgery clinic, which gives her the runaround as she tries to learn the cause of her mother’s death. Corbucci’s investigation leads, with the help of his father’s colleague (Gerard Meylan), to a vast conspiracy involving a network of plastic surgeons that seemingly has all relevant authorities in its pocket. Roüan enlivens her private-eye story with stylistic verve and amusingly eccentric touches. (Nov. 29)

Skirt Day (Jean-Paul Lilienfeld, France/Belgium, 2009)

Skirt Day sets itself up right away as the anti-Dangerous Minds, as a harried high-school teacher (Isabelle Adjani) struggles to teach Moliere to her rowdy students. But the tables are soon turned, in the most violent way: a student’s gun falls out of his bag, and the teacher seizes it, and it becomes a hostage situation. Skirt Day admirably sidesteps the clichéd homilies of the high-school-from-hell film. Lilienfeld offers a remarkably nuanced examination of his characters, with no clear heroes or villains. All the volatile material he explores here, involving educational methods, racial attitudes, and institutional failure, become bewildering shades of gray. There are no happy endings or life-changing epiphanies for anyone in this film. If there is a villain at all in this piece, it is the society that allows interpersonal conflicts to fester to a point where it can only lead to death and destruction. (Dec. 6, 8)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

2009 Pusan International Film Festival: Review Round-up

Before I get into the post proper, a bit of housekeeping: you can now find me on Twitter. After being a long-time Twitter atheist, I am here to announce that I have fully converted to the faith. If you look to your right, you'll see a widget with my latest tweets. My Twitter feed will be mostly an extension of this blog, to post short reviews of films, news items, and other ephemera that I either don't have time to post on the blog or don't necessarily warrant entire blog posts.

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It was so nice I had to do it twice. Yes, your intrepid cinema world traveler made a return trip to Busan, South Korea last month for the Pusan International Film Festival, for another round of (mostly) great films, seafood dinners, and strolls on the beach. My PIFF coverage is ongoing at Meniscus Magazine; three pieces are now up: a festival overview, a top 10 list with awards and statistics, and a review of the opening night film, Jang Jin's Good Morning President. I will also post some pictures and videos from the festival here. Below are brief reviews of some of this year's selections.

I’m in Trouble! (So Sang-min, South Korea, 2009)

This gently amusing film about the travails and romantic complications of an unemployed poet at first comes across as a poor man’s Hong Sang-soo, but soon reveals charms of its own. As the protagonist Sun-woo (Min Sun-wuk) breaks up, gets back together with, and breaks up again with his long-suffering girlfriend, his struggles become increasingly complicated and absurd. With a definite penchant for getting drunk (leading to hilarious scenes such as one where he drunkenly walks stark naked through a 24-hour spa), Sun-woo believes that he makes all of his most important life decisions while drunk, an idea that may or may not be delusional. This year’s co-winner of the New Currents jury prize (for best first or second film), the film’s best asset is its witty and revealing dialogue, delivered by an appealing young cast.

Nymph (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand, 2009)

Pen-ek’s latest (he was also on the New Currents jury this year) is beautifully shot, with a creepy atmosphere. A photographer (Nopachai Jayanama) and his philandering wife (Wanida Termthanaporn) travel deep into a dark forest, where forest spirits reside. The film opens with a murder in the forest, and there is evidence of others. However, these murders are never solved, and the film has little interest in explaining them; in fact, there may be no rational explanation. The worldview of this film respects, even reveres, mystery and things in the universe that are unknowable and un-seeable. Nymph is a distinctly Thai ghost story, exploring the porous boundary between the corporeal world and the spirit world. Quiet and disturbing, Nymph is so ethereal as to nearly float off the screen.

A Brand New Life (Ounie Lecomte, South Korea/France, 2009)

A beautifully observant, semi-autobiographical story of a girl left in an orphanage by her father in 1970’s Korea, A Brand New Life is built around close examination of its abandoned protagonist, Jin-hee (Kim Sae-ron), as she slowly comes to realize that Daddy’s not coming back, and she’s about to have a new family. Co-produced by Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy, Secret Sunshine), one of Korea’s greatest filmmakers, Lecomte’s film has a similar novelistic attention to detail as can be found in Lee’s films. Its young actors and personal nature will no doubt draw many comparisons to So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, which are admittedly not unwarranted. Lecomte, however, is no mere slavish imitator, despite her film’s clear antecedents. Tough-minded and bracingly unsentimental, A Brand New Life includes in its portrait of the orphanage and its inhabitants some sharp commentary on the mindset of Westerners who adopt kids from Korea. Lecomte’s film is a simple tale, but well told and with considerable emotional resonance.

Black Hair (Lee Man-hee, South Korea, 1964)

An unusual gangster film, Black Hair is a major Korean film of the 1960’s, recently restored by the Korean Film Archive in a print that includes the long lost opening sections of the film. These parts of the film were badly damaged, resulting in visual distortion in the initial scenes of the digital restoration. The story concerns a gang boss who gives anyone who crosses him a big scar across the face with a broken bottle, blinding the victim in one eye in the process. The boss instructs his men to give this punishment to his cheating wife. He has a change of heart at the last moment, but not before his enforcer (himself a victim of the “discipline,” as the gang boss terms it) has given his wife a hideous scar. She then becomes a prostitute (fixing her hairstyle to cover her scar) who shacks up with a raging opium addict, later finding love with a kind taxi driver. Complications arise when the gang boss seeks out his ex-wife, filled with remorse over the mark he has given her. Stark chiaroscuro and a grand, operatic atmosphere make this a valuable example of the riches to be found in the 1950’s and 1960’s so-called Golden Age of Korean cinema, which are still being rediscovered.

Toad’s Oil (Koji Yakusho, Japan, 2008)

A little too long and more than a bit self-indulgent, actor Yakusho’s debut as director is nonetheless very funny, pleasingly eccentric, and in the end quite moving. Concerned with the grief of a father (Yakusho) over the sudden death of his young son, the film combines comedy, tragedy, fantasy and nostalgia in a unique mixture. As is usually the case when actors direct, the performances are impressive across the board, starting with Yakusho himself, playing a stock day-trader gaining and losing millions and completely jaded and unfazed by it all. The personal tragedy that befalls him forces him to reorder his life priorities, and a road trip he takes with his son’s friend turns into a surreal journey into his past, featuring the salesman of the titular substance he first encountered as a child. There is also a bizarre comic encounter with a bear in the woods. As ungainly and unruly as its protagonist, Toad’s Oil is by no means a perfect film, but it has enough charm, humor and heart to get the film through its overindulgent longueurs.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Tsai Ming-liang, "The Hole" (1998)

The Hole (Dong). 1998. Directed by Tsai Ming-liang. Written by Yang Ping-ying and Tsai Ming-liang. Produced by Cheng Su-ming, Chiu Shun-ching and Pierre Chevalier. Cinematography by Liao Peng-jung. Edited by Hsiao Ju-kuan. Art direction by Lee Pao-lin. Choreography by Joy Lo. Sound by Yang Ching-an.

Cast: Yang Kuei-mei (The woman downstairs), Lee Kang-sheng (The man upstairs), Miao Tien (a shopper), Tong Hsiang-chu (the plumber), Lin Hui-chin (a neighbor), Lin Kun-huei (the child), Chen Shiang-chyi, Dephne Han, Wei Bo-chin, Jacques Picoux, Yee Chih-yen, Lu Hsiao-lin (Narrators).

One of the most interesting things about Tsai Ming-liang’s filmmaking career, considering what an inimitable and uncompromising artist he is, is the fact that three of the nine features he has directed to date have been commissioned projects. This is true of his two most recent films. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Tsai’s first film to be set in Malaysia, the country of his birth, was commissioned by Peter Sellars to be part of the New Crowned Hope Festival, a celebration in Vienna to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Tsai’s latest, Face, was commissioned by the Louvre museum, as the initial installment of its “Louvre Invites Filmmakers” program; this film, as Tsai remarked during a discussion after its screening this past Sunday at Asia Society, will play in the museum for a year.

Tsai’s first commissioned film was The Hole, which was part of French production company Haut et Court and television station La Sept Arte’s series “2000 Seen By …,” a collection of eight films imagining the upcoming end of the millennium. The Hole has a vaguely science-fiction premise: Taipei has been struck by a mysterious virus called the “Taiwan Virus” which has as its symptoms bizarre behavior by those stricken with “Taiwan Fever,” which turns its victims into human cockroaches who crawl on the floor scurrying into dark places, hiding from the light. But as is typical for Tsai, he refuses to conform to any of the hallmarks of films like this. The premise is set up at the beginning of the film where, over a black screen with no images, we hear news reports and interviewees describing this situation. The Taiwan government has issued an evacuation order to the cities infected with the virus, and will cut off the water supply to those who remain; garbage collection has already been halted – in the apartment building where the film has set, residents routinely drop their garbage out of their windows. The film begins one week before the end of the millennium; the government has stipulated that on January 1, 2000, water will be cut off. Many of the voices we hear take the government to task for their inadequate response to this crisis. “They didn’t try to protect us,” says one. “To hell with our government!” says another.

The Hole focuses on two apartment dwellers who refuse to heed the evacuation call: a woman (Yang Kuei-mei) plagued by the constant leaks who obsessively hoards toilet paper and tissues; and her upstairs neighbor (Lee Kang-sheng), who goes to work every morning to the convenience store he runs, although he has no customers. The separation between these two lonely souls is breached one day when a plumber visits the man’s apartment to investigate a leak that the woman downstairs has been complaining about, and leaves a gaping hole in the floor, never to return. The rest of the film concerns itself with the consequences of the plumber’s action, which forces a connection between these two people who have probably never spoken to one another before this event. This hole has all the connotations one would expect, including sexual ones (which is made explicit in one scene in which the man sticks his leg into the hole). This hole is also a portal to a fantasy world, which contains the musical sequences that are the heart of the film. Tsai assiduously eschewed non-diegetic music in his two previous films; in The Hole, he breaks this trend in the most glorious way, with five charming and dynamic musical sequences, all featuring the songs of Grace Chang, a popular songstress of the 50’s and 60’s beloved in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Although these sequences are influenced by Hollywood and Hong Kong classic musicals, they are much more earthbound, especially in their environments, which are in various areas of this very old, run-down apartment building with leaky, peeling walls. It’s as if the imaginations of the characters in this film are so restricted and limiting that even in fantasy, they cannot truly escape their depressing milieu. Also, it is unclear who these fantasies belong to: the woman downstairs, the man upstairs, or the collective unconscious of the building itself? Tsai provides very witty and humorous transitions in and out of the musical sequences: the first number, “Calypso,” featuring Yang Kuei-mei dancing in an elevator, is preceded by a shot of the hole, with cockroaches crawling out of it; after it ends, we cut to Lee Kang-sheng sprawled out, drunk, in the elevator.

The Hole, despite the pre-millennium tension that permeates it, and the familiar crying and despair that exists in its world, is Tsai’s most light-hearted and hopeful film. And although Tsai would disagree, a shaft of light suggesting a passage to heaven, a proffered glass of water, an outstretched hand, and a final love song from Grace Chang, all lead to what is as close to a happy ending as you’ll find in Tsai Ming-liang’s oeuvre.

The Hole screens at Asia Society on November 21, 3pm as part the series “Faces of Tsai Ming-liang.” Click here to purchase tickets.

Yang Kuei-mei performing "Calypso" from The Hole:

Grace Chang performing "Calypso" from the film Air Hostess (Wen Yi, 1959):

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Tsai Ming-liang, "Rebels of the Neon God" (1992)

Rebels of the Neon God (Qing shao nian nuo zha). 1992. Written and directed by Tsai Ming-liang. Produced by Hsu Li-kong. Cinematography by Liao Pen-jung. Edited by Wang Chi Yang. Music by Huang Shu-jun.

Cast: Lee Kang-sheng (Hsiao-kang), Chen Chao-jung (Ah-tse), Jen Chang-bin (Ah-ping), Wang Yu-wen (Ah-kuei), Miao Tien (Father), Lu Hsiao-ling (Mother).

One major element of Tsai Ming-liang’s films, remarked on by many commentators, is water; Tsai’s films are practically drenched with it. Water, in all its forms, courses through the films; in rainstorms, bottled water, toilets, flooding, bathtubs, and tears. It is omnipresent, yet mysterious and often menacing. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily, or at all. In this way, the water in Tsai’s films is very much like the characters in them, who do many things, often in silence, that are as mysterious and inexplicable to us as to themselves. In Tsai’s first feature, Rebels of the Neon God, by far the most conventional (relatively speaking) of his nine features to date, many of the characteristics that are unique to his films can be found, despite a repetitive musical theme and a jarringly over-romanticized “let’s blow this town!” ending (both imposed on him by his producer, and thoroughly cleansed [washed?] away in his subsequent films).

Rebels of the Neon God marks the first screen appearance of Lee Kang-sheng, who has appeared in all of Tsai’s features, and usually functions as the brooding, melancholic matinee idol at its center. (A scene in Rebels in which Lee’s character contemplates a poster of James Dean, cements this status in his films.) Although this was Lee’s first theatrical film, it wasn’t his first collaboration with Tsai; he appeared in two of Tsai’s television films, All the Corners of the World and Boys. But Rebels offered Lee the first real showcase of the qualities that make him so magnetic and mesmerizing in the context of Tsai’s films. In the very first scene in which he appears, his character, Hsiao-kang (the name he is usually given in Tsai’s films, a variation on Lee’s own name) rocks back and forth listlessly, watching the rainstorm outside his window, paying no attention whatsoever to his studies, which he will soon end. Noticing a cockroach crawling near him, he picks it up and spears it with his protractor. He then throws the wounded insect out of the window; soon after, another bug (or perhaps the same one) appears outside the window. Hsiao-kang hits the window to make it go away, but breaks the window and cuts his hand. As he scurries to the bathroom, his overly doting mother (Lu Hsiao-ling) and his perpetually angry father (Miao Tien) rush over. “Don’t you have anything better to do with yourself?” his mother asks in exasperation. As it turns out, the answer is no, not really. All of Hsiao-kang’s subsequent actions come from the same inchoate impulse to hurt and inflict harm on others, much as he does to the poor cockroach that has the misfortune to cross his path. Later in the film, he graduates to inflicting harm – not directly, but by proxy – to a human being. Hsiao-kang’s mother believes she has an explanation for his nature; he is the reincarnation of the god Nezha, who was also unruly and hated his father. Hsiao-kang’s father thinks his wife is simply nuts, and sees his son as an unredeemable bad seed; and indeed, Hsiao-kang does very little to prove his father wrong.

Hsiao-kang’s story parallels that of another aimless youth, Ah-tse (Chen Chao-jung) who lives with his brother Ah-ping (Jen Chang-bin) in an apartment invaded and menaced by water; the floor is constantly flooded because of the stopped-up drain on the ground. Tsai finds some unlikely visual poetry in the image of slippers, cigarette butts, and crushed beer cans drifting lazily along the apartment floor. Ah-tse and Ah-ping spend many nights as petty thieves, robbing payphones of coins and arcade games of their motherboards, to fund playing video games and hanging out at bars and roller rinks. One night, Ah-ping brings home Ah-kuei (Wang Yu-wen), a comely girl who works the counter at the roller rink, and whose uniform is a blouse and the shortest skirt or pair of shorts she can find to wear. Ah-tse masturbates to the very loud noises of Ah-ping and Ah-kuei having sex, incidentally echoing a key scene in Tsai’s next feature, Vive L’Amour. Later in the film, Ah-ping proposes sharing Ah-kuei with his brother. The three of them eventually spend their nights getting drunk and riding their scooters. Besides the water, an important constant of Tsai’s films are motorbikes, usually driven by the male characters. This is an instantly iconic image, and one that many filmmakers have used to portray the free-spiritedness of youth. In Tsai’s hands, this image is complicated, and indeed subverted, and this vehicle becomes an illusion of freedom, a mode of travel that leads nowhere, only to never-ending circles of confinement, speeding furiously yet going nowhere. It’s not that big a leap to consider this to be Tsai’s metaphor for the larger Taiwanese society itself.

The film hinges on a thoughtless act by Ah-tse – smashing the rearview mirror of the cab Hsiao-kang’s father drives, with his son beside him – that turns out to have very severe consequences. Hsiao-kang inverts the dynamic of the god that is his forebear, exacting a disproportionate revenge on the harm done to his father by attacking Ah-tse’s beloved scooter, effectively emasculating him. This comes after Hsiao-kang, now out of school, spends days and nights stalking Ah-tse and his friends, for reasons that are not clearly defined – is it homosexual longing, a theme that will come to the fore in Tsai’s later features? Or is it jealousy of Ah-tse’s apparent freedom from the strictures of parents and school that imprison Hsiao-kang? Tsai doesn’t tell us, and certainly his characters won’t, even though there is much more dialogue in Rebels than his other films. As always, Tsai leaves it to the viewer to judge what it all means.

Tsai’s original script ended with the destruction of Ah-tse’s scooter. Tsai’s producer at the time, Hsu Li-kong, insisted that the film would be too short, and came up with the tacked-on, clichéd ending that, along with the film’s score, more than ever seems a travesty perpetrated on Tsai’s film. Thereafter, Tsai worked with foreign producers, mostly French, who provided him the freedom to pursue his creative visions unfettered (Tsai had, and continues to have, a very antagonistic relationship with the Taiwan film industry). His next film, Vive L’Amour, gave Tsai his first opportunity to present his inimitable style in its purest form, unencumbered by commercial constraints. And, over the course of nine films, he hasn’t looked back since.

Rebels of the Neon God screens at Asia Society on November 13 at 6:45pm as part of the series “Faces of Tsai Ming-Liang,” a mini-retrospective that also includes Vive L’Amour (Nov. 17, 6:45pm), The Hole (Nov. 21, 3pm), What Time Is It There? (Nov. 21, 5pm), and a preview screening of his new film Face (Nov. 15, 2pm), followed by Q&A with Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng. The screening of Face is sold out, but there will be a standby line.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Best Korean Films of the 2000s: Lee Myung-se, "Duelist" (2005)

Duelist (Hyeongsa). 2005. Produced, directed and production designed by Lee Myung-se. Written by Lee Myung-se and Lee Hae-gyeong, based on the comic book "Damo" by Bang Hak-gi. Cinematography by Ki S. Hwang. Edited by Go Im-pyo. Art direction by Lee Hyeong-ju and Jo Geun-hyeon. Costume design by Jeong Gyeong-heui. Sound by Park Jun-oh. Special effects by Jang Sung-ho. Martial arts choreography by Jeon Mun-shik.

Cast: Ha Ji-won (Nam-soon), Kang Dong-won (Sad Eyes), Ahn Sung-ki (Ahn), Song Yeong-chang (Song).

One of cinema's supreme visual stylists is Lee Myung-se, whose films have the vibrancy and kineticism of action painting, and who seemingly reinvents movies with each new film. Lee is an exacting and precise artist, with painstaking attention to detail, colors and mood, so much so that he has made only two films this decade, each one an art film in the truest and greatest sense. The first is his 2005 film Duelist, the latest incarnation of a story that first began life as a popular manhwa (Korean comic book) entitled Damo, which was subsequently turned into a hit television series of the same name. Both the film and the TV drama featured the same actress, Ha Ji-won, as the central female detective. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at the 2006 New York Asian Film Festival.

The most gorgeous of this year's selections is Lee Myung-se's masterpiece Duelist. Lee is best known in the U.S. for his 1999 film Nowhere to Hide, which enlivened its cops-and-criminals story with a wall-to-wall visual arsenal of silhouettes, impossibly vibrant color and kineticism, and the elemental forces of wind and rain. In Duelist, released six years after Nowhere to Hide, Lee ups the ante considerably, reducing narrative to a bare minimum, concentrating on exquisite color, balletic swordplay, wind, rain, and leaves, and the pursuit of its lovers/antagonists throughout the film. Like Nowhere to Hide, Duelist is also a detective story, set this time in late 19th century Korea. The detective Nam-soon (Ha Ji-won) and her older partner Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) are in dogged pursuit of Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won), an elusive, androgynous figure who is the henchman of Minister of Defense Song (Song Yeong-chang), who is amassing power by counterfeiting currency. That's about it as far as plot goes. However, most of the negative public and critical reaction to the film, contributing to its meager box office, which generally ran along the lines of the lament "There's no story!", seem to me to be beyond missing the point. The film's press materials contain this statement by Lee, which point to the proper way to approach this film: "I thought of two words - movement and rhythm, and two paintings - 'Dance' by Matisse and 'Manhattan' by Mondrian." (Lee is most likely referring in the latter case to "Broadway Boogie-Woogie," Mondrian's most famous painting.)

Those who insist that films should be all about narrative and character development are blinding themselves to the thrilling experience of pure cinema that Lee offers in Duelist. In much the same way that Matisse and Mondrian sought to liberate painting by using their materials to portray pure movement and color without insisting on verisimilitude, Lee utilizes the plasticity of the film medium - sound, color, music, motion - to liberate cinema from the shackles of 19th century notions of narrative derived from literature and drama, highlighting the reasons cinema is indeed a distinct art from either.

The ultimate theme of Duelist is transcendence and transgression, of boundaries, borders, and gender roles - Nam-soon is as tough and violent, if not tougher, than her male colleagues, at one point going undercover in male drag, while Sad Eyes is all flowing robes, long hair, and soft features. Duelist is in essence avant-garde cinema thinly disguised as genre cinema, and given the emphasis he puts on color, the physicality of its nature, and its relation to the material of film itself, Lee seems to be positioning himself as Korea's answer to Stan Brakhage.

Duelist trailer:

Scenes from the TV drama Damo:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Frederick Wiseman, "La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet" (2009)

La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet. 2009. Directed by Frederick Wiseman. Produced by Pierre-Oliver Bardet, Frederick Wiseman and Francoise Gazio. Cinematography by John Davey. Edited by Frederick Wiseman and Valerie Pico. Sound by Frederick Wiseman.

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, is a typically rigorous institutional examination, this time of the famed Paris Opera Ballet, getting up close and personal behind the scenes, observing rehearsals, administrative meetings, and many other minutiae of the day-to-day activities of this venerable institution. There is nothing especially earth-shattering or revealing that happens during the course of this film; the closest we get is a meeting with the dance troupe and the ballet’s artistic director about changes in retirement and pension policy that the French government is considering. Neither does this film break with Wiseman’s tried-and-true methods of filmmaking: fly-on-the-wall observation, eschewing interviews with subjects, soundtrack music, or onscreen identification of the subjects. Wiseman holds true with the cinema vérité techniques he has been practicing since Titicut Follies, his 1967 debut. He is less interested in personalities and drama than in process, procedure, and daily institutional life. This film focuses on lengthy, unhurried (La Danse clocks in at 158 minutes) and thorough observation of all the workers at the opera, from the dancers, choreographers, and administrative personnel, down to the cafeteria workers and janitors. Wiseman even gives us some shots of the basement and sewers underneath the opera house, as if to show us just how complete his document of this building is.

The heart of the film is the lengthy rehearsals of the opera repertory shows. These lithe, wiry dancers painstakingly perfect their movements, and under their trainers, refine everything down to the very smallest detail. And while the repetitive scenes of this process can at times be a bit wearying, it is still fascinating to watch, all of it happening at an intimate level that very few of us are privileged to witness in person. Behind the scenes, there are some telling moments that impress upon us the extreme physical demands ballet puts on a person’s body. One older dancer relates to the festival director her concerns that she is being scheduled for too many performances that will tax her physical abilities. “I’m not 25 anymore,” the dancer opines. This scene contrasts with another near the conclusion, in which a young, fresh-faced newcomer to the company gets advice from the festival director. “Don’t be afraid,” the director advises her.

All in all, La Dance: The Paris Opera Ballet is an interesting (if overlong) and worthy addition to Wiseman’s impressive body of work. It screens at Film Forum from November 4 through November 17; Wiseman will appear in person at the 8:30 screening on November 4. Click here to purchase tickets.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Best Korean and Japanese Films of the 2000s: Inaugural Post

Yesterday I received an email from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), a Korean government-supported, quasi-independent organization that funds, supports and promotes Korean films domestically and abroad. If you have even the smallest amount of interest in Korean cinema, I highly recommend checking out their website, where you will find a wealth of material on both current and older Korean films. You should especially explore their "Publications" section, where you will find PDFs that you can download of their published material on Korean film history, films, and directors, and their periodicals on the Korean film industry. This is an invaluable source of information, and one which I refer to frequently.

KOFIC's newest publication is Korean Cinema Today, a bimonthly periodical with articles, reviews, and interviews concerning the current state of the Korean film industry, and especially Korean films that have been selected for major film festivals. Their next issue will be a special one that will look back on this past decade, the first of the 21st century, and included in this issue will be a reader's poll of the 10 best Korean films of the decade. The email I received was in reference to this, asking me to choose the best 5 films of the decade. If you would like to participate in this survey, you can do so here. (Click the button at the bottom to send your message.) If you include your name, nationality, and mailing address, your name will be included in the printed list of participants, and they will send you a copy of the published issue.

KOFIC's project has inspired me to do something similar for this blog. So for the next several months or so, I will be posting periodically on my picks for the best Korean films of the 2000s. Since Japanese films are also a major presence on this blog, I will be doing the same for Japanese cinema. Some of the posts will be republished here from elsewhere, others will be original posts. These will exclude films that have already been reviewed on this blog, or that I have written for other sites that I have chosen not to republish here. Of course, there are far more than five films that are worthy of inclusion on my list for the best of the decade. There will be no rankings or evaluations of which ones are better than other films. I'll leave it to you readers to decide that for yourselves.

Here are links to my reviews of my first best-of-2000s selections:

Korean Films

Radio Star (Lee Joon-ik, 2006)

Our School (Kim Myung-joon, 2006)

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)

Voice of a Murderer (Park Jin-pyo, 2007)

Ad-Lib Night (Lee Yoon-ki, 2006)

The Happy Life (Lee Joon-ik, 2007)

Forever the Moment (Yim Soon-rye, 2007)

Epitaph (Jung Bum-sik and Jung Sik, 2007)

Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, 2008)

Old Partner (Lee Chung-ryoul, 2008)

Breathless (Yang Ik-june, 2008)

Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000)

Japanese Films

I Just Didn't Do It (Masayuki Suo, 2006)

Memories of Matsuko (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2006)

Sway (Miwa Nishikawa, 2006)

Dear Pyongyang (Yonghi Yang, 2005)

Matsugane Potshot Affair (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2006)

The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

All Around Us (Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

Confessions of a Dog (Gen Takahashi, 2006)

Halfway (Eriko Kitagawa, 2009)

Dainipponjin (Big Man Japan) (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007)

Yasukuni (Li Ying, 2007)

For the record, these are the Korean films I chose for the KOFIC poll:

Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002) -- the above still is from this film.

A Good Lawyer's Wife (Im Sang-soo, 2003)

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005)

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007)

Certainly I could have picked five completely different films that would have been just as good, but I'm fairly satisfied with the above list as representative of the best Korean films of the decade, within the limited parameters of KOFIC's survey. What are your picks for the best Korean and/or Japanese films of the 2000s? You can submit your responses in the comments below.