Thursday, March 8, 2012

"Love Will Tear Us Apart" Review: Lee Sang-il's "Villain"

Villain (Akunin). 2010. Directed by Lee Sang-il. Written by Shuichi Yoshida and Lee Sang-il, based on the novel by Shuichi Yoshida. Produced by Tomoyo Nihira and Genki Kawamura. Cinematography by Norimichi Kasamatsu. Edited by Tsuyoshi Imai. Music by Joe Hisaishi. Production design by Yohei Taneda. Costume design by Kumiko Ogawa. Sound by Mitsugu Shiratori.

Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki (Yuichi Shimizu), Eri Fukatsu (Mitsuyo Magome), Masaki Okada (Keigo Masuo), Hikari Mitsushima (Yoshino Ishibashi), Kirin Kiki (Yuichi's grandmother), Akira Emoto (Yoshino's father), Kimiko Yo (Yuichi's mother).

One of my favorite recent Japanese films is the complex crime drama/lovers-on-the-run story Villain, screening as part of Japan Society’s film series “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”  Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at the 2010 Busan International Film Festival.

The finest film to date from Japanese-Korean director Lee Sang-il (69, Scrap Heaven, Hula Girls) is this tale of murder (based on a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, who also penned the screenplay) rendered in complex shades of gray.  Villain gains its tremendous power from both its excellent performances (not only by the leads Satoshi Tsumabuki and Eri Fukatsu, but the stellar supporting cast), and its intriguingly ambiguous scenario, which challenges easy moral and character judgments.  The “villain” of the title would at first appear to be Yuichi (Tsumabuki), who commits murder during one terrible night in a fit of rage.  But as the circumstances of the night are slowly teased out during the course of the film, and the context surrounding the murder is gradually revealed, we come to learn than Yuichi isn’t the only one worthy of being tagged with that titular appellation.  Two other possible candidates are the flighty, superficial Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima), whom Yuichi pines for initially, but who herself pursues the rich playboy Masuo (Masaki Okada), who is contemptuous of anyone he considers beneath his station.  All three of them figure into the murder at the center of the story.  Yuichi is eventually forced to go on the lam, where he encounters Mitsuyo (Fukatsu), a shy and lonely woman who impulsively joins this fugitive, determined at all costs to see the goodness that exists at Yuichi’s core, convinced that his act of murder is not in his nature, but forced upon him by circumstance.  The film itself appears to endorse Mitsuyo’s point of view, until an occurrence very close to the end seems to turn that completely on its head.  Lee Sang-il throughout demonstrates an assured, compelling command of visuals and narrative flow, staging the chaotic maelstrom of events with a masterful hand.  Fukatsu won a well-deserved best-actress prize at the Montreal World Festival; her performance is extraordinary, and her role proves to be the film’s most crucial one.

Villain screens at Japan Society on March 9 at 7:30Click here to purchase tickets.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"Love Will Tear Us Apart" Review: Hong Sangsoo's "Tale of Cinema"

Tale of Cinema (Geuk jang jeon). 2005. Written and directed by Hong Sangsoo. Produced by Hong Sangsoo and Marin Karmitz. Cinematography by Kim Hyung-koo. Edited by Hahm Sung-won. Music by Jeong Yong-jin. Sound by An Sang-ho.

Cast: Kim Sang-kyung (Kim Tong-su), Uhm Ji-won (Choi Young-shil), Lee Ki-woo (Jeon Sang-won).

Tale of Cinema, Hong’s sixth feature, is an incredibly witty and playful meditation on the confluence of life and cinema. Over the course of twelve films, Hong has created a unique and fascinating body of work, unabashedly auteurist and boldly inventive. From the start, Hong’s films existed in opposition to conventional methods of storytelling, and he makes use of a relatively limited set of character types and milieus (usually the filmmaking and academic worlds) to experiment with narrative structure in his films. Recurring patterns of human behavior, character and narrative mirroring, and repetition run throughout his films. Along with that, he offers funny, painful, awkward, and brutally honest depictions of male and female relationships. Tale of Cinema added some intriguing new wrinkles to his cinematic strategy: this time (as the English title makes clear), cinema itself is his main subject matter. Similarly to some of his other films (The Power of Kangwon Province [1998], Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors [2000], Turning Gate [2002], Woman on the Beach [2006]), Tale of Cinema makes use of a bifurcated structure with echoes and mirrors in each half. However, while the structures of these other films serve to complicate and deepen our understanding of the characters and their situations, in this film we are invited to reflect on its own status as a cinematic object. To this end, Hong introduced some visual elements that have become stylistic hallmarks of his subsequent films, most prominently the frequent use of the zoom lens. The first time I saw Tale of Cinema (at the 2005 New York Film Festival), I found this quite disorienting, since Hong’s visual style up to that point consisted of minimal camera movement and practically no optical effects. Also new for Hong was the use of a voiceover and much more liberal use of non-diegetic music. All of these elements, including quotes from, and echoes of, his earlier films in Tale of Cinema serve to enhance our awareness that we are indeed watching a film, making what happens to the main character perhaps a cautionary tale.

Tale of Cinema has a loose, improvisational, and comic feel that is quite charming. In the first part of the film, an aimless student (Lee Ki-woo) meets up with a young woman (Uhm Ji-won) he has known in the past, and convinces her to join him in his quest to kill himself. However, things don’t quite go according to plan, as they often do in Hong’s films. In the second half, Tong-su (Kim Sang-kyung), a failed filmmaker, has become convinced that his successful and celebrated film-school classmate has stolen his life story to make one of his films. After watching this film again at a retrospective devoted to the director, he spots the film’s lead actress (Uhm Ji-won again) outside the theater, and begins to doggedly pursue her. For those who haven’t yet seen Tale of Cinema, I won’t reveal the connection between these two halves, since that would lessen the sense of discovery that is at the heart of this film’s considerable charm. Those familiar with Hong’s previous films will sense a subtle optimism that doesn’t exist in his earlier films. Hong, as usual, elicits engaging performances from his leads, Lee Ki-woo a natural as the childish and self-involved suicidal young man, Kim Sang-kyung (who also starred in Turning Gate) quite funny as the bizarre (and possibly delusional) wannabe director, and especially the strikingly beautiful Uhm Ji-won, who deftly pulls off her tricky dual role.

Tale of Cinema screens March 8, 7pm as part of Japan Society’s film series “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”  For the rest of the screening schedule and ticket info, click here.

This post is my contribution to the 2012 Korean Cinema Blogathon, hosted this year by New Korean Cinema and cineAWESOME! You can read all the other entries here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Love Will Tear Us Apart" Review: Shinya Tsukamoto's "Vital"

Vital. 2004. Written, directed, edited, photographed and production designed by Shinya Tsukamoto. Produced by Shinya TsukamotoKeiko Kusakabe, Koichi Kusakabe, and Shinichi Kawahara. Music by Chu Ishikawa. Sound by Yoshiya Obara. Special makeup effects by Takashi Oda.

Cast: Tadanobu Asano (Hiroshi Takagi), Nami Tsukamoto (Ryoko Oyama), Kiki (Ikumi Yoshimoto), Kazuyoshi Kushida (Hiroshi's father), Lily (Hiroshi's mother), Go Riju (Dr. Nakai), Jun Kunimura (Ryoko's father), Ittoku Kishibe (Dr. Kashiwabuchi).

Shinya Tsukamoto’s beautiful film Vital (2004), one of the great highlights of Japan Society’s film series “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” continues his filmic exploration of the human body. Several of his other films (the cult classic Tetsuo the Iron Man and its two sequels, Tokyo Fist, Gemini, Bullet Ballet, A Snake of June [also screening in the series]) focus obsessively on the materiality of the body, and specifically on the various ways it can be smashed, violated, and exposed. However, in Vital, Tsukamoto goes deeper, literally, digging into the mysteries of human consciousness and what constitutes life.

Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano), a medical student, wakes up from a coma, caused by a traffic accident in which his girlfriend Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto) perished. Hiroshi, described by Tsukamoto as a “modern-day Leonardo da Vinci,” returns to his anatomy studies, making detailed drawings of his dissections.  Meanwhile, he struggles to piece together his memory, which was severely damaged by the accident. Asano, who is often quiet and nearly somnambulistic during much of this film, maintains a quietly brooding presence, which draws us into his character’s travels through his consciousness, gradually revealing more details of his life and his relationship with Ryoko before the accident. Through the crucial clue of a cadaver’s tattoo, Hiroshi comes to realize, in the film’s most perverse twist, that the body he is dissecting in his anatomy course is in fact that of his dead girlfriend. Ryoko, whom it seems nursed a desire for death, requested that her body be entrusted to the medical school for the students’ use.

Tsukamoto bathes his film in an icy blue palette and exhibits a striking sense of architecture and space, which is quite effective in exploring the contrasting spiritual realms his protagonist explores. During the time he is dissecting Ryoko’s corpse, he experiences frequent visitations from her, and in this way, he travels between the worlds of the living and the dead. When Ryoko was alive, they often flirted with this boundary through their kinky sex games of erotic asphyxiation. Hiroshi existed in the area between life and death during his coma, and ultimately he must choose whether he wants to be with Ryoko in her world, or remain in the world of the living.

Even though there is more than a hint of necrophilia in this scenario, Vital is remarkably free of exploitative elements and is quite restrained in its approach. There are many memorable and arresting images, such as superimposed cremation smokestacks, and the scenes of Ryoko’s visitations, especially one where she performs an anguished dance on a beach. One of the most moving passages in the film is the combined funeral and med-student graduation, where there is a deep respect expressed for the sacrifices the medical subjects and their families have made in the quest to expand human knowledge. “We owe them thanks,” the anatomy class professor intones before the students begin dissecting. And even though the essential question of the path Hiroshi ultimately chooses remains unresolved at the film’s conclusion, this is well in keeping with the deeper mystery the film poses of what constitutes human consciousness, a mystery which we are nowhere close to solving.

Vital screens at Japan Society on Saturday, March 3 at 7pm as part of its film series “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” an impressive selection of provocative films featuring twisted, obsessive, and extreme love stories from both Japan and Korea.  Several celebrated auteurs are represented here; besides Tsukamoto (whose latest film KOTOKO opens the series), the series offers films by Koji Wakamatsu (his latest film Petrel Hotel Blue and two earlier films from the 60s and 70s), Hong Sangsoo (Tale of Cinema), Kim Ki-duk (Bad Guy, Dream, Time), Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses), and Lee Chang-dong (Oasis).  Click here for more information on the series and to purchase tickets.