Friday, November 23, 2007

Watched October 29 - November 4, 2007: Korea in 1990 -- and now

Keduldo urichurum / The Black Republic (PARK Kwang-su, 1990)

Park was one of the founding fathers of Korea's "New Cinema" of the 1990s. While his first film, Chilsu and Mansu, touched on political matters, Black Republic was his first film to openly confront the turmoil (and devastation) of the political oppression and violence of the 1970s and 1980s (especially in the wake of the Gwangju Massacre in 1980). Censors did insist on removal of most of the flashbacks that actively linked the protagonist's present with his past and filled in the gap between 1980 and 1990. But the implicit links that remain are fairly clear, even for someone as inexpert in Korean history as myself.

The story here centers on a political activist (played by MOON Sung-keun), who has flitted from place to place, remaining "in hiding" for a decade following the Gwangju Massacre. By using a series of false names and identification papers, and restricting himself to life in small provincial towns, he has managed to not get arrested on long-pending charges of revolutionary activity. At the start of the film, he arrives at a small, dingy mining town -- and finds a job. Unfortunately, the mine workers here are on the verge of a strike -- and the mine owner's irresponsible and brutal son (PARK Joon-hoon) causes lots of random chaos in the vicinity.

Despite the town's small size, it is not too small to support a prostitution business (in which women are nominally employed to deliver thermoses of tea and coffee). One of the young prostitutes (SHIM Hye-jin) especially favored by Park is attracted to the new, stand-offish but considerate Moon. As the labor situation worsens, the couple are drawn closer together -- and eventually spend a day at a seaside town (in an inexpensive but pleasing idyll). Shim's attachment to Moon makes her reluctant to continue to "deliver tea", leading to a confrontation with Park. When Moon fights Park to stop his assault on Shim, he is arrested (and roughed up by the police). Moon's false identification papers stand up temporarily, but he is fingerprinted before being released (as a formality). Moon knows he needs to go on the move again -- and Shim hopes to join him. But Park (more dangerous than ever, due to the death of his mother, who had been dumped years before by his father) once again causes complications -- and Moon has to leave on his own.

The performances of Moon and Shim are quite effective. Their finest scene, perhaps, is their leave-taking after their one day of shared happiness. During that day, Moon has told Shim of his past (and entrusted her with his real name). After they part, Shim calls on Moon to stop and wait; at a distance, mostly hidden in shadow, she tells him her real name (presumably she adopted a false name due to her shame at the job she has been "forced" to take, for lack of other opportunities).

The film is visually well-imagined, but the (subbed) Korean DVD is probably not an optimal representation of the film, as it initially looked like. This film deserves a better presentation (fully restored) to be sure, but we are lucky to have any version available of this important and impressive film.

Janghwa, Hongryeon / A Tale of Two Sisters (KIM Ji-woon, 2003)

Kim's film is one of those films that one really is constrained in discussing. First, one does not really wish to say too much about what goes on, for fear of spoiling the film for others who have not yet seen it. Second, the film's nature is such that one is not actually sure as to what is real and what is not. The film is superficially patterned on a Korean folk tale (not too dissimilar from the Grimm's The Juniper Tree) about two young sisters and a step-mother who mistreats them quite cruelly. This folk tale is well known-- and has served as the basis for several earlier films. Paradoxically (or perhaps not), the familiarity of the tale allows Kim greater scope to challenge expectations. Even for someone not inured in Korean folklore, one senses the declining reliability of the narrative as the film proceeds. Indeed, this might be the most virtuosic use of unreliable narration in an Asian film since Kinugasa's Kurutta ippeji (Pages of Madness / Pages Out of Order) back in 1926. This film is more akin, I suspect, to Henry James' Turn of the Screw than to the folk tale that gives it its name.

The performances in this are quite good, the cinematography is excellent, the script is outstanding. It is a film that demands both watching and, afterwards, discussion -- both as to the overall "meaning" and the significance of every little detail. These have occurred in our household of five -- and online. And, in both venues, voices have been raised and tempers have flared (at least a bit). While I suppose one might be able to savor this film's virtues in solitude, it surely benefits, more than most, from attentive communal watching. While live discussions with fellow watchers are unproblematic, online discussions are best handled in threads that warn prominently -- SPOILERS.

Dalkom, salbeorhan yeonin / My Scary Girl (SON Jae-gon, 2006)

The actual translation of this film's Korean name is something like "sweet, brutal lover" -- which gives one a better sense of the film than the cute English title. This is structured rather like a romantic comedy. But it is a romantic comedy with a remarkable number of unsettling twists. As Darcy Paquet said in his review, it is "like a romantic comedy left out on the counter that starts to turn black". Despite its unconventionality, this low-budget (under $800,000) film, shot with HD video, was a big success theatrically in Korea.

A shy college teacher (played by Park Yong-woo), who is not only a perennial bachelor but has never even dated, gets a new neighbor, a sweet-seeming art student (Choi Gang-hee). Things get off to a somewhat rocky start, but Park and Choi eventually take an interest in each other. Among other things, Park is introduced to not only elementary kissing, but also the advanced level. But there ae some negatives -- Choi has some rather strange friends and acquaintances, and shows some puzzling behaviors (like her lack of knowledge of basic art facts that even English teachers know). And then there are hints of secrets that Park knows nothing about. He gets so worried, he even hires a private investigator to do a little (relatively inexpensive) background research. But still Park is drawn like a moth to a flame (or is it more like a fly getting dangerously close to a spider web). The ending -- like the rest of the film -- is original.

The script here is quite good, with that is outrageous in an unconventional fashion -- and usually truly funny. The two leads are excellent -- and so are the major supporting performers. The (digital) cinematography is not especially distinctive stylistically, but is attractive and effective -- and looks surprisingly film-like. I got the HK DVD as a freebie with a recent online order -- and it is quite adequate. Perhaps the Korean DVD is even better.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Watched October 22 - 28, 2007: Sayles and Zhang

The Secret of Roan Inish (John Sayles, 1994)

Some films, it seems (eventually) wear out their welcome. Roan Inish has been a long-time family favorite. We bought it when it came out on video -- and when we got our first DVD player, it was one of our very first DVD purchases. Our family revisited the film, for the first time in a few years, and discovered (to our dismay) that the film is staring to seem a bit frayed at the edges. The underlying story was enchanting, and many images remained magical, but the talking went on and on sometimes, for much longer than was needed. It was as if Sayles wasn't willing to fully trust the power of his own pictures. On too many occasions, Sayles' words distracted us from his film.

On looking for images to capture from the DVD, I saw something I'd never consciously noticed when watching the DVD on television. Namely, that this is not a terribly good DVD -- and that the print used to make the DVD had apparently undergone color shifting prior to the time the DVD was made. I think we will give this still fondly-remembered film a long long vacation -- probably until a new, digitally restored version shows up.

Ying xiong / Hero (ZHANG Yimou, 2002)

I rather suspect that I might need to watch Hero quite sparingly, as it might be another film that could wear out its welcome (sooner or later) if subjected to too frequent revisitation. I am a big fan of Zhang's earlier films -- and I liked Hero reasonably well (and found it conceptually interesting), right form the outset, but never was totally carried away by it. I never really understood either the heights of adulation or the depths of reprobation this met with. Overall, I responded more strongly to Zhang's later (more "operatic") House of Flying Daggers and (much maligned) Curse of the Golden Flowers.

It strikes me that the criticism that Zhang was somehow celebrating (or justifying) oppressive totalitatianism in this film is offbase. This is not a documentary about a real historical ruler, but a prescriptive depiction of what a ruler (under certain conditions) should be like. It also is, more than a little, a cautionary tale. But most of all, this is a film about color and movement. And, from this perspective, it is a mostly very rewarding film. My one reservation turns on how well the fairly schematic structure will hold up after many repeated viewings. One can never be certain, but I expect it might hold up to more wear and tear by re-viewing than Roan Inish. And, in this case at least, the DVD presentation (the Edko DVD from Hong Kong) doesn't undercut the film.

Watched October 15 - 21, 2007: To and Kim

Wu wei shen tan / Loving You (Johnnie To, 1995)

LAU Ching Wan creates one of his best roles for Johnnie To in this tale of a policeman pursuing (and pursued by) a vicious drug dealer (CHUNG Hua Tou). The film starts with a drug bust gone awry (due in part to shoddy equipment) that results in the execution of an undercover policewoman by Chung. Lau, as it turns out, is a reasonably dedicated police team leader -- but a total jerk on the personal level, both to his subordinates and his wife (Carman Lee). His indifference (and philandering) have pushed her into the arms of one of her colleagues at work. Just as she makes up her mind to leave Lau, he is shot in the head by his nemesis (though he captures Chung nevertheless). While Lau survives the shooting, he is incapacitated for a long while and -- when he is well enough to notice -- he discovers he has lost his senses of taste and smell. His wife, impelled by a sense of a duty, has helped care for him during his recovery, putting off her plan to leave him. Reconciliation is still not a sure thing, as Lau resents the fact that she plans to bear a child that turns out not to be his. After he returns to work, Chung escapes and takes Lau's wife (now due to deliver her baby any day) hostage. Lau and Chung then proceed to battle it out in an abandoned office building.

Surprisingly enough, the central premise here is based on a real story of a policeman who miraculously survived being shot in the head. But the details are all courtesy of To and script writer YAU Nai Hoi. As usual, even in early To, the film is remarkably visually imaginative and stylish. A number of visual motifs help tie the film together, the most notable is the imagery of sliding (in all sorts of forms). Yet another highly recommendable To film (and the new re-mastered HK DVD looks pretty good).

More pictures:

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Juyuso seubgyuksageun / Attack the Gas Station (KIM Sang-jin, 1999)

I acquired my DVD of this film several years ago as an unavoidable freebie. Consequently I was in no rush to see it. But when my stack on unwatched DVDs sank low enough, I gave it a try -- and was pleasantly surprised to find this far better than I had expected. Of course, this film about of punks taking over a gas station, because the till wasn't full enough (and they want to keep collecting cash from customers until they get a respectable bundle) is hardly an Ozu-esque character study. Nonetheless it manages to give the characters more depth than one initially expects -- and develops a little bit of poignancy -- and it is imaginative and canny in its "dumb" humor.

There once was a good subbed Korean DVD, but I didn't get my lower-quality Hong Kong freebie DVD (panned and scanned, alas) until after the Korean version was out of print. Consequently, for now, if I want to re-watch this film, I have to settle for an impaired viewing experience. All I can do for now, is hope for a release someday of a subbed widescreen DVD. Nonetheless, if you can find a cheap enough (or free) copy of the extant DVD version, do what I did -- give this film a chance.

A few more screen shots:

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Watched October 8 - 14, 2007: Mizoguchi in the 1940s

Meito bijomaru / The Famous Sword Bijomaru (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1945)

All Mizoguchi films have moments of cinematic magic -- and this one is no exception. Nonetheless, this film probably has less of such moments than any of the other surviving feature films. The script is lumbering. An apprentice swordmaker (Shôtarô Hanayagi) makes a sword for the father of the samurai maiden (Isuzu Yamada) he loves. The sword breaks an inopportune moment, leading to disaster. The apprentice goes back to work to make a sword for Yamada to use to take her revenge. His task is complicated when the master swordsmith he works for is killed, by secret agents of the shogun. Hanayagi keeps on working, while Yamada bides her time. The two (along with his trusty helper) join forces just in time for the battle overthrowing the shogun.

The dialog is clunky, the performances are often rather stilted, action sequences are often fairly awkward. No match for either Mizoguchi's own mammoth Genroku Chushingura (47 Loyal Ronin) from 1941 and the more modest (but unconventional and delightful) Musashi Miyamoto from 1944 or Naruse's Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo (also from 1945). The primary moments that stand out here are ones during the sword making scenes. It's nice that Shochiku released this on DVD, but sad that it ignored the far superior Musashi Miyamoto.

More pictures:

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Yoru no onnatachi / Women of the Night (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1948)

Movies about women and girls gone bad, and who needed redemption, seem to have been quite a fad in the last couple of years of the 1940s. Naruse did a couple -- Delinquent Girl (1949, lost) and White Beast (1950). And even Ozu (sort of) did one too -- Hen in the Wind. Few of this group are likely to have been as deliriously exploitative as Mizoguchi's film, however.

The story starts reasonably enough -- rather like Hen in the Wind. Kinuyo Tanaka plays a woman (with a sick child) whose husband is still missing, three years after the war ends. She continues to hope he is simply a prisoner of war and will return soon. Her hopes are dashed soon (and her child rather unceremoniously dies). When she runs across her younger sister (Sanae Takasugi), she learns her parents (who had gone off to help colonize Manchuria) are dead too. At first Tanaka gets by, working for a shady import company (and sleeping with the boss). But when police raid the company, and she discovers her sister is also having an affair with her boss, Tanaka turns to the streets to make a living. This all happens fairly quickly -- and things get even more tangled soon. Tanaka's teen-aged sister-in-law runs away from home, gets raped and becomes involved in prostitution. Tanaka's sister gets swept up accidentally in an anti-prostitution sweep by the police -- and finds herself in the same detention center as now hard-bitten Tanaka. And things just keep getting worse.

Mizoguchi was apparently sincere in his concern for the many young (and not so young) women with few opportunities being pushed into prostitution (a growth industry, due to the massive American military presence). But the treatment here is only superficially realistic and the melodramatic quotient rises high into the red zone. But, while plot-wise, this often seems utterly implausible, the film is filled with so much visual interest, one tends to forgive the script most of the time. The film's best defense is its often sublime images (cinematography by Kôhei Sugiyama) and good performances from Tanaka and Takasugi.Tomie Tsunoda, a novice actress who did a good job playing the young sister-in-law, must have been traumatized by her experiences, as she never appeared in another film thereafter. The character actresses who played supporting parts were also excellent. Of especial note, Kumeko Urabe, who played a roving bawd (who also seemed to dabble in illegal drugs). A film that is hard to categorize -- possibly both highly flawed and almost indispensable to fans of classic Japanese cinema.

More screen shots:

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Waga koi wa moenu / My Love Has Been Burning (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1949)

Yet another film ostensibly championing the cause of women's rights (this time during the Meiji era), that sometimes hovers on the verge of exploitativeness and other times comes across as talky and over-didactic. Despite a story by Koga Noda and a script by Kaneto Shindo, this film is often quite dramatically clunky, even though the underlying idea that offers the promise of being reasonably interesting.

Tanaka plays a provincial political activist for a progressive party, who falls in love with an organizer working in her town. When she follows him to Tokyo, he's less than enthusiastic -- but she finds work and (eventual) romance with one of her party's leaders. She goes to do reconnaissance on a factory which enslaves and mistreats its women workers. As it turns out, the factory not only overworks its women tremendously, its overseers amuse themselves by beating the employees with whips and raping them. While there, Tanaka encounters a young woman (Mitsuko Mito) who has been sold to the factory by her parents. As it turns out, Mito is on the verge of snapping -- and she soons the whole place on fire. As Tanaka tries to escape (dragging along the crazed Mito), they are nabbed by the police. Because of her political connections, Tanaka spends even more time in jail than Mito. And when she finally gets out, she discovers that her boss/lover is philandering (with Mito, of course). Disgusted, Tanaka decides to go back to work, in education at the grasroots level. All thoughout, there is also all sorts of parliamentary maneuvering and campaign mumbo jumbo.

Structurally, this film is similar to the vastly superior The Love of Sumako the Actress (1947). Again, Tanaka plays an initially unsophisticated neophyte who is taken under the wing of an experienced and innovative male leader -- who then suffers grievously due to her mentor's flawed character. But the theatrical context of Sumako seems to have provided more inspiration -- and the fact that Sumako was based on well-known, real people seems to have kept this earlier film from engaging in utterly over-the-top fantasy of both My Love Is Burning (not to mention Women of the Night). My Love Is Burning has some visually impressive scenes, though some of these also happen to be the scenes that are most dramatically "improbable". It is interesting to note that the most problematic of Mizoguchi's occupation era films (a category that also includes his Victory of Women) have a lot in common with the least of his war-time films (Famed Sword Bijomaru, see above). These all seem as if they try to make up for lack of a solid dramatic core by ratcheting up the intensity and extravagance of the plots (a problem that stretched -- intermittently -- all the way through 1951 -- with Lady from Musashino).

A few more pictures:

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