February 12, 2013

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While the first quarter of the year has generally been a quiet time for Hollywood’s coffers, the rest of the world has been packing them in to their local multiplexes. Two of the bigger recent international successes are receiving limited U.S. releases, China’s Lost in Thailand (2012) and Korea’s The Berlin File (2013). Lost in Thailand has already become the highest grossing film in China’s history after only two months in release. An amiable odd couple road movie made for a reported $4.8 million, it has made an astounding $215 million domestically, and snuck into a NYC theater in time for the Chinese New Year. The Berlin File was more groomed for success, with a relatively large $10 million funding four big stars in an international spy thriller, with the talented director Ryoo Seung-wan (The Unjust) at the helm. It had the third highest opening weekend on record in Korea (from 2/1 – 2/3), and arrives stateside in a limited release this Friday.

Ryoo has ranged through many genres, from the male weepie Crying Fist (2005) to the amped up action of City of Violence (2006) to the savage corruption drama The Unjust (2010), but he applies his sharp social criticism and pulsating rhythmic sense to all of them.  His characters are either economically disadvantaged or on the make, the action arising from their guilt or underclass rage. Ryoo wrote and directed The Berlin File, but it’s the first that feels like a purely commercial venture – an impersonal technical exercise set to capitalize on the success of the first Korean spy blockbuster, Shiri (1999). It’s a cold war nostalgia piece that swaps the U.S. and Russia for South and North Korea (Ryoo too clearly tips his hand with a close-up of a John le Carre novel). Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) is a North Korean agent in Berlin who gets stranded in an arms deal gone bad. Suspected of being a double agent, DPRK spook Myung-soo  (the director’s brother Ryoo Seung-bum) is sent to test Jong-seong and his wife’s loyalty.  All are under investigation by South Korean intelligence chief Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu), who tries to puzzle out their movements with the help of the CIA.

Ryoo Seung-wan’s  script gets bogged down in plot mechanic minutiae, with almost an hour of stop-start exposition before the nut of the conflict becomes clear. Part of the problem is in trying to make the film English friendly. His stars are visibly strained when they are asked to speak the language, and the Anglo actors he has hired to play Mossad and CIA agents are a couple of smirking stiffs. This throws off the ping-pong beats of his usual scene-building, and doesn’t pick up again until the movie gets monolingual. Then Ryoo is able to display his prodigious talent – including a crisply shot  apartment shootout that ends with Jong-seong wrapped up in electrical cords and bouncing through space like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. Ha plays him with blank professionalism, trained within an inch of his life, while Ryoo Seung-bum gets to have all the fun as grinning sociopath Myung-soo, gleefully torturing his way through Berlin. This is no jingoistic anti-North Korean job though, since Ryoo again displays his disgust for his own government as well, the South a craven profit machine, betraying its principles as quickly as any DPRK agent. With tensions at the DMZ ratcheting up due to the reported North Korean nuclear test, though, it will be interesting to see if the film gets any blowback.

Lost in Thailand has no such claim to current events, although it has become something of an event in itself. It re-teams  the comedy duo of Xu Zheng and Wang Baoqiang from their 2010 hit Lost On Journey. Xu is the white-collar straight man, an impeccably groomed account manager for a scientific research firm, who is desperate to run the account for their new “petroleum enhancer”. In order to close the deal, he has to track down his boss, who is on retreat in Thailand. With no first-class seats available, he is forced to fly in coach, where he meets Wang. With his shaggy bowl cut, disturbingly childlike naivete and fighting skill, Wang is an unholy mix of Jerry Lewis and Mo from the Three Stooges. Xu and Wang have hit on a team up of high and low class that clearly appeals to vast swathes of the Chinese population, comparable to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ appeal in the 40s and 50sAlthough the film has been frequently compared to The Hangover, there is little of that film’s macho gross-out.

Like Lewis, Wang is a force of chaos, constantly destroying Xu’s plans, usually through his ignorance of technology. He pours water on a computer, tosses a flash drive out a window, and deletes the map to the boss’s temple. He’s a retrograde force, one the film condescendingly positions to be pitied, although of course his simple truths have much to teach the work-obsessed Xu. The film is much more fun when Wang is destroying than when Xu is learning, whether it’s giving a literally backbreaking massage or kicking gangsters in the face, but the film covers all its demographic bases, so we get maudlin scenes of a weepy Xu calling his estranged wife as well. Despite all the cliches, Xu and Wang have a prickly income inequality love-hate rapport that generates enough laughs to make me want to see more. And with those grosses, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to work on their schtick.


January 15, 2013

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For the past decade Korea has produced the most innovative genre films in the world, with directors Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon reinvigorating revenge thrillers, police procedurals and westerns. This year Hollywood is playing catch-up, commissioning remakes of recent Korean hits and importing that influential trio to make their English language debuts. Spike Lee is shooting his version of Park’s seminal Oldboy, and Allen Hughes has signed on to redo Kim’s A Bittersweet Life (2005, and whose Tale of Two Sisters was Americanized in 2009 as The Uninvited). Bong is finishing up production on his dystopic sci-fi film Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, while Park’s psychological horror film Stoker, featuring Nicole Kidman, will be released on March 1st. The first out of the gate will be Kim’s action movie The Last Stand, opening this Friday, which marks the post-gubernatorial screen return of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Kim is a restless genre tweaker, using traditional templates and then pushing them to extremes. His style varies from the antic energy of his “kimchi Western” The Good, The Bad, The Weird to the elegant control of his criminal revenge saga A Bittersweet Life, but his films insistently return to the theme of self-destructive violence that pulses just below the surface of the human psyche.

Kim Jee-woon was born in Seoul in 1964. He studied at the Seoul Institute Of the Arts, but dropped out to pursue a career in the theater. He worked as an actor before moving into directing, credited with helming the productions of Hot Sea (1994) and Movie Movie (1995). Details are slim about this period of his career, but eventually he began submitting screenplays to local competitions. His first script, Wonderful Seasons, won the best screenplay award at the Premiere Scenario contest in 1997, while later that year The Quiet Familywon the 1st Cine21 Scenario Public Subscription Contest. The Quiet Family would be Kim’s first film, and he would write all of his scripts up until I Saw the Devil (2010). As Jinhee Choi writes in The South Korean Film Renaissance, he benefited from a shift in the industry. The Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998 made large corporations like Samsung skittish about investing in film production, while Daewoo sold off its theatre chains. Venture capitalists filled the void, with Ilshin Investment Co. funding 5-6 productions a year. Simply needing to fill their slate, untested directors like Kim got their shot.

The Quiet Family (1998) is a black farce about an isolated lodge and the loosely knit family who operates it. When their first customer commits suicide, they decide to hide it for fear of bad publicity. The cover up is worse than the crime, as bodies pile up with no end in sight (it was loosely re-made by Takashi Miike in his musical The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)). Kim trawls through the halls in steadicam shots, providing blueprints of the lodge’s geography, orienting shots of normality soon to be spattered with blood. The film glides by on the charm of Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik, two icons early in their careers. Song was trained in improvisation for the theater, and he is already a magnetic, unpredictable presence, a menacing doofus who can whip his gangly appendages into a fighting stance at the slightest insult. Choi plays Song’s schlubby uncle, softening his bulldog face into one of resigned pliability. The whole family finds easy rationalizations for murder, and with each death they come easier and easier. Played for laughs, this quick and destructive slide into violence will pop up in the rest of his features, modulated according to his chosen genre’s mood.

He plays it for pathos in his follow-up, The Foul King (2000), in which sad sack bank employee Dae-Ho (Song Kang-ho) turns to pro wrestling to restore his dignity. An enormous hit in Korea with over 2 million ticket sales, it tapped into the angst of white collar salary slaves, where even karaoke becomes a matter of routine business.  Song Kang-ho again plays a deadbeat energized by violence, although this time the blows are choreographed, and he is a rumpled white collar rather than a live wire blue. While The Quiet Family is cartoonishly decimated by their violent actions, The Foul King is awakened by his pro wrestling performance, as if it were a male ritual needed to survive office life. Kim takes the inspirational sports movie and pushes it into Fight Club territory, with Dae-Ho feeling most alive only when going off script and bludgeoning his opponent. The cure, as in The Quiet Family, seems worse than the disease.

Kim took three years before making his next feature, workshopping his approach to the horror genre in short films. His entry in Three Extremes 2 (2002), “Memories”,  is his attempt to imitate the Japanese ghost stories that were still raking in money around the world thanks to Ringu (1998). A simple story of a husband haunted by his dead wife, Kim used it to experiment with POV, using jump cuts and flash backs to represent his main character’s troubled mind. He used these lessons in A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), melding the creepy Japanese ghost girl cliche and incorporating it into a classical Korean fairy tale, Janghwa Hongryeon. Two girls return to their country home after being discharged from a mental hospital, and are tormented by their stepmother and an unseen presence. Kim uses a gliding steadicam again to outline the geography of the house, and uses bird’s eye views to pin the girls to the ground as their self-deluding secrets come to light. Set design becomes more important – this house is far more detailed and alive than the one in The Quiet Family, with its blooming wallpaper and blood-red rugs, the house itself seems to be veined with blood.

Kim returns to a hyper-masculine world in A Bittersweet Life (2005), his first with high cheek-boned heartthrob Lee Byung-hun. Still interested in a kind of genre purity, this crime thriller, like A Tale of Two Sisters, is a classic genre narrative told without filigree. Lee plays Sun-woo, an enforcer at a luxury hotel for a local gang boss. Like the Quiet Family or Dae-ho, he has an unfulfilling job. An ascetic physical specimen who should be a Le Samourai style hitman, instead he’s tasked with rousting rival gang members from the bar and tailing his boss’ mistress. He is instructed to kill her if she is caught sleeping around, and his refusal sets in motion a series of bloody reprisals. Kim’s langorously tracking camera follows Sun-woo through his glimmering glass and steel universe, one exhausted of possibility, revealing only reflections. Lee is as drained of selfhood as the institutionalized Sisters, his motivation for revenge one of inertia. Neither Sun-woo or his boss can articulate why they are killing each other or why they can’t stop, only that it has started so it must end.

Later in 2005 Kim was a resident in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, marking a tonal shift in his work, his films regainng the self-reflexivity and jokiness of his first two features. The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) is a cartoonish spaghetti western spectacle that would make a good double feature with Django Unchained. Song Kang-ho returns to the fold as “The Weird”, a thief who steals a treasure map also valued by the Japanese army, a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung) and an outlaw (Lee Byung-hun). The film opens with a fist pounding on a map of Manchuria, and the film is a bloody satire on the absurd lengths men will go to defend and seek words on those maps. In the bravura opening train robbery sequence, Kim’s camera follows behind Song walks in a merchant’s disguise towards the safe car, passengers and guards ignoring him along the way. But when a man yells out, “Indpendence for Korea!” he is immediately flogged and tossed off. As the bounty hunter says, “if you have no country, you still gotta have money”, so the cynical trio circle each other, fighting over a map that leads to an unknown treasure. Any time one of the three places trust in another, there are double and triple crosses, each man out for himself and his own plot of land. Kim amps up the pacing and his cutting rate – it moves much faster than his previous films, and is filled with slashing diagonals of the three competitors crashing into the frame.

Kim’s first Hollywood deal was delayed by a year, and in the interim Choi Min-sik brought him a script by Park Hoon-jung: I Saw the Devil. It is the first film that Kim directed but did not write, although it fits snugly into his preoccupations. It takes the usual serial killer movie cliche, that the detective has to think like him in order to find him, to its logical endpoint. That is, the law in this film becomes just as sadistically violent as the serial killer, and the two engage in a grand guignol game of brinksmanship in which both try to inflict as much pain on the other without inducing death. Because dying would end their fun. Tying together various strands of his work, with its deluded protagonists, fairy tale haunted house (of cannibals) and self-destructive violence, it stands as a mid-career summing up, a transition to whatever this post-Hollywood phase brings.

The Last Stand, which I have not yet seen, is about a gang speeding on an escape route to Mexico. The only people capable to stop them are a small border-town sheriff and his deputies. It sounds like a natural extension of The Good, The Bad, The Weird, with its proto-Western scenario and focus on permeable borders. I’ve heard mixed reactions, to the film so far, but it doesn’t sound like Kim will ever be eager to return to the states. He told Korea JoongAng Daily that:

I found I was just another foreign worker here. [Laughs] I don’t have a lot of friends here and all I did was work, so in a way, I felt empathy toward foreign workers. I felt myself getting stronger when I set the goal for myself not to give up and to endure this loneliness.

He has already started development on his next Korean project, a live-action remake of Oshii Mamoru’s anime, Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade. A version of the red riding hood tale set in an alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II and Japan is a totalitarian state, it would appear Kim is returning to his comfort zone, pushing folk tales and traditional genres to the brink of self-annihilation.


April 24, 2012

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The mind needs structure. So when watching films in quick succession, unexpected linkages emerge, like the strange thematic similarities between Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives (in theaters now from Cinema Guild) and The Farrelly Brothers’ version of The Three Stooges, discovered while watching them back-to-back over the weekend. The first is a critically-acclaimed art film in limited release, the second the lowest of lowbrow comedies out everywhere, and yet they are both  episodic narratives about arrested male development, albeit in different stylistic registers. The Day He Arrives uses a teasingly complex script to lay out the alternate life paths its passive protagonist could have taken, hypnotically acted out with repetitive gestures and phrases. The Three Stooges, however, are active participants in their own destruction, eager to endlessly pratfall down the same road to get the eternally recurring nyuk-nyuk inducing result. Two versions of male stupidity, touchingly rendered.

The Day He Arrives is the latest generator of masculine regret from Hong Sang-soo, who has been mastering his elegiac deadpan mode since ’96, with increasingly fractured narratives. This one circles around ex-film director Seongjun (Yu Junsang), who leaves his exile in the country to visit his college friend Youngho (Kim Sang-joong) in Seoul. He says, “I’m not going to meet anyone but him”, which of course means that everyone on the street is a former lover or fan, forcing him to relive all the fumbling mistakes of his past. As Seongjun walks in circles, in a predetermined grid set up by the opening shot of an intersection, his past life starts repeating in the present. A rekindled relationship with an old flame from school is then re-enacted almost word for word with the owner of a bar named “Novel”. Seongjun learns nothing new, though,  keeping his distanced, faux-romantic pose as he once again cuts off personal contacts and retreats into his shell. Though he idly hopes that his films will be “re-evaluated after enough time has passed”, he never deigns to re-evaluate himself. It’s a bumbling, tragi-comic vision of Nietzsche’s eternal return:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ -Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Seongjun is too oblivious to be aware of his endless circling , his flickering consciousness too self-absorbed  and far too passive to gnash teeth. Maybe he would make do with a clench, if it didn’t strain him too much.

The Three Stooges are also stuck in an eternal return, not just of the endless recycling of television characters, but of their insatiable need to beat the snot out of each other, a trio of sadomasochistic co-dependents. Seongjun burrows inside himself to escape the world, while the Stooges slap each other to do the same. The Farrelly Brothers have examined all kinds of physical and psychological maladies (Seongjun is heading in the direction of Jim Carrey’s severely repressed schizo in Me, Myself and Irene), but the Stooges are the most sociopathic characters in their careers. A stupider and more violent Dumb and Dumber, which means, yes, it is a stirring return to form.

The Farrellys  give the reborn Stooges an origin story, as babies dumped at an orphanage at the feet of the curmudgeonly Sister Mary-Mengele (a hilariously harrumphing Larry David). As amateur hell-raisers they are never chosen for adoption, and are spurred to action when the nuns are forced to sell the place unless they raise six figures in cash.

The trio of low-watt celebrities do a remarkably good job at capturing the staccato tempo of the original Stooges. Sean Hayes has a fine falsetto whine as Larry, Chris Diamantopoulos has the nasal a-hole Moe voice down pat, and Will Sasso does a nimble Curly, always the most balletic Stooge. Avoiding the baggage of the originally rumored stars (Carrey, Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro were all attached at one point), these anonymous performers are able to put the jokes center stage.

Sent off into the world, the Stooges are as helpless as Seongjun, although instead of re-living past failures they establish new ones, including starting up a free-range salmon farm that flops. They attempt to insulate themselves from the world through their friendship (as the conjoined-twin protags of Stuck on You do), but start to crack apart instead. They re-team because they have to, due to the demands of Hollywood narrative as well as their own natures – they eye-poke, therefore they are.

If posed with Nietzsche’s question, they would probably answer “never have I heard anything more divine”, fools in love with their own foolishness, and when peeking outside the edges of their slap-happy triumvirate, would eagerly agree to stay inside of it for eternity, free to create chaos and baby pee fights wherever they may roam. Seongjun, an alcoholic Bartleby, would rather not participate in life. His Cartesian saying would be: “I think, therefore I want to disappear.”


June 28, 2011


If you’re suffering from the summer blockbuster blues, there’s no greater pick-me-up than the New York Asian Film Festival, an invigorating potpourri of the finest in creative Eastern bloodletting. It marks its tenth decadent year with 45 features from nine different countries, unspooling at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from July 1st – 14th. 11 of those films are co-presented with Japan Cuts, the NYAFF’s more studious (if no less ambitious) five-year-old sister festival, held at Japan Society from July 7th – 22nd. Including the 21 other titles in Japan Cuts, there are 66 Asian movies hitting screens in July, most of which will never receive distribution in the United States (although many will be obtainable at Asian DVD retailers).

Surveys of national cinemas are usually funded by state organizations (i.e. Rendezvous With French Cinema at Lincoln Center is “supported by” the French embassy’s Cultural Services department), turning them into bland diplomatic exercises. The movies selected veer toward middlbrow arthouse or sophisticated-seeming romantic comedies – presenting how these countries want to be seen. The NYAFF and Japan Cuts buck this trend by culling movies from every genre and budget size, from popular hits (Reign of Assassins) to 4 1/2 hour indie experiments (Heaven’s Story).

NYAFF is funded by a gaggle of cultural services and corporate sponsors (scroll to the bottom of the home page to see which ones) but beholden to none, while Japan Cuts is underwritten by The Japan Foundation, a government-created cultural exchange entity that became an independent administrative institution in 2003. These benefactors continue to give ace programmers Grady Hendrix (NYAFF) and Samuel Jamier (Japan Cuts) space to select titles both lowbrow and high, sketching a more wide-ranging portrait of Asia than you’ll likely read in the newspaper.

It’s impossible to cover everything on display (including a great Tsui Hark mini-retro), but most of the revelations in this year’s slate came in the NYAFF sidebar, “Sea of Revenge: New Korean Thrillers”, so I’ll focus there. Park Chan-wook re-invented the ax murder in his wildly popular vengeance trilogy, but it wasn’t until the runaway success of Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008) that a new cycle of revenge films got kicked off in Korea. The only inkling we’ve received stateside of this wave was the release of Kim Jee-Woon’s fantastical sadism duel,  I Saw the Devil (2010, Magnolia Pictures), earlier this year. The titles in the sidebar are perversely pessimistic thrillers that repeatedly take aim at Korea’s governmental institutions. It is no coincidence that the cycle began in 2008, the year which ushered in our continuing economic crisis (almost all the others landed in 2010).

The Chaser stars the plump and harried Kim Yun-Seok as Jung-Hoa dirty ex-cop who runs a second-rate prostitution ring that is bleeding cash. Two of his girls have fled, and another has quit, so he forces a feverish Mi-Jin (Seo Young-hee) out on a job. Then he notices the address, which is the same location where he sent the two girls who disappeared. His vestigial detective instincts kick in, and he begins a frenzied investigation into the john, Ji Young-Min (Ha Jung-Woo)who is soon revealed to be a mild-mannered serial killer.

The tone begins as grimly comic noir, as Jung-Ho’s short-tempered capitalist pursues the mystery out of base self-interest. He initially believes Ji has merely sold his whores, and becomes a P.I. only to save his business. When the extent of Ji’s crimes become clear, his focus sharpens and his defensive cynicism falls away. He literally runs down clues through the streets of Seoul as Na’s jittery camera struggles to keep up. The pace relentlessly carries the film through its operatically tragic conclusion. The few moments of humor are reserved for the incompetent police force, who are occupied by a protestor who threw shit in the mayor’s face (hapless Keystone Korean Kops are a recurring presence in the series). Hoarding its resources into handling that PR fiasco, sad-sack Jung-Ho is tasked with being a hero, a role he is ill-suited to execute.

Na followed this up with The Yellow Sea, NYAFF’s closing night film and a selection in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. It’s bigger and bloodier but equally swift and despairing as his boffo debut. He takes on the phenomenon of the “joseonjok“, Chinese citizens of Korean ancestry who illegally sneak back into Korea to get work. Na reverses the actor polarities from The Chaser: this time Ha Jung-Woo plays the beaten down anti-hero (Gu-nam) and Kim Yun Seok is the  mercilessly violent Chinese gang boss Myung-Ga. Gu-nam borrowed 60,000 yuan to get his wife a visa to work across the border, and he hasn’t heard from her since. Hassled by loan sharks and fraying at the seams beneath a stoic stone-face, Myung-Ga offers him a mountain of cash if he kills a man in Korea – while also giving Gu-nam the opportunity to track down his wife.

In the opening voice-over, Gu-nam speaks of his childhood. In his village, a dog infected with rabies killed its mother. Later he saw it wobble toward him and die from malnourishment. The village elders ate the corpse, and the disease spread throughout town. It is an original sin of a sort, his people cursed because of the desperation brought on by poverty. Gu-nam spends the film in atonement for this sin, enduring unspeakable physical abasements, although there is no transcendence on the other side.

With terse efficiency, Na depicts the Gu-nam’s journey across the Yellow Sea in a junk ship, hiding in a hull with the other illegals, dumped like netted lobsters on the Korean coastline. The scenes in which Gu-nam cases his mark’s home are object lessons in creating tension through narrative withholding, as we are restricted to his POV as he wordlessly pieces together the routines of the building. The aftermath of the murder opens up the narrative scope, as the POV expands from Gu-nam up to the corporate and criminal leaders who ordered the hit. He becomes merely part of a tapestry of corruption.

The cops, as in The Chaser, are comically inept, this time to a Keatonian level. In Gun-nam’s escape after the killing, he evades hundreds of police offers on foot, carrying a knife. The scene, with police cars flipping past him and baton-wielding ninnies yelling at him to stop, is a direct descendent of the Keystone Kops. It’s a spectacularly sarcastic scene, one with echoes throughout, including a cowardly local cop who accidentally shoots his partner. There is no faith in official institutions – everyone is on the take or just stupid.

I should also note the heavy use of blade violence [the following has been updated after a colleague alerted me to South Korea’s gun laws]. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle, mostly by Myung-Ga – and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity. Somehow this is getting released by 20th Century Fox, release date unknown.

The other major director in the sidebar is Ryoo Seung-Wan, a cheerier exponent of vengeance whose films have a pulsating rhythm. Represented by City of Violence (2006), The Unjust (2010) and Troubleshooter (2010, which he produced but did not direct), Ryoo churns out sleekly absorbing actioners with more self-reflexive panache than Na. City of Violence pits childhood friends against one another, pivoting on shady real estate deals (two years before the crash!), climaxing in fight scenes of comic-book abstraction. Clearly influenced by the ironic japery of Kill Bill, its centerpiece blowout is an exuberantly over-the-top homage to The Warriors. With The Unjust  he gets serious(er). A twisty, multi-layered corruption drama, it squares off a power-hungry detective and a power-hungrier prosecutor as the entire Korean justice system is jauntily sketched out as on the make. The detective, Captain Choi (Hwang Jung-Min), is tasked to frame a fall guy for the murder of a young girl, after the main suspect was unjustly killed by the police. The prosecutor (Ryoo Seung-Bum, the director’s brother) finds out, and thus begins an escalating game of blackmail that spreads throughout the city. Ryoo finds expressive uses for the slow zoom, moving from micro crimes to macro institutional corruption in one shot.

Kwok Hyeok-Jae helmed Troubleshooter (2010) which Ryoo produced and co-wrote. A hectic menage of the Bourne films and Hitchock’s The Wrong Man (or less hyperbolically, The Fugitive), it frames P.I. Tae-Sik (Sol Kyung-Gu) for murder, and he has to outrun the cops and prove his innocence before he gets his head blown off. Set to a backbeat of corruption news on his car radio, he dons disguises and endures betrayals with a breezy disregard. The busy visuals, a lot of screens within screens and flash editing, is tiresome after a while, but Sol is an amiable and ably physical performer, and the pace never flags. As for the other entries, The Man From Nowhere is a passably diverting Eastwood gloss, and I didn’t have time to watch Bedevilled.

Japan Cuts is studded with gems of its own, although the spurting bodily fluids they elicit comes from the tear ducts rather than the jugular. The most ambitious is Heavens Story, a four and a half hour labor of love for director Takahisa Zeze, the former “King of Pink” (Pink films are the softcore porn of Japan). An independent project that took him five years to make, it follows a group of characters dealing with the aftermath of a series brutal murders. It reminded me most strongly of Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka (2000) a similarly epic reckoning with grief, although their approaches are much different. Aoyama’s B&W long take naturalism is a far cry from Zeze’s blunt symbolism, but both reach to evoke the stasis induced by unutterable emotional pain, that netherworld between grieving and living. Zeze’s clumsy DV framings often fail to reach the heights he’s groping for, but there are plenty of striking images that blaze through, including an existential death match in an abandoned mining town, and the magical closing Kabuki performance that offers an escape from the cycles of violence. Another, more assured multi-character tale is Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City (2010), which documents the decline of an industrial port town in intersecting vignettes. Its highly detailed soundscape of clanging bells and alarm clocks seem to be counting down to the city’s demise.

One of the biggest surprises is Masahiro Kobayashi’s Haru’s Journey, a gentle drama about aging starring the legendary old lion Tatsuya Nakadai (High and Low, Ran et. al.). Kobayashi had been a maker of challenging festival films, including Bashing (2005) and the remarkable endurance test that is The Rebirth (2007). But here is his ode to Tokyo Story, a mainstream melodrama about Nakadai and his granddaughter, asking each of his siblings if he can live with them, and repeatedly being rejected. It’s a showcase for Nakadai, who is charmingly irascible throughout, his demeanor embodied in his lame leg, giving him a herky-jerky walk that is a warning to fellow pedestrians.  Kobayashi’s visuals are calmly controlled, often using extreme long shots to evoke this family’s emotional distance, proving he can handle melodrama with aplomb. Haru’s Journey is a lovely and bittersweet, anchored by Nakadai’s resolutely unsentimental performance.

Another unexpected departure is A Boy and His Samurai (2010), in which NYAFF and Japan Cuts regular Yoshihiro Nakamura diverts from his comic-paranoiac mode (as in the punk rock apocalypse of Fish Story (2009)) into a sweetly satisfying family film. Yusa is an overworked single mother whose child, Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki), is suddenly visited by an inadvertently time-traveling samurai named Kajima (played by Japanese TV heartthrob Ryo Nishikido). Without a clue how to live in the modern age, Kajima stays inside and becomes a super-dedicated housemaid, and eventually a world-class pastry chef.  With its gentle fish-out-of-water humor and its unassuming investigation of gender politics, it’s a preposterously entertaining  and intelligent movie.  It’s all wonderfully absurd, and put across with conviction by the engaging cast, especially the cherubic Fuku Suzuki, who just might be the cutest kid on screen since Jackie Cooper.

Considering the evidence on display, Asian cinema is as resourceful and inventive as ever, with an especially vibrant genre scene happening in Korea.  With I Saw the Devil pushing the revenge genre toward self-reflexiveness and closer to parody, the last stage in any stylistic cycle, it’s possible the next creative spurt has already started elsewhere. Maybe the exploitation action movies of the Phillippines and Thailand (like this year’s wondrously chaotic BKO: Bangkok Knockout) are hiding even more treasures.  I’ll have to wait until the next NYAFF and Japan Cuts to see what develops.


June 29, 2010

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The New York Asian Film Festival (June 25th – July 8th) is more essential than ever. With distribution companies shutting their doors to Asian cinemas of all types,  there are very few outlets to watch the continent’s resourceful, often brilliant genre cinema on the big screen. For nine years programmer Grady Hendrix and his crew have been filling the void, and for the past few has joined forces with the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema (July 1 – 16th)  to provide the most eclectic and revelatory overview of Asian film in the U.S. It’s a heady mix of spectacle, grotesquerie, slapstick and resolute artistry. Every year you’ll see something you’d never seen the likes of before.

For me, this year’s edition surprised me with its Chinese slate, and specifically the skittish performances of actor Huang Bo, recepient of this year’s redundantly titled  Star Asia Rising Star Award. My knowledge of contemporary Chinese cinema doesn’t extend far beyond the arthouses and underground film clubs that show Jia Zhangke and the documentaries of Zhao Dayong. So getting exposed to Huang in the antic Crazy Racer and morbidly funny Cow expanded my limited horizons.

A squat, frog-faced actor with a quick smile and a quicker temper, Huang plays stubborn fools with a clumsiness and slack-jawed innocence reminiscent of Buster Keaton. Crazy Racer (the sequel to Crazy Stone (2006), which I haven’t seen) is a time-shifting crime-comedy in the Pulp Fiction mode, with Huang’s disgraced bike racer bumping into two bumbling assassins, a Thai drug dealer, the Chinese mob and beatings with a frozen fish. The twisty narrative is imaginative and cleanly executed, and director Ning Hao doesn’t bother dawdling over too much sentiment. Cow has Huang playing a similarly alienated character, but in a completely different context. His Niu-Er is a simple peasant caught up in the Sino-Japanese war. His village gets slaughtered, the only surviving creature a foreign cow donated to give milk to the Chinese troops. Navigating some dramatic tonal shifts, Huang manages to insert a violence into his pratfalls and a resignation in his stubbornness that keeps the film from descending into treacle. He elicits laughs that catch in your throat, inserting a jaggedness to the sentiment that makes the whole improbable set-up go down a lot smoother. Plus the cow is pretty good too.

Revelatory in another sense is SOPHIE’S REVENGE, which is a blatant Sex & the City knockoff produced by and starring Zhang Zhiyi. She plays the Carrie role with an overwhelming barrage of animal-themed hats and cow-eyed stares. While the cartoon-y stylization and wonderfully violent fantasy sequences take some of the sting out of the blatant consumerism of this day-glo contraption, the story suffers from an inert supporting cast and a story too cliched for even the Sex gals to endure. While no great shakes as a film – as a cultural object it’s fascinating, as it creates a photo-shopped super-rich city of chrome and flowers and whimsy where women are sexually independent and the rural poor exist only in the “arty” shots of the hunky photographer.

Moving to Hong Kong, the best film in the festival is the uncut version of John Woo’s RED CLIFF, but I’ve already written about it here at Morlocks and also at Moving Image Source, so I won’t spill more words on it. But I will recommend Gallants, a quirkily nostalgic martial arts film featuring oldsters Bruce Leung and Chen Kuan-Tai. Waiting for their near-ancient master to awake from a coma, Leung and Chen turn the gym into a restaurant, until a callow teen sparks a feud with the high-tech workout joint across town. It’s a pleasant and comfy piece of work, sliding into the normal revenge plot mode with tongue gently pressing against cheek.

Little Big Man, Jackie Chan’s diverting take-off on the series of swashbuckling origin stories (including Red Cliff), finds the cherubic 56 year old actor playing a coward. He plays dead during the heroic battles in order to stay alive, and captures a wounded opposing General after all the bodies fall. Failing to push its subversive premise very far, the film ends up celebrating the same kind of warrior ethos it is ostensibly parodying. But it features a few agile Chan fight scenes, and that should be enough.

The only Korean feature I was able to preview was the loopy romantic comedy, Castaway on the Moon, which is unable to sustain its whimsy past the one-hour mark, upon which it devolves into standard love story pabulum. Mr. Kim attempts suicide by jumping into the Han river, only to find himself on an isolated island. Not too upset to be cut off from society, he starts living off the land and communicating with a shut-in, Mrs. Kim, who watches him through a telescope at a high-rise apartment. There is some good obsessive work with black bean noodles, bird poop and the real utility of credit cards, but once the separated duo start communicating, invention flags and director Lee Hey-Jun gropes for cliche.

The Japan Cuts program tends to be more reserved and dramatic, leaving the madness to NYAFF, and this year is no exception. The main highlight for me has been Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother, an expertly staged family melodrama starring the superb Sayuri Yoshinaga and Tsurube Shofukutei. They play sister and brother, respectively, with the latter drinking himself into a debauched oblivion. Yamada, now 78, is in perfect control of the medium, setting up familial relations and foreshadowing events through composition and staging. Beginning with a quick montage of recent Japanese history (including clips from Yamada’s own 48-feature long Tora-san series), the film slowly unveils Tsurube as the inebriated black sheep of the family, upending a family wedding with the destructive power of his singing voice.

He prefaces this destruction with a quietly witty shot – a wine glass in the left foreground marking doom. Later, Tsurube’s knee juts up into the middle of the frame, another subtly amusing jibe at his need to be the center of attention. But this isn’t a comedy of reformation. Yamada never allows Tsurube to be judged so simplistically, eventually offering a subtle critique of the middle-class values that would attack his particular kind of independence. If you need more reasons to see it, David Bordwell is a fan and wrote about it briefly here.

The festival started on June 25th, but there’s plenty more to see. And while it’s likely you won’t catch them in cinemas again anytime soon, many will be available at your local Chinatown on DVD, and will be for sale at on-line retailers like YesAsia.


May 19, 2009


Even if Martin Scorsese had never sat behind a camera, his heroic efforts at preserving film history would have earned him a spot in the cinematic pantheon. The biggest news out of the Cannes Film Festival this week, at least for nerds like myself, was the announcement regarding Mr. Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, which restores rare international films selected by a board consisting of directors like Wong Kar-Wai, Guillermo del Toro, and Abbas Kiarostami, among others. Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones was introduced as the new executive director, and a new distribution relationship with the “on-line cinematheque” The Auteurs and the Criterion Collection will allow these restorations to be viewed widely.

The Auteurs has already begun streaming four WCF films for free, and Cannes is currently screening four classics they’ve refurbished, including Edward Yang’s masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day (Michael Atkinson has a lovely new piece up at Moving Image Source regarding it). This is in addition to Scorsese’s English language restoration arm, The Film Foundation, which produced a new print of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes now screening at the festival, and who also pushed forward the essential Budd Boetticher box set released last year. It’s an astonishing effort at keeping history and cinephilia alive. (for more info, check out GreenCine’s podcast with Scorsese and Jones).

Sure, this news is not as exciting (and shocking!) as the coverage of the genital mutilation scenes in Lars von Trier’s latest provocation, Antichrist (which has dominated the Cannes stories this year), but it might have a slight edge in having a long-term impact on film culture. In my first attempt at digging in to the Foundation’s riches, I watched two of the features on The Auteurs, Kim Ki-Young’s The Housemaid (1960), and Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (1964).

The Housemaid pulses with a delirious sexuality, focusing on the queasy thrills of smashing moral boundaries and the horrifying retribution that ensues. Kim sets the visual stakes in the opening shot: a track that pushes from outside a window into the piano room of the family’s house, establishing the idyllic, post-Korean war family before settling into a close-up of the cat’s cradle the kids are twiddling with. Cue title card. The journey of the camera mimics the later movement of the unnamed housemaid (Lee Eun-shim), whose entrance into the father’s domain signals the end of domestic bliss, and the entrance into a inescapable cat’s cradle-like net of ethical degradation.

Images of decay soon take over, usually tied to the family’s acquisitveness. The kids play on a staircase of their unfinished house, with two-by-fours looming over them. Their daughter, Aesoon, has to walk on crutches because of a mysterious disease, and their kitchen is beset by a plague (OK, just a couple) of rats. The father buys his daughter a squirrel for a pet, that particular type of rodent more acceptable for being purchased. Kim has things play out mostly in two-shots, but pushes in for the telling detail. The dad, a meek piano instructor, is teaching a young female admirer, and Kim cuts in to his hand cupping hers on the keys. This is when the new maid is seen creeping outside the window, spying on this strangely intimate lesson. Peering meekly inside, her unease growing, Kim cuts to a close-up of two rats writhing on a plate slathered with poison. No half-measures here, as the father’s passive psyche is ravaged by the sexual impulses he can’t control. Once the camera goes inside the house, the perversity can’t be contained, and Kim orchestrates an appropriately grand guignol ending.

Dry Summer, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, is a more naturalistic tale from Turkey that deals with self-destruction. Except in this case it’s arrogance rather than passivity that is the central character’s undoing. Selected for the WCF by director Fatih Akin (Head On), it’s an unstinting portrayal of Turkish masculinity, instantiated in the person of the mustachioed Osman (in a deliciously bombastic performance by Erol Tas). A tad portly, and often shirtless, Osman wants what’s his, regardless of the consequences. So when he declares that the village spring is on his property, he’s fully prepared to defend it to the death after denying the other villagers access to it.

This capitalist swine is often framed in extreme close-up, exaggerating his already caricature-ready features (wide nose, bushy moustache, droopy eyes) into a monstrous ass. Erksan even gives a donkey a similar close-up to cement their physical and emotional similarity. There’s a playful air to this monster, but he’s never portrayed to be anything else, whether tossing a recently severed chicken head to frighten his sister in law, or leeringly imbibing milk as he stares up her skirt. His look is what dominates the film, and his strapping brother’s wife, Bahar (Hülya Koçyigit), is the focus of his gaze. The clash over the public/private use of land is the arc that weaves through the whole film, but Osman’s vision of masculinity is the major subplot – of his ravenous thirst for land, money, and power – regardless of the cost. So when the villagers come to ask for the water, he tosses a pail at them. When they say they’re willing to buy a portion of it, he lends an ear.

It’s not worth giving away his most devious act, since you should watch it for yourself, but suffice it to say that the donkey wouldn’t have stooped to such levels. Tas is so brilliant in articulating his character’s childlike self-absorption that it often seems more like a comedy than a tragedy, but a final act reckoning tips it firmly into the latter, and it stands as a uncompromising critique of masculine aggression, while also being shaded enough to appreciate the guile it takes to be so evil.

I had heard of The Housemaid before, but had no idea that Dry Summer existed. The fact that there is an organization out there willing to restore and distribute this kind of material – artistically exciting but commercially nonviable – in this kind of economic climate, is nothing short of miraculous.These works have me primed for the other films in their pipeline, including Al Momia (1969) from Egypt , Redes (The Wave) (1936) from Mexico, Limite (1931) from Brazil, and Forest of the Hanged (1964) from Romania. Their motto is, “Dedicated to the preservation and restoration of neglected works around the world”, which sounds like something I’d come up with in a fever dream from my more idealistic school days. Apparently Scorsese has been sharing my dreams, except he has the capital and wherewithal to do something about it.

Further Reading: Michael J. Anderson at Tativille