Friday, January 28, 2011
Tony Rayns, the leading English-language critic on East Asian cinema, in collaboration with the Korean Film Council, has presented this introductory volume on the work of director Jang Sun-woo, the so-called Bad Boy of Korean Cinema. It is one of many books in the series "Korean Film Directors": slim volumes meant to introduce the English-speaking world to the best film makers in South Korea. Each volume is presented by a different critic. Rayns has separated the book into three distinct sections: his opinions, presented in the book's most lengthy single article; the opinions of Jang Sun-woo, being excerpts from interviews with Jang, taken from Rayns' documentary "The Jang Sun-woo Variations"; and the opinions of others, segments from English-language articles, and translations from noteworthy Korean critics, such as director Lee Chang-dong's insightful reaction to "Lies".
Even though we are very lucky to have these English translations of Korean film articles available, I cannot give it a 5 out of 5 because there really should have been more discussion on "Bad Movie", which is one of his very important works, the crux of his trademark nihilism. A lot more time seems to have been given to "Passage to Buddha", "To You, From Me", and "Lies". While I don't mind this at all, it would have been more enjoyable had it been balanced. Giving a little more analysis to "A Petal" would have been beneficial as well, since I think that an English-speaking audience would not have the background in Korean history to dissect it. But overall, this is a MUST-HAVE book if you are even slightly interested in Jang Sun-woo. The info and analysis on his early films, "Seoul Jesus", "The Age of Success", and "The Lovers of Woomuk-Baemi" is much-needed as well, since all but Seoul Jesus (which has recently turned up on the web) seem to be completely missing from market circulation. While I have been able to locate VHS copies of these films, including To You, From Me, sans subtitles, the sites which they are available on are unreliable.
In the introduction, and throughout the book, Rayns and others suggest that while this director may bring controversy everywhere he goes, he exists because he brings to light the many contradictions of modern Korea, which even the amnesiac consumer culture cannot ignore (the book's very self-critical tone of society and the individual within it are welcome and quite needed today). Yet, his real reason, of course, for being in the industry, and not an outsider in the underground/experimental realm, is the fact that his work is profitable. So, it is very understandable that he, like many Korean directors, it seems, is punished with silence when he is not able to make a commercially successful work (the new censorship). The financial failure of "Resurrection of the Little Match Girl" is reflected on in the book's most memorable article, an interview with Jang on his Elba, of sorts, the mythic Jeju Island, where he appears to be regretful of artistic mistakes (which I don't think are as grave as he or others believe), but hopeful to re-enter the industry with something better. He has yet to make another feature after his big-budget, wire-string sci-fi Match Girl, but is still trying.
* 4.5 out of 5
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Love Talk - is the second film by Lee Yoon-ki, director of the so hallowed picture reviewed above. As you guessed, it's a romance. Not a romcom, more like a romdram. (Did I just write that?) It's very bland, but a better LA film than anything I've seen from an American director. The whole diversity of LA is found here, unlike the LA that Rob Altman saw in Short Cuts. There isn't much to say. It's very boring. The characters are affable while watching, but I may forget them after closing this review. I'll have to watch Ad Lib Night when I find the will. *5 out of 10
Tears - IM Sang-soo strikes again. These teen rebellion pictures have a long legacy going. I think Rebel Without a Cause started it all. This particular bad teen film is far more visceral than what you would normally get. Shot on MiniDV, right in the Garibong-dong, it makes it feel nearly too real, but it doesn't elevate itself into documentary. You always know that you're watching a film, although it's very convincing. DV does have a certain immediateness that film does not retain. And while it's basically a good drama, above average definitely, in dealing with such a grim topic, personally, I am far more interested in the social forces that push these kids towards vagrancy than the physical workings of their daily lives. Maybe I'll have to make that film myself, but it may end up not being fictional. And if you want to see the apex of the teen rebellion genre, then watch a little Singaporean picture called 15: The Movie by Royston Tan.
This Charming Girl - Very charming indeed. Where did they find her? This is another reason why that little country below China (no, the one even below the so-called oriental, totalitarian nightmare) is on top now as far as cinema goes. The reviews were glowing for this one, and seeing as how those reviewers were the competent ones, I believed them and was rewarded. This was very impressive, even more so because it was an original script. It has the depth that is usually found in literature, and as this quality so rare to find in film, I hope it continues, as the cinema so obviously has the potential to supersede any literary achievement. The charming girl we follow is a humble office worker, and in a format so compelling, reminding me of Soseki's novels, her character is slowly peeled away as we watch her go through the quotidian routine. This obsession with domesticity, hence the abundant feminine presence, is what is so fascinating about East Asian fiction. They aren't the Ancient Greeks. Their artists have always been concerned with the home. After all, that is the foundation of society. A more stable existence is possible if public life were more grounded around the home. But... Lee Yoon-ki somehow gave us one of those gems. A little masterwork (not piece) that seemed to come out of nowhere. The verisimilitude is leaps and bounds above what is found normally. I would even argue that maybe it's a little bit too real, but this is necessary. He's pointing future filmmakers in a new direction. *9 out of 10
The Road to the Racetrack - There is a general consensus now for the few who have seen this: it IS the Korean answer to The Mother and the Whore. But have I told you: The Mother and the Whore is MY favorite film. You can't just go copying it all willy-nilly unless you have something fantastic up your sleeve. Though while it isn't a carbon copy, the influence is obvious from the beginning. This is a film about talking about relationships. It's what the French do best, and now the Koreans have mastered it as well. The couple in question is on rocky territory: he's married with two brats and she's a bit younger and quite well-off, to his "I can barely can get by." It begins with him returning to Korea after obtaining a doctorate in France, where they cohabited for over three years. Of course, upon returning to the home country, he's very interested in continuing the relationship, but it seems that France (or Korea) has changed them both, and things cannot go so smoothly. What I like most about these films is that they are honest depictions of life. It's easy to find the more solid truths of life when analyzing relationships, which is why it is such a repeated subject. The bulk of the film is simply the discussions between the couple - R (him) and J (her). J picks up R in her car and they talk in bars, cafes, hotels. Although they seem to want to have a deep bond, his intellectual coldness and her hypocrisy stop this from growing. I don't mind imitation, as long as you imitate the best. *9 out of 10
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Camel(s) - is the most faithful expression of realism I've seen. I thought it had the potential to be pretentious, but the verisimilitude goes to the degree of discomfort (because it's all too real). It becomes hard to watch as you realize that one half of amorous couple could very well be your own parent (pick one, and you can literally see them, a couple in an extramarital affair, drowning in guilt through their eyes). Without the use of artifice, Park is able to get to a few really hard truths about our suffocating, industrial society and the distance between men and women. And while this may all sound like exactly what HONG Sang-soo has been working on for over 10 years, this analysis of the subject is all the more subtle, and completely lacking the comedy that allows Hong's films to be palatable. I'm definitely taking another look at this one in the near future, and am going to get my hands on Motel Cactus.