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Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
South Korean director Joon-ho Bong captured the attention of many international filmgoers in 2006 with his home-grown monster movie The Host. He rode the crest of a wave of interest in popular Korean cinema with its potent and often outlandish preoccupations, and reservoir of directorial talent and also including Chan-Wook Park and Kim Jee-woon. Many movie fans found that The Host offered the texture and quality of a bygone variety of genre entertainment, plied with energy and love for the nuts-and-bolts craft of a good creature feature Hollywood hasn’t offered since around the time of Arachnophobia and Tremors (both 1990). An enjoyable film, it was nonetheless rather overrated: I found Bong’s filmmaking, in spite of (and because of) his sustained steadicam shots, often clumsy or arrhythmic, the script far too busy and over-long, and the attempts to incorporate political and social commentary obvious, even tacky, without ever being incisive or as curtly dovetailed as in the best examples of the genre. Still, the film surely earned Bong a cult following abroad, whilst his follow-up, Mother (2011), seemed a complete about-face in subject matter, but still earned critical plaudits for the director’s eccentric artistry. Snowpiercer is a work of greatly increased ambition, an adaptation of a French graphic novel series with The Host’s co-stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko rubbing shoulders with an international cast in a film that aims for the broadest possible audience, delivering thrills and spill tethered to an allegory that’s never any vaguely disguised.
A post-apocalyptic take on Spartacus (1960) mixed with a little A Night to Remember (1958) and The Cassandra Crossing (1977), Snowpiercer is built around one central, dominating concept: the entire film takes place on a super-fast bullet train speeding around the world. The world itself has been frozen into a giant block of ice by a misguided attempt to deal with global warming by inculcating the atmosphere with a dense artificial gas, and only the train’s constant motion keeps it from finishing up as a metal popsicle. Captain American himself, Chris Evans, plays Curtis, an intelligent and conscientious member of the train’s third class, that is, passengers who were allowed on board in the pure desperation and chaos of civilisation’s last days, and have been forced to subsist ever since in the rear carriages of the train. The train is the brainchild of genius inventor and industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), who never leaves the very front carriage of the train, tending his engine with its miraculous, perpetual-motion energy supply. The train still travels the old world-looping track he built nominally for international travel but actually because he anticipated just such a fate.
Curtis has become something like the adopted older brother or even father of Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the two have begun conspiring on ways to overthrow the armed guards who keep them cordoned off from the other classes on the train, and stage a takeover. The filthy and dispirited passengers of the rear carriages are fed on green, jelly-like blocks of protein. Curtis is haunted by evil events that occurred on the train in the early days and is discomforted by Edgar’s hero worship. Curtis feels second-rate compared to other passengers, like the wizened old Gilliam (John Hurt), who are missing multiple limbs for reasons that are eventually explained. Gilliam seems to have an intimate understanding of the train’s remote lord, who is regarded as an almost god-like benefactor by the better-off on the train, and he advises Curtis as their plans begin to take shape. Another, more mysterious helper has been smuggling messages of advice to Curtis in his evening protein blocks.
The third-class passengers are infuriated when Wilford’s emissary and concubine Claude (Emma Levie) comes on one of her occasional missions to extract small children for an unknown purpose. She claims Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), son of Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and in the distraught melee that results, one passenger, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) tosses a shoe at Claude’s head. Andrew is grotesquely punished by having his arm forced out through a portal to be frozen stiff in the high mountain cold, and then shattered with a hammer, whilst Mason (Tilda Swinton), a gummy, gawky, patronising Minister in the train’s government, lectures the third class in the necessity of their happy obeisance to the settled order. Mason accidentally gives away a crucial piece of information which Curtis correctly interprets: the guards’ guns have run out of bullets in putting down earlier revolts, and now, if they can strike hard and fast enough, the third class might stand a chance. Curtis chafes against the efforts of Edgar, Tanya, and others to make him their appointed leader, but it soon becomes clear that any revolt is going to need a guiding mind with a clear and relentless idea of what to do each at each challenge, with the reflexes to match. Gross manifestations of repression and inequality are of course soon gleefully repaid as Curtis launches his revolt, using salvaged barrels to jam doors open and swoop upon the guards. As the rebels gain access to the next few cars, they discover the sickening truth about their food source, as insects and waste scraps are mashed into their protein blocks.
There’s a conceptual similarity in Snowpiercer to works and writers from great days in the science-fiction genre, likes J.G. Ballard’s grimy satires and Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fantasias. Bong signals his influences and reference points early on: some have compared him to Steven Spielberg, and whilst that was evident in The Host with its narrative focus on a fractious, venturesome family unit, here the guiding influence seems rather to be ‘80s and ‘90s Euro Cyberpunk, like the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam, who’s given an explicit name-check in Hurt’s character. Which could be cool, but frankly I found much of Snowpiercer felt old-hat, particularly in channelling Gilliam’s least likeable trait, of pushing his performers towards becoming leering grotesques, particularly evident in Bremner’s performance and, more appreciably, Swinton’s amusing if unsubtle Mason, who becomes the main foil and victim of the rebellion. Although pushed a few rungs down the social bracket so she speaks with broad a midlands accent and has a rather awful dental plate, Mason’s a quite obvious burlesque on Margaret Thatcher, abusing her charges, whom she calls “freeloaders,” for their lack of gratitude, and going through a show-and-tell play with a shoe placed on Andrew’s head: “Be a shoe,” she advises the passengers, because they’re not hats. In case it’s not obvious enough already, Snowpiercer is supposed to be a parable about have and have-nots, casting the rear carriage passengers as third world and underclass losers held down by the man, man.
Curtis seeks out Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the train’s former electrical and security wizard, who seems to have degenerated into a hopeless frazzled drug addict. The drug of choice on the train is Kronol, a by-product of the train’s toxic waste and a highly flammable substance. Minsoo, once he’s awakened out of his dissociate daze after being plucked from a penal cell like a morgue locker, makes a deal with Curtis to get his daughter Yona (Ko) out of another locker, and for them both to receive for blocks of Kronol in exchange for getting the rebels through each barrier ahead of them on the train. Yona, a “train baby”, seems to have a preternatural awareness, bordering on precognition, and is able to warn the advancing force about dangers hidden on the far side of the closed doors. The rebels face their greatest challenge in a carriage where they find Mason and a death squad armed with battle-axes waiting for them, timing a blackout with the train’s movement into a long, dark tunnel, so that the attackers, who have night vision goggles, can freely slaughter them. But, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, one of the tiny number of matches Minsoo had saved is used to light a torch, and this is rushed from the rear of the train to the battleground by successive runners including Andrew in an ecstatic parody of an Olympic torch relay.
Fire allows the battle to proceed fairly and the rebels vanquish their foes, but Curtis is forced to make a call between saving Edgar, who is defeated and used as a human shield by one of the guards, and catching Mason before she can scurry off. Curtis makes the choice of a leader and goes after Mason: Edgar’s throat is cut but Curtis captures the Minister and uses her to force the guards to stop fighting. I like Evans as an actor: he was the star of one of my favourite recent genre films, Push (2009), which was one of those rare films that started off cleverly and kept up the flow of invention until the very end. And he’s quite competent here as a hero whose only exceptional characteristics are his intelligence and his desperation for moral regeneration, which drives him to break boundaries others accept. To his credit, Bong gives the film time to breathe with contemplative time-outs between scuffles, and paying attention to Curtis’ interactions with his fellow, culminating in a lengthy explanation to Minsoo about the early days on the train, when he was a teenage punk who had succumbed to murderous cannibalism, before the protein feed regime was instituted and the passengers were starving.
Curtis was brought to his senses when Gilliam and other older passengers began donating their limbs as food to keep the marauders like Curtis from snatching babies for the pot: Edgar’s life was saved directly by this intervention. Curtis thus faces that regulation trope (or cliché) of many recent Japanese and Korean dark thriller and horror films, the sense of guilt or transgression that can only be expiated by sacrificing a limb (see also the works of Chan-Wook Park, who produced this, and Takashi Miike). Such a revelation invests Curtis with a memorable pathos and darkness, and yet it doesn’t sit very well with the pretty clean-cut guy we’ve been introduced to. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been more convincing, and indeed genuinely affecting, with an older, more world-weary and weathered actor in the part, somebody who at least looked like he had the memory of a savage self in him.
At some point in this film’s development, Bong seems to have decided he was faced with a clear choice with this material, to either try to make it convincing or to play up its symbolic value. He chose the latter, but immediately revealed his lack of understanding of science-fiction, which can revolve around parable but must also exemplify a logical take on its chosen fantastical realm. The film follows a very basic guiding logic that makes sense, the literally linear movement from front to back of the train, which has a suspiciously video-game conceit to it, whilst also evoking the powerful influence of producer Park in the resemblance of fight scenes to the tight-packed, squared-off fight scenes that rather resemble the famous corridor battle in Oldboy (2006). But beyond this, Snowpiercer’s set-up, both technical and social, makes painfully little sense, never working at all to explain certain basic questions. Key to the film’s plot is the supposed balance of life within the train, a concept that has important ramifications in a climactic reveal. As the rebels advance through the conveyance, they pass through carriages dedicated to the propagation of animal and plant-life.
If the Snowpiercer had been deliberately designed as a mammoth Noah’s Ark-like device to save a small section of humanity I might have bought this, but the circumstances of the machine’s construction, when revealed, present the film as a private industrial Spruce Goose repurposed into it present use. The train, which when glimpsed from the outside doesn’t seem all that much bigger than the average Amtrak cross-country express, and couldn’t possibly support enough infrastructure to make the life on the train we see possible, not even to produce the insects ground up for the protein meal. The film is full of unexplained logic jumps as weapons come out of nowhere and characters who shouldn’t know one end of a gun from another suddenly having a working knowledge of automatic weapons. A gunfight is precipitated in the midst of a carriage full of the last kids on earth. Obviously someone doesn’t think children are our future.
The perspective the audience is forced to follow makes the early stages a striking experience in the sense of isolation and imposed abused, envisioning life in the third-class carriages as a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express turned into way of life, mixed with a favela. The conceit of the film can be excused as merely a transposed vision of slum dwellers invading the better parts of town wrapped in a polite sleeve of genre fiction, but nakedness of political metaphor doesn’t make for brilliance. As the film unfolds the coherency of the metaphor becomes increasingly silly and self-serving, as it offers no chance for perspective from the other classes on the train, just a broad caricature of privilege and indoctrination. Far from being a wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, the film could be seen as marking a different inference, a metaphor for the way third world countries are denied the pleasures and benefits of industrialisation by the environmental concerns of rich westerners. As the rebels penetrate the “first world” part of the train, the vignettes they see there look like the interior of a luxury liner where prim personages sit, and then the interior of a rave club, filled with louche young things reclining in decadent postures. Yes, that’s the limit of Bong’s insight into modernity’s diseases: stoned young party people and Victorian upper-crust caricatures. It’s so puerile it makes the French Revolution invocations of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) seem profound.
Where all the warriors came from, and indeed where they go to after initial skirmishes, and the train’s entire apparent infrastructure of government and representation, is skipped over. Good points might have been made about the whipped-up bloodlust and fear of the other passengers when faced with the insurrection as a simile for political manipulation, but the only “people” on the train are the rebels, and even they’re pretty one-dimensional. The film’s best scene isn’t much more sophisticated but is staged with such an intimate gusto I didn’t mind, as the rebels bust into a schoolroom carriage. There the primly raised little snots of the train’s upper class are inculcated with cultish love of Wilford through absurd songs and catechisms like “The engine is eternal! The engine is forever!” and “We would all freeze and die!” Mason delights in hearing the songs: “I love that one – such a tonic!” she reports with splendidly needy over-enthusiasm. Canadian actress Allison Pill has a deliriously inspired cameo here as the kids’ wackadoodle teacher, eyes aglow and eyelids aflutter with feverish excitement in teaching the gospel of Wilford like a Moonie zealot, whilst the overtones of this sequence take on several targets at once, from religion in general to the specifically cultish fanaticism attached to supposed benefactors, and even perhaps a tilt north of the 38th parallel.
The scene sharpens to a point as the heavily pregnant teacher draws an automatic weapon on Curtis and the other rebels: she gets a knife in the throat, and Curtis coolly executes the increasingly pathetic Mason in retaliation. Most of the issues I had with the film on an intellectual level with the film might have been rendered moot if I’d found it more satisfying on the level of meat-and-potatoes action, but Snowpiercer is rather ordinary in that regard, and certainly inferior to, say, Pierre Morel’s work on Banlieu 13 (2004), a film which had much the same structure and subtext but not half the pretension. One major problem with the film’s development is that apart from Mason none of the antagonists are at all well-defined enough to dislike. We have bad guys whom scrutiny of the credits tell me are called Franco (Vlad Ivanov, the sleazy abortionist of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007) and Egg-Head (Tómas Lemarquis) but who come out of nowhere and are standard action movie villains. Curtis and Franco end up having a gunfight between carriages as the train goes around a long curve, an idea that makes interesting use of the specifics of the situation but as it plays out here is numbingly stupid.
Franco lumbers along emotionlessly killing Curtis’ followers, including Tanya, and proves rather hard to dispatch, like the Terminator in business casual. The film’s action set-piece is the tunnel fight, which is passably well-staged but more interested in pretty effects like art-directed blood spurting on the windows than in believably depicting a fight in such close-packed quarters: interestingly, neither side seems to have thought much about how such battles are likely to proceed. Bong does pull off one terrific little moment of action staging, with Curtis locked in mortal combat with a goon, another goon looms over his shoulder ready to strike, only for Edgar to launch himself into the frame and crash into the goon’s belly. This moment not only requires carefully framing on Bong’s part but also nicely shows off Bell’s physical grace as an actor, which no-one seems interested in exploiting otherwise. I’m not sure what both sides stopping their fight momentarily to celebrate the anniversary of getting on the train is supposed to signify except unfunny satirical intent.
It could also be argued that the film’s weakness as a mixture of realistic and metaphorical storytelling are justified by a certain pseudo-surrealist tone, and there is a little of this, as when the rebels suddenly burst into carriages that are gardens and aquariums. Not nearly enough to justify the film’s conceits, however. Where the finale might have justifiably moved into a zone of splintering realities, like the last episode of The Prisoner (TV, 1967-8), Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (who penned Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) stick close to diagrams of clunky blockbuster exposition. Curtis and Minsoo make it to the engine of the train, but find their way barred by a seemingly impassable hatch. Minsoo has a secret intention to use the Kronole he’s amassed to blow open the train’s only exterior hatch, because he’s noticed that the ice outside has retreated and escape from the train is now possible. Rather than do this immediately however, he and Curtis sit around for a half-hour talking whilst their enemies have time to mass. Claude unexpectedly emerges from the engine with a gun to usher Curtis in to see Wilford. Now, unlike Curtis who’s supposed to be smart, the audience will have guessed about five minutes in that Wilford was the one sending the helpful messages to Curtis, with only the motivation hazy. This is revealed to be, in a shameless rip-off of the climactic revelations of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), because Wilford likes to carefully provoke and repress rebellions to justify culling back the train’s population for the sake of sustainability.
Now, why a technocrat like Wilford who has essentially reduced the world to his own immediate ego-verse where he might easily control every element of life would rely on such clumsy and self-destructive tactics to maintain balance on his train is a question for smarter folks than I. So too is why the train’s society is set up like it is. Mason’s use of the word “freeloader” made me wonder if perhaps the schism was set up around those who, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), had paid to get on the ark and those who had been taken on as an act of charity or had forced their way on. But this is never actually brought up, and really it’s just a conservative code word trucked in for broad satirical effect, and besides, after eighteen years nobody’s questioning such delineations? The dark sacrificial antitheses of the surface paradises portrayed in the likes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Logan’s Run (1976), stories based around similar ideas, aren’t necessarily more probable but they make a hell of a lot more sense in terms of the schematic societies they present us with.
Another ready reference point here is that immovable icon of cinema sci-fi, Metropolis (1926), which has an infamously vague political meaning, but at least boiled itself down to a likeable homily. I’m not sure what homily I could boil Snowpiercer down to, not even “Fight the Man”, as the film’s somewhat self-defeating climax derails (literally) the point it seems to have been making. The film does finally achieve a minatory power in the rush of events and visuals building to that climax – the sight of young Tim imprisoned amongst the gears and wheels of the engine has a Dickensian power, and Curtis and Minsoo rushing to embrace Yong and Tim to protect them from an explosion’s billowing flames offers a fitting condensation of the film’s theme of fatherly care, and a spark of real emotion at last in a film that otherwise lacks it. The last images evoke the end of THX-1138 (1971), although not as vividly iconic, in the simultaneous evocation of freedom and exposure, even as once again Snowpiercer begs a lot more questions than it really answers. Is it better than a Michael Bay movie? Yes. But not that much better.
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Director: Sang-soo Hong
By Roderick Heath
Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Hong has been quietly creating a name for himself for the past two decades amongst a fairly rarefied film audience, with his meticulously made, small-scale studies in contemporary cinema that are as much about their own creative vicissitudes as they are about their nominal stories and subjects. Hong’s Cannes competitor from last year (this year, it’s Another Country) and one of this year’s best-reviewed releases, The Day He Arrives is a beguiling entry in a style that is relatively easy to describe in terms of likenesses, for it has the conversational immediacy of Eric Rohmer, Louis Malle, or Jim Jarmusch at their most relaxed. But it is less easy to describe when considering the way Hong leans less on overtones of the literary actor’s exercises such etudes of chat often possess, instead creating subtle, adventurous works of filmic legerdemain. Hong’s formal structures and deceptively rigorous technique motivate an apparently idle, offhand mise-en-scène, and the results stand out with individual vibrancy. Hong made The Day He Arrives with a miniscule crew working in digital black and white, evoking the old shooting methods of the early French New Wave whilst also suggesting the heights to which intelligent filmmakers with good actors and basic tools at their disposal can aspire.
Many of Hong’s films feature an artist-protagonist beset by the absurdities and petty distractions of everyday life that seem, all too often, to accumulate into the very texture of that life. Such an approach and subject matter risk descent into solipsistic autobiography, and yet Hong’s material has a fundamental and instinctual sense of experience and perspective, with hints of self-analysis that do not spurn universal applications. Hong’s work also reflects an implicit irony similar to some far more showy variations on similar ideas, like Fellini’s 8½ (1963) or Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) (Hong’s film could aptly be called “One Week In Another Town”) in that it takes as its theme the loss of artistic passion and inspiration, whilst revealing how fluidic and confident his artistry is in rejecting familiar motives and objects in creative endeavour. The Day He Arrives is not so much told as accumulated like pebbles washed up by the tide, portraying the most seemingly simple and undramatic of circumstances and subjecting them to a limpid, yet ever so slightly disorienting methodology. It’s also a classical “winter’s tale” in folk-poetic and Shakespearean parlance, a comedy of manners set in a frigid season, with characters who are feeling the pinch more deeply than they once did, where a jollity found in contemplating human foibles is tempered by the uncovering of emotions that are gently melancholic, in harmony with the bleakness of chilly days, withered trees, and aching souls.
Sungjoon Yoo (Jun-Sang Yu) is a former film director who has given up his trade and moved to the sticks, where he teaches at a regional university. He returns to Seoul for a few days on a kind of holiday and tries to think up ways to fill the sojourn. Sungjoon’s ambling air of disquiet become increasingly fraught, as his wanderings see him move only in circles as his gossamer tale unspools with a perverse symmetry. Indeed, tale is the wrong word, as nothing really happens to Sungjoon: he moves without travelling, and exists without experiencing. What does occur seems to be only variations or echoes of past events, inferior retreads, and Sungjoon seems to reject or feel impotent to act on the chances for new beginnings that come in the fragmentary whirl of events and people his odyssey present to him.
He sets out to catch up with his best friend Youngho (Sang Jung Kim), but when Youngho isn’t available, Sungjoon strolls around the city’s inner suburban tracts. In the first motif of the film’s thematic pattern, Sungjoon repeatedly encounters a gauchely eager young actress and teacher, who is increasingly less gauche with each new meeting. Then, Sungjoon enters a small, seamy tavern to smoke and write, where he’s invited to join a trio of young men for lunch. These lads prove to be film students, and one of them has seen the director’s four films, which, Sungjoon jests, makes him one of a select few. The mentor and the neophytes get drunk together and head out on the town, with Sungjoon promising to take them to an interesting place. But when he sees the trio unconsciously fall under the spell of the successful artist’s cult of personality by imitating his mannerisms, Sungjoon loses his temper and bawls them out before running off. He finds his way to the apartment of a former girlfriend, Kyungjin (Bo-kyung Kim), whom he hasn’t seen in two years. She greets him with apt frostiness and then eruptive pathos, but Sungjoon folds up in a bawling mess, begging her forgiveness, and finally climbing into bed with her.
Sungjoon’s displays of inchoate, reactive feeling and desperate need in these scenes signal what lies under his awkwardly smiling, nervous humour. Hong’s conceit is to offer the scene with Kyungjin early in the film as the start of a pattern, rather than a more traditional fashion towards the end, as a climactic explanation for his haunted air, as with a film like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). The next morning, Sungjoon takes his leave of Kyungjin, where he encourages her to forget him. She agrees it’s best, and asks for his phone number, only so that she can text him on certain occasions; she will break this promise constantly, her messages stabbing out of the void at random junctures, like the needling presence of some spirit of forlorn feeling.
Kyungjin’s apartment is a seamy, barely furnished hovel with a metal door, and she seems to have become, whatever the roots of their relationship and his affair with her, one of those people who exist like barnacles affixed to the great ship of a city, clinging on without actual purpose. Sungjoon seems to bear the hidden mark of some real damage: it’s suggested that he’s recovered from a bad illness, as he mentions his loss of strength and earlier health worries, and Kyungin seems to have also had such problems. But Sungjoon’s ailments, if they really are ailments, seem more mental, perhaps even environmental, as he expresses his dislike for the city Seoul has become.
On the second day, Sungjoon reencounters the actress before meeting up at last with Youngho. His former colleague is a good-natured, but more tentative, guarded, and shy man. Youngho invites Sungjoon to stay with him, and later the pair go to drink at a hole-in-the-wall bar called the “Novel” run by Yejeon (Kim again), who’s oddly absent when they first arrive. The two men get their own drinks and settle down to wait for Yejeon to come. Later, their duo is expanded by Youngho’s fellow teacher and secret crush, Boram (Seon-mi Song), who becomes rather taken with Sungjoon, whose display of a modestly charming intelligence in his better moments is unwittingly seductive. Like many directors before him who engaged in a touch of self-analysis, Hong portrays the status of the film director as pseudo-artist with a wry frustration, noting that sometimes solitude and silence are a prerogative that any other art form can allow the artist, but one the film director can only obtain with major, perhaps career-killing, concessions: cinema is also always a business, with many pretenders waiting to step in. Sungjoon becomes suggestively more awkward and threadbare in his responses to situations as, in the film’s course, he’s recognised less easily or enthusiastically, or by people he doesn’t recognise himself.
But Hong’s focus is not on the vicissitudes of his profession, but on his avatar-hero as a case study in modern life lived in a state of flux—emotionally, intellectually, creatively, and sexually. The long passages of uncertainty and noncommittal and vague distraction that are fundamental in life—usually the first things cut from any dramatic work—are here the whole show. Key to the film’s oddball progression is the hint that, rather than seeing directly sequential days in the life of Yoo Sungjoon, we are seeing days from repeating versions of the same experience: Sungjoon arriving for a few days’ visit in Seoul, meeting up with the same people, going to places and meeting people who are hazy in his recollections, doing the things he did before, and obeying the same impulses he surrendered to before—or is it just because they keep getting so pie-eyed that Sungjoon is always unsure about what happened and where previously? Thus, with each visit to Yejeon’s bar, gestures and actions repeat. Sungjoon mentions in voiceover the name of the bar as if discovering it for the first time. The group of friends, varying in numbers from two to four, perform the same ritual of getting their own drinks when they find Yejeon hasn’t come back from one of her mysterious absences. A shot of Yejeon walking back to the bar along the narrow alley outside, like some obscure figure of fateful import, is interpolated. Sungjoon rises in most sequences to tinkle away at the bar’s piano at one point. He ducks out the back of the bar to smoke a cigarette, where he converses with either Boram or Yejeon, and receives a melancholy text message from Kyungjin.
Hong’s conceptions reflect wry truths: when faced with the cornucopia of cities, we zero in on the familiar. In looking for new mates post break-up, many fall for facsimiles of their previous loves, the new version encapsulating all that was superficially attractive about the last lover but free of the specific history, and the alarming similarity of Yejeon and Kyungjin is rooted in this jokey truism. At the same time, a systematic exploration of doubling, repetition, reexperiencing, is in play here. The lapping, self-replicating episodes at the Novel could well be odes to their own nature as exercises in semi-improvisatory acting and directing, taking the same basic form and yet revising, adding, or detracting elements, to map how differently they play out. Hong elucidates his ideas on literal and figurative levels, and Sungjoon keeps stepping into situations where there is a charge of ill-remembered meaning, an uncertain solicitude offered for vaguely familiar faces, gestures, and places. The frustrations and comforts of familiarity are depicted with exacting accuracy.
Throughout most of the film, the charge of uncertainty is kept deliberately vague, even negligible, but it becomes more explicable as Sungjoon’s attraction to Yejeon gives way to passion with the pair snogging furiously in a back alley one night when he accompanies her on one of her expeditions to get food for the guests. This same act repeats the next day/subsequent occasion, and a blend of politeness and self-defensive denial almost conspires to erase an important moment for the couple. When Sungjoon tries to apologise, Yejeon denies anything occurred. Hong twists this scene into a comedic pay-off, for Sungjoon promptly embraces her again, and the event that never happened takes up where it left off.
The idea that an innate tendency for pattern recognition drives human cognisance of the world, even in the midst of a seeming multitude of choices and alternatives, is what we tend to ascribe as fate or luck, and perhaps this becomes as much of a cage as a tool. This underlying idea is introduced in a diegetic way, when Sungjoon states this theory in contemplating the nature of the recurring encounters that have defined his sojourn in the city and Boram’s account of a similar series of encounters of people involved in the Seoul film scene. Hong is indeed pursuing just this line of reasoning, but he’s also fascinated by the limitations of that recognition and our grasp on such patterns in that cornucopia: the fallibility of the human mind, the ambiguity of memory, the uncertainty over whether things have really happened before, if certain faces really have been seen before, or if they’re simply mental onomatopoeia. Of course, The Day He Arrives is essentially a character-driven, conversational comedy, if tinged with headiness and discontent, and the theoretical element is kept mostly to a low hum of amusing irony. But the abstract and the incidental constantly dovetail. In different scenes, Han and Sungjoon explain their theory of the perfect chat-up line for women, which is to describe their exterior selves and then suggest their internal lives are opposite. That line, in Hong’s drollest comic touch, works on both Boram and Yejeon, even though they’ve both been alerted to the game in play, as it seems to capture instantly their fastidious maintenance of externalities, armour plate against the chill of romantic failure and abuse, and workaday dissociation, whilst their interior lives long for more.
When the drunken Sungjoon gets mad at the young film students, who, in a moment redolent of silent film comedy, fall into line behind him, lighting cigarettes and mimicking his pose, without any deliberate intent, it’s a beautifully funny encapsulation of a peculiar terror of imitation and artistic personality, the sense of one’s innermost thoughts, creations, and ideas being public property. This theme is conflated with a certain wry satire on the Korean intelligentsia (but it could also be that of almost any modern nation): these filmmakers and teachers sure suck down a lot of booze in cliques as a panacea against their general frustrations and fatigue for a petty world. There’s also a more specific reflection on a traditionally Asian variety of hierarchical respect: Sungjoon is constantly referred to by others as “Director Yoo,” as one might say “Doctor” or “Professor” as titles of repute, as if director is now his fundamental identity, one that he can never truly leave behind, even if he wants to. Sungjoon seems to be running from this external identification for much of the film, as if it terrorises him. Later, Sungjoon runs into the actress again, and he advises her to marvel in the chains of chance that keep bringing them together, only to then turn and hurry off as fast as he can when he realises that the students she’s shepherding around are the trio he harangued.
He contends with an actor friend, Han Jungwon, who grills him first about his habit of only calling him by his first name, and then about how much money he earns as a regional film teacher (not much), and it finally emerges that Han nurses a grudge against him for not casting him in his second movie after promising another role, an act that smacks of some long-ago concession to commercialism or star-fucking that’s now so hazy in Sungjoon’s mind he can barely remember it. Han nonetheless provides a fourth member for the drinking party at the Novel that evolves into a lengthy, boozy good time. This party concludes in the film’s most striking scene, a long, unblinking shot of the four guests and Yejeon standing on the side of the road, waving down taxis in the snow that is gathering slushy at their feet, their collective good cheer dissipating in the illness of drunkenness, tiredness, and the cold, each member heading off to their separate solitudes.
As we learn, Sungjoon essentially goes through similar rituals with every woman he meets and sleeps with. Not that he’s an incorrigible rake; rather, Hong seems to suggest, this is the texture of modern life and modern erotic existence for many people: attraction, flirtation, coitus, and then a fumbling indecision when the postscript seems insufficient, a fearfulness before intense feelings that dictates constant tactical withdrawal.
Sungjoon’s retreat from the hurly-burly of his former urban, creative life is a retreat from all but the most fleeting of serious human contact. His flirtation with Yejeon finally resolves in a beguilingly sexy bedroom scene where the couple seem to loll together in bliss, but even there they’re engaged in constructing other people out of the person they’re with (“You’re a real man,” Yejeon coos. “No I’m not,” Sungjoon laughs.), according to a need that disperses by morning. Character observation is, in spite of the trickier, headier elements, the essence and pleasure of The Day He Arrives, as the people are fiendishly well-described types. Song’s Boram is a particular stand-out, a brilliantly described and articulated type who can be found in many a modern culture, with her hunger for connection and romance that’s subtly frantic in clasping at straws for a fate that doesn’t involve hunkering down with a vintage film and her dog—and even that’s gone missing, since it escaped when she was walking it. Youngho is besotted with her, and yet won’t make his feelings apparent for fear of losing a grip on his friendship with her, a reticence that involves watching her flurry in moments of boozy angst and flirt shamelessly with the unresponsive Sungjoon.
Hong’s work here evidently fits into a definite strand of interest with other modern, serious-minded Asian filmmakers, including Wong Kar-Wai, who’s been making films in a similar key of forlorn romanticism coupled with overt probing of the nature of narrative for years now, if essayed in a very different cinematic spirit. Hong’s coolly evoked urban landscapes and motifs of alienated communication through technological mediums has a certain likeness to Jia Zhangke. Yet Hong’s style is definitely singular, keen to the rhythms of intimacy and isolation but in a fashion that never feels arch, but is rather crisp and purposeful even when seemingly most casual. Kim’s photography helps Hong sustain an effervescent mixture of artless naturalism and subtle, painterly zest, so often framing two or three conversers in a shot and making a quick zoom in like parentheses closing in on a stray sentence fragment, and lending abstract beauty and piquancy to seamy and bland corners of Seoul. His camera work offers stray moments of poetic fancy, from the numinous light glowing within the plastic roofing of a roadside fruit stall to the graffiti-riddled walls of the seamy bar Sungjoon encounters the students in, and the noirish shadows and snow around Sungjoon and whichever woman he’s talking to on the back steps of the Novel. The nights are places of inky depths, prettily illumined faces, ranks of glistening black empty beer bottles and polished glasses, and fairytale snowflakes, whilst the days are flatly lit, baldly unflattering traps.
In the final phase of Sungjoon’s odyssey, he takes his leave of Yejeon, another of his edgy, friendly yet uncertain farewells, where he makes Yejeon take three pledges, including to keep a diary as a way of organising time and her internal self, an organising principle Sungjoon seems to have lost himself, and again asks her to forget him: she agrees, saying, “At least this way I’ll have a happy memory,” which is both a pretty idea and yet one that the film has made seem like the most uncertain idea in the world. Sungjoon’s subsequent wanderings confirm his increasing irrelevance to the filmmaking world, as he encounters other, patronising filmmakers and a former glad-handing producer, a space cadet student he doesn’t remember, and finally, another woman who resembles Yejeon and Kyungjin, who carries a camera she sports to make a visual diary with (is she another former lover, or perhaps Yejeon, or Kyungjin, later down the line?) and convinces Sungjoon to let her shoot him. The former director tries to smile with increasing agitation that his world has finally been turned inside out, as he becomes the photographed subject rather than the image-maker, pinioned like a butterfly in the midst of ghostly doppelgangers, abandoned labours, and faded dreams.
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Director: Na Hong-jin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A South Korean film that’s been getting a fair amount of good press and audience reaction is The Chaser. It is described by most as a thriller in which former police detective turned pimp Eom Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok), after having several of his girls go missing, tries to track down one of them, Kim Mi-jin (Seo Yeong-hie), only to find himself in the midst of a serial killer investigation. Like many South Korean films that have murder as one of their prominent ingredients, The Chaser is graphically violent. The serial killer, Jee Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), likes to bash heads in, especially those of prostitutes, who make easy targets. He prefers to drive a chisel through their brains, but he’ll make do with a hammer, a shovel, or a vase when an unexpected need (e.g., snooping neighbors) arises, as it does many times in this film. Joong-ho likes to kick the shit out of people to get the information he needs, and he’s always very impatient for an answer. So far, we’re in Dirty Harry country.
The features that I believe make this film stand out to audiences and critics alike is the extreme concentration on Eom’s desperate race to find Mi-jin, which builds suspense even as it documents the reawakening of a conscience in a pretty rotten man. As they say, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disillusioned idealist underneath. Even as we start to understand Eom, the killer remains a cipher. Why does he kill? We don’t really know, and that irrationality tickles our fear and offers a welcome level of uncertainty in a genre that seeks to reassure with simplistic psychological profiles and explanations; indeed, this film makes fun of a psychologist who tries to do just that. The film also displays that sideways, absurdist humor for which South Korean filmmakers are justly lauded, offering an ineffectual police force to which Eom hand-delivers the killer that hatches some wacky ways to try to find evidence to hold him before he must be released. The film also displays an ironic contempt for technology, given that the country is both a leader in electronics manufacturing and has a nuclear threat just north of the border. There isn’t a single gun in the entire film, and cellphones, though plentiful and a device Eom believes will help him find Jee and Mi-jin, are ineffective. Scenes on the narrow, steep streets of Seoul provide a visually interesting and noirish atmosphere that suits the film beautifully.
Nonetheless, none of these qualities were able to cut through the intense loathing this film generated in me. The Chaser trafficks in femicide in a particular grotesque way—to redeem Eom. He was selling women’s bodies and originally thought someone was stealing his “property” to sell into a sex slave ring. That was his motivation to find Jee. Frankly, I’m not the least bit impressed with his slowly dawning guilt, blaming himself for forcing Mi-jin to service Jee when she wanted to stay home to nurse a bad cold. While I won’t deny that people can acknowledge the wrong they do and change, Na’s willingness to indulge his audience’s more prurient appetites and the abuse of a woman to allow Eom to find his soft spot are cheap and exploitative.
In case we can’t see how thick Eom is, the script bludgeons him with pathos and idiocy to ensure he changes. It lays the guilt on even thicker by giving Mi-jin a beautiful 7-year-old daughter Eom discovers when he breaks Mi-jin’s door down and whom he drags around Seoul with him and eventually has to rush to the hospital after she comes to ill in a dark alley when nobody is minding her. The film floors the pedal on Eom’s guilt when he retrieves a message Mi-jin was forced to leave in voicemail saying she’s afraid of continuing life as a prostitute because he was too busy hoofing it to where he finally figures out Jee lives to answer his cellphone. This, of course, exposes the idiot plot whereby he and the police have been looking all over the district, even looking for bodies on a nearby mountainside, even though they found Mi-jin’s car in roughly the same location where another of Eom’s missing prostitutes had parked her car and Eom has the killer’s house keys.
Women have been raped, tortured, and murdered for our entertainment with great regularity—and generally without placing these atrocities in a context that respects women—for as long as there have been serial killer movies. This convention is so well accepted that the reviews of The Chaser I’ve read (though, I’m assured, not all) don’t even comment on the femicide, preferring to concentrate on how the film comments on politics, institutions, and Eom’s character development. I noted a similar lack of critical comment about femicide in my recent review of Backyard (2009), even though that was the whole point of the movie.
In the winter 2009 issue of Cineaste, Christopher Sharret asserts in his article “The Problem of Saw: ‘Torture Porn’ and the Conservatism of Contemporary Horror Films,” that filmic serial killers seek to teach their victims a lesson in old-fashioned values and decency, with allusion to the government-sanctioned torture of terrorists out to destroy America and its wholesome values of Mom, apple pie, liberty, and justice for all. It’s not a far leap to suggest a similar message in other serial killer movies, including The Chaser, only the lesson not only encompasses sexual and social conservatism (note that when Jee decides to move on after apparently eluding prosecution, he dresses like a businessman) but also continues the fictive efforts to put women back in the place they started to abandon with the dawning of second-wave feminism in the 1970s. I think it’s very telling as our culture wars continue that this film has already been picked up for a Hollywood remake starring Leo DiCaprio as the detective/pimp antihero.
If there can be a line in the sand when it comes to films, I think I’m finally ready to draw it. Femicide should not be so normalized among film and TV producers that it goes largely unremarked upon. I earnestly ask my fellow film reviewers and audiences to stop ignoring this disturbingly ordinary plot device and bring outrage back into our collective consciousness in written reviews and other public forums. If you’re willing to do it for Native Americans, African Americans, and other put-upon people, it behooves you not to give these kinds of films a pass no matter how much they engage you (see Cinema Styles on Pixar for more).
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Director: Yu Ha
2009 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Movie buffs with any sense at all don’t expect historical dramas to offer much in the way of, well, history. An overwhelming number of historical dramas offer audiences an escape from the drab and dreary present into the pageantry and intrigues of defunct monarchies, the noble battles of knights in armor, and the bucolic gentility of country living. A Frozen Flower, a King Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle set in 13th century Korea, provides a little of everything typical to the historical drama, plus something a little more intriguing—graphic sex and lots of it. Sadly, not even the absence of bodices to rip can save this fitfully boring hit from South Korea.
The film opens with a cadre of young boys being schooled in the code of the Goryeo king’s guard. “What is the greatest way to show one’s patriotism?” they are asked. Several answers are given, the last of which is “To die for the king.” The boys are trained in combat and other military arts. At night, as they sleep, a young crown prince walks with his retainers among them. He looks tenderly at one boy, whose foot is exposed, and folds the boy’s blanket over it.
The film moves forward. The boys of the guard are now men, and one, Hong Lim (Jo In-seong), is both the chief of the guards and the king’s (Joo Jin-mo) lover. He holds such sway over the king that he persuades the king to spare the life of a guardsman who has been caught fleeing with a woman he is forbidden to wed. It seems nothing can upset this relationship, not even when the king makes a political marriage with a princess (Song Ji-hyo) from the neighboring Yuan kingdom. The queen suffers in virginal silence as we watch Hong and the king share a night of passion, which amounts to little more than frenzied French kissing.
After 10 years with no heir to the throne in sight, the nobles of Yuan smell a chance to conquer Goryeo. A band of assassins pounces upon the royal party as the king and queen enjoy an afternoon of al fresco dining. Desperate to produce an heir to solidify his position, the king asks the only man he trusts, Hong, to impregnate the queen. Hong protests strenuously, but complies. The first attempt is awkward for all three principals, as Hong kisses a stiff and silently weeping queen. During their second encounter, however, both the queen and Hong awaken to passion. After that, the pair finds themselves in the midst of a grand love affair that the king soon discerns. His jealousy for Hong aroused, the king becomes mad to avenge his honor and assuage his hurt at being replaced in Hong’s affections. Much tragedy ensues at the very moment that the queen learns she is pregnant.
Director Yu and his crew of art directors and costume designers lay a lavish visual feast for the eyes. The opulence and glamor are indeed royal down to the smallest detail—at least, to begin with. Much is made of a perfume sachet the queen wore when she first came to Goryeo and which she loses in the outdoor attack. During a trip to Yuan to uncover those plotting against the Goryeon king, Hong finds a similar sachet in a street market. It couldn’t look cheaper, but he gives it to the queen as a love token. The king notices it and admires it. Why? Because it is a plot device. During the climactic sword fight between the king and Hong, the latter of whom seeks to avenge the queen’s apparent execution signaled, incidentally, by the sachet hanging around the neck of a head on a pike in front of the king’s palace, the king’s chambers are completely trashed. The flimsy set pieces and cheap pottery ruin the illusion that we are in a real palace and sap the deadly battle of some of its poignancy.
The film’s much-publicized sex scenes—and there are a lot of them—are a bit more graphic than a generic softcore porn film. They’re artfully photographed so we can be sure to see Hong squeeze the queen’s perfect breast, and a variety of positions are offered. But perish the thought of showing a penis. (Even in an innocent scene where the guardsmen are bathing nude in a nearby pond, nothing but ass cheeks are revealed.) The sex is stimulating to watch, but devoid of any real feeling.
All the battle scenes are hopelessly unreal; it’s not the flying swordsmen I object to, but rather the cheap gore (though I thought a servant who gets an arrow through his head to kick off the outdoor ambush was a clever and surprising touch in an otherwise pastorally peaceful scene). Regardless, the film could have done with a little more action of this type to liven up the lackadaisical love story. The injection of musical interludes lavishly sound-produced seems aimed at the Bollywood market. If you’re getting the idea that A Frozen Flower is a pastiche of styles that miss more than they hit, then I’ve done my job.
The performances are good on the whole. Song as the sweet and suffering queen and Ho Shim-ji as the subchief, whose role grows in importance as Hong falls further out of the king’s favor, are mesmerizing. I also enjoyed Joo as the king, though he started flailing a bit as the king loses his senses to his jealousy; one scene in which he is torturing a guardsman who helped Hong escape is laughingly sadistic. Still, the worst flaw in this film is the casting of Jo In-seong as Hong. A blander actor I haven’t seen in many a year, and this really wrecks the film because Hong is in so many scenes. In the closing scene, Hong’s choice of the queen over the king, it is suggested, was the wrong choice, a message laughable unless you consider that dozens of people might have lived had he denied his own feelings. The love between the three principals isn’t the only thing frozen about the wrong-headed A Frozen Flower. l
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Director: Park Chan-wook
By Roderick Heath
Revenge is an ugly thing, and the violence used to accomplish it grotesque and self-consuming. Such is the truism nearly as old in literature as literature itself. Sophocles and Euripides evoked the theme. Shakespeare and the Jacobeans interrogated it in depth. Park Chan-wook stomps it into the ground.
Many critics, discussing films like this, pass that notion around as if it’s something original and newly crucial. Of course, questions of revenge and films about it gained a curious urgency after 9/11 and the general atmosphere of the War on Terror. Suddenly, men and women were mercilessly ripping their way through hordes of bad guys, looking en route into their own hearts of darkness in films as diverse and tonally incompatible as Kill Bill, Man on Fire, The Punisher, Spider-Man and on and on, and schoolmarmish worry faces were made by critics and filmmakers like the excruciatingly boring Michael Haneke, pointing out that our love of onscreen violence is feeding into our general bloodlust and making us tools of political violence.
The ethical problem that ought to be examined, and yet often remains unexamined is what is the difference between justice and revenge? If justice is not forthcoming, is revenge permissible? Do they not share the same philosophical roots in social theory? Is not the idea that what goes around comes around central to all notions of communal existence? What are our moral concerns anyway? What do we wish to defend? Do we wish to defend anything? Without gods to command us, how and why do we maintain standards of human decency? With gods to command us, how do we balance our duty to moral prescription with a merely human desire for evening the score and protecting the security of our lives? None of these questions will be answered by watching a Chan-wook Park film.
Chan-wook is a fashionable figure, and Oldboy is currently sitting at #118 on the IMDb’s Top 250 list. His Vengeance trilogy—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005)—are something like Stations of the Cross for their maker, a devout Catholic. But his films must not in any way, shape, or form be mistaken for ethical or theological investigations: they are sadomasochistic engines of masturbation for violence freaks pretending to be moral fables, each of them acts of unadorned savagery served out by ludicrous characters in ludicrous situations. Normally, I’d let that stand. To engage and work through our darker notions is one of the primal attractions of the cinema—and art in general. Art has no imperative to be moral or even fair. It’s all about context and balance. Of the Vengeance trilogy, the most bearable is Lady Vengeance, chiefly because the central character is the best-conceived avatar of Chan-wook’s concerns, a woman who balances saintliness and devilishness in equal proportions, lets each fight within her, and channels a century’s worth of onscreen feminine martyrs into her image in the process.
Oldboy, at the other extreme, is one of the worst, most repugnant, pointless, and wrongheaded films I’ve ever sat through. Two hours of imprisonment, teeth-pulling, bone cracking, hammer beatings, stick lashings, incestuous couplings, tongue-slicing, and altogether merciless assault on all human nature could be withstood and even admired if any of it made a lick of sense. But the film’s Jacobean excesses are merely that—excesses. There’s no sense of rhythm or steady ground where the yardsticks needed to care can be planted. What any of this means in terms of society and the individual, which even in a play as bad as Titus Andronicus is still the vital question, is never suggested. Oldboy exists in a vacuum of cause and effect, meaning and imperative.
Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a tipsy, talkative businessman who, after being briefly picked up by the cops with his friend No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han), makes a phone call home to his daughter and then vanishes. He’s been spirited inside a strange prison cell that has been decorated like a normal apartment, where he spends the next 15 years being subjected to occasional gassings and hypnotism. With a television as his only friend, he learns a lot from it, endlessly imitating the fights he watches on it and becoming an adept martial artist. Right at the point when he manages to carve a hole in the wall, he’s released, awakening on a rooftop inside a suitcase. Stumbling through the world, he enters a sushi restaurant and encounters a pretty young chef, Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), and faints after consuming a live octopus and receiving an enigmatic phone call from his antagonist.
Mido inexplicably takes this middle-aged weirdo in and aids him as he contacts Joo-hwan and sets about tracking down his enemy. He locates the imprison-your-enemy business run by Park Cheol-woong (Dal-su Oh), whose teeth he rips out to extract information about who had him locked up there before battling his way out through a horde of Park’s thugs. Dae-su never suspects that his quarry is a step ahead of him all the time, set on leading him and Mido into the most grotesque of traps. Dae-Su’s persecutor proves to be someone who went to the same school, Evergreen (their alumni homepage is called “Evergreen Old Boys”). He is one Woo-jin Lee (Yu Ji-tae), a tycoon who has sought to destroy Dae-Su’s life because Dae-Su had, in a youthful moment he had forgotten, spied Lee and his sister Lee Soo-ah (Yun Jin-seo) engaged in an incestuous relationship. He had told Joo-hwan, and rumours spread that resulted in Soo-ah’s suicide. In addition to the past 15 years of intolerable punishment, Lee has contrived an extra penitence in a twist I saw coming from, oh, about 40 minutes earlier: he had used hypnotism to make Dae-Su and Mido to fall in love because, yes, Mido is Dae-Su’s daughter. And so, rather than ripping out Lee’s windpipe, as would be permissible, Dae-Su is reduced to begging him not to reveal the truth to Mido, and he cuts out his own tongue as a totem of his apology for destroying Lee and his sister’s lives. Lee commits suicide, and Dae-Sun undergoes hypnotherapy to forget the truth, allowing him and Mido to walk off into the sunset.
I doubt the Oldboy cult is really about much more than the visceral thrill of teenagers (of all ages) the world over cooing at the consumption of squirming tentacles and hammer-claw dentistry. Oldboy is undoubtedly strong filmmaking, in a kind of tricky, live-action cartoon fashion, down to the already famous and influential corridor fight, staged in a single shot that must have tested the mettle of its actors to the limits. But it lacks that cool, Kurosawa-influenced realism that made Mr. Vengeance drag me along to an equally nihilistic end, nor the fairly well-judged stylisation of Lady Vengeance, which helped me swallow a rather over-large horse pill of a conceit. Nor is the filmmaking actually radical enough in style and concept to assault the audience’s perceptions of the politics of power, gender, and society, as in, for instance, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967). Links that might have been fashioned between Lee’s position as a corporate captain and Dae-su’s status as a self-deluding victim of a TV-fed consumer culture just aren’t there. It’s possible that in Korean society, where many citizens have been kidnapped and held for decades across the border, this is a more vivid anxiety than anywhere else. But there’s no political context: this is pure rat-in-a-maze taunting. Lee’s a gothic supervillain with incest on his mind, hiding in his penthouse, just like Mason Verger, the alternate villain of Hannibal (2001). Rather than build up to anything chilling, or cathartic, or even trashily entertaining, it’s all an adolescent monument to asking what more the audience is willing to put up with. It contains dark humour, and yet totally lacks the playfulness and meta-narrative irony that made the often equally dark Kill Bill bearable, nor does it have Tarantino’s sense of characterisation.
That it doesn’t know when to quit is the real problem, pushing to an unbearable finale in which Dae-su grovels, sings his old school song, and generally tries everything up to and including taking the scissors to his tongue to elicit an iota of relenting from the truly monstrous Lee Woo-jin, a sequence that completely used up any sympathy I had for Park’s films. It’s supposed to be crucial that Dae-su is willing to do anything to prevent his daughter know she’s in love with her father. But the cumulative effect is so viciously, unremittingly hateful that it directs my hate neatly at the people responsible for the movie. “A grain of sand or a stone, they both sink in a river” goes the maxim that Lee quotes to Dae-Su. “Don’t diddle your sister in a schoolroom and expect to get away with it forever,” is the apt response, but no one gets around to that. In fact, there’s very little sophistication to the narrative at all. The characters are flat and absurd, their emotions inflated and yet unconvincing; the visual storytelling is sometimes opaque, but only in an irritating way; the hero’s decisions and actions are often startlingly senseless; and, even for a film that knows it’s absurd, the plot is incredibly opportunistic.
Park’s moral propositions are consistently, offensively stupid, from letting a bunch of hysterical parents cut bits off a paedophile murderer in Lady Vengeance to this nonsensical cavalcade of disproportion. Whatever commentary is supposed to be garnered is nullified by the total tone-deafness of nuance and scale. Much like the childish reductions of Old Testament brimstone and audience-taunting anti-climaxes in films like Se7en (1995), the endless Saw series, and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), where justice is cheated either through its insufficient or misdirected application, Park’s philosophical level never rises above the schoolyard, bullying his viewers into bending in reaction to his provocations and dulling their brains into stupefied nonresponse.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Park Chan-wook
By Marilyn Ferdinand
South Korean director Park Chan-wook began an extended examination of revenge in 2002 with the release of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot). He followed this up with the much-buzzed-about Oldboy in 2003. He finished the trilogy in 2005 with Lady Vengeance. The first two films deal with men seeking revenge, and I’ll tell you now that I haven’t seen them. Perhaps that will be a weakness in my review of Lady Vengeance, but Park’s decision to focus on female revenge in this final film hits an area of cinema with which I have more than a nodding acquaintance. Park’s approach in this film takes the hot-blooded emotionalism of his first two films and turns it cold. His vengeance-seeking female Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) hides her anger behind a mask of goodness that jibes perfectly with her beautiful face. Like women in all societies, she must use honey to trap her flies.
The story is easy to sum up. Geum-ja was snookered into participating in a kidnapping in which the little boy being ransomed is killed. She takes the rap for the murder because the mastermind, her former English teacher (Choi Min-sik) and the man who took her in so she could have her out-of-wedlock baby, has taken her baby girl. After 13 years in prison, Geum-ja is released. She then sets about seeking her revenge on Mr. Baek using a carefully laid plan devised in prison.
While the story is simple and straightforward, the telling of it and the inner conflict Geum-ja experience are anything but. Park shocks us with a disconnect right at the start of the film. A group of religious people follow their leader to the entrance of the prison to await Geum-ja’s release. They see her as an angel of mercy based on her actions while in prison. The minister offers her a white block of tofu as a symbol of purity and says, “Be white.” She knocks the offering to the ground, glowers at him, and tells him to go fuck himself. She goes to the home of a former inmate, dons high heels, and paints her eyelids red. This reversal plays on the enormous popularity of Park’s leading lady, known as a great beauty who normally plays romantic roles. Western viewers may not get much of a jolt from this opening, but it surely sent shockwaves through Asian theatres.
A series of flashbacks to prison during about the first third of the film suspend the viewer between two worlds, helping us experience a bit of the culture shock a longtime inmate might feel on being released to the outside world. There is great craft and ingenuity in this broken narrative that may not give up a lot of information, but still never confuses. Geum-ja’s life in prison is a focus at the beginning of the film to ensure we understand the puzzle pieces that make up her revenge scheme. Foremost among them are other inmates who come to owe Geum-ja debts of gratitude.
Each inmate is introduced with a small title card giving her name, crime, and sentence, and then we get a short, but graphic description of each crime. The most fearsome of them is large woman who killed her husband and his mistress and ate them. She runs the cell block and makes another inmate her bitch in a series of crisp and suggestive scenes. I particularly liked the younger girl’s introduction to the boss’ clitoris. The boss opens her spread legs slightly wider than they already are and urges the girl to crawl forward. She asks the girl to remove her pants, “please.” “Can you see it clearly? Say hello to each other.” The girl says a weak “hello” as this menacing, yet amusing scene comes to an end. This interaction is important because Geum-ja will cause an accident that sends the boss to the infirmary, where Geum-ja poisons her while seeming to wait on her hand and foot as an act of kindness. The girl she rescues from sexual slavery will go on to become Mr. Baek’s girlfriend and give Geum-ja access to him. Picking up where the boss left off, Baek gets up from the dinner table, lays his girlfriend across it, penetrates her from behind, and afterward goes back to eating dinner.
The heart of the story is Geum-ja’s struggle to come to terms with her own guilt. She blames Baek for corrupting her, and it is for that crime that she seeks vengeance. She herself feels guilty for not being a mother to her daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), who was adopted by an Australian couple and speaks only English. Geum-ja locates Jenny and brings her back to Korea for a short visit. Jenny wants to stay with Geum-ja, but that was never her birth mother’s plan. “I’m not fit to be your mother. I’m bad,” Geum-ja says to her through Baek, who is now Geum-ja’s prisoner. Before she can kill Baek, however, she discovers that he has killed other children. She steps aside, contacts the police chief who was assigned to the case to which she confessed, and has him gather the parents of the murdered children. They discuss what to do with Baek—kill him themselves a la Murder on the Orient Express or turn him over to the police—while Baek listens to them through a speaker Geum-ja has rigged.
Once events play out and Geum-ja has had a chance to apologize to Jenny, she removes her red eye shadow. She has been working as a baker and on their last night together, she and Jenny walk home with a white-frosted slab cake Geum-ja has made. This cake brings us full circle, but instead of rejecting the symbol for “be white,” Geum-ja buries her face in it and munches furiously, hoping that now she can fill her soul again.
Beneath the beating heart of this violence-strewn tale from Asia lurks—guess what—a woman’s film! That’s right. Just look at the poster! Strip away the black comedy, the disjointed opening scenes, the foreign location, and the extreme violence, and you’ve got a film not so different from Madame X. Park uses his own stock company of actors from the previous two films in this one, much as Sirk had his stock players. He plays to the desire of female consumers of women’s films have to be free of their children by having Geum-ja’s removed from her when still an infant, with only a temporary reunion and her undying guilt to reassure audiences of her essential mother love. He even has her seduce a younger man, a 19-year-old coworker at the bakery. Through the inmates, he shows how women can be helpful and hurtful to each other (shades of The Women). And he pins Geum-ja’s initial downfall on a man and her redemption on upholding the primacy of the nuclear family.
How did all the critics miss this? Well, not all. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir and a colleague of his smelled the whiff of genre:
A fine young film critic of my acquaintance left the screening murmuring, ‘I don’t trust that guy,’ and I know what he means. It’s hard to say whether the autumnal mood and the female-coded moral seriousness of Lady Vengeance are anything more than another genre for Park to inhabit; he’s a master manipulator in the Hitchcock vein, whose true intentions are difficult to divine. In a movie this powerful and this lovingly crafted, I may not care whether I’m being had.
Since when did women’s films become a vessel of moral seriousness? I hope letting the cat out of the bag won’t make this film less appealing to the film community at large. Certainly, if any film can redeem the woman’s film it should be this one—gorgeous to look at, cleverly cast, and ingeniously plotted, written, and executed by one of South Korea’s most noted filmmakers.
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Director: Juhn Jaihong
2008 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Back in 1996, a delightfully depraved film from South Korea called 301, 302 took on the effects of rape on a survivor and the person who tries to help her. The rape victim holds down a responsible job but succumbs more and more to her anorexia. Her neighbor, a shallow woman who only knows how to interact with her husband through sex and gourmet cooking, ends up losing him. She fills the void by trying to cook the perfect meal to heal her self-starving neighbor. The ending of the film is shocking but somehow appropriate, providing each woman with an outlet for her rage. Significantly, 301, 302 was written by a woman, Lee Suh-Goon.
Unfortunately, first-time director Juhn Jaihong looks every bit the unskilled neophyte. A protégé of Kim Ki-duk, a much-lauded director of the Korean New Wave who provided the story on which Beautiful is based, Juhn shows no subtlety or understanding of the deeper problems of women in Korean society that were explored to such great effect in 301, 302. Beautiful takes the dilemma faced by beautiful young women in a society that disrespects women at a very basic level and turns out a less graphic version of slasher porn. Kim Eun-yeong (Cha Su-yeon), the lovely victim in Beautiful is no match for the gawkers and stalkers she tries unsuccessfully to evade. She is for them and for the makers and audiences of this film an object to be abused, laughed at, blamed, and ultimately destroyed by the obsession of her self-appointed savior.
We first meet Eun-yeong in a café where she is waiting to meet her friend Mi-yeon (Lee Min). Several school girls notice her, remark on her great beauty, and ask her for her autograph even though she is not an actress or anyone famous. Actually, Eun-yeong doesn’t seem to exist in this film except to be a victim. We don’t see her work or go to school. She has one friend, Mi-yeon, but no boyfriend or, it appears, anyone else in her life, including family. Her beautiful, expensive-looking apartment is devoid of any personal photos; only a couple sketches of a nude woman—presumably Eun-yeong—garnish the décor. Is what she’s about to go through a comment on Eun-yeong’s essential narcissism?
So what does she go through? She’s harassed constantly by men—those she knows, like Mi-yeon’s boyfriend, but more often strangers on the street. Her distant admirers send her bunches of flowers, which she has the doorman of her condominium toss in the trash. She makes the mistake, however, of taking a single lily up with her as a simple decoration. This act encourages her stalker Eun-cheol (Lee Chun-heui) to declare his love by faking his way into her apartment as a meter reader. When she tries to brush him off as she has done with every one of her ardent admirers, he throws her around, slaps her unconscious, and rapes her. Then he takes pictures of her.
Remorse sends Eun-cheol to the police to confess. The police call Eun-yeong in to the station and ask why she didn’t report the crime. Humiliated and traumatized, she barely speaks. One jackass detective accuses her of leading men on by dressing in short skirts and, well, being so damn pretty. Indeed, her attacker said that she raped him with her beauty. Eun-yeong certainly does seem to have a hypnotic effect on men. Detective Kim (Myeong-soo Choi), a decent police officer who shields her from his partner’s rudeness becomes obsessed with her, too, copying tapes her stalker made of her and jacking off to them. He then abandons his job (an extended vacation, he says) and starts following her around.
Eun-yeong barely notices that he always seems to be around. She’s too busy trying to make herself unattractive. She dresses in long, concealing clothes. Then she gets the idea to gain weight from watching a fat girl she spoke with one day wolf down a large lunch. Eun-yeong’s binges, however, only shock her system, and she ends up in an emergency department with an inflamed stomach and a doctor who tries to feel her up. When she leaves the hospital, she collapses, and, in a somewhat comical scene, is swarmed by men fighting to be the one who takes her home in a taxi. Detective Kim again comes to her rescue. Then she decides to lose weight and look skeletal, but her constant exercise and near fasting causes her to collapse before her body can adjust to a starvation regime. Again, she ends up in the hospital.
As Eun-yeong grows more and more insane, decides to become a hooker, and vomits almost nonstop, she starts to see her rapist everywhere and nearly stabs a man she sees enter a men’s room. Fortunately, discreet stalker Detective Kim prevents her from striking the man she thought was her attacker. More of this tiresome craziness ensues until the film ends in a bloodbath.
If it had bothered to take Eun-yeong’s problems seriously—or even made her into a believable character with a real life—Beautiful could have some interesting things to say about women. Beauties are often swarmed by besotted men who scare, more than flatter, them. Rape does make women feel ashamed, complicit in their own attack, and desperate to fade into the background so they won’t be targeted again. Without a proper support network, rape victims do become emotionally unstable. Many young women are not taught self-defense or self-respect, and more importantly, many young men are not taught to respect women. But Beautiful does not wish to explore Eun-yeong’s relationship to her own power as, say, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher or I Spit on Your Grave do. She says repeatedly that she wants to live and that she can’t go on as a victim anymore. But the director and screenwriter would rather let Detective Kim call the shots and force her fate on her like a second, more deadly rape. Eun-yeong’s allure seems more that of a sorceress than a fresh-faced young woman, and we all know what happens to witches.
This film’s pinpoint devotion to the mechanics of obsession is so clumsily handled that it neither illuminates that compulsion nor comments effectively on what it means to be beautiful in a misogynistic society. “Beauty is destiny,” someone says to Eun-yeong. According to this movie, being a beautiful woman means being reduced to a raving crone who is destroyed without any reason or poignancy. This is a huge step backward in Korea’s films about women. Let’s hope this new director finds another direction; he’s completely out of his depth in the feminine world. l
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Director: Bong Joon-ho
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This past year, the Chicago International Film Festival came and went without me being able to score a ticket to see the Korean sensation The Host. This film broke box office records in Korea—rare for a homegrown movie—and has been hailed by many critics as the much-welcome return of the good, old-fashioned monster movie. The only reason I can see for making this claim is that, like the movie, the monster is homegrown, not the product of alien invasions. Nonetheless, that fact is the only thing distinguishing The Host from another film almost identical in form—Steven Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds (2005). I believe this resemblance accounts for the popularity of The Host in Korea, an irony not lost on director Bong, who takes every opportunity to make Americans look like idiots and bullies. And I say “bully” to Bong for blowing a raspberry at American movies and creating a film both scarier and more original than any recent product from Hollywood.
The film begins with a stupid and thoughtless act by an American scientist (Scott Wilson) working in Seoul. After showing a prissy fastidiousness about the amount of dust in his laboratory, he instructs his Korean assistant (Pil-sung Yim) to pour what looks like a warehouse full of formaldehyde down the drain. The assistant protests that there are strict policies for disposing of hazardous materials and that the runoff will go directly into the Han River. Nonetheless, he is made to do as instructed. The consequences of this capricious order are telegraphed as we watch a hokey haze of tiny toxic clouds waft from the sink where the dubious assistant labors long into the night.
We know that the worst has happened when a man fishing with his friend in the Han catches a disgusting-looking animal in his drinking cup. “Is it a mutation?” one asks the other, and then proceeds to drop the cup. “That was close,” said the first fisherman, rescuing his cup from the murky depths. “My daughter gave me that cup!” Although they can’t know it, they are fiddling while Seoul is about to burn.
Some time later, a nice summer day finds many people picnicking near the Han. At a grocery stand lays our hero Gang-du Park (Kang-ho Song), a dyed-blond hulk of a man sound asleep at the counter. His father Hie-bong Park (Hie-bong Byeon) comes up to him, lifts Gang-du’s head up and scrapes off the coins that have clung to his cheek. He tells Gang-du to grill three squid for the people sitting on mat 4. The sleepy son grabs some dried squid and takes them to the grill, breaking off a tentacle to chew on himself.
Gang-du’s tween-aged daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) calls him into the stand to watch the national archery finals. Gang-du’s sister Nam-joo (Du-na Bae) is odds-on favorite to win the gold medal. Unfortunately, the people at mat 4 were not happy to receive a nine-legged squid. Gang-du is sent to bring them a whole squid. On the lawn, some people comment on a large shadow in the water. As people come down to the river’s edge to look, Gang-du picks up a beer can and throws it into the water. The beer can apparently is pulled down quickly by the creature. After that, the assembled crowd starts throwing anything they can get their hands on into the water. Of course, instead of feeding the equivalent of a cuddly, but safely caged polar bear, the picnickers soon discover they’ve been encouraging something far from cuddly. Quickly, an enormous creature obviously inspired by Predator leaps onto land and starts grabbing people in its enormous maw. A pandemonium of fleeing people, an idiotically courageous American, a trailer-load of sitting ducks, and of course, Gang-du and Hyun-seo, have their close encounters. When Gang-du and Hyun-seo lose contact, the creature manages to wrap its tail around the girl and flee back to the river. For the rest of the film, the Park family will have to elude both the creature and the authorities that are attempting to quarantine them as they make superhuman efforts to rescue Hyun-seo.
The first third of this film is riotously funny. For example, a supposedly makeshift memorial to the dead is set up in a nearby gymnasium. We see an entire wall carefully lined with beautifully framed photos draped with black ribbons and adorned with flowers and offerings, a sly dig at ancestor worship. The weeping of the Park family for Hyun-seo takes on high comic proportions as we watch them in an overhead shot writhing on the floor in almost a mockery of grief. More expressions of familial feeling are given the wink and nudge. For example, Gang-du’s sister and brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park) complain about their narcoleptic brother to their father. Hie-bong starts to ramble on about his guilt at never being home to care for the motherless boy and not giving him enough protein to eat. As he gnashes his teeth in despair, all three siblings have nodded off to sleep.
The most comically bizarre moments are reserved for Americans. The story has gotten around that the monster is the host of a deadly virus. An American commander who came in contact with the monster apparently has died of some plague-like disease, weeping buboes covering his face like bee stings. The Parks initially escape quarantine to search for Hyun-seo, but Gang-du is recaptured. He is approached by a Korean doctor (Brian Rhee) and a cross-eyed American doctor (Paul Lazar) who appear initially sympathetic to his pleas. After the Korean attendants are sent away, the American doctor confides that there were no traces of a virus in the American commander. He looks at Gang-du and taps the front of his skull. “It’s here. It’s in there. I’m going to find that virus.” Gang-du is prepared for brain surgery. When he escapes yet again, he runs through a supposedly secure area where the American troops are drinking beer and barbecuing steaks as though they were in the largest Green Zone in the world.
The Host, however, is a proper monster movie. There are moments of great tension and jump-out surprises—one even led me to scream out loud for the only time in my moviegoing career. The movie becomes a desperate race against time as we see the enormous danger Hyun-seo is in, trapped in a sewer that is periodically visited by the monster who regurgitates human bones and then goes looking for more to eat. A scene where she attempts to escape by climbing up the back of the apparently sleeping monster is one of the most perfectly pitched I’ve ever seen, every edit and shot perfectly conceived and constructed for maximum effect. The Park family’s heroism and ingenuity are testament to the strong ties that bind them together and give audiences a reason to care deeply about what happens to them.
The Host picks up the tradition of Japanese monster movies in pointing to American contamination of the environment as a source of nature’s anger and need for revenge. However, there is a very modern lesson in this cautionary tale, especially for Koreans. It is not Americans, but North Koreans, who are playing with nuclear fire this time. The anxiety that makes The Host work so well shows an astute reading of Asia’s new nuclear landscape. l
It was my privilege to view this film in the elegantly preserved Landmark Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Watching a humanivorous monster while flanked on either side by a total of six Buddhas, each with a glowing third eye watching me, made me feel very safe.