Address Unknown (Suchwiin bulmyeong, S Korea, 2001)

The subaltern scream

The subaltern scream

I seem to have embarked on a season of Kim Ki-duk films (see Bad Guy), whose ‘extreme cinema’ raises hackles as well as bile. Audiences are probably expecting the worst when the film opens with the message that no animals were harmed in the making this film and a short introductory shot shows a young girl being shot in the eye. However, although physical violence, as in Bad Guy, is a manifestation of the psychological pain inflicted upon the (subaltern) underclass, much of the violence in Address Unknown, mercifully, happens offscreen.

Set in 1971 in a US army base camp town, the narrative offers fairly loosely connected ‘slices of life’ from three main characters: a schoolgirl who, after being raped, is thrown out of the school and two young men, one with mixed raced (African-Amercan/Korean) parentage and the other the butt of bullying who fancies the girl. The ‘letter’ of the title is sent by the mother to the father, now returned to America, of Chang-guk; however, they are returned with the titular message. Unsurprisingly, given the setting, the focus is on the colonial nature of the American encampment, the girl – Eunok – walks to school beside the base’s fence. She is befriended by an American soldier and Kim is sympathetic to the psychological effect of the American’s displacement, but his presence is ultimately destructive.

There is humour, too, in the mire of the characters’ existence: all three are framed, in one scene, with injured eyes. Hardly funny in itself but it’s part of Kim’s project to unsettle the audience and this he does. Kim has directed 20 features in 18 years, a remarkable tally given his lack of box office success. Despite the speed at which he works he produces work of quality, both in terms of direction and script, that demands to be seen. He is also one of the few who give a voice to the underclass which makes him one of the most important political filmmakers of our time.

Bad Guy (Nabbeun namja, S.Korea, 2001)

Good bad guy

Good bad guy

Distributor Tartan marketed some East Asian films under it’s ‘Asian extreme’ imprint, an obvious marketing device that nevertheless failed when ithe company went bankrupt in 2008. Probably amongst the most ‘extreme’ of these offerings were the films of Ki-duk Kim, who attacks the sensibilities of those who wish to experience the ‘extreme’; hence, they are quintessentially extreme.

How do you deal with the films of Kim Ki-duk? Take Bad Guy, the ‘guy’ is undoubtedly – he forces a young woman into prostitution – bad, but we (well ‘I’) found myself eventually becoming sympathetic toward him. I doubt I am the only one who experiences this counter-intuitive engagement with the film though many don’t; his films are routinely dismissed as misogynist. Not only is she forced into prostitution but Kim shows us her first experience of sex when she is raped. The charge of misogyny is not hard to suggest and yet… Kim certainly doesn’t shoot the rape as anything other than a violation and the camera’s position minimises the possibilities of titillation. So what’s his point?

Hye Seung Chung’s excellent The Films of Kim Ki-duk make it clear that the director’s films are an attack on the class structure of South Korean society. The extreme nature of the imagery is a manifestation of the extreme humiliation that is inflicted upon the underclass. The subaltern (the underclass) is often absent in a nation’s cinema, Ill Manors is one recent example in Britain which worked in a similar way to Bad Guy in enabling the audience to sympathise with ‘badly’ behaved people.

One thing that is easy to like in Kim’s films is his mise en scene. His ‘painterly’ eye offers many beautiful compositions, such as when the bad guy and his victim are shown to be mirror images of each other. Is that enough to put oneself through the gruelling torture of some of the violence represented in his films? I think it is, unless you have a visceral dislike of representations of pain; Bad Guy is, at least, not as graphic as The Isle (2004). Kim’s cinema, with the notable exception of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003) is extreme but his purpose is not simply to shock but to also to communicate. In this his films are autobiographical, he’s from the underclass, and usually box office failures in South Korea. Who wants to see what we don’t want to see? As for Kim’s success in the west, it may be their ‘orientalist’ appeal to jaded audiences. Dig a bit deeper, though, and his films are striking for what they tell us about ourselves as much as the east.

I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda, South Korea, 2010)

Into the abyss

Into the abyss

Kim Jee-woon, director of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008), has produced another stunning film. Stunning in both its direction, the acting and its content. It’s a revenge movie, a common trope it seems in Korean cinema (well Park Chan-wook excels in this), that mingles extreme imagery (females stripped, tortured and murdered) with beautiful composition and mise en scene. If that makes it seem that misogynist violence is aestheticised then that is accurate however, ultimately, the film uses the conventions of gorenography, or torture porn, to a morally devastating effect.

SPOILER ALERT: Lee Byung-hun plays a secret service agent whose fiancee is a victim of a serial killer, played by the brilliant Choi Min-sik (of Oldboy, 2003, fame) and seeks extra-judicial revenge. Despite the film’s 140 minute running length the killer is caught quickly and there’s one of those wonderful moments in a genre film where you have no idea where the film is going to go next. The killer is released only to be tracked and caught again, then released and so on… The dehumanising effect of revenge has been dealt with before but I doubt so successfully. Lee’s agent does save a number of potential victims as he chases down the killer but not before they’ve been put in peril and, no doubt, severely traumatised by the experience. The spectator’s complicity is highlighted in a Hitchockian manner: we wish to watch the film but that necessitates ‘people’ being placed in danger but, here, we cannot but wish the killer had been dealt with the moment he was caught. In other words, we are positioned not to want to watch the rest of the film.

I won’t give anything more away but the ending is truly devastating. For some reason (South) Korean cinema has slipped off my radar for a while but it’s definitely back on now. I can’t say I enjoyed watching this film, the brutality is visceral, and the violence-against-women trope disturbing, but the cumulative effect is extremely powerful in a positive sense. Apart from Kim’s dynamic direction, much is down to the performance of the protagonists: Choi’s charisma is cannily used as the killer who’s demented determination becomes almost admirable. In contrast Lee’s agent bottles up his emotions through most of the film making him appear to be the psychopath; but, then again, maybe he does become one.

A Simple Life (Tao jie, Hong Kong, 2011)

Life is other people

Andy Lau, a big action star in East Asia, stars with Deannie Yip with this very effective melodrama. She plays Ah Tao, who’s been a family maid since a teenager and played a role in bringing up Lau’s character. Early in the film she suffers a stroke and insists in being put into a ‘home’ as she can no longer serve the family. Such family maids are, apparently, relatively common in Hong Kong.

Lau plays Roger, a film producer (many of the glitterati of the HK film industry appear as themselves) but finds himself mistaken for an air conditioning engineer and taxi driver. The film suggests that the ‘celebs’ are just the same as everyone else and Roger finds himself increasingly drawn into a friendship with Ah Tao and the previous master-servant dichotomy increasingly blurs. An interesting extra-textual detail is that Yip has often played Lau’s mother.

Ann Hui, a rare female from Hong Kong’s ‘new wave’, direction emphasises the ‘slices of life’ of Ah Tao’s retirement and fleshes out the various characters who inhabit the home. The aging population need care, both physical and social.

I watched the film with a Taiwanese and it was interesting to discuss cultural references. For example, Roger discusses, with his sister, paying for Ah Tao’s funeral before she dies and, later, in western terms, acts in a callous manner. For ‘eastern’ audiences, of course, this behaviour is entirely normal and the only puzzle is westerner’s reaction.

Lau, against type, is great but the film belongs to Deannie Yip’s brilliant performance.

The Chaser (Chugyeogja, South Korea, 2008)

Saw (South) Korean style?

The Saw franchise meets the (bonkers) South Korean sensibility of Memories of Murder (2003)? I wouldn’t want to deal with the police in South Korea (actually, I wouldn’t want to deal with the police in this country given the violence they are meting out, and inspiring, at demos) if these films are any indication of their corruptness and ineptitude. Memories, based on a real case, is, at least, set in the sticks, and there’s the town v. country copper trope at work. So it made sense that they didn’t know what they were doing (in terms of representation not reality). However, this serial killer movie is set in Seoul and follows a flawed ex-cop who’s trying to find out why his prostitutes are disappearing.

There’s a wonderful surreality that seems to run through South Korean cinema, though I have no idea if this is simply the films I’ve seen or an expression of Korean culture. When this is combined with Saw-like environs and cruelty, there’s bound to be a discomforting mix on the screen. Absolutely gripping too, even though this debut feature of Hong-jin Na is too long. A Hollywood remake is in the offing though there’s absolutely no way that the ending won’t be changed!

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki o kakeru shôjo, Japan, 2006)

Holding on to the past

This marvelous anime reverses the idea that youngsters want to grow up quickly with the protagonist attempting to reverse events that lead to change. Although not a Studio Ghibli production, Girl has a hero who could happily reside in movies made by Miyazaki (and others). Her wonderful tumbles, necessitated by having to leap through time, give the character a wonderful dynamism.

The animation lurches between the beautiful (those clouds) and Hanna Barbera horrible. However, the absence of schmaltz in the narrative, built around the truism that ‘time waits for no one’, make this a film definitely to see.

Mother (Madeo, S.Korea, 2009)

Mum’s the word

While I thoroughly enjoyed Joon-ho Bong’s Memories of Murder (2003) I struggled to appreciate The Host (2006) and the film under review. All three films take a genre, Mother‘s a melodrama, and approaches the narrative askance. In other words, he allows the genre to set up expectation but doesn’t deliver it straight. This is absolutely fine in principle, in practice though – I recognise I’m in a minority of those who’ve seen the films – it fails to engage me; to such an extent that I did nod off at one point during this film’s two hour plus length.

That said, the direction, cinematography and performances are excellent and it does pass the Bechdel test!

Bechdel test: Pass (13/5)
Protagonist: Female (4/10)

My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo, S.Korea, 2001, and US, 2008)

Anarchy rules

Tamar Jeffers McDonald (Romantic Comedy, Wallflower, 2007) suggests that, in the screwball comedy, affection is expressed through aggression and that the protagonist is often female; an anarchic force that disrupts the stuffy male. Katharine Hepburn is the archetype – so brilliant is she that that word is correct – in the classic Bringing Up Baby (1938) and ‘The Girl’, of the original S.Korean My Sassy Girl, is in direct lineage to Hepburn’s character. In the US remake the character is named (Jordan Roark) and comes from a rich family; also like Hepburn’s character in Baby.

Not sweet enough?

I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the American version having enjoyed the original, however it is interesting to see how the narrative is adapted for the US audience. The main differences are in the Hollywood version:

  • at the beginning we are introduced to the boy’s family, an all American small town which I suppose is meant to explain his passivity in the face of the sassy girl
  • in S.Korean version, the girl throws up over a passenger in the commuter train; in the American version her outrageous behaviour – which brings them together – isn’t outrageous at all
  • he doesn’t take her back to a hotel; due to prudishness? In the S.Korean version it’s entirely chaste anyway
  • she’s rich; we learn nothing of the S.Korean girl’s background
  • her anarchic role more obvious in her comment about it’s sad that he wants a corporate future. Though that’s a bit rich from her, holding him in contempt for wanting a materially secure life, when she’s got daddy’s money
  • he has a mate that explains what’s going on (a generic trope)
  • there are fast motion bits in the American version, presumably to make it look more interesting
  • the ending adds syrup to schmaltz (‘Destiny is building a bridge to the one you love’)

I’m not sure what conclusions we can draw. Obviously in adapting a film for a different culture (market) there will be changes and, using the imdb’s audience ratings, the changes were not successful. The original is 8 whilst the remake scores a pathetic 5. It was badly done.

Red Cliff (Chi bi, China, 2008)

‘This is really really important’

Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan-Hong Kong-US-China, 2000) we’ve been, in the west, regaled with a number of spectacular films from China. John Woo, who’s gone ‘full circle’ from Hong Kong to Hollywood and back to China, directs this conflagration of a film.

It lacks nothing for spectacle but maybe I’m getting jaded at seeing yet another shedload of extras being mown down by heroic men. It was Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro who kept me watching; I doubt there’s a pair of more charismatic actors operating anywhere in the world. Lueng, in particular, is terrific whether he’s playing one of Wong Kar Wai’s alter egos or in the cut and thrust of wuxia. That said, I’m also getting bored of frowning men who have to go off to fight for justice; Russell Crowe’s wearing this frown on posters for the forthcoming Robin Hood.

Women aren’t neglected in Red Cliff but they are so secondary. A bleat of a complaint really, as I’m sure that’s historically accurate; I should be watching other genres.

Treeless Mountain (US/South Korea 2008)

Dragging yourself up

This slice of director So Yung Kim’s life is blessed by wonderful performances by the leads (above) and cursed by the constant use of a long lens that renders the mise en scene flat and the compositions dominated by claustrophobic close ups. Whilst the handheld camera and location shooting signifies realism the flat depth of field negates their effect; for example, when the sisters are at a bus stop hoping their mum is returning it appears that the bus, once it leaves, will run them down so flat is the shot; it is distracting and ugly.

I imagine Kim had to do this so the camera was as far away as possible from the children making it easier for her to coax out engaging performances. However, the film’s slight narrative needs more.