Friday, 29 February 2008

This Week

Starting tomorrow at the Cinematheque is the Jean Renoir retrospective. Details are available at the website. Unfortunately, not all the films have subtitles, so make sure to check.

Monday, 25 February 2008


I recently came across a box set of Lee Chang-Dong's first three films: Green Fish (1996), Peppermint Candy (1999), and Oasis (2002). Being a great admirer of Lee's two most recent films, Secret Sunshine and Oasis, I was anxious to see his first two films, and started with Peppermint Candy.

Lee began his career as an artist as a novelist, and Peppermint Candy is very much influenced by literary structure. The film uses a backwards time construct, starting with a man's suicide. The story in many ways is the reverse of Hollywood melodrama, especially the way in which social and political concerns are handled. Typically, Hollywood attempts to solve social issues through melodrama. There are numerous examples, the locus classicus being Casablanca. It can even be seen in political dramas like JFK with its insertion of the family melodrama into the assassination investigation. Peppermint Candy, on the other hand, starts with the personal and gradually begins to explore the political and social landscape of South Korea over the previous 20 years.

The film achieves, like Lee's other work, a curious and extremely effective mixture of realism and formalism. The style of the film features a great many long takes and favors a naturalistic acting approach. However, there are many motifs that self-consciously call attention to themselves throughout. This begins of course with the artificial narrative form. The hero starts by allowing himself to be run over by a train while screaming "I want to go home". There are then six flashbacks in reverse chronological order. In between each "chapter" there are shots of a train going in reverse. And each chapter contains a scene with a train, which eventually causes the viewer to note this motif. The hero also contains a limp that reappears throughout at key moments.

The film thus works on two levels. On the one hand, it is an emotionally engaging male melodrama about lost love a la Wong Kar-Wai. At the same time, it is a politically astute tale that is both an introduction to recent Korean history and an all-too-relevant commentary on the use of brutality to control dissent.

Friday, 22 February 2008

This Week

A Jean Rouch retrospective begins this week at the Seoul Cinematheque. Jean Renoir's A DAY IN THE COUNTRY plays Sunday 4:00pm and Renoir's MADAME BOVARY plays Tuesday 7:00pm at the Dongseung Cinematheque. Also, the schedule for the Renoir retrospective starting March 1st at the Seoul Cinematheque is now available at their website.

Also, in time for the Oscars, JUNO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and ATONEMENT are all playing at many multiplexes across the city.

Next Thursday (28th), the Cannes winner from this year, 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS will be playing at Cinecube, along with Korean cineaste Hong Sang-Soo's new film, NIGHT AND DAY, which just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last week. Unfortunately, it is doubtful either will have English subtitles.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008


Sidney Lumet has been directing feature films for 50 years, starting with 12 Angry Men (1957). he probably had his greatest success, like many directors at the time, during the "Hollywood Renaissance" of the 1970s: Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). He continued making films over the next decades, producing occasional greatness, for example The Verdict (1982) and Running on Empty (1988), along with a great deal of mediocrity. Lumet was never known as much of a stylist, and therefore was never seen as much of an auteur. He was felt to be as good as the material he was given.

However, with his most recent film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Lumet has gotten perhaps the best reviews of his career. Moreover, most of the praise is being heaped on Lumet himself as a filmmaker, as opposed to simply the story and the actors (always a Lumet strength with no exception here). With the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster and with more and more films applying a fast cutting style even in dialogue scenes (what film scholar David Bordwell has dubbed "intensified continuity"), there seems to be a greater critical affinity for films employing a classical style of filmmaking. This helps explain the immense critical success of someone like Clint Eastwood as well as the re-emergence of Lumet as another "old master" of the cinema.

All of this is a preamble to my feeling that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, like some recent Eastwood (for example, Million Dollar Baby) is slightly overrated, especially as an example of great directing. No complaints about the performances here, nor with the non-linear story structure of Kelly Masterson (although the film's last act does not work nearly as well as what comes before). And credit should be given to Lumet for not needlessly cutting the film to pieces and allowing mise-en-scene to play an important role. The problem is that the mise-en-scene is often rather mannered and obvious. One example is the still above, a very self-consciously designed shot that seems to strain for seriousness (to paraphrase Andrew Sarris). Lumet's style is caught between an efficient classical style and an art cinema long take approach, and the result never jelled as well as it could given the strong story and performers. A rather awkward fast cutting approach to signal flashbacks also seemed unnecessary and the work of a director fresh out of film school rather than the confident storyteller Lumet is supposed to be.

The film is available on bootleg DVD here in Seoul, and given its critical acclaim it may show up in art cinemas soon. Despite some reservations, a film worth seeing, but not the masterpiece some are claiming.

Friday, 15 February 2008


I saw these films at the Minnelli retrospective over the past few days, and are a fascinating trio of films to consider together. The Pirate (1948) is a musical starring Minnelli's then wife Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. This is one of the genres in which Minnelli made his reputation, and The Pirate may be Minnelli's peak within this form. The Bad and the Beautiful is closer to Minnelli's other genre specialty, the melodrama, but it also one of the earlier films in another sub-genre of films about Hollywood itself. Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) is in many ways a follow-up to The Bad and the Beautiful, using the same star, Kirk Douglas, and also exploring what it is to work within Hollywood. But by 1962, the idea of what Hollywood was had changed a great deal. (On Wednesday, The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town will both be showing on a double bill. The print of The Bad and the Beautiful is only average, with many scratches and even a few splices, but the print of Two Weeks in Another Town is terrific.)

The common link in all three films is the role of art and artists in society. This is obvious enough in the two Hollywood films, but is also present in The Pirate with its focus on acting. The Pirate closes with the number "Be a Clown" (the same tune is more famous today for its lyrical reworking "Make 'em Laugh" number from Kelly and Donen' s 1952 Singin' in the Rain, another MGM musical) and offers up a celebration of the artist and their role. But, even more, it views art as a way (the only way?) to escape from the confines of society. The heroine Manuela dreams of being taken away by the pirate Macoco (or Mack the Black) in order to escape her dull soon-to-be husband. Teh twist of the film is that this husband is (or was) Macoco and gave up that life to try to be a respectable mayor. The myth of Macoco is just that, a story the heroine reads to open the film. The only illusion that is real is art itself, represented by the acting troupe and, of course, by Minnelli's musical sequences, certainly the high point of the film. The happy ending Minnelli provides is thus one that only exists within the world of illusion. Thematically, The Pirate has a lot in common with Minnelli's earlier musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a seemingly optimistic film that nevertheless reveals the contradictions of society.

The Bad and the Beautiful is Minnelli's Citizen Kane, only set in the world of movies. It has a triple flashback structure to deal with the story of Jonathan Shields, a Hollywood producer with certain parallels to both Val Lewton and David O. Selznick. The film shows a clear affection for the Hollywood of this period. But it also seems to point to a new system (by 1952, the producer package deal was coming in, as the film's frame story shows). And, the film has a decidedly love-hate relationship with the business, as represented by Shields himself. By the time of Two Weeks in Another Town Hollywood was effectively gone. The film is set in Italy at Cinecitta studio, with Douglas as an actor recovering from a nervous breakdown. He is reunited with his director, and in the film's most famous sequence, they watch a clip from The Bad and the Beautiful and both celebrate and lament their past. The film's attitude towards art is increasingly pessimistic, especially in terms of the negative effect it can have on the individuals participating, although it is still ultimately the only thing Minnelli does have some faith.

The three films are also intriguing to compare stylistically, with the color and Academy ratio of The Pirate, the black and white and Academy ratio of The Bad and the Beautiful, and the widescreen colour of Two Weeks in Another Town. Minnelli's style, with its focus on long takes and mise-en-scene, adapts very well and may even be said to be suited to the widescreen format. However, Two Weeks in Another Town is the weakest film of the three, and in many ways proves the point about the advantages of the Hollywood system that are implied by The Bad and the Beautiful. The first hour has a great fascination, but the weak story material and hodgepodge of actors eventually derail the film in its second half. The Bad and the Beautiful, by comparison, while the least stylistically dazzling of the three films, is the masterpiece of the group, a film that compares with the best of Classic Hollywood and with the best of films about the cinema itself.

Thursday, 14 February 2008


This week, in addition to the continuing Minnelli retrospective at the Cinematheque, Film Forum is showing 3 films by Otto Preminger over the weekend. The schedule is as follows:

Bonjour Tristesse (1958): Friday 6:20, Saturday 2:30, Sunday 8:30
Advise and Consent (1962): Fri 3:30, Sat 8:00, Sun 5:30
River of No Return (1953): Fri 8:30, Sat 6:00, Sun 3:30

A note on Bonjour Tristesse: this was the second of Preminger's two films with the actress Jean Seberg. Preminger discovered Seberg in a nationwide talent search/ publicity stunt for the lead in his film Saint Joan (1957). After the critical disaster of that film, Preminger cast Seberg in his next film, Bonjour Tristesse, possibly, as Mark Rappaport speculates in his great essay film From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), to disprove Seberg's critics. This film also was seen as a failure, but it did attract at least one critic, that being Jean-Luc Godard, who cast Seberg in his debut film the next year, Breathless (1959). Godard has even suggested that Seberg's character was based on the one she plays in this film. Bonjour Tristesse is also a favorite of Preminger fans, although don't go in looking for a great story.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


Charlie Wilson's War (Mike Nichols, 2007) opened in theatres here last week, and Juno is coming I believe next week or the week after. I watched both over the weekend, the first in the theatre, the last on a bootleg DVD of only average quality (there are bittorrents out there of higher quality).

I went to see Charlie Wilson's War basically because there was not much else out there in terms of mainstream releases. I was pleasantly surprised and generally entertained by the performances and the story. As filmmaking there is not much to recommend here. Director Mike Nichols (who debuted with The Graduate over 40 years ago) conforms to the "intensified continuity" style of contemporary Hollywood with few exceptions (some frontal long take compositions with two characters walking towards the camera). But Nichols, a renowned theatre director, has always been great with actors, and the story here is worth telling. It deals with how a Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson helps covertly fund and supply the Afghanistan rebels in their war with the Soviets. If this film had been made in 1991, it would have been insufferable propaganda (and unlikely would have attracted Nichols and his actors in the first place). But knowing how the story turns out after the triumph puts a different spin on the whole film and how it progresses. The film certainly could have been tougher and made more explicit the links to Bin Laden, but overall a worthwhile and entertaining film.

Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) was one of most critically acclaimed films of last year, but watching the first 10-15 minutes I wondered why. It seemed almost like a parody of indie film, especially the use of music and the opening title sequence. I feared the film would be imitation Wes Anderson without the sense of formal rigour that make his films as distinctive and moving as they are. However, the film does overcome this weak opening and the script and acting are both so good that you can understand the critical applause. Having seen Reitman's previous Thank You for Smoking, I'm skeptical about him as as auteur. Overall, the directing of both films is their least distinctive feature. And while I liked both films, I think they're also overrated.

Watching the film, I was reminded of a conference paper I heard last year on the connection between independent cinema and indie music in the US. I've always thought that my affection for certain directors, such as Scorsese and Wes Anderson in particular, rested on me sharing their taste in music. However, it's not quite as simple as that. Scorsese and Anderson create memorable images to fuse with the music; in Juno, we simply get the music. There is one scene, however, set to Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes", that is effective as Anderson's use of The Rolling Stones' "She Smiled Sweetly" in The Royal Tenenbaums.

establishes an indie sensibility to distinguish the "hip" from the "normal", but in the end does not claim that this is the basis for moral judgment. The wife of the adoptive couple, square as she is, is given more weight at the conclusion than the husband, cool as he is. We can view this as progressive, perhaps, but it is also a sign of the film's ideological neutrality and attempt at reconciling these values. The character of Juno is at the heart of this project, and the film is as popular as it is, I believe, because Ellen Page's performance is both authentic and, ultimately, in the service of traditional morality. Comparing this film and its lead character to Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World from 2001 shows how much more audience friendly this version of indie hipness is. With this film and last year's Little Miss Sunshine, we could be witnessing a major shift in what independent film is or even what the term means.

Friday, 8 February 2008

This Week

Upcoming this week:

Minnelli Retro at Seoul Cinematheque.
Renoir's La Chienne Tuesday and Sunday (17th) at Dongseung Cinematheque. The Rules of the Game is playing this Sunday.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly at both Cinecube and Sponge House. No English subtitles however (the film is French).

I'm adding directions to various art theatres on the right hand side of the blog for easier reference.


Just in time for Valentine Day's, Cinecube is showing Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) starting next February 14th. A film definitely worth seeing, especially for the performances and to see how Hollywood deals with homosexuality circa the present moment. A film to throw in the time capsule if nothing else.

Thursday, 7 February 2008


Although film culture in Korea is generally very good for cinephiles, it remains difficult to find subtitled Korean films in theatres. Thus, it remains easier to see Korean films on DVD. My own knowledge of Korean cinema is limited mostly to the art cinema made available in the North America, especially directors Park Chan Wook, Kim Ki-Duk and Im Kwon-Taek. However, the best Korean film I have seen is the lesser known Oasis from 2002. I saw the film on a Korean DVD before it was later released in a Region 1 copy and thought it was one of the most savage societal critiques I could remember seeing. The writer-director Lee Chang-Dong had only directed two other films, Green Fish (1997) and Peppermint Candy (2000). Lee came to the cinema late, writing his first screenplay in 1993 at the age of almost 40, having previously worked as a novelist.

I haven't been able to see his earlier films, but recently saw Lee's most recent film, Milyang/ Secret Sunshine, which won an award for actress Jeon Do-Yeon at Cannes. It is a great piece of cinema, and not only for the great performance at its center, although Jeon is certainly deserving of the praise heaped upon her. Lee does a masterful job of both drawing the audience close to the lead character and the emotional violence she endures and distancing the viewer through his use of style. The film belongs with the great melodramas of Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse, but it is really not fair to compare the film with even those masterpieces that came before it. As familiar as the film's story of a melodrama centered around a suffering heroine is, it looks and feels unlike any other film I can remember.

I recently came across an interview with Lee in which he insisted that his new film Milyang (which had not yet been released at the time) was shot very simply, with no elaborate cinematic technique. Watching the film, it is anything but a typically or ordinarily shot picture. There are a number of shots that call attention to themselves because of either their extreme length or the distance put between the camera and the characters. I am thinking of writing something more substantial on the film and its style, but for now I'll point out the most obvious example of this approach.

The two stills above are from two successive shots taken at one of the turning points of the plot. Shin-ae, in extreme distress from tragedies she has endured, stumbles into a church and has an emotional breakdown. As we first hear sobs on the soundtrack, Lee gives us a 85 second shot from the back of the church. Eventually, Lee cuts to Shin-ae breaking down, in another 75 second long take, but by this time the emotional and intellectual response to this is far from conventional and ordinary. Consistently, Lee works to make this melodramatic material both realistically emotional and cathartic while succeeding in placing this suffering in a larger context. Like the earlier love story Oasis, Milyang is a conventional genre film that goes much deeper into examining social issues. That both films can do this without sacrificing the emotional force of the genre material makes Lee's accomplishment all the more impressive. If you want to begin exploring Korean cinema, these two films are a great place to start.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

GONE BABY GONE (Ben Affleck, 2007)

Gone Baby Gone is the directorial debut of actor Ben Affleck, adapted by Affleck and Aaron Stockard from the novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the novel on which Clint Eastwood's Mystic River was based. Gone Baby Gone is the fourth of a series of five Lehane novels based on the P.I. couple Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. Lehane has also contributed screenplays for the best show on television, now or ever, The Wire.

Like most actor turned directors, there is not a strong or distinct visual style here, although there are some shots that linger in the mind, especially the still included above as well as the final image. The power of the film comes from the story, and Affleck smartly allows the plot and its moral ramifications to take center stage. There are great performances here from Amy Ryan and Ed Harris in particular, and the casting of Affleck's brother Casey in the lead works because he does not overwhelm the role. The same is true with Michelle Monaghan as the his partner. These characters are meant to be the ciphers through which the audience must think about the larger political and social issues of the film.

There is a strong case to the made that the auteur here is Lehane, and this extends to Mystic River. I think, auteur theory notwithstanding, that there is a greater affinity between these two films than between, for example, Mystic River and any other Eastwood film. We'll have to wait to see where Affleck goes from here, but this is a better debut than anyone had any reason to expect.

I do not want to reveal much about the specifics of the ending, but it does deal with a situation in which a choice has to be made, and the values that represent each side of this choice cannot be reconciled. This makes the film an anomaly within Hollywood. In 1985, film scholar Robert Ray wrote his study A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. For Ray this certain tendency was for Hollywood films to set up a choice between two sets of values, often variations on the Western's civilization/wilderness, community/ individual dichotomy, and two sets of heroes, often variations on the outlaw hero versus the official hero. The ideological project of most films was to reconcile these two binaries and convince the audience that American ideology was not in fact as contradictory as it appeared. The classical example of this is Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) in which the character of Rick Blaine joins the community at the end to fight against the Nazis but retains his individual freedom by sending away his love interest with the official hero. Thus no real choice had to be made between freedom and responsibility. And even today, few Hollywood films demand any real acknowledgment of the necessity of choice. Admirably, Gone Baby Gone insists on this choice and does not make any attempt to soften its difficulty by reconciling the deep social and political divisions the film depicts.

PERSEPOLIS (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

I actually caught up with this film on DVD, which are cheaply available in bootleg copies here. As a result, I'm planning on catching up with the more critically acclaimed films of the past year in the next little while. Thus far I have seen MICHAEL CLAYTON, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, EASTERN PROMISES, DEATH PROOF, NO END IN SIGHT, and THE KING OF KONG. I still have to watch I'M NOT THERE; 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS; ATONEMENT; JUNO; and GONE BABY GONE. I may write an entry about all of these films once I'm through.

PERSEPOLIS is an animated adaptation of a comic book by co-director Marjane Satrapi about her experiences growing up during the Iranian revolution and its aftermath. This is quickly becoming a sub-genre in its own right. There have been a number of comics adaptation of late that aim at the art cinema crowd rather than the blockbuster market, so much so that even the new BATMAN series is trying to remold its image in this mold, with the infusion of indie director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale. Some of these have been live action films (GHOST WORLD, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) or a mixture of animation and live action (AMERICAN SPLENDOR). Satrapi and Paronnaud adopt a very abstract look to emphasize the impressionistic memories of a child, and this look also allows a greater distance from the events because of its formalism.

Not being familiar with the comics, or with comics and comic scholarship in general (other than from what I've picked up from comic scholar friends), I can only comment on the film. Its interest for me was the relation it had to the films of the Iranian New Wave, especially the work of Jafar Panahi. During one sequence in PERSEPOLIS, there is a description of the dangers of attending parties under the Islamic theocracy in which alcohol is banned. This event is dramatized through the characters of Marjane and her liberal intellectual parents. In Panahi's CRIMSON GOLD, the same event is handled very differently, completing from the outside, without any knowledge of the characters involved. By comparison, PERSEPOLIS, as is often the case in the film, comes off as rather conventional in its approach to the material. In fact, PERSEPOLIS seems very much pitched to a audience of outsiders from a liberal humanist perspective. There is nothing difficult about the film and its style, and could easily gain a wide audience with the right marketing campaign.

However, I felt that the film trades off complexity for accessibility. Part of this is class based, since we are being given the perspective of a middle class family and its values and attitudes, which are very familiar to those in the West (hence the film's "universality", a term that always makes me suspicious). Marjane's parents, grandmother and martyred uncle are held up as clear and rather unambiguous moral exemplars. And while it was refreshing to see the Communist uncle held up as a heroic figure, he is seen as being misguided in his belief in any fundamental change, and the film furthermore argues that fundamental(ist) change is inherently dangerous. Better to believe, like the parents, in vague concepts like freedom, or in the wise homilies of her grandmother. If you compare Marjane's family to the complex "heroes" of the Iranian New Wave, the simplicity of PERSEPOLIS comes into clearer focus.

Nevertheless, the film is certainly worth seeing. It just seems rather depressing that we need the story of Iran told this way, and that merely stating that Iran have middle class people just like us would be seen by so many as a politically relevant act.