Saturday, 29 March 2008


I finally watched a film by noted Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo, whose new film Night and Day is currently playing in theatres. I have also recently read a book of interviews and analysis on Hong published by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC). This is part of a series of books on Korean directors, including such filmmakers as Lee Chang-Dong, Park Chan-Wook, Im Kwon-Taek and others. I've read 3, on Hong, Lee and Park, and all are interesting despite needing an editor.

The book on Hong is particularly useful because of the difficulty of his work. He is definitely the most experimental of the Korean auteurs to gain success on the international festival circuit. Also, Hong may be the most critically acclaimed of Korean directors in the West. For example. the book on Hong published by KOFIC has pieces by film scholar David Bordwell and French director Claire Denis, and Hong has endeared himself to cinephiles by noting in interviews his high regard for directors like Robert Bresson and Luis Bunuel.

The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well (1996) is Hong's debut film, following the lives of four interconnected characters. The narrative is divided into four sections, each focusing on one particular character. The action takes place over the course of a single day, as the metaphoric title suggests. The difficulty of the narrative results from the concentration on everyday events and then, as the story progresses, the inclusion of scenes that are logically unclear. In particular, there is a dream sequence that, a la Bunuel, is not really signaled as such. The film feels closer to other directors of Asian minimalism than other Korean filmmakers. Tsai Ming-Liang's Vive L'Amour (2004) provides an especially useful comparison in the materiality of their concerns, primarily in regards to sexuality. While an initially off-putting work in terms of its characters (especially the writer whose story we see first) and its visually unpleasing look, the film is nevertheless quite compelling as its multi-character narrative enfolds and Hong's overall aesthetic strategy becomes clear. Apparently, Hong's next films continue narrative experiments while also minimalizing his style and approach even further (more long takes, even more concern with the quotidian). I hope to track down more of his films in the coming months.

Also this week I watched another multi-character drama, Michael Haneke's Code Unknown (2000). I first encountered Haneke's films almost a decade ago at a retrospective at the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa. At that time I saw his first two theatrical features (he has made a number of films by TV as well), The Seventh Continent (1989) and Benny's Video (1992). I have since seen The Piano Teacher (2001), Cache (2005), and most recently his original version of Funny Games (1997). Despite his admiration for all of these films, particularly Cache, I think Code Unknown is Haneke's most formally and thematically complex cinematic experiment to date.

In many ways the Oscar-winning Crash (Paul Haggis, 2005) is a Hollywood bastardization of Code Unknown, and a particularly obscene one at that. Unlike Crash, Haneke's film is both formally adventurous in its stylistic and narrative form and pointed and specific in its political and social analysis of race and poverty (for a breakdown of the film's style, see After a quickly edited prologue (itself a great sequence) Haneke establishes a pattern of sequence shots separated by short shots of black. This pattern is broken only by sequences involving the making of art. One main character is a photographer, and we get two sequences of still photos he has taken. The female protagonist is an actress, and one particular sequence shows a highly edited suspense scene from the film she is making. Haneke clues us to the movie-ness of this scene even before it is revealed to us explicitly by editing the scene completing differently from every other sequence. He concludes by giving us the two actors unable to stop laughing while dubbing in the dialogue (see still above).

If Paul Haggis has contributed nothing else to film culture, he has at least shown that multi-character narrative webs are not inherently progressive. But in the hands of directors like Hong and Haneke, they have the potential to be among the most politically relevant movies we can make in today's world.

Friday, 28 March 2008


I have added both a decade by decade Top Ten list as well as yearly lists for the past 20 years (1988-2007) on the right hand side of the blog. This came out of a recent attempt to try to recall and organize every film I have actually seen and organize the results by year. One of the things I realized was the enormous gaps in my viewing of cinema history compared with the number of films I have seen from recent years. While this is in many ways not surprising, I nevertheless was taken aback, since I always believed that I see relatively few newer releases. Almost half of all the movies I have seen have been released in the last 20 years. In any case, the lists will give a better idea of my tastes and maybe provide some ideas for viewing.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008


In addition to the vast availability of bootleg DVDs of recent films available through street vendors throughout Seoul, there are also cheap DVDs (between 3900 and 7900 won) of older films for sale at the larger book stores in the city (Kyobo and Bandis & Lundi). I recently (and finally) watched Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg through one of these DVDs and it was one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences I've had.

I recently listened to an old review of the film on and one of the questions that was raised was whether the music and singing was necessary to the story. The uniqueness of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that all of the film is scored and all of the dialogue is sung. Thus it is a musical that is in many ways not one, in the sense that there are no song and dance performances and very little traditional spectacle. But what the singing dialogue and score do accomplish is make the film distinctive of what the French New Wave represents as a whole.

The French New Wave, as exemplified by such early films as Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) and The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959), was an extreme mixture of realism and formalism. Traditionally, realism and formalism are seen as opposite poles of the spectrum, but the French New Wave challenges this dichotomy by treating these terms as more circular in nature. For example, Godard's jump cuts are such an extreme formal device that they become realistic in the sense that they call attention to the reality of the viewing experience (film is not reality, it is an illusion). Likewise, some of the more realistic long takes in a film like The 400 Blows continue for so long that they can actually draw attention to the presence of the camera.

Without the music and singing dialogue, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg would be a rather realistic, bittersweet melodrama. However, as a musical, it offers a reconsideration of both the musical and the melodrama. The extreme stylization of the use of music makes strange the realistic story of a couple torn apart by the Algerian War, and at the same time, the quotidian nature of the story grounds the spectacle of the musical genre. This is especially the case during the final third of the film, labeled "The Return." Instead of a conventional happy ending, Demy takes the material into darker places before eventually concluding with a emotionally complex finale. The final shot, seen in the still below, is one of the most resonant I can remember.

Saturday, 22 March 2008


The wink at the camera

The ten minute plus long take

I've added a link to the site, a website for a podcast I discovered about a month back which I highly recommend. The podcast began over 2 years back, hosted by Adam Kempenaar and Sam Hallgren. Recently, Hallgren left the show and was replaced by Matty Robinson. The podcast strikes a good balance between standard film reviewing and more serious film discussion. Kempenaar in particular has a background in studying film at the university level, and all the hosts have the ability to discuss film on a formal as well as thematic level. They also split their time reviewing new films and discussing films of the past through their weekly Top 5 lists as well as their marathons of films they haven't seen (for example, they have had a Western marathon, a Hitchcock marathon, a Bergman marathon, etc).

And often, their reviews of current films are better than most printed articles. One recent example of this is their discussion of Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 2008). I have not seen the new version of the Haneke film, since it has not opened here, but I did watch his original 1997 German language version this week. The new version is apparently a shot-for-shot remake, and most of the reviews have focused more on Haneke's concept of the film, so it seems reasonable to have an opinion about the negative backlash the new version has received. Many reviews mention Haneke's now infamous comment about the film: "Anybody who leaves the theatre doesn't need this film. Anyone who stays does." This has been interpreted by critics as Haneke preaching to the audience, but I think it's more of a descriptive statement than an evaluative one. People who do not watch or enjoy violence have no stake in the film, and nothing really to think about. If you have an interest in watching the film, especially knowing what it is about, it will provoke you. The negative critical reaction seems related to this challenge. It reminded me of the negative reaction of journalists this year to David Simon and his criticism of the press in the final season of The Wire.

After watching Funny Games, I finally watched the Japanese animation film The Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988). Although a very different film, Funny Games did make me think about this film differently. Namely, why I wanted to watch a film like Grave of the Fireflies which I knew would upset me because of its subject matter. Many years ago, film scholar Linda Williams wrote about the similarity between genres like horror and melodrama in their appeal to the body of the spectator. These genres are usually critically neglected and dismissed because of their lack of aesthetic distance. They are seen as merely emotion delivery devices. Both Funny Games and Grave of the Fireflies work to separate themselves from the genres of horror and melodrama, respectively. Funny Games does this more deliberately through the address of the camera and the use of extreme long shots and long takes (one over ten minutes long). Grave of the Fireflies does this through the use of animation and by keeping the violence off-screen. Nevertheless, Grave of the Fireflies still works as a tear-jerker, while Funny Games still creates a visceral impact in its use of violence.

As films, I think they are both great achievements. Grave of the Fireflies works as a humanist drama about war and its consequences, but is best seen as a corrective to other war films. Funny Games is as anti-humanist as most films get, but also works as a mediation not so much on film violence (of which there is little on-screen) as to why we watch any "disturbing" movies (including Grave of the Fireflies) to begin with.

Thursday, 20 March 2008


Next month, April 12-20, the Seoul Cinematheque is showing three later Godard films:

JLG/JLG (1995)
In Praise of Love (2001)
Notre Musique (2004)

No details on subtitles or even dates have been announced yet.

This Week

Continuing this week at the Cinematheque is the John Huston retrospective. I saw The Maltese Falcon last weekend (a film I've probably seen more than any other) and the print was good if not great. The experience of seeing the film in the theatre was well worth it. The other Huston films showing that I have seen and would recommend are: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and The African Queen (1951). Others I'm interested in seeing are Beat the Devil (1954), Fat City (1972), and The Dead (1987), a James Joyce adaptation that was Huston's last film.

If you missed No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, they are both playing at Cinecube. Also playing at Cinecube is Steve Buscemi's Interview (2007).

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

End of the final pull back of the opening shot

The birthday party

The final shot

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is still playing in art cinemas in Seoul, although not with English subtitles, so I watched the film through a bittorrent. This Romanian film won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and along with Lee Chang-Dong's Secret Sunshine, I think it was the best film of last year.

The film creates both a sense of realism through its long take style and, increasingly, a sense of subjectivity as well. It's important to point out the extreme nature of the realistic approach here. There are only 65 shots in the entire film, which lasts 1 hour and 45 minutes, not counting credits, making the average shot length close to 90 seconds. This is not a question of a director just letting their camera run, however. The approach establishes the space and the relationships between the characters, and then as the drama enfolds allows the real time aspect of the long take to give the viewer the experience of these characters. The visceral impact that this film has (and thus its political importance) is intimately connected to the nature of its long take approach. The subjectivity reaches its peak with a long tracking shot behind the lead character through the city streets, and then retreats back to objectivity with the final more formally composed two shot at the table that closes the picture.

The longest take of the film is also one of the most effective. It lasts over 7 minutes and show the lead character is framed (trapped) between her boyfriend's parents, with the boyfriend in the background. The tension of the scene is between the middle class conversation of this birthday party and the life and death situation of her friend, which is where her mind clearly is (and where Mungiu wants the viewers concern to be as well). Much has been made of the film as anti-Communist, but this is exaggerated in my opinion. It is a very specific social critique of Communism in Romania, but I think it is actually a movie many Marxists would approve of in its treatment of class. It is also much more explicitly a feminist film, and it reminded me a great deal of Erick Zonck's great The Dreamlife of Angels (1998).

Although the film is certainly grim, it also manages to be both visceral and political and deserves to be compared with other great examples of realistic and minimalist cinema.

Monday, 10 March 2008

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Still from the Prologue

Extreme long shot/ long take of Plainview and son's reunion

Final shot

There Will Be Blood opened in theatres here last week. It is also available on DVD, and over the weekend I watched the film in the cinema and then again at home in order to try to sort out my reaction to it.

Watching the film initially, I was impressed but also very unsatisfied. I felt there were two major weaknesses. One was structurally in terms of how the story seemed to meander, especially with the introduction of Plainview's brother. The other was a certain emptiness or at least simplicity in regards to the thematic material. Upon further discussion and reflection of the film, I think I was wrong on both counts, and I've gone from thinking the film was very flawed if fascinating to seeing it as a near masterpiece, all in about a 24 hour period. Re-watching the film, the structure is actually very coherent and even tight, bookended with a prologue and epilogue, and the character of the brother is crucial to the overall mediation on blood relations. The simplicity of the film went away on second viewing. My initial problem was with the power of the conclusion that seemed to undercut Plainview's character and make him simply a two-dimensional villain. In fact, this epilogue should be seen in relation to the rest of the movie, not as a conclusion in the traditional sense.

Anderson has typically been seen as a director who simply mimics other filmmakers, particularly directors of the New Hollywood. Thus Boogie Nights is seen as a rip-off of Scorsese and Magnolia is seen as Altmanesque. There are plenty of references and influences on display here, even though Altman and especially Scorsese are less central than Kubrick, Malick and Coppola. In particular, the 13 minute near dialogue free opening recalls 2001, especially the use of music and Lewis's almost ape-like performance (see still above). And the epilogue recalls The Shining in both the composition of the final shot (see still above) and in Daniel Day-Lewis's performance style recalling the Brechtian approach of Jack Nicholson in the earlier film (for a discussion of the influence of Brecht on Nicholson see Dennis Bingham's book Acting Male). And I think Lewis's performance here should be viewed in this context of Brecht, deliberately breaking with realism. The conclusion does not cancel out the character Lewis has created over the previous two hours of the film but rather comments on that character and what he represents.

But despite these many influences, There Will Be Blood is a unique experience that is drawing on the epic themes of Coppola's Godfather films and the visual beauty of Malick (although the landscape here feels more like Monte Hellman's The Shooting in its barren look) without simply mimicking them. One is reminded instead of Scorsese in his prime, drawing on his vast reservoir of film knowledge but creating something distinctive. Anderson's influences are more recent, drawing on the "Golden Age" he grew up with. One of the things worth admiring about There Will Be Blood is its long take style, which is far removed from the "intensified continuity" of contemporary Hollywood (David Bordwell discusses this at length in a recent blog entry The middle still from above is an extreme long shot from one of the longer takes in the movie, removing sentimentality from the reunion of Plainview and his son. A shot breakdown of the film is available here:

I first thought that No Country for Old Men was clearly the better film. Now, I'm not so sure. In many ways evaluating one film over the other is beside the point. Both are equally impressive achievements with different aesthetic approaches. They are the two best American films of the year that I saw, and two of the better of recent years.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

2007 Year in Review

Having finally caught up with most if not all of the critically acclaimed releases of last year, I thought I'd put together a year end list and ranking of all the films I saw. I'll add some more films as I see them.

5 stars

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Milyang/Secret Sunshine

4 and a half stars

No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Taxi to the Dark Side

4 stars

Michael Clayton
Gone Baby Gone
Margot at the Wedding
For the Bible Tells Me So
No End in Sight
Eastern Promises
Death Proof
My Kid Could Paint That

3 and a half stars

The Lookout
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
King of Kong
The Simpsons Movie

3 stars

The Darjeeling Limited
Knocked Up
Charlie Wilson's War

2 and a half stars

Away From Her

1 star


Saturday, 8 March 2008


Starting on March 15th at the Seoul Cinematheque is a retrospective on director John Huston. There will be 15 films showing over the course of almost one month. Information is available at the cinematheque website.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (Wong Kar-Wai, 2008)

Opening here today (and already available on bootleg DVD) is Wong Kar-Wai's first English language feature, My Blueberry Nights. The film does not really work on any level and is Wong's least interesting film I've seen since his 1988 As Tears Go By. It is, however, definitely a curiosity and Wong's fans may want to check it out.

What is surprising is how talky the film is. I expected the film to have less dialogue given the film is not in Wong's first language, but this is not the case. Also surprising is how much the film does still feel like a Wong film, even though it also feels like the work of a fan mimicking his approach. Normally, Wong likes to reinvent himself slightly with each film even while maintaining many of his themes. Here it feels simply like recycling.

My Blueberry Nights comes off like an American variation on Wong's 1994 cult item Chungking Express (favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who first made Wong more widely known to the West by releasing this film under his banner), especially in terms of narrative. Stylistically, the film is closer to the later In the Mood for Love (2000), although My Blueberry Nights lacks that film's intensity of visual beauty, partly because the emotions of the story here do not support it. The overall mood of the piece is the lightest of all Wong's work since Chungking Express, and the energy and spontaneity of that film is absent here. The covering of the usual Wong themes of time, memory and romantic longing also seem tired and overly simplified.

In many ways, this is "Wong for Dummies". It is puzzling who this film is going to appeal to. It will most likely disappoint Wong's fans, while at the same time being too much of a Wong project to really generate box office, despite the presence of pop star Norah Jones in the lead. Then again, it may be just the right mixture to please Jones's fans. File under the new "Adult Contemporary Viewing" genre.


Opening of tracking shot

Middle of tracking shot

End of tracking shot

(Joe Wright, 2007) and Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007), two of the many year-end films now circulating here on bootlegged DVDs (and in the case of Atonement in theatres as well) could not be much different, even if they do share themes in common: the danger of family being linked to the very thing that makes them needed, intimacy; and the danger of being an artist, especially to those close to you.

Atonement is a high class, polished piece of prestige cinema adapted from a very well-respected novel by Ian McEwan. The film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and was almost unanimously praised by critics, scoring an 85 on the Metacritic website. Margot at the Wedding is shot with a hand-held camera with many extremely grainy images captured by a low definition digital camera. Its reception was very mixed, scoring a 66 on the Metacritic tally. One can easily understand why, outside of the aesthetics. The characters in Atonement are very sympathetic, even the young girl who causes the tragedy of the film, and are placed in the life and death situation of World War II. The characters of Margot at the Wedding are extremely difficult to relate to, both because of their unpleasantness as well as the seeming pettiness and privilege of their situation.

However, I admired both films about equally. Atonement contains one particular shot that has been much discussed by critics, an almost five minute extended tracking shot of the British army waiting at Dunkirk (stills above) that has already been compared to the greatest long take tracking shots in cinema history. The inclusion of such a bravura cinematic feat seems like a very self-conscious attempt by director Joe Wright to distinguish himself from other Merchant-Ivory style literary adaptations. As far back as Francois Truffaut's attack on the Tradition of Quality of prestigious literary adaptations in 1950s France, this sub-genre has often been accused of being un-cinematic. But with the exception of this one shot, Atonement does still feel like many other World War II love stories, such as The English Patient and The End of the Affair. The story remains very compelling, but at the same time is a literary conceit that Wright never really finds a cinematic equivalent for.

Noah Baumbach's style in Margot at the Wedding, like in his other films, is spiritually linked to the French New Wave. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has argued, Baumbach's first film Kicking and Screaming owes a great deal to the style of New Wave hero Jean Renoir. His last film, The Squid and the Whale, was an homage to early Godard and Truffaut. Margot at the Wedding recalls New Wave favorite Ingmar Bergman as well as New Wave critic turned director Eric Rohmer. In particular, the film's opening titles work to mark Baumbach's work as "art cinema". There is also a Dogma-like feel to many of the scenes and images. Much of what people dislike about the film is what I admired: difficult characters, ugly images, and a lack of story resolution. The interest instead lies in the performances, the awkward humour, and the surprising, uncomfortable eroticism, which is probably the most notable comparison with the often neglected Rohmer. Not a film I would recommend to most, but if you're tuned into its sensibility and/ or interested in the attempt by American indie directors to establish themselves as cineastes, Margot at the Wedding offers a strange and almost indefensible fascination.