Saturday, 29 March 2008
THE DAY A PIG FELL INTO THE WELL; CODE UNKNOWN
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 http://www.cinemetrics.lv/movie.php?movie_ID=1411). 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.