Saturday, 26 April 2008

UPCOMING: Alexander Kluge Retrospective at Seoul Cinematheque

If you cannot make it to the Jeonju film festival, the Alexander Kluge retrospective will be coming to the Seoul Cinematheque May 13-18. It will include six features and a number of shorts. The program is available at the website, although the screening schedule has not yet been released.

Thursday, 24 April 2008


Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

NOTE: This post is longer than usual and also contains numerous spoilers.

Hong Sang-soo's third feature offers a culmination of his previous films and their thematic, narrative and stylistic concerns. The focus on male-female sexual relationships is pared down even further, as this is essentially the story of the consummation of a love affair between the virgin Soo-Jeong and her lover Jae-Hun. Narratively, it is the most extreme of Hong's formal experiments, presenting the story of this affair in two parallel sections, with many scenes being repeated with slight variations. Likewise, the long take style of the first two films is taken to a much greater extreme. The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well had an average shot length (ASL) of 24 seconds; The Power of Kangwon Province had an ASL of 33 seconds; here, the ASL is over 52 seconds. This is mostly due to an large increase in extremely long takes of 100 seconds or more: each of Hong's first films contained 9 such shots, while The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors has 22 of these prolonged takes. Furthermore, these takes tend to be of far less dramatic importance than in the earlier films, where they usually took place between lovers or at tense table conversations. In this film, Hong's minimal editing tends to serve his narrative experiment, as does the decision to shoot in black and white. The sparseness of editing and color allows Hong to position the viewer to concentrate on the variations he develops throughout the film's second half.

The narrative structure is alluded to in the film's international title (the Korean title is simply Oh! Soo-Jeong) and its reference to Marcel Duchamp's glass artwork "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" (1915-1923). Both pieces of art are divided into two, and this division is along gender lines. Both can certainly be interpreted as explorations of sexual desire, but the abstraction of both can also lead against interpretation and criticism all together. Watching Hong's films, there is a certain meaninglessness that comes across that especially separates him from fellow Korean director Lee Chang-Dong. This difference in sensibility is ultimately why I believe I prefer Lee's films to Hong's. The critic Huh Moonyung has written of Hong:

"His attitude of denial is radical. Even the most basic preconditions, like axioms in mathemathics, such as 'meaning is more valuable than meaninglessness,' 'all human beings are entitled to dignity' and 'life is superior to death,' are all denied in Hong's films. Hong is not a critic. In order to criticize, one must possess a value system as criteria for criticism, which Hong Sangsoo lacks." (Huh, 13)

In contrast, consider Lee Chang-Dong's remarks about cinema generally and how he approaches it:

"In the 90s, being serious kills the party because you make a fool of yourself by talking about things people already know but choose not to talk about. In the 80s, there was some merit in telling the truth. But by the 90s, truth was not appreciated. Here I am, still taking things seriously and trying to tell the truth. How irritating!" (Kim, 63)

"We're now in the age of post-meaning. Whether we like it or not, movies have become the dominant medium. Other mediums which deal with meaning have weakened, degenerated and lost their power over people. Maybe because I'm coming from the literary world, or I grew up that way, i tend to implant meaning into film. I suppose I'm trying to create as much meaning as possible and communicate with the audience through my films." (Kim, 75)

As a result, Hong's films tend to both invite analysis because of their complexity (by contrast, Lee's films seem deceptively simple) while discouraging interpretation into the film's ultimate meaning (Lee's narratives, on the other hand, tend to be packed with meaning and meant to be interpreted). That Hong is a favorite of formalist scholar David Bordwell should come as no surprise.

The narrative form of The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors can be plotted as follows:

"Day's Wait" (Jae-hun waits for Soo-jeong in hotel and talks to her on the phone, urging her to come)
"Perhaps Accident"
-7 numbered sections
black screen
"Suspended Cable Car" (repeat of first scene but showing Soo-jeong) (Soo-jeong is suspended on a cable car overlooking Seoul)
"Perhaps Intended"
-7 numbered sections
"Naught Shall Go Ill When You Find Your Mare" (epilogue: cable car begins to move; Soo-Jeong arrives at hotel and they make love; they wash the bloody sheet; the final shot (figure 1) has them in each other's arms as Jae-hun says, "I'll try to fix every fault I have for my life.")

It is tempting to view the two sections as almost-Rashomon like, in which we first get the male and then the female perspective on a relationship. However, this art cinema reading simplifies the film far too much. There are some examples when shots and scenes are repeated almost exactly (figure 2 and 3, taken from a party sequence that reappears in the second half), and others that are close resemblances taken from opposite angles (figures 4 and 5) (It should be noted that Hong apparently filmed in sequence, returning to original locations weeks later). However, just as often the variations are such that they are not simple perspective shifts. Bordwell thus argues that:

"(The film) doesn't supply any subjective motivation for the disparities. It isn't that Jae-hun remembers a moment in their affair in one way, while Soo-jeong remembers it differently. Indeed, we have no reason to believe that the flashbacks represent the characters' memories at all. The scenes are presented in crisply numbered sections, as if they were items in an objective outline, or scenes in parallel worlds. Framed by the present-time scenes, the variants carry out Hong's concern with a pattern that can't be reduced to a dramatic structure." (Huh, 26-27) (from Bordwell's essay "Beyond Asian Minimalism: Hong Sangsoo's Geometry Lesson" )

I find one variation particularly intriguing. In the first section, Jae-hun lures Soo-jeong into an alley by saying he has something funny to tell her, explaining that there is an old man who lives with a girl in the building. When they get into the alley, he says the old man anf the girl are not there and attempts to accost Soo-jeong (Figure 6). In the second half, the older film director, Yeong-soo, is walking with Soo-Jeong and passes an alley. He says to her that he has something funny to show her. The scene then cuts to them lying down in a room with Yeong-soo threatening to rape Soo-jeong (Figure 7). Is this Hong playing with a line of dialogue and location and then showing how the scene could play out differently in an opposite narrative universe? Or, are we to think back to the earlier line of dialogue from Jae-hun and believe that, however coincidental or fantastic, that both scenes may have occurred? As Hong has stated, "I welcome strange coincidences and think they are like a wedge driven into the frame of a banal and conventional mind." (Huh, 57)

The film's ending crystallizes the fascination and disturbance of Hong's work. There is something both optimistic and ridiculous about the couple's union, symbolized by the bloody sheet that they wash and that Jae-hun wants to take home with him. Hong's cinema has a certain obsession with purity that he acknowledges:

"I think I went through puberty clinging onto the ideals such as absolute truth, perfect world, absolute purity, etc. Everything I had encountered in life was automatically compared against an ideal value. I failed to comprehend things in life that couldn't be incorporated into that ideal system. So, my life became fraught with schizophrenia asking why reality cannot easily converge with these beautiful ideals. Only when I reached my 20s did I fortunately begin to see the falsehood behind those ideals and began to better appreciate life, that is, as it is. Characters in my movies reflect such experiences. Specific characters chase after cliched ideals, or even get chased by them, but I want my gaze of characters to be composed from visions that are free from these cliches. To those characters, the conflict between ideals and life that veer away from these ideals is very painful. I want to say that all these pains are actually unnecessary. It's the ideals that are the essence of the problem, not life itself." (Huh, 51-52)

However, it is difficult to view the ending here as simply critical or ironic (as it would almost certainly be clear in the hands of Lee). The final title card "Naught Shall Go Ill When You Find Your Mare" and the final line "I'll try to fix every fault I have for my life" would seem to be examples of idealized thinking, but given this sequence's stable place within a difficult and unsettling narrative, it can also be considered Hong's "most optimistic film". (Huh, 14)

Huh Moonyung, Hong Sangsoo (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007)

Kim Young-jin, Lee Chang-Dong (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007)

Tuesday, 22 April 2008


The Power of Kangwon Province is the second film of Korean director Hong Sang-soo, and his first film as both writer-director. Like his first film, The Day a Pig Fell Into The Well, The Power of Kangwon Province contains a complex storytelling style that relies a great deal on the viewer's ability to recall earlier scenes and make connection. However, the narrative is simplified to some extent. Hong's first film was split into four parts with four main characters. Here, there are two halves with two leads. This, combined with images that are have more depth and have a more picturesque quality, makes The Power of Kangwon Province a slightly more accessible work.

In an interview, Hong described the film's structure as follows: "A woman and a man, who recently broke up, travel separately to a same location by coincidence. One person trails the trace of the other person. It is about two individuals missing their partners and they ae connected by the structure of the film. (2-1)+(2-1)=2 structure." (54) This structure does not reveal itself, however, until the second half, which makes the audience have to retrace the original story and the meaning we felt it had. In one way, this makes the film work similarly to many mainstream movies in which the plot gradually enfolds and we can make sense of earlier actions that seemed ambiguous. But at the same time, Hong is calling on a far greater cognitive ability from the viewer than most films, almost insisting that the viewer re-examine the film a second time.

Thematically, the links with Hong's earlier film are clear. These are films dealing with sexuality in contemporary Korean society, with its mixture of hedonism and repression as ultimately two sides of the same coin. Both of Hong's early works show graphic sex scenes, often involving prostitutes and/or the affairs of married men. Like popular cinema, Hong places human relationships at the center of his concern, and could certainly be viewed as almost apolitical, especially compared with his contemporary Lee Chang-Dong. But the difficulty and violence of these relationships is such that Hong leaves the viewer unsettled. The Power of Kangwon Province is more subtle in this regard than Hong's debut film, but if the implications of what has been shown are considered, it is just as disturbing. Adding to this disquieting atmosphere is the sense of irrationality and mystery that Hong inserts. With The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, this occurs with a Bunuel-like dream sequence. In The Power of Kangwon Province, the conclusion features the lead male character returning to his office to see only one of two goldfish remaining. Earlier, the lead female character had, in a curious scene, buried a goldfish she had discovered on a mountain path. In an interview, Hong explains the use of such coincidences:

"I think I focus on serendipity a lot. I think those things happen unusually when I shoot. If I told a person next to me of all of the coincidental events that I have experienced in my life, that person would surely think of me as either a charlatan or a fanatic. I welcome strange coincidences and think that they are like a wedge driven into the frame of a banal and conventional mind. And I would like the audience to feel the space that is open beyond the broken structure." (57)

Stylistically, Hong opts for more long takes and often simplifies the number of angles he shoots from. Earlier in the film, especially during scenes in nature, Hong opts for a shorter focal length and shoots many depth of field compositions. But as the film nears its conclusion, Hong flattens his images more in the style of Asian minimalism (for example, the still above in which the two main characters come together near the conclusion). I am looking forward to viewing Hong's third film, The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), which I also just purchased here on DVD, in which Hong takes on black and white cinematography for the first time.

Huh Moonyung, Hong Sangsoo (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007)

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Upcoming: Jeonju International Film Festival

The Jeonju International Film Festival will be held May 1-May 9 and features a line-up of over 200 features and shorts. The schedule is available on their website. However, it is only up on the Korean version of the site, not the English version (as of now at least). You can still navigate the Korean site, it's just a little more time consuming.

In addition to many new Korean films, the highlights include:

-a nearly complete retrospective of Hungarian director Bela Tarr, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the last decade and a big influence on the recent work of Gus Van Sant. All 8 of Tarr's features (yes, this includes the 7 hour plus Satantango, showing on Tuesday, May 6th at 2:00 pm) as well as a program of shorter works (including his hour long version of Macbeth) are included.

-a retrospective of New German Cinema director Alexander Kluge, including 6 of his features (one of which is his debut, Yesterday Girl (1966), widely considered the first feature of the New German Cinema movement) as well as a program of shorts. Also showing is Germany in Autumn (1978), an omnibus film featuring Kluge and other New German directors, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Edgar Reitz and Volker Schlondorff.

-a retrospective on Vietnamese cinema, including films made during the war as well as more recent features and documentaries

-the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (Kent Jones, 2007) (narrated by Martin Scorsese), as well as one of Lewton's RKO horror films, The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)

-a screening of Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuang-Zhuang, 2002), followed by a master class with Tian

-new films by Eric Rohmer, Alexander Sokurov, Ken Jacobs, Manuel De Oliveira, Hong Sang-Soo, John Saysles, Koji Wakamatsu, Jia Zhang-ke, and Hana Makhmalbaf

Upcoming: Program of Japanese Art/Exploitation Cinema

From April 22 to May 12, the Seoul Cinematheque is showing a 18 film program of Japanese films, mostly from the late 1960s/ early 1970s. Most of the films deal with sensationalist material, usually concerning sex, but which are also artistic breaks with the classical past of Japanese cinema. Unfortunately, it appears only 7 of the films we have English subtitles. They are:

Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (Koji Wakamatsu, 1966)
Ecstasy of the Angels (Koji Wakamatsu, 1972)
Bad Boys (Susumu Hani, 1961)
The Inferno of First Love (Susumu Hani, 1968)
Extreme Private Eros: Love Song (Kazuo Hara, 1974)
Pastoral: Hide-and-Seek (Shuji Terayama, 1974)
The Prisoner (Masao Adachi, 2007)

I have not seen any of the films in the program, although I am familiar with the work of two directors who seem to represent influences from opposite sides of the art/exploitation binary: genre filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, and art cinema director Nagisa Oshima. The program offers an opportunity to examine this time period in Japanese film. It seems that some of the films will be shown in 16mm, which means the overall quality of the prints may not be great. However, this may actually add to the atmosphere of seeing these works.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Conference: The Global Cartographies of Cine-Feminisms

On Monday, I attended the first half of a day-long conference on film and feminism, held at Ewha Woman's University and sponsored by the Women's Film Festival. The conference included a book that contained all of the articles translated into both English and Korean. The schedule was as follows:

Keynote Address: Teresa de Lauretis, "Cine-feminism and the creation of vision"

Part 1: The Sustainabilities of Women's Cinema

Patricia White, "Women's Cinema as World Cinema"

Meaghan Morris, "Sustaining the Festive Principle: Between Realism and Pleasure in Institution-Building"

Part 2: Women's Cinema in East Asia

S. Louisa Wei, "Chinese and Japanese Female Film Directors: Could They Hold Up Half of the Sky?"

Ahn Ji-hye, "The Status and Future of Female Directors in the Korean Film Industry"

Peng Xiaolian, "Shanghai as Female Space"

There was also a third section devoted to questions. Again, unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first three presentations.

De Lauretis began her talk by commenting that the film festival and its directives as outlined on its website reminded her a great deal of when she first began considering the concept of "women's cinema" and "seeing the world through women's eyes." As she put it, it functioned almost as a kind of time travel:

"Looking at the Festival's website, for me, was more like the kind of travel that film and science fiction represent as a time loop: moving forward in space and time toward what will turn out to be the past -- not the past as it actually was, the historical and personal conditions in which I lived then, but rather the time of what might have happened in the future that I could imagine then."

What the theme of the festival ,with its focus on seeing the film through women's eyes, evoked for De Lauretis was her own personal history which also coincides with the history of both "women's cinema" and "feminist film theory". Discussing two films in this history, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975) and Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983), De Lauretis illustrates how feminist filmmaking and feminist film studies developed hand-in-hand. But what about today? Do feminist film studies constitute a legitimate and stable academic field? De Lauretis answers both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Women's Studies and Gender Studies have been well established, but no in that this has both fostered the post-feminist illusion that the goals of women have been met. Now, most of the work on feminism and film comes not from Film Studies programs but from interdisciplinary programs in the arts and humanities. As De Lauretis argues, this "has, on the one hand, the advantage of direct exposure to current critical debates and theories but, on the other hand, the danger of losing the knowledges and analytic skills specific to cinema."

In conclusion, De Lauretis returns to the question of sustainability and usefulness, especially in the light of many women rejecting the term "feminist" altogether. What can a cine-feminism do for these women, and can it exist without them? For De Lauretis, this points out the fact that a feminist film culture cannot come solely from within the academy. It depends instead on a "shared social and aesthetic project by women and for women, not as a global or transnational enterprise but as an intervention in specific cultural and social contexts and film traditions."

Patricia White's paper on "women's cinema" as "world cinema" flows logically from De Lauretis' keynote by considering how the notion of women's film has had to negotiate the politics of festival programming. As White points out, many early feminist academic essays and books emerged out of women's film festivals. Today, however, these have become increasingly rare (hence the importance of the Seoul festival). As White states: "In the less politicized, more prestigious arena, an unprecedented increase in the number and clout of international film festivals has eclipsed events dedicated to women'w work ... there is little consciousness of 'women's cinema' as such in the 'postfeminist' cultural climate fostered by the festival network."

The question becomes: how are these films made intelligible within the festival market? More and more women are making films, but they are framed as "world cinema" rather than specifically feminist films. Two examples White cites are Water (Deepa Metha, 2006) and Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parranaud, 2007), and White questions how these films made by and about women are used in the art cinema market to foster a very broad and vague humanism that treats the countries of India and Iran as simply backward (I had similar misgivings about Persepolis, which I discussed here).

White gives two other recent examples: Grabavica: Land of My Dreams (Jasmila Zhanic, 2006) and Love for Share (Nia Dinata, 2006). The first film received a Golden Bear at Berlin and a art-house release, while the later only had selective festival screenings. However, Dinata's film had a great deal of local impact in her native Indonesia. This brings White back to the question of feminism and world cinema. She notes the critique of the "sisterhood is global" assertion of 2nd wave feminists and agrees with the call for more situated of power. She quotes from scholar Priya Jaikumar, who urges that work on transnational women's film culture by a "search for alliances and solidarities that acknowledges potentially incommensurate difference." White closes by stating: "In evaluating this juncture of women's cinema, we need to remain committed to the 'global' question, but not seek global answers."

The final paper by Meaghan Morris discusses the notion of festivals from a different perspective, focusing on the very idea of "being festive", of using festivals to give pleasure within the institution-building process. Using slides of her own history of attending festivals and organized rallies, Morris looks at the question of how institutions can sustain and mature movements, and argues for the importance of the festive spirit to this goal. Citing Mary Douglas' work on "how institutions think", Morris is aware of the negative aspects of institutions, such as the "loss of imaginative independence" and the "pressure to conform". However, she sees the "festive principle" as being a potential counter to this:

"The 'festive principle' in institutional work is a political principle which manoeuvres between the harsh 'reality principle' which institutions are dedicated to reproducing, and the 'pleasure principle' which alone (I think) can over the historical long term sustain the 'good' narcissism of collective self-love and shared self-respect that social movements must affirm if they are to flourish."

Morris believes that in order to avoid cynicism and burnout within the academic institutional setting, sustaining the festive principle is crucial. She points out, correctly, that neo-liberal models of maximizing profit and economic value of even Arts departments can have a deadening effect on individuals working in these environments. This in turn can of course be counter to any kind of politically engaged work within these institutions. This is why Morris concludes by stating, "I hope I have explained why I see the 'festive principle' not as in contrast with a fighting activism but precisely as a way of making and taking bridges -- and as itself one of the battles to sustain women's cinema."

Overall, the three papers worked as a panel on the current state of feminist film both inside the academy and outside in the world of filmmaking. The very fact that the Women's film festival would have a conference associated with it points to the connections between theory and practice that remain in feminist filmmaking. Although these types of women's festivals have declined in North America, the presence and strength of this festival in Seoul is encouraging. Perhaps a return to the origins of women's cinema in the 1970s can, as De Lauretis suggests, point the way to future directions.

Friday, 11 April 2008

TAKE CARE OF MY CAT (Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)

The International Women's Film Festival in Seoul began its full program today and will continue until next Friday. I would encourage people to check out a film or two for a number of reasons. First, the chance to see films by female directors, which is unfortunately rare. Second, the chance to see Korean films in the theatre with English subtitles, also rare. And, finally, many of the screenings include a question period with the filmmaker (with English interpreter included).

All three of these applied to the screening I attended on Friday night, Jeong Jae-eun's Take Care of My Cat. The film details the lives of five friends from Incheon who have just graduated from high school, focusing specifically on three of the group: Hye-Ju, who is working for a company in Seoul; Tae-Hie, who volunteers as a typist for a poet with cerebral palsy; and Ji-Young, who lives in a collapsing apartment with her grandparents. Most films I have encountered in the West that deal with female friendship tend to revolve around their relationships with men and how this breaks apart their bond. In this film, however, the tension between the friends is caused much more by class differences. This grounding of the film in the social rather than personal is extended to the importance of Incheon as a location. Part of Hye-Ju's separation from her friends is expressed through her job in Seoul, with her friends remaining at the margins of the city. However, Incheon is also the location of the international airport in South Korea, and thus plays a crucial role in the film's climax.

The style of the film is fairly classical. Jeong avoids the heavy cutting of contemporary cinema, but there are few examples of long takes in the style of other Asian minimalist directors. Interestingly, the film has been discussed as "experimental" within Korean film circles. The only real experimental element of the film is it subject matter and the rather quotidian nature of the narrative. The film reminded me much more of films from the American independent cinema movement than of Korean art cinema directors like Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-Dong. And the conclusion reminded me particularly of Spike Lee's Clockers (1995) with its mixture of optimism and critique. The escape at the end of both films offers hope, but is also critical of a society that offers its characters no other options.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

SANSHO DAYU (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

One of Mizoguchi's many pictorial compositions showing the depth of the physical world.

The final shot: the mother and son reunited

The final shot continued: camera moves away to another character at work

Very few directors in the history of cinema have received the amount of critical attention and almost unanimous praise as the Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi. Although he died fairly young at the age of 58 from leukemia, Mizoguchi had a vast career spanning many the first half of the 20th century and its various social upheavals in Japan. Mizoguchi is perhaps the director most influential on the style of "Asian minimalism" that developed in the past two decades in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. He is most well-known today for the films he made in the 1950s, many of which appeared in European festivals at the time. Of these films, the two most acclaimed are Ugetsu Monogotari (1953), winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff) (1954), also a Silver Lion winner at Venice. These are also the only two Mizoguchi films currently available through the Criterion Collection.

However, high-brow critics have often championed Mizoguchi's earlier work. The formalist critic Fred Camper considers Mizoguchi's war-time film Genroku Chushingura (The Loyal 47 Ronin) (1941), made or at least commissioned for propaganda purposes, his masterpiece. Jonathan Rosenbaum calls Mizoguchi's The Story of the Late Chrysanthemum (1939) one of the ten greatest Japanese films of all-time. And modernist film theorist Noel Burch, in his study of Japanese cinema, To the Distant Observer (1979), makes the case that Mizoguchi's most distinctive work was made in the 1930s, before he "westernized" his aesthetics and made films designed to be praised in international festivals.

What are the differences between Mizoguchi's later films and his work in the 30s? Most of Mizoguchi's work shows an interest in the long take, but in the later work, these long takes often are combined with elaborate camera movement that presents the scene to the viewer in a way familiar to viewers of western cinema. The Mizoguchi of the 1950s bares a certain resemblance to the work of Jean Renoir, using a long take approach to his sequences but not breaking radically with classical norms. Mizoguchi's 50s films use deep space compositions to reveal the world to the spectator and position the viewer at the center of the gaze. In the 1930s, starting with Osaka Elegy (1935) and Sisters of the Gion (1935), Mizoguchi employs a style that uses the long take to flatten the screen space, much like Godard would later do in films like Weekend (1967). Film theorist Brian Henderson called this "non-bourgeois" camera style, which he describes as follows:

"What are the implications of these shifts from three dimensions to two, from depth to flatness? An ideological interpretation suggests itself -- composition-in-depth projects a bourgeois world infinitely deep, rich, complex, ambiguous, mysterious. Godard's flat frames collapse this world into two-dimensional actuality; thus reversion to a cinema of one plane is a demystification, an assault on the bourgeois world-view and self-image. Weekend's bourgeois figures scurry along without mystery toward mundane goals of money and pornographic fulfillment. There is no ambiguity and no moral complexity. That space in which the viewer could lose himself, make distinctions and alliances, comparisons and judgments, has been abrogated -- the viewer is presented with a single flat picture of the world that he must examine, criticize, accept or reject."

Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion is an exemplary example of this flatness, and it is probably not coincidental that Mizoguchi was a follower of Marxism at the time. Sisters of the Gion is also set in contemporary times, and like Weekend shows its characters pursuing goals of money and pornographic fulfillment within this bourgeois milieu. There are few close-ups and very little identification with characters. One of the few close-ups occurs at the conclusion, with a character almost directly speaking to the audience the views of Mizoguchi himself. There is little depth or complexity on display in terms of the film's thematics.

Sansho Dayu, however, is a very different film. Its ideology is not Marxist but rather Buddhist, and it is the film that makes Mizoguchi's conversion to Buddhism most explicit. It is also a period drama with a long take style that includes many depth of field compositions. In other words, a film perfect for festival consumption. The beauty of the compositions and photography in the film are, as the stills above give some indication, almost overwhelming. But they are also contained within a film that has a very contemporary humanist message. In fact, the film it immediately reminded me of was The Grave of the Fireflies. Although set in the distant past, it is hard not to view Sansho Dayu without thinking about World War II.

The politics of these later Mizoguchi films have been debated. Are they essentially about passive acceptance of suffering and sacrifice, and thus potentially conservative? Perhaps, but the rage of Mizoguchi's 30s work, especially regarding the treatment of women in society, is not absent. It is rather combined with a worldview that no longer sees violent resistance as a cure. It sees the world more complexly. Is this a positive? Maybe not. But a certain humanist brand of Marxism seems to remain in these works. For example, the last shot of this film, like his earlier Ugetsu, moves from the central characters of the drama to a shot that shows other people going about their work. There is a communal component to depth of field long take compositions that can be seen as an alternative to the individual centered dramas of Hollywood. Of course, you can still view this as too reliant on bourgeois concepts of depth, richness, complexity and ambiguity.

For further discussion of Mizoguchi, I would recommend Robin Wood's essays in his books Personal Views and Sexual Politics and Narrative Cinema, which includes a career overview I have drawn upon for this piece.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Upcoming: The International Women's Film Festival in Seoul (WFFIS)

The 10th annual International Women's Film Festival in Seoul begins next Thursday, April 10th and runs until Friday, April 18th. The program is quite extensive and can be viewed in English at their website:

Most of the film being screened have English subtitles (or are in English). There is a story about the festival in The Korea Times:

In addition to screenings, there are numerous other events, including two academic conferences on Monday, April 14th and Tuesday, April 15th, featuring well-known feminist scholars Teresa de Lauretis, Patricia White, Meaghan Morris, and others from Korea, USA, Australia, China and Japan. Details are available at the website.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Link to documentaries

I've added a link to the user DemocraticMedia on youtube. The user has uploaded a large number of great documentaries in quite good quality, from older films such as HEARTS AND MINDS and MANUFACTURING CONSENT to recent work by Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald, and the British director Adam Curtis, among others. Particularly interesting is the work of Curtis, who has made a number of multi-part docs for the BBC: THE CENTURY OF THE SELF (2002) (4 parts, 1 hour each), THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES (2004) (3 parts, 1 hour each), and THE TRAP (2007) (3 parts, 1 hour each). My favorite of the group is THE TRAP but all are worth watching. The great Canadian film THE CORPORATION as well as Alex Gibney's Oscar winner TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE are also included.