Friday, 12 September 2008

LIES (Jang Sun-woo, 1999)

Truth, Lies, Cinema and Pornography

Even before his 1999 film Lies, Jang Sun-woo had a reputation as the enfant terrible of Korean cinema, often reminiscent of and compared to earlier figures like Jean-Luc Godard. Lies, however, was controversial even by Jang's standards, having been censored twice before finally being released in a version with four minutes missing. The Chungmuro film festival screened the original version this year for the first time in Korea. Most know Lies because of its notoriety, but it deserves to be compared with the very best of Korean cinema.

Lies uses the subject of sex to ask fundamental questions about the cinema itself and its relation to the social structure. The film details a primarily sexual relationship between an 18 year-old high school girl (Y) and a 38 year-old married sculptor (J) . From almost the very beginning their relationship is not ony sexual, but sadomasochistic (a physical metaphor for the emotional S&M of all relationships, perhaps). Initially, J plays the role of master, but eventually he wishes to switch roles and be beaten himself. The plot details the couple's relationship over a couple of years up until its conclusion. This includes the disapproval of everyone around them, including his wife, her brother and Korean society generally.

The main theme of the film is established in its title as well as the self-reflexive style of its first act. Jang begins with an interview with the lead actor, who offers his interpretation of the story (based on a Korean novel, Lie to Me, that likewise was labelled as pornography and censored). He describes the film as a fantasy for the erotic imagination of the audience (in other words, a fiction, or a lie). The rest of the opening act maintains this distancing Brechtian approach. The first sex scene provides a good example. Jang intercuts the scene with three intertitles, "the first hole", "the second hole" and "the third hole", as the sequence proceeds with vaginal, oral and then anal sex in almost a parody of pornography and its procession of standardized sex acts. The Godardian influence here is most pronounced.

But paradoxically, the very Brechtian direct address techniques allign Lies with pornography, which now frequently exposes its very nature as film in order to give the sexual situations greater authenticity. Thus the interview with the actress about her nervousness about the sex scenes is half-Bergman, half-verite porn. As Linda Williams argued almost two decades ago in her classic study Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (1989), hard-core pornography has always had closer associations to documentary than any other genre. One of Williams other major arguments in this book is that pornography has a very strong utopian element. Both of these concepts of authenticity and utopia are central to the meaning of Jang's text.

As Lies proceeds through its storyline, the more overt self-reflexivity of the opening lessens significantly, with the direct address and acknowledgment of the camera replaced by the occasional slow motion technique, the use of voice-over narration, and the very extremity of the sexual situations (which not surprisingly provoked nervous laughter at the screening I attended). Jang goes to great lengths to establish the constructed nature of the film ("lies 24 times a second") but then invests his sympathy in the reality of the central sexual relationship. Part of this is the utopian nature of their affair, which contrasts with the hypocrisy of the society around them. The most resonant scenes in the film are not the sex scenes, but the sequences following them in which the characters whisper about their exploits within the social spaces of the subway.

This utopianism does not last. As an audience we should guess this, because Lies sets itself up as an art film, not pornography. It thus cannot be naive enough to believe in its utopia. Eventually, Y moves on, to Brazil with her sister, and J narrates that he never sees her again. He is left in Paris, in an unsatisying marriage. Earlier in the film, Y tattooes that J is hers on his thigh. J's final narration states that when his wife asks him about the tattoo, he lied. This contrasts with the opening of the film, in which the actor (not the character) expresses that the film is fantasy. Jang's ending seems to imply the opposite: that the sexual relationship was the only real thing in his life. His entire social identity is the real lie.

Nabokov's Lolita was described by Vanity Fair as the "only convincing love story of this century"; Lies is likewise one of the few love stories of the recent cinema that holds any real persuasion.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Homage to You Young-Gil

From September 16th-28th, the Seoul Cinematheque will screen a 14 film tribute to the cinematographer You Young-gil, who worked with many of the top Korean directors before his death in 1998. The films showing with English subtitles are:

Gagman (Lee Myung-Se, 1988)
My Love, My Bride (Lee Myung-Se, 1990)
North Korean Partisan in South Korea (Chung Ji-young, 1990)
Black Republic (Park Kwang-su, 1990)
The Road to the Race-track (Jang Sun-woo, 1991)
White Badge (Chung Ji-young, 1992)
To the Starry Island (Park Kwang-su, 1993)
First Love (Lee Myung-se, 1993)
Green Fish (Lee Chang-dong, 1996)

All totaled, nine films from the first Korean New Wave (1988-1996), and a rare opportunity to see them in a theatre with subtitles. In fact, many of these films are difficult to track down even on DVD.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Chungmuro Film Festival Screenings

The 2nd Chungmuro Film Festival finishes tomorrow. I was only get to see four films this year due to a currently busy schedule: Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984), Lola Montes (Max Ophuls, 1955), Mad Detective (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, 2007), and Lies (Jang Sun Woo, 1999).

The newest film, and one in competition, was Mad Detective. I've heard positive things about Johnnie To so I was interested in seeing one of his films. However, the film left me underwhelmed. It seemed simply derivative rather than a fresh take on the crime/detective/buddy cop genre. It begins fine and with enough energy to propel it, but cannot sustain its momentum because I do not believe I has anything new to say about the figure of the eccentric, method-inspired detective. The movies the film borrows from (Manhunter, Memento, and Frailty) are all significantly better than this reworking.

Paris, Texas and Lola Montes are both films I saw for the first time roughly a decade ago. Viewing them again was practically like a new experience, especially with the Ophuls film. Lola Montes was shown in a recently restored print conducted by the French Cinematheque. It is Ophuls last film and his first in color and widescreen, and it is a much bigger film in terms of spectacle and artifice than anything else he had made. It is probably his most distancing film as a result, a film very much distilling many of the ideas of his other melodramas but, for me, lacking in the emotional resonance of a film like Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948). Even the technical virtousity does not match his earlier Madame de ... (1953), partly because of the pure size of the production. Certainly the film is worth watching, but does not match his greatest work.

Paris, Texas, however, may be Wenders' greatest film, even surpassing his work in Germany. What was most striking to me was how, as an outsider to America, Wenders nevertheless fit his film within the dominant paradigms of American cinema. This may be the influence of the screenwriter, Sam Shepard, but is nevertheless not that surprising that Wenders would be interested in making a paradigmatic American story given all of his previous meditations on America and its cinema in his German period.

The story begins with a man walking through the desert. After he collapses, the doctor calls his brother and we learn some things about him. His name is Travis, he has a son, and he disappeared over four years earlier. The rest of the narrative involves his reconnecting with his young son and eventually reuniting him with his mother. The ending is thus typical of the western (which itself is the most typical of American genres) in which the hero restores civilization but also has to retreat from this civilization himself. That said, the distinction of the film is its simultaneous reinforcing and questioning of this quintessential American type. The film begins with Travis as a mute, a parody of the stoic Westerner, but gradually he talks more and more, culminating in a extended conversation with his ex-wife in a peep show booth. This psychologizing of this figure reveals the essential neurosis that is, Shepard and Wenders suggest, at the heart of America itself: the desire for civilization (Paris) and the wilderness (Texas). At the same time, this is not really a deconstruction of the genre. Travis remains a sympathetic figure, and the film's ending, in which his wife and son reunite and twirl around together, is one of the more satisfying conclusions I can recall.

I'll discuss Lies fully in my next post.