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.


Jeff BBz said...

Hello Marc,

I was directed this way by girish's blog, although I have stumbled across your blog several times. I am going to PIFF 08 and I have a few questions for you.

1. Are you going to PIFF 08? (Busan/Pusan Film Fest)?

2. If so what korean and or asian films are you looking forward to. I am up on some and looking forward to the hong sang soo, as well as Kim Gok and kim so yong and a few others but many of the names are unfamilar to me. I feel pretty up on the world cinema titles that I want to see, especially Raul Rouiz and Garrel, and actually a bunch of others. If you are going and wouldnt' mind commenting back and forth about what you are going to see then lets do. If you aren't going but could throw the names of a couple of the latest most interesting korean films (especially indie ones) that may be there my way then that would be awesome too.


Marc Raymond said...

Hello Jeff,

Thanks for the PIFF reminder. I've been so busy I forgot it is upcoming. I'm still undecided about whether I will go yet, but I may, because I have Friday the 3rd off, so maybe that weekend I'll head down.

As for other Korean films, most of the new films and their directors are unfamiliar to me as well. Other than the ones you mentioned, I've only heard of FOREVER THE MOMENT (which I've seen and is worth a look, if fairly generic) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD.

I have, however, been reading about some older Korean films, and the 50s and 60s films they are showing sound interesting. There are two Kim Ki-young films along with a melodrama called MADAME FREEDOM that I'd be interested in checking out.

By all means, keep in touch about the festival and what you're going to see. I should decide by next weekend if I'm going.


Jeff BBz said...

There are actually far too many films (as compared to the money I have to spend on them) that look good or at least interesting. But here are a few of the things that I'm inclined to see:

1. Gala Presentation:

Wong Kar Wai - ASHES OF TIME REDUX (Excited to see this re-editing and also on film, I've never seen a film of his on Film except the mediocre My Blueberry Nights)

2. Window on Asian Cinema: (Non-Korean Asian Films)

Brillante Mendoza - SERVICE (Don't Know the Director, but this Philippine film has been compared to Goodbye Dragon Inn)
Johnnie To - SPARROW
Hirokazu Koreeda - STILL WALKING
Samira Makhmalbaf - TWO LEGGED HORSE
Yu Lik Wai - PLASTIC CITY (Jia zhang ke's Cinematographer)

Other possibilities for me are:

Eric Khoo - MY MAGIC (heard good and bad things)
Yeo Joon Han - SELL OUT! (heard it described as the malaysian "office")
Pang Ho-cheung - TRIVIAL MATTERS (I think olaf moller liked it)
Azharr Rudin - THIS LONGING (Don't know anything, Malaysian and sounds interesting)

But there are lots of films I am in the dark on.

3. New Currents (Asian Premieres):

I don't know much at all about this section.

Panahbarkhoda Rezaee's A LIGHT IN THE FOG (Iran) has an interesting description although I know nothing about it. I've also never heard of Roh Gyeong Tae but LAND OF SCARECROWS has an interesting still. I have heard good things about Edwin's BLIND PIG WHO WANTS TO FLY (Indonesia) and it's from indonesia so I am willing to give it a shot.

4. Panorama and Vision (Korean Stuff):

Hong Sang Soo - NIGHT AND DAY

Aside from those the other names aren't familiar to me. Jeon Soo il's HIMILAYA, WHERE THE WIND DWELLS sounds interesting though. As Does THE GOOD THE BAD THE WIERD.

5. The Archive stuff, old guys:

I have wanted to see some Kim Ki Young for a while now so I will definitely see at least one of the two (Recommendations on which one?) And Han Hyung Mo sound interesting enough to see one or two as well. Would you say Madame Freedom is the best one to check from him?

6. World Cinema

Claire Denis - 35 SHOTS OF RUM (Really Exited about this one)
Arnaud Desplechin - A CHRISTMAS TALE (Ditto)
Philippe Garrel - FRONTIER OF DAWN
Christian Petzold - JERICHOW (Heard Good Things)
Lisandro Alonso - LIVERPOOL (liked his Fantasma at PIFF 06, heard this is his best film yet)
Dardenne Bros - LORNA'S SILENCE
Terence Davies - OF TIME AND THE CITY

other ones that I might see if i have time or extra money are Philipe Grandrieux's A LAKE, Mike Leigh's HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, Taviani's MAYBE GOD IS ILL, Spielmann's REVANCHE, Ceylan's THREE MONKEYS (but I heard it sucked), Kelly Reichardt's WENDY AND LUCY (Old Joy Director, supposed to be good, but It will probably be released in the US)

7.Wide Angle (Documentaries and Shorts)

No idea. Recommendations?

8. Open Cinema (Outside theatre)

Laurent Cante - THE CLASS

9. Flash Forward

Don't know except Steve Mcqueen's HUNGER

10. Taviani Bros Retrospective

I don't really know anything about them. Might see Padre Perone. Suggestions?

11. Romanian New Wave

Really intrested in this. Mostly out things by Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu. Also Interested in Radu Muntean THE PAPER WILL BE BLUE.

I was in Romania during the 1989 revolution so films about that are interesting to me.

Anyway there are lots of things I don't know about. Specifically a lot of the Films from Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia you have any ideas there?

Other recommendations or thoughts?

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks for the detailed response, sorry for the delay in getting back. It looks like I'm not going to make it to Pusan, too busy unfortunately, plus a lot of films I want to see are not playing until later (such as the Dardennes' new film). That said, I'm sure there will be many pleasant surprises (which is what festivals are for, especially ones that focus on new films).

Also, it seems like many of the older Korean films are not subtitled (not sure about this though).

Anyway, have fun and if you write up anything about the films you see, let me know and I'll link it on my site.

Jeff BBz said...

That's fine that you are to busy. I understand. As for me I've got tickets to 21 films and am super excited. I may try to wait in line and get a few others also, who knows. I don't know yet whether I will post anything up, we will see what kind of time I have afterward.

As for the older films, while I'm not 100% sure about this, it seemed like they were subtitled, at least the two that I am catching The housemaid and (thanks for the suggestion) madame freedom.

well talk to you later

Marc Raymond said...

21 films and maybe more? Impressive. Even if you can't write anything up, pass along any suggestions, especially regarding any new films by more obscure directors. Have fun.

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