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.