Thursday, 19 November 2009

Friday, 13 November 2009

French Cinema Now and Review of ROAD TO THE RACETRACK

Two links to columns at the One One Four:

Preview of the French Cinema Now program at the Seoul Cinematheque here.

Review of Jang Sun-woo's ROAD TO THE RACETRACK (1991) here.

Thursday, 5 November 2009



Monday, 19 October 2009

PIFF Overview

I have just published an overview of the 13th Pusan Film Festival, which consists of a conversation between myself and William Empey, who also attended a number of screenings. It can be found here.

Thursday, 24 September 2009


I have just posted a review of Lee Yoon-ki's first film, This Charming Girl (2004). It's available here:

Thursday, 17 September 2009


I have just posted a review of Kim Ki-Young's The Housemaid (1960), along with an overview of You can find it at

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

PIFF Top Ten

I have just posted my preview of the Pusan Film Festival. You can check it out here:

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Saturday, 5 September 2009

MADE IN USA (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

For many years, one of the more difficult to see of Jean-Luc Godard's 1960s films was Made in USA, a film Godard makes in between a number of what I feel are among the greatest in film history. It is made after Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Masculine Feminine (1966) and before Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967). This run of films by Godard, and in fact the whole decade of his 1960s filmmaking, mark one of the most incredible runs in film history. This is not to say that Godard has not continued to make great films. Rather, this time period allowed for the unique convergence of experimentation taking place by a highly visible celebrity artist (Godard's celebrity in France at the time was rather enormous). The fact that Godard had the ability to act as a public intellectual while continuing to make aesthetically dazzling work remains one of the great achievements in cinema history. And, luckily, the Criterion Collection has gradually been releasing many of these works on high quality DVD packages over the last number of years. Most recently, Made in USA and Two or Three Things I Know About Her finally made their appearance on the Criterion label, and as usual the quality of the productions in great, both in terms of the image and the supporting extras.

Seeing Made in USA for the first time was quite a surprising experience. Being made after the essay-like Masculine Feminine and before the even more anti-narrative films like Two or Three Things, La Chinoise, and Weekend, I was expecting Made in USA to be something similar. However, with Godard, it shouldn't have been a shock that it didn't fit into my expectations. Made in USA is more in line with something like Pierrot le Fou or Alphaville, or even the much earlier A Woman is a Woman. It is a genre piece, a detective story, and is filled with a huge number of references to Classic Hollywood. Old actors and detectives dominate the character names and dialogue to a very blatant degree for any cinephile, and it is clear where Tarantino gets his influence. Of course, the similarity between the two stops there. As the excellent Criterion supplemental reference guide points out, the cinema references are only one context of allusion: there is also literature and, most critically, politics. And while I got most of the cinema references, the politics of the period were less familiar. What this did was make me learn this context, which Criterion helps provide, at least as a starting point.

Now, the question arises as to how "entertaining" all of this is, and it is a legitimate question to try to answer. But it is not one we should answer uncritically. Most younger film fans, when asked about whether they prefer Godard or Tarantino, would answer Tarantino, provided they even heard of Godard, because Tarantino gives a much easier access to cinematic pleasure. Tarantino does not want to question, at least on any fundamental level, the dominant mode of cinematic address. Godard clearly does, but I would maintain that he does so in a highly entertaining manner. The images of this film are incredibly pleasurable and arresting. The problem lies in Godard's lack of interest in telling generic stories. Unlike Tarantino, he was unwilling, almost from the start, to play the game. He does not want to break expectations as much as destroy them from the start and have the audience approach the film in a radically different way. In another of the extras from the DVD, Godard biographer Richard Brody states that Made in USA, despite being dedicated to Nicolas Ray and Samuel Fuller, does not show the influence of either Ray, Fuller, or the whole film noir tradition. This is true narratively, but certainly not in terms of the actual dedication, which is to the sounds and images of the two directors. Looking at Made in USA, the work of Ray in particular cannot be ignored. If Godard was willing to give in to audiences in terms of story, I'm convinced his images would be capable of mass appeal.

But I hardly think we should want this kind of concession from Godard. And I'm not trying to simply dismiss Tarantino (whose work I very much like) or popular narrative in general. But I do feel someone like Godard, given the rather easy acceptance of the cultural industry given by most fans and even many scholars, is still very valuable and needs to be seriously considered in today's cultural world. This is why I highly recommend checking out his work on these Criterion DVDs, which really provide a wealth of additional material that properly contextualizes Godard and can lead to greater enjoyment of his very challenging and still important work.

Friday, 4 September 2009

The Battle for the Soul of Jesse Eisenberg

I recently watched Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009), newly released on DVD, an indie romantic comedy that I really enjoyed. It stars Jesse Eisenberg, who is also the lead of two other very good comedy-dramas, Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd, 2002) and The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005). These three films have a great deal in common, especially in terms of the characters that Eisenberg plays. In all three, Eisenberg is positioned between different concepts of masculinity, especially in relation to women. Eisenberg's characters are all very similar, sensitive young men who want to respect women and find romantic love. They are in many ways post-feminist young men who want to join in rejecting traditional masculinity. However, in each film, there is an older male character who tempts the character into rejecting their sensitivity and embracing their "natural" sexual urges. Of course, these natural urges involve viewing sexuality in a physical rather than idealist light.

This biological argument gets expressed in the great opening scene of Roger Dodger, with Roger's opening line: "What's happening right now is important only in the context of our continuing evolution as a species." Roger (played by Campbell Scott) explains to his colleagues that man is only useful as long as he has a utility to women. Once that function ceases, which he believes is coming in the future with technology that will allow procreation without men, the result will not be "equality" but rather "natural selection"; the role of the male gender will thus become first servitude and then elimination. It is a dazzling speech and performance, as indicated within the film by the applause he is given by his colleagues after he concludes, and sets up Roger as a seducer, not only or even primarily of women but of his young nephew (played by Eisenberg). It clearly sets up the character's hatred of women as being intimately linked to his vulnerability. But this vulnerability is actually not biological in any way. It is primarily social and cultural, a result of Roger's own difficult relationship with his father. This scene sets the stage for the drama not only of Roger Dodger but of the later films as well. Both the father in The Squid and the Whale (played by Jeff Daniels) and the carnival maintenance worker in Adventureland (played by Ryan Reynolds) make similar arguments about sexuality being something that is a physical need in order to justify their own behaviour, and Eisenberg in each case is lured into rejecting his former values and following this path. By the end of each of these films, however, the character comes to a better understanding of the jaded and rather pathetic nature of these characters (only in Roger Dodger does this character also come to some self-realization) and rejects them.

Adventureland is especially interesting because Eisenberg's character is now older (post-graduate) and in many ways the battle is not as difficult. He easily rejects Connell for the loser that he is, and even forgives his girlfriend for cheating on him. This is why I think the most interesting character in the film is actually Em (played by Kristen Stewart), who is also torn between two different types of masculinity and has difficulty rejecting the older form. Again, this is less biological than social, given the difficulty she has in her own family situation. Still, although it is about slightly older characters, Adventureland still has a youthful idealism and concludes on a beautiful shot just before Eisenberg enters into the world of sexuality. What will be interesting will be if Eisenberg continues to get cast as similar characters as he gets older. Because in many ways the battle he will face going forward will be much more internal, an attempt to maintain a certain idealism in the face of social reality.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Overview of Chungmuro Film Festival at The One One Four

I just completed my first assignment working as a contributing editor for Film at the One One Four website, a English language blog covering the arts and culture scene in Korea. Most of my writing will now appear here, although I will occasionally post items that may be outside of their concerns on this website. And I will continue to link to my pieces at the One One Four here as well.

My article on the Chungmuro Film Festival can be found here:

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Chungmuro Film Festival

The 3rd Chungmuro Film Festival will take place August 24th to September 1st in the Chungmuro district of Seoul. Chungmuro has been a festival that caters to older cinema, and that continues this year with a number of retrospectives. The Cine Classic section includes a great lineup of Classic Hollywood (All About Eve, How Green Was My Valley, Gigi, and others), British Cinema (The Third Man, Olivier's Hamlet, Hobson's Choice, and others), the French New Wave (Chabrol's Les Cousins and Godard's Alphaville), pre-New Wave (Bresson's first film as well as one the New Wave's bete noire's, The Wages of Fear), as well as New Hollywood (The Godfather trilogy). There is also a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, showcasing a number of her films. Korean cinema is also represented by a large retrospective of films from fifties and sixties.

The difference with the festival this year is the inclusion of newer releases, with dozens of recent films from around the world. Chungmuro seems to be modelling itself on the Jeonju festival, with its mixture of retrospectives and new releases, although it is still on a smaller scale. However, I do have to question the timing of the festival during the last week of August, before many people return from vacation/ arrive to Korea to teach. But, then again, it may be a better time for the local Korean audience, taking place before classes begin again in September. I'm returning from holiday on the 28th and hope to be able to see a few films before the festival concludes.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Cine-Vacances at the Cinematheque (August 4-30)

The August program at the Cinematheque has been announced and is available here. Among the highlights include a huge retrospective on the films of Don Siegel, along with a day of Jacques Demy films on Tuesday, August 4th (although no subtitle information is given). There is also two screenings of Sergei Bondarchuk's 1968 War and Peace in four parts.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Film Quiz

The following film quiz originated over at the blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. You can find it here.

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.

The Killing

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.

internet's effect on film criticism/ reception

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?

not familiar with either

4) Best Film of 1949.

The Third Man

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?

Joseph Tura

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?

yes, like most

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?

honestly can't remember for sure, but maybe Breathless

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?

again, neither

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).

Army of Shadows

10) Favorite animal movie star.

the birds

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.

rape scene in Irreversible

12) Best Film of 1969.

again, Army of Shadows

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.

theatrically: Drag Me to Hell
DVD: Gone With the Wind

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.

Short Cuts

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?

Girish Shambu's blog

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)

no idea

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?

Mona Lisa Vito

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.

again, The Third Man

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.


20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.

Shoot the Piano Player

21) Best Film of 1979.

Scream from Silence

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.

The Wind Will Carry Us

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).

the brood

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.

The Godfather

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.

Zero Effect

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

museum scene in Dressed to Kill

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.

opening color scene of The Wizard of Oz

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)


29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?

Crash Davis

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.

Deconstructing Harry

31) Best Film of 1999.

The Wind Will Carry Us

32) Favorite movie tag line.

no idea

33) Favorite B-movie western.

not sure if I've seen one

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.

James Cain

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?

Susan Vance

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.

The Yardbirds in Blow Up

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?

subversive satire

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)

Godard, Fuller, Bogart, Welles, Hitchcock

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Call for Proposals (SCMS)

Type of Posting: Panel

Proposed Panel/Workshop Subject: Hong Sang-soo

Organizer Name(s): Marshall Deutelbaum and Marc Raymond

E-Mail Address:

Summary: This panel will examine the films and career of South Korean director Hong Sang-soo. We invite either analysis of individual films or comparative studies looking at the evolution of Hong's work and welcome a variety of critical and theoretical perspectives. Our goal is to provide a number of different readings and approaches that will open up discussion and illuminate Hong's filmmaking career.

Please send 250-300 word abstract by August 12th to the email address listed above. Response will be given promptly by August 15th.

Send individual topics & summaries to organizer(s) by: E-Mail

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Nagwon Music Film Festival

From July 21 to August 2, the Seoul Cinematheque will be showcasing a lineup of music related films, from American rock concert films to Soviet musicals. Films showing in English or with English subtitles include:

The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
Hair (Milos Forman, 1979)
Pink Floyd: The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982)
The Doors (Oliver Stone, 1991)
The Commitments (Alan Parker, 1991)

Tractor Drivers (Ivan Pyryev, 1939)
A Better Tomorrow on the Street (2008)

Also, the Puchon Fantastic Film Festival continues running until next week.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

THE HURT LOCKER (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)

By far the most critically acclaimed film of the year so far is Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war action film The Hurt Locker. When discussing the film, people inevitably point out that it is an "apolitical" Iraq film, usually claiming this as one of the reasons it is so successful. In my opinion, there is no such thing as an "apolitical" film, but I understand what the critics are referencing. Unlike many of the other Iraqi films, there is no overt political stance, nothing polemical about the story. It is an action film set in Iraq, about an elite three man bomb squad. Most of the film concerns the men doing their job, with brief moments away from battle in between. It has the feel of a Howard Hawks film, of professionals at work. But, it is also, I think very clearly, a film about America in Iraq. The political may be subtext here, but it is nevertheless very present. (WARNING: Some spoilers ahead)

After an opening in which the first group leader is killed, the film follows the new group leader, Sgt. James, along with Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge. Clearly, James is the lead of the movie, a character with tremendous charisma, a man who seems, especially through the first part of the film, to be exactly the type of man and leader war requires. He may be crazy and have a death wish, but the film also romanticizes this as the type of bravery and courage one needs in battle (he is reminscient of the character of Kilgore in Apocalypse Now). He is also very paternal, especially to young Eldridge, who is seeing a army doctor because he is having difficulty adjusting to the stress of his job.

The major set piece of the film is a sniper battle, and although it is a great example of filmmaking from Bigelow, it is also the most ideologically dubious part of the film. It ends up having the feel of a video game, in which we can take pleasure and thrill from long distance murder. This takes place roughly halfway through the film. Fortunately, the last hour works towards questioning the heroism it initially celebrates.

This begins right after the battle, when the three men have a drunken evening together. At the end of this night, James puts on the helmet he uses when going into diffuse bombs. It is the only thing he feels comfortable doing. In the next scene, the men discover a "body bomb" which James believes is the young Iraqi boy he has befriended. This drives him towards revenge, in which he recklessly puts his men's lives in danger.

On one of these ill-advised missions, Eldridge is wounded and sent home, denouncing James before he leaves. Shortly afterwards, we learn that the young Iraqi boy is actually still alive, making James' actions even more absurd. The final mission before leaving is trying to diffuse a bomb strapped to an innocent Iraqi man. This time, however, James is unable to save the man and the bomb explodes.

James and Sanford survive, although their faces show the effects of the shrapnel. They have an extended talk about the dangers of their lives, in which Sanford claims he hates the country and wants to leave. James, however, is a different case.

We see him back at home, but for James, this world is more strange and disconcerting than anything in Iraq. Bigelow films the supermarket in a way that would not seem altogether out of place in Godard and Gorin's Tout Va Bien. James, like America, or at least a part of America, has become an addict. In his case, as the opening states, the drug is war itself.

Early in the film, we are given a deadline heading: 38 days left in Bravo Company's rotation. However, the film ends by reversing this expectation, as James goes back to Iraq for another year of duty. The critique of America comes through this lead character, who cannot stop living this life of war. Still, Bigelow does not make this too overt. Here, she is similar to Hawks, who would often subtly critique his heroes but also maintain a certain macho admiration for them. The last shot of The Hurt Locker does this as well. It shows the absurdity of James going back into battle for another 365 days, this time into an increasingly desolate Iraq. But the use of slow-motion and loud music also gives this sequence a grandiose quality that comes across as "cool". Like most mainstream American films, The Hurt Locker is not so much apolitical as it is contradictory and incoherent at the ideological level, working on both those in favour of and opposed to America as a military force. This is a limitation and a plus: we have both a great action movie and a critique of that mentality. Ultimately, any critique of something that also becomes it is inconsistent and even hypocritical. At the same time, only the most closed-minded viewer will fail to ponder the mentality of war addiction this story puts across.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Recent Films

I've seen a few more new films over the past two weeks, bringing my total of 2009 films up to 13, a very high number for this time of year. Usually there are few films of interest until later in the year, but the new films at the Jeonju film festival, the release of new films by Korean auteurs, and a few interesting genre exercises have made this first half of the year relatively strong.

The most recent three films I have seen in the theatre are all explorations of familiar genres: Bong Joon-ho's Mother, Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom, and Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell. The best of the group is the later, a great, fun, low-budget horror homage by the now very mainstream director Sam Raimie. Of course, this isn't actually "low-budget", but rather, like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse (2007), a tribute to those films, the difference being Raimi was once an actual director of these types of movies with his Evil Dead trilogy. Any fan of horror films will be familiar with what Raimi is up to and there are plenty of great and inventive sequences on display here. But, for the student of horror films this one works on an ideological level as well, with a pretty clear critique of capitalism and the "values" it embodies. This is another way in which it is a throwback, recalling the great cycle of horror films from the 1970s. The Brothers Bloom is the most self-conscious and self-reflexive of the bunch, a con film that uses the genre as a metaphor for myths and storytelling in general. It is too heavy-handed and the ending is not successful, but it is very well-written and acted and I quite enjoyed it on that level. Mother, Bong's deconstruction of the maternal melodrama, is not a very "fun" film, especially over the first half. But, after Bong has set up his plot, the concluding act works very well. It also is dark and unusual enough to stick in the mind.

All three films are still in theatres here and I think they are all worth seeing, and Raimi's in particular is really one that works great in the theatre with an audience. But, just a warning, it's a loud one.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Puchon Fantastic Film Festival (July 16-26)

Next month represents the high point of the year on the Korean cinema scene for fans of horror films. The Puchon Fantastic Film Festival has announced its schedule and there are a vast number of horror features both old and new. Puchon is just southwest of Seoul and is accessible by subway. The schedule is available here.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009 lies at the Film of the Month club

Over at the Film of the Month club, Mitchell W. Block's 1974 film lies is currently available in streaming format. It is a 16 minute short and very much worth watching. Try to watch it "cold", without looking up comments or reviews first. It will only be available for a short time so check it out if you get the chance. There should also be some discussion of the film as the month goes by.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

1950s Korean Cinema at the Cinematheque

Upcoming at the Seoul Cinematheque, June 9th-18th, is a program of Korean films from the 1950s. So far, six of the thirteen films are listed as having English sub-titles. The films are:

Yangsan-do (Yangsan Island) (Kim Ki-young, 1955) (90 minutes)
Piagol (Pia Village) (Lee Kang Cheon, 1955) (106 minutes)
Chongchun Ssanggogseon (Han Hyeong-mo, 1956) (100 minutes)
Jayu Buin (Madame Freedom) (Han Hyeong-mo, 1956) (124 minutes)
Muyeong-tab (Pagoda of No Shadows) (Shin Sang-ok, 1957) (117 minutes)
Jiokhwa (Flower in Hell) (Shin Sang-ok, 1958) (86 minutes)

Probably the most well-known of these films are Madame Freedom and Flower in Hell, both of which are discussed at length in the Korean Film Archive's A History of Korean Cinema. As can be guessed by the titles, both are melodramas. Yi Hyo-In devotes a section of his overview of 1950s Korean cinema on Madame Freedom with the title, "Madame Freedom, the Application of the Modern Thinking into a Film and the Repulsion Against It." Flower in Hell is of interest in both its subject matter (one of the lead characters is a prostitute servicing American GIs) and its apparent mixture of genres and styles. And Yangsan Island is the second film of the acclaimed Kim Ki-young. I know little else about the other films, although all appear to be from the melodrama era except for Pia Village, which I think is part of the war cycle and deals with a group of communist guerillas.

The cinemathque website has the times and listings, but not the translation of the titles, so go by the year and running time. I've also linked each film to its imdb page.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Favorite Books on Cinema

At his blog "Only the Cinema" Ed Howard has a post on his favorite film books, a so-called meme (don't ask me to explain that one, but it started at "The Dancing Image") that has been circulating on a few blogs. I thought I'd add the books that have been most important to me. Most of my selections are somewhat academic, but I excluded many great scholarly works that were not re-readable. My criteria for these selections are books that I have returned to for pleasure (as opposed to merely reference or study) over the years. I've limited myself to ten (with a few ties for individual authors):

1. Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (1985)

My favorite single volume text on American cinema, a deeply knowledgeable yet very readable and intellectually provocative take on popular film and national culture. I may not agree Ray's overall thesis, which is a tad simplistic, but it is a great jumping off point for discussion and a wonderful text to introduce students to the concept of ideology and movies. The main strength of the argument is Ray's notion that the popular cinema that resonates and has lasting power is not simply one in which ideology is firmly re-enforced; rather, it is the films that put the ideology at risk and force the viewer into a confrontation with its core beliefs that remain in the imagination years later. His readings of Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Taxi Driver are so strong that the texts have been forever altered in my mind afterward. Looking forward to reading his recent The ABCs of Classic Hollywood (2008).

2. James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts (1998)

I remember reading this book right after finishing a paper on film noir for my MA core class and immediately thinking everything I just wrote was worthless. This is a perfect blend of a great writer applying his vast historical knowledge to an endlessly fascinating topic. Naremore makes connections throughout between noir and the broader social and political context, and it proved to be very influential on everything I try to write. Naremore's authorship studies of Welles, Minnelli and most recently Kubrick are all superb as well, but More Than Night is probably the book that will define him as a scholar.

3. Robin Wood, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan (1985) and Sexual Politics and Narrative Cinema (1998)

Robin Wood is one of the great film critics, and the first writer to really excite me about the cinema. Wood is one of the few writers that almost always makes me re-think and re-consider a work after he has written about it. I mention these two texts although all of Wood's work is worth reading and re-reading. His essay on Scorsese in Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan and his piece on Ozu in Sexual Politics and Narrative Cinema are just two of the most obvious of many examples of how Wood has changed my thinking about film and, by extension of course, the world beyond the frame.

4. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the 'Frenzy of the Visible' (1989) and Screening Sex (2008)

Linda Williams is one of the top film scholars around, and is a fine writer as well. Although she has written about many topics very well (I'm currently awaiting the arrival of her book on race and melodrama, Playing the Race Card), her work on pornography has really defined her. Moving beyond the porn/anti-porn debate, Williams devotes her energy to analyzing what porn has been and what it currently is. Using Foucault as a theoretical guide, her work on sexuality in film (which includes the recent Screening Sex) is unsurpassed in the field.

5. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies (1995) and Movies as Politics (1997)

The only other serious contender to Robin Wood as a film critic is Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has probably shaped my taste more than anyone else (almost embarrassingly so, in fact). Without his work, there are many great directors, from Hou Hsiao-hsien to Abbas Kiarostami to Bela Tarr, that I most likely wouldn't have discovered. Rosenbaum's ability to be ideologically committed and yet true to his aesthetic judgements has been a model I've tried to follow. These two collections are my favorite of his works, although all of his writing is worth reading, and much is now available at his website.

6. Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991)

Another noir book (not surprising really, given the enormous amount written on the subject), this one with a focus less on history and more on thematics; specifically, how noir deals with the now much discussed "crisis in masculinity". Krutnik's main skill is his analysis of particular films. His discussion of Out of the Past was a stunning revelation to me when I first read it, so penetrating and yet seemingly simple and obvious. This book changed not just how I viewed single films but how I considered a whole historical grouping.

7. Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (1991)

I took me awhile to come around to Zizek. I always had a certain almost natural impulse towards psychoanalysis (the same way many have a strong adversion), but Zizek and by extension Lacan always mystified me. But coming back to this work last year, the confusion finally melted away (to some extent) and enjoyment took over. One reason this is so re-readable to me is, paradoxically, its difficulty. I understand as I read, but any attempt to explain to others and even re-explain to myself sends me back to the book. Although not really a film text, Zizek's short How to Read Lacan (2006) is also recommended.

8. Robert Kapsis, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation (1992)

I read this sociological study of Hitchcock while still an undergraduate English major. It may be the first academic text I read cover to cover (at least of my own volition), and the whole topic of artistic reputations and how they are made was an entirely new idea. Without knowing it at the time, this book would have maybe the biggest influence on me of all, leading, many years later, to my dissertation on Martin Scorsese and his role in film culture.

9. Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (3 editions) (1980) (1988) (2000)

This is the only text here that I may not revisit again for awhile, having used, applied, debated, and argued against its central thesis on the "modernism" of New Hollywood so extensively over the last 5-10 years. Kolker's book has undergone three editions, each of which I have read, and regardless of some of my disagreements, it has many excellent readings of individual films. Kolker's close attention to formal detail is one I try to emulate. I also think his intro text Film, Form and Culture is one of the better ones around.

10. Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (2005)

A book that so intrigued me that I wrote my first official book review about it (published in Film Criticism). Keathley's central project of trying to combine a love of cinema with more traditional scholarly writing was one I connected with immediately. Although we are of slightly different ages and backgrounds, much of his own discussion of his early love of cinema was very familiar to me. This is the most recent text on my list, but I'm confident it is one I will continue to enjoy in the future.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL (Hong Sang-soo, 2009)

Over the last week I have seen Hong Sang-soo's new film twice. It is a typical Hong film in many ways, and does not really branch into new territory. But it is still a very entertaining and fascinating work, and provides much to think about in terms of his overall oeuvre.

First, the plot. I won't go into great detail about the story, but it is important to note the dual structure at work. The film begins with an intertitle, "Jecheon Summer 2008", and follows the lead character, Director Ku, and his experience at the local film festival (where he is a judge). This takes the first 52 minutes of the story. There is then a second intertitle, "Jeju Island, 12 Days Later". After his bad experience in Jecheon, Ku goes to Jeju to give a lecture on his films at the university of an old friend. As can be expected with Hong, the second story has parallels with the first, with situations and dialogue deliberately repeating themselves.

As can be guessed by this brief plot outline, this is a very self-reflexive film, even by Hong's standards. Nearly all of Hong's films feature artists, and some even have filmmakers as leads. But the director Ku in this film is the closest example yet of a Hong surrogate. Like Hong, Ku has a certain reputation as a talented director, but he is not commercially successful. During his presentation to the university students, someone asks him why he makes the films he does, suggesting that he is wasting his time since nobody watches or understands them. Ku's defense of his films could used to describe Hong's cinema as well. Ku says that his films have no clear messages and no beautiful images. Instead, he gathers pieces of life together and makes them into one, trying to get the audience to see afresh without fixed ideas. The student responds by stating, "you are not a film director, you're a philosopher". She clearly means it as an insult, and Hong seems willing to concede the point while nevertheless making it clear that he cannot make films any other way.

The connections with Hong's other films are abundant, although there is less of a link with his most recent feature, Night and Day, which I think is Hong's best so far. The immediate comparison for me was Turning Gate because of the focus on a single male protagonist and the split narrative, in which incidents reoccur in the new situation. There is even a reference in the dialogue to that film's most memorable scene. Ku is asked about a bruise on his face, and he replies that he got into a fight after looking at a girl's legs. In Turning Gate, the lead character almost gets into a fight for the same reason. There is also a strong resemblance to Woman on the Beach in terms of its structure, its lead actress (the great Ko Hyun-Jung), and especially its ending (which is likewise on the beach). In many ways, it makes more explicit the critique of idealism that has run through Hong's films. My only small complaint would be that there seemed a lack of progression here, especially compared to Night and Day and even the recent short Lost in the Mountains. For me, it had some of the same quality of my least favorite Hong film, Tale of Cinema, in which he had to take a step back before moving forward. But on the plus side, Like You Know It All is a much more entertaining work.

In terms of style, the editing here is the most spare of all his films except for Woman is the Future of Man (and possibly Night and Day, which I haven't had a chance to time). The ASL is roughly 78 seconds, and is even longer in the second part of the story:

Jecheon section: 52 minutes, 44 shots (ASL: 71 sec)
Jeju section: 71 minutes, 51 shots (ASL: 84 sec)

Long takes dominate, but so does mobile framing. The combination of zooming and camera movement is quite extensive here, and I would wager that it is the highest percentage of mobile framing of all of Hong's films. Here, again, the comparison with the heavy use of the initial zoom in Tale of Cinema seems appropriate. Despite the high ASL, this is a very different film than Woman is the Future of Man, which I have described before as Hong degree zero. In contrast, this is a highly expressive film in terms of camera rhetoric, relatively speaking of course. One wonders if Hong will continue down this road, or offer up another variation. One stylistic decision that did intrigue me is the use of off-screen sound, in particular the sounds of sex, vomiting, and crying. Like in his other recent films, sex is not presented explicitly in visual terms. But it does dominate the sound design, forcing the audience and the characters into an ambiguous position. This is especially true near the conclusion, which contains a use of off-screen sound I'm still pondering.

Watching the film twice in a week, a second viewing was perhaps too close and has caused me to underrate it. But even on first viewing, these minor reservations were present. I did enjoy it a great deal the first time, which may have related to seeing it with a large and appreciative audience. Another way in which this is a self-reflexive work is one that may be lost on most non-Koreans: the many number of famous actors in some supporting or near cameo roles. There is a playful postmodernism at work here that is not usually present in Hong. With this film and Night and Day, he has proven he can entertain a local audience. But unfortunately his reputation is such that it seems unlikely he will ever have any significant box office returns. Thankfully, that is unlikely to deter him from producing more movies.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Hong Sang-soo Retrospective

Starting today and continuing until next Wednesday (June 3rd), Miro Space theatre in Gwanghwamun is showing all of Hong Sang-soo's films, although only a few with English subtitles. The schedule is as follows:

With English subtitles:

The Day a Pig Fell in the Well May 29th 8:30pm, June 2nd 1:30pm
The Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors June 2nd 8:30pm
Woman on the Beach May 31th 1:30pm

Without subtitles:

The Power of Kangwon Province May 30th 1:30pm, June 1st 8:30pm
Turning Gate June 1st 1:30pm, June 3rd 8:30pm
Woman is the Future of Man May 29th 1:30pm
Tale of Cinema May 30th 8:30pm
Night and Day May 31st 8:30pm, June 3rd 1:30pm
Like You Know It All May 29th-June 3rd 11:00am, 6:00pm

Miro Space is located close to exit 7, Gwanghwamun subway station, line 5. The website is here.

Monday, 25 May 2009

PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati, 1967)

On Sunday, I made my first trip to the cinematheque in a couple of months to see Jacques Tati's Playtime, a film much beloved by cinephiles and now considered to be Tati's masterpiece. Although I had read a great deal about Tati, I had never seen one of his films, one of the bigger holes in my cinematic viewing resume. Playtime certainly lived up to its reputation for me, and getting to see it in a great print on the big screen was undoubtedly a huge reason why. Because of the style Tati employs, it is almost impossible to fully appreciate this film on DVD. There are two more screenings of the film this week: Wednesday at 5:00pm and Saturday at 7:00pm. I highly recommend the experience if you have the time and opportunity.

What makes Playtime such a special work is its complete uniqueness, both in terms of narrative and style. It is difficult to classify or even describe the plot. There is a lead character, Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati himself and the hero of many of his features. But the story is much more about a day in modern Paris than anything else. We begin at an airport and follow a group of female American tourists into Paris, where we see them, Mr. Hulot, and others deal comically with the modern Parisian architecture and space. The second half of the story takes place at night, mostly at a newly opened restaurant that gradually collapses as the night eventually turns in to dawn. At this point Hulot and one of the American women say their farewells and the film concludes.

There is little else really like it, although in stylistic terms it does conform to much of what I admire in cinema. There are a number of very long takes in which the full space of the frame is used. Tati gives the viewer a great deal to look at and examine, a mise-en-scene to explore and investigate. Many times during the screening people were laughing at things I didn't notice, simply because it is nearly impossible to catch everything on one viewing. The freedom provided the viewer is what makes the movie so special and so beloved by cinephiles. It is here that form and content are so inseparable. Tati's style is itself an ideological statement, an empowerment to the viewer to create a world along with the filmmaker. The viewer is challenged as much as in any other modernist cinema, but the film is still true to its title. It is the most playful, most easily enjoyable of experiments, a film that makes you want to explore it even more and to invite others along for the journey. I'm planning on seeing it again on Saturday, and have no doubt that a new experience awaits.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

THIRST (Park Chan-wook, 2009)

Park Chan-Wook's newest film is his exploration of the vampire mythology, a subject with a vast cinematic heritage. It has such a vast history that it can be difficult to re-imagine such a tale, but for the first hour of the film Park succeeds admirably. However, its second half is not nearly as impressive and the cliches begin to mount, not only in relation to other screen vampires but in its reliance on other genres as well.

The main problem with the narrative is the excessive amount of plot. The film moves fairly quickly and jams a great deal of action and story into its over two hour running time. But this had the effect of making the film seem extremely long and rather tedious. Too much of the action, especially in the second half, seemed rushed in order to simply give the audience the plot information it needed. As a result, all of the richness and texture that Park had created recedes and maximum stylistic overdrive comes to dominate.

The story begins with the main character, a priest, being infected with a virus that nearly kills him and turns him into a vampire. The man then has to try to live ethically with this "thirst", which is also a clear sexual metaphor, as is often the case in vampire stories. The fact that he is a priest only adds to this. He has a strong desire for the married daughter of a family whose son he has saved, and this relationship takes over the narrative. This is disappointing because for the first half, Park's characteristically striking images and his take on religion had a real beauty, and a subtle exploration of religion and human desire could have, and seemed like it would, develop. Unfortunately, the plot turns noir-ish, with a femme fatale leading the hero to murder (there's even a reference to Murnau's Sunrise). With this turn, the narrative lost its appeal for me, and Park's style likewise became unhinged and rather action-movie formulaic.

Park has frequently been torn between mainstream and art cinema approaches, and occasionally finds the perfect mix, as in Old Boy (2004). But with his last two films being rather unsuccessful commercially, Park has seemingly tried to make a film that could appeal to both tastes. The result is the opposite of the hybrid success of Old Boy: it is unlikely to appeal to either the lover of mainstream action films, such as his most popular film Joint Security Area (2000), or the fan of his more idiosyncratic efforts, such as the great Lady Vengeance (2005). This is not to say that the film is bad. It is still a good film overall and worth seeing, and for many other directors it would be a major accomplishment. But after seeing how good Park can be, and especially after seeing the first half of a near masterpiece, the result is unsatisfying.

On a more positive note, I saw Thirst back-to-back with Hong Sang-soo's new film, which was much better. I'm going to try to see it again this week and will write a full review then.

The Auteurs Website

The website the auteurs features streaming video of a number of great films, all for $3 each. The films that are availabe depends on your viewing region, but in Korea there are well over 100 films by many noted auteurs, such as the Dardenne Brothers, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Alexander Sokurov, Philippe Garrel, Jafar Panahi, Jan Svankmajer, Laurent Cantet, Gregg Araki, Jia Zhangke, Francois Ozon, and others.

Also, there are four free films available, the first restorations undertaken by Martin Scorsese's World Film Foundation:

The Housemaid (Kim Ki-Young, 1960) (South Korea)
Dry Summer (Metin Erksan, 1964) (Turkey)
Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambety, 1973) (Senegal)
Transes (Ahamed El Maanouni, 1981) (Morocco)

I saw The Housemaid at the recent Jeonju film festival and it is well worth checking out. I'm going to try to see the others soon, as well as some of the other films on the site, many of which are difficult to find, especially in Korea.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

New Hong Sang-soo and Park Chan-wook films (with subtitles!)

The new films You Don't Even Know (Hong Sang-soo, 2009) and Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009), both of which are playing at the Cannes Film Festival, are apparently being shown with English subtitles at the CGV Yongsan, at least according to their website. Very exciting news, since subtitled Korean films in theatres remain rare, and even more importantly a chance to get an early look at the latest from two great directors. I'm going to try to get to both this week.

Here are the times:

You Don't Even Know Fri, Sun-Wed 11:45am, 5:05pm, 10:30pm; Sat 11:30am, 4:50pm, 10:15pm

Thrist Fri, Sun-Wed 9:00am, 2:20pm, 7:45pm; Sat 8:45am, 2:05pm, 7:30pm, 12:50am

Monday, 11 May 2009

UPCOMING: Jacques Tati Retrospective

A Jacques Tati retrospective is coming to the Seoul Cinematheque on May 19-31. All of Tati's six feature films will be shown:

Jour de Fete (1949)
Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953)
Mon Oncle (1958)
Playtime (1967)
Trafic (1971)
Parade (1973)

There are also a few Tati shorts. No information yet on English subtitles, let's hope for the best.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS (Hong Sang-soo, 2009)

Hong Sang-soo's 30 minute short Lost in the Mountains is one of the finer pieces in his uniformly strong output. Although Hong apparently made short films as a student, this his first officially released short film (at least that I am aware of). One advantage for Hong in making a short film is that many viewers come in with an awareness of his typical style and subject matter. As a result, he can perform some variations that give the work added meaning for those familiar with his output. WARNING: spoilers ahead.

In plot, this is a very recognizable Hong film: a writer drives from Seoul to Jeonju to visit her friend. She calls her former professor and lover and spends the day with him. She then discovers that her friend is also involved with the professor. Very upset by this revelation, she invites her ex-lover, another former student, to join them. A night of drinking and sexual pairings concludes with the four coincidentally meeting the next day. But despite this superficial resemblance, this short has Hong exploring new material.

First, this is one of the few Hong films in which there is a clear lead character, and the first time that this character is a woman. In this way, it feels more like a follow-up to Woman on the Beach than to his last film, Night and Day. Also, for the first time in his films (at least that I can recall), there is a voice-over narration. This makes it his most psychological, closer in tone to Turning Gate, the only other Hong film with a clear protagonist. This combines to make this the most overtly emotional of his films; in fact, compared to the other films, it has a nearly melodramatic feel. This may be connected to the short form; it is as if all the plot of a typical Hong film has been compressed down into this 30 minutes, and as a result has a higher percentage of emotional peaks. One could speculate that this is why the voice-over is used: it provides a kind of narrative economy, that Hong then integrates into the type of story he wants to tell. There is a self-reflexive moment in which he calls attention to this limitation, in which the lead character says that she wants to write something short. For Hong, this time constraint allows him to deal with very familiar material in a heightened register.

The style of the film is both consistent with his other films, with a number of familiar long take compositions as well as many uses of the zoom lens. But the editing is also quicker than any of his films since The Power of Kangwon Province in 1998. There are 45 shots in a 30 minute film, making the ASL roughly 40 seconds. 1o of these shots occur both at the beginning and the ending, a rhyming 5 shot sequence of quick cuts of the hotel district of Jeonju. But even without these shots, the style is more dynamic than usual, not only in terms of editing, but also in relation to camera movement and zooms. This seems to parallel to overall tone of the piece, which has a greater momentum and urgency than other Hong works.

One could see all this as a negative, as Hong having to compromise his style and subject matter to fit unnaturally into this small box of time. I may agree if not for the film's magnificent ending, certainly the most progressive of Hong's career. The scene consists of the four characters confronting each other, with the two male characters in particular locked in an absurd and hypocritical battle of words. Although the scene is very funny, it is at the same time frustrating. We have to stand by and watch this hypocrisy because proper Korean social manners forbid the characters from pointing out the obvious. And because the emotional level of the film is already so high, it creates a strong desire to say something, almost to yell at the screen. And then, the lead character fulfills our wish, finally calling the characters on their lies and leaving the scene. She gets into her car and exits. The liberation of the moment is unmatched in anything else Hong has done. Hong is typically seen as a rather apolitical filmmaker, but within the personal politics of his films, this is his most overt statement.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Overview of JIFF Film Critics' Masterclass

I was able to attend all of the films of the JIFF masterclass, although only one of the lectures themselves due to language or scheduling. Raymond Bellour selected two excellent French films: Philippe Grandrieux's A Lake and Chris Marker's Level Five. Grandrieux was chosen by Bellour in relation to the film magazine Trafic, founded by Serge Daney. As Bellour writes in his introduction:

"If I had to define Trafic in terms of its refusals, they would be positioned at two extremes: on the one hand, the facilities that are far too common in journalistic criticism, and on the other hand the closures of traditional academic writing."

"Parallel to a continuous reflection on the great works on cinema ... we have always chosen to support - by asking them to participate, whenever possible, in the life of the magazine - a certain group of filmmakers, including (naturally) experimental filmmakers."

"So it is that, personally, I find myself engaged in a defense of the films of Philippe Grandrieux, which seem to me as essential as they are controversial."

What interests Bellour in Grandrieux is his attempt to use his story as a "laboratory for expression"; in other words, to explore the purely sensational elements usually confined to the avant-garde. A Lake is a great example of this. The story of a family in an isolated setting and the effect of an outsider on this dynamic is compelling itself, but does little to convey the actual texture of the work. As Bellour states, Grandrieux's style is founded much more of the "physical relation of the camera to its objects." Nevertheless, the story certainly maintains importance here, even if it is at the service of sensation (as opposed to the reverse relation of sensation at the service of story which defines most cinema). The very extreme starkness and primal nature of these relationships provides the cinematic technique with its maximum impact.

Bellour's second film choice is a very different work, Level Five, a film essay by Chris Marker revolving around a video game about the Battle of Okinawa. Bellour opens his introduction to the film by asking and answering a question:

"Why, in order to speak today of Chris Marker in the course of a film festival, and within the privileged framework of a Masterclass, do I choose to present Level Five (1996)?"

"Because this film, the last of his cinema films strictly speaking, is for that very reason the one in which we see the best way to inscribe the mutations which cinema has undergone - in a career that is singular out of all others, and within which cinema has always been submitted to paradoxical pressures."

As is usual with Marker, he combines aspects of documentary with a story-line, in which we see an actress deliver a video diary to the director (Marker himself, although this is also a role). Thus the film turns into another Marker essay on the nature of moving images and their relation to social reality, especially memory. But it is also, at the same time, a very powerful about war, and it is this aspect that interested me more than the mediations on the computer. This is precisely because it never feels like a tradtional documentary. It creates a distance, much like the characters have, because of "game" space created. But gradually this fades away, climaxing in film footage of Shigeaki Kinjo discussing his own murder of his family under government decree. The impact of this moment has been created by Marker's structure and his multiple forms of visual imagery, and it makes as powerful a statement for the impact of cinema as one could create.

Another essay film was chosen by Richard Porton for his discussion of "anarchist realism": WR: Mysteries of the Organism. This is a film I've been interested in seeing for many years but had never gotten to, and perhaps becasue of this it was not as intriguing as a hoped for. The film is very enjoyable and fun, and has a kind of anarchist quality that Porton discussed in his talk (which I unfortunately could not attend). However, it is as an "essay" film that it is rather weak, especially compared to a figure like Marker. To be fair, this may be because the ideas Makavejev is dealing with often come across as ridiculous. It is to Makavejev's credit that he himself realizes this, but it doesn't make the opinions on display any more provocative.

The only lecture I was able to attend was Adrian Martin's discussion of the career of film critic/painter Manny Farber, titled "Creative Criticism." Martin begins by outlining two types of criticism: (1) explanatory, descriptive criticism that offers a reading or interpretation of the film, which the critic treats as a finite object; and (2) creative criticism, which aims to recreate, remake or extend the film in a new way by working in a new medium (usually writing, but now visual media as well). There are overlaps between the two (as Martin mentioned, Raymond Bellour is one example), but one of the earliest practicioners of the later form is Manny Farber.

I am quite familiar with Farber as a critic, particularly through Greg Taylor's book Artists in the Audience, which Martin doesn't mention but which makes a similar argument about the critic as artist. What was illuminating for me about Martin's lecture is his presentation and discussion of Farber's paintings in relation to his criticism. On the major points drawn out by this comparison is how Farber, in both his criticism and painting, was most interested in the edges of the frame. Many of Farber's paintings have little activity at the center, instead placing most of the action on the perimeter. Likewise, Farber's approach to criticism and the films he admired shared this same dislike of centered framings. In general, most of what is most appreciated and enjoyed by the mass audience bored Farber, which is what made him one of the first cult critics. Farber did not care for the novelistic or theatrical; what he wanted were multi-suggestive films and images, a rich world of experience. Not stories, but worlds. Things like plot solving actions and character psychology were not important. What makes a film engaging are the digressions that give the world its richness, as well as the presence of performers with a presence or aura: "interesting people doing interesting things". This is what made Farber so distinct and so influential. And while I personally like those influenced by Farber more than Farber himself as a writer, Martin's lecture was a very passionate appreciation, as well as a great introduction for a Korean audience (Farber has still not been translated into Korean, although a few pieces are coming out soon apparently).

To accompany his lecture, Martin chose Maurice Pialat's 1974 film The Mouth Agape. This was my favorite film of the festival and makes me want to track down more of Pialat's films in the future. I had previously only seen his 1985 film Police, which failed to make an impression, but The Mouth Agape is quite astounding. The plot revolves around a woman who is dying and how her family, especially her son and husband, deal with this situation. Due to subject matter and even the time period in which it is made, I thought of Ingmar Bergman's 1972 drama Cries and Whispers. This is because other than subject matter, it is hard to imagine two films being more different in approach. In contrast to the heavy expressionism and symbolism of Bergman, Pialat concentrates much more on a realistic approach.

Now, when I describe the film as using a realistic approach, this does not mean that Pialat is not obsessively shaping this material. Rather, he is shaping the material to achieve a much more authentic world. This is why Martin chose the film to use in conjunction with Farber; not because Farber wrote about this film, but because this film has such affinities with Farber's interests in cinema (also, Farber was an admirer of Pialat's 1991 film Van Gogh). Pialat wanted to record something interesting between actors, and often made his actors uncomfortable and filmed a great deal in order to achieve his results. He also worked his material heavily in the editing process. The Mouth Agape was originally over four hours long and had a much different plot and story, with a greater emphasis on the character of the son. The film he creates is just 83 minutes, but yet is in no way a reduction for the sake of plot clarity or simplicity. Rather, the conventional rhetoric of drama and artificiality is avoided. Pialat is concerned with the edges of the story. Not with the mother and her suffering (although this is shown and presented in quotidian and disturbing detail), but with how the other son, his wife, and the father continue to live their lives, in some ways not noticably affected by the event. Pialat is concerned with creating and presenting a believable world, in which the house itself, which is also a small shop where the father works, is in many ways as important as the characters. As a result, the emotional force of the drama that is presented is enormously heightened. Although I had not heard of the film before the festival, I now think it is one of the great films of the 1970s.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

2009 Jeonju Film Festival Overview

I attended this year's Jeonju Film Festival and was able to see 15 films over the course of just over 4 days here, probably the highest volume of cinema going in one week for me personally. Obviously, with any large festival, my experience was limited, but overall the festival was strong, if not as exciting as last year's (it is hard to top Satantango).

Of the films I saw, I would rank them as follows:

5 stars

The Mouth Agape (Maurice Pialat, 1974)
High in the Mountains (Hong Sang-soo, 2009)

4 1/2 Stars

Level Five (Chris Marker, 1997)
Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)
A Lake (Philippe Grandrieux, 2009)
Butterflies Have No Memories (Lav Diaz, 2009)

4 stars

The Housemaid (Kim Ki-Young, 1960)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain, 2008)
WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev, 1971)
Goodbye Solo (Rahim Bahrani, 2009)

3 1/2 stars

A North Chinese Girl (Zou Peng, 2009)
Moonlighting (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1982)

3 stars

Koma (Kawase Naomi, 2009)

2 1/2 stars

Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1971)
The ESP Couple (Kim Hyung-joo, 2008)

Unlike last year, I did get a chance to see a number of newer films, of wildly varied quality, as is to be expected. The ESP Couple was my least favorite, although still mildly amusing. Poor writing and rather broad farce sunk an interesting premise. A North Chinese Girl was at the opposite scale, an exercise in Asian minimalism that felt, unfortunately, like just that, an exercise. The film was enjoyable for me because I prefer long take cinema and the film had a promising opening, but it never came together. The final shot, in its own minimalist way, was just as heavy handed as any mainstream action film.

There were two newer features I quite liked. The American indie Goodbye Solo is an intriguing variation on Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry, but told from the perspective of the cab driver. The film creates a vivid and unique take on the immigrant experience in America with very few of the cliches. The central relationship is not entirely convincing, but overall the story achieves an understated but resonant impact. Another fine film is Tony Manero, a Chilean drama set during the Pinochet era. The lead character, Raul, a small-time thug, becomes obsessed with Saturday Night Fever and John Travolta's "Tony Manero". This is set against the backdrop of political oppression, in which Raul's behaviour is reflective of the predatory nature of authoritarian capitalism and the American popular culture that accompanies it. Many other films would have turned the basic premise into a disarming comedy, but Larrain is not interested in a simple celebration of consumer culture. The style is at times overblown, but overall a small yet socially astute drama that deserves a wider audience.

My favorite new film was this year's Jeonju Digital Project, in which three directors are asked to make a digital short film for the festival. Hong Sang-soo's film was especially great, and I'll try to write a full post about it shortly. But also very strong was Lav Diaz's Butterflies Have No Memories. The story concerns the hostility felt by the former workers of a goldmine, a resentment that reaches a climax when a former resident, now a Canadian, comes back to visit. The ending of this short uses the form to make a moral statement: the act of passive resistance by one of the characters literally turns the plot of a feature genre film into a 40 minute piece calling for a move forward for the characters and Filipino society. The weakest of the three was Koma by Kawase Naomi, which had some images and threads of intrigue but yet remained too obscure and mystical for my taste.

The director spotlight this year was on Jerzy Skolimowski, whose oeuvre I was unfamiliar with. I saw two films, on the basis of which I am not overly enthused to see more. Moonlighting was the better of the two, a pretty good satirical drama about illegal Polish workers stranded following the declaration of Marshal Law in Warsaw in late 1981. Deep End, from 1971, has not aged well. Its absurd take on a young boy coming of age in London offered nothing that many other films haven't done better, and its truly odd and bizarre ending left me cold. It is strange enough that I probably won't forget it, though.

In addition to many contemporary Korean films, there was also a Korean film retrospective. I was able to see the recently restored 1960 melodrama The Housemaid by the now acclaimed auteur Kim Ki-Young. A heavy stylized drama with a sexually charged plot, it resembled nothing like the traditional reserved classical melodramas from the 1950s. It even contains a framing device in which the same actors comment on the story that we watch. It concludes with the husband directly addressing the audience in a mock warning about the dangers of young women to married men. Kim's heavy-handed style serves to further the distanciation of the audience from the story world, so that the drama is always symbolic and heightened rather than resembling any type of realism. The reality that interests Kim concerns the desires and repressions underlying the traditional Korean family unit.

I'll write about the films of the JIFF Film Critics' masterclass in a separate post. Overall, like I mentioned at the opening, a fine festival this year, although with a weaker retrospective than last year's focus on Bela Tarr. The festival was busier this year, partly because it coincided with some Korean holidays. It certainly does take advanced booking to see the films you want (or any films at all if you wait til the weekend). But the festival still remains committed to the love of cinema itself over the more business centered (and larger) Pusan festival, and is certainly an event I will not miss as long as I am here.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

David Lean Retrospective at the Cinematheque

Starting yesterday and continuing until May 17th is a 13 film program of David Lean films at the cinematheque. This includes most of Lean's directorial output, the only missing films being his first, In Which We Serve (1942, co-director with Noel Coward), 1952's The Sound Barrier, and 1954's Hobson's Choice. Given the epic nature of Lean's cinema, this is a fine opportunity to see many of these films in the theatre. I'm looking forward to trying to see The Bridge on the River Kwai (1958), one of those "great" movies that I still haven't gotten around to.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

TREELESS MOUNTAIN (Kim So Yong, 2008); WENDY AND LUCY (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)

I saw two films at the Women's Film Festival over the weekend, one really great, another OK but slightly disappointing. Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy is a formally elegant independent drama about a young woman (played by Michelle Williams) on her way to Alaska for a job. Her car breaks down in Oregon, and she gets arrested for petty theft after stealing food for her dog. The rest of the narrative focuses on her search for her dog over the next couple of days. The narrative is both ordinary and yet highly dramatic and compelling, and Reichardt's style here is both properly distanced and sympathetic to the character's plight. Wendy and Lucy is part of what A.O. Scott has dubbed "neo neo-realism" in American indie cinema, and I generally agree that the presence of these films dealing with the working class is desperately needed at the moment. Wendy and Lucy offers an example that these films can also have a strong aesthetic grounding, which will be key to the ultimate success of this movement (if it is a movement at all). You can find Scott's piece here, as well as Richard Brody's less favourable take on these films here.

I find myself agreeing with Scott and disagreeing with Brody on Wendy and Lucy, but Kim So Yong's Treeless Mountain, which Scott also mentions, seems to me much less distinguished. It is here that I agree with Brody about the need to go beyond a superficial realism. Kim's story about two young girls who are left behind by a mother who can no longer support them is a compelling one. It is the flip side to Wendy and Lucy, if that film were told from the perspective of Lucy. But this might be part of the problem with the story, or at least Kim's approach to it. While the two young girls perform fine, there are limits with what can be done with child actors on a dramatic level. This is especially true when the style is mostly concerned with a basic illusionist approach. Kim never really establishes a strong visual approach to the material, and as a result the film meanders and instead relies upon the capturing of natural imagery to attempt to add a reflective tone to the work. I never found the approach compelling and engaging, despite my interest in the story and material.

The festival continues until Thursday.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Upcoming: Women's Film Festival (April 9-16)

Next week marks the 11th International Women's Film Festival in Seoul. Most of the screenings, if not all, have English subtitles, and include many Korean films as well as a few international selections. There are also discussions and a conference associated with the festival. The full schedule is available here. I attended a few screenings and the conference last year and found the festival very well organized and foreign friendly.

Among the notable films that I've heard good word of mouth on include:

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda, 2008)
Treeless Mountain (Kim So Yong, 2008)