| In Niccol’s ‘GATTACA’ the future is now
By Timothy WatsonSocial engineers of the twentieth century have devised numerous prescriptions for overcoming the disease called “man”, the affliction that makes each of us unique and grants life its inherent mystery. Socialism, communism, consumerism, globalism, and a host of other ‘fetishisms’ have done their level best to eradicate differences and draw us all into the rubric of sameness. Following the natural course of social evolution, it is only natural that the building blocks of life itself should be engineered to eradicate differences.
Having engendered an appetite for conformity, consumer culture may soon shift from designer jeans to designer genes. Genes, the building blocks of life defining our physical and emotional characteristics, may soon be given designer labels befitted to our individual tastes. The four key chemicals composing DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid), GTCA (guanine, adenine, thymine and cystocine), may soon be sequenced to eliminate such aberrations as arthritis, epilepsy and cancer, while at the same time eradicating manic depression, schizophrenia and anxiety, afflictions known to arouse various forms of creativity. The word GATTACA, the Genome project of the future, is formed from the letters GTCA.
In Genesis, it is clear that the whole of Creation arises from a series of spoken commands issued by the Almighty, a strange correlation to “Genoism,” where combinations of the letters GTCA form sentences which determine our genetic blueprint. Through genetic engineering, human beings have the power to play God, conjuring life from a series of spoken or written commands, in which the blueprints of life are written in a series of sentences formed from various combinations of the letters GTCA. It may seem a preposterous idea to some, but such ideas are hardly new. In Cabalism, it has always been held that language is a microcosm of the cosmos and that through the correct sequencing of letters and numbers, humankind could reinvent the world.
Labeled an “In-Valid,” a classification reserved for those conceived in love as opposed to a petri dish, Vincent strives to overcome his disadvantages by masquerading as a “Valid,” a genetically enhanced individual. His dream is to become an astronaut and partake in a mission to Titan, Saturn’s fourteenth moon. Subjected to the rigors of blood and urine tests prior to the launch, Vincent has a number of close shaves. These tests only become more rigorous, when the mission director is murdered and Vincent becomes a prime suspect. The cat and mouse charade with the detective is reminiscent of Raskalnikoff’s dilemma in “Crime and Punishment”.
Like a recognition scene from a classical drama, Vincent is finally discovered by his long lost brother, Anton (Loren Dean) one of the investigators in the murder case. Subject to sibling rivalry and the intense jealousy and animosity it inspires, there is no love lost between the brothers.
The hostility is particularly acute in Anton, who resents the fact that he was once beaten by his genetically inferior brother in a swimming race. “It was the one moment in our lives when my brother found out he was not as strong as he believed and I not as weak,” Vincent informs us. “It was the moment that made all the difference.” Playing the part of Vincent’s genetically enhanced lover, Irene, Uma Thurman has a deep understanding for the film. “It’s simply about the conquering of the human gene,” she argues, “and how in the end, this conquest can’t really take away any of the problems of human nature.”
| ‘Anna Karenina,’ Faithful to Tolstoy’s VisionBy Timothy Watson
When done well, film symbolism should differ little from its literary counterpart. Bernard Rose’s direction of “Anna Karenina” is so masterful one has the sense that his technique is to mimic the artifice already built into nature. If art is an imitation of nature, then he has captured the rhythms of both with his sense of timing. Pathetic fallacy is employed so artfully in this film one can almost set one’s watch by the bad omens that begin the countdown to disaster.
The film begins with our narrator, Constantine Levin (Alfred Molina), being pursued through the snow by a pack of wolves whose fangs he narrowly manages to evade by leaping into a well, only to find a black bear lurking at the bottom, as he hangs only a hair’s breadth from disaster at the end of a vine. This, the narrator informs us, is the dark and terrifying world in which Anna Karenina finds herself.
Our first encounter with foreshadowing occurs at the railways station, where Anaa (Sophie Marceau) and Count Romsky (Sean Bean) first meet, a bad omen in itself. The train, which is used repeatedly in the film as a symbol of destiny, is about to pull out, when one of the workers falls between the cars and gets crushed under a wheel. As Anna announces that this is a bad omen, I am inclined to agree, alarm bells ringing in anticipation of the disaster I know is looming around the next bend in the tracks. Pursuing Anna on the train of destiny, the count catches up with her in St. Petersburg, where she has gone to meet her husband.
They attend the opera that night, the count observing Anna through opera glasses from a balcony box as she sits with her husband. It is at this point that the rakish count is spurred into action by a female confidant: “Poor Anna,” she confides, “She must be nearly suffocated by all that boredom. We must rescue her.”
When Anna bids him, during their next encounter, to speak no more of love, but only friendship, the count replies, “Friends we can never be. There is only one way we can be happy.” Kept awake that night by thoughts of her count, Anna pens a note to her soon-to-be lover, her loss of frigidity captured in the broken ice of a river swelling its banks in the spring thaw. Rose’s symbolism is rich, the river representing Anna’s passion, the broken ice symbolizing both her loss of innocence and frigidity.
Rose’s foreshadowing takes on more ominous overtones during the steeplechase. As Anna surveys the field with great anxiety, she follows the exploits of her count to the very last. Aware that his wife’s field glasses have homed in on a particularly irksome and offensive target, her husband becomes infuriated. Anna suddenly gives a startled cry as her beloved count falls from his mount. His horse failing him, our count shows no mercy in ending the life of a creature that has betrayed him and no longer serves his purpose. The fountain of blood pouring from the beast’s head illustrates how that which no longer serves the count’s purpose becomes the object of mere blood sport.
The number of ill omens increases as the film’s climax approaches, the film’s momentum accelerated by one continuous stream of foreshadowing. First, Anna carries the count’s child, but later suffers a miscarriage. Then, she develops a fever from which she nearly dies. Even time is out of synch in the disordered universe in which she finds herself. She elopes with her true lover following her miscarriage, fleeing her home and the husband who is old enough to be her father. Later, she is denied access to her son, who has been made the victim of a vicious lie, in which he is told his mother is dead. The lie is in fact his father’s curse, one that is precursory to her actual death.
Denied access to her son, Anna is driven to despair. The love she bears the count can do nothing to assuage her grief. At first, she attempts to drown her sorrow in opiates, turning to laudanum as the panacea of her wounded heart. This only multiplies her misfortunes by weakening her will and making her even more neurotic. She begins to suspect her lover of infidelity and accuses him of betrayal daily till he is driven to fulfill the prophecy. They pass their last night together with backs turned. Anna lies awake, watching a flickering candle till a gust of wind extinguishes it, the symbolism and foreshadowing to obvious to bear mentioning. Her face shows she understands this to be an omen and that she is powerless to forestall the end.
The narrator, Constantine, is more fortunate than Anna and his bother, Nicholi Levin. These dark souls were destined for tragedy and self-destruction from the start because they suffered from too many attachments. Constantine, like Tolstoy, the ventriloquist who brings him to life, has gained a measure of enlightenment from the misfortunes of this life. In the end, he overcomes the feeling that life is futile, discovering that his life has ‘a powerful feeling of good in it,’ that he has found meaning in his home and family and the life they have built together. If only Anna had been half so lucky.
| Art Flourishes in ‘Brother of Sleep’By Timothy Watson
“The Brother of Sleep,” directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, is an artistic masterpiece offering an alchemical formula for the transformation of the human spirit. This film is a whirlwind and the eye of the storm is Elias (Andre Eisermann), the son of a village minister, whose blustery life captures everyone in its vortex. Blessed from youth with musical genius, Elias is equally cursed by the jealousy it arouses in others. Drowning out the rest of his schoolmates with the purity of his voice, the virtuoso is left on his own, the solo inspiring such jealousy in his schoolmaster that he is told to stop. “Is something bothering you?” the schoolmaster demands. “Your music is bothering me,” Elias replies, mocking the schoolmaster’s organ playing.“You know nothing about my music!” the schoolmaster bellows, thrashing the boy within an inch of his life.
Broken spirited, Elias retreats to his one place of solace, a lake in the middle of the mountains. Reposing on a rock, hewn by the elements in the shape of a foot, Elias seeks the protection of what he deems to be the foot of God. What follows is a mystical experience, in which Elias is infused with the spirit of God, a metamorphosis so dramatic even his eyes change color. His ear now tuned to the sounds of nature, he faithfully sets about reproducing these sounds with his music. An entirely self-absorbed artist, Elias is oblivious to the feelings he inspires in others. Despite the depth of his affection for Elsbeth (Dana Vavrova), his devotion to music causes him to feel nothing but platonic love even for his soul mate. But Elsbeth is not the only one to suffer unrequited love at the hands of Elias. Her brother Peter (Ben Becker) is also painfully thwarted in his homoerotic attraction to his friend.
A devoted companion to the end, Peter helps Elias restore a pipe organ in the church loft. So much is his organ an instrument of salvation that even Elias’s old nemesis the schoolmaster is driven mad by his playing. When the day comes for Elias’s first recital in the church, Elsbeth is nowhere to be seen. She can restrain her passion no longer, being thwarted in love for so long. And departs for the cattle shed with Lucas, a match favored by her parents. Filly cognizant of events then unfolding, Elias sets off in pursuit of his love. When he discovers Elsbeth and Lucas making love, he curses God for blessing him with talent, declaring his defiance before God and swearing never to play again.
Aware of the effect his sister’s affair has had on Elias, Peter tries to kill his sister by setting fire to the house. The fire is soon out of control, and it is only after the entire village has burned to the ground that Peter’s wrath is finally quelled. Elsbeth, Lucas and their infant child then leave the village. Lucas is confined to the hospital after being stricken with tuberculosis and Elsbeth is forced into prostitution to provide for her child and sick husband.
When Elias gives his next recital, Elsbeth is on hand though unable to see him. Infused with the divine spirit, Elias is in another world. His feet gliding over the organ pedals, his hands moving deftly over the keys, his eyes transfixed in a state of divine madness, his body seized by a seizure of inspiration, he is transported. His music prizes open the sky and awakens the heavens. With the final note, heaven opens and a miracle unfolds.
As the ‘brother of sleep’, Elias is more at home in heaven than earth. When truly inspired, his filial relationship with the world of dreams is awakened and he and the heavens become one. An artist himself, Joseph Vilsmaier has done more than anyone in film history to capture the artist’s fraternal relationship with the world of sleep. Indeed the artist’s filial rapport with the world of dreams is not always harmonious. Sometimes, like Elias, the artist is inclined to curse the world of inspiration and dreams for the gift it confers upon him, because that gift is accompanied by a curse, the curse of being the outsider, the pariah, the one who does not belong. When at last Elias becomes the brother of eternal sleep, everything seems so calm we feel compelled to join him.
|‘Kundun’ Seen through Eastern Eyes By Timothy Watson Published by Korea Times The most striking thing about Kundun is that it is not some Asian dish served up to accommodate the Western
palate. On the contrary, the dish must be savored for its exoticness, smelled, tasted and sampled by the stranger
that he might discover its wonders for himself. Instead of taking pains to usher the Western viewer into the culture,
Scorsese deliberately avoids fusion, forcing the viewer to adapt to a whole new taste. It is the Tibetan culture that
is on display here, and it is the stranger that must adapt if he is to enter this world. The real culture shock comes
from the fact that this film is not what we have come to expect from Hollywood. While we expect tsampa to be
served to us on a bun, this film puts it back in the bowl and forces us to eat it with our hands. I felt like I was watching a foreign film. Despite the absence of subtitles and the nearly universal use of English, the
language still seemed foreign. In fact, it was only after seeing this film that I saw how much body language, gestures
and general deportment enter into our daily discourse. It is the distinct lack of gestures, airs, and mannerisms that is
the real language barrier here. Language unaccompanied by the flamboyant gestures Hollywood has conditioned us
to expect is a foreign language, and one that takes some getting used to. Scorsese must be credited here for the
artistic pains he has taken to preserve as much cultural authenticity as possible. For him to have been able to enter
this culture, capture its subtle nuances, and preserve its authenticity, not only proves he’s a masterful director and
artiste, but that he actually understands something of their language. What a refreshing change to the ‘Doesn’t
anyone around here speak English?’ mentality Hollywood has cultivated.So when, in 1937, four years after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, a holy man, disguised as a servant, comes
to a humble peasant home on the Chinese border, we enter the home with him as strangers. It is not that we feel
unwelcome, not at all. Hospitality could not be more forthcoming, despite their hunger. We are nevertheless
intruding. It is their home after all and we have not been invited. So it is with the Chinese invasion of 1950.
Opening the film with the audience being ushered into a Tibetan home is clearly deliberate. We are the invaders
intruding on their way of life. This is after all the major theme of the film: the fact the Tibetan home, the homeland
of its people has been invaded. Perhaps that’s why Scorsese has endeavored to draw so authentic a portrait of
Tibetan culture. Knowing the culture has already been raped of so much of its tradition by the violence of
imperialism, is it not time some effort was made to preserve the dignity of this great culture? Without a director
of Scorsese’s obvious ability, Hollywood might have been yet one more rapacious imperialist scourge
descending on Tibet.While the film opens with a Tibetan home being intruded upon by strangers, the Chinese invasion occurs more
slowly and by degrees. At first, the Dalai Lama is protected from the news, since he is not yet come of age. He
is told repeatedly that it is not for his ears and eyes. In fact, it is not until he is told the full extent of the Chinese
excesses that he realizes that his home is no longer his. The first thunderbolt to leave him thunderstruck is the
fact that the Chinese have forced the nuns and monks to fornicate in the street. But when he is informed by his
advisor that children have been forced to kill their parents with guns, he is reduced to an almost inconsolable
state of grief. What could be more horrible or more tragic than for children to lose their innocence by being
forced to commit the most heinous of crimes, that of matricide or patricide? The horror of such acts can hardly
be imagined and raises obvious questions about a regime that would carry out such atrocities. Surely an
individual or group that is truly confident does not have to resort to bullying tactics. The fact that militant
communists have had to undertake such harsh conversion campaigns over the course of their history suggests
that their faith in their ideology was ultimately no greater than those they put to the sword for failing to convert.
True faith, true belief does not have to proselytize, but persuades through the strength of its own quiet conviction.In contrast with the violence of the invasion, the peace and serenity exhibited by these monks, who devote
themselves to the reading of scripture, meditation and prayer, tells in their every gesture and turn of phrase.
Heaven and earth are in such harmony that the moon is captured on the surface of the water in full aspect, so
that, despite whatever ripples appear on the water to disturb the calm, heaven and earth retain their balance.
as the Dalai Lama replies when asked if he is the Buddha, “I think that I am a reflection of the moon in the water.
When you see me, and I am trying to be a good man, you see yourself.” Just try comparing lines like that with,
“Go ahead, make my day!” I only wish the script was punctuated with more of these mindful aphorisms. But
perhaps this is another merit of the film, that Scorsese does not overplay the hits. Perhaps nothing conveys the
beauty of a philosophy of non-attachment better than to let these words of wisdom come and go, like the Tibetan
mandalas that are so painstakingly created and then destroyed. I would like to close by thanking Frank Tedesco for inviting me to the film premiere of ‘Kundun’. Dr. Tedesco
has been campaigning hard to have His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, visit Korea to preside over a music festival,
which has been planned to promote peace and good will. There is not the least political overtone to the Dalai Lama’s
visit. It is merely a visit designed to promote peace and non-violence. Yet the Korean government is worried that the
Dalai Lama’s visit might damage relations with China and slow the reunification negotiations and four-way talks on
North Korea. The fact that some opposition National Assemblymen attended the premiere suggests that the Dalai Lama’s visit is
enough of an issue with voters that it has become an issue in the National Assembly. The fact that the government of a
Nobel Laureate should deny a visa to a fellow Nobel Laureate is so obviously hypocritical it hardly needs stating. But
then it does need stating and reiterating if the government fails to see the hypocrisy of its decision. The Chinese see
Tibet as a province of China that has returned to the motherland. I wonder what view China will hold of Korea the
next time they try to annex the peninsula. Will they not laud the return of the Korean province to the motherland as
they have Tibet? Is it not wiser to take a stand against such imperialist aggression in order to avoid becoming its next
|‘Failan’: Winner Film About Failed Romance Asada Jiro, the scenario writer of “Popoya”, has crafted another memorable tale, this time a love
story. I see his “Failan” as a parable on love. In the sexually repressed, taboo-ridden societies of Asia,
it is often difficult for two hearts to navigate their way through all the obstacles to true love. Lovers
must first win the approval of matchmakers, parents, and grandparents before putting each other to
the test with a long line of expectations, which include family background, income level, social status,
job status, etc. With all these obstacles in their path, lovers often pass each other in the crowd or
miss their chance to find true love due to distorted values and misplaced priorities. “Failan” is a parable on unconsummated love. The two lovers are drawn together by fate and divided
by fate at the same time. Failan (Jang Baek-ji), an ethnic Korean illegal immigrant from China, has
come to South Korea seeking a better life. An agency arranges her marriage to Lee Gang-jae (Choi
Min-sik), a Korean man she has never met so she can obtain landed immigrant status and remain in
the country. But the price of her freedom is paradoxically the loss of her freedom. While she has
managed to escape totalitarian rule, she is now in jeopardy of becoming a sex worker. The agency
has made a deal with a local room salon owner to have her work there as a prostitute. When a dispute occurs between a room salon girl and a customer, Failan is so horrified by the
spectacle that she resolves to take whatever desperate measures are necessary to avoid such a life.
Excusing herself, she makes her way to the ladies, where she devises a scheme. Making her mouth
bleed, she feigns illness and pretends to cough up blood. Thinking he has found the catch of his life,
the owner is outraged to discover that his new prize is sick with some contagion. Failan is then introduced to a kindly ‘ajuma’ who runs a drycleaners. She agrees to put Failan up as
long as she earns her keep. While she is grateful for the lodgings, her living quarters leave much to be
desired. She must sleep in the laundry room, where the tap water is filthy and the room dank and
squalid. The next day the ajuma returns to the drycleaners to see Failan washing the windows till
sparkle. Later, she finds her washing the linen in a washbasin with her feet. The middle-aged woman
is touched by the girl’s diligence. She can see how desperate she is to win her approval that she
might be permitted to stay on. The older woman develops a fondness for her and becomes quite
protective. When an immigration officer comes to the drycleaners to investigate Failan to find out if
she is really married, the ajuma rebukes him for harassing the girl and insists that he leave her alone.
Failan becomes curious about the husband she has never met. She takes his picture out and stares at
it. The innocent young girl begins to fall in love with the stranger who has given her hope and a new
life. She even frames the passport-sized photo and places it on her desk. The old woman teaches her
Korean and soon she is adept enough at the language to write a simple letter. She decides to write
Gang-jae to thank him for giving her a new life: “I saw the ocean for the first time,” she writes, “and
I have a husband whom I have never met and because if you I can work here. Thank you for
marrying me. People here are very kind, but you are the kindest of all. As I stared at you, I began to
like you. If I see you I want to ask you, Gang-jae, can I love you?” How can she love this man? Why Gang-jae, a man with loose pants and wrinkled shirt, who always
has a bandage on his face? How can she love a man without a life, who spends his free time at the
video arcade trying to catch dolls with a mechanical hand? How can she love a man, who is so
poorly educated and simple-minded that he can sell adult videos to minors without giving it a second
thought? Clearly she is blinded by love, so blinded that she continues to love him even after he is
carted away by the police. But this is not the love of two people swept away on a cloud of passion.
They haven’t even met. What makes this love so touching is that it is built on a dream, a fantasy
that has no more basis in truth than Cinderella or Snow White, but one they believe in nonetheless,
if for no other reason than it is gives them hope, something to believe in, an impetus to go on. Gang-jae, for his part, has even greater reason to fall in love with a perfect stranger. A third rate
gangster respected by no one, he has nothing else upon which to set his hopes. So when he receives
a letter expressing tender affection from an innocent young woman, he begins to entertain hopes and
expectations for the first time in his life. He reads and rereads her letters, finding in them solace and
hope. But Gang-jae’s dream of happiness is shattered, when he is implicated in a murder involving his
brutal boss. The same hand of fate that has drawn them together now holds them apart. While Failan
boards a bus for Inchon in the hope of meeting her husband, fate has other ideas. She even stands
staring at him through the glass of the video shop, so close and yet so far. She practices her Korean,
going over and over what she is going to say to him, but just as she is about to enter the shop, a
police car pulls up outside. The police enter the shop, arrest Gang-jae and cart him away. Failan is
left standing there, looking longingly after her one true chance of happiness as it slips away. The scenario is quite postmodern, the plot evenly split between flashbacks and flash-forwards. The
transitions from the past to the present are so smooth that the film has an atemporal quality, in which
the events of the past are so inextricably bound to those of the present that one cannot clearly
distinguish between them. The film is so masterfully directed that we see how strong the causal
relationship between past and present really is. The flashbacks and flash-forwards are effective and
essential to understanding the theme of the film, which is that it is impossible to avoid the hand of
fate. Past actions determine future consequences, so much so that our consciences trace all
consequences to their root causes in the past. The past and present are causally dependent on one
another and nowhere is this more masterfully captured than in this brilliantly directed film.
| ‘Love Letter’: Signed, Sealed, Well-delivered
By Timothy WatsonPublished by Korea Times
If memory serves me right, it’s not since “Remembrance of Things Past” have flashbacks been handled so skillfully. The transition from adulthood to childhood is made so smoothly, one wonders if we ever really grow up or if our whole life is one protracted childhood. With memories that remain so close to the surface that past and present are accessed with the ease of a revolving door, Shunji Iwai reminds us that it all really did just happen yesterday. This is why deploys wide-screen cinematography, hoping to lend an adult omniscience to a mature woman’s reflective mind. The fact that there are no landmarks by which to distinguish past from present in the form of fashions or set design is also deliberate, creating the impression that life is a unified field of consciousness, where sentiments and emotions bring memories into focus with the clarity of a close-up shot.
The story revolves around the memories of two women united in grief by their love for the same man. While looking through her deceased fiance’s personal effects, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama) comes across his high school yearbook. Overwhelmed by grief, she decides to write to him using her old school address. When she receives a reply from someone bearing the same name as her deceased husband, her initial reaction is that he has somehow come back from the dead. When she discovers that his namesake, Itsuki Fujii (also played by Miho Nakayama), was his lover, and also happens to bear a remarkable likeness to herself, she begins to feel an affinity with this kindred spirit. Continuing their correspondence, the two women establish a rapport, comforting each other with memories of their dead lover.
The fact that twins or look-alikes feature so strongly in classical romances ranging from Plautus to Shakespeare is not insignificant and no more incidental in the case of “Love Letter”. Just as twins are featured in Plautus’s “Manechmi Brothers” and Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors”, so the presence of look-alikes and namesakes in Iwai’s film is significant. What Iwai wishes to highlight is the fact that, once having found true love, we spend the rest of our lives searching for its likeness, each lover being in some way, a reflection of our first true love. Hiroko and the two Itsukis, both male and female, are kindred spirits united by the essence of love that has brought them together.
Iwai shows how all of life is part of a united whole, a mere sensation allowing the past to flood in through an open window. No experience or sensation of the physical world is incidental to life’s narrative, but each is part of a unified consciousness synthesizing past and present. When the young female Itsuki stops to survey a dragonfly frozen in ice, it is clear this is intended as a metaphor for memory itself, the past preserved as an event frozen in time, no longer a moving picture, but only a still photograph.
We then flash forward back to the present, where we see Itsuki bringing her bicycle to a halt at the top of a hill as she is seized suddenly by a coughing fit. Her severe cold has now developed into pneumonia and she faints upon entering the kitchen. Taking her temperature, her mother (Bunjaki Han) discovers that she’s running a fever of 41.8 degrees. The phone lines are down due to the blizzard and there’s no other way to reach the hospital except on foot. Itsuki’s grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) carries her piggyback, while her mother endeavors to shield them from the elements with her umbrella. At one point her grandfather falls face first in the snow, but shows unrelenting determination in getting her to the hospital. Itsuki has a dream while unconscious, in which she is running toward a mountain and calling out for her lover of the same name, who died in a climbing accident. When she comes to, she looks over to see her grandfather, exhausted from the journey, snoring away next to her.
The most touching scene of the film occurs when a group of girls from her old high school descend on her house to present her with a book. The book contains a library card on the back of which the male Itsuki had drawn her portrait as a young girl. The sentiment that wells up in the audience mirrors that of the character on screen. There could not possibly be a dry eye in the house. Those acquainted with love, we know that love is no mere acquaintance but a close intimate the memory of whom never fails to move us to tears.
The fact that one hundred bootleg copies of the film were sold in Korea before the film’s release in the theaters shows the popular appeal of this film among Koreans, who share the Japanese sentiment for childhood reminiscence. This is the first commercial Japanese film to open in the theaters in Korea. The fact that its release coincides with the commercial success of Kang-Jae-gyu’s film “Swiri” in Japan is both heartening and timely and a sign of improving relations between the two countries.
|‘Malena’ Sure to Turn Heads Set in the fictional town of Castelcuto in 1940, Guiseppe Tornatore’s latest film “Malene” is a
moving portrait of fascist Italy. In fact, the entire film can be read as an allegory on the fate of the
country from Mussolini, through the Nazi occupation, to the liberation and beyond. The breathtaking
Malena (Monica Belluci) symbolizes Italy herself, a beauty subject to the idolization of her
countrymen, but denigrated when she suffers defeat and falls victim to the ravages of war. Believing her husband dead, Malena becomes open game for men who wish merely to exploit her
for her looks, while women, envious of her beauty, scorn her and refuse to serve her at the market.
Unable to buy food, Malena is forced to sell her body to survive. In a scene reminiscent of the one
in which Fantine, the heroine of “Les Miserables”, cuts her hair to symbolize her fall, Malena
removes strand after strand of her beautiful brown locks, while her young admirer Renato Amoroso
(Guiseppe Sulfaro) surveys her every move through a peephole. Fascinated by her beauty, Renato follows Malena about her daily rounds. Perched on his bicycle or
standing in the hull of a ship undergoing repairs, he follows her movements through his telescope.
The subject of his every waking thought, the adolescent obsesses over her, imagining himself in
scene after scene from an array of film classics, locked in a romantic embrace or vanquishing an
enemy at her behest. In one scene, he imagines himself in a gladiatory duel with his adolescent
nemesis, putting him to the sword, while Malena looks on. Following her on her daily rounds, it does not take long for the sensitive adolescent to discover
that the real Malena is very different from the portrait he has drawn of her in his mind. Placing
her on a pedestal, the object of his veneration and worship, Renato soon discovers that Malena is
not as invulnerable and unassailable as he once thought. Seeing her striding through the market,
carrying herself proudly and with great dignity, he thinks Malena is above the gossip of the villagers,
but soon discovers she has been wounded in ways he could not have imagined. Watching her dance
with a photo of her husband through his peephole on the balcony, Renato sees how the statuesque
beauty, who seems invulnerable to the stares of the villagers, actually sheds tears when she’s alone.
He also sees that she is not the model of chastity he once thought, carrying a torch for her husband,
but that she has a lover. In one scene, Renato’s friends use a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays on an ant. In the
beginning, they laugh and jeer cruelly at the ant’s fate, but when they see it writhing in pain and curl
up under the heat, they suddenly grow quiet, seeming to regret their actions. They even cross
themselves and say a quick prayer for the dead. This scene captures the mood of the entire film,
which starts off lightheartedly and then descends into near tragedy. It also encapsulates the overall
storyline, where we find an innocent, who, through no fault of her own, suddenly finds herself
victimized by the cruelty of those around her. Like the ant, Malena is oblivious to the malice of
those around her and does not see what is coming. Inciting the wrath of the village women for consorting with German soldiers, they subject Malena
to a brutal beating in the main square in full view of the villagers. Helpless to come to her aid,
Renato looks on in horror as Malena is kicked and beaten, her clothes torn from her back, and her
beautiful hair removed like an innocent lamb being sheered. Humiliated and degraded, Malena cries
in anguish, her arms shaking uncontrollably as she attempts to cover herself up. Running through
the crowd to escape further harassment, she now has no recourse but to take flight. Renato follows
her to the railway station the next day, watching her wend her way through the crowd, her injuries
hidden beneath a scarf.Exploited by other nations, raped and abused by foreign powers, its economy in tatters, Italy has
lost its dignity. It has even been deserted by its former lovers. Its own citizens have even turned
against it. Reduced to the position of a beggar nation, Italy is forced to prostitute itself to survive,
accepting handouts from the Nazi’s in exchange for the country’s spoils. Malena’s fate is allegorical
of the nation’s fate as a whole. Both the country and the woman have been whored and the
citizenry have turned against them. Returning home after losing an arm in battle, Malena’s husband wanders into town, but findshimself estranged from the place that was once his home. Even his wife appears to have deserted
him. Everywhere he goes, he hears stories of her infidelity, how she consorted with German
soldiers, and whored herself in seeming contempt of his memory. Horrified by these accounts, the
husband, already in reduced circumstances, is at his wit’s end. Inquiring about his wife’s
whereabouts, he approaches some men in the street, who regard him as a cuckold for having
married a whore. Holding him in contempt, the men push him to the ground. Having witnessed all the injuries suffered by Malena and now her husband, Renato feels compelled
to help. Pulling Malena’s husband up a set of stairs, Renato manages to get him into a sitting
position, but the man is in too deep a state of shock to notice this act of kindness. Later, Renato
takes it upon himself to deposit a letter through the window of the hostel where the man is staying
\giving him a full account of what transpired in his absence. Recounting how the people of the
village exploited and abused his beautiful wife, Renato relates how she was left with no recourse
but to leave town. He explains how she had thought him dead and had not deserted him as he had
supposed. He assures him that Malena loved him and only him and how she had never forgotten
him, not even for a moment. If you have seen and fallen in love with “Cinema Paradiso,” which you could not help doing if you
have seen it, then you will also fall for “Malena”. Both the woman and the film are simply irresistible. Guiseppe Tornatore knows how to tell a story through film, something few Hollywood director’s are able to do. Instead of dialogue heavy scenes keeping us in step with the plot development, Tornatore’s cinematic poetry leaves the audience free to interpret events for themselves. The effect is a foreign language film that requires no subtitles, since the story is told in the unspoken language of film.
|‘Musa’, Not for the Faint of Heart
By Timothy Watson As the most costly Korean film to date, one wonders if “Musa” is really worth it. Its epic scale
is undeniably impressive, but efforts to lend authenticity to the story drag it out too long. While the
battle scenes excite and enthrall the captive audience, the dramatic dialogue and plot development
hold it hostage. After two hours of film viewing, the captive audience had had its fill. We were
ready to go, but director Kim Seong-su insisted on holding us hostage for an additional hour. The
film should have ended after a single protracted battle scene at the fortress, but the filmmakers
insisted on taking us through the entire saga. The end product is so overly long, I felt as if I were
truly reliving history. In one scene, a peasant actually gives birth to an infant while the fortress is
under siege. While the incident lends authenticity to the tale, it seems incongruous and unnecessary
in the face of the escalating battle.
The most impressive aspect of the film was unquestionably the cinematography. The camera
and lighting techniques during the early battle scenes were both novel and effective. The strobe
lighting effect had the effect of accelerating the action. While the action was filmed in slow motion
so that we could catch the acrobatics, the strobe lighting accelerated the action, lending a
supernatural speed to the stunts. The strobe effect creates the impression of missing frames. What
makes the effect so impressive is that it transforms slow motion sequences that capture every move
into fast-paced action that has the audience on the edge of its seats. Another impressive feature was
the use of lighting to create the effect of vivid luminosity. The costumes appeared to be glowing in
the early battle scenes. Lit up by the intense lighting, the warriors took on a ghostlike appearance. It
made the warriors appear like phantoms doing battle on a haunted battlefield.
The story is set 600 years ago in China. Korean soldiers, dispatched as diplomats to the Myung
dynasty, are regarded as spies and are not given the diplomatic immunity that is their due. Their
lives threatened, they have no recourse but to return to their beloved homeland. They are ambushed
during their flight by Won dynasty soldiers and only a handful survive. The leader of the diplomatic
corps, General Choijeong (Ju Jin-mo), decides to lead the small band on their homeward journey.
After a long march, they are ambushed by Won dynasty soldiers, who kidnap the Myung dynasty
princess, Buyong (Jang Choo-lee). Entranced by her beauty, Choijeong falls in love with her at first
sight, maintaining a vigil day and night outside her carriage.
Meanwhile, the valiant Yesol (Jong U-song) is carrying Lee Ji-heon’s body to a site for proper
burial. When a member of the Seakmokins defiles the corpse by spitting on it, Yesol is mortally
offended and seeks retribution. Beheading the offending party in a surprising and unceremonious
attack, we, the audience, are left dazed by the suddenness of this act of revenge. The leader of the
Won dynasty troops, General Lambuluha, now watches the heroic warrior carefully. Nor does the
brave warrior escape the notice of the princess, who is entranced by his valor and esteem.
Choijeong meanwhile finds the princess’s bloody note appealing for help. Finding himself unable
to desert the damsel in distress, he determines to place his men at her disposal. Nearly having a
mutiny on his hands, he eventually manages to win the support of his men. But guarding the princess
proves to be a costly endeavor. Despite their valiant resistance, they are outnumbered by the Won
dynasty forces, which relentlessly launch wave after wave of attack. Superior to the Won dynasty
soldiers both in terms of strategy and skill, they somehow manage to fend off the attacks, but their
numbers are steadily dwindling.
Another impressive feature of the film is the battle scenes. Ever since Kenneth Branaugh made
his impressive directorial debut with Henry V, directors have had to up the ante on the gore and
violence of battle. And this film is no exception. The arrows piercing armor, necks and limbs, are
so graphic and horrific, one feels oneself caught in the crossfire. The acrobatic feats of Yesol,
lopping off the heads of his opponents with a single bound are worthy of any comic book hero. But
the most captivating sequence of all is when the Won troops lay siege to the fortress by running up
the walls with their ladders. The acrobatics are truly out of this world. The ensuing battle for control
of the fortress is irresistibly enthralling. One cannot take one’s eyes from the screen during the fight
scenes. It is only at certain intervals of the story development that one’s attention begins to wander.
The bilingual Korean-Chinese screenplay helps in creating a sense of authenticity and historicity.
The Korean actors handle the Chinese language with considerable skill. I do not doubt that
considerable time must have been spent on elocution lessons. A tone-based language bearing little
similarity to spoken Korean, it must have been quite a challenge for the Koreans to hit the right
notes. English subtitles would have helped at this juncture. Korean is hard enough for the foreign
audience to follow without Chinese being added without the assistance of English captions. I really
wish more effort would be made to accommodate the foreign audience. This being the promotional
year Visit Korea 2001, it would be nice if the hermit kingdom would usher us into the culture they
so wish for us to discover by making their films more accessible to a foreign audience.
| ‘Peppermint Candy,’ Bittersweet Treat
By Timothy Watson
Unlike most films, with “Peppermint Candy,” I don’t have to worry about spoiling the end. The hero dies in the opening scene. The rest of the film is a retrospective, assuming the artistic form of a novel, with seven chapters tracing the events of the hero’s life. The film uses the metaphor of a train journey to retrace metaphor of a train journey to retrace the events of Kim Yong-ho’s life. This is fitting, as his life, like the train, is clearly on the wrong track, an accident just waiting to happen. The train journey through his past offers us a retrospective of how his life got sidetracked. In the end, we see that the accumulated events of his life could have no other outcome. He was bound to get off track at some stage, his life certain to derail.The flashbacks to go back some twenty years, beginning two days before, one month, and finally twenty years before with an innocent adolescent about to embark on his life’s journey. Like looking through a photo album backwards, we exdamine the most recent snaps first and go back in time. The youth that emerges from the clouds of the past is more innocent and pure than the man we have come to know. Like polished silver, his luster returns and we feel increasing pity for the innocent who has been led astray. The film is an effective parable in this sense, in that it helps the more jaded among us to forgive ourselves, while serving as something of a warning to the youth.
In the first chapter titled “Picnic,” Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) shows up out of the blue at a picnic. His old circle is having a picnic in the same place he and his first love had a picnic twenty years before. He gets drunk and runs into the water. Splashing through the brook, fully clothed, he rages against the world, shouting repeatedly, “I’m going back!” The next moment we see him making his way across a railway bridge. When a train whistle is heard, his friends become alarmed and shout for him to get down. A male friend rushes over to talk some sense into him, but it’s too late. The train emerges from the tunnel, the whistle announcing his imminent death. The camera pans to another angle, where we see Yong-ho looking on at the passing train. The train passes and his friends issue a collective sigh. Of relief at seeing him standing on the opposite bridge unharmed. The male friend continues to plead with him, but Yong-ho is deaf to reason. The tearful protests of his friend can do nothing to change his mind. Another train whistle is heard, followed by the rumble of the train on the tracks. Yong-ho turns to meet his doom, crying out at the cruelty of the world as the juggernaut speeds pitilessly toward him.
In chapter two, titled “Camera,” Yong-ho is 40 and unemployed, with a broken heart to accompany his broken dreams. He is trying to kill himself. Placing the gun in his mouth, he pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. It’s not loaded. When he returns to the apartment, a man comes to bring him to his first true love, Sun-im. Sun-im is in a coma and dying. Yong-ho holds a jar of peppermint candy recalling its sentimental value to them both. Yong-ho laments the fact that Sun-im’s camera has been sold for only 40,000 Won. He cannot understand how memories can be sold so cheaply.
In chapter three, titled, “Life is Beautiful,” we see Yong-ho’s marriage fall apart. Yong-ho suspects his wife, Hong-ja, is having an affair. He catches her in a hotel room with her driving instructor and gives her a sound beating. Yong-ho then has an affair with his secretary, Miss Lee. He even brings her back to his apartment to attend a housewarming party. Hong-ja says grace. The desperation and fervor with which she prays embarrasses Yong-ho, who has to leave the table. Hong-ja loses her composure and breaks down.
In chapter four, called “Confession,” Yong-ho longs for his youth and his first love, Sun-im. A veteran detective now, he can no longer tolerate the routine life. He has never loved his wife and has now lose even his zest for life. In a humble apartment, another lover in his arms, he suddenly burst out crying, calling for his first love, Sun-im.
In chapter five, titled “Prayer,” we witness his fall from grace as some senior detectives initiate him into the art of torture. Yong-ho then applies the new techniques on a prisoner, who in his terror defecates on Yong-ho’s hand. He has now lost his purity forever, prompting him to reject Sun-im, who he now recognizes is too good for him. He then decides to marry Hong-ja for no good reason, throwing himself headlong into a life of misery and despair.
Chapter six, titled “Army Visit,” is a study in despair. Despair is the ultimate destroyer, that which drives us all to self-mutilation and destruction. In one scene, Yong-ho is nursing his leg after suffering a leg wound. Young-ho, who is confused and scared, hears a noise and demands that the person identify himself. A girl emerges from the shadows. She is looking for her aunt’s house and has lost her way. Yong-ho advises her to leave before the other soldiers discover her. He then fires his rifle to frighten her off. When the first shot fails to frighten her away, he fires a second warning shot. This time he is not so careful with his aim. The girl is fatally wounded. It is this tragic accident that is his final fall from grace, and what precipitates every other misfortune in his life. It is his bitterness and grief over the girl’s untimely and accidental death that prompts his later cruelty and torture. The seeds of misfortune are sown in his earliest days and he can do nothing to erase the acts that have changed his life irremediably.
The director, Lee Chang-dong, has given us a moving portrait of life, presented in novel form, a retrospective of one mans tragic life. I’m sure while watching, many reflected on the first major misstep in their own lives, the crucial moment when they were first led astray. If asked whether I’d do it all over again, I’d say no in times of despair and yes in times of hope. I wonder if, in his tortured and difficult life, Yong-ho would have ever said yes. I won’t reveal what happens in chapter seven. I’ll let the reader be the viewer and find out for himself what happens in Yong-ho’s last precipitous fall from grace.
| ‘Poppoya’: Whistle-stop Tour of Modern Japan
By Timothy Watson
Perhaps what makes enlightenment so hard to achieve is that it requires liberation from our most basic human instinct, namely, attachment. How can we liberate ourselves from desire when the will to live is desire itself? Myself, I’m rather attached to the idea that “Poppoya” is a study in attachment. The reason happiness eludes the hero in this film, a Japanese train engineer played by Takagura Ken, is that he is loyal to tradition and finds himself unable to adapt to change. Even his infant daughter is initially a disappointment to him because he was hoping for a son, in keeping with Japanese tradition. Attached to his job and way of life, he wants a son to carry on the engineering tradition in the family. His strict adherence to hand signals and other forms of railway protocol are expression of his obsession with custom and tradition. His reluctance to remove his railway official’s cap at his wife’s funeral illustrates just how strong a hold uniform, custom and duty has over him.“Poppoya” celebrates life and attachment to life. It provokes in the audience the same desires as those experienced by the characters. The falling snow and smoking chimneys make us long for the cozy railway station and a warm fire. And when we watch the engineer and his companion through the front window of the train, we can feel their solitude and isolation from the world palpably, and like them, the long journey through lonesome, snow-covered hills makes us yearn for home and the completion of the journey. And when we overhear the engineer’s discussions through the front window of the railway station office, we envy his comfort and resent being shut out in the cold. The scenes shot through windows are artfully done and have the effect of framed snapshots. The railway station and home are given added comfort by being viewed from outside in the raw cold. The comforts of home appear all the more cozy because we are excluded. We are isolated, shut out and left shivering in the cold. Is not this isolation from another human being’s experience precisely what causes us to envy them? Were we ever on the contrary to be ushered inside and given a tour, our envy would soon turn to contempt.
Our hero is always standing at the railway station platform even when the most tragic events of his life overtake him and pass him by like a speeding train. When his infant daughter develops a high fever and is taken to the hospital, he is standing on the railway station platform. He learns of her death soon after, tragedy overtaking him like a speeding train. It now becomes clear that the train is a metaphor for all the events of life, the winding track the long and winding road. Appropriately, he finds his wife on board one of these trains, clutching the dead infant in her arms. She has come to him so he can mourn and say goodbye to the daughter he could not come to see because duty called. And when his wife falls ill and is sent to hospital, he is left standing at the station unable to free himself from attachment to duty. Only her death can tear him away from his job, but even then he feels duty bound to travel by train. Snow and snowfall are the most poetic elements in this film. Having named his daughter “Yokiko”, meaning “daughter of the snow”, the effect of this name upon the sensibility of the hero is obvious. His eyes search amid the falling snow for the ghost of his wife and daughter. The daughter of the snow haunts him whenever there is blizzard or snowfall. He yearns for her ghostly image each time the train dashes through the driving snow. He suffers from attachment to the past, to his memories, ghosts from the past carried on the snowflakes and buried in the blankets on snow on the ground. And when at the end of the film, a train plough clears the snow from the tracks, it is clear that man and his machines can do nothing to stem the relentless tide of nature. Change will come no matter how many attachments we have formed and the past will be covered with a blanket of snow.
The film is based on a novel by Asada Jiro. The film adaptation by Hurohata Yaso, a veteran of some 202 films, has been watched by over 4,000,000 people in Japan. Takagura Ken won an award for best actor at the 1999 Montreal Film Festival for his portrayal of the ‘poppoya’, or train engineer. Hurohata Yaso sums up the spirit of the film when he says, “Life is beautiful. I wanted to make a film that showed this.” This film is a celebration of life and all the attachments formed in life. Indeed, we would be hard pressed to find much joy in life without such strong yearnings and desires. These desires produce pain and suffering most assuredly, but bring every bit as much joy. That’s life.
Moved by passions as they are, artists may be more prone to attachment than other people. This film is a celebration of worldly attachment. I for one am glad for such enlightened treatments of life. Call me unenlightened if you wish, but I would prefer a thousand times a life full of folly lived to excess, with all its poetry and pain, than a life lived free of desire. I’m just guessing, but perhaps liberation from desire, if that’s what enlightenment truly is, can only be achieved by those too old and exhausted to experience heightened desire and the heightened pain and pleasure it elicits. As for the rest of us, living life to the full may be the best prescription.
|‘Pisces’: A Fish Out of Water
By Timothy Watson
As the title conveys, the film centers on the Piscean personality. The protagonist is a Piscean,
and like most Pisceans, Aeryon (Lee Mi-yun) is delicate, sensitive, and easily hurt. As with others
of her kind, she cannot live without love. Once Aeryon, the Piscean, starts something, she finds it
very difficult to stop. She is passionate and her passion is unrestrained. In keeping with the
characteristics of her sign, her interests are artistic. Rather than adapt herself to the real world, she
prefers to dream. Her video shop gives her the opportunity to escape the mundane world and
immerse herself in the world of fantasy and film. It is a fragile world she inhabits, and like the
goldfish in her fish tank, she lives in a glass house. When her world is disturbed, so is that of her pet
fish in its glass house. Like her goldfish, Aeryon suffers from alienation. She lives in a glass house
from which she cannot escape. Movies and her goldfish are her only companions. She is hemmed in
by the glass world of the video shop. And like the fish, she is unable to survive outside the artificial
world she has built for herself. She is cut off from society, the real world she is too fragile to
embrace. Whenever she leaves the video shop, she is like a fish out of water, unable to adapt, and
straining at the gills for her supply of oxygen.
When Dongsok (Choi Wooje) approaches Aeryon one day to inquire about her stock, he tells her
that he likes French movies, something unusual and familiar at the same time. This man with artistic
tastes and a preference for art films is exactly the kind of man she has been looking for. Without
even realizing it, she waits for him all day. There is no turning back now. He has entered her life and
she his. Taking a special interest in him as a customer, she even delivers the videos he requests door
to door. While he appreciates the gesture, he does not yet realize the repercussions of the interest he
has shown in her. A friendship forms between them and Aeryon’s feelings quickly deepen. After
only a few meetings, she falls deeply in love with him. Dongsok, a singer/songwriter, sings her a
song on her birthday. Mistaking his passion for his music as an expression of love, her eyes fill with
tears of longing. To him, she is just a friend, and when Aeryon finally gets up the nerve to ask him
out, he informs her that he already has a girlfriend.
Korean melodramas of the ’60’s were designed to have particular appeal for the female members
of the audience. Conceived as tearjerkers, they showed not just the woman’s life, but the social
environment that surrounded them. In the traditional Korean melodrama, the story centered around
a man and woman experiencing deep sentimental attachment, but this film centers on a woman’s
love, with particular emphasis on her sentiments. Aeryon, the Piscean, is the goldfish trapped within
its glass house. When first she falls in love with Dongsuk, she introduces a male companion into the
fish tank to offer her counterpart some company. But when her own relationship sours, she reaches
into the fish tank and squeezes the life out of the male fish. When her relationship with Dongsuk
further deteriorates, the camera pans to a broken fish tank and her goldfish straining at the gills for
oxygen. It is clear that the fragile world Aeryon has built for herself has now shattered and that she
\is now left alone, a fish out of water, straining for air.
Aeryon’s Piscean love is of a deeper kind. When she finally confronts Dongsok’s girlfriend Hee-
su (Yoon Ji-hea), it is not as a jealous but desperate lover. She even appeals to Hee-su to leave him:
“To you, it doesn’t have to be him, but I need him. Please leave him.” Aeryon’s passionate plea is
accompanied by an act of sheer irrationality and madness. She behaves as one possessed. When
Hee-su, in her desperation, tries to escape her mad assailant, she jostles a table and knocks over
some glasses. Focused only on her obsessional love and the woman standing in her way, Aeryon
walks over the shards of glass as oblivious to the pain as a yogic adept walking on a bed of hot
coals. Bending down to pick one of these shards of glass up in her hand, she squeezes it till blood
starts oozing from her palm. Returning to the apartment at this timely moment, Dongsok is just in
time to avert catastrophe, placing himself between Hee-su and her assailant before any further
damage can be done.
While relatively uneventful and slow in the beginning, the plot did develop. The Fatal Attraction-
like scenario reached an effective crescendo that left one feeling sympathy for each character. It is
not as if Dongsok is a helpless victim pursued by a pathologically obsessive lover. Aeryon is also a
victim of unrequited love and unkind rejection. She is spurned by Dongsok callously and without
remorse. On one occasion, he even strikes her, an action that would receive no sympathy in North
America regardless of provocation. Hollywood films depicting a woman being struck by a man are
now a rarity in our world. The current state of sexual politics would regard it as something of a slap
in the face. The fact that it is still possible to depict such scenes in Korea, which takes one back to
the Hollywood melodramas of the 40’s and 50’s suggests that the development of women’s rights in
Korea continues to lag behind.
| ‘Taste of Cherry’ Offers a Bowlful
By Timothy Watson
“The Taste of Cherry,” co-winner of the Golden palm Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a provocative film that stares death in the face with a defiant camera eye. Exploring what is normally a taboo subject, the film’s Iranian director, Annas Kiarostami, handles the theme of suicide with sensitivity and grace. While choosing the most morose of subjects for the theme of his film, his intention is to antithetically focus on the fascination and hope of life as opposed to its futility.The film follows the exploits of Badie, a man planning his own suicide, who wishes only to find someone willing to give him a proper burial. Most of the film is shot from his landrover as he converses with a variety of strangers he picks up along the way. There is an allegorical quality to these meetings, each passenger relating to him a parable about life that causes him to question his desire to end his life. His encounters with an embittered construction worker, a garbage picker, a Kurdish refugee serving in the Iranian army, and an Afghani theology student cause him to question not only his desire to commit suicide, but the despair that accompanies it. Each of them in turn recount tales of hardship that cause him to reflect on the depth of his own despair.
When he finally succeeds in meeting someone willing to help, the old man, a taxidermist by trade, provides the protagonist with the most profound sermon of all. The fact he is a taxidermist is intended to be symbolic since his services are being called upon once again to tend to the dead. Revealing that he also has tried to end his life when his marriage of forty years went bad, the taxidermist recounts how the sight of a beautiful sunrise amid children’s laughter, accompanied by the sweet smell of cherries convinced him that was a bowl of cherries after all. “You usually have to help people to live,” the taxidermist maintains. “But you want someone to help you die.”
Having gained the old man’s assent, the two men establish the terms of the burial contract. The old man is to come the following morning to the sand quarry that is to be the site of the proposed suicide. There, he will find Babie’s corpse in a hole. Advising the old man that he plans to end his life with sleeping pills, he instructs him to bury him immediately should he fail to show any signs of life. They make the arrangement and then Babie returns later to make an additional request. He asks the old man to cast stones at him and if he fails to show any signs of life to shake him. When the old man hears this additional request, he is on the verge of dismissing the whole hair-brained scheme. Despite the protagonist’s morbid obsession with suicide, he seems unable to carry through with such a scheme. The fact that he sits down to enjoy the sunset before setting out to his final destination suggests that there are some things in life that he will miss.
He then drives to the site of the proposed suicide, where we are left to guess whether Babie has actually administered the sleeping pills before lying down is his crypt. Climbing into the hole beneath a blackening sky, the sound of rolling thunder in the distance, Babie closes his eyes just before the downpour begins. Divine intervention being what it is, it seems that heaven has decided to intervene by bringing him around with a cloudburst.
The film ends with shots of Kiarostami and the film crew in action. Our protagonist, whom we assume to be dead, suddenly reappears, having emerged from his hole and walks directly into the path of Kiarostami’s camera crew. While Kiarostami claims that his intention was to distract the audience to prevent excessive emotional investment, the effect of this device is to raise a profound philosophical question: Are we really in control of our destinies? The filmmaker seems to be suggesting that the incidental occurrences of life cannot be passed off as coincidence, since everything is predetermined and happens for a reason. The fact that the protagonist appears to wander onto the film set by chance is no coincidence since the stage is already set, the omniscient director, like his Divine counterpart, knowing the course of future events in advance.
Kiarostami is experimenting with a new genre combining documentary-style realism with fiction. Another unique feature of Kiarostami’s filmmaking is that he uses actors with no professional experience. He never uses a full script, as he doesn’t want anyone to look unnatural before the camera. He fills out the story as the filming proceeds and in many cases, composes the dialogue right before shooting. Realism is portrayed through a number of naturalistic techniques. In one scene, the protagonist holds a barely audible conversation of some length from the other side of a pane of glass, a device not particularly camera-friendly, but effective in conveying realism.
|‘Tears’ of Violence, Eros and Neglect “Tears” is an art film following the formula of applied science. Director Rim Sang-soo is applying
general principles to solve a definite problem, in this case a social problem. He has no idea what the
conclusions of the investigation will be. He is merely experimenting with general principles. The
general principles consist of observing how human subjects react to certain environmental conditions
like a broken home or a violent upbringing. Certain behavioral effects are bound to result from
certain causes. Once the experiment is set in motion and the cameras start rolling, the filmmaker
simply captures the most natural storyline to result from such causes. With no predetermined result
in mind, it is only logical that he would define the film’s genre after filming. Director Rim concludes
by defining “Tears” as a comic-action-erotic film. To make this film, Director Rim met a lot of street kids. He saw how, despite being unhappy,
they led lives that were dynamic and adventure-filled. He wanted to capture the vividly dynamic
quality of their lives in this film and largely succeeds. Right from the start, one is drawn in by the
strikingly realistic situations and performances. There are no stars in this film, only new faces, and
they play their parts with a conviction and energy that suggests they’ve been there. The film has a
docudrama feel about it. Cinematographic techniques are quite understated in most of the dramatic
scenes, lending a feeling of authenticity to the film throughout. In fact, the only time camerawork is employed to great effect is in the sequence by the sea.
Hardly a picturesque setting, instead of a beach, they find a blackened seashore littered with waste.
The camera tracks their playful antics, running roughshod over the beach, the jiggling lens creating
the effect of a person in motion running across the beach, lending greater dynamism to the scene.
Sophisticated camera techniques are also used in the love scene between Han (Han-joon) and Saeri
(Bak Geun-young) at the end of the pier. After Saeri tosses a doll into the water — symbolic of her
lost innocence — the camera follows their every move from the water’s surface, as if it were the doll
observing them. The doll represents the consciousness of childhood, now discarded, passively
observing the consciousness of adolescence, now fully formed. The doll rises and falls in the waves,
periodically sinking beneath the surface, symbolizing the loss of childhood consciousness, a state of
mind that is soon to be subsumed as it sinks beneath the waves. Han is a naive youth, who has left a broken home because he cannot bear to see his parents
separated. As the most sympathetic character in the film, the audience tends to visualize the action
through his eyes, as in the rape scene at the beginning of the film. Some might find the word ‘rape’
too strong here, but that’s how I see the forcible removal of someone’s clothes, even in the absence
of sexual violation. Han’s friend Chang (Bong Tae-gyu) forces the girls to remove their clothes,
striking them if they refuse. He has decided to initiate group sex, but Han and Saeri are unwilling
participants and flee the room before things can get underway. After helping Saeri escape through
the washroom window, Han is rebuked for refusing to participate but refuses to be intimidated. Han, meanwhile, is working at a room salon as a sex broker. Here, he meets Saeri. Saeri never
sleeps with any of the customers despite the job description. She doesn’t trust men. Han is the first
to whom she has opened her heart and he honors her affection with sincere devotion. They share a
bed, but never go beyond the petting stage. Wishing to relieve Han’s sexual frustration, Saeri gets
him off with her hand, but soon finds she can no longer restrain her own desires. The most graphically realistic scene in the film occurs when the whereabouts of Chang’s
girlfriend Ran, (Jo Eun-ji), is discovered by her parents. Grabbing her by the hair, her father subjects
her to a sound beating with a broom. It is clear from his actions that he is not the least concerned for
her, but is concerned only with the public humiliation she has caused him and wishes to punish her
accordingly. His revenge is swift, but not swift enough, as Chang suddenly shows up to put a stop to
it. Grabbing Ran’s father by the scruff of the neck, Chang exposes him for the bully and hypocrite
he is, forcing him to back down. At that moment, the police show up and Chang, Han and Saeri are forced to flee out the back. The
police pursue them and they find themselves cornered. Han and Chang both resist arrest, but Han is
restrained. Saeri, now hysterical, remains by her lover’s side, hurling abuse at the police as they kick
him, cuff him and throw him into the back of the police car. Chang, meanwhile, manages to evade
arrest by fighting off one officer, who retaliates by using pepper spray on him. Half blinded by the
spray, Chang escapes on foot, knocking over a lamp, stumbling, then picking himself up,
determinedly managing to evade capture till he runs headlong into a pillar. The gash to his forehead
and the trauma to his mouth erupting in a river of blood, he has now been rendered senseless and is
no match for the police. If the film makes one cry or at least understand why it is so aptly named “Tears”, one truly
understands the turmoil going on inside these troubled kids. If one finds the film distasteful, the
feeling of distaste comes from within and one is either too ignorant or hypocritical to acknowledge it.
The film is aptly named because the theme is not about the tears of youth, but the tears of lost
innocence stolen from them by an adult world that has abducted their tears and robbed them of their
capacity to cry. I like this film, and even though I didn’t cry, the film made me see that my tears and
capacity to cry have been stolen by the same world.
| Caped Crusader and Masked Marauder
By Timothy Watson
Tales abound of the hero in disguise. Ulysses returned from his sea voyage disguised as an old beggar. Don Quixote masqueraded as a knight. Robin Hood wore the mask of an outlaw. Clark Kent wore the cloak of Superman. Zoro was another masked marauder as was the Scarlette Pimpernail and the Three Muskateers. Batman was another caped crusader as was Spiderman. Such tales exist in every land. Such tales even exist in Korea. The Song of Chunghyang is probably the most famous. This story also has a masked hero. Like the heroes of other tales, he comes to rescue a damsel in distress.Chunghyang was a lonely young woman. She was beautiful, but her mother was a gisaeng. Chungyang was from the peasant caste. She wanted love, but she was destined to serve men. One day, she was swinging on her swing. It was her favorite pastime. A young nobleman spotted her. He was struck by her beauty. She seemed not like a woman at all but like an angel. He fell in love with her at first sight.
They fell in love and a courtship began. Everyday he would bring her flowers. He composed poems for her. He sang songs about her and even painted her. She was the object of his every waking thought. She was always on his mind. One day, he had to go away. He had to pass the exam to become a magistrate. Chunghyang was sorry, but he promised to return.
Chunghyang: Where are you going my love? You are dressed for travel.
Hero: Indeed I am. I have a journey of many days ahead of me.
Chunghyang: Where are you going?
Hero: I must keep my promise to my father. I must go to Seoul.
Chunghyang: But why?
Hero: I have promised to write the exams to become a magistrate.
Chunghyang: Then you must go. It is your duty as a son.
Hero: Do not despair my love. I promise to return.
Chunghyang: You must. My heart will whither up like a flower if you fail me.
Hero: I promise to make you my bride. Wait for me.
Chunghyang: I will wait, but do not delay. Return as soon as you are able.
The young man rode off on his horse. Chunghyang was left to pine. She wondered in the woods day by day. Her only companions were the animals and trees. In her loneliness, she would sometimes hug the trees. The animals pitied her and sang songs to comfort her.
A corrupt magistrate ruled the town. He was not a civil servant. he never served the people. He only served himself. He was selfish and conceited. He indulged himself on fine food and wine. He cared nothing for the starving peasants. He also had an appetite for women. He wanted the most beautiful to serve him. He stole their freedom and their happiness. He insisted they serve only him. One day, he commanded his servants to find him the most beautiful. He told them to fetch her and bring her to him. The servants wandered through the village. At first sight, they were left in no doubt. The beauty of Chunghyang eclipsed the sun. Day became night in the face of her radiant beauty. They took her to their master without delay.
The magistrate insisted that she marry him. Chunghyang refused. The magistrate demanded to know why. Chunghyang replied that she had given her heart to another. The magistrate had her imprisoned. He gave her only bread and water. He had her tortured in the stocks. But she would not relent. Nothing could bend her will.
One day, an old beggar wandered into town. He came to the magistrate’s house. The magistrate was holding a party. The beggar asked if he could join. He helped himself to the food and wine. He indulged himself and ate his fill. The magistrate became offended. The beggar took off his disguise. The magistrate was horrified. The hero had returned for his bride. He presented his papers to the former magistrate. He told him that he would soon be replaced. Chaunghyang became the wife of the new magistrate. It is now known that they lived happily ever after.
|‘Chocolat,’ A treat for Lent Set in the fictional French village of Lansquenet, a name reminiscent of the region of Languedoc,
the site of the Albigensian Crusades, “Chocolat” has an ominous enough setting. The fact that the
village is run by an overbearing mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who prides himself
on having an ancestor who once chased the radical Huguenots out of town, renders the place so
inhospitable as to be virtually uninhabitable. This is the next place the enchanted North Wind has chosen for sorceress Vianne Rocher
(Juliette Binoche) and her child Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) to blow into. We soon learn that their
travel itinerary does not leave them much time for rest. The North Wind has them on such a hectic
schedule, they can only sojourn in each place for a short time before moving on, a curse passed
down to Vianne by her father. It is only later that we hear the full extent of the tale from Vianne, who imparts the story to
Anouk. Aware of Anouk’s discontentment with travel, Vianne relates the family history to her in
hopes of arousing more understanding in her daughter. Something of a cautionary tale told too late,
Vianne reveals how her father had met a Mayan enchantress in his travels, who taught him the
mysteries of chocolate. Seduced both by the magic and her exotic beauty, her father could neither
resist her charms, nor the temptation to make her his bride. An enchantress guided by the north
wind to reveal the mysteries of chocolate to strangers in exotic locales, she was a poor choice for a
bride and Vianne’s father soon found his bed deserted. The offspring of their union, Vianne has
inherited the Mayan curse from her mother, as has Anouk through her. And so their destiny is as
unavoidable and interminable as the north wind that keeps driving them onward in their journey
from place to place. A voice over at the beginning of the film informs us, “Once upon a time, there was a quiet little
village in the French countryside, where people believed in tranquility. You knew your place in the
scheme of things and, if you happened to forget, someone would remind you.” The first confirmation
that her new house is not a home occurs when mayor Comte de Reynaud pays Vianne a visit,
apparently under the auspices of welcome, only to show disapproval at her habits. His first objection
is that she does not attend church; his second, that she is unwed and has a child; but the third, and
the one that most offends his petty sensibilities, is the fact that she should open her chocolatier at the
beginning of Lent. Christianity as personified by the mayor and paganism as epitomized by Vianne are now at a
standoff. While the mayor edits all Pere Henri’s sermons to convey an explicit denunciation of
Vianne and her chocolatier, his sermons are no match for Vianne’s chocolate concoctions, which are
too tempting for most of the congregation to resist. In fact, most find themselves in Pere Henri’s
confessional soon after giving in to the alluring aroma and flavor. Vianne invites each new visitor to the shop to spin a wheel composed of unusual motifs and
designs and to tell her what they see. The picture they envision determines the chocolate recipe that’s
right for them. Having found a chocolate remedy for nearly every ailment, the shop becomes
something of a clinic to those who’ve experienced the therapeutic power of the chocolate for
themselves. First, her chocolates awaken the long dormant spark of sexual desire in a middle-aged
man for his wife, who returns to the shop for more. Another recipe sparks a romance between an
elderly dog lover Guillaume (John Wood) and war widow Madame Audel (Leslie Caron). While the
neurotic Josephine (Lena Olin), a battered wife finds the resolve to stand up for herself through her
chocolate elixir. A bad-tempered old curmudgeon, Armande Voizin (Judi Dench), finds in the
chocolate a panacea for her heartache and is even reunited with her estranged grandson through the
chocolate’s magic spell. While the story has potential, the performances are never inspired. Working from Joanne Harris’s
novel, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs creates a fairy tale whose storyline lacks any dramatic
irony and is just too predictable. We always know and are even told what’s going to happen before it
happens. While I understand that the characters are intended to be more allegorical than real, they
never really come alive for me. Alfred Malina is a convincing caricature of a moral pedant, but fails
to capture the right pitch of indignation when scolding Serge Muscat (Peter Stormare) for burning the
Irish gypsy’s houseboat. Johnny Depp is disappointing in the role of Irish river rat Roux. He never
seems to take the role seriously enough to lend any passion or vitality to his character. The burning
of the houseboat, which should be the most dramatic, fails to elicit any emotion due to lackluster
performances by both Depp and Binoche. Judi Dench, on the other hand, is convincing and loveable as the cantankerous grandmere. And
director Lasse Hallstrom’s real-life wife, Lena Olin, previously nominated for an Oscar in 1989,
deserves a second nomination for her moving portrayal of a battered wife, who finally finds the
resolve to leave her husband. The way her character evolves from broken woman to willful heroine
is a testament to her versatility and talent as an actress. While I like the story, I found it too static for a dramatic film. Most of the action is confined to
the chocolatier. It had the feel of a stage play for the most part. When it tries to be dramatic, it is
never dramatic enough, when comic, never comic enough to make us laugh. It is always mildly
amusing or mildly moving, never offering anything more than that. It is a lovely story though and
sure to delight both parent and child and so is good family fun.
|‘Scent of Love’ Leaves a Bad Odor By Timothy Watson Named after a scented wood aged to produce a fine fragrance, Chim Hyang or ‘Scent of Love’
should have produced a fine perfume, but left a bad smell behind instead. Far from producing an
alluring fragrance, it appears to have given off an odor so potent it kept most theatergoers away. I
cannot help but define the smell as fishy. What other word could describe the fact that the film
company should produce no literature on the film and no website to supply information. The fact
that an all-star Korean cast and a competent director should receive such neglect is nothing short of
amazing. The film was badly flawed it’s true, but with no effort to promote the film, how can the
film company possibly hope to get a return? Why show the film at all if it is regarded as too great a
box office and artistic lame duck to warrant promotion? Considering there were only four of us in
attendance, they might have saved themselves the embarrassment. What is even more mysterious is
the fact that the film should be scheduled for a day’s run at the most popular venue in town, the
Seoul Theater. The embarrassingly small sign display, far from promoting the film, seemed intent
upon assuring it was ignored. Having followed all the leads and interviewed all the witnesses, I believe I have solved the mystery.
The government policy to protect the domestic film industry has made it mandatory that Korean
films be shown at local theaters for a certain number of days each year. Such a policy makes it
mandatory for theaters to show some quite mediocre films. The fact that these theaters are doubtless
being subsidized for the loss they incur from certain box office duds makes the policy, however
unpopular at least, tolerable. The case against government intervention is strong, and only made
stronger by the case cited. The best way to ensure mediocre standards prevail is to be overprotective
toward a young fondling, while the alternative is to let an infant, like the Korean film industry, grow
up healthy and strong by allowing it to fend for itself.Lee Sae-chang’s portrayal of the novelist, who retraces his steps down memory lane after receiving
his old lover’s will in the mail, is convincing enough to pity him for his wasted energy. The problem
with the film is not the acting, but the screenplay and direction. The screenplay is beautifully lyrical,
but often incoherent and confused. While the novelist’s stream of consciousness is handled well, the
transition from one memory to another is often awkward and uneven. Scenes that require more plot
development are simply passed over, while other more superfluous material is overdeveloped. Lee Chong-hyun’s performance, though moving at times, was flawed as the novelist’s young lover.
Her character’s pretense of the vivacious schoolgirl comes across as forced and exaggerated, while
the hysterics she exhibits in the tragic recognition scene, when he discovers her at the brothel, are
excessive in the other extreme. She seems to lack the maturity or experience to control her emotional
thermostat, blowing hot and cold rather too irregularly. She is a passionate actress, who will cultivate
the art of subtlety through age and observation. This is a lyrical story with moments of great poetic beauty, but the timing and pace are off. The film
is badly directed on the whole. There is no sense of order or coherence and transitions are poorly
executed, with a halting or clumsy sense of pacing. What redeems the story and lends pathos to the
flawed plot development is the haunting beauty of the lakes and mountains around Mt. Jiri. The
setting alone is enough to justify a viewing. The mystical beauty of the Korean landscape, particularly
the mountains, is enough to summon up the distinctly Korean version of pathos known as han. And
while deep emotions are produced, their effect is lost in a catalogue of miscues. The most impressive performance is that of Kim Ho-jong (Happy End) as Jin-kyong. Her portrayal
of the tragic innkeeper, whose abusive husband drives her to seek affection from her male hotel
guests, is at times extremely moving. Flawed direction is once again responsible for spoiling what
could have been award-winning acting. It seems trite somehow when she asks him to tell her story.
Her story is too underdeveloped to be believable. The transition from nun to whore is too quick.
The fallen woman falls rather too suddenly. Indeed, if nuns were to fall on their fannies with that
hastily in real life, there wouldn’t be much hope of redemption for the rest of us.When she drapes her drunken body over her newfound lover in the hotel room, her action seems
tailored to Elizabeth Taylor. Still, she more than redeems herself in the love scene following her
husband’s accidental death. The husband’s animalistic behavior and canine appetites seem overdone
and artificial, particularly the scene where he eats raw eggs before heading out on the road is
overdone and artificial.What I would say about this film is that it’s one of the best unsuccessful films I’ve ever scene. There
are moments of true poetic beauty that deserve to be remembered, though I fear the film itself will
soon be forgotten. What I felt about the film and my wife agreed, which confirms my insights must
be true, is that the screenplay and direction show the promise of a novice. The timing and pacing of
the film suggest inexperience, while the acting suggests a flawed view of social behavior. The scene
with the soldiers drinking and singing in the karaoke bar at the beginning of the film is completely
fake. The acting is exaggerated and the drunken behavior clearly feigned. A deeply flawed and
strange film it may be, but I still recommend it. It is possible to learn a great deal from flaws and
blemishes. Perfection isn’t all its cracked up to be.
|‘Scissors,’ A Good Final Cut By Timothy Watson The best way to describe ‘Scissors’ is as an artfully executed remake of “I Know What You Did
Last Summer”. The comparison is not really fair though as it implies that this superior horror film
owes something to its predecessor. Another telling difference is that ‘Scissors’ is scary, while its
Hollywood counterpart is not. Ghost stories told around the campfire are an essential part of any
summer and this story is well told. The eerie music, with its sudden rushes of percussion, bass and
shrill treble sounds are spine tingling. The sudden appearances of ghosts, perfectly timed with
suspense-generating music and sounds are utterly bone chilling. Besides “Seven”, I can think of no
horror film that has succeeded so well in unnerving me. As with “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” the plot centers on an accidental death, involving
the death of a fellow frat student. The students are all members of a university fraternity called “A
Few Good Man,” the grammatical error of the singular form “man” apparently missed during film
editing. The thrills and chills begin in the morgue, where we see a man stitching the eyelids of the
deceased shut. No sooner is the work done than the eyelids spring open, straining on the stitches
until they break. Of course no horror film would be complete without pathetic fallacy relentlessly
haunting us in thunder, lightening and in rain, but this film includes other unnatural phenomena.
While traditional Hollywood fair offers ghosts who pass through walls, doors and even moving
subways, this multimedia ghost penetrates paintings, photographs, videotapes, and even recorded
messages. If people returning from the dead was not frightening enough, this zombie appears to be
able to materialize anywhere, swimming pools, photos, faxes, recorded messages, etc. With that kind
of necromancy, it’s clear that nothing can exorcise the spirit, not even a stake through the heart. In
one scene, a Korean shaman or mudang, proves powerless in this endeavor. Far from succeeding in
exorcizing the ghost, it is she who is dispatched to the devil when an invisible hand seizes her by the
throat and proceeds to snuff the life out of her. In one of the most horrifying scenes, Sae-hun (Jang Jun), an aspiring filmmaker and camcorder
junky, is replaying the tape of his frat friends clowning around, when the ghost of Eun-ju suddenly
appears in the background. In a sudden rush, her spirit appears in the foreground. She then reaches
out into space, clawing at the unsuspecting victim’s eye. She then materializes in the car, still clawing
at Sae-hun’s eye, till he perceives with horror that he has lost an eye. Running in terror from the car,
he attempts to call his friends, but is cornered once again by the spirit of the dead girl bent on
revenge. Trapped in the phone booth and driven mad with fear, he throws his head against the glass,
his face and neck lacerated with cuts. With telekinesis added to her other powers, Eun-ju uses her
mental powers to dislodge the remaining plate glass from the window, bringing it down on the
victim’s neck like a guillotine. Hae-jin (Kim Kyu-ri), an innocent bystander, is slowly initiated into the truth by the spirit of her
dead friend. While Eun-ju’s spirit, ranging for revenge, relentlessly tracks down her victims one by
one, Hae-jin feels compelled to investigate the case. Haunted by the dead girl, who wishes to make
her friends’ deed known to her, Hae-jin is led from one clue to the next till she eventually solves the
mystery of Eun-ju’s death. Haunted by the spirit of a young girl at the school, she is led to the
billboard where she confronts a picture of her dead friend. Later, she is subjected to another
haunting when studying alone in the library at night. Stabbed in the hand with a pair of scissors, she
flees in terror down a corridor to an elevator. Cornered, she turns to find the spirit of the young girl
transformed into an adult and immediately recognizes her dead friend. By allowing Hae-jin to escape,
it is clear the spirit wishes only to get her attention and alert her to the fact that something is wrong. Director Ahn Byong-ki has taken a good screenplay and crafted a well-paced horror film with
both mystery and suspense thriller elements. Never once lagging, the plot presents us with mysteries,
introduced through flashbacks, which are only solved in the final frames. Tension mounts when
Sonae’s prophecy, uttered to years after the incident, that they would all die, starts unfolding with
murder by numbers precision. A postmodern and postmortem murder mystery, it’s a good yarn
rivaling any of the summer tales told around the campfire. If you want to see a film that’s guaranteed
to have your partner clinging on to you on fright night, this one is certain not to disappoint.
| ‘Tango’ Turns Life, Art Inside Out
By Timothy Watson
In Carlos Saura’s “Tango,” fantasy and reality fade into one another as fluidly as one image superimposed on another. There is no clear distinction and this is the point. We are not meant to draw a line between art and nature. If anything, this film bids us to erase the arbitrary line that separates them. The film presents us with the idea that art is not so much an imitation of nature, but that both are somehow extensions of each other.Theater, dance choreography, musical numbers, and film-making are all integrated into a breathtaking multi-media extravaganza. This is post-modern art at its best. This film is a play within a play, dance within a dance, and film within a film all rolled into one reel. It’s not so much that there is no storyline as many critics allege, but that the storyline is too complex for most people to follow. On one level, it is a film about making a film, but it is also a film about the making of a stage production. We are never quite sure where the hazy line between art ends and life begins. Indeed, the performers tramp on and off the stage with an ease that blurs the boundaries altogether. This is especially true of the filming of some of the dance numbers, where mirrors, projected images, silhouettes, and brilliantly illuminated backdrops stun the senses. In the end, it is uncertain whether we are looking at the dancers or their reflections.
I would use the analogy of an actor’s life to explain what is happening here. As with acting, all artistic creation blurs the boundaries between art and experience. Just as an actor sometimes becomes so consumed by his role that he begins to act the part in real life, so the tango dancers get their legs tangled whenever they step into real life, as the passion of the dance inevitable impinges on their daily lives. But the situation can be reversed. Since the passion of lived experience is a reservoir from which the artist is able to draw inspiration, performing artists often draw on past experience for their respective roles.
“Tango” opens with Mario Saurez (Miguel Angel Sola) pining over the loss of his estranged wife, as he recounts his blissful days in her company. When he is later spurned by his ex-wife, Laura Fuentes (Cecilia Narova), he soon regains his dignity and embarks on a new project. Angelo Larroca, a mobster with a fifty percent stake in the show, then asks Mario for a favor. He wants him to allow his new girl to audition for a part in his film. Given that the request is coming from his producer, Mario is loath to refuse. In the end, it turns out that Angelo has done Mario a favor rather than the reverse. The breathtaking 23-year-old is just the girl he has been looking for. Not only is she perfect for the part, but she can also play a role in his life.
Warned on their first date that Angelo has threatened to kill her if she leaves him, Mario is undaunted. She knows she is the girl for him. But when she sings for him at the next rehearsal, it is she who seduces him. Following a steamy love scene, we then see them in bed on stage. Again, we are unsure whether this is part of the film or the film within the film. But when their love dalliance is suddenly interrupted by jackboot soldiers marching onto the stage, we are inclined to view the whole thing as a ruse.
The sudden appearance of the soldiers is as horrifying as real life. It is all staged, but is no less real for being so. The music of Lafo Schifrin does much to create an atmosphere of foreboding, while the cinematography of three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro of “Apocalypse Now” fame is no less stirring. The somber use of darker hues is in such stark contrast to the softness of the colors in the love scene that it hits us with a jolt. At the same time, the fact that Lalo Shifrin introduces the soldiers with an aggressive tango march is so at odds with the lovers’ whispers that we are jolted into a virtual nightmare.
On one level, the film is an exposition of Carlos Saura’s own life as seen through the life of fictional director, Mario Saurez. On another level, it presents a collage of the history of Argnetina’s passionate and bloody history. Carlos Saura’s film about Mario Saurez’s film certainly takes us through enough of Argentina’s darker chapters in history, from immigrants entering Buenos Aires at the turn of the century to Argentina’s more repressive recent history.
When soldiers start throwing these mannequins into a pit on stage, it somehow seems as horrifying as real life. The music and cinematography only double the effect. Anarchy soon erupts on stage with scenes of civilian men attacking, torturing, and even raping women in a scene more horrifying than a dramatic film can ever portray.
The brilliance of this film is that art somehow seems to transcend actual experience, seeming somehow more real than the real thing. We are constantly left questioning the status of reality and fiction. Even the scene in which a twilight sky appears as a backdrop created through lighting gels behind a translucent backdrop seemed somehow more breathtaking and real than a real sunset. Any art form that can transcend the world of experience and somehow sublimate it must surely be considered great. Its mastery can only be judged by the degree to which reality is sublimated. How much this film actually rises above life is difficult to determine. The audience can be the judge.
| ‘The Boxer’ Pulls Too Many Punches
By Timothy Watson
What can be said of “The Boxer” is that, like its protagonist, it had a rather slow start, but managed to stay on its feet to go the rounds. Too slow and sluggish in the beginning, the film pulled too many punches in an endeavor not to pander to the crows. This resulted in the film being hung up in the ropes for the first hour. Verisimilitude at the expense of entertainment value will never draw anyone into the ring. Daniel Day-Lewis is masterful in the role of the brooding, ex-IRA boxer operative turned boxer, but the pensive silences that punctuate his heart-to-hearts with former girlfriend, Maggie, are over the top. When Maggie asks him why he doesn’t speak, his explanation, while legitimate, comes too late to redeem the film. The poetic account of how he became a man of few words is impressive nonetheless. He recounts how in the beginning, he hung onto the sound of familiar voices in the desolate silence of the prison cell. Then, as the voices began to fade, he replaced them with the sound of his own voice, which was eventually subsumed in its turn by the sound of silence. The silence here is almost deafening, the description so palpable that we find ourselves locked away with Danny in his cell. What depths of despair could drive anyone to prefer silence to the sound of a human voice?As stars go, Daniel Day-Lewis is a knockout, immersing himself in whatever role he is playing. One forgets it’s make-believe whenever he appears on screen. Fearlessly losing himself in the part is what makes his performances so convincing. He is believable as the self-sacrificing martyr, Danny Flynn, who is willing to relinquish everything because that is precisely what the actor himself has done.
When the film starts building about midstream, it suddenly becomes intensely moving and engaging. What emerges is a portrait of how ideology makes prisoners of us all. It is not just Danny who loses the best years of his life to a lost cause, but the sweetheart of his youth, Maggie (Emily Watson), who loses Danny, her first love, and is later compelled to sacrifice her life for another man, her jailed husband, out of loyalty to the Republican cause. But when her old feelings for Danny resurface, She finds herself the victim of persecution by those who view her as an adulterer and traitor to the cause. Maggie highlights the plight of Irish women married to IRA men, who are in turn married to the cause for which they fight. Her words to Danny sum up the situation perfectly: “You wanted me to have my freedom, but you wanted me to remain faithful to you?” To which Danny replies sardonically, “I was only 19.” It’s obvious that the women of IRA men are subordinated to a patriarchy committed to senseless violence and are prisoners of an ideology that forces them into a lifelong commitment to sacrifice.
But women are not the only ones who suffer. Maggie’s father, Joe (Ciaran Fitzgerald), have also been ensnared by the culture of violence. In one scene, we see Joe passing through a series of adjoining rooms with the walls cut out, allowing him to pass from one end of the housing row to the other without having to venture outside, where he would be an easy mark for a sniper’s bullet. Gerard McSorley is absolutely menacing in the role of Harry, the brutal proponent of violence at all costs. Regarding Danny as a traitor for loving Maggie and campaigning for peace, Harry threatens Danny’s life throughout the film. In Liam, we find the embodiment of the very childish reasoning by which people commit themselves to a culture of violence. Fearing that his mother might run away with Danny, Liam burns Danny’s boxing gym down. Having learned that threatening your opponents with violence is the way to solve problems, Liam shows himself to be a promising recruit.
Gerard McSorley is absolutely menacing in the role of Harry, the brutal proponent of violence at all costs. Regarding Danny as a traitor both for loving Maggie and turning his back on the organization, Harry remains a threat to Danny throughout the film. In a bid to scuttle the peace process, Harry’s boys plant a bomb in an official’s car during a boxing match staged to bring Protestants and Catholics together. There is definitely a “live by the sword, die by the sword motif in this film, to which Harry’s fate attests. As for Danny, he survives by opting for the olive branch. In one moving fight scene, Danny steps out of the ring only inches away from victory in a title bout with a Nigerian opponent in London simply because he cannot justify the senseless pummeling he is obliged to subject his opponent to, when the other boxer has obviously already lost. Danny refuses to be coerced into dealing the fatal blow. There is no question that the boxing arena is being used as a metaphor for the world of violence and terrorism, where people are goaded into inflicting senseless violence upon one another through a kind of bullying everyone naively considers macho.
While the film lost a few rounds at the beginning, it scored points toward the end. The final round was a real crowd-pleaser. I’m not one for violence of any kind, but when it is not gratuitous but instructive, as in this film, I applaud its inclusion however graphic. This film is a commendable illustration of how unglamorous violence is. I also applaud Sheridan for so resolutely avoiding Hollywood sensationalism. He demonstrates how distasteful violence becomes when it is not glamorized.
| ‘The Gift’ Is Very Generous
By Timothy Watson
The hallmark of any masterpiece is a well-executed play within a play. What makes it such a profound theatrical device is that it creates mirroring. Since drama itself is based on holding a mirror up to nature, it is only fitting that the play itself should be reflected in its own mini drama. The play is inward looking, while the play within the play projects our view outwardly to the larger world. The effect is to have the world turned inside out: First, the world is turned inside through the main drama, then outside through the mini drama. The mini drama is always a reflection of the larger whole, and as such, shows us how life imitates art as much as art imitates life.’The Gift’ has a captivating play within a play. The action of the main drama reaches a crescendo and climaxes in this mini drama. Yong-gi’s wife (Lee Yong-ae) is in the audience. It is a vaudeville performance combining mime, slapstick, female impressionism, and operatic tragedy. He and his partner are playing a husband and wife. They are in their bathing costumes at the beach.
The husband (Lee Yong-jae) is being nagged and beaten by his wife. Tears of joy and sorrow stream from Jong-yoon’s face as she looks on. It is like a recognition scene in a classical drama. She finally recognizes the true nature of their relationship. It is the story of their life together. The performers are swimming and a shark appears. Jong-yoon laughs and weeps at the perils of their domestic life. Husband and wife go under and are nearly drowned. Jung-yun winces with pain. Yong-gi breaks into operatic voice, a tear-smeared kiss on his cheek. Jung-yun grows faint. Yong-gi spots his wife in the crowd. He can see she’s in pain. He crouches behind the screen wondering what he should do next. His partner urges him to get up. Jung-yun is losing consciousness. She smiles, tears streaming down her face. She recognizes that the performance is a tribute to her. And much as a dying person sees his life flash before his eyes, so she sees her whole life in Yong-gi’s scenario. Yong-gi’s voice reaches a crescendo. Her eyes close and the world and the stage fade.
The scene has a truly cathartic effect. Running only a few minutes, it is a moving spectacle, a film in itself. One can piece together the details of the entire drama by watching this one scene. It is a vivid refection of the drama itself, an endless succession of mirrors within mirrors linking it to the main plot.
“The Gift” has multiple meanings. On one level, we can see that love is a gift. It is clear from Jung-yun’s letter that she regards Yong-gi as a gift, writing, “You’re the most beautiful gift this world has given me”. But there is also a touching exchange of gifts midway through the film. In one scene, he waits outside the hamburger restaurant with a bouquet of flowers. Her shift lasts longer than expected so he leaves. She looks mournfully out the window, saddened that he has not had the patience to wait. But when she turns to see who has come into the shop, a crowd of men line up at the counter with bouquets of flowers and place them on the countertop. At home, she presents him with a jacket. He tries it on, and through slight of hand, pulls a box out of the sleeve. Inside is a ring, which he slips on her finger.
It is clear from her letter that Jung-yun regards Yong-gi’s talent as a performer as a gift, writing: “Even the thought of making people laugh on stage is pleasing.” But the greatest gift is the vaudeville performance he presents in her honor in the play-within-the-play scene. And then there is life, the most precious gift of all. Jung-yun’s conception of life is implicit in her letter: “It’s getting harder to think about leaving you behind. Sometimes I wonder what you would do without me. At other times, I’m comforted by the thought that time heals everything. When I see you, I’m happy to remember our time together. Don’t be lonely without me. We only live once. I’m just leaving a little sooner, so don’t be sad.”
Perhaps the most agonizing scene is the one in which Yong-gi discovers his wife’s secret. Jung-yun has been attempting to conceal the truth, but Yong-gi is suspicious. Jung-yun has been behaving irrationally, yelling at him for no apparent reason. He thinks there is something wrong with her and goes into her room to investigate. He finds some pills. Suspecting the worst, he consults her doctor and learns the truth, that she is terminally ill. Not willing to accept the hard truth, he accuses the doctor of lying and grabs him by the collar. His diary conveys his true feelings: “Jung-yun…Park Jung-yun…the girl I wanted to embrace all my life. My woman, Park Jung-yun, she’s ill, very ill. There’s nothing that can be done. Dear God, give us a bit more time…for me to do what I can for her.” Jung-yun has been keeping the secret from him in an endeavor to protect him. She does not want to jeopardize his job, which depends upon a stress free existence. The irony is that his performances are enhanced by his personal tragedy. The more tragic his real life becomes, the more comic is his routine.
“The Gift” is very generous because it offers so much. First, it is generous to the audience because it offers us a cinema experience on a Shakespearean scale. We have the tragicomic drama presenting us with a hero and heroine and the comic relief provided by the two gangsters who play the role of clowns. But the gift is also generous to its cast, particularly Lee Jong-jae. His extraordinary talent is used to its full potential in this film. The mask of tragedy and the mask of comedy suit the thespian equally well. A tall, ungainly figure with long, lanky limbs, he’s the object of fun in the comic mode, but his tender eyes and handsome face make him a fit subject for tragedy; the hero’s misfortunes move us because he has a noble and handsome face. The film score by Jo Sung-woo is another generous gift. It has the effect of carrying each pivotal scene to its climax with its own musical crescendo.
The way the director, Oh Gi-hwan, received the screenplay was also something of a gift. When it fell into his lap in January 2000, he was immediately struck by the sad and moving tone of the melodrama. The production team reviewed the scenario the following month and decided to proceed. The film went to production in September 2000 and was shot in just five months. The final scene was shot in January at Jeungang University. The filming location was given over the Internet, attracting a host of Netizens who appear in the film as extras.
|Totoro If you’re looking for an animated film that is unique in every way than this film is sure not to
disappoint. Everything about Totoro is unique from the story to the characters. Even the animation
techniques are unique. The animators did the line drawings of the characters in brown instead of
black, which has the unique effect of allowing the characters to blend in with their backgrounds. The
setting is the pastoral countryside of 1960s Japan. The characters and setting are warm and inviting.
There is a great gentleness to this childlike world. Like “The Village of My Paintings” and so many other Japanese films, Totoro is delightfully
nostalgic. It makes us reflect on our life and youth. Totoro represents hometown, childhood, the
very heart of us, and even life itself. It allows us to recapture things we’ve forgotten about childhood.
It also allows us to reflect upon our childhoods as adults. We feel and experience things we never
could as children. Things we thought never existed suddenly come to life and we believe in them
with greater naivety than a child would because we are able suspend our disbelief. So when an
Alice-in-Wonderland type Cheshire Cat bus comes running through the fields to pick up Totoro and
carry him off to his destination, we believe in it. We believe in it all the more when we see the lights
of the bus play off the hills and sky like search lights as it disappears into the hills. Fantasy and the
real world blend so perfectly in the mix that we are convinced of the authenticity of what we see. The adventures of fourth-grader Sachki and her four-year-old sister May begin when they move
to a place far from the city to welcome their mother home, who has been laid up in hospital with a
debilitating illness. The girls become frightened when their neighbor Kanta tells them that their house
is haunted. Their imaginations get the better of them and they start hearing things in the attack. May
even catches one of the hobgoblins in her hand and comes running down to show everyone. Seeing
her running through the house with her hands cupped intent upon not letting the creature escape is
an adorable scene from childhood. Later, May saw strange things passing her in the yard. Then may
found a bigger ghost inside a tree. Squatting on its belly, she pulled its beard and found that it made
a strange sound. It sounded like ‘totoro’, so she assumed that was the creature’s name. Later, the girls are waiting for their father at the bus stop. Sachki is holding an umbrella shielding
them from the falling raindrops. The occasional raindrop is falling from the tree. They soon become
aware of another presence at the bus stop, timidly glancing at Totoro out of the corner of their eyes.
When they greet Totoro, he also regards them somewhat cautiously also out of the corner of his eye.
It is an adorable scene that reminds us of the innocent drawings and paintings we once made as
children. Totoro is standing next to them with only a leaf on his head to shield him from the rain, so
May asks her sister to give him the extra umbrella. Totoro gratefully accepts the offering, but the
umbrella soon gets stuck on one of his pointy ears. Eventually, a Cheshire Cat-like bus appears to
pick him up. One of the windows suddenly enlarges to accommodate his great bulk and he steps on
board. The bus then races down the road and across the hills, its lights playing off the hills and the
night sky. Totoro is a thousand years old. No one knows his real name. Totoro is only a nickname. He has
never met human beings before and is naturally timid of them, but like squirrels and rabbits and other
little creatures, he is more comfortable in the company of innocent children. We soon find him
opening his heart to Sachki and May. He trusts them and knows they mean him no harm. They also
gain a feeling of warmth and protection from him. The characters are real. We can relate to them easily. Sachki is a tomboy. She doesn’t like girlish
\things. She has the responsibility of looking after her father and sister while her mother is away. She
likes her mom to comb her hair and misses her mother’s gentle touch and attentions. She is a good
sister, but is kept so busy that she doesn’t have much time to look out for her sister. May is a gentle
little soul who is the first to soften Totoro’s heart. Their father is a writer and a kindly man who is
understanding and sympathetic toward his two daughters. The grandmother is a dear old soul,
stubborn and somewhat stern looking, but kind. In one scene, May runs headlong into her
grandmother’s abdomen with cupped hands. Her grandmother gives her reproachful look that soon
turns into a warm smile. When their mother’s homecoming is delayed, Sachki went back to school, but May decided to go
see her mother by crossing a mountain. She naturally lost her way and say weeping in one spot
helplessly waiting for someone to rescue her. Her sister and father are looking all over for her.
Eventually, Sachki appeals to Totoro for help. Totoro takes her to the top of a great tree. He takes
in a deep breath and issues a great call on the wind. The Cheshire Cat-like bus soon shows up and
they begin the search. The many-legged bus dashes across the countryside over rice paddies and
rolling hills. If you’re looking for an afternoon or weekend outing with your child, take them to see Totoro.
The lack of English subtitles won’t be a problem for foreign moviegoers. The animation tells the
story on its own. This is a fairytale for young and old. For adults, the film makes us young again and
restores some of the lost innocence to our hearts. Children keep us young and restore in addition to
our virtue. They make us want to be pure and wholesome again because we want to protect them
from the harsher truths about this world. This film does the same thing. It takes us back to our youth
and makes us forget the cares of this world.