A promising but ultimately disappointing elliptical journey through a labyrinthine Seoul.
The thin line between real and unreal, solid ground and liminality, sanity and insanity, dream and nightmare, certainty and confusion, is the wire that most of director Park Hong-min’s second film Alone balances upon. An oppressive mystery tour of the alleyways, rooftops, stairwells and labyrinthine passages of a tightly packed Seoul shantytown reflects metaphorically the circuitous nature of the protagonist’s mind.
As the film opens, he is looking out of his studio window and inadvertently witnesses masked men murdering a woman on a nearby rooftop. Since he is a photographer he grabs his camera and begins taking pictures of the crime. Having been spotted by the perpetrators, he hides away in his studio, but is soon located by the thugs who assault him with a hammer, rendering him unconscious. When he awakes it is night time and he finds himself naked and lying in the street. As he attempts to recover both clothing and memory, he runs furiously around the area, up and down stairs, in and out of alleyways like a rat in a T-maze – a T-maze that keeps heading into dead-end pathways. As he keeps sprinting around this physical and mental maze, he encounters a variety of odd characters and finds himself thrust into a series of strange and startling scenarios. These encounters are presented elliptically; their logical and chronological ordering shuffled like a deck of cards. Sometimes, similar events are encountered more than once but with different narrative frameworks intended to disorient the protagonist as well as the audience.
Now, this oft-used approach to plotting in arthouse cinema – a signifying indicator of the genus – can have its rewards, but it can be risky too, if not handled in a convincing and meaningful manner. There needs to be some sort of cinematic reward for the spectator’s work in sticking to the film and trusting the director and editor’s decisions as to story presentation, and in this regard Alone founders. The overall film did not present this viewer with any gifts for post-viewing reflection or insightful observations to be taken away from the cinema. It simply did not persuade. It has been said by distributors that for a critic to call a film a ‘festival film’ is a nail in the coffin for the sales agent, so apologies in advance, but Alone falls exactly into that category.
Kim Ki-duk’s disquieting and hyperbolic castration/incest melodrama Moebius caused a stir in the Korean media last summer after it was issued the rare ‘Restricted’ rating by the Korean Media Rating Board, the highest certification they bestow. Although this episode with the censors demonstrated that the controversial Korean auteur still refuses to soften his approach even as he continues to trudge into middle age, it also led to an uncharacteristic instance of compromise. Films with a Restricted rating can only be screened in specially licensed theatres (much like the BBFC’s R18 certificate), but since no such theatres operate in South Korea, Moebius was effectively banned from domestic release. After numerous failed re-submissions, two and a half minutes of problem footage featuring incest had to be removed to meet the KMRB’s requirements for the slightly less harsh ‘Teenager Restricted’ (i.e. 18 or over) to guarantee wide release. This prompted angry calls of censorship and artistic suppression from fellow directors and the Korean film industry elite.
Moebius is released in the UK on DVD and VOD on 13 October 2014.
But even in its cut version, Moebius remains a dark and thoroughly depraved odyssey of sexual desire that strongly plays to Kim’s preoccupation towards unusual, psychosexually informed chamber pieces. This loosely Oedipal tale focuses on a dysfunctional family: Mother (Lee Eun-woo) has turned to drink as Father (Jo Jae-hyeon) regularly fraternises with a woman who runs a local convenience shop (intriguingly, also played by Lee). Caught in the middle is their teenage Son (Seo Young-ju). Seeing Father and Mistress dining together in a romantic restaurant, Mother is sent over the edge of sanity. Later that evening, she enters the bedroom brandishing a knife; her intention is to emasculate her husband by severing his penis. He wakes up and manages to stop her. Still angry, Mother takes out her male hatred on the Son, using the same strategy (successfully this time) before disappearing off into the night.
Following the incident, the Son tries to carry on as normal, but a group of kids from his school get wind of his embarrassing disability and start bullying him. Guilt-ridden, the Father takes to the internet and conducts research on penis transplant surgeries. Desperate for his Son to have a normal sex life, his search also unearths a bizarre alternative method of sexual stimulation that doesn’t require a phallus. Meanwhile, the Son develops a fraught relationship with the store owner, unaware that she is partly the reason for his mutilation and, after an unusual turn of events, he also begins having strange, sexual feelings towards his own estranged Mother.
When films deal with themes of castration, the act typically functions as a shocking end point to an intensely emotional, impassioned or horrifying episode – Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) or, more recently, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) for instance. What’s interesting about Moebius is that the film deals primarily with the aftermath, where the surviving victim has to come to terms with the literal loss of his manhood in a society where men still choose to define masculinity by penile prowess. Kim’s work has featured genital mutilation before (The Isle (2000) made use of fishing hooks to wince-inducing effect) but here it is presented as part of a grander thesis, with the film wanting to offer something more than merely showing gross things for our bemusement. The casting of Lee as both wife and mistress, mother and lover, strongly alludes to Kim’s ambitions in this regard, blurring the boundaries of the Son’s and Father’s desires.
Like Kim’s earlier work 3-Iron (2004), Moebius contains no spoken dialogue between its characters. It’s a narrative device that works well for the subject matter, sparing the actors from potentially undermining the story with unnecessary conversation, which could very well have sent the proceedings past the point of acceptable ludicrousness. The film already walks a very fine line between the horrific and hilarious, and there are moments where you may find yourself laughing for reasons Kim had not intended. Like with other Kim films, basic character logic is often thrown to the wind for the sake of artistic statement. A group of horny young men coerce the Son into raping the store owner, which, of course, he can’t do but instead pretends in order to save face. Apprehended by the police, the Son is unnecessarily embarrassed by his Father in the communal holding cell when the latter yanks the Son’s trousers down to show that he doesn’t have the physical capacity for rape, much to the amusement of the other rapists, when a more discrete approach could have easily been arranged. Incidentally, the mutilation never seems to be reported to the authorities, and when the deranged mother returns to the homestead after what must have been weeks of idly roaming the streets, she’s allowed back in without any resistance from the Father or Son.
Another aspect that threatens to derail the film is the sex substitute discovered by the Father involving the vigorous rubbing of the skin with a stone (and, later on, the rhythmic jostling of a knife in a wound), where pain macabrely functions as pleasure. The idea of a new copulation paradigm beyond standard coitus methods is evocative of David Cronenberg’s equally controversial Crash (1996), which features an audacious moment where James Spader’s budding car-crash fetishist treats the yonic wound on the thigh of Rosanna Arquette’s character as a new sexual orifice. Like Crash, Moebius could easily (and unfairly) be dismissed as vulgar, morally bankrupt pseudo-porn, designed to titillate and scandalise. Instead, the film is a startling, Freudian nightmare that, despite its faults, somehow manages to be funny, repulsive and strangely compelling all at the same time. Whether or not you’re able to buy into its bizarre gender politics or dubious plotting, Moebius is still potent filmmaking from a still potent filmmaker.
Representing a true return to form for the Korean maverick filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, Pieta is a relentless, brutal and brilliant exploration of the human psyche set within the cramped industrial grounds of Cheonggyecheon, a regeneration project in downtown Seoul.
Gang-do works as a collector for a loan shark in the aforementioned industrial area, which is slowly turning into a slum. In the opening hour of the film he visits the various borrowers in their machine shops. If they can pay the instalments, there are no problems; but if someone can’t afford to pay, then Gang-do disables them in order to collect on the insurance policy that they were made to sign at the start of the loan. It’s a cruel method and Gang-do blankly goes about his business: crushing hands, chopping off limbs and even throwing people off buildings.
However, one day a woman turns up on Gang-Do’s doorstep, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him. At first he’s unmoved – he treats the woman as obscenely as possible in an ever-elevating number of tests – but she never waivers. Slowly but surely the two start some sort of kinship. However, this happiness is not to last long.
Out of this bleak ugliness, Kim Ki-duk fashions a tale that more than justifies the use of the title (translating as ‘piety’ or ‘pity’). His story is dotted with characters who come to terms with abandonment, not only through each other, but also through the ever-changing society they exist in.
Pieta is released on DVD in the UK by Studiocanal on 14 October 2013.
Cheonggyecheon is an industrial nightmare: a once thriving hub of small metalworks and other industrial shops now slowly being swallowed whole by urban renewal. Its inhabitants are equally lost: most have given up on their dreams simply to survive while others have never even had the chance to dream. Within this landscape Kang-do is at first the very exaggeration of evil: an unstoppable force who acts as some sort of angel of deliverance, whether he is collecting money or gutting fish for his dinner. However, it is with the appearance of his mother that the very first touches of humanity infiltrate him and his world. And it is this humanity which will create the tragedy that Kim Ki-duk so brilliantly brings about.
In the role of Gang-do, Lee Jeong-jin is a marvel to watch, his slow transformation almost impossible to tear away from. He is well matched in the intensity of his role by the actress Jo Min-soo, who brings a sense of disturbing mystery to the role of the mother who simply will not leave her son. It’s the very forceful nature of the relationship which makes Pieta one of the most astounding films of the year, ending with a final image that will stay with viewers for a long time to come.
A haunting, bleak but poetic tale told using stark cinematography and harsh lighting,the film may turn off some viewers with its violent and relentless nature. However, anyone who can get past its surface aggression will discover one of the more delicately crafted character studies of modern cinema, and a testament to the talent of director Kim Ki-duk, who continues to shock and astound in equal measure.
Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is the loser’s loser, down on his luck at the mah-jong tables, leading a pitiful life as an ethnic Korean in Yanbian, China. His wife left for Korea in search of work months ago and he hasn’t heard from her since, he is unable to support his child, and the debts have long spiralled beyond his ability to pay. Then local gangster Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok) offers him a chance to wipe the slate clean: all he has to do is cross the Yellow Sea to Seoul and kill a businessman. He is understandably reluctant, but this seems his only way out, and offers him a chance to track down his wife.
Everything, of course, goes horribly wrong.
Na Hong-jin’s exhilarating film is pretty much a game of two halves. For the first hour or so it’s a wholly credible portrait of a desperate life. Gu-nam lives in a crappy world, he is well aware of his status as a ‘josenjok’, unwanted and despised. Everything seems to be on its last legs, everyone is heartless and on the make. His days in the shabby milieu of Yanbian, the gruelling smuggling operation that gets him to Korea, his cold and hunger and increasing frustration and stress are graphically evoked in blues and greys, through clipped sparse dialogue and sharp editing, as he plans to kill a man he does not know.
From the clusterfuck assassination onwards, however, the film evolves into a high-octane gore-flecked black comic shocker as Gu-nam goes on the run from hordes of cops, the Korean gangster behind the hit, and Myun-ga, who re-enters the picture to cut a bloody swathe through the last hour with a butcher’s knife and hatchet. The carefully built sense of verisimilitude is first strained, then shattered, as our fugitive changes from a pitiful nobody into a resourceful killer with nine lives. This never stops the film from being entertaining, however. Na Hong-jin clearly knows what he’s doing with a camera and there are a series of pulse-pounding audacious action sequences. Moreover, his sense of telling detail and street-level scuzz never deserts him. I enjoyed the town mouse/country mouse disdain that the Seoul gangsters feel for the Yanbian mob, and Myun-ga’s appalling grasp of housekeeping. It’s just that the poignancy and sad irony that the film aims for at its resolution seem oddly misplaced after all that Fargo via Simpson/Bruckheimer bloody chaos.
This is a common feature in a lot of Eastern cinema (‘the Asian Gear-Change’?). Many kung fu dramas crunched from Laurel and Hardy slapstick to grim Deathwish revenge thriller after the third reel. Fans of this stuff aren’t going to bat an eyelid at the wildly different tones that The Yellow Sea goes through, but it just seems odd to me, like James Toback’s Fingers being spliced with The Last Boy Scout. Ah well. Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jung-woo hold the screen well, I was never bored, it’s fast and funny and edge-of-the-seat tense; it’s just that I’d still like to see the end of the film it started off being.
The Yellow Sea screens at the London Korean Film Festival on November 9. The LKFF runs from 3 to 17 November 2011. More details on the LKFF website.
When Mija, played with ornate naturalism by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee in her first role in 15 years, is informed that her grandson was involved in a gang rape that led to the suicide of a high-school girl her expression shows little visible change. She proceeds with her daily routine, attending to her daycare service for an elderly disabled man, and continuing to feed the teenage boy as part of her maternal obligations. Hints of forgetfulness lead to her discovery that she has developed Alzheimer’s, yet not even this realisation jolts her into dismay as she carries on with her life as if little had changed. Nevertheless, underneath her skin panic is freezing her blood and her heart is sinking in dread; rather than descending into sentiment, director Lee Chang-dong chooses to depict trauma by slowly filtering the emotions in a process that denies grandiose gestures.
In an attempt to keep hold of her memories perhaps, Mija begins to attend local poetry lessons and readings where she is advised to observe the small details of everyday life for artistic inspiration. No matter how hard she tries, however, she seems to be incapable of finding words for her feelings and struggles to put her thoughts into verse. Instead, Lee’s camera takes on the task, its eye surveying the minute subtleties of Mija’s personality. The plot progresses at a leisurely pace, often pushed into the background in favour of mood as if the film shared its protagonist’s absent-mindedness; as in many good poems, the storyline is hidden behind the language and the feelings it elicits.
Together with Mija, the film searches for the beauty of life to translate into poetry, yet struggles to direct its lens away from the indecent behaviour that surrounds and continually interrupts its quest. The parents of the teenage rapists and the school are far more concerned about the future of their children and their soiled reputation, acting on the assumption that money will solve such matters. Mija’s grandson and friends show no remorse about the heinous act they committed, seemingly unaware of the implications, and they don’t suffer any consequences. In such an abhorrent world, it is difficult for Mija to discover pure moments of creativity in which to scribble onto her white pad, which remains painfully empty throughout the film. Only spots of rain pen the bare pages in beautiful patterns that convey the melancholy that pervades the film.
Nonetheless, Mija is not as innocent or clueless as her distrait conduct might at first suggest. Like a poem, Yun Jung-hee’s performance allows us to read Mija’s gestures from varying angles, encouraging a multitude of interpretations in a role Lee wrote specifically for her. Her sexual favour for her disabled client seem a selfless act of compassion at first, yet the tone subtly changes when it is suggested that this is to be used as blackmail to cover the cost of silencing the dead girl’s family. Most of Mija’s actions seem to have little logical motivation and remain unexplained, and we are left to figure out to what extent her behaviour is impulsive and whether her dreamy demeanour is simply a strategy to veil her inner turmoil. Her visits to spaces the young girl once occupied, places where she was raped and where she decided to die, suggest the death has had a substantial effect and haunts Mija. It is a memory she is unable to erase from her steadily deteriorating mind. In effect, Mija’s failures as a poet are more than compensated for by Lee’s camera and its ability to capture the complexities of its subject. Her quiet gestures, gentle gaze and tender pose transform themselves into stanzas as they rhyme with Lee’s cinema.
There is a little ominous talk of a map, cutting to a bird of prey hovering, then swooping down to snatch carrion from the tracks of an oncoming train, which the camera flies through in a dazzling tracking shot as the Spanish guitars kick in on the soundtrack, following a bustling figure closely through the busy carriages until he suddenly pulls out a gun and you realise you haven’t breathed for two minutes. Welcome to Kim Jee-woon‘s insanely enjoyable ‘oriental Western’ The Good, The Bad, The Weird, in which three great Korean actors (Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung and the godlike Song Kang-ho) chase each other, fight each other, then chase and fight some more as they scramble after some kind of treasure map in 1930s Manchuria.
I suspect that if you know your oriental history there will be a little more going on; Korea is referred to throughout as a stolen country, the Japanese are clearly the bastards du jour, and there is a running theme that if you don’t have a country any more then money will have to do. But this is first and foremost a film about sound and vision, of body language and colour. It’s just about puddle deep, has no female characters worth a damn, and is blatantly cobbled together from other sources, but who cares? It grabs the audience from the start with the dizzying train robbery/ bandit attack / bounty hunter shootout sequence and then doesn’t really let go for another couple of hours, culminating in a jaw-dropping motorbike vs cavalry vs entire Japanese army at 80 miles an hour sequence that had my inner 12-year-old grinning like a crazy bastard. It’s got a wonderful percussive score, it looks fantastic, the three leads are great and it keeps the CGI to a minimum. I have a problem with the ending, but you don’t need to know that.
‘Life is about chasing and being chased’, Song Kang-ho states in one of the few placid moments, well… no, but this film is. It’s a blast. Go see.
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