For one week in May, the sixth annual edition of the Terracotta Festival saw a selection of films from the Far East brought to audiences in central London. The main strand was devoted to 13 of the latest ‘must-see’ releases from across Asia, while there was also a spotlight on cinema in the Philippines, and of course the infamous Terror-Cotta Horror All-Nighter, which took place at the equally notorious Prince Charles Cinema. Below, we take a look at some of the highlights from the festival.
The Snow White Murder Case (Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2014)
Following the success of Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (2010) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s superb Penance (2012) comes The Snow White Murder Case, the latest adaptation of a Kanae Minato bestseller. When a beautiful, popular employee at the Snow White soap company is found stabbed to death, with her corpse set on fire, local TV station worker Akahoshi (Gô Ayano) begins using social media to carry out his own investigation into the crime. As he homes in on one of the victim’s co-workers, Miki Shirono (Mao Inoue), a shy woman who has since disappeared, the amateur sleuth uncovers a series of suggestive events from her past, while TV news begins picking up the bait he’s left on his blog. Like Confessions, The Snow White Murder Case explores the circumstances surrounding the crime and its aftermath, as the combination of lies, half-truths, malicious gossip and outright hatred – fuelled by Akahoshi’s ambition – convicts the missing woman before she’s even been located by the police. Less cynical and grim than Confessions, The Snow White Murder Case is a dryly humorous film that works well as both a complex and compelling murder mystery, and as an indictment of the damage that gossip and malice can cause when combined with increasingly intrusive media networks and social media. It might not be as effective as Confessions or Penance, but it’s another respectable Kanae Minato adaptation.
Watch the trailer for The Snow White Murder Case:
Lesson of Evil (Takashi Miike, 2012)
Takashi Miike’s Lesson of Evil (a.k.a. Lesson of the Evil) has attracted comparisons with Confessions, mainly because it deals with violence in a school setting. Unlike Nakashima’s film, Lesson of Evil is a black comedy, and an extremely violent one too.
Lesson of Evil is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray on 29 September 2014 by Third Window Films. Special features include a two-hour-long making of and a new UK trailer.
Instead of exploring the causes or effects of violence, Miike lets us watch as teacher Seiji Hasumi – a handsome, manipulative sociopath – sees his plans and schemes go increasingly awry, forcing him to resort to ever more violent and excessive ways of dealing with the problem. Hideaki Itô makes for a convincing, even likeable monster, and the skilled Miike throws in a few bizarre touches (including some distinctly Cronenberg-esque elements) that recall his earlier films. Unfortunately, at 130 minutes, Lesson of Evil is also far too long, taking more than 90 minutes to get to its blood-drenched conclusion, losing much of the impetus built up in the first hour. The film’s final acts are certainly memorable, but would have worked better in a drastically reduced running time. Although it’s already played at a few festivals, the extreme levels of violence inflicted upon children (by a teacher, no less) will probably make Lesson of Evil a hard sell in some territories.
Watch the trailer for Lesson of Evil:
The Face Reader (Jae-rim Han, 2013)
The latest in a steady stream of sumptuous, well-mounted South Korean period dramas, The Face Reader stars Kang-ho Song (Memories of Murder) as Nae-kyung, a dissolute wretch from a disgraced family, who possesses one valuable skill: as a ‘face reader’, he can assess a person’s character from their facial features. He’s extremely good at it, which attracts the attention of a local brothel keeper who holds ‘face reading’ consultations alongside her more traditional services. After Nae-kyung correctly identifies a murderer, his fame grows even further, and before long local politicians and bureaucrats are using his abilities to weed out lazy or corrupt officials from their departments. Soon, Nae-kyung becomes a well-known figure at court, but hasn’t completely understood just how dangerous his new status could be. As always, Kang-ho Song gives an easy, believable performance as the well-meaning but foolish character stumbling further out of his depth with every step. Production values are incredible and the whole film is a meticulous, attractive recreation of 15th-century Korea, boosted by another excellent score from Lee Byung-woo (A Tale of Two Sisters, Untold Scandal).
Watch the trailer for The Face Reader:
TikTik: The Aswang Chronicles (Erik Matti, 2012)
Playing out like a Pinoy version of Dog Soldiers, this energetic Philippine horror film stars Dingdong Dantes as cocky young man Makoy. When his heavily pregnant girlfriend Sonia (Lovi Poe) returns to her distant home village after a fight, Makoy follows to try and patch things up. An impromptu banquet goes awry when the inhabitants of the next village turn up, only they’re actually aswang, a kind of shape-changing demon very similar to werewolves. Trapped in their cluttered house, Makoy and the family try and fight off the aswang, while taking care of Sonia, who goes into labour at a most inconvenient time. Shot on limited sets and augmented by extensive green-screen work, TikTik is a surprisingly good-looking film, given a budget considerably smaller than similar Hollywood movies. Director Erik Matti keeps things moving consistently and makes good use of split-screen effects, but relies mainly on an engaging cast and decent dialogue. While it’s not particularly original, TikTik is well made and memorable enough to please horror fans worldwide.
There is no better place than Cannes to be reminded of the differences in taste and perspective between oneself and the rest of the critics’ world. But this year, the fierce reviews that Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s first foray into directing, received after its premiere in the Un Certain Regard section, made me wonder what was actually at stake here. Judging from the 10-minute-long standing ovations for one of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs before and after the screening it was clear that it didn’t have anything to do with a waning of his celebrity power – in fact, it didn’t really matter to the majority of the audience what film was on show that night as long as Gosling was in the room. Looking at it more closely, his fairly impressive directing debut seems to have fallen victim to the same fate as Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliant Only God Forgives (starring Gosling in the lead role and clearly serving as an inspiration for his own surrealist end-time tale) the year before: most critics didn’t know (or didn’t care) what to make of its alluring blend of affecting visual beauty and sparse (if, in Gosling’s case, slightly messy) narrative, and the few who loved it at first sight were instantly stared at with incredulity.
Watch the trailer for Lost River:
All in all though, there weren’t as many exciting films on offer as last year, despite some terrific surprises. In particular, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (his fifth feature film since his 2009 directorial debut I Killed My Mother) yielded beautifully raw emotions, caustic humour and moments of cinematic brilliance. And outlandish Argentine competition entry Wild Tales, by Damián Szifró;n, was a popular, hard-hitting and often hilarious portmanteau comedy featuring a bunch of diverse and increasingly hysterical characters who spectacularly lose control and go off the deep end.
Resembling last year’s mad dash for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, the biggest buzz this time revolved around David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. A highly charged, cynical ghost story about today’s fucked-up Hollywood society, it stars Mia Wasikowska as the troubled daughter of a self-help guru who is battling her internal demons while working as a PA to a fading yet feisty actress (Julianne Moore).
Atom Egoyan’s cliché-ridden The Captive was the weakest competition entry for me, It faced strong competition from Olivier Assayas’s pretentious The Clouds of Sils Maria and from The Search, Michel Hazanavicius’s clumsy follow-up to The Artist, a muddled and sentimental war drama about a human rights worker who takes in a young Chechen refugee during the war in 1999. I also didn’t enjoy Asia Argento’s Un Certain Regard entry Incompresa for all its cockeyed quirkiness, although nothing could have topped the critics’ complete and unanimous disapproval of Olivier Dahan’s opening film Grace of Monaco.
But there was some noteworthy (if unsurprisingly rather heavyweight) art-house fare on show in the Competition this year. Nuri Bilge Ceylan impressed jury and critics alike with his three-hour-plus Chekhovian drama Winter Sleep about a wealthy, retired actor who runs a mountaintop hotel and fills his days with writing and dealing with his failing marriage. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev draws more decisively on Tarkovsky’s inheritance in the poetic imagery and the gravity of his slow-paced, powerful and elusive thriller-drama Leviathan.
The usually slightly neglected midnight screenings were strong this year with David Michôd’s The Rover, his superb follow-up to Animal Kingdom (2010), and Kristian Levring’s conventionally plotted but deftly crafted Danish Western The Salvation. The third film screening at midnight was Chang’s rather predictable and slightly dull thriller The Target, which fell short of expectations but still managed to deliver the fun, big-screen action spectacle it was intended to be. In comparison, and more convincing in its mission to prove that the crafty and clever Korean crime thriller is not dead, was Kim Seong-hun’s A Hard Day.
Watch the trailer for The Rover:
Apart fom Lost River, the other standouts in the Un Certain Regard selection included Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s unwieldy and progressively surreal drama Jauja and the only German festival entry, Amour Fou, Jessica Hausner’s rigidly stylised but original and witty portrait of the troubled Romantic writer and poet Heinrich von Kleist and his accomplice Henriette Vogel in the lead-up to their joint suicide in 1811. Typically, this year’s crowd-pleasing Un Certain Regard winner, Kornél Mundruczó;’s White God , split the critics once again: some saw it as clumsy and misguided social commentary, while others reacted warmly to the remarkable acting range of the dogs starring in the film.
On the whole, even with (or perhaps because of) the wide diversity in the reception of the films and a little less hype about the programme, these highlights prove once more that Cannes remains a great hunting ground for the weird, wild and unexpected.
Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy review the most notable Japanese and Korean films that screened at this year’s London Film Festival.
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time
Opening in Busan in 1982, Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster is a vastly enjoyable sprawling mob saga that clearly references Coppola and Scorsese in its story of the rise and fall of a would-be godfather, but adds a caustic sense of humour and ironic distance. Introducing the story with the definition of ‘daebu’, it plays on the various meanings of the term, including ‘elder relative’ and ‘crime boss’. Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) gives another fantastic performance as corrupt customs official Choi Ik-hyun, who comes into contact with local gangster Choi Hyung-bae when he is sacked from his job. Hyung-bae turns out to be related to him and Ik-hyun takes advantage of his status as his elder relative to get involved at the top of his gang.
Ik-hyun is a fascinating multi-faceted character: a comical figure who is often ridiculed, a ‘half-gangster’ – as he is called by the brilliantly ruthless prosecutor Jo – who can never really cut it as a crime boss, he is also impressively cunning and resourceful, and despite his shameless lack of scruples and despicable conduct, he has a sympathetic and very human side in his love for his family. One of the big joys of the film is his relationship to the younger, more attractive, scarier, real gangster Hyung-bae (played by rising star Ha Jung-woo), who exudes the sort of power and authority that will always elude Ik-hyun. And yet, despite his menacing aura, Hyung-bae is a man of principle who, unlike Ik-hyun, abides by gangster codes and even traditional social rules (in his respect for Ik-hyun as his elder relative for instance), which puts him at a disadvantage when dealing with his less honourable enemies. This reversal of the usual dynamic between young and old is another of the pleasures of this exhilarating, humorous, smart gangster saga. VS
The second outstanding Korean offering of this year’s festival was adapted from a novel by Miyabe Miyuki and directed by female filmmaker Byun Young-joo. Helpless is a captivating, intelligent thriller on the nature of love and identity that takes a hard look at what happens when a victimised character is forced to devise extreme strategies to survive. It starts like The Vanishing: young veterinarian Mun-ho is taking his bride-to-be Seon-yeong to meet his parents when she disappears at a service station. When he finds her apartment has been emptied in a hurry and the police are useless, he asks a relative who is a disgraced former cop to help him find her. As they investigate, her identity becomes more and more mysterious, and they must make sense of her possible connections to large debts, loan sharks and even suspected murder. The many revelations thrown up by their investigation repeatedly throw into question our assumptions about Seon-yeong and build a finely nuanced and affecting portrait of a complex woman. A convincing, tense, insightful thriller in which there is more than one victim, with a deep sympathy and understanding for the kind of dynamic that leads seemingly helpless characters to commit terrible acts in order to defend themselves when no one else will. VS
An apocalyptic triptych from Korea, written and directed by Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-Sung, the creators of The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and Hansel and Gretel. Part one is an eco-horror of waste and consumption where dodgy food production causes a kind of zombie outbreak. Part three is the tale of a family attempting to survive an impending meteor strike. Both share a wild, freewheeling sense of humour and are dizzy, bizarre satirical fun, especially the pot shots aimed at idiotic TV news coverage.
The side is let down a little by the middle section, where problems arise for a corporation when one of their robots assigned to a Buddhist temple achieves enlightenment. The tale is over-familiar from decades of SF, the robot is a poor cousin to Chris Cunningham’s Björk-bot in the ‘All Is Full Of Love’ promo and a ponderous tone takes over. It’s not bad, just a bit dull, and overall, considering the talents involved, Doomsday Book comes as a bit of a disappointment. Definitely has its moments though. MS
For Love’s Sake
Takashi Miike returns with the adaptation of a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu – filmed many times before – about a rich young girl’s impossible love for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The original title Ai to makoto means ‘Love and Sincerity’, which is also the name of the two main characters. Ai is a sweet young girl from a well-to-do family, who was rescued by Makoto while skiing as a child. When Makoto returns to Tokyo for revenge and immediately gets into a fight, Ai does all she can to save him from his delinquent life. An insanely colourful, at times kitsch teen melodrama, it mixes the badass attitude and energy of Crows Zero with the demented chirpiness of The Happiness of the Katakuris. It may not be Miike at his most ground-breaking or daring, but it is wildly entertaining. The director once more demonstrates his boundless inventiveness and impressive visual sense with a variety of animated sequences and (cheesy) musical numbers, as well as great decors, gorgeous colours and brilliantly choreographed fights, all pulsating with his customary high-voltage energy. VS
I was a big fan of Mika Ninagawa’s 2008 Sakuran, a fun, gorgeous-looking film with a fantastic female lead. Unfortunately, her second film, Helter Skelter, is a major disappointment. Ninigawa began her career as a fashion photographer, and returns to that world with a story, based on Kyoko Okazaki’s manga, about the unravelling of a top model’s career. While there are some likeable elements in this satire of the fashion industry, the film is let down by its total lack of narrative structure and an irritating subplot, while the riot of colour that made Sakuran so refreshing seems like nothing more than eye candy in Helter Skelter, helping to gloss over the film’s weaknesses.
Erika Sawajiri stars as Lilico, Japan’s hottest model and teen idol. She’s bitchy, tyrannical and stunning – but also a fake. Her looks have been created at an expensive clinic, paid for by her agent, who is still extracting a heavy price for turning her into a commodity. When Lilico is pushed aside by a younger model, her anger and frustrations are taken out on her unfortunate assistant, who’s forced to endure endless humiliations. In the meantime, a team of police, led by an obnoxious, irritating character who spouts trite philosophical soundbites, is investigating the clinic for illegally using human tissue in its patients (a sorely underdeveloped idea – although strange bruises do begin to appear underneath Lilico’s skin.) But rather than use this investigation to add an element of noir to the film, the scenes with the police are mostly shot in a very bland office, with them doing very little. They add nothing to the already fractured narrative, while the dialogue is simply excruciating.
Despite some good moments – Ninigawa does an excellent job capturing the absurdity of the industry, and the public’s obsession with beauty at all costs – the director’s inimitable style can’t make up for the unlikeable characters, needlessly frenetic pacing, and worst of all, the weak script. SC
The Samurai That Night
Adapted by Masaaki Akahori from his own play, The Samurai That Night is the story of a meek factory owner, Nakamura, who is still grieving after the death of his wife and is looking for revenge against the thug who killed her in a road accident five years earlier. The title ironically refers to Nakamura’s vengeance fantasy, which is comically and pitifully deflated in the realistically depicted modern world of the film. The film is indeed anything but an action film: it takes the classical opposition between the wronged good man looking for payback and the unredeemable evil brute but films it as a slow-paced, introspective character study. When – in another nod to the samurai film – the final big showdown in the rain comes, there is no resolution, or even progression, and both characters remain the same.
This could have been interesting, were it not for the excessively simplistic characterisation, the unbearably ponderous tone and the affected, sometimes sentimental quirkiness (the main character obsessively eats custard desserts; while on a date he takes his late wife’s bra out of the pocket of his trousers; when he plays ball with his overly sweet date, just as he used to with his wife, she delivers an exasperating ode to simple things – I could go on). This is a film that is not as deep as it thinks it is and its self-important slowness just makes it tiresomely dull. VS
Short films were represented by two screenings at the London Korean Film Festival. Each showcased different works selected from Korea’s Mise en Scène festival, which celebrated its tenth edition this year and was originally set up by the filmmaking powerhouses Park Chan-wook (Old Boy) and Bong Joon-hoo (Mother) as a platform for the country’s shorts.
Both screenings opened with their star attraction, Night Fishing (2011), a collaboration between Park Chan-wook and his brother Park Chan-kyong. Steeped in Korean folklore and traditional religion, the film passes through three distinct atmospheres. It begins with a stylish musical prologue with a jerking, twisting front man and his band performing amid colourless reed beds. The camera soars away to a lone man sitting on a riverbank, his fishing rod primed and tinny radio playing, and the film takes on the air of an ominous horror film. Then, in a gloriously unexpected twist, the film makes a high-energy ascent into a colourful cacophony of mournful wailing and religious chanting. It is a strange journey and one made more so by the way in which the film was made: every single shot was filmed on an i-Phone 4. It would have been a bizarre, beautiful film regardless, but the technology creates further interesting effects as the camera flips 360 degrees or shoots the fishing scenes in grainy night vision.
It was an impossibly strong start and at the second screening, which I attended, the following shorts never quite matched its quality. That said, the standard was high and I especially enjoyed Kim Bo-ra’s The Recorder Exam and Lee Chang-hee’s Broken Night (both 2011), two wildly different films. The Recorder Exam is a beautifully small-scale, poignant film that follows a young girl’s preparation for a school music test. The film makes snatched references to the 1988 Seoul Olympics but the narrative focuses on the domestic story of an unhappy home life, a million miles away from grand, international ceremonies. In contrast to the slow and still approach of The Recorder Exam, Broken Night is a fast-paced nightmare of high-speed road accidents and shifting moral perspectives.
The sinister atmosphere was echoed in Yi Jeong-jin’s Ghost (2011), which followed a man hiding out in a derelict housing block following the murder and assault of a young girl. The film never made its message or the subject of its empathy clear so, while its creepiness was well executed, the story seemed to peter out, feeling like the start of a longer film rather than a completed short. I felt that the weakest of the selection was Kim Han-kyul’s Chatter (2011), a comedy focusing on a meal out between friends that quickly descends into a battle of gossip and ill-feeling as secrets and insults are exchanged. I found the humour to be a bit laboured (an effect further hampered by poorly translated subtitles) but I think this was a matter of personal taste; the ICA cinema was soon filled with laughter. Indeed, the audience seemed to be engaged throughout the screening and there were very positive murmurings as the selection came to an end. The chosen films provided an interesting chance to see material beyond Korea’s internationally screened feature films and it appeared that everyone at the ICA was very appreciative of that.
The 17th edition of the Etrange Festival celebrated psychotronic and gore cinema with two nights devoted respectively to grindhouse and the Sushi Typhoon label. The geeky atmosphere was summed up by the screening of Jun Tsugita’s Horny House of Horror (2010), which must be seen for the sequence in which a penis is prepared sushi-style. The film was presented by the director and special-effects expert Yoshihiro Nishimura, a hilarious pixie who leapt onto the stage and ended his speech with ‘I’m bald because of radioactivity’. The festival lived up to its reputation, with the diversity of the programming remaining one of its strengths, especially thanks to its policy of ‘carte blanche’ (given to Julien Temple and Jean-Pierre Mocky this year) and its unique selection of filmic gems. Nicolas Guichard
The Unjust (Bu-dang-geo-rae, 2011, dir Ryoo Seung-wan)
An honest cop is forced to resort to the worse methods (including joining forces with a criminal) in order to make progress as he investigates a series of children’s murders. This dark crime thriller follows in the footsteps of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, but despite a script penned by Park Hoon-jung (writer of Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil), and director Ryoo Seung-wan’s talent for action scenes, it is not as inspired as its predecessor, nor does it share its sense of the absurd and its delirious ‘realism’. The main idea of the central character’s betrayal (of his principles and of his team) and his voluntary degradation to solve the case (the end justifies the means) is weakened by some longueurs and verbose scenes that tend to water down the dénouement. NG
The Unjust is the closing film of the London Korean Film Festival on November 17. The festival runs from November 3 to 17 and includes a Ryoo Seung-wan retrospective.
Meat (2010, dir Victor Nieuwenhuijs & Maartje Seyferth)
Surreal Dutch neo-noirMeat, a film concerned with the flesh in all its forms, owes its existence in part to the generosity of a local butcher with a passion for cinema, and to that of lead actor Titus Muizelaar. A famous TV actor in his native Netherlands, Muizelaar gave up his holiday time for three consecutive summers to play a part that has since won him a lead actor gong at the Deboshir film festival in St Petersburg. The former provided the lamb, beef and pork – as well as the hands that chop it on screen. The latter plays both a lugubrious detective, coping dispassionately with the sudden suicide of his former partner, and a butcher, grunting and rutting amid the hanging carcasses of his own cold storage like a randy bull. In between the two, Nellie Benner plays Roxy, a young girl seduced, abused and abandoned by seemingly every man she meets. But the real star is undoubtedly the meat itself: chops, steaks and cubed beef heart, filmed in loving close-up, as erotic as any living flesh on the screen. The narrative unfolds with the logic of a dream, drifting wantonly and waywardly into abrupt changes of time, pace and style. A carnal film, both literally and viscerally, with its heart not so much on its sleeve, as on its plate. Robert Barry
Salue le diable de ma part (Saluda al diablo de mi parte, 2011, dir Juan Felipe Orozco)
In this thriller that deftly exploits Columbia’s political reality (the amnesty offered by the state to the guerilleros who have put down their weapons), director Juan Felipe Orozco focuses on Angel (nicknamed ‘El Diablo’), a repentant revolutionary who is having difficulty reintegrating into society. He lives with his daughter in a somewhat shabby flat until one day one of his former victims kidnaps his daughter and gives him three days to eliminate the members of his ex-group. The contrast between Angel’s ghostly appearance and the stylised violence of the action scenes is not unoriginal, but the revenge set-up, in which the victim forces their torturer to avenge them, sadly soon loses momentum because of the plot’s strict linear structure. NG
Alone in the Dark (1982, dir Jack Sholder)
Sometimes the border is the best vantage point for viewing territories on either side. Jack Sholder’s 1982 psycho-shocker Alone in the Dark is just such a liminal case, poised at the very moment when the more politicised, sociological horror films of the 1970s (Dawn of the Dead, The Fury, Scanners, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) turn into the supernatural psycho-on-the-loose slashers of the 1980s (typified by the extensive sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th). Alone in the Dark, the first film produced by New Line Cinema (A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.) might have begun in the 70s, but from the entrance of Lee Taylor-Ann (in the role of nyctophobe Toni Potter) in her pink and black ra-ra skirt, inviting the other characters to go out and see a really cool band downtown (The Sic Fucks, as themselves), it is clear that we could be in no other decade than the 80s. In one particular scene we can see the crossover quite precisely. In the midst of a blackout, ordinary citizens are spontaneously looting and running amok. The blackout has caused the sophisticated electronic locking system of the psychiatric hospital to break down and release four homicidal lunatics who walk into this chaos, one of them wearing a hockey mask. It is as though Jason from Friday the 13th had wandered onto the set of Dawn of the Dead (Friday the 13th part III, the first of the series in which we see Jason Vorhees in a hockey mask, was released just three months before Alone in the Dark, so we can probably rule out any deliberate reference on either part). ‘Sure, they’re crazy,’ says Donald Pleasance’s pot-smoking shrink (based on R.D. Laing), ‘but isn’t everybody?’ It is perhaps a shame that the rest of the 1980s slasher films would tend to forget this second clause. RB
Viva la muerte (1971, dir Fernando Arrabal)
This film was presented as part of Jean-Pierre Mocky’s ‘carte blanche’. In his introduction to the screening, Mocky enthusiastically congratulated the organisers because he’d realised, after choosing the films, how difficult it would be to find copies (in particular John Ford’s The Last Hurrah).
Viva la muerte is one of the key works of Panic, the ‘movement’ founded nine years earlier by Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor. This autobiographical evocation of Arrabal’s childhood (based on his novel Baal Babylon) and of his memories of the Spanish Civil War moves between the ‘real’ life of Fando (whose father was denounced to the fascists by his mother) and his fantasies (in sequences filmed in coloured filters). But the boundary gradually becomes blurred and porous, as if the unconscious was pouring into reality. Even though Viva la muerte is not as impressive as Jodorowsky’s work, Arrabal recaptures the freshness of Buñuel’s surrealist imagery (Un chien andalou). Thanks to his sense of the baroque and his interest in confusion (a Panic key word), Arrabal invites us to a sort of orgiastic ritual that conjures the mythological figures of the sacrificial victim (the absent father) and the cruel ‘virgin’, both Eros and Thanatos (the mother, doubling up in the character of the aunt). NG
Super (2010, dir James Gunn)
This, perhaps, is what happens when Troma directors grow up – or rather, fail to: they make films in which grown men cry (and then brutally murder various inconsequential characters and cop off with girls half their age). Gunn broke into movie-making in his mid-20s, taking the director’s chair for Tromeo and Juliet. Following the success of this ‘no holds bard’ Shakespeare adaptation for the low-budget schlock stable (home of The Toxic Avenger), Gunn hit the big league with screenplays for two Scoobie Doo films and a big-budget Dawn of the Dead remake. Now he’s back doing his own thing, shooting his own original screenplay, and clearly having a whale of a time. Super follows the comic book life ‘between the panels’ of the world’s most pathetic super-hero, The Crimson Bolt. The film has all the yucks and irreverence you’d expect from a former Troma man – he even finds room to give his old boss, Lloyd Kaufman, a cameo – and it rattles along at a fine old pace. In truth, there’s little not to like here, as long as you weren’t expecting Tarkovsky – and if you were, then, my god, what were you thinking? Where the film falls down is in the moments where it tries to be a little more grown-up. The sentiment is weak and somewhat tacked on. In the end, it’s the bits where the film ‘exposes its real feelings’ that are the true mask, hiding the gleeful, anarchic face underneath. RB
Piscine sans eau (A Pool without Water/Mizu no nai puuru, 1982, dir Kôji Wakamatsu)
An outwardly dull man (played by the impressive Yûya Uchida) enters the house of young women at night, then chloroforms and rapes them. From this premise Wakamatsu creates a strange, oneiric film, a poetic parable on the relationship to the other in a fossilised society. The originality of the film lies in the manner in which the director uses the conventions of the erotic genre and the references to childhood (games with insects and dolls) to compose an ode to the common man’s quest for freedom. It is a freedom that is negative, just like the waterless swimming pool that gives the film its title, as if the relationships between men and women could only be created through transgression. A true moralist, Wakamatsu paints the picture of a man-child who has found the way to literally touch the object of his desire and liberate himself by giving free rein to his erotic madness. NG
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir Panos Cosmatos)
My pick of the festival by a country mile. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a highly stylised and oppressively atmospheric take on the kind of weird dystopian science fiction the 1970s did so well – Logan’s Run, Scanners, THX-1138, The Andromeda Strain, etc. – from which it picks up and exaggerates elements to the point of parody in a world of coloured lights and modernist set designs. The music is pitched somewhere between the mid-70s synths of John Carpenter and the ‘spectral’ sound of such recent electronic acts as The Focus Group and Boards of Canada. The story is set in a health-resort-cum-religious-community ‘in a beautiful place out in the country’, to quote the BoC track whose mood comes closest to capturing the spirit of this film. Indeed, it could be said that with its coloristic compositions and repetitive scenic plan, the film’s structure is more musical than novelistic, dovetailing neatly with the ‘hauntological’ moment in contemporary music pinpointed by critics such as Mark Fisher, Adam Harper and Simon Reynolds. What is perhaps most intriguing – and indeed most hauntological – about the film is its apt demonstration that, today, in order to present a future that is genuinely ‘other’ one must set one’s narrative not in the world ‘of tomorrow’, but in the recent past. RB
Beyond the Black Rainbow screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011.
Dementia (1955, dir John Parker)
Dementia is a true oddity, cited in Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films. Shot in the mid-50s, it is a black and white film with no dialogue, in fact no synch sound whatsoever (a voice-over was added later for the re-release under a different title), just an eerie, creepy score by one-time ‘bad boy’ of new music George Antheil. Tonight, Antheil’s score has been replaced (although ghostly traces of it remain, as distorted loops, somewhere in the mix) by a live soundtrack performed by Church of Satan councilman and occasional white supremacist pin-up Boyd Rice, along with Dwid Hellion from US hardcore group Integrity. Hellion and Rice make use of a bizarre selection of instruments, from the double bass harmonica (apparently recommended by Addams Family composer Vic Mizzy) and a curious brass-pronged device called a waterphone, whose sound is immediately recognisable from a thousand horror films. These instruments are then sampled and looped, punctuated by occasional bursts of distortion pedal guitar noise, in accompaniment to the oneiric narrative on screen. A woman wakes up, wanders the streets, meets a man, murders him, and runs away from the police – only to wake once more, the waves crashing over her dreams like ill-repressed memories. Dementia is usually credited to producer John Parker, but Wikipedia claims it was actually directed by actor Bruno Ve Sota (who plays the Rich Man, and also directed such classic 50s Bs as The Brain Eaters and Invasion of the Star Creatures). Most famous for being the film showing in the cinema sequence in Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958). RB
Take Shelter (2011, dir Jeff Nichols)
In the rural American south, a miner starts having dreams of a terrible storm coming. When the dreams start spilling out into his waking hours he begins obsessively taking precautions against what he is sure is a real storm to come. The second feature from Jeff Nichols makes more than a passing reference to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, though thankfully with the magical-native-folk clichés excised. Instead, we are offered one of the more harrowing cinematic portraits of mental collapse since Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, with which Nichols’s film also shares more than a passing acquaintance. Curiously, the more I found myself nerve-wracked and devastated by the unfolding domestic catastrophe on screen, the more the rest of the audience in Paris started laughing. Actually, now I come to think of it, when I saw Bigger Than Life at the same cinema a few months back, everyone else was laughing too. Maybe Parisians just enjoy watching ordinary Americans lose their mind. Either way, as torment or farce, Take Shelter is stylishly shot and convincingly performed by its two leads, Michael Shannon (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) and Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life). RB
Flesh+Blood (1985, dir Paul Verhoeven)
Before Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Trooper, Paul Verhoeven spent his first American film on an extended jaunt around the medieval castles of Spain, bringing along a few old friends from his native Netherlands – Rutger Hauer, Jan De Bont – for the ride. Flesh+Blood is a knights-on-a-quest epic with all the carnage and carnal knowledge one would expect from Verhoeven, playing fast and loose with accents and anachronism, and not a ‘forsooth’ or a ‘hey nonny nonny’ in sight. In a sense, the film is a kind of Once upon a Time in the West for the romance, an elegy for the end of the medieval era. All three of its principal characters represent the rise of a new order against the old feudal ties: Rutger Hauer’s Martin is the ruthless capitalist, who promises his fellows equality only to assume noble airs and graces when the opportunity arises; Tom Burlinson’s Steven could be the contemporary of Francis Bacon, turning science into technology subjugated to the war machine. They are of course one and the same, as Agnes (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a scheming opportunist, the very prototype of the modern footballer’s wife) realises only too well. One of the grimiest films about the era, Flesh+Blood is also one of the most insightful. RB
The Hitcher (1986, dir Robert Harmon)
The Hitcher has a great premise, and it knows it, exploiting some very basic fears that have doubtless been felt by any motorist who has ever seen an outstretched thumb on a lonely road at night. With that, the film has a confidence, an assurance that prevents it from taking too many wrong steps. The taut structure keeps the tension high when it needs to be, and always knows when best to diffuse it with a well-timed gag (a severed finger with your chips, sir?). The film’s star Rutger Hauer said in introducing the film at the screening that this is not just a horror film, but also a love story: from the moment his John Ryder thrusts his hand into C. Thomas Howell’s crotch, an erotic power play unfolds with several layers of complexity. One final thought on this film: towards the end, sitting in the back of a police van, Hauer’s hitcher is seen humming to himself the tune to ‘Daisy’, the song Arthur C. Clarke heard a computer sing at Bell Labs and decided to appropriate for Hal in 2001. At this point in the film, we have just discovered that this man has no records on any computer, no place of origin, and is almost impossible to kill. Might he, in fact, be reprising his role from Blade Runner, made four years earlier? RB
The Oregonian (2011, dir Calvin Reeder)
Of course, every festival has to have at least one real stinker, and The Oregonian, sad to say, is really, truly, irredeemably awful in every possible sense. The acting is pathetic, the shooting laughable, the script (there’s a script?!) even worse. The best I can say is that there is nice furniture in one scene. According to writer/director Calvin Reeder’s smug-as-chips IMDB page, he has been named one of Filmmaker magazine’s ’25 new faces of independent film’ – I can only presume they mean faces to run and hide from, faces not to trust with your production money, faces that seriously deserve a good kicking. How this film got accepted into this festival – let alone Sundance earlier in the year – is beyond me. I’d assume the people who made it were taking the piss, that this was some grand spoof on the pseudo-surreal, except this was probably the only film I saw at this festival at which nobody laughed once. I felt pity for the rest of the audience as we grimly endured this useless mess of a motion picture. I sincerely hope that no one involved in this production – from exec producer to set runner – is ever allowed to work in film again. RB
Sudd, a short film by Swede Erik Rosenlund, shows a world of elegant black and white cinematography, gradually being eaten by a disease of animated scribbles. With the rise of high-quality computer animation software packages available off the shelf and capable of turning any laptop into a professional cartoon suite, the narrative of this film could be the narrative of shorts programmes at film festivals the world over, with the increasingly prevalent drawn-not-ray-traced style a kind of compulsory supplement, as much a product of the slick digi-style it seeks to countermand as anything else.
Paths of Glory, shown as part of the fifth shorts package, is little more than a boy’s own adventure dogfight story with some demons and lame-ass heavy metal tacked on the end, etched in the style of the contemporary comic shop. Condamné à vie is more bande dessinée than Marvel Universe and at least raises a few laughs, but still uses the hand-drawn style as a sort of ideological screen to conceal its mode of production. Much better is the somewhat relentless Dutch fantasia Get Real! Here, the scribble is less a self-reflexive imitation pencil than the gleeful mouse-squiggle of a first-time Paint user, a chip-tune-soundtracked story about puppy love and arcade obsessiveness that takes every opportunity to emphasise its own cybernetic provenance.
Elsewhere, big-budget Brit animation A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation starts off like a mournful, cautionary tale in a vaguely Hilaire Belloc sort of way and ends up as a car advert – it does, however, boast a voice-over by Ian McKellen, which is enough to redeem almost anything. Putain Lapin simultaneously satirises Jean Eustache and Donnie Darko, in a surreal take on the grainy 16mm of the nouvelle vague. As the title suggests, a prostitute meets a giant fuzzy bear, mistakes him for a rabbit, they fall in love. It’s all rather sweet.
The other British offering, Endless, steals from Antichrist and Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho installation with a super slo-mo bathroom murder story with a score that sounds suspiciously like the Handel aria used by von Trier (no prizes for guessing what their temp track was). A hint to Matt Bloom, director of this one: if you’re going to subject your images to the in-depth examination that slow motion inevitably induces, you’d better make sure you’ve got a good image, and not a rather clumsily lit home movie out-take.
The best films on the shorts programme I saw were Sudd (already mentioned) and Decapoda Shock, both of which mixed an inventive and articulate use of ‘real’ cinematography with the freedom of expression afforded by occasional intrusions of animation. The latter, a Spanish sci-fi movie with a man with a lobster’s head for a hero, got my vote for the audience prize in the festival’s ‘competition courts-métrages’. RB
Decapoda Shock screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011 and is curated by some of the people behind L’Etrange Festival. The programme includes scientific and literary talks, exhibitions, video games and films. The film selection includes premieres of Tarsem Singh’s Immortals and Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial, screenings of Richard Stanley’s Hardware, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and Ren&#e Laloux’s Fantastic Planet + short films, documentaries and a conference on Satoshi Kon.
Lee Chang-dong is a Korean novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker and even a former Minister of Culture and Tourism. Poetry, his fifth film, is about an ageing woman who must cope with the distress of discovering that her grandson is implicated in a horrific crime, and its fallout.
Sarah Cronin interviewed Lee Chang-dong by email and asked him about the death of poetry, the beauty of small things and the importance of ‘seeing well’.
SC: Where did your inspiration for the story come from? Was it the rape and suicide of the young girl, or the character of this older woman facing dementia?
LCD:It started with a sexual assault case that had actually happened in a small town in South Korea, which was committed by a group of juveniles. But the real case was a bit different from the film; the girl, the victim, didn’t commit suicide. However, this case had penetrated into my mind and did not leave. And although I wanted to talk about this issue through my film, I was not sure about the means. Of course, there would be easy ways that I can think of. For instance, have the victim fight for justice with difficulty, or have a journalist or a police detective, or a third person striving to search for the hidden truth, etc. However, I didn’t want to adopt those conventional ways. This case eventually became the story for my film when I came across the main character, a woman in her 60s wishing to write a poem for the first time in her life, who faces Alzheimer’s disease. To sum up, this story was finally born from a combination of different elements: the sexual assault case, the suicide of a girl, and the lady in her 60s writing a poem.
Why did you choose to build the film around the central theme of poetry?
While I was trying to figure out a way to deal with this sexual assault case in a film, I was travelling in Japan when I happened to watch a TV programme intended for the sleepless tourists in my hotel room one night. Watching the typical landscape visuals with meditation music-type sounds of peaceful rivers, flying birds, fishermen throwing their nets, it suddenly occurred to me that the title of the film dealing with this cruel case should be Poetry. The film character and plot came to my mind at the same time, along with the title. All these things didn’t come through logical thinking but instinctively and intuitively. But perhaps my old questions and thoughts suddenly found their small resolution at that moment. Questions of what? Questions like, why do I write novels and make films; and to what extent my writings or films can affect the world. Art is a pursuit for beauty and there is the question of how it is related to the filth and vice of the world. The question is similar to what Theodor Adorno had asked: is it possible to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz? The character Mija in the film asks those questions instead of me. She may be old, but she is naive enough to ask them. Like all beginners are naive.
One of the poets that Mija meets says that ‘Poetry deserves to die’ – is there some truth in that? And why do you think film and poetry are dying?
People nowadays do not read or write poetry. Do you see any young people who write poems around you? Students learn poetry as if they are learning archaic words. People would ask back, ‘Can you make a living by writing poetry?’ They’re right. Poetry doesn’t guarantee anything. It doesn’t guarantee any pleasure or desire. It has no value economically. Maybe it exists only in a form of advertisement copy. Poetry is dying. If poetry is an act of pursuing hidden beauty or truth, an act of questioning our lives, it can also be another form of art, it can be cinema. In this regard, cinema is also dying. While some films are massively consumed as ever, other films, films that I’d like to create, films I’d like to see, are becoming more difficult to find. Films that make people observe the world with different eyes, to feel invisible beauty and to question life. Do those films still exist? Do you wish for those films to exist? These are the questions that I want to ask.
What appealed to you the most about Mija’s character, and also Yun Jung-hee? Mija is this very feminine older woman, who also seems very enigmatic. You never explain anything about why her daughter left, or what happened to her husband.
When I first thought of the character Mija I wrote her down as ‘Wearing a hat and a fancy scarf, she looks like a girl going on a picnic’. The description ‘like a girl’ was important in showing her character. She may be an old lady, but she is like a little girl inside. She is innocent and naive, like a child who wonders about everything that the child sees for the first time. A beauty that goes against time, like a dried flower. An unrealistic character who still feels and talks like an immature girl, despite her age. Which are also the characteristics of the actress Yun Jung-hee. I named the character Mija because I couldn’t think of any alternatives. Though the name Mija is old-fashioned and it is not common nowadays, it has the meaning of ‘beauty’ in it. Anyway, Yun Jung-hee’s real name turned out to be Mija. I didn’t think it was coincidence, but fate. Mija’s past life might not have been easy. Maybe she has been abandoned by a man. Maybe her daughter was following in her footsteps. However, I didn’t want to describe their backgrounds directly to the audience. Rather I wanted the audience to feel and understand them through their present.
The poetry teacher stresses that the ‘important thing in life is seeing’ and ‘to see well’. Do you feel the same as a filmmaker – that it’s your duty to see what’s around you, and reveal it on film?
That comment made by the poetry teacher represents my thoughts to some extent. ‘To see well’ is a fundamental aspect in writing poetry or making films. Films show the world on behalf of the audience’s eyes. However, the films that we make, what kind of eyes are they in showing the world to the audience? Some films make us see the world differently, while some make us see only what we want to see. And some films do not let us see anything.
Do you believe that it’s important to always find beauty in small things – the apricot that’s fallen to the ground, for example? Is that something you also try to express in your films?
To discover hidden beauty and meaning in small and trivial things is the fundamental element, not only for film, but also for all art genres. The problem is, beauty doesn’t exist per se. Like the light and shadow, whether it’s visible or not, beauty co-exists with pain, filth, and ugliness. Apricots need to fall down to earth to create a new life. Therefore, art is an irony as itself. As so are our lives.
Your films often feature characters who are disabled – in this case it’s a man who’s had a stroke. Why is his relationship with Mija central to the film?
They are mostly characters with communication barriers, rather than being physically disabled. I always dream of communicating with audiences through my films. So, those characters in my films, in a way, represent the part of me that is not communicated, that longs to communicate. However, the old man character in the film having a fit of apoplexy represents disabled masculinity. That is, the macho man’s sexual desire, which makes him beg to ‘be a man’ for one last time after becoming ill and helpless, despite the money and power that he achieved in the past. And when Mija accepts that desire, she defiles her own body like the dead girl.
It’s very disturbing that the fathers care so little about the gang rape and death of the girl. Is this attitude – pay off the mother, the school, newspapers – common in Korea? Are you trying to make a wider comment on corruption?
I admit that parents in South Korea tend to be overprotective of their children. However, I believe that all societies have similar attitudes to sexual violence, although there are variations. People, especially men, think revealing the problem never helps anyone, even the victims. That is why they do not seem to feel guilty in covering up the problem.
Mija’s poem, ‘Agnes’s Song’, turns out to be a beautiful, poetic suicide note, written from the young girl’s point of view. When you started the script, did you already know that was the form the poem would take? It’s an incredible moment in the film, when the young girl’s voice takes over the narration.
Agnes is the Christian name of the dead girl. Mija is eventually able to write a poem after she accepted the pain of Agnes as her own, the life of the girl as her own. Therefore, the one poem that Mija leaves in the world is the one that she wrote on behalf of the girl. Mija speaks out with the voice that the girl would have wanted to leave behind. The two become one through the poem. When Mija’s voice changes into Hee-jin’s, the audience can feel that the destinies of Mija and the girl are overlapping, and that the two characters are united as one.
Why did you choose to close the film with a shot of Agnes turning to look at the camera, rather than a scene with Mija, or Wook? It’s a very powerful, but also very open-ended conclusion.
I wanted the audience to face her directly at the end of the film. I wanted people to remember her faintly smiling face and expression directly looking into the camera, and to accept her emotions along with Mija’s poem. Mija has gone after she has finished writing the poem. I wanted to make people feel Mija’s absence while listening to her poem. Where did she go? I left the answer up to the audience. I pictured the film to have much space, as poems do. Blanks that the audiences could fill in. In that sense it can be seen as an ‘open’ film. The conclusion will be in the audience’s mind.
A dark tale about a mother who will go to extreme lengths to save her son, and a stunning blend of bewildering intensity, daring artistry and storytelling magic, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother was one of the highlights at the London Film Festival in October 2009 and screened in London again a month later as part of the London Korean Film Festival. Mother features a striking central performance from Korean TV actress Kim Hye-ja as the vigilant mother whose 28-year-old son, a shy and mentally impaired young man, finds himself framed for murder. Although there is no real evidence against him, the police are eager to close the case, and his mother has no alternative but to get involved to prove his innocence. But how far will a mother go to save her son? And how did one of South Korea’s most promising young filmmakers, who recently smashed Korean box office records with monster movie The Host (2006) approach such a topic?
Pamela Jahn had the pleasure to take part in a round table interview of Bong Joon-ho at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where Mother had its world premiere in the non-competitive Un Certain Regard section.
Q: You’ve been working on this film for almost five years, yet it seems fuelled with burning passion from beginning to end.
Bong Joon-ho: Yes, I had the general idea for the story even before The Host and I wrote a first synopsis in early 2004. That was also when I first met the main actress, Kim Hye-ja. And the fact that we could finally work together as director and actress was an unbelievable experience for me. So even while I was working on The Host and on the episode I contributed to Tokyo! (2008), in the back of my head I was already working on Mother too.
When did you make the decision to cast Kim Hye-ja in the lead role?
It was not like the usual procedure where after writing the script I start looking for an actress who might fit the role. It’s this actress who really inspired me and got me to write the story in the first place. She is not very well known abroad, but in Korea she is an almost mythical actress, like the ‘mother of the nation’, and I had been a fan of hers since I was little. The first time I met Hye-ja it was a little surreal actually, she was almost like a dreamer. She was completely different from what I had seen on TV. So in reaction to this I wanted to show her in a role that is completely the opposite of her TV appearances and express her personality from a different point of view, looking at the hysteria and madness that lie beneath the surface of her great gentleness and warmth.
How much influence did Kim Hye-ja have in the development of her character in the film?
I met her on a regular basis while writing the script, often several times a month, and I took some pictures that helped me a lot writing the story and developing her role.
Did you also have Won Bin in mind for the role of the son while working on the story?
No, it was only after I finished the script that I started looking for an actor to play the son. For this character I wanted someone who would fit with her, but also someone who could make her completely mad, and Won Bin turned out to be the perfect match.
In both its tone and narrative structure, Mother is very different from the films you directed before, like Memories of Murder (2003) or The Host. Why this shift in direction?
In Memories of Murder, I wanted to represent Korean society in the 80s when it was under military dictatorship, and I liked the fact that I was dealing with a number of different themes like the family and the system, and I was exposing Korean society and the military regime by looking into the serial killings. But I got a bit tired of what was mainly a stylistic exercise and a general denunciation. So in Mother, I wanted to tell a story that could be seen almost as if through a magnifying glass where the light is so concentrated that it can burn paper. I wanted to find the essence of the story. So the relationship between mother and son is the focus, and every element in the story, from the murder in the village to some other minor incidents, is there to explore this relationship in its entirety. But if you look at the film on the whole, it is not just about motherhood and their relationship, it also hints at something greater again.
Did you feel a lot of pressure while making the film given that it was your follow-up feature to The Host, which was the biggest box office hit in Korean film history?
To be honest, I am a little bit uncomfortable with that, and I really hope that there will be a Korean movie coming up soon to break the record. But it didn’t bother me while I was making Mother because I started working on the project way before The Host came out in Korea, so I could maintain the tone that I had intended for this film in the first place.
Mother is very distinctive in style, especially in the way attention is paid to colour and locations, but there are also these wonderful moments when the mother somehow becomes isolated from the background. What was the main focus in terms of the aesthetics of the film?
I wanted to put the character in an extreme situation and find out how she would react. That was the most important thing for me, so everything had to fully focus on the mother character, including the style and look of the film but also the music. We had some wild discussions with the art director about the clothes that she wears and what colour could best describe her character and her thoughts. I think that the opening scene shows this very well – her madness and the feeling that she is completely out of this world. She is wearing these weird purple clothes and she is hiding her hand in her pocket. Then we hear the sound of her cutting herbs and we see blood on her finger… so, basically, it’s all in there: the fate, the tragedy and the madness. These are the main elements I tried to express in that first scene, but they also stand for the film as a whole.
How is your relationship to your own mother? Did she serve as an inspiration here?
Well, she didn’t kill anybody [laughs]. Actually, she hasn’t seen the movie yet, and I am very excited but also a little bit worried because she also has a tendency to obsession. I mean, I am 40 years old and she is still constantly worried about me. So, yes, in some way my mother also inspired me in making the film I guess, but not primarily. And don’t tell her I said that.
Venues: Cineworld Shaftsbury Av (London) and key cities
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Writers: Kim Jee-woon, Kim Min-suk
Original title: Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung
South Korea 2008
After the intelligent psychological horror movie A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and the noir-inflected A Bittersweet Life (2005), Kim Jee-woon returns with an Asian take on the Western. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is an uproarious action-packed romp with more than a nod to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), from the gunslingers’ supremely cool attitude in the face of death to the nonchalant whistling on the Ennio Morricone-inspired soundtrack.
Virginie Sélavy talked to the director during the London Korean Film Festival in October 2008.
Virginie Sélavy: You seem to tackle a new genre every time you make a film: you did comedy horror in The Quiet Family (1998), horror in A Tale of Two Sisters, film noir in A Bittersweet Life and now you’re taking on the Western. Is this deliberate?
Kim Jee-woon: I don’t know yet which genre I’m best at so I have to try lots of different ones! I don’t want to repeat a genre that I’ve already done because working with a variety of styles inspires me and gives me more cinematic energy. The genre I choose for each film is directly related to the theme. For example, when I chose horror, the theme of the film was the fear of things that you can and cannot see. Action films are about violence. With film noir it’s about the point at which people will break. And with a Western, the theme is revenge; it’s about strong male characters competing about who’s the best; and it’s about chasing and being chased. So when I choose a genre I choose a theme.
VS: In the credits, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is labelled an ‘oriental Western’. In what way is it different from a traditional Western?
KJW: Traditional Westerns have a low-key construction, a slow pace and simple action. I wanted to appeal to a more modern audience by making the action more powerful, by speeding up the pace and by having multi-dimensional characters, rather than just good and bad characters. Rather than just say ‘oriental Western’ I prefer to say that it’s a ‘kimchi Western’. Kimchi is a Korean dish of fermented cabbage, it’s very spicy and very hot. I like to call it that because the film reflects Korean people, who are very dynamic and spicy, just like kimchi.
VS:The Good, The Bad, The Weird was clearly very strongly influenced by Sergio Leone. Do you see your film as a homage, a parody or a re-invention?
KJW: All of them (laughs)! It started as a homage, but I tried to make it fun, with lots of humour, and I believe that there is some re-invention. It’s all of them.
VS: Why replace ‘The Ugly’ with ‘The Weird’?
KJW: Because when you call a character ‘Ugly’ it’s very limiting. But when you call a character ‘Weird’ it triggers your imagination, it makes you excited and it makes you expect more.
VS: The character of Tae-goo/The Weird, played by Song Kang-ho, seems to be the most different from the characters in both Leone’s films and in spaghetti Westerns in general. He seems closer to the type of character that Song Kang-ho also plays in The Host (2006) and in Memories of Murder (2003). At first, he seems to be a fool, but in the end he is revealed to be the most complex character in the film. Was he the character that you found most interesting?
KJW: The Tae-goo character is closer to human nature. You can identify with him. The Good and The Bad are very conventional characters, so without The Weird this film would only be entertainment. That’s why I wanted The Weird to lead the whole story, so human life was reflected through his character – it’s about how it can get complicated and how things can go wrong.
VS: You’ve said before that no one is meant to be just The Good, just The Bad or just The Weird, but Do-won seems to be the one with more good in him, Chang-yi with more bad in him and Tae-goo with more weird in him.
KJW: Initially they’re all good, bad and weird in their own way. Do-won is good, Chang-yi is bad and Tae-goo is weird, but to make things more complicated, I gave a different mission to all the characters. I told The Good that his mission was to do super-spectacular action, I told The Bad to express emotions and sensibility and I asked The Weird to lead the story and the pace of the film.
VS: There are many references to the Koreans no longer having their own country in the film. How important is the historical background to the story?
KJW: I chose that period and that place because that’s probably the most suitable time for a Western, so it’s the other way around – the story came first. But because the historical issues were very heavy during that period, whether I intended it or not, people always say there are political issues in the film.
VS: Why do you feel that this was the best period for a Western?
KJW: First of all, to make a Western it’s very important to have a place where you can ride a horse, and as you can see in the film, the endless landscape in Manchuria is perfect. There were all those countries, China, Japan, Russia, fighting for control of Manchuria at that time, so there’s this atmosphere of lawlessness that is very suitable. It also means that there are lots of different people there for different reasons and I was interested in showing this multicultural situation. And then, there are a lot of bandits, which was also perfect for a Western and I wanted to show that very rough, wild time.
VS: You say that political issues are not important, but the idea that the three main characters are free but don’t have a country comes back several times. Is the film about Korean identity in some way?
KJW: The scene where Do-won and Tae-goo talk under the moonlight is about identity and for that reason probably appeals more to Korean audiences than to Western audiences. It’s about a certain Korean sensibility.
VS: There is also a very spectacular scene in which Do-won single-handedly inflicts some serious losses on the Japanese army. It’s a great action scene but I was wondering if it was also a way of expressing some kind of anger at Japan in a humorous way?
KJW: I guess you’re right (laughs). Er… (more laughs). Yes, but it is only in a humorous way, it’s not a political statement.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews