Saturday, May 07, 2005

Staying Dry At the Cinema

Nice old fashioned spring nor'easter outside, most of the day - so I spent as much of it as I could indoors, seeing films. Two in the afternoon - a third at night.

[Please forgive some of the sins of this post, and please do not be surprised if it continues to change over the next couple days. I hope to polish it a bit, but want it online while I do. So expect further editing.]

1) Cowards Bend at the kneee - Guy Maddin; almost silent, shot like a silent film, in 10 chapters, originally made to be shown in 10 peep shows. A frenetic tale of hockey, surgery, murder and vengeance, ghosts, sexual restlessness ("the joy joy joy of meeting someone new!"), and the cowardice of men unwilling to deal with the troubles of marriage and family. Vaseline, subtitles, film loops, and frustration abound. It's a delight, let's not deny it, a convincing dream narrative.... Shown along with three shorts - Sissy Boy Slap Party, Sombra Dolorosa and A Trip to the Orphanage.

2) Bad Guy: an older film by Kim Ki-duk , director of Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter... and Spring and the new 3-Iron. Starts with a creepy looking gent flirting - sort of - with a college girl. She and her boyfriend say mean things about him, he kisses her, she humiliates him - so he frames her, and before long she's been forced into prostitution. You may think it is a spoiler to add that he is in love with her and she eventually sort of falls in love with him - if you think that is a spoiler, you need to see more movies. I will say no more here - at the bottom of the post, you can find much in the way of spoilage, if you're so inclined.

3) The Man Who Left His Will on Film: 1970 film by Nagisa Oshima - story concerns 2 students, Motoki and Yasuko, who look for information about a (possible) third student who left his will on film before he jumped off a building. These 2 (or 3) are part of a group of students trying to make political films during student demonstrations - though the rest of the students seem far more interested in arguing, accusing one another of apostasy and wrong thinking and moral, political and aesthetic bankruptcy. Motoki and Yasuko watch the testament film, argue about it while having sex in front of a projection of it, and finally end up trying to film an exact replica of it - or rather Motoki does, Yasuko tries to stop him. In the end - well... think circles.... It is a fairly interesting experiment - showing the paranoid style of the late 60s early 70s (an international style, after all)... Though what emerges from it, most interestingly, is the footage of Tokyo - buildings, roads, streets, apartments, neighborhoods, shops, signs, bridges, electric wires, etc. The landscape starts to feel real, while the people are insubstantial ghosts flitting about within it.

Now then: back to Bad Guy.

I am not sure what I think of Kim Ki-duk. This is hardly a pleasant film. The pimp kidnaps this college girl - spies on her with her clients, as she learns the trade, broods over her. Eventually the pimp and his pals fall on one another, and most end up dead, though he survives (quite miraculously, as he is stabbed twice during the film, sentenced to be hanged (but reprieved at the last moment), and bears the scar of a past throat cutting), and sets off to the coast with the girl, where she starts tricking among the fishermen. There is also, unfortunately, a bit of magic - the girl finds a torn up photograph that turns out to show the two of them together on the beach... Hey! It's just like Robbe Grillet or something! like the Oshima, come to think of it!

Anyway - the plot is obnoxious enough. At least the soulful pimp and Stockholm syndrome stuff. The style is odd: it is very handsome at times, there are a few extraordinary shots - but Kim hasn't got the greatest since of rhythm, his films tend to fall flat. I saw The Isle a couple years ago, and felt the same way - handsome looking, but with very little snap or rhythm; there are some startling images (the fishhook business in The Isle is worthy of Takashi Miike), but they are not well integrated into the film as a whole. Bad Guy is similar - it looks good - that understated, slightly gritty style that some Korean and Japanese films feature (never as slick as American crime pictures, even Tarantino - nor as jumpy and unsettling as Hong Kong films, or the more aggressive Japanese and Korean films - or European crime pictures, which tend to go for the documentary look, if I remember right.) The acting is also understated - or - the main characters are: they are ciphers - the people around them, oddly, are far more animated than they are. Have more, clearer, motivations, backstories, emotions, etc. than they do.

Though it's things like that that keep me from writing Kim off as a hack (the "Freddy Mercury of Korean cinema" as Tony Rayns put it in Film Comment.) It's hard to get a handle on some of the features of this film, but it's something. One example is the way the central characters are flatter than the secondary ones. Another is the way Kim undermines expectations - scenes that look like they are about to turn violent become comic; scenes that look like two characters might connect, or turn romantic, turn violent or abusive - or a character will hit the wrong person. Here are two examples: 1) in prison, Han-gi's friend (Han-gi is the pimp) stages a breakout when Han-gi is on the way to the gallows - the friend locks up one cop and charges down the corridor with a club, and attacks - Han-gi... he also confesses the crime Han-gi is about to die for, so Han-gi is soon back on the street... 2) The end - the pimp and the girl have become friends - escaped the whorehouses and gang wars, gone to the sea. There, he fixes up a truck with a bed, two pillows, and they drive to the coast - where, in so many films before this, the crook asks for honest work and leaves his life of crime - but here, he's looking for customers for the girl. Logical, probably more believable than the usual story, but sill a mild surprise, which Kim exploits.

But is this enough to overcome the problems? The plot - which is no less predictable than offensive - of course she falls for him! Jeez, that's what whores do with their pimps! And the style of the film has the same problem - there is nothing here that hasn't been done before. (Except maybe the flat center, deeper periphery - maybe; and that might not be intentional.) There is never a feeling that there is anything new going on. None of those surprises are all that unusual - they are nicely done, subtle enough that you have to think about it a while to really catch the pattern, but definitely there.... But they are still nothing new. It rolls along without any real individuality, any real sense of invention or exploration. Compared to other Korean films I've seen recently (I've seen quite a few lately - I've been trying to track them down), Oldboy or Memories of Murder, say, even Joint Security Area (which I finally saw a couple weeks ago), there's very little here that feels like you're seeing something new. The whole thing feels like an attempt to work out how Beat Takeshi (say) makes a film.

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