Category: East Asian Cinema

Recent films from India and Japan

Some posts on films from India, Japan and China are now appearing on The Global Film Book Blog. I’ve added a feed from that blog in the left-hand sidebar on this blog. If you follow both blogs you will get an alert for everything posted. Recent posts on The Global Film Book blog include the Malayalam language film How Old Are You? (2014) and the Hindi ‘independent’ film That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010). Japanese films include Like Father, Like Son (2013) and The Wind Rises (2013) plus the Chinese film A Touch of Sin (2013).

Brotherhood (Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo, South Korea, 2004)

Brothers at war

Brothers at war

Although this was the most expensive film ever made by the South Korean film industry at the time, it was only budgeted at $13m. It looks a considerable amount more with numerous impressive set pieces both in Seoul and Pyongyang and on the battlefield. Its release just after the 50th anniversary of the Korean war’s end no doubt contributed to its box office success. It’s clearly influenced by Saving Private Ryan (US 1998) with a framing device set in the present and visceral battle sequences that have an immersive quality.

Dramatically the film works well by focusing on two brothers who, unsurprisingly, end up on opposing sides. It’s a powerful metaphor for the particular circumstance of a country at war with itself. The leads Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin are excellent and, despite the on-going hostility within the partitioned peninsula, the film doesn’t whitewash South Korean atrocities. Indeed, the most chilling scene in the film is when so-called Communist collaborators in Seoul are being rounded up and executed on the flimsiest of evidence.

The influence of Hong Kong’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ is apparent in a number of the superhuman battles that the older brother engages in. Clearly we are not in realist territory here and it is interesting the degree to which it seems necessary that the male body be bloodied in the action genre. This is certainly not limited to the East; Paul Willeman argued that such violence on the male body, in the westerns of Anthony Mann, was a way of repressing the erotic component of the male look on the male body.

Ultimately I found the sentimentality of the film slightly off-putting. However, as a film about a war that is under-represented, in the West at least, it is certainly worth watching. Whilst the brilliant American sitcom M.A.S.H. (1972-83) was set in Korea, it wasn’t about that particular war.

Samaritan Girl (Samaria, South Korea 2004)

Growing up

Growing up

The DVD cover of this film features a nun and behind her is a woman who appears to be in the process of having her clothes taken off. The marketing for the film is a ‘come on’ suggesting something kinky: nuns and sex. Unless I missed something, the nun doesn’t feature in this Kim Ki-duk film but it does deal with teenage prostitution; which some may find kinky. It’s easy to see why feminists woman the barricades against Kim’s films, his female characters are regularly prostitutes, however Chang  Hye-seung, in her The Films of Kim Ki-duk, is a convincing advocate who argues against Kim’s misogyny.

In keeping with Kim’s ‘extreme’ reputation, the ‘samaritan girl’ is a teenage prostitute; her age isn’t given but she looks around 14 or 15. Jae-yeong is raising money for a trip to Europe, with her friend Yeo-jin, who is reluctantly Jae-yeong’s pimp. A typically disturbing set up then but, despite the subject matter, Kim eschews exploitative imagery and uses the narrative to investigate ‘coming of age’. True, it’s a ‘coming of age’ unlikely to be experienced by many but Kim is more interested in the psychodrama than realism.

Spoilers ahead. Jae-yeong dies, after jumping from a motel window to avoid the police; disturbingly she seems to be smiling when she does this. In memory of her friend Yeo-jin then has sex with her friend’s clients, returning the money they paid. The film’s in three parts: (1) ‘Vasumitra’, named after a prostitute in ancient times whose clients were converted to Buddhism, something Jae-yeong is trying to emulate; (2) ‘Samaria’, when Yeo-jin pays the money back and succeeds, at least in part, in getting the men to think about their actions in having sex with a minor; (3) ‘Sonata’ where Yeo-jin’s dad, a police officer who discovers what’s she’s doing, takes her on a journey into the countryside (and the past) – the ‘Sonata’ refers to the car. 

The journey into the countryside, where her dad’s motivations are uncertain, is one into tradition. They stay one night in basic accommodation as the guest of a stranger, clearly setting up this space as positive against Seoul’s city life which, presumably, inspired Jae-yeong’s behaviour. Her dad spent the second part of the film trying to prevent Yeo-jin’s clients getting to her; despite his obvious affection for his daughter (his wife is dead) he clearly cannot bring himself to discuss what she is doing. In a brilliant scene, he confronts one of his daughter’s clients whilst he is having a family meal. When confronted, in such a context, with the fact he had sex with a minor he does, what some might consider, the honourable  thing from several floors up. This is superbly staged with the violence happening just offscreen; no as not Asia extreme.

Chang discusses the final section as dramatising female rebirth, as her father sets her free of patriarchy, outside the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order’. I must confess this is not how I understood it when watching the film, however the reading is convincing and demonstrates that Kim’s feminist detractors are misreading his films. However, I think they can be forgiven for doing so as Samaritan Girl is obscure.

Kim isn’t the only filmmaker to be criticised for his use of prostitutes in his film. Godard’s work often did the same and it is difficult to argue against the idea that the character is often used in a misogynist fashion: it defines women through sex and offers dramatically motivated opportunities for female nudity. This obsession, by both men and women (see here), of defining females by their bodies is central to western civilisation and is debilitating, in terms of our social relations, for both sexes. Recently, in the UK, there was a Facebook trend of friends daring one another to post a picture of themselves without make-up. It was striking how great the women looked without it.

Address Unknown (Suchwiin bulmyeong, S Korea, 2001)

Trying to get to know

Trying to get to know

I seem to have embarked on a season of Kim Ki-duk films (see Bad Guy), whose ‘extreme cinema’ raises hackles as well as bile. Audiences are probably expecting the worst when the film opens with the message that no animals were harmed in the making this film and a short introductory shot shows a young girl being shot in the eye. However, although physical violence, as in Bad Guy, is a manifestation of the psychological pain inflicted upon the (subaltern) underclass, much of the violence in Address Unknown, mercifully, happens offscreen.

Set in 1971 in a US army base camp town, the narrative offers fairly loosely connected ‘slices of life’ from three main characters: a schoolgirl who, after being raped, is thrown out of the school and two young men, one with mixed raced (African-Amercan/Korean) parentage and the other the butt of bullying who fancies the girl. The ‘letter’ of the title is sent by the mother to the father, now returned to America, of Chang-guk; however, they are returned with the titular message. Unsurprisingly, given the setting, the focus is on the colonial nature of the American encampment, the girl – Eunok – walks to school beside the base’s fence. She is befriended by an American soldier and Kim is sympathetic to the psychological effect of the American’s displacement, but his presence is ultimately destructive.

There is humour, too, in the mire of the characters’ existence: all three are framed, in one scene, with injured eyes. Hardly funny in itself but it’s part of Kim’s project to unsettle the audience and this he does. Kim has directed 20 features in 18 years, a remarkable tally given his lack of box office success. Despite the speed at which he works he produces work of quality, both in terms of direction and script, that demands to be seen. He is also one of the few who give a voice to the underclass which makes him one of the most important political filmmakers of our time.

Bad Guy (Nabbeun namja, South Korea 2001)

Class set in stone

Class set in stone

Distributor Tartan marketed some East Asian films under it’s ‘Asian extreme’ imprint, an obvious marketing device that nevertheless failed when ithe company went bankrupt in 2008. Probably amongst the most ‘extreme’ of these offerings were the films of Kim Ki-duk, who attacks the sensibilities of those who wish to experience the ‘extreme’; hence, they are quintessentially extreme.

How do you deal with the films of Kim Ki-duk? Take Bad Guy, the ‘guy’ is undoubtedly – he forces a young woman into prostitution – bad, but we (well ‘I’) found myself eventually becoming sympathetic toward him. I doubt I am the only one who experiences this counter-intuitive engagement with the film though many don’t; his films are routinely dismissed as misogynist. Not only is she forced into prostitution but Kim shows us her first experience of sex when she is raped. The charge of misogyny is not hard to suggest and yet . . . Kim certainly doesn’t shoot the rape as anything other than a violation and the camera’s position minimises the possibilities of titillation. So what’s his point?

Hye Seung Chung’s excellent The Films of Kim Ki-duk make it clear that the director’s films are an attack on the class structure of South Korean society. The extreme nature of the imagery is a manifestation of the extreme humiliation that is inflicted upon the underclass. The subaltern (the underclass) is often absent in a nation’s cinema, Ill Manors is one recent example in Britain which worked in a similar way to Bad Guy in enabling the audience to sympathise with ‘badly’ behaved people.

One thing that is easy to like in Kim’s films is his mise en scène. His ‘painterly’ eye offers many beautiful compositions, such as when the bad guy and his victim are shown to be mirror images of each other. Is that enough to put oneself through the gruelling torture of some of the violence represented in his films? I think it is, unless you have a visceral dislike of representations of pain; Bad Guy is, at least, not as graphic as The Isle (2004). Kim’s cinema, with the notable exception of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring (2003) is extreme but his purpose is not simply to shock but to also to communicate. In this his films are autobiographical, he’s from the underclass, and usually box office failures in South Korea. Who wants to see what we don’t want to see? As for Kim’s success in the West, it may be their ‘orientalist’ appeal to jaded audiences. Dig a bit deeper, though, and his films are striking for what they tell us about ourselves as much as the East.

The Missing Picture / L’image manquante, France/ Kingdom of Cambodia 2013.

The Missing Picture 1

This documentary revisits the now notorious period in which the Khmer Rouge attempted to implement a very particular form of rurally-based Communism in Cambodia / Kampuchea. This brutally distinctive experiment is usually lumped together with socialist revolutions in other states and/or what are termed ‘totalitarian’ states. Regarding the former it needs to be recognised that the political line of the Khmer Rouge had little in common with the writings of Marx and Engels on a Socialist alternative to Capitalism. Regarding the latter this concept fails to address the very different political economy of the variety of states so described.

I make this point because this film directed by Rithy Panh is very much a personal journey back to the past of the country from which he hails. He was a child when the Khmer Rouge seized power: he was 15 when he escaped to the west. The basis of the film is a contrast between Panh’s memories of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge revolution and the genocidal practice that characterised this regime when it seized power. The film’s title makes the point that Panh has no filmic record for the first, and only the Khmer Rouge’s own film records for the latter.

To recreate the world of his childhood Panh uses beautifully modelled clay figures set in both urban and rural model settings. He also uses the same technique to partly recreate the world of the Khmer Rouge as he himself experienced it. This is interspersed with predominantly black and white film footage of the latter. The use of the models is impressive. And during the end credits we get to see the small studio where these were set out and filmed. They become even more impressive when you see the techniques in action.

This is very much a personal vision. The film is not really analytical. It offers a Manichean division between the pre-Khmer Rouge period and their own period of rule and misrule. His viewpoint is supported to a degree by the Khmer Rouge’s own film propaganda, which presents a world of horrific brutality and of grossly simplified political ideas and practice.

The visual material is supported by as commentary written by Christophe Bataille and Rithy Panh. This appears to be modelled on the commentary from Alain Resnais’s seminal documentary Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956). Both commentaries are in French, but more than that, the phrasing recalls the earlier film as does the tone and rhythm of the reading. For me though this film’s commentary lacked the complexity of the earlier one. It also appears to reference comparisons that have been drawn between the Khmer Rouge regime and that of the Third Reich. This ignores that the former was a response to the experience of French colonialism, the Japanese occupation, and a later US backed military junta. In the case of the latter its practices developed from those inflicted by colonial powers across Africa and other continents: those inflicting including France, Britain and Germany.

However the film does not just critically expose the Khmer Rouge. There are brief references to the exploitative form of the pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. And there is also the briefest mention of the bombing of Cambodia: carried out, of course, by the USA. The politicians of the latter state have been loud in their criticism of the Khmer Rouge but mainly silent on their own war crimes against Cambodia. Panh also briefly makes a point about the post-Khmer Rouge Kingdom of Cambodia with a shot of proletarians involved in labour as exploitative as that of the earlier society.

Rithy Panh has made a series of films about this sad period in the history of Cambodia. The most famous was S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003). This film has some parallels with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1965), as it uses a series of testimonies from both perpetrators and victims.

The Missing Picture is a finely created and presented documentary. It conveys a powerful sense of the violent inanities of the Khmer Rouge period. And with justice it criticises the atrocities of the regime and the venality of the leadership. I am disappointed that it came joint 17th in the Sight & Sound annual critic’s poll, some way behind the winner The Act of Killing (2012, the latter also up for an Oscar for Best Documentary).  Rithy Panh’s film is both a finer and a more honest documentary than the study of equivalent atrocities in Indonesia. The Missing Picture is still on release: in Leeds the Hyde Park Picture House screens it on Tuesday March 11th.