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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My Way has been promoted as the most expensive Korean blockbuster yet produced. It has had a handful of cinema screenings in the UK courtesy of the Terracotta Film Festival but it is released today on DVD by Universal in the UK. (Co)writer-director Kang Je-gyu was one of the principal figures in launching the concept of the Korean blockbuster with his earlier films, Swiri (Shiri, 1999) and Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo (Brotherhood 2004). The Korean concept of a blockbuster is slightly different to the Hollywood concept. The term tends to be used for any film that gets a wide release and which attracts a large number of admissions – i.e. the term refers more to distribution and exhibition than genre or narrative. All kinds of films have become blockbusters in South Korea, but often it is their appeal to aspects of Korean culture that is important.
Kang Je-gyu’s films have been blockbusters in both the Korean and the US sense. Shiri and Brotherhood both dealt with North-South conflicts in Korea, the latter with the 1950-53 Korean War and a story about brothers caught up reluctantly in the fighting. This spectacular war film attracted over 11 million admissions in South Korea (about a quarter of the population). My Way has a similar structure and theme as Brotherhood, but takes on an even bigger story that crosses Asia from Korea to the D-Day beaches of 1944. Kang was inspired by a reported historical event – the capture of a Korean soldier in a Wehrmacht uniform by American forces during the D-Day landings. Kang discovered the elements of the man’s story and then added another intriguing element of his own.
My Way begins and ends with a marathon runner during the 1948 London Olympics. The remainder of the 142 mins is a long flashback that begins in 1928 with two small boys racing each other. One is Kim Jun-shik and the other is Hasegawa Tatsuo, son of the Kim family’s Japanese colonial landlord. Tatsuo has his future mapped out as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army. As a child he revels in the tussle with his Korean friend but ten years later he will face Jun-shik again in an ‘all-Japan’ trial. Jun-shik can’t be allowed to win and instead he is ‘pressed’ into the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuko (Manchuria). He becomes an unwilling participant (with other Korean pressed men) in the major battle with Soviet Russian forces on the Mongolian border in 1939 – where he again comes up against the now Colonel Hasegawa. Both men are captured by the Soviets and put in a Siberian work camp from where in 1941 they are pressed into the Red Army and after a battle with the Germans they escape westwards only to end up in a German work battalion on the Western Front. During this long trek they work through their personal antagonisms.
The emphasis in the film is on the epic battles fought in Manchuria/Mongolia and on the Eastern and Western European fronts. Kang Je-gyu uses CGI extensively and re-created his version of the D-Day landing at Utah beach in Latvia on a budget of $3 million. The cinema screening I saw was missing most of the subtitles because of a projection problem with the digital print. Since the film includes Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and German dialogue this could have been a major problem. In reality, although I might have missed some of the nuances, I think that I could follow most of the film fairly easily. Certainly, I was not bored at any point through 142 minutes.
My Way is not an art movie. It’s a popular epic war movie with masses of CGI. It could be compared to Hollywood films like Pearl Harbor (which I haven’t seen) and that seems to be what most US critics have done, seeing it as just another bombastic mindless adventure movie. I think it is the Hollywood Reporter review that derides it as “blowing itself to bits”. I’m not going to claim that the film is an incisive analysis of war in the twentieth century, but I think that it deserves a little more consideration, at least as a project if not as a successful film narrative.
My first thought was that as a rare East Asian film that attempts to represent historical events in Europe, My Way offers a lesson for superior European critics. I felt myself about to scoff at an opening which pretends to be London, before I checked myself after realising that I have no idea what Seoul looked like in 1948 – just as I had little idea of the major battles fought between the Japanese and Russians over the Mongolian/Manchurian border in 1939. Kang has to be applauded for the ambition of his storytelling. He is also very brave to take on Japanese-Korean relationships in the 1930s and 1940s. The strategy for this big budget film was to use major stars from Japan, Korea and China to attract a Pan-Asian audience. Jang Dong-geon (who plays Jun-shik) and Odagiri Joe as Tatsuo have to carry the film. Fang Bingbing has a much smaller role as a Chinese sniper in Manchuria and other than Kim In-gwon as Jun-shik’s friend, pressed into the army at the same time, none of the other characters in the film are developed.
The strategy appears not to have worked in the sense that My Way attracted only around 2 million admissions in South Korea and a fraction of that number in Japan. I haven’t seen any figures for a Chinese release as yet. The Korean producers are looking at a significant loss with a worldwide box office take of only $16 million. On reflection, the loss of subtitles in the screening I attended probably didn’t help me understand the changing relationship between the Korean and Japanese characters and that relationship may be the stumbling block for audiences in both countries. I’m not sure what Chinese audiences might make of the film. The current animosity towards the Japanese won’t help but at least the film does offer an East Asian perspective on events in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, rather than Hollywood films, My Way resembles Chinese epic productions and I notice that the film’s release in Korea and Japan at the end of 2011 coincided with Zhang Yimou’s latest epic production Flowers of War (China/HK 2011) about the massacre in Nanjing in 1937 – not the best time to release a film about the Imperial Japanese Army, even if the focus is mainly on the Koreans forced to serve in it.
Since I’ve not seen the Hollywood CGI representations of World War 2 battles, I’m probably repeating a well-known observation, but I have to say that the depiction of the D-Day landings in My Way were almost surreal, especially in terms of the massed squadrons of bombers and American capital ships. I was reminded of anime like Graveyard of the Fireflies (Japan 1988) which includes the firebombing of Kobe by the Americans. Here’s an idea of how My Way looks in the US trailer:
This relatively unheralded film turned out to be the biggest box office local film of the year in South Korea, beaten only by Tom Cruise and the latest Transformers film in the chart. Perhaps most surprising about its success is that a large portion of the dialogue is spoken in a virtually extinct Manchu language – so the mainstream audience in Seoul were confronted with subtitles as well as several onscreen titles explaining aspects of the history. If this makes War of the Arrows sound like a dry historical document, fear not. This is a lean and sinewy action thriller.
Korea in the Joseon period, 1623. A teenage boy and his young sister flee from Seoul after a coup d’état in which their father is killed as a loyal officer of the ousted ruler. The boy Nam-yi has been given his father’s bow and instructed to look after his sister Ja-in. They are taken in by one of their father’s friends in the mountains. Thirteen years later Ja-in decides that she can’t always live in hiding and decides to marry the son of their protector. Nam-yi doesn’t think much of this idea but is forced to accept her decision and prepares to leave. He is by now a cynical man and we get hints of his archery prowess. It looks like he will become a bitter warrior, a kind of Korean version of a ronin in a Japanese samurai film. However, on the day of his sister’s wedding when he has just left town, Manchu cavalry arrive and swiftly take possession of the area. This is the ‘Second Manchu invasion of Joseon Korea’ in 1636. Half a million Koreans are captured and marched away to Manchuria. Nam-yi is now a fugitive looking for his sister and displaying prodigious archery skills in his battles with the invaders. Eventually he will find himself up against a crack squad of Manchu mounted archers who he must overcome to rescue Nam-yi and her new husband.
A straightforward conventional action picture, this film demonstrates the strength of Korean Cinema in terms of acting, cinematography and overall presentation. Writer-director Kim Han-min previously directed two other genre films, both described as ‘thrillers’ on IMDB. War of the Arrows looks wonderful, the action sequences are exciting and there is a novelty (for me, at least) in the concentration on archery skills. I was very impressed by Park Hae-il as Nam-yi (having previously seen him in The Host). The actor does not resemble the usual action hero but he utilises all his skills to make the character convincing. The following excellent review on Koreanfilm.org says much more about the film from a more informed perspective. I agree with the comment that this is much more like a 1950s Hollywood Western in its focus on the characters and the hunt/chase than a conventional historical drama. I’m also interested in the comments about the choice of subject matter – the humiliating defeat of Korean forces during the Manchu invasion – and how this relates to the more typical choice of narratives that fit the ‘national popular’ categories (i.e. Korean War epics or films where the Japanese are the bad guys). The Koreanfilm.org review praises the film but criticises the ‘submission’ to the use of CGI and under current conventions of the action film. It suggests that more focus on the philosophy of the martial arts being practised in a Kurosawa Akira mode would have been a better bet. I’m not really in a position to comment on CGI but this alternative suggestion is one that I didn’t think of when watching the film, but on reflection it sounds an interesting idea.
I’d recommend this film to anyone interested in action films and East Asian Cinema more generally. Here’s the best trailer I could find (try to ignore the dreadful voiceover):