Category: East Asian Cinema

My Way (Mai Wei, South Korea 2011)

A Korean soldier in a Russian uniform is captured by German troops in My Way

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:

War of the Arrows (Choi-jong-byeong-gi Hwal, South Korea 2011)

Park Hae-Il as Nam-yi

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.

Outline

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.

Commentary

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):

Films From the South Festival, Oslo

Film festivals are essential in the process of increasing diversity in the range of films released globally. We like to support as many of these festivals as possible and the 20th Annual ‘Films From the South’ Festival is currently running in Oslo until October 17. A highlight of the festival is a programme of screenings of all the 12 films restored by the World Cinema Foundation. On October 10 there is a gala screening of one of the restored films, Mário Peixoto’s Limite (Brazil 1931), with new music from the Norwegian composer/musician, Bugge Wesseltoft. This prestigious event will be held at the home of Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. (Details of the event here.)

A still from Limite

Limite was first announced as a conservation project at Cannes in 2007. The Mário Peixote website offers background and links to a dossier produced for the Cannes event and an essay on the film and its importance for contemporary Brazilian film.

The World Cinema Foundation (WCF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring neglected films from around the world – in particular, those countries lacking the financial and technical ability to do so.

Established by Martin Scorsese, the Foundation supports and encourages preservation efforts to save the worldwide patrimony of films, ensuring that they are preserved, seen and shared. Its goal is to defend the body and spirit of cinema in the belief that preserving works of the past can encourage future generations to treat film as a universal form of expression.” (from the WCF Mission Statement)

Since 2007, the WCF has restored the following films (some of which have been reviewed on this blog):

Redes (Mexico/1936) by Fred Zinnemann, Emilio Gómez Muriel
Revenge (Mest, USSR/Kazakhstan 1989) by Ermek Shinarbaev
Two Girls on the Street (Két lány az utcán, Hungary/1939) by André De Toth
A River Called Titas (Titas Ekti Nadir Naam, India-Bangladesh/1973) by Ritwik Ghatak
The Eloquent Peasant (Shakavi el Flash el Fasi, Egypt/1969) by Shadi Abdel Salam
A Brighter Summer Day (Taiwan/1991) by Edward Yang
The Night of Counting the Years (Al Momia, Egypt/1969) by Shadi Abdel Salam
Dry Summer (Susuz yaz, Turkey/1964) by Metin Erksan
Touki Bouki (Senegal/1973) by Djibril Diop Mambéty
The Housemaid (Hanyo, South Korea/1960) by Kim Ki-Young
Forest of the Hanged (to be completed) (Romania/1965) by Liviu Ciulei
Trances (Trances/El Hal, Morocco/1981) by Ahmed El Maanouni


'Egyptian Maidens'

The Films From the South programme offers many more delights (download programme). The programme looks very strong on the recent output from South Korea and Mexico and also on Asia and Latin America generally. African films are clearly still difficult to get hold of but there are a few here and I’m certainly intrigued by writer-director Mohamed Amin’s Bentein Men Masr (Egyptian Maidens, Egypt 2010) by  described as “an Egyptian version of Sex and the City”.

There is another welcome appearance for Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Un homme qui crie (A Screaming Man) (2010, Chad/France and Belgium) but just as Haroun needs French funding, some of the other ‘African films’ are also made by filmmakers operating out of wealthier countries. It would be good to see more indigenous production but every chance to put Africa on screen through co-production is worth exploring and here there is a new Tom Tykwer film Soul Boy (2010) made as a co-production with Kenya and co-directed by local filmmaker Hawa Essuman. Stolen (Australia/Morocco 2009) is a documentary feature that has provoked strong feelings. Australian filmmakers Daniel Fallshaw and Violeta Ayala (from Bolivia) travelled to a refugee camp run by the Polisario, the liberation group fighting for the independence of the Saharawi peoples of the Western Sahara. The filmmakers accompanied a refugee returning to visit her mother still in a camp on a trip sponsored by the UN. On the trip they claim to have discovered evidence of the slavery of Black Saharawis in the camps (see the film’s website). The Polisario have reacted with counter-claims in the Australian media as the film is screened at international festivals. Stolen has a Facebook page (briefly taken down but now re-instated). Stolen is screened in a strong documentary strand that includes an appearance by Kim Longinotto, the UK documentarist who has specialised in films about women’s struggles in many parts of the world and the festival is screening her latest doc Pink Saris (UK 2010) as well as 2008’s Rough Aunties. (We hope to feature a London Film Festival report on Pink Saris.)

There are many more interesting films at the Films From the South Festival and after investigating this year’s programme, we’ll certainly be considering how to get to Oslo in the future.

Chakushin ari (One Missed Call, Japan, 2003)

Don't take the call!

Don't take the call!

Genres are, by their nature, formulaic however new examples of the genre need to be different otherwise audiences, having seen it all before, will ‘turn off’. One Missed Call is a Ringu rip-off, instead of video tapes and a week to live, the hapless victims receive a mobile phone call – uncannily from themselves – from a day or two in the future were they get to hear their last words. Then someone else in that person’s ‘contacts’ receives a call.

There is very little difference from Ringu, and other examples of J-horror: the emphasis on school girls; the useless cops; the slightly older man who tries to help; disturbing young children; long hair witches-ghosts; brilliant set pieces… And that’s why One Last Call is worth watching, for despite it’s overlong near-two hour length, there are many genuinely chilling moments. J-horror directors relish placing something uncanny in the mise en scene without drawing attention to it. So a routine search of an abandoned flat suddenly becomes creepy as you think, ‘Are those fingers sticking out of that cupboard on the wall?’ You look ‘closer’ to realise the bloody witch is in there.

Directed by the incredibly prolific Takeshi Miike (80 films in under 20 years), One Last Call is a worthy entrant to the J-horror cycle. Wonderfully composed shots – how the hell does he do that when directing four films a year?! – and a genuinely scary finale offers a satisfyingly cold-sweaty experience.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, S.Korea, 2008)

The good, the weird, the bad

The good, the weird, the bad

This is undoubtedly the funniest film I’ve seen in a long time. It stars the man with the maddest hair in contemporary cinema, Song Kang-ho, and  has some of the best action sequences in any western. Clearly a homage to Leone’s spaghetti westerns the visual style, as you expect, is stunning but director Kim Ji-woon (also A Bittersweet Life, 2005, and A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003), fills the mise en scene with fabulous detail that complements Song’s ‘hamming’ comedy. In one shoot out he wears a deep sea diver’s helmet, in another he’s on a motorbike being chased by a bounty hunter, two bandit gangs and the Japanese army. If Kim does throw in the kitchen sink, it’s also followed by kitchen utensils and they don’t land in a random heap but it a carefully composed film.

Like Tears of the Black Tiger (Thailand, 2000), Good-Bad-Weird delights in virtuoso camerawork but while I did get bored by the former, Kim’s movie never palls and I look forward to seeing it again to appreciate the tremendously fluid camera movement, and the actors’ movements in the frame. The use of colour is, like Black Tiger, utterly stunning. But what shines out is Song’s comic timing, seen also in The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003); from his furtive glance around him as if everyone is listening to him to his hapless attempt to escape where he’s asked if he’s attempting to escape (he says, ‘No,’); the guy is a comic genius.

According to Sight & Sound this is the most expensive Korean movie every made. I not sure it’s about anything, the plot is built around a treasure map and Korean independence from Japan, but with such fabulous film-making that doesn’t matter.

Mongol (Kazakhstan/Mongolia/Russia/Germany 2007)

Asano Tadanobu as Temudjin – eventually to become Genghis Khan

Asano Tadanobu as Temudjin – eventually to become Genghis Khan

I wish I’d seen this on its theatrical release in the UK last year. Watching it on DVD recently I was impressed on many levels and not least by the fantastic images of landscapes in Kazakhstan and China. I confess that when the film was released I assumed that it was simply another East Asian epic martial chivalry film. In a way, it is, but it’s also something different. I wasn’t expecting it to be concerned only with the beginning of the story of the Great Khan and I hadn’t taken on board the complex institutional context of the film’s production.

Mongol is truly a ‘global film’ sitting alongside Ang Lee’s films made in China. Veteran Russian director Sergei Bodrov was born in Khabarovsk, the main city of the Russian ‘Far East’ and close to the border with China. In Mongol he has made a film about the 13th century conqueror of half the ‘known world’ – a story which begins a thousand miles to the West (there is a detailed plot outline on Wikipedia). The two main actors in the film are Japanese and Chinese. It was shot by a Dutchman and a Russian and edited by an Icelander and an American with production design, sound and other roles shared by Russians, Chinese and Germans (the very large team is described on the ‘making of’ DVD film as “300 Chinese and 100 Russians”). There are two Russian and two German companies listed and the film appears to have been shot on location in Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia (part of China) on a budget of around $20 million. I don’t really understand how ‘Mongolia’ gets included in ‘Country of Origin’ apart from the fact that most of the rest of the cast are Mongolian non-professionals. (For Academy Award purposes, the film was nominated as from Kazakhstan.)

There was a documentary construction of ‘known’ historical events on UK television a few years ago, so I wasn’t too surprised by the events depicted. Bodrov is quoted on Wikipedia as explaining that although Mongolian history wasn’t written down, he has used a Chinese account of Mongolian oral tales as the basis for the story – adding some of his own creative touches. The Americans seem to get very excited about the authenticity of these historical epics and some have objected to the new image of Genghis Khan. I’m not so bothered myself as the stereotypical reference to anything fascistic as “to the right of Genghis Khan” is not very helpful. The only real difficulty I had with the events depicted was that the director is quite fond of fades to black between scenes and that sometimes it was difficult to tell how much time had passed. This is compounded by the casting of Asano (very good) as a young man who must then age. Unless I’ve misunderstood the story, he is meant to be in his late teens or early twenties and should really have been played by another actor before Asano took the role over with Temudjin in his 30s.

There were obviously some difficulties over language amongst the crew and because Asano had to learn to speak Mongolian. Overall I don’t think this matters unless you know Mongolian. Visually it seems to me that the different facial features don’t matter either since this area of North Eastern Asia must have experienced considerable mixing of peoples anyway. The non-professional (Khulan Chuluun, a student journalist) who plays Börte, wife of Temudjin, is astonishingly beautiful.

But it was the landscape that really got to me. At times I was taken back to many Hollywood westerns, especially those dealing with the early wagon trains or with Native American life. I was reminded of some of the paintings of the American West – of the great plains with the mountains in the distance. And then I remembered the handful of Russian films I’ve seen depicting the steppes. I must go back and look at Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (USSR 1966) which I think has scenes depicting Tatar raids on Russia. For sheer spectacle though, the film I was most reminded of was Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White (Hungary/USSR 1967), a highly stylised film with fantastic long shots of groups of men on horseback. These films were set on the western edges of the Central Asian steppes which stretch thousands of miles east. For someone used mainly to the pocket -sized hills and dales of West Yorkshire, the steppes are very exotic.

I’m looking forward to part 2 of this story of Genghis Khan which is announced for 2010.