Three 2017 Films by Hong Sang-soo Starring Kim Min-hee

One of the most prolific auteurs in modern Korean art cinema is Hong Sang-soo, who has moved on stylistically from early, rather formalist pictures like The Power of Kangwon Province (1998, a film I adore), to a looser, more improvisational method. His films often feature central characters who are film directors or lecturers, who have desultory affairs with their young female students or film workers, and spend a lot of time moping about as a result (frequently including some glorious drunken acting scenes). Sometimes, though, he spins the scenarios so that the woman is more centred in the story, and these are generally the stronger films. His collaboration (professional and personal) with younger actor Kim Min-hee has resulted in a number of fine works, none better than On the Beach at Night Alone, made in a year of three films from him. This may pale next to some of the output of those 60s studio directors like Lee Man-hee, but in the current marketplace, it’s prodigious.

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Criterion Sunday 106: Coup de torchon (aka Clean Slate, 1981)

There’s quite a deep vein of black comedy to be found in this film noir-ish story of an affable police chief Lucien (Philippe Noiret) in pre-World War II colonial-era Africa using his power to rid himself of his tormentors. It’s all filmed with evident facility, and the veteran cinematographer gets a chance to show off with some excellent use of sinuous tracking shots. The script (based on a similarly black novel by Jim Thompson, albeit one set in the American South) evinces a fair amount of wit in unspooling events, as Lucien takes advantage of what others perceive to be a shambolic simple nature as the perfect cover to take his revenge. His likeability also seems to attract a range of female admirers (including Isabelle Huppert as Rose, the battered wife of one of those Lucien seeks to do away with). Lucien’s retribution is initially on Rose’s wife-beating husband, his cruel colonialist bosses and shady French businessmen exploiting the local conditions, but when it eventually moves on to the local black servants, the humour ultimately curdles, rendering a portrait of socially-mandated lawlessness, quite a potent critique of colonial power after a fashion.

Criterion Extras: The film’s director, Bertrand Tavernier, introduces and explains an alternative ending involving, rather fantastically but amusingly, a pair of dancing apes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bertrand Tavernier; Writers Tavernier and Jean Aurenche (based on the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson); Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn; Starring Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 10 July 2016).

L’Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)

The last two films I’ve seen at the cinema have been this and Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos, both French films by directors with non-French ancestry, both set amongst a close-knit group of intellectuals gravitating away from the city, but otherwise films with quite a different temperament. For where Cosmos is dead set with every fibre of its creation against bourgeois affectations, Things to Come instead mounts something of an apologia for the bourgeoisie.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself, and the comparison comes from happenstance, so I shan’t get too bogged down in such comparisons; suffice to say I enjoyed Mia Hansen-Løve’s new film very much (and I am clearly also partial to the consolations of the middle-class). Its pleasures are not immediate, but come from an intense focus on the character of Nathalie (played by an ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy teacher at a French high school, who prides herself on opening her students’ minds, even as her own marriage seems stuck. For characters whose lives are so mired in stasis (whether existentially or literally — there are a lot of very abstruse books, and most characters crack them open to read on a regular basis), the camerawork and staging for much of the film is filled with movement. My feeling of it, though, is that this constant movement settles down after a succession of personal setbacks (Nathalie’s husband resolves to leave her, and her mother dies suddenly). She is left to reassess her life, living for a while with her mother’s cat Pandora at a former student’s countryside commune.

As I said, the film’s pleasures are chiefly in the observation of Nathalie’s life’s rituals, and in little amusing details. I particularly liked, as just one example, the sequence where she tries to angrily consign her now-moved-out-husband’s consolatory flowers to the bin, but finding it too narrow for their showy proportions, bags them up in a blue Ikea bag and throws them in her flat’s rubbish skip, pauses, then goes back to retrieve the Ikea bag. I’m not even sure the divorce is really the key to the film (it seems central to a lot of the film’s write-ups), so much as a structural conceit. Things to Come is more interested in the life of a woman who has moved away from predicating her existence on men (or indeed any sense of community, it sometimes seems); it somewhat reminds me of Gertrud in this respect, even if it doesn’t share many of Dreyer’s formal qualities or staginess.

The film may not have the edginess or punch of some young directors’ works (or indeed that of Żuławski), but it is reminiscent instead of the best of bourgeois French cinema (Assayas, say, or Téchiné), seemingly gentle on the surface yet hiding barbed insights.

L'Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mia Hansen-Løve; Cinematographer Denis Lenoir; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Roman Kolinka, André Marcon, Édith Scob; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 3 September 2016.

Passion (1982)

After the full stop that was Week End (1967) and the partial return of Tout va bien (1972), Godard sort of disappeared into a wilderness of televisual and video-based filmmaking. Upon his return to the cinema screen in 1980 with Sauve qui peut (la vie), he may have been once again using recognisable star actors, but the narrative structures were certainly far from mainstream. This second film of his return is within a filmmaking framework familiar from Le Mépris (1963), which film incidentally also starred Michel Piccoli and was shot by Raoul Coutard. However, the Godard of 20 years later has a quite different method of putting together narrative, making Passion a rather more challenging viewing experience.

This is, however, the experience of this later period of Godard’s filmmaking, as the links between scenes — not to mention between image track and soundtrack — become increasingly tenuous. You could view this as a breathtakingly brazen disregard for conventional narrative structures (the beginning, middle and end “but not necessarily in that order” approach of one of Godard’s famous dictums), or as an increasingly cranky and self-indulgent way of befuddling the audience, but I choose to take it as both. I cannot deny that actually watching the film is perplexing, but this isn’t the emperor’s new clothes: there is a method here that definitely yields some interesting results.

As with Le Mépris, once again there’s a fairly self-critical portrait of the artist, who here is the bespectacled Polish filmmaker Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz). Like Godard (living and working in Switzerland by this time), Jerzy is in some sort of self-imposed exile, stranded outside his country as the first political convulsions are taking place that by the end of the decade would lead to the overthrow of Communism. He is making a film called Passion which seems anything but passionate from what we see — beautifully-shot and lit tableaux of unmoving figures which seem to restage Renaissance paintings and give plenty of opportunity for the baring of female flesh, which Jerzy rather imperiously co-ordinates when he’s bothering to work on the film at all. Unsurprisingly there are problems with the budget, and it’s never quite clear what the plot is (indeed, the question is put to him directly at one point, to which he amusingly reacts with disgust, rather suggesting that plot is beside the point for Godard/Jerzy).

The rest of the cast are largely enacting a scenario involving factory owner Michel (Piccoli) and his wife Hanna (Schygulla), as well as Isabelle (Huppert) as a factory worker who comes into conflict with Michel. The ideas Godard seems to be playing with involve the demands of a working life (shades of Tout va bien) and those of the heart. There are communication issues too, particularly between the non-Francophone characters (Jerzy and Hanna). It’s difficult, though, to draw out more expressive ideas on just one viewing — Godard’s films get increasingly elliptical and densely-layered and require more time to unpick. His soundtrack work still likes to fade in and out repeated snatches of music (here it’s most prominently Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem), but there’s also images with different sounds matched to it (voices that don’t emanate from the characters we’re viewing, for example). And then there’s some typically playful Godardian self-referentiality, as when Isabelle tries to clear out her father from a room only to be told by another character that the elderly actor playing her father wants to get more attention when he delivers his single line (for which Godard immediately cuts away).

It’s far from a terrible film (whatever the limitations of my star-rating system), and in fact Passion may be, as I’ve implied (I hope), one of the most suggestive and rich of his 1980s output. It’s definitely films such as this one that demand repeat viewings to fully absorb some of the textures and ideas. It’s too easy to write this off as just an incoherent jumble, but for the first-time viewer that’s quite likely what it will come across as. However, that viewer can at least be thankful that like most of Godard’s films it hovers under the 90 minute length, and perhaps the mystery will incline that imagined viewer (who may or may not be myself) to return to it someday.

Next Up: Godard did a few other films during the 1980s including a typically ornery adaptation of King Lear (1987). At the end of the decade, he made Nouvelle vague (1990) which in its name suggests a look back on his founding legacy. I do intend to watch and review this, but in the meantime I have his short German travelogue Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991).

Passion film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Hanna Schygulla, Michel Piccoli; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at university library, Wellington, March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 30 September 2013).