Onwards with reviews of my films of 2022 (see my full list here). I feel like a theme for this past year has been the stuff I didn’t expect to like. Paul Thomas Anderson (whose Licorice Pizza I’ve just covered) has only recently become a filmmaker I’ve started to like, but Park Chan-wook was never really high on that list either. I’ve admired his films, including 2013’s Stoker (probably the last of his I reviewed here) and The Handmaiden a few years later, but this most recent film was a surprise to me: a sinuous murder mystery, but far more taut than many of the rather shaggier and comedic efforts we’ve had recently.
At this point in the filmic world of murder mysteries, detective films, and neo-noirs with femmes fatales, there’s not a whole lot that’s new you can do, but you sure can imbue it with a masterfully orchestrated sense of enfolding narratives, a structure so intricate (but expressively evoked) that it threatens to fold in on itself, which turns out to be somehow apt but I won’t get to that here. Instead, Park Chan-wook (a filmmaker I’ve never perhaps fully appreciated) has a bag full of cinematic tricks for pulling different time strands into one another, making flashbacks one with the present and advancing a sort of woozy romance of sorts between its detective lead Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) and the mysterious Chinese woman Seo-rae (Tang Wei) who either has bad luck with her husbands or is murderously deceitful. Quite which is the case is what Hae-joon is trying to figure out, but instead he’s just falling for her it seems. I’m not sure there’s anything new to this, but it is made with a lovely sense both of place (whether foggy, snowy or beachy) and of these interlocking characters circling around one another for the film’s length.
Director Park Chan-wook 박찬욱; Writers Jeong Seo-kyeong 정서경 and Park; Cinematographer Kim Ji-yong 김지용; Starring Tang Wei 汤唯, Park Hae-il 박해일, Lee Jung-hyun 이정현; Length 139 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 4 November 2022.
There are abiding mysteries in this film, as I suppose there have been in other films of Lee Chang-dong (the most recent I’ve seen is Burning from a few years back, I think). But it’s never quite possible to be clear who anyone is. There’s our leading lady who we first meet in a broken down car outside a small city near Busan that she’s relocating to in memory of her dead husband, but as to why she’s moving or how he died, those are things that take some time to come out. But it all makes more sense if you see this as a film about a woman trying to deal with trauma. More comes as the film goes on, and then she takes a turn into an evangelical religious group. Whether or not they are manipulative and hypocritical, it feels like something she needs at that point in the film, and while in some senses nothing quite resolves for her, you’re left with those abiding mysteries — which by the end seem more spiritual than merely narrative.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lee Chang-dong 이창동 (based on short story 벌레 이야기 “The Story of a Bug” by Yi Cheong-jun 이청준); Cinematographer Jo Yong-gyu 조용규; Starring Jeon Do-yeon 전도연, Song Kang-ho 송강호; Length 142 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 2 October 2022.
I’m fairly sure that if I watched this little Korean indie film again I’d like it even more. It has a relaxed vibe that may owe a little to Hong Sang-soo, but is mostly down to the film’s director/writer, one of Hong’s former producers, whose directionless character of the title starts to find a little bit of it as the film goes on.
This is hardly even the first South Korean film directed by a woman that I’ve seen about someone who’s already lived a bit of their life (I hesitate to say middle-aged, but sort of on that cusp of it) who feels directionless and unmotivated and unfulfilled. I’m thinking of Microhabitat, though it has a quite different vibe, but also the fact that the central character is a film worker makes me think of Korea’s great indie auteur Hong Sang-soo (again, his works have a quite different feeling, though it turns out that this film’s director did indeed produce many of his films for a period). In any case, Chan-sil finds herself out of a job as a film producer and unwilling to keep on trying to do it, wracked with depression, renting a room off a cranky older woman (“Oscar™ winner” Youn Yuh-jung), working as a cleaner for a young actress, and generally feeling down. She even gets visited by the ghost of Leslie Cheung (obviously not really him, and with plenty of self-deprecating dialogue at his own lack of resemblance thereto). It’s amiable, if understandably a little meandering (given Chan-sil’s malaise), but I liked it.
Director/Writer Kim Cho-hee 김초희; Cinematographer Ji Sang-bin 지상빈; Starring Kang Mal-geum 강말금, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Yoon Seung-ah 윤승아; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Wednesday 20 October 2021.
No film festival is complete any given year of the 21st century without a new Hong Sang-soo film. In fact, so far in 2021 he’s premiered two feature films, so I’m a bit sad not to have gotten the other one as well, but this is the one that NZIFF chose to screen so here’s a review of it.
It’s simply not a film festival unless there’s not at least one new film by Hong Sang-soo, but here is this and it’s the usual delight. There’s a lot of talking, a fair amount of eating and drinking in small cafes, a stand-in for the director (Kwon Hae-hyo, who’s been in a few of his recent films), and a teasing narrative that never fully reveals its hand. Sangok (Lee Hye-young) is a former actress back in Korea after years abroad in the States, though it’s unclear why. She talks with her sister, sees her nephew, goes to visit her childhood home and then talks about a movie project with Jaewon, and that’s pretty much all the scenes. But over the course of these dialogues some ideas about mortality and work are teased out — though she’s an actress so it’s never exactly clear where acting and ‘reality’ intersect — and the film seems to be making a case for appreciating the simple and abiding pleasures of each moment, all heartily laughed off at the end.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Starring Lee Hye-young 이혜영, Jo Yoon-hee 조윤희, Kwon Hae-hyo 권해효; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.
Okay for my science-fiction week I’m going to have concede the ‘foreign-language’ aspect is really that most of them are from non-English-speaking directors or produced in other countries, because this is largely an American production, albeit by the noted Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose rather more famous recent film Parasite will eventually come up in my Criterion Sunday series).
Tonally, this film is very odd. There’s an almost childlike sentimentality around animals and farming, which is altogether too clean (the genetically mutated pig-like creature at the film’s heart never seems to be caked in sh!t like real pigs usually are). And then there’s the corporate satire, all gurning faces and ridiculous over-the-top performances by Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV scientist and Tilda Swinton as the evil company CEO, going several steps beyond Gilliam to full comic book. Indeed, I’d say this is the closest film has got to capturing the feeling of one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, although by virtue of visually depicting the nasty stuff adults get up to, its 15 classification puts it rather beyond children. It heartens me to see this much mainstream attention paid to the way animals are treated by the meat industry, though this is hardly vegetarian propaganda. And if ultimately it’s an emotional story about a country girl and her animal best friend, it’s an affecting and effective one with some excellent CGI.
Director Bong Joon-ho 봉준호; Writers Bong and Jon Ronson; Cinematographer Darius Khondji داریوش خنجی; Starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 10 July 2017.
An important battlefield for resistance, aside from in politics and on the streets, is of course the workplace, and trade unions have a strong role to play in that story. One such is this oppositional work made in South Korea against the background of the Gwangju Uprising, an expression of popular discontent which was brutally repressed in 1980 and led to all kind of fallout during the subsequent decade. It was written, shot and directed by a large roster of activist filmmakers, working largely under the radar of major institutions, and so was only restored very recently.
This Korean film was made in the late-80s, filmed (as I understand it) at a factory which had been occupied by striking workers and using a cast which included a lot of these workers in minor roles. Filmed on 16mm it feels like it has a documentary quality at times, akin to some of the low-budget TV plays being made in the UK at the time which dealt with working-class and working issues in a way that wasn’t exploitative or condescending (itself rather rare in our modern media climate). The main character here, for audience purposes, is Han-su, who sort of watches from the sidelines as his workplace (a metal-working factory) is radicalised thanks to the small-mindedness of the bosses coming into conflict with those who are trying to get a union off the ground. His long face and sullen demeanour conveys his confusion at what’s happening, as he slowly gets up to speed on why unionisation makes sense to protect his job. There’s a nice scene as various people who have been drafted in by management to protect the plant against these unionising workers (who are all swiftly laid off when their plans comes to management’s attention) all find out they’ve been made the same promises. For the most part, though, this isn’t a strident sloganising or propagandistic film, but rather a small-scale drama set amongst these workers that unfolds gradually. The director spoke on stage after the film about how the collective’s first film a few years earlier had been criticised by those whom it had been about, and how that meant they wanted to work more closely with the subjects to find a way of presenting their struggles sympathetically. This they did, to the extent that the film was officially banned and had to find its audience via non-cinematic screenings (which probably makes more sense given the content) and has only now been restored.
Directors Lee Eun 이은, Chang Yong-hyun 장윤현, Jang Dong-hong 장동홍 and Lee Jae-gu 이재구; Writers Kong Su-chang 공수창, Kim Eun-chae 김은채 and Min Kyeong-cheol 민경철; Cinematographers Kim Jae-hong 김재홍, Oh Cheng-ok 오정옥 and Lee Chang-jun 이창준; Starring Go Dong-eop 고동업, Im Yeong-gu 임영구; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 3 November 2019.
Okay it’s time to take a break from an almost constant two weeks of Japanese films on my blog, and to switch it up I’m going to do a week focusing on new films directed by women which have premiered online since the lockdown started. I’m going to begin with this one because it’s probably the most experimental in form, and also it’s just left Mubi after being up a month. I’ll get to ones which are currently available soon though. It reminds me a little of Lina Rodgriguez‘s work, but with a somewhat more tricky narrative structure that can make things rather opaque.
This is, to say the least, an oblique film. It’s about the elderly woman of the title (Josefina Ramírez), who bookends the film seen throwing a molotov cocktail of her own creation. The rest of the film seamlessly blends staged fiction with documentary aesthetics to the extent that I’m not exactly clear where each starts and the other ends. We see her in cars riding her around her assumed neighbourhood, with vague references to a previous domicile and a history that has brought her out to the seaside. I’m not exactly clear what the story is, but this is experimental filmmaking which trades in elemental motifs (fire, water, revolution). I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I feel like maybe the filmmaker is trying out narrative techniques to hone her craft.
Director/Writer Camila José Donoso; Cinematographer Matías Illanes; Starring Josefina Ramírez, Gigi Reyes; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 23 April 2020.
Sticking with non-American comedy-drama films, one of the masters of this particular blend is the Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who seems to put out several films every year each telling a complicated story of fraught relationships often (though not always) with a comic undertone. He made three films in 2017 for example, at least one of which (Claire’s Camera) is definitely in the same vein and picks up more closely on the Éric Rohmer influences given its French seaside setting (a director well worth checking out for his comic relationship dramas). You could also look back to 2013’s Our Sunhi as another excellent example of his particular touch.
Quite what’s going on with the characters at the heart of this film isn’t ever clear — the leading lady may or may not have a doppelgänger, or an identical twin, or maybe it’s just a game, or some kind of memory issue, or maybe it’s just cinema — but it does that familiar Hong thing of following young people in and out of various bars, where they are seen eating and drinking. There’s even a character who’s a film director. The leading man is working through his feelings about his girlfriend going out drinking heavily with other men, as reported second-hand and then constantly commented on by a variety of friends and barflies. But really, that’s what the film is all about — fragile male insecurity — and it does so very nimbly, with a typical (for this era of Hong’s style) Rohmeresque lightness of touch. His individual films may feel slight at times, but I believe Hong’s body of work is likely to compare with many of film’s greats.
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol 박홍열; Starring Kim Joo-hyuk 김주혁, Lee Yoo-young 이유영; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.
My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.
Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)” →
Only two films today, as I used the evening to have some birthday drinks for myself, but both films I saw were written and directed by a woman who also took the lead role, and one gets the sense that both films are about their respective directors. As such the ways that they each approach themselves as subject probably reveal plenty about their respective situations, as the Korean film is more broadly comical.
Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Nine: Lingua Franca and Heart (both 2019)” →