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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Udine Far East Film Festival Day IV Report


Ongoing reports on the 14th Udine International Film Festival which Modern Korean Cinema will be covering onsite.

As I made my way across the Swiss-Italian border early yesterday morning I was informed by the ticket inspector on my train of an unfortunate detail concerning the Italian rail system.  He spoke German and Italian but no French or English so he kept it simple: “STRIKE! NO CONNECTION!” he bellowed with emphatic hand gestures for further clarification.  As it turned out there were some trains running it but it was luck of the draw.  I would wait for a train only to learn a minute or two before it was meant to arrive that it was cancelled.  As a result I slowly made my way across the Italian peninsula, with lengthy stops in Milan, Venice and Trieste before finally arriving in Udine at 11pm, I had begun my day at 4:30am.

Nevertheless I was thrilled to arrive and terribly excited for my first pair of films, both from the 1970s “Darkest Decade of Korean Cinema” retrospective:


Pollen
(South Korea, 1972)


My very first Korean film from the 1970s was the debut of Ha Kil-jong, who would only produce a small body of work before his untimely death in 1979 at the tender age of 37.  Pollen certainly was a dark film and, though the production of the feature was not always of the highest standard, it was an infectious and sometimes delirious film all the same.  It’s also very difficult to categorize, it was a domestic melodrama to be sure but it was also a sort of psychedelic, horror erotica as well.  Regardless of its classification, it was a fascinating film from a filmmaker who was evidently a keen cinephile, as it draws on a vast array of world cinema influences, including the works of Pasolini, Antonioni and Bergman.

Min-ja is a young girl who lives with her sister whose her husband brings home his protégé one day.  Thus begins a tempestuous affair that, unsurprisingly, leads to disastrous consequences.

There is a great deal of repression and hypocrisy on display in the film and much of what unfolds is affected with a biting and mordant wit.  The house where most of action unfolds is someone called the Blue House, an obvious reference to the building that house Korea’s head of state.  In fact much of the film is informed by the contemporaneous political situation, as I imagine much of the retrospective will be.  The 1970s was very much dark decade for Korea, under the brutal and oppressive authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee.

One of my favorite sequences was a party that takes place in the house.  There is an intense and yet downbeat energy that abounds as the well to do guests seem bent of their own gratification.  They are in a trance, stuck to each other but vacantly staring off in silence as they amble to a pulsating and psychedelic funereal march.  The editing is both languid and frantic as it, along with the piercing cinematography, highlight this macabre dance of the dead.


Iodo
(South Korea, 1977)


Kim Ki-young is one of the most well known names of classic Korean cinema, having directed the seminal ‘Golden Age’ melodrama The Housemaid (1960), which was later remade by Im Sang-soo in 2010.  While he was an important presence in the Korean film industry in the 1960s, he was not so well regarded in the 70s, though he was no less productive.  Iodo, from the second half of the decade, is an extraordinary film though admittedly a difficult one that would have had trouble finding an audience at the time of its release.

An intense island melodrama, the film incorporates numerous themes into a densely structured but well though out narrative.  Two films almost immediately came to mind as I watched it:  the classic Shinto Kanedo film Naked Island (1960) and one of Korea’s best efforts from 2010, Bedevilled.

Compared to the morning’s Pollen, Kim’s film is a much more polished affair where he puts his experience to good use.  The impressive mise-en-scene is at the same time austere and vigorous.  His film grips you with its impressive and rugged vistas and gets under your skin with its potent undercurrent of paranoia.

Another film that comes to mind is The Wicker Man (1973), here instead of paganism, we are privy to an almost cultish vein of shamanism.  Kim’s film’s uses the rural site as a place of horror.  A locale that cannot be escaped and draws people back.  The motif is a wellspring of thematic material as Iodo not only covers shamanism but rural society, childbirth and motherhood, gender roles and even environmental issues.  What’s amazing is that despite the wealth of topics explored, none feel rushed and, instead, all come together to form an invigorating and often horrifying cohesive whole.

I can’t wait to see Kim’s other retrospective film A Woman Chasing a Killer Butterfly (1978) not to mention his work The Insect Woman (1972) which has been languishing in my in pile for far too long.  This and Pollen were a terrific double punch and I’m dying to see what the rest of the week has to offer.


Sukiyaki
(Japan, 2011)


Tetsu Maeda’s Sukiyaki was a wonderful and whimsical work that was exceptionally successful in inspiring a reaction from our most important organ.  I speak of course, of our stomachs.  I think that I and the rest of the audience were salivating throughout the film’s entire running time, I know that Fabien Schneider (cinemeasie.com), who I saw it with, was afflicted with an intense craving for ramen afterwards.

The story is a cute one, if such a word is appropriate in the setting, that focusses on inmates sharing a cell who take their meals very seriously and are about to embark on their annual tradition of recounting their favorite meals in a bid to get some extra helpings during their upcoming New Year’s feast.  The only difference this year is that there is a new cellmate who, at first, refuses the join the proceedings, opting instead to wile away his time sulking in a corner.

The camaraderie of the prisoners is a real joy and in no small part due to the tremendously engaging cast.  They each got their shot at the spotlight when they recount their stories, which mostly tie in with the causes of their incarcerations.  Realism is squarely thrown out the door early and this is a wise decision as on the one hand it makes the film more fun but also makes it accepts that the film depicts a prison that you would want to go to.

Make no mistake though the star of this film is the food, the element that is often not given its proper dues in cinema.  The last Japanese film to make my stomach grumble was Koreeda’s wonderful Still Walking (2008) and many other Asian films have made my stomach ache, such as Taiwan’s Eat Man Drink Woman (1994) and Korea’s Le Grand Chef (2007).

The only worries for me were that at the end of the day it didn’t seem to say a great deal and the precisely structured narrative was almost too episodic.  Those petty grievances aside though, I highly recommend Sukiyaki though implore you not to watch it on an empty stomach!


I really enjoyed my first day at the FEFF where I got to see some great films and take part in a panel on music in film with Korea’s Kang Cheol-heyong (Sunny, 2011) and Koo Ja-hong (Dangerously Excited, 2012) and Taiwan’ Giddens (You Are the Apple of My Eyes, 2011).  I was also thrilled to meet many wonderful people, including Darcy Paquet (the curator of the 1970s retrospective), who is something of an idol for me.  Lastly, I was also interviewed by Antoniya Petkova for CUEAFS!

Greatly looking forward to what today has to offer.

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