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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

CinDi 2012: The Boxes of Death, The Live (죽엄의 상자, 더 라이브) 2012

Part of MKC's Coverage of the 6th Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival.

A number of bizarre and interesting works were presented at this year’s CinDi but none fit the tag ‘meta’ better than this curious Korean cinema-centric documentary. The Boxes of Death, The Live is about a live musical staging of the debut work of a titan of classic Korean cinema which was actually a showcase at last year’s CinDi. I didn’t see it in the exact same theater but it was certainly strange witnessing the proceedings unfold at the same event.

The Boxes of Death (1955) was the first film of Kim Ki-young, a masterful Korean cineaste who is slowly, and rightly, being recognized as one of the greats of world cinema. Most famous for his incendiary work The Housemaid (1960), Kim’s oeuvre stretched over a few decades and always pushed the medium to its limits. Films like Woman of Fire (1971), The Insect Woman (1972) and Iodo (1977), explored our darkest desires and shed an often unflattering light on Korea, in stark contrast with the image that the then-authoritarian government wished to promulgate. The Boxes of Death is perhaps more interesting as an historical artifact but the truth is that it is difficult to make a proper judgment on the film as the only existing print is lacking its soundtrack.

This is why a group of musicians, all of whom are involved in the film industry in some capacity, were assembled to accompany the film with their interpretation of it. The first part of the documentary finds them discussing Kim’s work in bright and loungy Seoul coffeeshops and soon transfers to their apartments as they improvise while the picture plays unspools on a projector overhead. However the bulk of the film is given over to the performance at the film’s screening, which is shown in its entirety.

Personally, I wasn’t aware that the whole performance would be a part of the documentary and while I was initially excited at this opportunity to watch the first film of one of my favorite directors, it soon became apparent that the majority of the focus would be on the performers as they noodled on stage. Fair enough, this is a documentary about them, but nonetheless it was unavoidably frustrating for a Kim Ki-young fan.

In general terms, I would say that I found the music and the performance to be interesting. And yes, I do sort of mean that in both good and bad ways. An early chapter in the film titled ‘Avant-garde? Avant-garde!’ shows the musicians discussing how far they should push the envelope, and they mostly agree that while they want some modern, experimental elements, they think the score should hearken back to the time when the film was made and echo the style of contemporaneous works’ soundtracks. They certainly use many of the right instruments (many percussive) but the resultant score is extremely avant-garde, no two ways about it.

Much of it is good but the problem is that it often comes off as a bit showy, which detracts from the work onscreen. Then again, as I was only seldomly afforded a glimpse of the feature playing on screen, this sensation may have been amplified. The Boxes of Death, The Live (incidentally a grammatically poor English title) is a curio that did appeal to me as an ardent Korean cinema fan but was also undermined by robbing me of a chance to witness a film that a Korean cinema lover would want to see. Still though, it was a unique experience and a worthwhile endeavor, just not one that leaves a lasting impression.


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