Friday, April 27, 2012

Udine Far East Film Festival Day VII Report

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

Wang Sib Ri, My Hometown
(South Korea, 1976)

I wish I had been able to see this film earlier so that I could have included it in last December’s ‘Jopok’ (or gangster) week on MKC.  Im Kwon-taek’s Wang Sib Ri, unlike his latter The General’s Son trilogy, is a gangster film with almost no violence but that uses the mob element to convey some sort of misguided escapism.  Joon-tae is a gangster who returns to Wang Sib Ri, his hometown, after 14 years spent in Japan.  Aside from a need to reconnect with his old girlfriend he seems a little hazy on his visit’s purpose.  He meets old friends, who fill him in on everybody’s news, and starts a casual affair with a naïve but sweet prostitute.  He says he will return to Japan but we can’t be sure that he means to, perhaps he is trying to escape from the place he escaped to, to the place where he escaped from. 

Im’s film is ostensibly about Joon-tae but really he is a surrogate for us to discover a provincial town in Korea and its downtrodden characters.  Like other films in the ‘Darkest Decade’ retrospective, it is quite bleak.  Wang Sib Ri is a drab town but rather than one that has fallen into disrepair.  Like many other films that feature a character returning to his place of origin, the town is shown to have taken side during the protagonist’s absence.  The flashbacks are certainly more colorful but I’m sure how that they are meant to represent a happier time.  Keep in mind that that when Joon-tae would have left, the country was already in the midst of Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian rule.

I don’t want to spoil the end except to say that it features the strongest sequence in the film and that its conclusions are far removed from Im’s body of work in his later career.

Yeongja’s Heyday
(South Korea, 1975)

Kim Ho-sun’s film, which was the fourth most successful local film of the decade, launched the ‘hostess film’ trend and is said to be the best example of the genre.  Like most of the retrospective’s films, women, and their restrictive positions in society, are given pride of place.  Here we follow Yeong-ja, a woman who intitally moves from the country to Seoul to work as a maid but soon begins to descend into prostitution.

What is interesting and at the same time most unfortunate about Yeong-ja is that she doesn’t seem to have a hand in her destiny.  The son of the wealthy family she serves rapes her and this gets her thrown out.  One day she rides the bus, but is pushed out by the other passengers, an episode which costs her an arm.  Maggie Lee, a reporter for Variety also in attendance, made a good point that this represents the loss of her virginity and innocence.  It is violent, cacophonous moment which is incontrovertible.

The one problem for me with the film was that its conclusions were inevitable, as is mostly the case with these fallen women films.  I imagine the director was familiar with a number of Japanese examples of the genre, which range from Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952) and Streets of Shame (1956) and Seijun Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute (1965), though my favorite is Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1959).  Kim’s film was much less subdued and while it was often effective, it came off as aggressive at times.  Nonetheless, Yeongja’s Heyday was a fascinating film and its success makes me even more curious about the role of women in society during that time.

(Hong Kong, 2012)

This Pang Ho-cheung film, my first, is actually playing at midnight tonight but I caught it in the library yesterday as I knew I wouldn’t manage to make to its official screening.  I had to make time for it after so many people I met implored me to watch it.

It is another film about filmmaking, which always whets my whistle, but this is goes down a different path and employs an approach that, as the title implies, is quite vulgar.  It’s very clever though as there is no violence or nudity, rather the film is replete with obscene language and some rather shocking suggestion.

A producer of Category III films is giving a talk to film students about the film trade and launches into a description of the making of his most recent film, an erotic sequel to a 70s hit, starring an ageing porn star and being bankrolled by a depraved mob boss.

Vulgaria is hilarious and probably the most fun I’ve had all week, I was in stitches in the press room.  Pang gets the film going very quickly and the pace never drops, everthing is played for laughs and nothing is off limits.  I daresay this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but if you’ve ever enjoyed a midnight screening, this comes highly recommended.

Love in a Puff
(Hong Kong, 2010)

My second Pang Ho-cheung film of the day was a complete 180 from VulgariaLove in a Puff is a very modern story of a burgeoning romance set in Hong Kong.  It’s cute without being cloying and cool without seeming conceited. 

The title refers to smoking, which has just been outlawed in pubic places in 2009.  It is during smoking breaks, where workers in a neighbourhood have begun to fraternize in back alleys that Jimmy Cheung and Cherie Yue meet and slowly begin a relationship.

Love in a Puff chronicles the initial stages of their rapprochement and is full of texting, miscommunication and anxiety:  it’s fresh and it never seems forced.  Since its release in 2010, Pang’s film has received plenty of positive critical attention and it’s easy to see why but it just may be that I wasn’t as taken with it as others.  I can’t really fault the film or its style, I understand and appreciate what it set out to do and rather than say it failed to meet those aims, I’ll say that it didn’t quite suit my tastes.  I still enjoyed the film and would have liked to see its follow up, Love in the Buff (2012), screening later in the day but I wasn’t excited enough to queue for a long time to get a decent seat for the gala presentation with Pang in attendance.

(South Korea, 2011)

Every so often, a film will set off a chain of events that has far greater ramifications than the production itself.  Silenced, which was 2011’s third highest grossing Korean film, is one of these.  It was a midlevel movie that became an unexpected hit and resulted in a national uproar and rapid legislative change.  The film, the story it was based on and the response it inspired were the focus of much domestic and international attention, garnering coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and more.

The film’s power derives from its graphic depiction of extreme events where people in positions of authority take advantage of the weak.  But it is the details and the extent to which the film’s disabled protagonists are oppressed that make it the landmark picture it is.  While it highlights depraved and heinous crimes, Silenced is fuelled by systemic abuse that applies to most Korean citizens without wealth and powerful allies.

While a fine thriller that has the power to move and shock all but the most cynical viewers, Silenced will likely be remembered more for its enormous impact on Korean society rather than for its own merits as a narrative potboiler.  It may not be the most technically proficient production of 2011 it could very well be the one that most successfully accomplished its goals.

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