I’ve got an article in this week’s LA Weekly about the films of Ross Lipman, whom many readers will recognize as the UCLA restorationist behind classic films by independent luminaries such as Kenneth Anger, John Cassavetes, John Sayles, and Charles Burnett. However, his upcoming show at REDCAT on March 30 (a Tuesday event rather than the Theater’s typical Monday night film schedule) should expose more people to his own film, video, and performance work, and shouldn’t be missed.
By Robert Koehler
The juries have spoken, and—what else is new with festival juries?–I’m trying to wrap my head around some of the results. First, a big day for directors Maria Novaro for The Good Herbs and Nicolas Pereda for Perpetuum Mobile. The Mexican results went almost exactly as I predicted: Perpetuum Mobile for best picture; Carlos Carrera for director; The Good Herbs for actress (Ursula Pruneda), screenplay, cinematography (Gerardo Barroso); best first-or-second film and a share best actor prize to Ruben Imaz’ Cephalopod, the other genuinely indie film in the section (along with the Pereda) and Imaz’ follow-up to Familia Tortuga.
The festival’s oddest award, and one that should be immediately junked if it wants to retain respectability, is a jury recommendation to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to nominate both Perpetuum Mobile (which will happen only after major planets collide) and The Good Herbs (nearly as unlikely) in its next round of foreign film nominations. Except for the Golden Globes nonsense and a highly debatable nod to Carrera (and the usually fine Damian Alcazar, who overacts up a storm in De la infancia) this was, overall, a solid selection overall.
Meanwhile, the Ibero-American jury was clearly smoking something. I’m sorry, but any group that gives a prize to Gaviria’s dysfunctional, laughably bad Portraits in a Sea of Lies and to Sebastian Cordero’s dreadful Rabia is in serious need of questioning. It doesn’t stop there: The jury gave a special jury prize, a sort-of runner-up to best film, to Juan Carlos Valdivia’s ridiculously overwrought family melodrama, Southern District, which is nothing but an exercise in camera movements (as I more or less termed it in my Variety review); to Cordero for best director; to Florence Jauguey’s creaky and crudely made boxing melodrama La Yuma (if you can’t see by now, the jury clearly has a thing for melodrama) for best debut; to four bad-to-awful lead performances in Rabia, Zona Sur, Portraits and La Yuma; and perhaps most shocking of all, to Valdivia for his tendentious script.
This has to be understood in a context; that is, consider what the jury ignored and opposed. It ignored and opposed Javier Rebollo’s masterful Woman Without Piano, and, for good measure, Carmen Machi’s unforgettable lead performance. It ignored and opposed Esmir Filho’s fascinating and genuinely resonant The Famous and the Dead (a film, notably, awarded by other juries, including FIPRESCI). It ignored and opposed Natalia Smirnoff’s confident and thoughtfully directed debut, Puzzle (which, in retrospect, received a bum rap in the Berlinale) with another brilliant performance by Maria (The Headless Woman) Onetto. It ignored and opposed Fabian Hoffman’s uneven but decently made I Miss You, which, though hardly world-beating stuff, is miles and miles ahead of junk like Rabia, Portraits and Southern District.
Juries should point ahead, and function in a sense as antennae for the future of cinema. This jury reinforces utterly backward notions, and its selection should be called for what it is: a rear-guard action.
By Robert Koehler
We’re an hour away from the awards announcement in Guadalajara, so rumors are flying. In the Ibero-American competition, will it be Colombian veteran Victor Gaviria for his Berlin-debuting Portraits in a Sea of Lies, or Javier Rebollo for his masterfully witty Woman Without Piano? Or perhaps a wild card like Esmir Filho and his imaginative The Famous and the Dead? (Others in the conversation include Natalia Smirnoff’s Puzzle and Paz Fabrega’s Tiger-winning Agua fria de mar.)
The Mexican field, as usual, is a whole lot shorter: The race appears to be between Nicolas Pereda’s Perpetuum Mobile, Carlos Carrera’s De la infancia and Maria Novaro’s The Good Herbs, largely because no other films are conceivable for any sort of recognition. This hasn’t stopped some ridiculous awarding here in the past; in Guadalajara, come awards time, anything is possible. I’ll be back with the results soon, and then some consideration of one of the festival’s most interesting trends: The new generation of female South American non-fictionists…..
I’ve long wanted do an interview with Mark Wright, who established a remarkable DVD store named Videotheque in South Pasadena a few years ago. Los Angeles has a few stores renowned for their ambitious classic Hollywood and world cinema selections (Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, Cinefile, Vidiots) but none in the San Gabriel Valley. I first heard about the newly-opened Videotheque on a film discussion board in 2003, and soon became a loyal customer attracted to its great selection (including many imports) organized by country or director, genuinely friendly staff, and fun, cinephile vibe with laminated magazine clippings, film reference books, and colorful collection of Godard posters.
In this day of mail-order rentals and streaming video (not to mention the Great Recession), it’s nice to see an independent brick-and-mortar store thrive–Videotheque recently moved across the street into an expanded space that makes it bigger and better than ever. And it’s still conveniently next to the Mission Station on the Metro Gold Line. Even though I no longer live in Pasadena, I still make regular excursions to the store because there’s no online substitute for browsing its aisles; I always come across titles I didn’t even know were available on DVD. And little touches make a big difference, like the fact that the store rents DVDs with the sleeves/liner notes included. (Thursday nights the farmer’s market across the street doubles the pleasure.) –Doug
Q. When did you first become interested in movies, and when did you decide you wanted to enter the video business?
Mark Wright: There’s an amazing art deco styled cinema called The Tower Theater in Fresno where I grew up that would show occasional kids matinee repertory programs on Saturdays like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I also remember seeing current release movies at the UA or Mann like Time Bandits and War Games and being scared to death! Those freaky cages suspended in the black mid-air and the kid nearly abandoned in the house fire in the former, and Matthew Broderick and sexy Ally Sheedy almost setting off nuclear holocaust via Commodore 64 in the latter, were tough on the gentle sensibilities of this pre-teen. Madame Medusa, the “Cruella De Ville” of Disney’s The Rescuers also gave me fright on its re-issue in the early 80′s.
My parents watched foreign films and sometimes I joined them at the Tower for kid-friendly ones like the hilarious mismatched buddy movie La Chèvre, with Gérard Depardieu and Pierre Richard. When we got our first VCR, I would record stuff like The Sting, Mary Poppins and Bugsy Malone off of TV and memorize all the lines. I loved The Empire Strikes Back, Superman II, and Raiders of the Lost Ark like every one else on the block– but near high school seemed to find my way towards the foreign fare that was making the rounds at the time like A Room With a View, Au Revoir les Enfants, Manon of the Spring, and The Double Life of Véronique.
In college, I was a French major and got to live a year and a half in Paris (’93/’94). It’s such a movie lover’s paradise, with endless retrospectives and so many different little (and grand) cinemas. In addition to films by Nikita Mikhalkov, Zhang Yimou, or Almodóvar, I discovered English language filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Atom Egoyan, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, David Cronenberg, and Jane Campion. Pulp Fiction had just won at Cannes ’94, so it was a big deal seeing it in a packed Paris house, prior to its US release.
Auspiciously, Clerks also played to nice acclaim at Cannes that year and I saw it as well; I would be clerking myself a couple years later after graduation, at a new arthouse video store. I worked at Video Paradiso in Claremont for six years, managing the last four, and picked up invaluable retail training. I thought I could give it a go on my own, and found a great stretch of shops on Mission Street, South Pasadena, where I opened Videotheque in March of 2003.
Q. Videotheque is unique, not just in South Pasadena, but in the whole San Gabriel Valley, for specializing in foreign, classic, and rare DVDs. Did you ever worry about finding or building an audience for world cinema in the suburbs?
A. In addition to the chains (Tower Records, The Wherehouse), I used to rent films from a small indie shop in Fresno called The Movies. They carried an eclectic selection and would break out the titles into categories of directors, genres, and interesting subsections. Although modest in size, they had a nice coterie of customers; it seemed if done right, this type of shop could flourish in most moderately cultivated places.
I noticed the same success at Video Paradiso; it didn’t hurt that it was right next to Rhino Records– a great music store and interesting-people magnet–and located in the heart of the Claremont Village, a charming college town with an independent vibe. I got the same feeling while taking in art films and midnight movies at the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena, and later when I discovered the Mission West neighborhood’s beautiful trees, craftsman homes, mom and pop shops, coffee houses, and attractive old buildings, it felt like a perfect fit.
Even out in the suburbs, we get the occasional star drop-in. Two favorites who were charming and friendly: Vincent Malle, brother and occasional producer of Louis, once special ordered a couple Hedy Lamarr movies, and the son of Paul Gégauff (French New Wave screenwriter/actor) picked up one of the films his father made with Chabrol, Pleasure Party.
Q. In this day of rent-by-mail, pay-per-view, and streaming video, a lot of people assume a brick-and-mortar store is a losing proposition, but Videotheque always seems robust and lively, and you recently moved into a larger space. How does your store fit into today’s video market? What do you attribute to your success?
A. Thanks! We’ve been so lucky. Our great customers deserve all the credit. We’ve tried to lay out the store in an interesting and attractive way, to keep the collection fresh with new releases of every stripe–big Hollywood hits, documentaries, international titles, classic reissues, cult items, TV, music, kids–while maintaining a bedrock back catalog of the same, and supplementing with hard-to-find rareties & imports, plus a revolving for-sale section of DVD, Blu-ray, screen-printed cinema t-shirts, posters, CDs, vinyl and most recently, several dozen rare Japanese chirashi (promotional lobby cards) of classic and foreign releases.
I’m fortunate to have an amazing, creative, people-friendly and movie-knowledgeable staff who add to the shop’s inviting atmosphere. I know we have customers who use Netflix, order movies on demand, or procure by other means, but so far we’ve managed to remain appealing and valuable, among a host of home entertainment options. We also have the advantage of being a destination away from the couch or computer; hopefully the desire to leave the house and engage in a pleasing retail environment will continue to persist. We aspire to offer the same satisfying experience that I’ve found as a customer at great indie establishments like Powell’s Books in Portland, The New Beverly Cinema or Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, Vroman’s across town, or Nicole’s Foods across the road.
Q. Videotheque has organized public screenings at various venues in the past. Is this something you’re still interested in doing?
A. They were a lot of fun, and a lot of work. Much organizing and promoting went in, plus set-up and breakdown of projector, screen, sound, folding chairs, etc. Sometimes for a crowd of six people! Regarding future screenings, I wouldn’t rule them out but as the Magic 8 Ball might say: “Outlook not so good.”
Q. You’ve always displayed good taste with your acquisitions; do you still find time to watch a lot of movies? How do you keep up with the interesting titles?
A. I don’t seem to watch as much at home as I used to, but still try to make time to get to the big screen. I’m a big fan of all the great programming around town at all the usual suspects like LACMA, the American Cinematheque, the Hammer, the Cinefamily, the New Bev, the Nuart, etc. I read things like Film Comment and Cineaction, and enjoy listening to the crtitics’ round-ups on KPCC’s FilmWeek, or catching At The Movies when I’m at home. For comprehensive listings of everything going on movie-wise in L.A., Karie Bible’s filmradar.com is invaluable, and you can sign-up for her helpful newsletter bulletins, too.
Q. What do you enjoy most about running the store?
A. Turning people on to treasures, from Alphaville to Zelig.
By Robert Koehler
From the traces of suicidal young in Listorti’s debut to the presence of suicidal young who won’t go away in Esmir Filho’s The Famous and the Dead/Os Famosos e os Duendes da Morte (another debut, in the Ibero American competition)—death is in the air in Guadalajara. Slippery as a fish and defying any brief description, Filho’s work at first appears to be just another tale of dissolute youth whose lives are in flux and meaning seems uncertain. The familiar concoction of weed, wandering, crazy moms and the rest. (Filho flirts with profound cliché early on when depicting a pot scene in woozy slow motion.) Yet what emerges is a more complex web than first appearances suggest, a web of alternating tenses, interior and exterior states of mind and a growing dread that we are witnessing something taking place in a condition neither quite alive nor exactly dead.
I haven’t seen Filho’s previous shorts, including Saliva, but Brazilian critic colleague (and FIPRESCI jury president in Guadalajara) Jose Avellar observes that The Famous and the Dead continues the short films’ concerns with the hopes and fears of adolescents, shot in a mode that conveys a state somewhere between sleep and full consciousness. The tone here is darker; the web-savvy teen boy at the center has taken the moniker “Mr. Tambourine Man” after Bob Dylan, and the suicide of a girl off a bridge hangs like a cloud over a town in southern Brazil, originally founded by Prussians (who are sometimes heard speaking in an Old German dialect). Filho displays considerable control over sequences that lead to the boy facing his own mortality, with the unresolved suggestion that the bridge may be his own passage to death: The extraordinary final shot in short depth-of-field captures him in clear focus, until he moves further away and becomes a blur and invisible. Such is the nature of The Famous and the Dead—the materiality of this world slips away in a moment, video fragments take on the nature of a dream, and the division between the living and the dead dissolves.
By Robert Koehler
It’s a bit surprising that the Guadalajara International Film Festival isn’t screening the competing non-fiction films for the press, especially at a time when non-fiction programming is proving to be the life blood of many festivals, and when festivals devoted to non-fiction—from IDFA to True-False—are on the rise. So, naturally, on the first day of screenings, I sought out the non-fiction.
After dipping in for tastes of Carlos Manuel Aguilar’s Curb Creatures (with Aguilar’s video camera allowed into the often drug-addled lives of homeless people in Hollywood) and Renzo Martens’ subversive-looking Episode III—Enjoy Poverty (in which he begins to propose that Africa “market” poverty as a natural resource)—both of which I must reserve judgments on after a mere 30 minutes’ each of viewing, and both of which aren’t in a designated non-fiction category, but the more generally-titled “Sin Fronteras” section—I rested on Leandro Listorti’s Los jóvenes muertos (Dead Youth), and this proved to be a good move. It’s the second Argentine non-fiction work seen today, and in contrast to the sometimes roughly assembled if genuinely felt Fragments of a Search by Pablo Milstein and Norberto Ludin (about a mom’s dogged quest for her daughter, kidnapped by human traffickers), Listorti’s feature debut is an elegantly made ghost film.
That’s to say that Los jóvenes muertos takes the subject of a bizarre wave of young people committing suicide in the small town of Las Heras and refuses to explain it; instead, it ponders the traces left behind by the dead. The thirty suicides are individually noted on screen by the youth’s name, the date of their death and their age; rarely is it even noted how they died. (In one case near the film’s end, a quiet shot of a strange-looking observation tower is enough to suggest one kind of suicide.) Each suicide is separated by a blackout. Some are accompanied by voice-overs of parents and loved ones reflecting on the lost child, rarely even coming near a sense of comprehending their actions. Some are presented in silence, with only the sound of the places which Listorti films with a consistently still and stoic camera. The empty classrooms, school hallways, gyms, pools and places that young people can call their own become a haunted world, where traces of a past seem to hover and nearly become tangible.
There’s something ingenious about how Listorti encounters a carnival playground (empty of people, as is every shot in the film) where swings and other rides move and rock under a fierce wind off the nearby plains. Are those children on those swings, and we simply can’t see them? Are our eyes weak? Is the camera unable to see further? Los jóvenes muertos becomes a film about seeing, and then about seeing beyond surfaces, as much as or more than it is about death.
Why then did the audience applaud and laugh at it in mock scorn when the credits began rolling? (Many had been loudly talking during the screening, as a precursor of the rudeness to come.) Perhaps they came expecting a film filled with—what? dead people?—and got a film they weren’t expecting: A film trained on life after the dead have gone, and what it looks and feels like. And Los jovenes muertos is rigorous, so that was probably no good with this crowd either. It belongs in a stream of non-fiction that I’ve written about lately here, both the landscape/space-time continuum/epic cinema of James Benning, and the observational cinema of the Pompeu Fabra school of documentary filmmaking in Barcelona. (One thinks here of Mercedes Alvarez’ Tiger-winning El cielo gira.) It’s a cinema that asks for the audience to rise to the occasion. Guadalajara’s tonight failed.
By Hye Jean Chung
The synopsis of Mother, the latest film from award-winning Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, whose filmography includes the critically acclaimed and widely popular films, The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003), is deceptively simple: The titular character is a devoted single parent (Kim Hye-ja) who lives with her twenty-seven-year-old, mentally-challenged son, Do-joon (Won Bin), and takes care of him with a passion that tinges on obsession. When he is arrested by the local police and charged with murdering a teenage girl, her maternal instincts attain a primal intensity as she begins her desperate mission to prove his innocence by finding the real killer. She faces obstacles in the guise of an indifferent police force that bullies a confession out of Do-joon, and a pompous lawyer with a bloated sense of self-importance.
The film shares similarities with Bong’s previous films, which often reveal the dark side of Korean society through satire and irony, such as the inefficient and ineffective nature of government institutions and local bodies of power. In terms of genre, Mother is most closely related to Memories of Murder; both are murder mysteries where the narrative is propelled forward by the quest to find the identity of the killer. Mother is also reminiscent of The Host in its depiction of a dysfunctional family and its focus on a portrait of monstrosity found in the context of contemporary Korea. Although the monster in Mother is less visible and more difficult to identity than that of The Host, its presence is no less palpable. In fact, it is the banality of monstrosity in Mother that frightens, leaving behind a lingering aftertaste of malaise long after the empty-eyed faces of Do-joon and his mother fade from view.
Chung: My favorite scenes in the film are the first and last sequences, both showing Kim Hye-ja [a famous and well-respected Korean actress who plays the main protagonist] and other women dancing. It’s visually striking and humorously quirky, especially considering the dark intensity of what happens throughout the rest of the film. Could you tell us a bit about how you directed Kim Hye-ja for those scenes, and what you asked her to do or portray?
Bong: The opening sequence is quite unexpected because Kim Hye-ja suddenly starts dancing in an open field, without any context. I wanted to make the audience a bit bewildered in the beginning, to make them think, “this film is a bit strange,” and also to realize that this woman is slightly crazy, or to anticipate that they will see her slowly losing her sanity throughout the film. And the audience won’t realize the significance of the setting until much later in the film. When you see Kim’s expression in the scene, you can tell that she is not dancing out of feelings of joy. When we were shooting that scene, rather than her dance moves, our focus was on how to portray the sensation of losing one’s sanity, and the experience of feeling dazed and stupefied through Kim’s facial expression. We didn’t really choreograph her dance moves; they were improvised.
The last sequence is quite different because it was shot in an enclosed space filled with a crowd of women. And I wanted to shoot the scene in a silhouette, and to show the women as one shadowy mass, so you wouldn’t be able to pick out Kim Hye-ja amongst the crowd, and to get the sense that all those women each have a story to tell. The situation is also very “Korean,” because there aren’t a lot of countries in the world where older women dance on buses in a group like that. A Turkish-American journalist came up to me once during a film festival in New York and told me that women in Turkey do the same thing. Before that I thought this happened only in Korea. When I was younger, I would watch those dancing women and think, if I ever make a film about a mother, I would include a scene showing older women dancing on a bus like them. I used to think it was an unsightly scene when I was young, but now I’m older and have a child of my own, I can understand the complicated mix of emotions that makes them want to do that.
Chung: There must have been a lot of pressure after the incredible success of The Host for your next film. What drew you to the story of Mother, especially at this stage in your career?
Bong: The success of The Host was rather unexpected, so there was a bit of pressure, but actually I prepared the story of Mother long before The Host. After Memories of Murder, in 2003, when journalists asked me which actor I wanted to work with, I answered that I wanted to work with Kim Hye-ja. She saw the newspaper articles and contacted me in person. In 2004, I already had started writing the script for Mother, and continued working on it while making The Host. So Mother had nothing to do with the success of The Host, because I had always planned to make this film afterward. I didn’t want to direct two large-scale films in a row, and preferred to make a smaller, more concentrated film.
Chung: I loved the film, but (and this might be a very subjective reaction) I felt an overwhelming sense of despair after watching it.
Bong: It is a dark film. [laughs]
Chung: I actually like dark films! But I was quite struck by the detachment I felt from the two main characters. They aren’t characters that necessarily elicit sympathy or empathy. For instance, you can find similarities between Gang-du in The Host and Do-joon in Mother because they are both mentally challenged, but Gang-du is a much more sympathetic figure. To be honest, Do-joon is rather creepy, with an almost ominous air. In fact, Do-joon reminds me more of the monster than Gang-du in The Host.
Bong: Do-joon does leave you with a strange, queasy feeling. [laughs] I think in The Host, there’s a clear distinction between the good and the bad. The family members in The Host are powerless and seem foolish and clueless at times, but they are good, honest people who are all quite lovable. So they elicit feelings of sympathy and make you want to root for them and stand by their side. Meanwhile, the monster and the monstrous entities of power that persecute them elicit feelings of animosity.
But there’s no clear dichotomy in Mother. The mother character is quite extreme, and goes beyond what most people want to know or see about motherhood. But for me, that was the allure of this film. I wanted to go to extremes, to go as far as I could beyond the precipice, and to not be afraid. There was no hesitation for me. But I don’t want to make films like this all the time, or I’d fear for my mental health. [laughs] Just like actors, directors also immerse themselves in the story and the emotions of the film, so it was difficult for me as well toward the end.
In The Host, the characters try to help one another, despite their own weakness. I didn’t recognize this until much later, while I was actually making the film, but in Mother, I realized that the story is about weak people hurting one another, such as the mentally challenged Do-jun and the dead girl, Ah-jung. So the darkness that you mentioned is inherent in the structures of society, but I think that’s also part of reality. So I wanted to portray that in at least one of my films.
Chung: You said once in a previous interview that you’ve always been fascinated with “the concept of chaos” from a philosophical perspective.
Bong: Did I say that? [laughs]
Chung: Well, that’s what I read. In The Host, you at least gave the audience the possibility of a happy ending and a sense of restored order, however precarious and illusory. But in Mother, it seems that there never was an order to be restored in the first place, that reason and logic fail, that chaos is inevitable.
Bong: Yes, The Host ends with the main character having dinner with his adopted son. But Mother is rife with misunderstandings and miscommunication. There’s also an eating sequence in Mother toward the end, but it’s not a scene of domestic happiness: it’s almost a living hell that you cannot escape.
Chung: You mentioned the “Korean” quality of the dance sequence earlier. But your films appeal to both local and international audiences, and you’re one of the few Korean filmmakers whose films are theatrically released overseas. Do you have a certain target audience in mind when you make your films?
Bong: To be honest, I make films to please and satisfy myself. [laughs] While making films, I don’t think in terms of whether this would appeal to a Korean audience, or whether that would be funny to an international audience, since I’m too busy trying to tell a story that I want to tell. But there is this. For instance, I mentioned the dancing sequence on the bus earlier. People who are not familiar with that in their own national context might read it as a surreal experience or an illusion. But that does not faze me. Even if you haven’t been to New York, when you watch a Woody Allen film, you can imagine what it’s like to be on Fifth Avenue or Central Park, or understand the neurotic personality of New Yorkers as depicted in the film. Since 2000 or so, people who are interested in Korean films have become more familiar with elements of Korean society than we think. So even when translating subtitles, I encourage literal translations that retain the “strangeness” of the Korean language. Although mainstream audiences outside of Korea might still be unfamiliar with Korean cinema, there are also many fans in the film festival crowd who see a lot of Korean films, by filmmakers such as Kim Ki-duk, Hong Sang-soo, Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, and Kim Ji-woon, so I don’t think Koreans should worry that international audiences will not understand Korean culture as portrayed in films.
Chung: I heard that your next project is based on a French science fiction graphic novel [Jean-Marc Rochette and Jacques Loeb's Le Transperceneige]. Could you tell us a bit about it? Is it called Snow Piercer in English?
Bong: Yes, the English working title is Snow Piercer. It’s a science fiction action film that is set on a train, which is kind of similar to Noah’s Ark, because the film is set in a post-apocalyptic world that is completely frozen over. So the train is filled with survivors, and the dramatic tension arises from the struggles and fights among them.
Chung: I heard there will a mixed cast–with actors from various countries.
Bong: The train will be filled with people from all around the world, so there will be a wide variety of ethnicities and nationalities. It’s highly probable that I’ll be casting actors from Korea, Japan, France and the U.S., and I anticipate about half of the film will be in English.
Chung: I was curious where the film will be set, since it’s a train that hurtles through a post-apocalyptic world.
Bong: The train will travel through a large number of countries. Since it’s a science fiction film, it could be set anywhere. It could even travel across oceans through underwater tunnels. (laughs)
Chung: Where are you planning to shoot your film?
Bong: I haven’t finished writing the script, so the details of the production haven’t been decided. A lot of the scenes on the train will be filmed on a set. As for the external scenes, the location managers are considering several possibilities–places that are cold and snowy around five to six months out of the year.
Chung: Did your experience of working in Japan to shoot the segment that was included in Tokyo! (2008) increase your desire to make more films abroad?
Bong: Shaking Tokyo was a short film that lasted only 30 minutes, but it was the first time that I shot a film overseas. I intentionally went to Japan by myself, without any Korean crew or cast members, and I purposefully created an environment where everyone I was working with were Japanese, because I was curious what it’d be like. But really, maybe because it was Japan, I didn’t find the experience of working with a Japanese crew or working on location that different from Korea. I didn’t face many obstacles or difficulties, and I had a good time.
Honestly I was most curious about working with Japanese actors, because I don’t speak Japanese. All the lines were in Japanese, so I didn’t know what to expect while working with Japanese actors and a script entirely in Japanese. Even if they made a mistake, I wouldn’t know. When I work with Korean actors, I discuss with them in minute detail the subtleties of each word and its connotations, and we try out different ways of saying the same line. So I was a bit nervous what it would be like to work in a language I didn’t understand. But I felt that it was ultimately the same, because we’re dealing with the same range of human emotions. Once we bonded over that commonality, it was quite easy working with the Japanese actors. Later on, even though I still didn’t understand Japanese, I was able to catch the mistakes. If I think about it now, I’m not sure how I was able to do that then. Maybe it was because I was concentrating so intently at the time, but at times I didn’t even have to wait for the translator to explain. That made me realize that it wasn’t that different to make films in a foreign context, with foreign actors, as long as you can relate to them on the level of emotions.
Hye Jean Chung is a doctoral candidate in film studies at UC Santa Barbara. She is currently working on a dissertation project that focuses on location shooting and digitally manipulated visual effects in transnational filmmaking. She has also worked as a translator and a journalist in South Korea. She can be contacted here.
The current issue of Film Comment has been on news stands for a few weeks, and it includes best-of-the-year and best-of-the-decade polls to which I was invited to contribute. I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 and starting blogging in 2003, so in many ways, pondering the decade has encouraged me to reappraise my writing here (though by no means have I written about every film I watched!), which has proven to be an enjoyable exercise.
The categories and numbers of titles requested were limiting, of course, but even restricting myself to one film per director (preventing a pile up of, say, films by Richard Linklater or the Dardennes), I’ve had to leave out a lot of singular achievements I will continue to cherish for years. (And I’m sure I don’t have to mention how the strange vagaries of distribution influenced my lists, especially for the years 2000 and 2009.) The lists emphasize features over short or experimental works, and I assumed many masterpieces were shoo-ins for the poll, so I made an effort to emphasize a few titles I didn’t want to be overlooked. The ordering is ranked roughly in terms of personal attachment, but it’s pretty fluid; I could easily be talked into rearranging most of it on any given day.
10 Favorite Films of 2009
1. Extraordinary Stories (Mariano Llinás, Argentina)
The most unconventional narrative feature I saw this year was also the most riveting: clocking in at over four hours and juxtaposing three main stories with countless mini-stories in each–all featuring wall-to-wall narration–and shot on what looks like consumer-grade video, this microbudget film still feels bigger and more expansive than Avatar. Taking supreme delight in the telling of its stories (which dabble in multiple genres), the film has been aptly compared to Louis Feuillade, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tristam Shandy for its free-flowing, episodic, patchwork structure, and its cumulative effect is thrilling. Describing Llinás, the esteemed Argentine critic Quintin wrote in Cinema Scope: “…in his capacities as director, producer, writer, editor, actor and teacher, he has opened up a new path for the country’s filmmaking community and a new direction for its cultural milieu.” Bravo.
2. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
The latest masterpiece from Romania is a sly and slow-boiling (rather than hard-boiled) detective story documenting a young policeman’s monotonous surveillance of a pot-smoking teenager and the policeman’s aversion to his job because he fears the criminal punishment would be too severe. (Having traveled a bit, he also knows pot-smoking isn’t even a crime in other places.) He’d rather catch the unknown supplier, but in a tour-de-force confrontation in the film’s final act, his older superior insists that duty is duty. It’s part of the film’s brilliance that this conversation amplifies the way virtually every one of the film’s conversations pivots around ideas of process, language, and justice; the policeman’s crisis has as much to do with his country’s general moral trajectory as it does with his job. This is a movie that seems innocuous and then lingers in your mind for months.
3. United Red Army (Koji Wakamatsu, Japan)
One of the best cinematic convergences I experienced last year was when I saw Wakamatsu’s blistering dramatization of Japanese student protests just as I was exploring Nagisa Oshima’s life and work, which is haunted by the death of Sixties radicalism. Wakamatsu’s film focuses on the formation and cult encampment of the United Red Army and its eventual 1972 ten-day standoff with the police and media in the Japanese Alps. The film is a commanding and at times almost unbearably frank account of the way paranoia, group dynamics, and sloganeering festered into psychodramatic “self-criticism” that led to the group torturing and executing half of its own members. Yet this is no simple exposé–Wakamatsu, who has personal ties to the group and mortgaged his home to finance the film, directs with a profound commitment to emotional authenticity and an aversion to judgment.
4. The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda, France)
As she proved with The Gleaners and I, Varda has a particular genius for autobiography and the essay film, with its freeform sense of play and spontaneity, and she confides in the viewer like a friend. Rather than a cause this time, she explores her own past, and utilizes a fascinating array of new footage, film clips, recreations, and old photos, as the width of her frame shifts from snapshots to widescreen splendor. “Cinema is a game,” she says, and recounts her life through an array of digital tricks, impromptu installations, and an assortment of cardboard cutouts. She explores the people and locations of her past and in the process discovers them anew.
5. Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
It’s difficult not to acknowledge the wide, and in some ways unlikely, influence the Dardennes have made on contemporary cinema with their handheld, intimate studies of enigmatic characters in personal crises. The mild backlash that greeted their latest film–accusing it simultaneously of doing the same things and doing different things (something of which their hero, Roberto Rossellini, was no stranger)–wasn’t too surprising. What is clear is that the Dardennes are serious about exploring their themes in new ways rather than falling back on proven templates. It may be their most heavily plotted film in years, but it ends with their greatest psychological mystery, a provocation that suggests a moral conscience born unconsciously might invent its own reality.
6. Un Lac (Philippe Grandrieux, France)
Despite his undeniable technical mastery of dark and blurry imagery that is by turns baffling, beautiful, and gut-wrenching, Grandrieux’s first feature, Sombre (1998), didn’t change my mind about the meagre merits of dramatizing the lives of serial killers, and I’m still processing his brilliant but confounding follow-up, La vie nouvelle (2002). But Un lac captivated and moved me, its deliciously opaque narrative–as equivocal as the bulk of the film’s images–about an unusually intense relationship between a brother and sister living in seclusion becomes a platform for a deeper and more emotionally nuanced parable about human attachment and loss.
7. It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, Britain)
Curtis’ most avant-garde film (at least, the one with the least amount of narration and the most ambiguity) served as the basis for a theatrical installation in Manchester. It exhibits his typically brilliant, impressionistic montage of archival footage tracing developing cultural and political ideas. But freed from his usual BBC rhetorical constraints, the film is a Godardian juxtaposition of text, sounds, and images linking seemingly disparate Fifties personalities (Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Enos the chimp, and “everyone above Level 7 in the CIA”) to world calamities today. Highly thought-provoking and enthralling to watch, it reinforces Curtis as one of the world’s leading film essayists.
8. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski, USA)
With the passing of Eric Rohmer earlier this year, Bujalski seems poised to take the reigns as cinema’s master of naturalistic portraits of intelligent young adults pondering their hearts in confusing times. Don’t confuse him with his mumblecore imitators, whose calculated slacker mannerisms often seem more concerned with qualifying them as genre pieces than revealing complex personalities (it’s no surprise that Bujalski tends to cast longtime friends). Developing the post-collegiate setting of his two previous features, this film reflects the tensions, bonds, and crises prompted by the demands of business, while remaining as breezy and infectious as ever.
9. Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, USA)
Linklater’s love letter to the Mercury Theatre, New Deal creativity, and youthful idealism was well worth the wait on its distribution; its host of convincing performances is topped by Christian McKay’s uncanny interpretation of Welles, which stresses intensity and fluidity over mimicry, and thereby picks up unexpected nuances along the way. As warm and clever as Linklater’s previous works but boasting an almost epic period sweep and poise, it never devolves into nostalgia or hamming, investing its coming of age story with a genuine depth of feeling.
10. The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore, Ireland)
Los Angeles seems to be one of the only US cities where Moore’s film has played (qualifying it for an Oscar nomination), which is unfortunate because it’s one of the most visually inventive and compelling animated features I’ve seen. Evoking the feel of illustrated manuscripts and having fun with its medieval two-dimensional representations of space, it recounts the turbulent history of the Celtic tome that many consider Ireland’s greatest artistic accomplishment. The film tells its story in broad strokes suitable for adolescents without dumbing down the mysticism, barbarity, and human cost of the middle ages.
10 Favorite Discoveries of 2009 (Not a Film Comment submission, but a Film Journey tradition–in no particular order.)
• A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)
With all the attention our Save Film at LACMA campaign received, it’s easy to overlook the stellar programming Ian Birnie and Bernardo Rondeau continued to provide (several films on this list were courtesy of LACMA), not least of which was this brand new print of Hou’s masterpiece commissioned at their initiative.
• The Crimson Kimono (Sam Fuller, 1959)
Long unavailable on video or repertory screens until it appeared this year on DVD in Sony’s Samuel Fuller Collection, this typically (for Fuller) tabloid drama with progressive and heartfelt undercurrents offers an unusually authentic portrait of Los Angeles locations (Little Tokyo, Koyasan temple, Evergreen Cemetery) and ethnic tensions. Two detectives, a Caucasian and a Japanese American, fall in love with the same woman while investigating a stripper’s murder.
• Léon Morin, Priest (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961)
Melville takes a situation ripe for sensation–a beautiful atheist develops a crush on a handsome priest during wartime, and they frequently meet in private–and though he’s obviously attuned (as they are) to the sexual tensions, Melville presents both characters as complex, intellectual human beings unwilling to succumb to simple clichés. The film’s hushed intensity is aided greatly by the sympathetic performances of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
• Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944 and 1958)
• Boy (Nagisa Oshima, 1969)
LACMA and the American Cinematheque offered the most important film series of the year with their co-hosting of James Quandt’s Oshima retrospective.
• L’Enclos (Armand Gatti, 1961)
After hearing Gatti cited for many years as a major influence on the Dardennes, I was very happy to track down this French DVD.
• Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
The kind of cinema, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia or Playtime, for which the big screen was invented.
• The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis, 2004)
I first heard about the BBC’s Adam Curtis on our local Pacifica radio station a couple years ago (when the host compared him to Guy Debord, it got my attention); catching up with his work was one of the highlights of my viewing year. This was the second of his three-hour miniseries, and it compares the evolution of the neoconservative movement in the US with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, highlighting their shared victories (Afghanistan), clashes (9/11), and fear-based legacies. Tightly weaving together images and ideas–with music clips from a whole string of John Carpenter movies–it’s an invigorating and mind-expanding experience. (You can view the film here.)
• L’Idee (Berthold Bartosch, 1920)
• Black Rain (Shohei Imamura, 1989)
AnimEigo’s DVD release proved to be an ideal digital presentation of Imamura’s atypically reserved–but deeply moving–black-and-white family drama about the long term social and physical aftereffects of the Bomb; in particular, the inclusion of a philosophical alternate ending (shot in color) in which the forlorn protagonist, Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), leaves her domestic life behind and becomes a Buddhist mendicant. It’s a decided shift in tone, and Imamura was probably right to drop it, but it’s one of the DVD’s many fascinating extras, including historical footnotes that can also be found on the distributor’s website.
50 Favorite Films of the Decade (Links to longer reviews when available.)
1. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002)
2. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000)
3. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
4. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
5. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
6. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, 2006)
7. In Vanda’s Room (Pedro Costa, 2000)
8. Honor of the Knights (Albert Serra, 2006)
9. The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000)
10. Oxhide (Liu Jiayin, 2005)
11. Paraguayan Hammock (Paz Encina, 2006)
12. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
13. Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 2004)
14. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
15. Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 2000)
16. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)
17. In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001)
18. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
19. Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002)
20. Shadow Kill (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 2002)
21. Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski, 2002)
22. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
23. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, 2000)
24. One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (Chris Marker, 2000)
25. The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2000)
26. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)
27. Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007)
28. When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee, 2006)
29. Extraordinary Stories (Mariano Llinas, 2008)
30. In the City of Sylvia (Jose Luis Guerin, 2007)
31. Faat Kine (Ousmane Sembene, 2000)
32. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung, 2007)
33. Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2005)
34. Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, 2007)
35. Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, 2008)
36. Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, 2006)
37. Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002)
38. Ana and the Others (Celina Murga, 2003)
39. The Romance of Astree and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, 2007)
40. I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, 2001)
41. Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, 2001)
42. Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008)
43. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
44. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)
45. Shara (Naomi Kawase, 2003)
46. Happy Here and Now (Michael Almereyda, 2002)
47. Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)
48. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
49. Take Out (Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, 2004)
50. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)
10 Best Reissues of the Decade
• 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
• Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
• The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
• The Exiles (Kent MacKenzie, 1961)
• Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)
• Lola Montes (Max Ophuls, 1955)
• Out 1, noli me tangere (Jacques Rivette, 1971)
• Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
• When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)
• Winter Soldier (Collective, 1972)