Cinema of South Korea


Claire's Camera

Minor project by auteurs can sometimes serve as keys to their entire body of work. Think of Fellini’s A Director’s Notebook, Godard’s Scenario for Passion or Hal Hartley’s Surviving Desire. Until Claire’s Camera, I could appreciate the wispy pleasures of Hong Sang-soo’s films, the super-light production values, their handcrafted toy-like structure and their endearing improvisational texture, but I couldn’t understand what Hong was getting at as an artist. Running for about 68 minutes—a wonderful runtime for films to have—Claire’s Camera is one more of Hong’s parallel universes, another permutation of his typical character descriptions, dramatic situations and scene compositions. But I think it offers something more and comes close to a statement of intent by this notoriously self-effacing filmmaker: making films is a way to deal with loneliness, to experience catharsis by way of representation.

What allows for this authorial transparency in Claire’s Camera is the presence of the Claire herself, played by a delightful Isabelle Huppert. With her yellow blouse and trench coat, dotted panama hat, little blue handbag and polaroid camera, Claire is an instant screen icon, the kind that makes it to fan art and DVD covers thanks to its unique profile. There’s a perpetually-drunk, philandering fifty-year-old filmmaker character, So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), whose film is playing at Cannes and who is obviously a clone of Hong’s, but he’s not the director’s alter ego here. It’s Claire, obsessed with taking pictures of people, even when they are visibly in distress. She tells So that people are not the same after being photographed. In other words, people are mystified or demystified in their photos; they’re always more or less than what they were, but never the same.

When asked why she takes photos, Claire responds that “the only way to change things is to look at things again very slowly”. Hong’s cinema, too, is about relooking, reexperiencing the same things over and over with the hope of illumination or change. The repetitions and restaging in these films function as a kind of therapy, a dwelling on small details that guilty conscience takes to be the source of big mistakes. There is then a philosophical underpinning to the reverberations of Hong’s universe—a notion of eternal return that is at once cathartic and hopeful. Yourself and Yours, Hong’s previous film which makes its appearance in a half-hidden poster in the first shot here, imagined the revival of a broken relationship through the reiteration of the gestures that birthed the relationship in the first place. The film was made the same year Hong filed for divorce over his affair with actress Kim Min-hee, who plays the part of Man-hee, a film agent once in affair with director So, in Claire’s Camera.

Hong shot the film in Cannes in 2016, a year he wasn’t showing anything at the ongoing festival. A thoroughly anti-touristic filmmaker, Hong nevertheless takes inspiration from the locations he makes films in. The sun-kissed Riviera setting allows him to pay tribute to his French influences in subtle but extraordinary ways. There’s, of course, the reference to Rohmer in the title, the final freeze frame à la The 400 Blows, and Huppert’s profession as a music teacher. It is, however, the spectre of Marguerite Duras that looms large in the film. Director So has Claire read him lines from C’est Tout—a charming image of Huppert speaking French in a Korean film she’s supposed to speak English in. Like the works of Duras, Claire’s Camera seems to unfold in an impossible, perhaps cyclic timeline. Huppert’s Claire is a kind of time master, who is able to meet characters for the first time multiple times. The film shuttles between past and present, but it isn’t certain if these time relations are sacrosanct.

Like in Last Year at Marienbad, we aren’t sure that the characters have met each other earlier, and that they are only pretending otherwise. The same words, shots, sounds and situations float around the film to be picked up later as an echo. Claire’s Camera is so chock-a-block with twin scenes, dialogues and compositions—two scenes of brutal disavowal, two scenes of three people eating, two shots of Man-hee filmed from the back, two zooms of her working at the office, two romantic escalations between So and women and so on—that the viewer can predict the sort of vignettes that will follow. Hong’s film is a low-key exploration of memory and forgetfulness in the vein of Hiroshima mon amour, another film about the encounters of a filmmaker in a land half a world away.

Hong’s is a cinema of two shots. The more the merrier, to be sure, but shots with more than two characters tend to be unstable or turn into drinking binges. One the other hand, shots with one character, such as someone smoking or walking, are always small pauses or intimations for another character to arrive. Hong’s films appear to be acting out in their form, as it were, the fear of being alone. The ideal is two—the number that calls for social drinking, confession or romantic advances. Claire’s Camera contains individual scenes with five of the six pairs possible with his four-character setup. Together with countless similar shots from Hong’s oeuvre, they constitute an exorcism, and an epigrammatic definition of what cinema is: two people talking.

On the Beach at Night Alone

            Made the same year as Claire’s Camera, On the Beach at Night Alone begins with a closeup that becomes a two shot through a reverse zoom. The scene is a café in a western country during winter. Two Korean women (Kim Min-hee and Seo Young-hwa) discuss how beautiful and liveable the city is. We aren’t told which city this is—clues suggest that it’s in Germany—and it’s only referred to as “abroad” when Kim’s character, Young-hee, is back home. A street market is visible at the edge of the frame, but that’s all the glimpse we get. Hong as a filmmaker never allows himself the decadence of a pretty sight. The second part of the film takes place in a supposedly-picturesque, sleepy town in the northern part of South Korea, but the director shows us nothing outside of a nondescript street corner. A hotel room with French windows opening to a beautiful view of the sea is expressly blocked by a window cleaner, whose purpose in the film is just that.

On the Beach forms a narrow diptych with Claire’s Camera: both are set in European countries in opposed times of the year; both feature Kim as a temperamental film professional jilted by a middle-aged filmmaker. But the driving perspective of the narrative is entirely the women’s rather than that of Hong’s alter-ego. Seo plays a wistful woman who has left her husband to move to Europe. Young-hee is spending time with Seo, but her thoughts are with her filmmaker-lover back home. The two women find European men attractive as well as gentle: they play piano for her, they serve her food and, most of all, they don’t question her. The Korean men Hong populates the film with, on the other hand, are just short of vultures. They are presented as presumptuous if not creepy, overbearing and unduly inquisitive. Young-hee tries to start her life anew in both Europe and back home, but is thwarted by Korean men in both cases: the European section ends with a Korean stalker literally carrying her away from a beach.

The uniform and unsubtle manner in which Korean men are caricatured here leads to only one inference: Hong is projecting. Excusing himself by pointing to the failing of all Korean men is no excuse, so he incriminates himself more directly in the inevitable, large dinner scene that forms the film’s climax. Young-hee’s filmmaker-lover is drinking with her and his group of assistants when the discussion shifts to his ongoing film. He talks about his personal approach to filmmaking, prompting Young-hee to wonder if it isn’t boring to talk about oneself all the time. The director’s coterie of yes-men mutters something about the irrelevance of subject matter. Young-hee launches into a righteous outburst questioning the director’s right to make films about his ex-lovers. The filmmaker breaks into tears over his own torment and diffuses the tension of the scene. Hong’s men are usually bumbling, but the serious director here is all the more comical in his seriousness. Hong is clearly in a self-flagellating mode, but his character contours are so soft, the strokes so light that it doesn’t feel exhibitionist in the way Lars von Trier’s recent works do.

While On the Beach fails its male characters, it gives its women characters the space and voice they deserve. Although structured around absent men, the first part of the film is simply images of women eating, walking, talking and shopping together. Young-hee gets to deliver a long tirade on love during a binge and then kiss another woman, Jun-hee (Song Seon-mi), with whom she develops something resembling a romance. And in what counts as a shooting star in Hong’s cinematic sky, she gets a solo shot in which she smokes and sings a song. In the final shot of the film, she wakes up at a beach to thank a man whose feet alone we see. Hong’s cinema has prepared us to expect this to turn into a two shot. But no. Framed against a vast grey sky, Young-hee bows to a void and walks away alone—a reversal of the first segment’s ending and a radical assertion of solitude in a cinematic universe mortified by that thought.

Parasite

[Spoilers below]

In the inaugural shot of Bong Joon-ho’s masterful new film, Parasite, the camera glides down from the view of a window, taking us into a netherworld where the Kim family lives. The setting is a semi-basement, a two-room residence whose only access to natural light is through this window. The family of four is leeching its internet from the Wi-Fi connection upstairs. The Kims are unemployed and make a living in the underground economy folding boxes for a pizza service. A public exterminator passes by and floods the house with smoke as the family continues folding its boxes. By the time the film ends in a green and sunny garden, however, we aren’t sure who the parasites are. Like Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the previous Palme d’Or winner, Parasite describes a society whose marginalized figures find it necessary to bend the rules of the game just to stay afloat. Even more, it presents a contemporary dystopia in which the working-class has to fight against itself for social ascendancy.

When one of his successful friends leaves the country, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the son of the Kim family, gets the chance to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the daughter of an affluent couple, Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong). Ki-woo learns that Mrs. Park, who has now christened him Kevin, has artistic aspirations for her son. So, he introduces his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) to her as Jessica, a famous art teacher. Jessica, in turn, schemes to get the family’s driver sacked and her father, Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho), hired. Mr. Kim, promptly, has the house’s long-time maid replaced by his wife (Jang Hye-jin). The film proceeds like a mathematical theorem till this point, depicting the linear, rigorous takeover of the Park household by the Kims. As the Parks drive away on vacation, the Kims sit boozing in the sleek living room of the house. There’s an uncertainty as to what course the plot will chart, now that the Kims have what they wanted. The sexual charge between Kevin and Da-hye and between Mr. Kim and Mrs. Park hints at a dissolution of the Park family à la Pasolini. The film, however, takes a whole new direction right at the midpoint. What was so far a comedy with elements of the crime movie turns into a darkly-comic crime movie. The fired housekeeper comes back and reveals a bunker in the house where her husband has been residing for the past four years with her help. As the housekeeper and the Kims one-up each other, the Parks announce their return over phone. What follows is a remarkable passage involving conflict, stealth and subterfuge in which the Kims lock the housekeeper in the basement and get out of the house without the Parks noticing.

Like Shoplifters, Parasite depicts an impoverished family tying to meet its needs by working its way through morally questionable territory. They are, no doubt, qualified to do the jobs they take up, but the means they employ to get their break is shady. They forge documents, feed on Mrs. Park’s parental anxiety, prey on other members of their class and usurp their jobs. For the Kims, this well-orchestrated employment project is as theatrical as it is logistical. They fake elite provenance, perform in front of the Park family, manipulating their fears and prejudices to their advantage. That said, the Kims a happy, loving bunch, sticking by each other at all times. They are always seen eating together and their big dinner in the posh living room attests to their genuine cordiality. Their rise is based on family solidarity, as is their incredible escape from the house. The family, in Bong’s film, is in fact the only bulwark against precarity: without the “chain of trust” that the Kim family form together, they’d fall apart.

The Park family, on the contrary is hardly seen together in the same shot. They never have their meals together, holed up as they are in different corners of their massive residence. Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won mount a broad critique of middle-class Korean family, lampooning their American obsession and their preference for western names, objects and social codes. They contrast the hierarchized relations within the Park family with the egalitarian dynamics of the Kims. Mr. Park has unflattering opinion about his wife, though he’d call what he feels towards her love. He doesn’t like the boundary between the driver’s seat and the back of the car violated and prefers that his workers stay within their line. Mrs. Park fear of her husband’s reproach is opposed to Mrs. Kim calling her husband a cockroach in jest. The whole problem comes about – and the plot moves forward – because Mr. and Mrs. Park prefer keeping information from one another. They refuse to openly talk with the employees they fire, relying on their own preconceived notions of how the servant class behaves to make their decisions. Their discreet existence has made them so gullible that all it takes to take them for a ride is a fancy visiting card.

“Lots of people live underground”, says the housekeeper’s bunker-dwelling husband to a surprised Mr. Kim. Parasite’s class-coded topography of high and low isn’t merely literal-minded symbolism, it corresponds to the spatial experience of different social classes. Perhaps for the first time since Kurosawa’s High and Low, we have a scenario whose metaphors are derived from the actual living conditions of the characters. The Kim family has to literally look up at the world. Their cellar of a house hardly gets any sun. Its window is a urinating spot for drunken drifters. When it rains, the whole house is flooded, “washing out” the residents. The basic necessities of life – clean air, water and sunshine – have been rendered luxuries in their world as in ours. The high-walled house of the Park family, on the other hand, is constructed at an elevation and sealed away from other humans. The Parks have a lush garden receiving abundant sunshine, where their Indian-crazy son pitches his tepee during the rain that floods the Kim home. They stock their daily supplies in the basement, but there’s a bunker even beyond that they’re unaware of. These bunkers, we are told, were traditional components of affluent households, constructed for the owners to take shelter during war or from debtors. Bong’s film is marked by several upward and downward movements that are physical as much as economic.

Fertile though the scenario is, the success of Parasite entirely rests on Bong’s orchestration of the material. The film proceeds at breakneck pace: Kevin’s comment about introducing Jessica is followed by a shot of the two entering the house, without any filler event intervening. Ditto with their father and mother. Their elaborate scheme to get the entire family employed at the house is presented as a montage cut to a string-heavy classical score. Bong constantly finds ways to break the monotony of over-the-shoulder shots in conversations with different configurations of actor positions. By nature of the script, the viewer cannot identify with any character in the film and Bong plays on this ambiguity all through. Our expectation in every scene changes rapidly depending on the characters involved: in the confrontation between the Kims and the old housekeeper, the sympathy lies with the latter, but as soon as the Parks are back home, the axis of identification changes. The set-piece of the family’s escape from the house is a mini-marvel of filmmaking that synthesizes all the narrative information the viewer is provided so far and provides new ones without diluting the tension. The intuitive manner in which it stitches together various spaces of the house is a tour de force of sequence composition.

Bong’s penchant for and adeptness in blending genres is well-known, and it’s an explosive generic cocktail he concocts in this film. The film weaves in and out of comedy, drama, horror, crime and even sci-fi, the multivalence palpable even on the soundtrack which overlays different genres of music. The tensest moments of the film are also its funniest. The sequence that follows the intense escape scene, in which the Kims discover their house flooded by the rain and take refuge in a state camp, provokes a complex of strong emotions one rarely experiences in cinema: relief (at their escape), worry (about the condition of the housekeeper), fear (of the Parks’ discovery of the bunker), pity (for the Kims’ flooded house), anger (at the Parks’ plans for a party). Bong’s editing is as intellectual as it is visceral. He intercuts between the Kim household drowning in rain and the bunker where the housekeeper and her husband are trapped, creating an extra-narrative working-class solidarity that’s only present subconsciously within the film. A shot of a character smashing another’s head with a rock is cut to an opera performance, the unnerving combination of low and high human impulses emblematic of the whole film.

Following Lee Chang-dong’s sensitive Burning last year, Bong gives us a work that puts Korea’s exacerbating unemployment problem under the scanner. Like Lee’s film, it throws light on Seoul’s segregated districts that keep social classes in increasing isolation from each other and which modulate the very manner these classes see themselves and each other. That it provides this insight in a form that’s as dynamic and enrapturing as it is intelligent and complex is Bong’s special success.

Okja

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja begins with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the new CEO of Mirando Corporation, unveiling “super-pig”, a new porcine variant her GMO company has come up with to solve the world’s hunger problems. In order to soften its public image and garner popular support for the new pork variety, the company announces a “best super-pig” competition, in which super-piglets are given to farmers around the world for a duration of ten years. One of these creatures, now named Okja, grows up with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), an orphaned farmgirl living in the mountains of South Korea. When the competition day arrives, Okja is taken by Mirando to Seoul and then to New York against Mija’s wishes. Mija, with uninvited help a group of American activists from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), follows Okja to New York to get her back home.

Bong lampoons Mirando Corp as being headed by a family of deranged egotists convinced of the nobility of their mission. There’s no pretence to realism here. Swinton, that epitome of ironic existence, draws from Cruella de Vil and Jake Gyllenhaal as Johnny, Miranda’s neurotic PR, clearly works off cartoon/anime types as well. Though he’s ultimately with them, Bong parodies the ALF activists too, with their facetious politeness and misplaced idealism. Both are, of course, gross exaggerations and Bong’s equating of both reeks of a cool cynicism towards his subject matter. On the other hand, the filmmaker invests all his heart into the world of Mija and Okja. The film spends considerable time depicting the Edenic life in the mountains, where men and CG animals live in symbiosis with nature. The elephantine Okja, a cross between a pig and a hippopotamus, eats a small dose of fruits, helps Mija and her grandfather in fishing and sustains the ecosystem with her droppings. Bong doesn’t question this violation of nature’s rules, effectively acknowledging Mirando’s claim of having created a superior animal.

As the film shifts to the technologized jungle of Seoul – a disorienting change from the mountains – the film takes on more complex tones. A long, compelling action sequence finds both Mija and the ALF members coming together to hijack Okja, plant a spy-cam on her and let her be taken to the Mirando test facility in New Jersey. There’s a conversation between ALF and Mija translated by a Korean member of the group that speaks to Bong’s status as a Korean director making English-language films. The punch-line for this scene comes later and with the splash of violence that was always on the cards. Meanwhile, at the Mirando lab, Johnny has successfully bred Okja with a male super-pig and whipped up a meal with samples from Okja’s body. Scenes such as these involving ALF and Mirando corrupt the innocent fable of Mija and Okja and change this children’s film into a genetically-altered organism in itself.

Yet, Okja is a Disney movie at the DNA level. In the Korean portion of the film, Okja is demonstrated to be an intelligent, non-human person capable of empathy and even sacrifice: she saves Okja from a fatal fall at the risk of her own life – another disconcerting characteristic for a manufactured animal the film doesn’t bother to question. The film’s final scene takes place in Mirando’s large-scale abattoir where super-pigs are stocked and killed. Bong shows us the slaughter and we are all the more repulsed because the animals are invested with human emotions. This anthropomorphism reveals an instrumental morality typical of Hollywood animation, which only humanizes animals that aren’t eaten. The super-pigs need to be saved not because all animals need to be saved, but because they are extremely useful, higher beings. As Mija and Okja walk out of the facility, lucky to be alive, a super-pig couple nudges out their piglet out the barbed-wire fence to be smuggled out by Okja. Followed by a collective howl of thousands of super-pigs doomed to die, it’s a very disturbing scene with unsavoury echoes of the Holocaust. It moves us for the wrong reasons. Tough luck if you aren’t a species with human-like expression.

Burning

Lee Chang-dong’s first directorial project since Poetry in 2010, Burning portrays the civil life of an ex-serviceman Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who falls in love with a shop girl Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). After a trip to Kenya, Hae-mi grows close to a dodgy, rich young man called Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su, meanwhile, discovers that his estranged father, who likes collecting knives, is tangled up in a case involving assault of a government official. In a marijuana-fuelled meeting at sundown at Jong-su’s house in the countryside, Ben reveals that he likes burning down greenhouses – a metaphor that Jong-su, wannabe novelist, picks up a little too late. Hae-mi vanishes and Jong-su spends his time stalking Ben to find out the truth. The closer he seems to get to the bottom of his girlfriend’s disappearance, the more it seems that he’s imagining things. Lee’s excellent film is a thriller that’s also an astute socioeconomic portrait. And the philosophical questions the thriller aspect of the film raises, Lee seems to be telling us, are also emanations of class conflict.

The protagonist Jong-su’s predicament is whether he has inherited any of the insanity and violence that characterizes his father. As a child, he was forced by his father to burn his mother’s clothes when she left home for someone else. The confusion as to whether he’s seeing things as they are or he’s losing it manifests in Jong-su’s slow response to happenings around him. He takes time to make sense and even longer to act (and Yoo realizes this slowness in his sluggish physicality). He’s trying to write a novel, but doesn’t know on what. Outside of odd delivery stints, he is unemployed, like many of his young compatriots. He refuses to take up a menial job, preferring to move back to his father’s now-deserted home outside Seoul. His relation to Ben (“Gatsby”) is also determined by class resentment and Lee’s film is clear-eyed about the classist spaces of Seoul. Ben lives in a swanky apartment in Gangnam, where Jong-su’s pick-up truck sticks out like a sore thumb. The places that Ben frequents (and which he sometimes invites Jong-su to) – the brewery, discotheque, gymnasium, art museum, the church even – are in stark contrast to Jong-su’s downtown hangouts and Hae-mi’s matchbox-sized studio in a noisier part of town. Lee includes several shots of the characters navigating Seoul’s various districts and of Jong-su driving around in his pick-up truck, following Ben’s Porsche, like Scottie from Vertigo. Just like Hitchcock’s film, Burning is full of repetitions, reflections, pairings whose patterns appear to impart sense to Jong-su’s quest and redouble his obsession.

Burning unfolds as a metaphysical thriller like Blow-Up, and Shutter Island. Its protagonist is never sure whether his understanding of the world is reflective of reality or simply a product of his broken self. But, as with most narrative films that intend to depict the enigma of perception, the ambiguity Burning constructs runs the risk of being undone by the nature of the medium itself. Lee’s film is inspired from two short stories both titled “Barn Burning”, one by William Faulkner and the other by Haruki Murakami – influences acknowledged several times in the screenplay. While, in literature, it’s possible to present reality as being entirely refracted through the protagonist’s subjectivity, the fact of having to film in third person adds an objective dimension to Burning’s narrative. Ben’s demeanour and behaviour is there on screen for the viewer to see for herself. Lee gives Ben all the trappings of a gay serial killer, and even if his protagonist is unable to make up his mind on Ben’s true nature, the viewer is pushed to. Sealing the issue is a final scene at Ben’s house where he is with another girl: Jong-su isn’t present here and the scene exists in order to bait the viewer and challenge her view of Ben. It would have better served Lee’s accomplished film to obscure Ben’s presence.

Experimenta

The ninth edition of Experimenta, the now-biennial experimental and avant-garde film festival of India helmed by Shai Heredia, took place between 25th and 29th of November in Bangalore. Besides the international competition section, the roster consisted of sidebars on the politics of film form, the materially violent personal films of Louise Bourque (curated by Lauren Howes), the digital-video and television-based experiments of Bjørn Melhus (himself), the tranquil cine-haikus of Helga Fanderl (herself) and contemporary Indonesian (Akbar Yumni) and Filipino experimental cinema (Shireen Sono), each of them introducing me to unexplored territories of the avant-garde. The festival also sought to respond to the recent happenings in the country and show solidarity with the student protests at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Three realizations from the festival:

  1. Although a forward-looking curiosity to explore what the formats of the new century have to offer finds a salutary counterpoint from a tendency to militate for film (Melhus’ cinema, always in conversation with the latest technological developments, and Fanderl’s Super-8 partisanship that includes the act of changing-reels as part of the presentation), the exigencies of festival programming and the ease of breaking in to the filmmaking scene has, at least in this festival, rendered digital video ubiquitous (only 4 of the 30 films in competition were made on film, and these too were projected digitally).
  2. Dictatorship and state repression, for better or worse, continue to be very productive frameworks to work within and supply artists with perennial inspiration. The Philippines has come a quarter century since the Marcos regime, Indonesia’s been recovering for 17 years since Suharto’s fall and Thailand’s reeling from last year’s military coup. The films from these countries in the festival all respond to them in ways direct and oblique.
  3. Apichatpong’s opened a Pandora’s box.

(The following are some notes on 23 of the 30 films in competition. I could not see the rest and will update this post if I get to see them any time soon.)

 

32 AND 4 (Chan Hau Chun, China, 2015, 32min)

32 And 4Chan’s diaristic digital work is divided into chapters named after family members and unfurls as a process of piecing together of familial history. Through various confrontational interviews with her mother and father, the filmmaker attempts to understand their failed marriage, her strained relation with her step-father and the violence that has structured them both. Chan’s decision to put her entire life-story on film is a brave gesture, but the film closes upon itself, satisfied to be a melodrama valorizing personal experience over broader frameworks. (Consider, in contrast, the rigorous domestic formalism of Liu Jiayin or the socio-political tapestry of Jia Zhangke’s early work.) Chan misses the forest for the lone tree. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

BEEP (Kyung-man Kim, South Korea, 2014, 11min)

BeepBeep assembles anti-communist propaganda material from the 60s and the 70s commissioned by the South Korean state that was based on the mythologizing of a young boy, Lee Seung-bok, slain by North Korean soldiers. With the unseen, absent boy-hero at its focus, Kim’s film depicts the dialectical manner in which a nation defines itself in relationship to an imagined Other. Kim makes minimal aesthetic intervention into the source material – our relation to it automatically ironic by dint of our very distance from the period it was made in – restricting himself to adding periodic beep sounds to the footage, producing something like a cautionary transmission from another world.

BLACK SUN (Truong Que Chi, Vietnam, 2013, 12min)

Black SunBlack Sun opens with a composition in deep space presenting a metonym for a country in the process of development: high-rise buildings in the background as a pair of actors in period costumes rehearse a scene in the foreground. In a series of Jia Zhangke-like vignettes of Saigon set in middle-class youth hangouts scored to pop songs and television sounds, interspersed with images of a metamorphosing city, we see the distance that separates art from reality and the middle-class from the changes around it. The film culminates in a complex, home-made long take following the protagonist across her house and out into the terrace, where she dances, presumably to the eponymous song.

CLOUD SHADOW (Anja Dornieden & Juan David Gonzalez Monroy, Germany, 2015, 17min)

WolkenschattenThe most challenging and elusive film of the competition I saw is also the most hypnotic. Cloud Shadow gives us a narrative of sorts in first person about a group of people who go into the woods and dissolve in its elements. The film is obliquely a story of the fascination with cinema, of the trans-individualist communal experience it promises, of the desire to dissolve the limits of one’s body into the images and sounds it offers. With an imagery consisting of sumptuous tints, and nuanced colour gradation and superimpositions, the film enraptures as much as it evades easy intellectual grasp. The one film of the festival that felt most like a half-remembered dream.

DOG, DEAR (Luca Ferri, Italy, 2014, 18min)

Dear DogFerri’s teasing, playful Dog, Dear appropriates the filmed record of a Soviet zoological experiment in the 1940s in which scientists impart motor functions to different parts of a dead dog. In the incantatory soundtrack, a woman – presumably the animal’s owner – repeatedly conveys messages to it, with each of them prefaced by the titular term of endearment. Ferri’s film would serve sufficiently as a blunt political allegory about the dysfunction of communism, but I think it’s probably fashioning itself as a metaphysical question: the dog might well be kicking but is he alive? His physical resurrection will not be accompanied by a restoration of consciousness. He will not respond to his master’s voice.

ENDLESS, NAMELESS (Mont Tesprateep, Thailand, 2014, 23min)

Endless NamelessPut together from footage apparently shot over twenty years at a Thai army officer’s residence, Tesprateep’s film shows us four conscripts working in the general’s garden. We witness their camaraderie, their obvious boredom, the empty bravado in entrapping small animals and intimidating each other. The misuse of power by the officer in employing these youth to mow his lawn reflects a broader militaristic hierarchy, as is attested by the youths’ casual violence towards the animals and their brutal torturing of a prisoner. Endless, Nameless recalls Claire Denis in its emphasis on military performativity and Werner Herzog in its juxtaposition of idyllic nature and seething violence, all the while retaining an immediate critical concern.

FICTITIOUS FORCE (Philip Widmann, Germany, 2015, 15min)

Fictitious ForceIn Fictitious Force, Widmann incidentally poses himself the age-old challenge of ethnological cinema; how to film the Other without imposing your own worldview on him? The filmmaker smartly takes the Chris Marker route, avoiding explanatory voiceover for the rather physical Hindu ritual he photographs and instead holding it at a slightly mystifying – but never exoticizing – distance. Widmann’s film is about this distance, the chasm between experience and knowledge that prevents the observer from experiencing what the observed is experiencing, however understanding he might be. Fictitious Force’s considered reflexivity carefully circumvents the all-too-common trap of conflating the subjectivities of the photographer and the photographed.

FISH POINT (Pablo Mazzolo, Argentina, 2015, 8min)

Fish PointFashioned out of footage that the artist shot during his visit to the titular natural reserve in Ontario, Fish Point comes across as an impressionist cine-sketch of the locale. The film opens with Daichi Saito-esque silhouettes of trees against harsh pulsating light – near-monochrome shots that are then superimposed over a slow, green-saturated pan shot of a section of a forest. This segment gives way to a passage with purely geometric compositions consisting of alternating browns and greens and strong horizontals and verticals. Forms change abruptly and tints become more diffuse and earthly. We are finally shown the sea and the horizon, with a rough map of the area overlaid on the imagery.

HAIL THE BODHISATTVA OF COLLECTED JUNK (Ye Mimi, Taiwan, 2015, 7min)

Hail The BodhisattvaA music video for a song that reportedly riffs on a holy chant and the traditional cry of the local ragman, Ye’s film starts out with shots of old women and men lip-syncing to the titular melody before turning increasingly darker. The rag picker of the poem progresses from accepting material refuse to buying off diseases, emotional traumas and even intolerable human characters. Ye builds the video using shots both documentary and voluntarily-performed that portray everyday life in Taiwan as being poised between tradition and modernity. The junkman of the film then becomes a witness to all that the society rejects and, hence, to all that it stands for.

IMRAAN, C/O CARROM CLUB (Udita Bhargava, India, 2015, 14min)

ImraanSet in a suburban Mumbai slum, Bhargava’s film takes a look into one of the reportedly many carrom clubs in the area where young boys come to play, smoke and generally indulge in displays of precocious masculinity. Where Imraan, the 11-year-old manager of the club, seems reticent before the camera, his peers and clients are much more willing to perform adulthood in front of the filming crew. While some of them are acutely aware of the intrusive presence of the camera, urging their friends not to project a bad image of the country, the film itself seems indifferent about the ethics of filming these youngsters, asking them condescending questions with a problematic, non-committal non-judgmentalism.

MASANAO ABE – CLOUDGRAPHY (Helmut Völter, Germany, 2015, 5min)

CloudographyVölter’s visually pleasing and relaxing silent film is a compilation of scientific documents of cloud movement over the Mount Fuji recorded from a static observatory by Japanese physicist Masanao Abe in the 1920s and 1930s. Abe’s problem was also one of cinema’s primary challenges: to study the invisible through the visible; in this case, to examine air currents through cloud patterns. The air currents take numerous different directions and these variegated views of the mountain situate the film in the tradition of Mt. Fuji paintings. The end product is a James Benning-like juxtaposition of fugitive and stable forms, a duet between rapidly changing and unchanging natural entities.

MEMORIALS (Korou Khundrakpam, India, 2014, 25min)

MemorialsThe most narrative film of the competition, Memorials situates itself in the tradition of 21st century Slow Cinema with its elliptical exposition, stylized longueurs, (a bit too) naturalistic sound and its overall emphasis on Bazinian realism. A young man revisits his father’s house long after his passing and starts discovering him through the objects of his everyday use, while a dead fish becomes the instrument of meditation and grieving. Though rather conventional in its workings, Memorials offers the details in its interstices fairly subtly and touches upon the usual themes of inter-generational inheritance and posthumous rapprochement, while also gesturing towards a necessary break from the past.

NATEE CHEEWIT (Phaisit Punprutsachat, Thailand, 2014, 20min)

ExperimentaPunprutsachat’s work is a straightforward document of the protracted rescue of a water buffalo from a man-made well on a sultry summer afternoon by dozens of village folk. Shot with a handheld digital camera and employing mostly on-location sound, the film presents to us the efforts of the villagers in chipping away at the edifice, restraining the animal from agitating and finally allowing it to go back to its herd. Natee Cheewit attempts to encapsulate the idea of eternal struggle between man and animal and, more broadly, between nature and civilization. The remnants of the demolished pit and the dog wandering about it are reminders of this sometimes symbiotic, sometimes destructive interaction.

NIGHT WATCH (Danaya Chulphuthiphong, Thailand, 2014, 10min)

Night WatchNight Watch is reportedly set in the days following the military coup in Thailand in May, 2014 – a period of state repression dissimulated by triumphalist propaganda about reigning happiness. Chulphuthiphong’s debut film showcases one quiet night during this period. Jacques Tati-esque cross-sectional shots of isolated apartments and office spaces show the citizenry complacently cloistered in their domestic and professional spaces, much like the sundry critters that crawl about in the night. Someone surfs through television channels. Most of them are censored, the rest telecast inane entertainment.  Night Watch underscores the mundanity and the ordinariness of the whole situation, which is the source of the film’s horror.

REPLY; REPEAT; REPEATED; DELETE; FAVORITE; FAVORITED (Ouchi Reiko, Japan, 2014, 6min)

reply repeat repeatedA rapid editing rhythm approximating the audiovisual assault of the information age, a visual idiom weaving together anime, pencil-drawing and Pink Film aesthetic and a soundscape consisting of reversed audio and noise of clicking mice and shattering glass defines Ouchi’s high-strung portrayal of modern adolescent anxieties. In a progressively sombre, cyclic series of events, a teenager navigates the real and virtual worlds that are haunted by sex and death around her. Ouchi’s pulsating, mutating forms and her preoccupation with the hyper-sexualization of visual culture are reminiscent of Nobuhiro Aihara’s work and the spirit of Maya Deren also hovers above in the film’s centralization of the female body and mind.

SCRAPBOOK (Mike Hoolboom, Canada, 2015, 18min)

ScrapbookOne of the high points of the festival, Scrapbook consists of videograms shot in 1967 in a care centre in Ohio for autistic children with commentary by one of the patients, Donna, recorded (and curiously re-performed by a voiceover artist at Donna’s request) in 2014. Donna’s words – indeed, her very use of the pronoun ‘I’ – not only attest to the vast improvement in her personal mental condition, but also throw light on the psychological mechanisms that engender a self-identity. For Donna and the other children-patients filming each other, the act of filming and watching substitutes for their thwarted mirror-stage of psychological development, helping them experience their own individuality, reclaim their bodies. Bracing stuff.

SECOND SUN (Leslie Supnet, Canada, 2014, 4min)

Second SunCanadian animator Leslie Supnet’s hand-drawn animation piece is an extension of her previous work First Sun (2014), with the monochrome drawings of the latter giving way to bright primary pencil colours. Like its predecessor, Second Sun extensively employs basic geometrical shapes to represent cosmic phenomena and is scored to an exhortative percussive soundtrack hinting at a ritual, a summoning. The figures move strictly horizontally or vertically on checkered paper as though underscoring their mathematically precise cyclicity, with the central solar circle spawning clone stars, moons, planets and an entire solar system. The overall impression is that of witnessing a trance-inducing cultic invocation.

THE ASYLUM (Prapat Jiwarangsan, Thailand, 2015, 10min)

The AsylumAccording to the program notes, the project brings together a real-life DJ who has lost her job after the coup d’etat in 2014 and an actual illegal immigrant boy from Myanmar at a secluded pond in the woods to allow them to do what they can’t in real life. We see the DJ perform for the camera, talking with imaginary strangers, giving and playing unheard songs, while the boy is content in tossing stones into the moss-covered pond. Like a structural film, The Asylum, alternates between the DJ’s ‘calls’ and the boy’s quiet alienation, taking occasional albeit unmotivated excursions into impressionist image-making, to weave a vignette about ordinary people made fugitives overnight.

THE BACKYARD (Yusuf Radjamuda, Indonesia, 2013, 12min)

The BackyardA Kiarostami-like narrative minimalism characterizes Radjamuda’s naturalistic sketch in digital monochrome of a lazy holiday afternoon. A young boy perched near the window of his house engages in a series of self-absorbed activities, while actions quotidian and dramatic, including a hinted domestic conflict, wordlessly unfold around him off-screen. A series of shallow-focus shots rally around a wide-angle master shot of the backyard to establish clear spatial relations. Literally and metaphorically set at the boundary between the inside and the outside of the house – home and the world – Radjamuda’s film is a pocket-sized paean to childhood’s privilege of insouciance and to the transformative power of imagination.

THE LAST MANGO BEFORE THE MONSOON (Payal Kapadia, India, 2015, 19min)

THe Last Mango Before The MonsoonThe shadow of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is strongest in Kapadia’s three-part work about the cycles of life, death and reincarnation and the interaction between mankind and nature, between the real and the surreal. Set in various regions of India and in multiple languages and shot predominantly between dusk and dawn, the film has a beguiling though mannered visual quality to it, with its appeal predicated on primal, elemental evocations of the supernatural. While Kapadia’s superimposition of line drawings on shot footage to depict man’s longing for and transformation into nature demands attention, the film itself seems derivative and a bit too enamoured of its influences.

THEY’RE NOT FAVA BEANS, THEY’RE SCARLET RUNNER BEANS (Tânia Dinis, Portugal, 2013, 10min)

Fava BeansA potential companion piece to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014), Dinis’s digitally shot home movie unfolds as a commentary upon itself. Consisting of scenes from the everyday routine of the filmmaker’s animal-loving grandmother, overlaid with a spontaneous conversational commentary on them by Dinis and her rather talkative and humourous granny, the film is partly a tribute to the latter personality and partly a reflection on the capacity of cinema to preserve memory of people, time and place. Like in Porumboiu’s movie, cinema furnishes the possibility of continuity between generations and the opportunity to meditate on the similarity and difference between them.

WHAT DAY IS TODAY (Colectivo Fotograma 24, Portugal, 2015, 13min)

What Day Is TodayAt least as formally innovative as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Image (2014), What Day Is Today, made by a young film collective from Montemor-o-Novo based on testimonies from older compatriots, digitally carves out from newspapers and newsreels human figures that act out the history contained in them. Charting the course of Portugal from the fascist period, through the Carnation Revolution and up to its Eurozone woes, the film depicts a nation which overcame oppression, poverty, superstition and inequality only to lapse into a passive consumerist catatonia, in the process abandoning the vision of the revolution and letting itself be hostage to a host of external economic forces.

WIND CASTLE (Prantik Basu, India, 2014, 14min)

Wind CastleWind Castle opens with a complex composition made of an unfinished (or destroyed) building behind a burnt crater, with the moon in full bloom. We are somewhere in the Indian hinterlands, a brick manufacturing site tucked inside large swathes of commercial plantations. Basu’s camera charts the territory in precise, X-axis tracking shots that form a counterpoint to the verticality of the trees. Noise from occasional on-location radios and trucks fill the soundtrack. A surveyor studies the area and trees are marked. ‘Development’ is perhaps around the corner. But the rain gods arrive first. Basu’s quasi-rural-symphony paints an atmospheric picture of quiet lives closer to and at the mercy of nature.

(Images courtesy: Various film festival websites)

Hahaha (2010)
Hong Sang-soo
Korean

 

HahahaHong Sang-soo’s easy-to-type Hahaha (2010) is the kind of picture that critics comfortably dismiss as light and frivolous. That’s because Hahaha is light and frivolous. And consciously so. The film presents two young friends who accidentally meet and decide to hang out in a pub nearby. During their bout, they take turns to recite their experiences during last summer in a sea-side town. As the two mildly amusing stories unfold, we realize that they are not all exclusive as both tellers believe. We see characters and events that span the two stories, time-line of one story flowing into the other and the characters’ paths intersecting in bizarre and not-so-bizarre ways. Perhaps these two men are drunk enough (or dumb enough) to not realize that their stories share a single universe. Or it may be that one of them is only playing along and making his story up. Or maybe both of them are playing a game of Exquisite Corpse. It is also equally possible that both of them are sincere and it is Hong who is pulling their legs by actually making a film out of their stories wherein he fuses and confuses separate characters. The two stories are contaminated by regularly occurring zoom shots that lend the film the look of a bad sitcom or, more accurately, an amateur video made on the sets of Hahaha which reveal the artifice of it all. Existentialist in approach, Hong’s film argues, as does Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004), that one’s life is how one interprets it to be and that value of things resides only in one’s perception of those things. Consequently, like Allen’s film, one of the stories is high on marital drama and the other, on romantic comedy. (Actually, the former ends up being hysterical while the latter is pretty bland). But the film is also a testament to the power of stories in embodying our desires and overcoming our fears and a lighthearted appeal for the existence of personal, eccentric histories – personal and national – as opposed to the unquestionable, unfruitful facts handed down by text books.