|To say that the Korean independent film scene is far from flourishing is somewhat of an understatement. Of the relatively small number of low-budget features that are made each year, only a few manage to find their way to DVD. One that did, fortunately, is 2004's My Generation, the debut feature from Noh Dong-seok. Though neither revolutionary nor groundbreaking, it's an impressive debut that manages to put a unique spin on a subject that has become the de facto standard for indie films -- the woes of twenty-somethings.|
The premise of My Generation couldn't be simpler -- eponymously named Kim Byoung-seok and You Jae-kyoung are a young Seoul couple saddled with money problems. Byoung-seok is an aspiring filmmaker who has recently spent all of his money on a digital video camera, and who performs various odd jobs to pay his way, including stoking barbeque fires for a restaurant. His girlfriend, the ever-melancholic Jae-kyoung, has difficulty holding a job for more than a few days. (Her loan-shark boss fires her for being too depressing.) Both find themselves caught up in a seemingly insolvable financial crisis -- he is forced to pay a loan his brother has defaulted on, while she loses a hefty sum after being suckered into a ponzi scheme.
With only the barest minimum of dialog, Noh manages to convey a genuine sense of tenderness and compassion between the couple, even if they both come off as rather passionless. They don't let their respective predicaments come between them, and each has the other's best interest at heart. There are some wonderful sequences -- the two of them sitting under a pear tree waiting for the fruit to fall, or watching a drive-in movie from a distance with binoculars -- that are played for neither sentimentality nor cuteness, as they would (and have) in countless other films. In fact, there's an almost Bressonian stoicism to the whole film that never feels forced or contrived, and Noh is to be credited for pulling it off so seamlessly.(Like L'Argent, the universal mechanism of money and its use as a surrogate for human emotion (to paraphrase Acquarello) is at the film's core.)
What the film lacks in plot it more than makes up for in its execution. Shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white, Noh's shot composition and blocking seems more like the work of a seasoned pro than that of a first-timer. Everything is used quite economically -- dialog, music, camera movements -- and it skillfully manages to avoid that "first film" feel. The few color sequences (those shot by Byoung-seok on his DV camera) are in sharp contrast -- shaky and amateurish, yet very much connected with the character's emotional state. What separates this film from its American indie equivalent is a greater critical distance from its subjects. Unlike Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha (for example), which strives for self-identification and has that "hey, let's make a film about ourselves" feel to it, My Generation's characters are more abstractions than they are actual representatives of the zeitgeist. (Noh's title is perhaps more fitting for Bujalski's film.)
The film's final scene, which breaks from the stoic steady state, contains the only genuine display of emotion, and it's as remarkably powerful as it is restrained. Though the conclusion is somewhat Gift of the Magi-esque (yet far darker), we get to witness the outcome of a character who has been forced to compromise her values. Short and simple, yet saying so much, it's the kind of closing moment that one comes across far too rarely, and one that bears repeated viewings. Though many will no doubt find My Generation slow moving and pointless, there are more than a few rewards for those willing to see it through. One of the most impressive debuts in recent history, Noh is definitely a director to watch.
|When I started this blog back in 2004, I made the decision to refrain from using the site to discuss personal matters. Who I was was of little importance (hence the creation of the Filmbrain persona) -- it was first and foremost a film blog, and I had little desire to reveal any details of my life outside of film interests. Yet I'm going to break with tradition and share a few memories of my father -- a man for whom film was a lifelong passion, and who passed away on Saturday, 18 February, aged 82.|
Film was already present in my father's life at birth -- his mother was a minor stage and screen actress (back when the studios were still in New Jersey) who I've been told possessed the kind of beauty that drove men insane. When he was still a young boy, she tragically took her own life after being caught up in a tabloid sex scandal. As a child my dad loved going to the pictures (as he called them), and he never forgot his first film experience -- Cecil B. DeMille's Dynamite. Though he was probably too young to fully comprehend DeMille's romantic farce, he was forever hooked on film.
Several years after the death of his mother, my father found himself with a new stepmother -- a woman who didn't much care for children, and who made his life very difficult. As soon as he was old enough, he joined the army, as an escape from his unpleasant home life. My father never once talked about his time in WWII, other than to say he was in the South Pacific. (A die-hard pacifist who deplored violence, I can only begin to imagine what he experienced there.)
After returning from the war and finishing college, he moved into Manhattan, where he moved into a swinging bachelor pad on West 52nd St., close to the jazz clubs he often frequented. (Dad's stories of 52nd Street in the be-bop era were endlessly fascinating.) He began his film career as a clerk at Columbia Pictures, which is where he also met my mother. He eventually moved over to Universal Pictures, where he remained until his retirement in the early 90s.
Many of my strongest childhood memories of my father involve film. Birthdays were always special, as each year dad would bring home a 16mm print of a Universal classic. I'll never forget my 9th birthday party -- a group of about twenty kids huddled together on the floor, dumbstruck, as we were horrified and mesmerized by The Incredible Shrinking Man. Weekends were often spent in one of New York's (then) many revival cinemas -- and it was there that I received my first formal film education. We worked our way though musicals, film noir, screwball comedies, etc. He taught me the differences between the moguls, and how to spot a Warner Brothers picture from an MGM (or any other studio.) I learned the strengths and weaknesses of all the major leading actors and actresses, and why Fred Astaire was cooler than all the rest. I saw awful prints of Bergman, Rossellini, Godard, and Kurosawa at the Theater 80 St. Marks, avant-garde shorts at MOMA, and silent comedies at the Bleecker Street cinema.
Dad moved to Hollywood after he and my mother split up, where he became more involved with the production side of the business. Though he loved life on the lot, his heart was always in New York. He moved back right after retirement, all set to spend his golden years in the city he loved so. But after only one year, he suffered a stroke that left him sound in mind, but not in body. Though his physical limitations frustrated him, he still managed to keep as active a lifestyle as he could, which included trips to the cinema, but not nearly as often as he would have liked. He became more politically active, especially since Bush came to power, and did his part to voice his protest against the regime and the war in Iraq. Against better judgment, he took part in the massive protest that was staged in the summer of 2004 during the Republican National Convention.
Conversations with my father, especially in the last two years, were almost always about film. He was proud of the blog, and would often seek out the films I wrote about. (He also did fairly well on the screen cap quizzes.) We disagreed about many contemporary Hollywood films, but he'd often have a compelling argument in their defense.
When my father was first admitted into the hospital a few weeks ago, I never imagined the end was so near. In fact, our last full conversation was about the Oscars -- he asked me if I thought Brokeback Mountain would sweep the awards. I told him I thought it would. When I asked him what he thought of the film, his response was, "William Wyler would have done it better". That was my father.
I'm going to take a little time off -- will be back in a week or so.
|There are two things that Filmbrain is a sucker for -- most (but not all) musicals, and the films of Alan Parker. Naturally then, a union of the two is absolute heaven. Bugsy Malone, Fame, The Wall, and of course Evita, the source of last week's quiz. (For those who asked, that's Newcastle's own Jimmy Nail, who played Augistin Magaldi.)|
Though Parker's adaptation of the Webber-Rice rock opera is far from perfect (some poor casting choices), Filmbrain just can't get enough of those tunes! Buy him a few drinks and he'll sing you the entire score. Honest.
This week -- the actress pictured below was in her salad days when she made this film. Name her, and name the film as well. As it is every week, submit your answers to this address. Good luck!
|As a humble offering to today's Blog-a-thon, Filmbrain jots down his own Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys:|
|Filmbrain recently watched Jacques Rivette's The Story of Marie and Julien, his most recent feature (from 2003), and one which surprisingly never had a theatrical run in the states. (Fortunately, Koch has released a great looking DVD.) Though not his greatest film, it certainly is a return to form after the relatively light (but still positively wonderful) Va Savoir (2001). A far more somber affair, it's a love-cum-ghost story that broods along at a glacial pace, but is nothing short of breathtaking.|
An antique clock restorer (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a mysterious woman from his past (Emmanuelle Béart), blackmail, murder, and suicide -- all wrapped up in a hypnotic meditation on fate, love, and loss. Yet the story behind the film - a tale spanning nearly thirty years -- is every bit as compelling, and even has parallels to the phantasmagorical nature of the film itself. (For an excellent review/analysis of the film, please see Michael J. Anderson's article in Senses of Cinema.)
In the mid 1970s, inspired by Jean Markale's Women of the Celts and Claude Gaignebet's Le Carnaval, Rivette planned to direct a tetralogy of films rooted in Goddess legends, with all four films sharing a common theme of eternal return. Initially called Les Filles de feu (Girls of fire), the series came to be known as Scènes de la vie parallèle (Scenes from a parallel life). Two of the four proposed films were completed in 1976 - Duelle, a noir-ish fantasy story about a battle between the sun and moon Goddesses, both of whom are seeking a magic jewel, and Noroît, an all-female swashbuckling pirate adventure. (The fourth film, which never got beyond the planning stages, was meant to be a musical with Anna Karina and Jean Marias.)
Rather than formal screenplays, Rivette worked solely from simple sketches and notes, often based on conversations with the actors. In 1975 he asked his then-assistant Claire Denis to create a continuité technique for what was initially meant to be the first film in the series, The Story of Marie and Julien. Rivette had created the characters specifically for Leslie Caron and Albert Finney, who were, according to him, "at the height of their splendor in their forties." Sadly though, after just three days of filming, Rivette suffered a major nervous breakdown, and the entire Marie and Julien project was scrapped. In a 1987 Cahiers du Cinéma interview (conducted by Wim Wenders), Rivette admitted that his greatest regret ("actually, a remorse") was that he never completed the film.
The DVD includes a forty-minute interview with Rivette from 2003 that is worth the price of the disc alone. Shot in a café, Rivette looks more than slightly uncomfortable, and fidgets quite a bit as the unseen (and unnamed) female interviewer plies him with questions about the film and its history. She certainly knows her stuff, but continually hammers him over certain issues. (Such as the difference between a ghost and a phantom.) Rivette speaks of the film as ghost that haunted him for years, and its completion has obviously been an event of no minor significance for the seventy-five year-old director. It's a remarkably revealing interview that plays out (at times) like a therapy session, and is a must-see for Rivette fans.
Much like his infamous Showgirls defense, Rivette champions a few other unlikely candidates during the course of the interview, including a film that very few people admire -- Peter Bogdonavich's tribute to the 30s musical, At Long Last Love. Rivette refers to it as "one of Bogdonavich's most beautiful but least known films." (Filmbrain has a real soft spot for the film as well.) He also liked The Sixth Sense, finding it to be "one of the rare logical and intelligent ones", though he denies it had anything to do with his film. One could say that The Story of Marie and Julien has a somewhat Shamalayan twist to it, but it plunges into depths of human emotion and understanding that M. Night couldn't dream of.
The Story of Marie and Julien certainly won't be everybody's cup of tea, but if on a long winter's night you crave something of substance, something that asks more questions than it answers, that lingers for days on end --- Rivette will certainly satisfy.
|In the past several weeks, the literary world was rocked by not one but three scandals surrounding the authenticity of books that were purported to be non-fiction, or based on real events. There was of course James Frey, whose career was shattered into a million little pieces on national television when he admitted to gross fabrication (and taught us all a valuable lesson about pissing-off Oprah). Then there was the case of Nasdijj, the supposed fetal alcohol syndrome-inflicted Navajo author who told of abuse, alcoholism, and rape on the reservation, who in fact turned out to be the very white gay-porn author Timothy Barrus.|
Yet the most interesting scandal of the bunch has to be l'affaire LeRoy, which concerns the no-longer-mysterious identity of JT LeRoy, the alleged homeless teenage transgendered truck-stop prostitute with AIDS who wrote the collection of autobiographical stories, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, and who managed to build an impressive network of celebrity supporters which included Madonna, Bono, Gus van Sant, Tom Waits, Dave Eggers, etc. LeRoy also caught the eye of actress/director/brat Asia Argento, who has now turned those tales of woe into a feature length film.
Filmbrain can only hope that Argento had no doubts about LeRoy and his story, for what other possible defense can there be for making this utterly repulsive film. That LeRoy has turned out to be nothing more than the fictional creation of a middle-aged woman leaves us wondering -- would Argento have made the film had she known it was a work of fiction? (And does she, along with the other duped celebs, feel like a jackass?) Filmbrain hasn't read any of LeRoy's books, but if the film is a fair indication, he can't imagine how anybody could mistake these exaggerated tales of serial abuse for the truth.
The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things opens with seven year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) being turned over to his birth-mother Sarah (Asia Argento, doing her best Courtney Love impersonation), a sadistic, emotionally unstable, drug-addicted prostitute who has no real interest in the boy, other than as an object for abuse. (Why the boy was taken from good foster parents and handed over to such an irresponsible woman is never made clear.) The two hit the road on a journey to nowhere, and for the next ninety minutes we get to watch as Jeremiah is the victim of seemingly endless acts of psychological, physical, and sexual assault. From the drugs and verbal abuse his mother shoves down his throat, to being violently whipped or raped by one of Sarah's many men, Jeremiah (like his biblical namesake) becomes a martyr for everybody, albeit a causeless one.
After spending a few years with his abusive fundamentalist Christian grandparents (Ornella Muti and Peter Fonda), Jeremiah (now played by Dylan & Cole Sprouse) reunites with Sarah for a second round of excursions into violence and rape, with an added bonus of poisoning (just to keep it interesting.) The film doesn't end as much as it just stops, with nothing learned or resolved, and Argento's undeveloped, arcless characters no different than they were at the start.
Argento's filmmaking is none too impressive, and her attempts at gritty realism wind up looking terribly amateurish. Even cameos by the likes of Winona Ryder, Jeremy Sisto, and Michael Pitt do little to help matters any. The entire project is infused with enough narcissism to make Vincent Gallo blush -- even more so than her debut feature, the autobiographical Scarlet Diva. She draws way too much attention to her performance (while stifling everybody else's) and there's a self-congratulatory air throughout the whole film, as if Argento is continually reminding us how brave and understanding she is by bringing LeRoy's story to the screen. In what has to be one of the most pretentious end-credit sequences of all time, we see Argento's hands thumbing through her well-worn copy of the book, showing us in detail the many underlined passages and margin notes she made. Please!
Child abuse is a very serious subject, and any one of the events depicted is enough to result in long lasting damage. Strung together as they are, the film becomes a misanthropic circus of cruelty, which goes out of its way to shock with graphic images. Yet even if the story wasn't a hoax, and somehow one child did endure all of Emily Albert's manufactured evil, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is little more than an exercise in exploitation that revels in its many disturbing moments. If Todd Solondz and Gregg Araki went on a three-day crystal meth bender in a locked room with a typewriter, they wouldn't come up with material this vile. If you hate kids, this is your film.
Filmbrain can admit to feeling more than a tinge of schadenfreude towards the rich and famous that were duped by the faux enfant terrible. But will the scandal have any effect on the reception of Argento's film? We'll find out next month.
It must have been the sign for the IV Congreso that threw many of you. While De Palma's Scarface certainly contains its fair share of quotable lines, it can't hold a candle to Alex Cox's Repo Man, the source of last week's quiz. (The Plate O'Shrimp was a dead giveaway.)
Easily one of the top ten films of the 1980s, Cox's noir-ish comedy is a fascinating document of Reagan-era America. From generic food to sushi-eating white suburban punks, you owe it to yourself to check this out if you've never seen it. The recently released DVD looks great, and includes bonus features that even the well initiated will be thrilled with.
This week -- a film that should be instantly recognizable to anybody who has taken an Intro to Film course. For a bonus point, connect this film to Joan Rivers' 1978 comedy Rabbit Test in three hops or less. Submit your answers to this address. Good luck!