Friday, December 21, 2012

The Unbearable Awkwardness of Being a Korean Filmmaker, Part 2: The Awkwardenning: Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country

2012 has been a big year for Hong Sang-soo.  The prolific Korean director released two feature films, The Day He Arrives, which was one of the first films I reviewed on this blog, and In Another Country, which I just watched this evening.  Now, like Ozu before him, Hong basically has one movie in him, which he remakes with slight variations every time he directs a new movie.  As I believe I described in my review of The Day He Arrives, the basic Hong plot works like this: a semi-successful Korean filmmaker, who’s also something of a dick, travels to [the beach/some tourist spot/some bar he used to frequent/some combination thereof] where he meets up with old friends, and they all drink excessively, and they all say hurtful things to each other.  Then somebody usually has sex with someone.  Now, he’s tweaked this framework to varying degrees in some of his films.  For instance, in Night and Day, the action is transplanted from Korea to Paris, where the exact same premise plays out.  But the plot is generally pretty consistent.
For In Another Country, Hong’s variation is the introduction of a foreigner (Isabelle Huppert) into the milieu.  We start out with a frame story, in which a young screenwriter finds herself stranded in some backwater seaside town with her mother, who appears to have squandered the family fortune by cosigning something for a disreputable uncle.  To calm her nerves, the young screenwriter decides to write a screenplay, or more precisely, three screenplays, each of which stars a Frenchwoman named Anne (Huppert) and a cast of reappearing actors as they play out slightly different scenarios in the seaside town.  And this is the movie we see.  In the first scenario, Huppert is a famous French director visiting a Korean director and his very pregnant wife, and all sorts of cringe-inducing awkwardness ensues between her and the director and a really, really enthusiastic lifeguard who flirts with her aggressively (he lives in a tent on the beach, and when she praises it, he offers to give it to her).  She also looks for and fails to find a lighthouse that’s supposed to be a local landmark.  In the second piece, Huppert is a Frenchwoman who has arrived in the town to meet up with her lover, who may or may not ever actually show up, as this scenario seems to be a dream nestled within a dream.  We have the same lifeguard, who’s really excited to be meeting a foreign woman.  And once again, the search for the lighthouse (to the lighthouse!)  In the third and final scenario, Huppert’s husband has abandoned her for his Korean employee, and Huppert has come to the town with a Korean professor (played by the same actress who plays the mother in the frame-story) to try to escape from her problems.  Once again, the lifeguard.  Once again, the search for the lighthouse.
One of the things that most distinguishes this film from Hong’s previous movies is its heavy use of the English language.  Huppert’s character doesn’t speak Korean and the Koreans don’t speak French, so English serves them as a lingua franca.  In Another Country is similar in this respect to Johnnie To’s Vengeance and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, both of which feature heavy use of English as a means of communication between people who don’t speak it as a first language.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this seems to be a good compromise for Asian directors who want to make an English-language movie (for some misguided reason) but who also want the movie not to be awful (for Asian directors who didn’t take this lesson to heart and packed off to America to produce movies that no one liked, please see: Chen Kaige, John Woo, and Wong Kar-wai).
Huppert is a wonderful actor, and it’s refreshing to see her in a movie where her character isn’t being physically or emotionally destroyed (as tends to be the case in her collaborations with Michael Haneke).  Huppert’s presence as a foreigner introduces a new variable into the Hong matrix and he explores it with his usual tenacity (he once again explores his theme of Korean sexual anxiety around foreigners that he first raised in Woman on the Beach).  As for In Another Country’s place in Hong’s larger oeuvre, his delicately observed and cringe-inducing depictions of painful social relations continue to fascinate.  He may only have one story to tell, but like Ozu, it’s a story worth telling and approaching again and again from different angles.  He already has a movie in the works for 2013—it’s called Nobody’s Daughter Hae-won—and I for one eagerly anticipate another story of drunken Korean film people being terrible to each other.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Yoichi Nishiyama’s Gurozuka and the Inherent Creepiness of Noh Masks

Apparently it’s Noh month here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, because I have another Noh-related post for your delectation.  I have just seen Yoichi Nishiyama’s cheap but pleasurable 2005 horror film Gurozuka, about a group of young women in a movie club (university students of some sort, I think, it was vague on this score) who go into the woods (because why not?) to make a film about a crazy woman wearing a Noh mask who kills people.  This will be the movie club’s first project since its reformation following a seven-year hiatus.  The previous movie club broke up because its members went into the woods to make a movie and one of them disappeared and one of them went crazy.  Oh, and the filmed record of their trip depicts a crazy woman in a Noh mask killing somebody.  And the members of the new film club have seen movie.  And it’s sort of like they said to themselves, “I really want to live and die in a horror movie. Let’s make this shit happen.”

Now, for years I’ve found Noh masks to be intensely creepy (and I’m sure I’m not alone in this), so you can imagine my pleasure in discovering a Japanese horror movie that exploits their inherent creepiness (although now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure the demon mask in Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 film Onibaba was a Noh mask, but still, Noh-mask-themed horror movies are few and far between).

What is it about Noh masks that makes them so damn creepy?  I think the crux of the matter lies in the fact that they’re simultaneously deeply inhuman and highly expressive.  I say inhuman for the simple reason that human faces tend to move (Nicole Kidman excepted), whereas a Noh mask has only one fixed expression.  But despite this unnatural fixedness, the Noh mask can still look profoundly human and, when worn by an expert, can convey far more meaning—can be far more expressive—than one would ever think possible.  We’re probably in “uncanny valley” territory here, with the masks looking very human but just inhuman enough to be deeply unsettling.
Maybe I’d find them less creepy if I had the opportunity to see them in action, but I’ve never been to a Noh performance (America) and I’ve only seen bits of them in movies.  My experience of the Noh comes mostly from reading the plays, and there I tend not to picture the characters as masked.  I have also been informed by William T. Vollmann’s excellent book, Kissing the Mask, the full title of which runs as follows: Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater: With Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries, and Venus Figurines.  Thank God for William T. Vollmann.

So, to return to Gurozuka, let it be said that if a person wearing a Noh mask is already creepy—and creepy in the uncanny sense—then you can imagine how that person only becomes creepier when she’s wielding a meat cleaver and rampaging through the woods.  Young Japanese film students must exercise an abundance of caution when venturing into the forest, and Gurozuka can serve as a cautionary tale for all of them.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Few Observations on Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Part II

One of the first “Westerners” (and I don’t approve of these civilizational terms, but it’s easier to say “Westerners” than “Europeans and/or Americans”) to see a production of a Noh play was Ulysses S. Grant, of all people.  This would likely have been after his presidency, when he went on a world tour and made a generally positive impression on people, so much so that, upon his return to the United States, there was talk of him running for a third term.  Nowadays, Grant tends to get described as one of America’s worst presidents, but I’ve heard that this trend was started by Southern historians who wanted to besmirch his reputation.  But that’s neither here nor there.  What’s relevant to us right now is that, in the 1880’s, Ulysses S. Grant travelled to Japan and saw, among others things, the production of a Noh play.  I do not know which play it was, nor do I have any idea what Grant could have gotten out of it.  It would have been in Japanese, a language he certainly didn’t know.  The staging would have been completely alien to all “Western” theatrical conventions.  But Grant was apparently deeply impressed by it, and after the play, he is said to have walked up to the producers and said, “You must preserve this.” I believe I read this anecdote in one of Donald Keene’s books about Japanese literature.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1945 film Sanshiro Sugata, Part II is set in 1887, roughly around the same time as Grant’s visit to Japan, and the film is positively crawling with “Americans.” Or at least “white people” (I’m also one of those leftists who doesn’t approve of racial classifications, forgive me) who are meant to sound kind of American-y.  In 1887, the industrialization and modernization of the Meiji Era was in full swing, and the Japanese were in contact with the outside world in a way that they hadn’t been since the 1500’s.  And this meant American sailors, American merchants, and American adventurers (like Grant) swarming all over the place, from the harbors of Nagasaki and Yokohama to the heart of Tokyo.  The old samurai order had been eradicated, and this is one of the reasons that Grant said that Noh needed to be preserved, because in the Meiji Era, it was in real danger of dying out.  Noh was never a popular entertainment (unlike Kabuki and Bunraku) and was dependent upon the patronage of the elites of the old order.  With them out of the picture and society in dramatic flux, Noh had lost its support base.

The protagonists of Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Part II (and Sanshiro Sugata, Part I, from 1943, which was Kurosawa’s first film), aren’t interested in the theater, but they are deeply engaged with preserving Japan’s traditional martial arts.  In the first Sanshiro Sugata film, the focus was on the eclipse of jiu-jitsu by judo (of which the eponymous Sanshiro becomes a master).  In the sequel (made in early 1945, as American bombs incinerated whole Japanese cities and the Japanese army was losing Okinawa), one of the main plot lines concerns the conflict between traditional Japanese martial arts and the recently imported American practice of boxing (a bloody and barbaric sport, staged for entertainment and money).  It’s up to Sanshiro to defend the honor of Japan (and remember, it’s 1945) by using his judo skills to defeat William Lester, “the greatest boxer in the world!” (Who spends the entire course of the film hanging around in Meiji Japan for reason).

So we have several scenes at the boxing arena, and the halls are packed with white people, and where do they come from? Are these all German expatriates?  White Russians and their children? Surely they didn’t take American POW’s and draft them into their movie? (Had they done this, I suspect that the “Americans” wouldn’t have spoken with such weird, vaguely British accents).  These “Americans” in Japan in 1945 are just as out of place as William Lester in 1887.

Now, from at least the 1960’s onwards, the Americans in Japanese movies tended to be real-ish Americans, and a few, like Chico Roland and Kathy Horan, made careers for themselves as “professional Americans” in Japanese cinema.  They were terrible actors, but to a Japanese audience reading the dialogue in Japanese subtitles, it probably didn’t make much of a difference.  I’ll stop this digression here, as I plan to devote a future blog post to the unlikely Japanese film career of Chico Roland, who is thus far in the Criterion Collection on five separate occasions.

Oh, and hopefully this won’t come as a spoiler, but Sanshiro wins the fight against William Lester, thusly redeeming the honor of Japanese martial arts.  This movie, along with 1944’s The Most Beautiful, constitutes Kurosawa’s only foray into the propaganda film.  I have not seen The Most Beautiful, but Sanshiro Sugata, Part II certainly transcends its propagandistic elements to and is an enjoyable film in its own right.