Black Rain (1989) 黒い雨

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 123 minutes
Director: Shôhei Imamura
Starring: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa

Theme: War

IMDB: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

Film Festivals:
1989 Cannes Film Festival
1989 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1989 Ghent International Film Festival

1989 Cannes Film Festival: Prize of the Ecumenical Jury / Technical Grand Prize
1989 Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Best Screenplay (Toshirô Ishidô)
1990 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actress (Yoshiko Tanaka) / Best Cinematography (Takashi Kawamata) / Best Director (Shôhei Imamura) / Best Editing / Best Film / Best Lighting / Best Music Score / Best Screenplay / Best Supporting Actress (Etsuko Ichihara)
1990 Blue Ribbon Awards: Best Actress (Yoshiko Tanaka)
1989 Ghent International Film Festival: Georges Delerue Prize, Grand Prix
1989 Hochi Film Awards: Best Actress
1991 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Film

1989 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or
1990 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Art Direction / Best Sound

Black Rain (1989) is a film based on the aftermath of the nuclear bombings in World War II. It tells of life in Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, with the film following the lives of survivors (hibakusha) who were contaminated by the radioactive fallout – also known as black rain. They struggle with social discrimination and suffer from isolation in psychological repercussions that may be much worse than the health damage they experienced. The film is based on Masuji Ibuse’s titular novel of 1965.

Essentially, the film focuses on Yasuko, a young girl who was not in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. However, while returning to Hiroshima to find her uncle and aunt, she was exposed to the ‘black rain’ together with other survivors who were searching through the contaminated ruins. With the ebb of time, Yasuko and her fellow survivors begin to resemble time bombs, with certain telltale signs of their sickness and ultimate death.

First of all, to fully appreciate this film, we have to understand why director Shohei Imamura shot it in black and white, and that is because he felt that this was the best way to convey the magnitude of the atomic destruction. It wasn’t just the deaths or debris, but also the way people went about their lives. Life was bleak and stark. Furthermore, the use of black and white film played an important part in amplifying the horrific nature of the incident; it evoked an eerie resemblance to the archival photos of the victims after the bombing. The choice of black and white had artistic merits.

Imamura did not set out to create a film condemning anyone for the war or the incident that led to its end. America for example, was only mentioned once throughout the film. What he did really wanted to do through Black Rain was to make a statement against war in general. Furthermore, a deeper look into the film’s narrative and focus reveals that what Imamura really wanted to condemn his own country for the way they went about picking themselves up/recovering after the bombing.

Imamura interjects realism with the underlying horror of the whole post-bomb situation gripping the country and the peoples’ attempts to recover. He intersperses shocking scenes of “impressionistic horror” (Schenker, 2009) between calm mundane domesticated scenes. Some examples include the upping of lighting and sound for flashback scenes that dramatically change the mood in an instant, and the use of haunting images of unrest. A pertinent example would be the recurrent shots of the quintessential household clock, given exceptional prominence in these scenes through the shadows cast by the hands burnt during the nuclear meltdown.

Black Rain is an excellent cinematic portrayal that explores not only what the survivors experienced before, during and after the explosion of the bomb, but also addresses how the lingering effects of such a weapon can transpire throughout a survivors life. Throughout the film, the characters constantly refer to experiencing “pika-don” (English translation: pika refers to the flash of light and don refers to the thunderous blast)— and speculate its longstanding effects that appear out of nowhere and afflict those exposed to the explosion. The opening scene is a good example that brings out pikadon – where survivors aboard a train experience a sudden bright flash of light followed by an immense blast that pulverizes through the interior of the train. The entire scene is a visual spectacle that allows us, as viewers to understand and experience the impact and disorientation of the blast. It’s as if the entire world was torn apart in one blinding instant.

The imminent message is that macro worldly decisions can have potential repercussions on the micro-individual scale. One fateful decision, one fateful day, and one’s life course can be changed forever. The weaving of past and present further reinforces the uncertainty that existed then over the collateral damage that the bomb had afflicted on survivors.


Schenker, A. (2009, October 15) Movie review: Black Rain. Retrieved October 27, 2010, from



Crimson Gold (2003) طلای سرخ

Country: Iran
Language: Persian
Director: Jafar Panahi (written by Abbas Kiarostami)
Running Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Hossain Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheisi, Azita Rayeji, Shahram Vaziri, Ehsan Amani, Pourang Nakhael, Koveh Najmabadi, Saber Safael

Theme: Crime

Ratings: 7.5/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

Film Festivals:
2003 Cannes Film Festival
(Un Certain Regard Section)
2003 Chicago International Film Festival
2004 Tbilisi International Film Festival
2003 Valladolid International Film Festival

2003 Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard Jury Prize)
2003 Chicago International Film Festival: Gold Hugo for Best Film
2004 Tbilisi International Film Festival: Golden Prometheus  (Jafar Panahi)
2003 Valladolid International Film Festival: Golden Spike  (Jafar Panahi)

Crimson Gold (2003) is directed by Jafar Panahi, one of esteemed filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s protégés, and who has earned recognition from film theorists as well as won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival (for The Circle (2000)) and Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival (for Offside (2006)). Considered one of the most influential filmmakers in the Iranian New Wave movement, he takes after Kiarostami in courting controversy in the movies he have been producing. This has spawned his sudden arrest in March this year, only to be released on bail in May as the Iranian government came under the close scrutiny of the international cinematic community. Acclaimed filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers among others, as well as film societies and film festivals around the world were part of a petition movement trying to force the hand of the Iranian government into releasing Panahi, an arrest that has also been condemned by human rights organizations around the world. Cannes Best Actress Juliette Binoche also dedicated part of her award-winning speech for Kiarostami’s Certified Copy to drawing attention to Panahi’s plight. He currently still stands on trial, allegedly for “making a film against the regime and it was about the events that followed election”, according to Iran’s Culture Minister (AFP, 2010). But his wife has since denied claims that this was true.

Panahi’s style has been described as neorealist, and this is evident in Crimson Gold that explores humanitarian themes within Iranian cinema without sensationalizing the political and social messages. He embraces the “tension between documentary immediacy and a set of strictly defined formal parameters” amid “an overtly expressed anger at the restrictions that Iranian society imposes” (Wilson, 2006).

This is clearly evident in Crimson Gold. Albeit a crime film, it is not a sensational one that focuses on the violence, although its poster might semiotically depict otherwise given the image of a man pointing a gun to his own brain. The main character is Hussein who appears to be attempting to rob a jeweler shop in the opening scene. He shoots the Jeweler, and then takes his own life as well as the Jeweler sounds the alarm. Whether his intent was suicidal in the first place is up for contention, but the movie, executed in a flashback sequence with the execution in the first scene, is particularly affective as it goes through the travails of Hussein’s life – his psychological trauma of dealing with war experience, being on medication, and being ostracized and condescened upon in the throes of mainstream society due to his lower class status. This class struggle takes central theme throughout the entire movie, whether in Hussein striking a rapport with a fellow law enforcement officer of the same social status, or observing with chagrin the difference in policial treatment of the wealthy and the poor, an allegory of corruption that might not have fared well with the authorities.

The sociopolitical themes that run deep under the guise of a simple bank robbery are impossible to ignore, and provides a social commentary as to the social ills of contemporary Iranian society of the day. And the flurry of moviemakers from Iran hold a precious key at helping the international community unlock the increasing alienated state of Iran that is being placed on terrorism watch and accused of engaging in nuclear development in the Axis of Evil. We see a case study of brutal class realities, but which is banned in Iran itself supposedly for being too “dark” in portraying the themes of powerlessness in the face of an authoritarian society.


Agence France-Presse. (2010). Panahi arrested for making anti-regime film: minister. Retrieved October 26, 2010, from

Willson, J. (2006, September 26). A mirror under the veil – and inside the stadium. Retrieved October 26, 2010, from


Mother India (1957) मदर इण्डिया / مدر انڈیا

Country: India
Language: Hindi
Director: Mehboob Khan
Running Time: 172 minutes
Starring: Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar

Ratings: – 7.4/10 | Rotten Tomatoes – 83%

Film Festivals:
1958 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

1958 Filmfare Awards: Best Actress (Nargis) / Best Cinematographer / Best Director / Best Film / Best Sound Recordist
1958 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival: Best Actress (Nargis)

1958 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

Considered to be the bedrock of Indian commercial cinema, Mother India was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Many people saw the film as an extension of Director Mehboob Khan’s earlier black-and-white film Aurat (1940), albeit in color.

The setting is rural India, as an apt metaphor of India’s independence after being freed of British colonial rule. Mother India depicts the story of Radha (Nargis), a single mother who struggles to survive in her village as she tries to raise her kids, and pay off the debts incurred by husband. The entire story is shot as a flashback.

Shot primarily using warm and earthly colors such as orange and brown, Mother India is a beautiful film that highlights the majesty of the rural Indian landscape and brings to life the mettle and strength of the drudgery in bucolic India. The movie’s themes also create a multitude of iconic and symbolic impressions. For instance – the scenes of i) Radha hauling an ox plow and ii) her standing neck-deep in floodwaters and lifting her children over her head symbolized hard work; that the people of India had to rely on themselves to keep the country going after its independence despite the slew of problems that besotted them. While the village, with its traditional and cultural values embodies India’s dependence on Agriculture as the backbone of its economy at that time, the portrayal of dams, tanks and canals were used in similar fashion to reflect India at its fledging stage of growth and development. Finally, one of the most iconic and powerful scenes in the film was that of Radha standing deep in the mud soaked soils of her fields and calling out to her fellow villagers not to abandon the land and their mother country India. The villagers then return to salvage the crops and in doing so, form the map of India out of the cut wheat. Overall, the film’s visuals provided a vivid and colorful picture of India in the 50’s.

Because the story was told from the perspective of a flashback, director Mehboob Khan makes use of visual/editing techniques such as dissolves to depict the progress in time. Compared to a straight cut, the use of dissolves creates a smooth transition that makes the viewers feel like they are watching everything unfold as time ebbs by. The recurring shot of a wheel throughout the film was also used to suggest the cycle of a season, not just that of a harvest but also the characters’ growth from childhood to old age. (Shakila, 2008).

One of the key issues that Mother India tried to address was feminism – of the Indian women’s fight against male oppression at that time, and for honor and integrity. Central to this was the strong commanding performance and focus on the film’s protagonist, Radha and how she relied on hard work and determination to surmount her problems, which incidentally were mostly caused by various male characters in her life i.e. her husband, the tyrant Sukhilala and her sons. The idealization of her as the sole breadwinner and the perfect mother further augmented all these.

Overall, Mother India is a strong and compelling portrayal of the status and ideological image of womanhood that director Mehboob Khan wanted to bring out for women at that time. Through Radha, we see a model of strength, determination, devotion and virtue – epitomizing the perfect model of the mother figure not just for her family and the village, but also ultimately to the entire nation.


Shakila. (2008, July 30). Mother India – the cinema of Mehboob Khan. Retrieved on October 23, 2010, from

The Horse Thief (1986) 盜馬賊

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Running time: 88 minutes
Starring: Daiba, Dan Jiji, Drashi, Gaoba
Theme: Family/Death

Ratings: 7.3/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Film Festivals:
1988 Fribourg International Film Festival
2001 San Francisco International Film Festival

1988 Fribourg International Film Festival – Distribution Help Award

The Horse Thief (1986) by acclaimed Chinese Fifth Generation filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang touches on the travails of Chinese minorities in a follow-up to On the Hunting Ground (1984). The ethnic minorities are given a spotlight in this movie which captures the vast plains of inner China, and in particular their faith to the Buddhism doctrine and the numerous rites and rituals that they go through so as to shun evil spirits and to bring good luck to the community. The colors are vivid, and through Tian’s lenses the tough livelihood of these ethnic minorities living in rural villages come to life. There is minimal dialogue, save for a couple of terse exchanges that goes against common perceptions of a close-knit commuity as the villagers have to fend for themselves against the course of nature, but that mirrors the empty plains of the landscape. This makes the film relatively difficult to sit through at the start as Tian Zhuangzhuang strives to set the tone. But soon we learn to empathize with the villagers, and we feel their pain as they seek a spiritual connection with God to ease them through difficulttimes. After all, in the middle of nowhere, there really is no way for salvation except the heavens. The cinematography is plain stunning, and Tian’s exploration of a lesser-known indigineous minority has earned him rave plaudits in the form of Martin Scorsese, who declared the film as his #1 favourite from the 1990s on a talkshow with acclaimed critic Roger Ebert.

The protagonist is the titular horse thief, Norbu, in his struggle to bring his family up in Tibet. He steals horses for trade and bartering for food for his family, much to the chagrin of his fellow villagers who upon catching him, banish him from the clan and curse that God would not turn a blind eye on his misdeeds. In a sign that the heavens might possibly have listened, Norbu’s son eventually dies despite him not having renounced his faith. The devastated father strives to change his ways, engaging in rituals like turning prayer wheels, ceremonial dances and so forth in a series of voyeuristic scenes that capture the process of a human being seeking divine intervention in his faith.

The skies and the worshipped deities take centrestage in this film. The villagers give all their faith and belief in the Gods above, but one cannot help but question—and pity them along the way—at whether the skies are really listening. Tian films Norbu in his normadic existence, so starved that he has to eat newly-fallen snow, the character’s devastation at the loss of his son in laying the dead body in the middle of a snow-covered meadow (41:0641:15), the establishing shot accentuating his loneliness and emptiness now that he has lost his companion. He films the actual slaughter of a sacrificial lamb (no pun intended) that Norbu sneaks up upon and slits the throat of in an offering to the heavens. This grisly scene is as realistic as it is potentially morally offensive to some religions. The unsuspecting lamb tremors, and writes agonizingly as it struggles for its last breath.

This is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s third feature film and it is one of intoxicating beauty. The movie opens with lush colors and tribal instruments blaring in the background, thereby immediately drawing myself into the emptiness of the landscape through the use of depth of field and close-ups on bells (00:56), birds (00:59) and so forth. We get a lot of still sequences of otherwise emptiness, for instance, at 07:33-07:41, 07:4207:45, 07:4607:50 and 07:5007:56. There are close-ups of Buddha, of birds feasting on dead carcasses that create an impression of empty grandiose, and of rows and rows of villagers decked in monk attire and praying by the field. The crying wails in the middle of the movie symbolizes the birth of a  baby, preceding his capture on the camera. But memories run deep, and this child is no replacement for Norbu’s loss. The movie comes full circle, with the harsh reality forcing the family to desperate means, and the final shot is one equivalent to the opening sequence in a portrayal of karma, and that what goes around, perhaps comes around.

While Tian Zhuangzhuang would go on to make more controversial movies such as The Blue Kite (1993), I sense from the lenses of his camera a form of stoic realism at capturing the lives of the minority. There hardly appears to be any script, and the fluidity of the actions and landscape aid in conveying a striking reality in his documentation of the people

The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998)

Country: Singapore
Language: English
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Philip Lim
Starring: Melody Chen, Caleb Goh, Lim Hwee Sze, Chong Chee Kin, Steven Lim, Randall Tan

Theme: Culture

Ratings: 7.0/10

The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998) is a satire of the Singapore junior college education system, and is a film adaptation of the 1988 Adrian Tan bestseller, The Teenage Textbook. It takes a light-hearted look into the lives of four students as they begin their junior college education. Such prevalent references to the book are present throughout the movie, that is split into various chapters that all take a cue from the original book. For instance, the movie opens with a quote from the book, “Teenagers love movies that start with good music” (00:00), before mocking the schizophrenic, confused state of wearing secondary school uniforms to their junior colleges during the first three months of school. With the film centered upon particularly the first three months of junior college years, the movie takes on a very Singaporean point of view, as it broaches upon topics like boy-girl relationships, family relations, money, materialism, etc.

It is worth noting that the film was well-received critically and managed to top the Singapore box office at a point of time, though given the trends of films like that it most likely rode on the initial popularity of the best-selling book. The film is stylistically rich, with many comedic techniques used throughout the film. The stereotypical “love at first sight” glance is paired with romantic music at 4:24, and at 5:06 the tacky mood for the comedy is set with the announcements over the school PA system for the students to “proceed your way into the school hall”, from a principal that graduated with a pHd from Calcutta. Letters drop off from the school signage at random – the original being PAYA LEBAR JUNIOR COLLEGE, and instances include “PAY” to form “A LEBAR JUNIOR COLLEGE”, and other permutations to form phrases like “PAY BAR UNCLE” and even “EAR JUICE”, a form of witty cynicism amid wordplay that is common throughout the film. For instance, “pimple” is defined as “a minor eruption of pus on the surface of the skin”, or “the end of the world”.

The characters are plain stereotypical caricatures, but these caricatures must have been real at one point of time for them to become stereotypes, and one should be able to draw reference from them. Espoused character types include the geeky female, the nerdy male, the rich kid, the suave flirt, the hunky bookworm and the beauty. the Mui Ee (Melody Chen) comes of age with the help of her best friend Sissy Song (Lim Hwee Sze) as she picks up skills like party etiquette and dating on Valentine’s Day, though not without complaints such as “How can you be so enthusiastic and still get to a party two hours late?” (11:51). She falls for the school flirt, before settling for a more down-to-earth relationship with the geeky but reliable Chong Gay (Caleb Ng).

A gripe is the numerous filler shots used to beef up the length of the movie, and these senseless shots that capture driving scenes to random local sites like Orchard, Simei and Holland Village are grating and redundant. It is a convenient means for the audience to hear the (not so) witty jokes over the radio (with 98.7FM being on air), but this does not serve to value-add to the scene at any bit. There does not seem to be any scene in particular that really needs to take place in these areas, the setting mostly ambiguous HDB flats, for instance.

Since the release of The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998), similar films have been few and far between. Eating Air (1999) attempts to blend comic elements of anime manga but to not much success, and the sociological movies after that all tended towards a more serious tone (with the exception of Jack Neo films that resort to jokes on a more realistic scale rather than the stylistic exaggeration seen in these films).

Watch it at:

Lan Yu (2001) 蓝宇

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Director: Stanley Kwan
Runtime: 86 minutes
Starring: Hu Jun, Liu Ye, Su Jin, Li Huatong, Luo Fang, Zhang Yongning

Theme: LGBT Issues

Ratings: IMDB: 7.0/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 65%

Film Festivals:
2001 Cannes Film Festival
2001 Golden Horse Film Festival
2001 Sundance Film Festival

2001 Golden Horse Awards for Best Actor (Liu Ye) / Best Director / Best Editing
2001 Glitter Awards for Best International Gay Film
2002 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards: Film of Merit
2002 Vesoul Asian Film Festival: Golden Wheel

2002 Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Actor (Liu Ye, Hu Jun) / Best Art Direction / Best Cinematography / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Screenplay / Best Supporting Actress

It was difficult to determine whether Lan Yu (2001) should be attributed as a Hong Kong or China production. While the movie is made by Stanley Kwan, a Hong Kong director, it was filmed in Beijing albeit without government permission. Such a distinction still remains pertinent in spite of the 1997 merger is proof of the stark difference in aesthetic and cinematic treatment of the films from Hong Kong and China. With very different cinematographic techniques and very different topics broached due to a distinction in acceptability levels of society, we see that Hong Kong films tend to be more aesthetically vivid and packaged, whilst dealing with more contemporary themes and not shying away from controversy scenes that are frequently passed uncut. Thus, primarily for the homosexual themes of Lan Yu, I opted to classify it as a Hong Kong film.

Critics have been quick to compare Lan Yu (2001) with another Hong Kong gay release, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) starring heavyweights Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung. But there is a huge disparity in the genre, with the latter being more comedic and the former more brooding and morose. The film confines itself to the two men, Handong (Hu Jun) and the titular character Lan Yu (Liu Ye) almost exclusively, and the introduction of any other character is deemed to be an intrusion to the private sphere the two characters share more than anything else. Handong, being older and more traditional, insists that his relationship with Lan Yu is nothing more than a fling. He insists on the virtues of the traditional marriage, on the needs to follow social conventions of marriage and having a baby. But his love for Lan Yu inevitably runs deeper than shallow water. When he first wanted a clean break from Lan Yu, he found himself constantly pining for him, culminating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square march that Lan Yu was a part of. Handong worries for Lan Yu, especially given the massacre that occurred during the protest. The marriage eventually fell through as well. But in a bittersweet tragedy, it is Lan Yu who abruptly passed on at a time when Handong was finally accepting of his sexuality — the moral impetus being the fact that one should always cherish his/her loved ones. The energy stops, the silence disquieting, and the film meanders into a crevasse as Handong’s mindnumbing despair is captured on screen. Tears flow uninhibitedly, and the camera hovers over his loss. Such profound emotional complexity is easily the highlight of the film.

A lot of hype always follows the release of a gay film, and the more artistically-inclined and recognized it is, the heavier the burden as more awards and accolades are washed upon it. Furthermore, a lot of attention is placed with the release of this film given how Stanley Kwan is one of the few openly gay directors in Hong Kong, having come out of the closet with the seminal Yang±Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema a few years earlier. How would the treatment of a homosexual story by an openly gay director be like? Will he over-indulge in sensitivities against homosexuality in mainstream society, thereby painting a sob story that plays back to stereotypes? Or will he over-indulge in personal pleasures, having the chance to embrace an issue that is close to heart via a medium that is personally favored?

Stanley Kwan does neither of these in Lan Yu, a brilliant understated film without any lurid cinematic techniques, opting instead for a “language of long melancholy stares, murmurous voiceovers, and unarticulated sorrows” (Chan, 2007). While the title takes on the name of the pivotal protagonist in the story, it is also phonetically similar to 藍雨, the Chinese term for “blue rain”, and this adds another sullen veil to the morose nature of the movie. Lan Yu plainly centers upon a fairly ordinary love story that probably would have worked as well should it be a vanilla heterosexual romance. The sex, raw and unfiltered without any sensationalization. The movie in fact normalizes the sex sequence – that sex is something part and parcel of any love relationship, gender regardless. A rich closeted businessman pays for the services of a younger, more open student in a one night stand, but what ensued was a whirlwind 9-year romance that ends tragically. Kwan does not flinch from portraying visceral sex scenes, as well as subtle innuendoes. Thus there are many scenes of the couple in tight embrace, lying naked in bed, French kissing, or engaging in coitus with full-frontal nudity as well. Adapted from the anonymous 1996 e-novel Beijing Story, one cannot help but wonder whether the story struck a resonance with Kwan given his sexuality. The visually stunning film embraces color with rich texture, while remaining subtle and playing with shadows in dark interiors. The timeline is confusing, however, as there is no demarcation of a time lapse, though mostly the story meanders on at a slow albeit measured pace that helps in the audience identifying with the psychological needs and emotions of the characters – both of whom are very much straight unlike the protagonists of Li Yu’s Fish and Elephant (2001) of the same year.

The pop song used is Huang Pinyuan’s 你怎麼捨得我難過 (Loosely translated as: How Could You Bear To Make Se Sad?). While I frown upon the use of pop ditties and familiar tunes within a movie soundtrack, this track surprisingly works. The movie being pared-down realism, makes the popularity of the song pertinent given how it is something a typical person would probably listen to.

The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well (1996) 돼지가 우물에 빠진 날

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Kim Eui-sung, Lee Eung-kyung, Cho Eun-sook, Park Jin-song, Bang Eun-hee
Theme: Romance/Erotica

IMDB: 6.6/10

Film Festivals:
1997 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1997 Rotterdam International Film Festival
1996 Vancouver International Film Festival

1997 APFF: Best New Director
1997 RIFF: Tiger Award
1996 VIFF: Dragons and Tigers Award

It is very tempting to infer that the title of Hong Sang-soo’s 1996 directorial debut “The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well” draws direct reference from the 1954 John Cheever novella “The Day The Pig Fell Into The Well”. I have yet to read the book and thus am unable to draw literary references between the book and the film. However, going by the brief abstract I found online, the book is a story about a New York family that never fails to remember, on random nights, the day the pig fell into the well and the other corresponding events that also occurred that very day – such is the impact such an out-of-the-ordinary event poses on an average person. It is tantamount to how it is alleged that most Britons are able to remember what they were doing the instant they heard that Princess Diana died in 1997, or how Michael Jackson fans can remember what they were up to when news of his death broke. “Pigs falling into wells” is definitely a more light-heated reference than death, but the gist is there, the awkwardness one experiences from the abrupt disruption to the routine of everyday lives.

This movie paints such a portrait, and the well in which the pig falls into is a metaphor for the city of Seoul in 1996, says director Hong Sang-soo in his interview notes (Pusan International Film Festival Daily, 1996, cited on The director, considered one of South Korea’s best contemporary auteurs, depicts four individuals seeking fulfillment amid the urban jungle that is Seoul and their progressive attitudes. Four separate stories come together through a running narrative thread as they go about their everyday routines in the city in an editing structure akin to future acclaimed films like Crash (2004) and Babel (2006), albeit the latter two films occurring in different locales. The movie intermingles the incidents of the four protagonists: Hyo-sub (a struggling novelist), Bo-kyung (housewife), Dong-woo (salesman) and Min-jae (box office girl) through unobtrusive storytelling techniques.

Through an inference of relations drawn within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we know that Hyo-sub is juggling two relationships at the same time. He is with Min-jae in the restaurant at (04:08; Part 2) and observed by Bo-kyung in a bookstore (00:20; Part 3). The prominence of the latter is amplified by Hong’s framing, as the secondary character in the distance remains in focus as Hyo-sup continually steals glances at the character. The scene then shifts to a hotel room as they engage in a tight embrace. The dialogue, frequently sexually-suggestive in the movie, includes lines like “Do you have sex with your husband?” as the camera casts a top-down shot on the couple sitting on the floor eating fruits (03:20; Part 3) in a whimsical scene that conveys lust and desire between the two characters, while harboring metaphorical references to the forbidden fruit of Adam and Eve. At 05:33, the camera cuts away to Hyo-sub, shirtless, sucking the toes of the woman in an erotic gesture that must be a fetish. He lovingly clings onto the feet of the woman, biting her toes, and the close-up sequence gives the viewer both a voyeuristic sense of spying into an intimate moment. Later on, different angles follow before the camera finally cuts to a top-down shot of the couple making love. The camera is high up in the ceiling and the wide shot creates the perspective of the couple being small in context of the room.

Hyo-sub the struggling novelist is despondent even in social situations such as the karaoke scene, where he sits despondently by the corner of the frame (03:26). To make matters worse, the waitress spills hot food on Hyo-sub, who reacts violently by throwing a tantrum. In a sign that nobody cares, the others move on with their respective conversations. At 05:26, the framing takes a wide angle such that we see the goings-on in the whole restaurant rather than an egocentric focus on the center of Hyo-sub’s universe. This creates an impression of how small an individual is in context to his/her surroundings, and no matter how he attempts to make a scene by thrusting himself in the center of attention, it is fruitless when people simply don’t care. The incident rears an ugly head when at 05:46 the camera frames the scene outside the restaurant with the door to the right and Hyo-sub on the telephone to the left. The waitress walks out and he kicks up a fuss, with his unreasonable attitude pissing her off. Alienated by his friends, he turns to a prostitute. The palpable sexual tension resonates between one very willing woman for the money and one very unwilling client. The woman appears stark naked on screen, and helps herself to the entire penetration act in a scene that is just weird. That is perhaps a problem that arose only because of the frequent jumps in character focus. This makes it virtually impossible to connect, to empathize or sympathize with any of the characters.

The main problem with such movies is how the focus jumps from character to character intangibly. They are introduced, ditched, and then brought forth again. It requires plenty of patience to understand the four separate narratives, and to glean an actual understanding of their connections. Yet it is indicative of Hong’s aesthetic and stylistic device that will be seen in Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) that has also been reviewed on this site. The slow pace of the movie makes it frustrating as the audience wills for something to happen. Even if Hong aspires to capture the essence of mundane humdrum nature of everyday life, there is usually much more going on. The muted emotions bottle up, only to be unleashed through sexually explicit scenes that sometimes occur without any distinct purpose. And it is a struggle, indeed, just to keep track of the disparate characters and how their story arc intersects with each other. If anything, this is a movie in which nothing much happens.