Flowers of Shanghai (1998) 海上花

Country: Taiwan
Language: Cantonese, Shanghainese
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Starring: Shuan Fang, Michiko Hada, Hsu An-An, Annie Yee, Jack Kao, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.

Theme: War

Ratings: IMDb: 7.4 /10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Film Festivals:
1998 Cannes Film Festival
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1998 Kerala International Film Festival

Awards:
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Best Art Director / Best Director

1998 Kerala International Film Festival: Golden Crow Pheasant (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Nominations:
1998 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or

Based on the 1892 novel ‘Sing Song Girls of Shanghai’ by Han Bangqing, Flowers of Shanghai is set around 2 strands of narratives – one involving Wang, a rich gentleman caller caught between his long-term lover and new mistress and the other around Emerald, a pompous but popular prostitute who aims to buy her way out of the brothel to freedom. The setting is a brothel in 1880’s Shanghai. Overarching themes of the movie center around power struggles amongst the call girls, the dilemmas faced by the gentlemen callers and the powerful head mistress of the brothel.

Most of the film is shot in the dark with lighting coming from candlelight or oil lamps, casting warm hues of reds and golds. The use of such luminous, natural-light cinematography techniques is a very powerful visual impetus because it creates the type of feel one would get in a brothel back in the 1880’s – which are dark sleazy places that men go to for comfort. Most of the shots in the movie consists of long, widescreen shots that track slowly from side to side, taking in lengthy and whole conversations at once, making the overall pace of the movie very slow, ultimately drawing us into the world of 19th Century Shanghai. It creates a “fly-on-the-wall” effect, which allows us to observe small but privileged moments as well as the intricate details of the settings without interference or commentary (Anderson, 2000).

Even though the movie centers on brothels and call-girls, there is hardly any mention or show of sex or passion. Instead, what we get on-screen are shots of the call girls feeding their clients, stoking their ego and bringing them their opium pipes.

Augmenting the slow paced nature of the film is its tendency to repeat certain things. For example, a particular sound track is repeated several times throughout the film and the movie constantly returns to the main round table where the gentlemen callers wine and dine, while the girls stand behind or sit beside them. I’m not really sure what this represents but the use of such repetitive techniques seem to suggest a sort of circular causality – that these are events that took place because of something and will continue to do so unless something drastic happens. Another thing to add about the musical score is its dreamlike and almost timeless undertone, this combined with the slow narrative and visuals of the show creates an almost hypnotic effect that dulls our senses and draws us deeper into the scenes. Furthermore, every shot in this film is an interior shot; we almost never ever see the outdoors or the sky, not even through the windows.

Overall I must say that I found that Flowers of Shanghai could have been better had the plot and characters been more compelling. But the visuals i.e. colors and costumes are lavishly detailed and the cinematography creates a more than worthy mood for the film and its premise.

By mostly relying on the little schemes and problems between the courtesans and their clients, the movie focuses too much on petty elements which results in a minimal plot, ultimately that makes it hard for us as viewers to be engaged in what is happening on-screen. The fact that the story moves at an incredibly slow speed, combined with the dull dreamy visuals alleviates the pain of sitting through this film. Furthermore, the lack of close-up shots, and restrained physical expressions of the characters make it very hard for viewers to get any sense of their emotional states. It becomes hard to identify with and find any emotional connection with the characters on screen. The end result is an equivocal and distant one.

References

Anderson, J. M. (2000). Combustible Celluloid film review – Flowers of Shanghai. Retrieved on December 6, 2010, from http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/flowshang.shtml

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Pleasure Factory (2007) 快樂工場

Country: Singapore, Thailand
Language: Mandarin, Tagalog, English, Cantonese
Theme: Romance/Erotica
Runtime: 88 minutes
Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Starring: Yang Kuei-mei, Ananda Everingham, Loo Zihan, Katashi Chen, Jeszlene Zhou

Ratings: IMDb: 5.1/10

Film Festivals:
2007 Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard (official selection)
2007 Pusan International Film Festival

Awards: N/A
Nominations: N/A

This is a film that is notable for truly blurring the lines of national ownership. It fully embraces the age of cross-border collaboration and ownership. The director is Ekachai Uekrongtham, a Thai theatre and film director who is based in Singapore and is the founding artistic director of local theatre company ACTION Theatre. His repertoire includes the popular stage musical Chang & Eng. The film is set in Singapore, in particular, its red light district of Geylang. But among the film’s financers are Singapore-based Spicy Apple Films and the Hong Kong-Netherlands company Fortissimo Films aside from Singapore’s InnoForm Media. Amongst the multi-national cast is Taiwanese starlet Yang Kuei-mei (who has appeared in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)). There is up-and-coming actor Ananda Everingham, who has appeared in the Thai horror film Shutter (2004) and the Singapore production The Leap Years (2008), and he himself though born in Thailand, is of Laotian-Australian nationalities. There is also Singaporean writer-director (and ADM alumni) Loo Zihan.

I opted to classify the film both under Thailand and Singapore. Singapore, primarily because there is definitely no shying away from the fact that the story is based there. And Thailand because of Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Thai roots that definitely becomes pertinent in his direction of this film. Unless helmed by Loo Zihan himself, one of the few Singapore directors who is open about his homosexuality and about discussing controversial themes in his movies, Pleasure Factory would certainly have taken a wholly different angle. Uekrongtham’s involvement, however, has lead to an unusual masterpiece in South-East Asian cinema that embraces traditionally taboo topics such as prostitution, same-sex relationships, and that features explicit male nudity. The film was selected under the Un Certain Regard section of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

Pleasure Factory revolves around three distinct stories set around the theme of “pleasure seekers and pleasure providers”. They involve the young army cadet, Jonathan (Loo Zihan) who wants to make the passage to manhood by engaging the services of a prostitute to help him lose his virginity, a young teenage girl (Isabella Chen) who gets initiated into the monotonous pleasure-manufacturing process of the brothel, and the jaded prostitute, Linda (Yang Kuei-Mei) who pays a young busker for a song that he never gets to sing. These three stories are later united as the characters visit the same roadside stall, a characteristic feature of Geylang.

The film’s cinema vérité shooting style adds to the realism and spontaneity of the film. Despite its provocative theme or title, the film does not sensationalize or offer gratuitous amounts of nudity just for the sake of it. Neither does it border on cliché eroticism; instead what we get is the characters moving around in the genuine environment of Geylang. We as viewers are captivated by their emotional conflicts and turmoil rather than what goes on outside. An example is a key scene where Jonathan “prepares” himself while the female prostitute takes a shower. We are treated to a full three-minute sequence of the nude man shifting his body into different positions and trying to stimulate himself for her. His insecurities that are purveyed through these little actions are what makes the film so real – it pays attention to the minute details and does not attempt to gloss over any perculiarities or trivial habits. The lack of stylistic perspectives that typical films use makes Pleasure Factory a very raw and compelling watch. Further, a heavy reliance on visual language creates a minimalist feel.

Further, there is a notable lack of dialogue and music throughout the course of the film, probably to help in the creation of a more realistic feel and also add to the emotional tension between the characters. The director of Pleasure Factory says in an interview, “To me, what was really nice was the silence, the silences at the right time, because I think the film requires you to be part of the process. What we try to do is to make a film that allows the audiences to discover at the same time as the characters.” (Tan, 2007).

But the film does not focus solely on the sex trade plying around Geylang that has given the district its notoriety. Rather, it proffers a multitude of perspectives, befitting as Geylang is not just about the prostitutes. It’s a bustling and thriving community of people, driven by the desire to survive and make ends meet, and this multitude of perspectives is conveyed through the different characters and stories entwined throughout the entire film.

A personal qualm is that the movie comes across as rather disjointed at times. Midway through the movie, for instance, Uekrongtham inserted two excerpts of interviews he did with real people who work in Geylang via a documentary style footage. This sticks out of the running narrative like a sore thumb, There does not appear to be any clear motivation surrounding for doing so, and neither did it run in congruence with the rest of the film. It is, however, tempting to postulate that this is because of the need to pander to international audiences, and to bring them further into Geylang as a community.

Finally, the open-ended narrative style adopted runs the risk of viewers failing to develop any sense of emotional attachment with the characters. Rather, the viewer is the aloof onlooker that judges and criticizes without any feeling or empathy. This is a pity as emotional engagement is important to relate to the characters in any film. At the end of the day, Pleasure Factory may come across as being too vague and aloof, stylistically brilliant but lacking a certain innate oomph.

References

Tan, V. (2007, May 27). Channel NewsAsia: Singapore film on Geylang sex workers debuts to full house at Cannes. Retrieved on December 2, 2010, from: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/entertainment/view/278745/1/.html


The Hole (1998) 洞

Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese
Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Running Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Yang Kuei-Mei, Lee Kang-sheng

Theme: Culture (People-People Relations)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.6/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 80%

Film Festivals:
1998 Cannes Film Festival
1998 Chicago International Film Festival
1999 Singapore International Film Festival
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival

Awards:
1998 Cannes Film Festival: FIPRESCI Prize
(for its daring combination of realism and apocalyptic vision, desperation and joy, austerity and glamour)
1998 Chicago International Film Festival: Gold Hugo for Best Film
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Actress (Yang Kuei-Mei, for the subtlety and sophistication of her performance in the role of a woman determined to hurdle the stresses of urban life)
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Director (Tsai Ming-Liang, for his creation of a new cinematic expression which challenges the very meaning of human existence)
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Feature Film (for its intelligent exploration of the spectrum of human experience in both dismal reality as well as in the realm of imagination)
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival: Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver

Nominations:
1998 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival: Best Film

The Hole (1998) is a morose tale of how two strangers living in close proximity to each other are forced to acknowledge each other’s existence in what are perverse conditions of that time. It is the turn of the new millennium, and while jitters abound at that time with regard to the unleash of the Y2K bug that might potentially create havoc within computer systems all around the world, in The Hole it takes the form of a strange disease. Setting the mood is the never-ending typhoon rain that lashes down outside the apartment where most of the scenes occur in, a scenario at once depressing and further accentuating the humdrum ordinary existence of the two individuals. They live in their own pads, leading their own separate unexceptional lives, and their own mediocre existence rearing its ugly head in a lonely comme ci, comme ça state. The taciturn duo are neighbors in an apartment block, with the man living above the woman, and their lodging is not only bijou, but also in a mess. As the saying goes ‘there is no place like home’, but the two lead characters look like they’d rather be someplace else, only having to return there because of the average nature of their respective lives.

Their names are never given much prominence throughout the show, and if I am not wrong, we never learn the name of Yang Kuei-Mei who acts as the woman living downstairs. The man upstairs, in a wonderful turn by Lee Kang-sheng, is Hsiao-kang, and this is only revealed through necessary dialogue that exists in his everyday life. We have also explored such an added veil of anonymity in The Taste of Cherry (1997) by Abbas Kiarostami in which the motivation of the protagonist’s intent to commit suicide is hidden, whilst in Raise the Red Lantern (1991) by Zhang Yimou the face of the husband remains obscured for the entire show. What this serves to add, aside from the facetious reason of adding to an aura of mystique, is to create a sense of detachment of the viewer from what is going on onscreen. Of course, the director runs the risk of alienating the audience from the fare on screen, but what eventually prevails is the subtlety and sophistication of powerful performances with attention dedicated to minute detail as the characters go through the stresses of urban life. Their drab surroundings, indeed, as the film notes of the 1999 Singapore International Film Festival write, “challenge(s) the very meaning of human existence” in an “intelligent exploration of the spectrum of human experience in both dismal reality as well as in the realm of imagination”.

The woman downstairs is prone to escapism tendencies. She has her own song-and-dance routine in her daydreams, where she performs à la a caberet dancer, perhaps her only form of expression in an otherwise repressive and apocalyptic world. A plumber arrives at Hsiao-Kang’s apartment to check the pipes, in an event that strangely involves the drilling of a small hole into the ceiling of the woman downstairs. And this is Hsiao-Kang’s moment of respite. The hole becomes a rubbish chute, it becomes an avenue for him to dangle his legs and engage in a myriad of weird stuff that hinges on the brink of insanity. And it becomes an avenue for him to spy on his neighbor.

There is minimal dialogue throughout the dreary show. The characters keep to themselves in spite of (or because of) the apocalyptic conditions they find themselves in. Many long takes that envelope the shadows and dreariness of the apartment and the man’s store, cast in muted hues of mostly whites, fluorescent blues, greys, and blacks create a sense of alienation and loneliness, with the exception of the dance sequences that explode in a flurry of colors.

The strange disease continually lurks in the shadows of everyday existence, and the severity of it all a foreshadow of the subsequent SARS that impacted the region several years on. In what is tantamount to an epidemic, we see how little help is given to these lost and aimless struggling residents. They were ordered to evacuate the rundown apartment they put up in, but they chose to stay put – how little power the government can exert over their citizens in times of such epidemic where quarantine is necessary is indeed baffling and perhaps a running thread that begs investigation. As the walls (or floors) crumble, what’s left of the reclusive human existence can only be oneself. A brutal satire of the lack of communication fuelled by the technological age with everyone isolated in their own bubble fantasies, this absurdity of everyday life has never been clearer through the polarization as in this scene.

 

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) / S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge

Country: Cambodia
Language: Khmer/Vietnamese
Theme: War
Runtime: 101 minutes
Director: Rithy Panh
Starring: Chum Mey, Vann Nath

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.1/10

Film Festivals:
2003 Cannes Film Festival
2003 Toronto International Film Festival
2003 New York Film Festival
2003 Vancouver International Film Festival
2003 Chicago International Film Festival
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival

Awards:
2003 Cannes Film Festival: Prix François Chalais
2003 Chicago International Film Festival: Best Documentary
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Jury Special Prize
2003 European Film Awards: Best Documentary
2003 Leipzig DOK Festival: FIPRESCI Prize, Golden Dove
2004 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema: Human Rights Award
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival: Humanitarian Award

Nominations:
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Golden Swan

A comparison between S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) by Rithy Panh and Waltz with Bashir (2008) by Ari Folman seems pertinent here. Both films deal with wartime atrocities and massacre, with the former on the Khmer Rouge massacre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia of the 1970s, and the latter on the Palestine slaughter in Israel in the 1980s. Both films involve directors who were involved in, and who survived their respective ordeals. Yet both films cannot be more different in terms of their stylistic treatment and aesthetics.

Waltz with Bashir is a highly stylistic animation film full of lush colors, crisp lines and catchy music that draws attention right from the start, before presenting the reality with strong impact by a cutaway to actual news footage showing the grieving citizens of the time. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, however, is a very down-to-earth documentary that casts a spotlight into the Khmer Rouge regime that occurred in remote Kampuchea of the 1970s, a historical incident that is slowly fading into the international shadows of obscurity with the passing of time and tide. With little media attention and Cambodia being pretty much off the radar on the international scale, this is not surprising despite the Khmer Rouge regime being one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century that has left at least a quarter of Cambodians dead.

Waltz with Bashir creates impact largely through playing with contrast, but the straightforward approach taken by S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is in my opinion equally, if not, downright more chilling. Rithy Panh survived the regime, and the director, who presently resides in Paris (France appears to be the ideal country for these war-stricken directors to seek asylum), returns to his hometown to seek answers in a straightforward interview face-off that brought together two of only around a dozen survivors of the S21 prison against their captors. This is what makes the film so intense, the survivors confronting their captors who once engaged in incomprehensible evil and trying to seek answers out of them.

The difference is stark. Age has caught up with these alleged wartime criminals who are, today, old and into their golden years. Vanh Nath’s saving grace was his artistic talent and his ability to paint realistic portraits of the war generals, and today he looks jaded with his head full of white hair. The other survivor, Chum Mey, broke down at the mere sight of the building, restored as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today, and could not bear to face the violent history and the ghosts of his past (“We suffered so much. Don’t think about it. My wife, my children… I’ve lost everything” (12:46)). And it takes a lot to watch a grown man break down. Meanwhile, their former captors back then are all middle-aged today, being barely teenagers when they were recruited into the regime.

In a tour around the museum, the previous captors chillingly recounted scenarios of their routines in the past. They unflinchly re-enact scenes where they beat prisoners, give them food, deprive them of food, and send them for execution. They complain over having to clean up after these prisoners, how they stank and how the trucks that shipped them to the execution grounds usually end up reeking of poo and urine. Worst, they appear unrepentant, brainwashed by the regime of the past that sought to create a Communist agrarian utopia into thinking that this was for the best. They do not stop to consider the implications of their past actions, and when the angered Vanh Nath—veins literally popping out of his neck as he struggles to control his emotions—confront them on what they make of their past deeds, they shy away from owning up to them by saying that there wasn’t any choice. But one can’t help but feel that it runs deeper than that, their bonechilling re-enactments suggestive of the fact that such torture and torment have been inbred into the recesses of their dehumanized soul, and that they still think that it is legitimate and even normal. (“When the Party makes an arrest, it arrests an enemy of the Party. Even husbands, wifves, children. The Party, S21, never made arrests by mistake” (29:43)), with one showing apparent remorse (“I was arrogant, I had power over the enemy. I saw him as an animal. I didn’t think. My heart never checked my brain, never stopped my hands and feet from striking” (37:41) / “Today when I think about it, it was against the law” (1:29:44)) as the camera pans away from the interrogator and casts a harsh light upon the captor.

The camera switches between medium shots that capture the vastness of the larger rooms, with the prisoner numbering of the wall bearing an indication of how packed these rooms once were despite its size, and the close-ups of the smaller cells where prisoners deemed to be trouble were sent to “repent”, by which a sense of claustrophobia was evoked. Adding to that are the numerous scenes that are framed from outside the prison grilles (51:26). The camera zooms in on the detailed records of the prison, including photographs to jolt memories. Interviews are honest: “They were putting a rope around our necks and pulling us along, like cattle. We cannot hear anyone except our own footsteps. They’d kick anyone who fell. And we obeyed, they laughed. Just like blind men!” (08:46)

This film has won numerous international humanitarian prizes, and was the catalyst leading up to a confession about the Cambodian Civil War after years of public denial. A slight pity, though, that the short black & white grainy news footage shown at the beginning of the film (00:54) was in sufficient to create the context required to fully appreciate or understand the film, which cuts straight to the chase. But one takeaway from the film is without doubt the similarities of the incident with the Fascist propaganda of the Nazis that led to the Holocaust. A single influential person could possess enough power to yield control of the minds of key individuals in a population that could lead to a massacre against dissidents. And one might perhaps even draw parallels to the ongoing Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea, or even among the militant Islam extremist terrorists plaguing the world.

The Housemaid (2010) 하녀

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Im Sang-soo
Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Seo Woo, Yoon Yeo-jeong, Ahn Seo-hyeon, Park Ji-young
Theme: Family/Aging, Romance/Erotica

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.7/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 50%

Film Festivals:
2010 Cannes Film Festival: In Competition
2010 Toronto International Film Festival
2010 Fantastic Fest
2010 Pusan International Film Festival
2010 Sitges Film Festival
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival
2010 Philadelphia Film Festival
2010 The London-Korean Film Festival

Awards:
2010 Daejong Film Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong)
2010 Critics Choice Awards: Best Music
2010 Korean Film Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong)
2010 Blue Dragon Film Awars: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong) / Best Art Direction

Im Sang-soo’s The Household (2010) is a contemporary remake of the 1960 classic thriller by Kim Ki-young of the same name that was recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. In the half a century that has transcended between the two films, a mammoth sociological shift had taken place in South Korea. According to director Im Sang-soo who revealed in his interviews, this is the reason behind the different caste background of the families in the two films. The original takes place among the rising middle class of the 1960s, while the remake is set in a luxurious upper-class environment, a timely update that is more relatable given the rich nation today.

The maid is Eun-yi (the effervescent Jeon Do-yeon, who once won Best Actress at Cannes for her role in Secret Sunshine (2007)), hired as a servant for Hae Ra (Seo Woo) who is pregnant with twins, and her rich husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), with a precocious daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon). Hoon flirts with Eun-yi, enticing her with high-couture symbols like the piano—which takes on central significance in the original but remains on the sideline as a sheer prop in this remake—and they begin a sexual relationship. Hoon is horny and likes to be in control in bed, his perverse erotic fetishes shine through in a scene with him having anal sex with his very pregnant wife. He lies naked on bed with his wife on top of him upon penetration. He spreads his arms out wide in a symbolism of being in charge as Christ allegories take over, in a direct reference to the prominent image of Christ on the cross. Hoon is wine-loving and visits Eun-yi in the middle of the night in his bathrobe or underwear. Palpable sexual tension manifests, and the camera at one point of time does an extreme close-up of an intense sexual sequence that pans across the two sweaty bodies gyrating against each other as they make love. Hoon’s hunky tanned frame fills the frame as he lies on top of Eun-yi’s chaste body. The whole sequence is erotic. “I’m about to cum. Can I do it inside you?” Hoon asks.

Eun-yi remains warm with Hoon’s wife, Hae Ra, but their clandestine relationship is outed by the older maid Byeong-sik (Yoon Yeo-jeong), who sees everything that is going on in the vast premises ot the house. She struggles to hang onto her clout gained from her experience, and we know that within her warped mind of her own she fantasizes over having Hoon to herself, her jealousy shining through in her betrayal of Eun-yi, and her regret compounding that in the finale. In a story of twists and turns, Eun-yi gets pregnant, and Hae Ra realizes that her love for children means that she will never abort the baby. Thus the wife plots and scams against Eun-yi, poisoning her stash of herbal medicine that she takes everyday. A gory scene ensues, with the topdown camera causing Eun-yi to seem small as it captures the solitary bathtub in the middle of the toilet, and a naked Eun-yi bleeding from her womb. She hangs herself from the chandelier in the middle of the living room to which she once clung onto for dear life having been sabotaged by the mother-in-law, before lighting her body on fire in front of the family.

The movie is in fact split into three distinct segments, each with a strong aesthetic treatment of its own. Casting a spotlight on present-day Korea is the opening scene that uses the cinema vérité technique in capturing a suicide. We do not know the significance of this suicide, but we see it transposed against the affluent society of modern Korea with cutaways to luxury labels in a grainy shot that documents the shock surrounding the death.

The bulk of the movie that revolves around the dynamics of the house is filmed with a more matter-of-fact aesthetic, using established camera angles and framing techniques to portray the vast size of the house in contrast with the emotional shifts of the characters. The house closes in on the viewer, the walls creating a lonely claustrophobia in spite of the vastness, as the characters are seen walking through the emptiness of the house. Loneliness seems to be the price of luxury.

The final scene captures the family a few years after the tragedy that is Eun-yi’s death. The family appears to have been psychologically scarred by that moment, and the ghost of Eun-yi lives on around them. We see Hoon speaking in English throughout this scene rather than his mother tongue Korean. We note the vivid, quirky colors the scene is captured in, and the eccentricities of this surrounding is further compounded by the outfit of the family. It is Nami’s birthday, and the “Happy Birthday” song that is sung is cold, emotionless, and wintry.

It is debatable whether or not such an upgrade in social class to be more relevant is even necessary, but this is perhaps not the main cause of the rift this remake has created. While the film went to Cannes, Im Sang-soo has caused vast divides in opinion with respect to this film. Some accuse it for not being truthful and respecting of the original in terms of the motives and intentions of the characters, with some critics going as far as to claim that this film should be a standalone rather than a “remake” as it is hardly faithful to the original. The 1960 classic has gone down cinematic history for its “bold, disturbing look at lust, greed, and revenge.” (Tan, 2010), centering on the maid as the seductress of the husband. The maid was devious, wielding sexual control and ill-treating his materialistic pregnant wife and two children. Rather the modern update has the husband being the seductor of the maid in a paradigmic shift of intent and a reversal of personalities. The maid reciprocates, indeed, but the husband remains in control, wielding his power over the innocent maid. The maid also forges an unlikely bond with the child who does not judge her by her social status or background – unlike the wealthy family she works for who disapproves of her lower-class status.

References

Tan, E. (2010, October 22). Report Card: The Housemaid (2010). Retrieved November 25, 2010, from http://filmnomenon2.blogspot.com/2010/10/housemaid-2010.html

Spring Fever (2009) 春風沉醉的晚上

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Lou Ye
Starring: Qin Hao, Chen Sicheng, Tan Zhuo, Wu Wei, Jiang Jiaqi
Theme: LGBT Issues

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.4/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 50% | Metacritic: 64/100

Film Festivals:
2009 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
2009 Cannes Film Festival: Best Screenplay

Nominations:
2009 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or

I thought it worthy to catch this movie in the theatres during its limited run given its numerous accolades at Cannes 2009 serving as a backdrop to the film. There is French investment and support in this film that Lou Ye released in spite of a five-year ban imposed on filmmaking given his involvement in the seminal Summer Palace (2006) which portrayed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres in a pro-democratic light. And this is evident through the French subtitles included with the film. Further, it is noteworthy that the film was shot discreetly amidst the drab industrial landscape of Nanjing using a video recorder, and then transferred onto the 35mm format. This nondescript measure is characteristic of the Sixth Generation filmmaking wave that Lou Ye himself is a part of. Using the documentary style of cinema vérité, the film appears to be a biographical story of the lead characters. The style’s jarring nature taking on heightened relevance given the underground and taboo homosexual relationships the protagonists find themselves engaged in. Natural lighting is used throughout the film, which means most of the intense sex sequences for instance that take place are poorly-lit, save for the minimal moonshine that casts a bluish glow within the room. The audience becomes the voyeur—or the peeping tom even—glimpsing into their psyches and peeping at their intimate actions. Lending credence to this whole indie, underground edgy feel is the typography used at the start of the film that is a throwback to Chinese films of the 1960s era, and which fits perfectly with the extreme grain and noise of the shots.

The opening shot is of flower petals in a pond, and the literary allegories are evident. Referencing a 1923 work by Chinese author Yu Dafu, the voiceover regales “Drunken nights without hope, like this one: I spend them wandering outside until the sky grows pale.” The camera cuts away to a shot that focuses on the scenery outside a moving vehicle, the fast-moving trees and the shaky shots creating a jarring nauseating sense right from the start that persists throughout the film. We see the male leads holding hands in the car, peeing by the river as they exit the car, and sharing an intimate smooch in public. This is also perhaps the happiest moment of the brooding film, an instant of unbridled joy and ecstasy at being in the embrace of a loved one. The scene is “dissonant and jarring, the film’s sounds and images oscillate between lust and frustration, and as the past and present are hauntingly blurred, so too are the identities of the story’s characters.” (Gonzalez, 2010). Later, as the couple engages in sensual acts in public grounds like a bookstore, it all appears brief, fleeting and unfulfilling. Allegories to nature are evident, and the handheld camera focuses a lot on rain pattering on the roofs outside, the lotus roots, etc. The first instance of trouble beckons when we see a camera-toting photographer spying on the intimate actions and snapping some shots, and we soon learn that one of the characters are married and he is a private investigator hired by a jealous wife who suspects infidelity, but not expecting it to be with another man. There is confrontation, there is embarrassment, and there is shaming.

Fast forward to a series of nightclub scenes, and we see a more gritty misè-en-scène with loads of color and campy music. The lead Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) is a crossdresser who sings in the nightclub, albeit a very bad tone deaf one because his singing was, really, unbearable. The private investigator, Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) trails Jiang to the nightclub and unwittingly discovers his bisexual tendencies and falls in love with the protagonist during his moment of fraililty at having undergone a nasty fight with his lover, Wang Ping (Wu Wei) over his wife. We see Luo Haitao engaging in scenes with Jiang Cheng that parallel the original relationship between Jiang and Wang – a shower scene being the most affective with the two characters in the bathroom sharing erotic moments of soaping each other and kissing. But Luo also has a girlfriend, and Jiang chooses to let her come in between the two of them this time round in light of what happened during the original relationship. They share moments of passion when the girlfriend is not around, but is caught in the act. The pop ditty by Pu Shu and covered by Fan Weiqi “那些花兒“ (loosely translated as Those Flowers) is the theme of this movie, with the lyrics bearing a direct reference to the story thread and the frequent flower lotus references made (“The flowers have been blown away by the wind and scattered in the horizon”)

Wang Ping soon commits suicide at the top of a picturesque and deserted hill, much to the loss of Jiang Cheng who ditched him, and to the agony of his wife Li Jing (Tan Zhuo) – how how foolish she must have been that her confrontations would have done good for the relationship. In what is an exceptionally gory scene in the climax, Li JIng attacks Jiang Cheng in public, and the subsequent scene provides an insight into the apparent apathy of the mainland Chinese public as Jiang Cheng lies on the road, bleeding, with nary a soul willing to stop and help, all opting to stare instead.

Au (2010) brings up a pertinent continuity issue in the disparity in tension between the first half of the story that was abandoned in the second half, as Luo Haitao was the single individual who disrupted Jiang Cheng’s first relationship, and the entire guilt or irony this must have encompassed was totally ignored when he himself got involved. Work remains work, one might say, but this argument is, really, tangible at best.

The film is undoubtedly arthouse, and a very disjointed one at that. The ban means that China has cut all ties with the production of this film, and it was registered as a Hong Kong/French co-production instead, despite the director being Chinese. Such a tactic to bypass the Chinese censors is certainly noteworthy and interesting, as this precedent may provide an avenue for future directors to address more controversial topics and be able to work outside the purview of the Chinese censorship board. The film captures the meandering nature of the Chinese homosexual, driven by purposeless eroticism and sex and drifting through the motions of life as they struggle to come to terms with themselves.

References

Au, A. (2010, November 19). Amnesia of the sensual: the film Spring Fever. Retrieved on November 25, 2010, from http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/amnesia-of-the-sensual-the-film-spring-fever/

Gonzalez, E. (2010, August 1). Spring fever. Retrieved on November 25 2010, from http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/spring-fever/4925

Memories of Murder (2003) 살인의 추억

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Runtime: 127 minutes
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roe-ha, Park Hae-il, Byeon Hee-bong

Theme: Crime

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Film Festivals:
2003 Cannes Film Festival

2003 Hawaii International Film Festival
2003 London International Film Festival
2003 Tokyo International Film Festival
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival

Awards:
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival – Best New Director / FIPRESCI Prize (for giving new insight into the roots of political repression in a dictatorship under the guise of the hunt for a serial killer) / Silver Seashell
2003 Cognac Festival du Film Policier – Audience Award/Grand Prix/Prix Médiathèques/Special Prize of the Police
2003 South Korean Grand Bell Awards – Best Actor (Song Kang-ho) / Best Director / Best Film
2003 Tokyo International Film Festival – Asian Film Award
2003 Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – Audience Award / Holden Award for Best Script

Nominations:
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival – Golden Seashell

There is something appealing about movies surrounding true unsolved murder cases that draws me to them. Cinema carries the innate capability of re-enacting incidents and capturing such emotions at its rawest. The murderer has escaped scot free, injustice has not been served, and simply put, he/she is still lurking out there. It is tempting to mention other movies like Zodiac (2007) by David Fincher, an award-winning serial killer film that has garnered plenty of accolades, which is based on the investigations surrounding the Zodiac Killer who operated around the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, claiming 37 murders in his letters to newspapers that comprise of alphabets snipped from media publications. Four decades on, the case still remains unsolved. Or, there is also The Black Dahlia (2006) that premiered at Venice, and which is based on the murder of Elizabeth Short, a waitress who was gruesomely murdered in 1947, the unsolved murder having fuelled many books and film adaptations.

And before these films there was Memories of Murder (2003) that premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival. Based on a true story set in 1986 South Korea, a land under militia rule, the case has been publicized as South Korea’s first serial killer case. And yes, what is alluring about the movie is how the case remains unsolved, more than two decades on. This unique time and context indeed provides a breath of fresh air from the typical big-city setting of many films of this ilk. The tumultuous political period has led to poor policial reforms and management, leading to the scot-free escape of this murderer. Further to that, a lack of forensic technology in South Korea back in those days bears an imprint on how DNA test samples have to be shipped to the United States or to Japan to be examined, thus proving to be an impedent to the solving of the case. Even in the middle of a murder investigation, we see life at its most banal as Bong intersperses elements that sum up the livelihood at that era. The establishing shot captures a boy in the meadows, chasing after a grasshopper (01:23). The vastness of the plains and the mountains as the backdrop with nary a skyscraper in sight shows the poverty that reigns under the regime. There is no real order, plenty of unrest, and the police holds no authority whatsoever over the townsfolk who has no qualms about visiting the crime scene and trampling over all the evidence. In what are certainly caveman antics, Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) of the judiciary resorts to torture methods to force confessions out of his suspects. In a sign of times, the law actually allows that. But his methods that will be deemed controversial, unethical and downright cruel today, obviously run afoul of reality when the murders persist despite having forced the confessions out of several suspects. The police chief appears as clueless, and he does not appear to possess any innate ability to study the evidence of the case. Rather, he clamors for media glory, for his name to be linked to the solving of a big-name case. Alas, that glory is not to come.

With a lack of technique, enter Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) from Seoul who has volunteered for transfer to the rural village in a bid to solve the case. And in all matters of dissonance the handsome, laconic, taciturn big-city detective looks down upon the primitive techniques of the small-town policemen (“Documents never lie”, 52:40, though in a later line his own primitive instincts take over when he says “This document is a lie” 1:57:50). He tries to take charge of the case, he comes up with powerful clues by his own effort that his rural counterpart (“You don’t know this town, that’s why you talk nonsense”, 33:23 / “All perverts are like that. But my eyes cannot be fooled. One look and I know”, 1:08:44) could only grudgingly admit as valid—that the murderer has a modus operandi of striking only on rainy nights, and his victims decked in red outfits. They severally scare the autistic boy such that he runs into the path of an oncoming train and is killed, thereby losing their only lead. This dogged determination however proving to be his subsequent downfall as he becomes unable to deal with setbacks and with the reality that his methods may have proven lacking as well. We see similarities amid the vast differences. Both characters are prone to jumping to their own conclusions. In the scene where a factory worker decked in red underwear strips off and masturbates in the park (1:02:00), his heavy torchlight casting shaky shadows as he jerks off, we see the detectives assume he’s the murderer just on the basis of this pervertic action. Detective Park tortures him into a confession with ugly repercussions. In what is a blatant comparison between old-school patience and city efficiencies, Detective Seo evidently snaps when his conviction was proven wrong with inconclusive DNA evidence.

The tone is set in the opening sequence as a small boy crouches in a wheat field seemingly aware that something is going on. We only later learn of his autism, and his daredevil ways at parroting the police officer hard at work while they both look on at the bound legs of a woman’s body. Such attention to minute detail is eminent in Bong Joon-ho’s later works such as Mother (2009), and serves to add flavor to this film. Every little detail “is so real and unusual that it makes the scene jump off the screen at you” (Hunter, 2010). Detective Park bought the autistic kid a pair of shoes to make up for his earlier trauma at forcing a confession out of him, and the shoe takes on special significance at (1:42) when the kid gets knocked down by the train, with it bloodied and cast aside by the railway tracks.

Bong Joon-ho must be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite contemporary directors, given how both of his works – Memories of Murder (2003) and his monster follow-up The Host (2006) were both named in his Top 20 Favorite Movies since 1992 list.

 

References

Hunter, S. (2005, July 29) ‘Memories of Murder’: From Korea, a True Original. Retrieved on November 17, 2010, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/28/AR2005072802188.html