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


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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

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) 오! 수정

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Theme: Romance/Erotica
Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Lee Eun-ju, Moon Sung-keun

Ratings: IMDB: 7.0/10

Film Festivals:
2000 Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard
2000 Asia-Pacific Film Festival (APFF)
2000 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF)
2001 Singapore International Film Festivkal (SIFF)

Awards:
2000 APFF Best Screenplay
2000 TIFF Asian Film Award: Special Mention
2000 TIFF Special Jury Prize

Nominated:
2001 SIFF Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Feature Film

This film by South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is a comedy-drama that is significant for its use of black & white cinematography, a rarity—and a quirky trait even—given the modern day color cinematic technologies. Yet another unique editing feature is how this movie is packaged in the form of a novel, with chapters and sub-chapters separating each disparate portion of the film. Parallel editing structures are used, with the core of the movie revolving around the courtship and romance of art gallery owner Jae-Hoon (Moon Sung-keun) and scriptwriter Soo-jung (Lee Eun-ju).

We see identical scenes occurring in Chapter One (Day’s Wait) and Chapter Four (Naught Shall Go Ill When You Find Your Mare), but taking on different perspectives in each chapter. The movie opens from Jae-Hoon’s perspective and casts light on his inner desires, before adopting Soo-jung’s perspective of the affair in the later half of the movie. There are slight differences in the recount on both parts, and what actually happened is, really, anyone’s guess. But this also means that identical scenes are featured in the film, with identical dialogue, such as at 06:11, the scene outside the art gallery. Further, the hotel room conversation at 04:10 is recaptured at 55:40, albeit from a different perspective. The first scene captures Jae-hoon with Soo-jung over the phone while the latter captures Soo-jung with Jae-hoon over the phone, whilst Hong intersperses this scene with a cutaway of Jae-hoon sitting by the coffee table in his hotel room to crystalise and exemplify the concept.

The still shot at 11:00 as we see Jae-hoon and several students staring and gossiping about something that is occurring in the distance. We can only focus on their gaze that leads beyond the camera. We soon realize it is a film scene, and the camera cuts away to Soo-jung walking down a path, framed towards the extreme right of the picture. This pivotal scene which involves Soo-jung picking up the winter gloves Jae-hoon accidentally left behind is repeated later on, albeit from Soo-jung’s point of view of picking up the winter gloves.

Jae-hoon makes his feelings known to Soo-jung through a forced kiss at 18:17, a clandestine action that goes on behind the back of their mutual friend Young-soo, who also has the hots for Soo-jung. Hong uses an off-center framing as Soo-jung warily follows the male protagonist, who wanted to show her something interesting and funny, down the very dark alleyway. She stops and hides in the shadows, before slowly backing towards the light and waiting. This creates an impression that even though she knows her actions are perhaps improper deep down, she was ready to commit to Jae-hoon in spite of all that she is vocally saying. If she wasn’t commital, Hong would perhaps have made the directorial decision to have Soo-jung turn around and walk away, or remain cast in the shadows to create a greater sense of rape, forced action and secrecy.

At 28:25 she volunteers to be his girlfriend only when he drinks – and this is shown through his more humane and less eccentric ways when he is slightly tipsy. The camera remains still and focused on the faces of the two characters as the taxi brings them to their destination – a cutaway shows them in a park sharing an intimate moment, in the shadows – an indication of Jae-hoon’s wish for the relationship to remain discrete (28:40). The scene is absolutely silent save for the ambient chirping of crickets in the background. Contrast this with Soo-jung’s later interpretation of the two sharing an intimate moment in the lighted foreground, an indication of a will to be open about their relationship (1:24:13)

Yet there are several cinematic decisions that has left me baffled. While differences in story plot and actions do prevail throughout the story, there are other minor differences that confused me and I can’t determine their significance to the study. For instance, in the dinner scene at 07:41, we see a still camera frame as the characters discuss paintings and the trust the two male characters place on each other. The three characters in the foreground are in focus while two other customers fill the empty space in the background with their meal. Yet the scene that directly complements it at 1:03:07 shows that the customers have left and the shop assistant clearing up the dirty dishes instead — could this be sheer happenstance, a discontinuity that was overlooked?Also, by my film notes (and unless I have really been quite inattentive), Jae-Hoon (the name of the male protagonist)’s name was only introduced midway through the show – but I am unable to make of any reason for it.

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is ultimately a very sexually suggestive movie with dialogue littered with sexual innuendoes and plenty of sexually-charged scenes throughout the film. Soo-jung, for instance, is accustomed to not wearing a bra during winter, and the camera captures via a medium shot both the tender action of Jae-hoon licking her nipples and the violent thrusts of Soo-jung masturbating the latter mid-way through the movie. Soo-jung is a virgin who throughout the film appears unwilling to give up her virginity to Jae-hoon. The camera captures his hand strategically placed under her skirt, and the audience can logically complete the mental image that he is feeling up her vagina. Examples of suggestive dialogue exchanges in the movie include: “This is all you want to do” / “You’ve got my breasts, haven’t you?”. Later on, there are lines such as: “I want to suck your whole body. Every inch. I want to sleep with you.” “Really?” “Yes” “I want to do it too”. Lastly, we know Soo-Jung gives up her virginity through the violent thrusting action of anal sex in one of the climactic scenes. Jae-hoon guides her along as she screams in pain, making sure he remains conscious throughout the process to prevent the error of calling out a wrong name as he did earlier.

Yet there is a notable absence of one cinematic device that has frequently been used to convey the sexually-fuelled scenes: that of cigarettes and the act of smoking. Rather, Hong opts for a more linguistic and visual approach than such a semiotic function. Testament to the quirky nature of the film is the light-hearted soundtrack that is used virtually throughout the film, ranging from the light-hearted children’s folk beats as the credit rolls at the start of the film, as well as the music used whilst transcending the different chapters.

It is unfortunate that leading female actress Lee Eun-ju would commit suicide five years after the release of this film following her involvement in The Scarlet Letter (2004). Passing on virtually at the peak of her career at the age of 24 following notable performances in Brotherhood (2004), The Scarlet Letter (2004), Bungee Jumping of Their Own (2001) and this film, I cannot help but wonder if she will one day take on the legendary prominence and impact that Ruan Ling-yu had on the Hong Kong film industry in the 1930s. Granted that Ruan Ling-yu was much more prolific in the number of films she was involved in, both stars are similar in their realistic portrayals of subtle nuances in everyday characters. Yet whether the huge churn of actors and actresses today would have rendered such a death insignificant and perhaps even forgettable remains to be seen.

Empire of Passion (1978) 愛の亡霊

Country: Japan
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 104 minutes
Starring: Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Tatsuya Fuji, Takahiro Tamura, Takuzo Kawatani, Akiko Koyama
Theme: Romance/Erotica, Crime

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.9/10

Film Festivals:
1978 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
1978 Cannes Film Festival: Best Director
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Music Score

Nominated:
1978 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film, Best Lighting, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actress

The Empire of Passion (1978) is Japan’s official submission to the 51st Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film award, although it missed out on a nomination in the end. Yet the controversial director did pickup the Best Director gong at Cannes for this film. It is definitely noteworthy this is Oshima’s follow-up film to In the Realm of the Senses (1976), the film that directly taunts the censorship board with full-frontal explicit nudity, unsimulated sexual sequences and several unflinching bone chilling scenes that involve the shoving of a hard-boiled egg up a woman’s vagina and the severance of a man’s penis in its full glory. Comparatively, Empire of Passion is a much milder offering, though the international attention that In the Realm of the Senses received would definitely have helped thrust—no pun intended—The Empire of Passion into international spotlight. It is noteworthy that Director Oshima opts to keep faith with the male lead from In the Realm of the Senses, Tatsuya Fuji, who plays the protagonist in this film as well. There is this innate physical quality to Fuji’s look that makes his portrayal of the attractive, horny, philandering male so alluring and convincing – he turned in a decent performance as the master who falls in love with his servant in In the Realm of the Senses, and was equally convincing here as the young man who falls for – and rapes — a much older woman in this film.

The Empire of Passion is also Oshima’s only foray into “horror” in his prolific filmography, with the supernatural elements involved that yields an arresting mix that involve eroticism as well. The ghastly appearances of the deceased husband create several spooky moments that can rival those in a full-fledged horror movie that Japan would become famous for several decades later. Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is a 41-year-old working-class mother who falls in love with the 26-year-old Toyoji (Fuji), and they begin an affair surreptitiously behind the back of her rickshaw-puller husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) away from the watchful eyes of the close-knit village. Their initial exchanges were that of open flirting, and when Gisaburo at one point of time questioned whether Toyoji might have taken a fancy for Seki, became more discreet. One day, Toyoji forced himself on Seki in a rape sequence that ended in Seki relishing the process and desiring for more, as opposed to the conventional norms of hysteria that rape victims typically end up in. That marked the turning point as they grew closer and closer in an infidelity that sees them having coitus much more often and eventually indulging in erotic behavior. Toyoji “shaves” Seki clean, and they hatch a plot to murder Gisaburo when it becomes apparent that he would probably notice something amiss. Gisaburo’s body was dumped into an old, unused well and the couple goes on their adulterous ways after his death, not expecting that rumors surrounding his sudden disappearance would resurface three years later. Apparently Seki’s story that he had gone to work in Tokyo was flawed, and no one in the village was buying it.

The Empire of Passion explores themes like guilt, passion and dishonesty, especially that of how passion can easily convince people into unthinkingly performing immoral acts. Oshima’s unrelenting close-ups and style leads me on a guilt trip where I actually empathize with the adulterous couple, rather than cast a judgmental eye on them. They want each other so badly, but unfortunately fall prey to societal norms and pressures. The director’s mastery of skill becomes apparent from the way he deals with stereotypes and conventions that prevail in such a movie. In fact, the climax is pretty much expected, though he deals with clichés in an alternative manner that sees the introduction of supernatural beings in a context that does not seem ludicrous. In fact, the “ghosts” may not even have been real as per an archetypical horror movie, but rather the “ghosts of Seki’s past” manifesting as she allows the rumors that are flooding around the village and her immense guilt in her hand at murdering her husband to take reign over her psychological senses. We notice how the pair struggle to come up with cover-up stories the more they lose their head, to which Seki’s chaste and non-manipulative nature shines through from her unwillingness to lie and her inflexibility to deal with the murder in the moments after it happened. Toyoji himself is not as headstrong as he seems, and the guilt he suffers manifests in a bizarre habit that sees him returning to the well the infidel couple disposed the body off in to throw in dead leaves, handful by handful.

This is a humble tale by Japanese folklore standards, and a far cry from the big-budgeted Godzilla films that have thrust Japanese cinema into global spotlight by that point of time. Oshima delivers, through stunning luscious shots, a breathtaking tale of sex, lust and passion. It is hard not to draw Freudian references to the film. Eros and Thanatos are prevalent in the movie as love and death take centerstage. Further, there exists a compelling Oedipal desire between the 26-year-old Toyoji and the 41-year-old Seki – the 15-year-old age gap making Seki scientifically old enough to be Toyoji’s mother. We see this manifesting in a scene where Toyoji chides Seki for breast-feeding her baby son and wondering when he will ever get his turn. In a reversal of conventions from the typical femme fatale that sees a female villain turning on sexual desires in the male, we see a male disrupting the nature of the family and society in The Empire of Passion.

The love surrounding the couple is bittersweet – beginning with a romance that would not be incongruous in a Shakespearean play and culminating in a psychological drama full of remorse, guilt, anguish and fear as the spirit of the wronged bites back.