Media Mix, Nov. 29, 2020

Kentaro Iwata

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about dueling narratives in the media regarding the COVID pandemic. Though the obvious problem inherent in this split is that the message of “what to do” gets muddled, it’s been obvious for at least twenty years that the media can’t be trusted, at least as an institution, to provide consistently useful information about an issue, even one that so directly affects public welfare, such as this virus. Viewed simplistically, the split is considered political in nature, either right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, conventional vs. contrarian. But in essence it’s mostly an economic matter, especially in Japan. In the U.S., where the so-called cultural divide in the media is more conspicuous, the scramble for attention is also more pronounced than ever since the advertising model that traditionally supported news outlets has undergone such a huge, momentous change since the dawn of the millennium. Conservative types still like to talk about the liberal press, but, as always, conservatives are stuck in a past that they believe was more clear cut in terms of ideological commitments. Actually, the press has never been that “liberal” in the popular acceptance of the term, but the press did once find it easier to be objective about the stories they covered because they didn’t have to worry so much about the bottom line, and, liberal that I am, I think that the more objective you are about a story the more you see through the ideological filters. Conservatism follows a more strictly defined ideology than does liberalism, which I think is more committed to what is actually going on in life. Ever since Reagan did away with the Fairness Doctrine, the media has been freed from this kind of objectivity because, in the mind of conservatives, mandating strict adherence to objectivity isn’t objective at all but rather a violation of free speech rights, and all hell has broken loose as a result. The mud slinging that characterized the most recent presidential election, on both sides, is the culmination of this ad hoc, free-for-all doctrine, which economic changes over the past 20 years, brought about through the dominance of the internet and mobile technologies, has only exacerbated. 

In Japan, there are still laws to safeguard fairness in media coverage of political speech, but since Japan doesn’t have a genuine two-party system, these laws don’t really mean anything. The economic gamesmanship that’s a function of the ideological split in the U.S. is also in play in Japan, but there’s not enough of a political balance here to support a true center-left media force. The Asahi and Mainichi are not left wing news organizations, despite what conservatives want you to believe. For that matter, neither are CNN and MSNBC, and it has more to do with adversarial concerns than ideological ones. The inevitable battles are not over who is “right,” but who has more sway over the public imagination.

In the end, the public loses, especially during an ongoing crisis where useful information is not just helpful but sometimes a matter of life and death. No one can say for sure why Japan hasn’t suffered the kind of massive death rates that the U.S. and Europe have seen, but it’s not because the Japanese media has been better at clarifying what needs to be done. This week’s column implies that the media’s investment in the Olympics may be compromising its COVID message, but mostly it has to do with the kind of “objectivity” that says you balance all views. It’s just that the government’s view is so dominant that there might as well not be any other. In the Mainichi interview cited in the column, infectious disease expert Kentaro Iwata sums up this phenomenon rather well when he says that it’s the lack of “objective standards” that has made the reporting of the crisis so frustrating, and has led the populace to grow “tired” of hearing about COVID. Because the authorities are reluctant to tell people what to do, the public eventually realizes they are on their own, and unless they are peculiarly and uniformly civic-minded (and I think that Japanese people, for the most part, are) they will end up doing what they want, and Iwata sees that as a disastrous outcome. It’s up to the media to point out that the government line on the pandemic isn’t a line at all. It’s simply a scheme to shift the burden of responsibility on to the general public, so that, in the end, the government can’t be blamed when things go wrong.

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Stranger: the hero you never knew you needed

Having missed out on American “peak television” as it happened, I always felt out of the loop until I finally did get around to watching The Sopranos and The Wire and even Mad Men years after their original airing. Now that streaming is the norm and universal, I can be mostly in the loop, including for those series on premium cable that don’t have much lag time on their way to Hulu or Netflix or Amazon Prime. I resist the urge to binge, however, even when the storyline seems to reward bingeing. The exception during the past six months or so of self-isolation has been the South Korean drama series Stranger, whose two seasons are now available on Netflix. Originally broadcast on the Korean cable channel nTV, which also brought you the biggest binge phenomenon of the pandemic (at least in Asia), Crash Landing On You, Stranger‘s first season appeared back in 2017 and the second not until this past summer. I watched the first season in October and just as I finished it the second season was made available worldwide on Netflix, so I was able to watch both seasons in rapid succession. 

By “binge” I don’t want to imply I watched three or four episodes a day. I stuck to one a day, and for a specific reason. Stranger, which takes place in the South Korean Prosecutors Office, is dense with incident and exposition that is almost completely conveyed through dialogue, and that means I had to read a lot of subtitles. Reading subtitles is not a problem for me, but the plot layers of Stranger can overlap and intersect in often confounding ways, and if you’re not taking notes certain narrative points might drop from memory if too much time elapses between episodes. At the same time, since this density of information can be overwhelming at times, I often felt so exhausted after an episode, trying to keep up with the various threads, that I couldn’t bring myself to watch the next one right away, even if it ended in a cliffhanger. These aspects aren’t unique to Stranger, but because of the peculiar themes developed by the writer, Lee Soo-yeon, they made the experience of watching it unlike any I’ve ever had with a narrative TV series. 

Part of that feeling, of course, is that this is a Korean show, and while I’ve watched my share of Korean dramas, I’ve never been as partial to their particular charms as I am to those of Korean cinema, which is an entirely different animal. But Stranger doesn’t align with most Korean TV dramas, either, and from what I’ve gathered reading reviews of it, even Koreans don’t think it does. Like a lot of Korean dramas and movies, it’s “high concept,” in that its premise can be explained in one sentence: the hero is a prosecutor who literally lacks empathy. Hwang Si-mok (Cho Seung-woo) suffered from hypersensitivity to certain frequencies of sound as a child, often resulting in extremely violent behavior. He eventually underwent surgery to alleviate the sensitivity, and while the operation was successful enough for him to lead a normal life, he also lost the ability to empathize with others. This aspect is explained in the first five minutes of Episode 1 and almost never comes up again during the entire series, and it wasn’t until I was deep into season 2 that I realized why. The whole point of Hwang’s “condition,” in practical terms, is that he is unmoved by the power games that hold sway in any bureaucratic organization, especially in Korea, where one’s station is determined by myriad arbitrary details having to do with education, age, family background, and, most significantly, professional connections. None of these things matter at all to Hwang, which means he approaches his job in the purest manner, undistracted by peripheral concerns that may affect his career. In fact, he is the opposite of a careerist. He addresses his work, which, in essence, is the search for truth, as something that is only understandable in the here-and-now. This not only means he can’t be bribed. It means he doesn’t have the capacity to feel as if every human interaction is in reality a transaction for measuring one’s self-worth. The five-minute origin story is necessary as an explanation for his eccentric behavior, but once you see his methods, especially in terms of investigation—and Stranger is, basically, a mystery series—you buy into his unique world view.

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Review: Tezuka’s Barbara

Macoto Tezka’s live action movie version of his father Osamu Tezuka’s early 70s adult manga combines pastiche and originality in a way that’s dramatically stimulating without being particularly memorable. The original comic’s outrageousness was a function of its time and the author’s fanciful imagination, and while Tezka knows this material inside-out and possesses his own imaginative gifts, he seems conflicted as to how this story and its characters speak to a contemporary audience. The setting is a Shinjuku that seems pretty up-to-date, but the main character, a famous novelist named Mikura (Goro Inagaki), still seems to live in the 70s, with a freighted male personality to match. At first, I was reminded of Robert Altman’s 1973 tribute to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, which directly inserted the late 40s version of private eye Philip Marlowe, complete with rumpled suit, chain-smoking habit, and wise-cracking attitude, into the Me Decade, which he couldn’t handle at all. But Tezka isn’t as interested in critiquing his father’s artistic sensibility as he is in showboating the attendant style. Altman showed how genuinely pathetic an ostensibly noble man like Marlowe was when removed from his natural context, but the post-millennial Mikura simply comes across as an anachronism: the hard-drinking, sexually dissipated, artistically self-obsessed writer who was once a kind of icon, especially in Japan. (Supposedly, he’s based on the hero of Tales of Hoffman) He’s Tanizaki with the coolest collection of vinyl in town; Dazai, but with the suicidal romanticism dialed down a notch.

As such, Mikuro requires a female muse, and he discovers the blonde Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) drunk on the streets of Kabukicho and invites her back to his pad to take a shower. Though Barbara, who can drink Mikura under the table while quoting Baudelaire, turns out to be a handful, to use a sexist term from the period the movie references, they become a kind of item, even while Mikura is half-heartedly engaged to the daughter of a powerful man. To his credit, Tezuka senior didn’t steer the story into James Cain territory, to which it was naturally headed, but rather kept subverting the natural flow of the plot into weirder and weirder spaces. Tezka follows him there with mixed results. Mikura’s life trajectory from literary lion to hack to political operative is upended by his obsession with Barbara, who, it turns out, may or may not have supernatural powers (a lot of the kinky fantasy stuff might only be Mikura’s mind breaking down) but in any event the relationship veers off on a highway to hell whose destination is shocking in theory but, thanks mainly to Christopher Doyle’s (and, in some spots, Tsoi Kubbie’s) expressionistic cinematography, merely interesting in practice. 

The ringer, at least for me, is Inagaki, whose one-time image as the member of boy band SMAP with the smallest reserve of artistic resources is difficult to shake. Seeing him naked and involved in fairly explicit sex scenes, all I can wonder is how his loyal fan base will react. Given that he’s a middle aged free agent now, I imagine those who are still with him approve highly. Whatever its value as a creative artifact, Tezuka’s Barbara is decidedly an art house movie. But like its star’s uncharacteristic turn as a literary bad boy, the film itself is more of a curiosity than anything else. 

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku, Euro Space Shibuya.

Tezuka’s Barbara home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Barubora Seisaku Iinkai

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Review: About Endlessness

Swedish director Roy Andersson’s gift, if you can call it that, is how perfectly he envisions existence, a trait that’s interpolated cinematically as meticulously blocked scenes, uniformly stark lighting, and little if no camera movement. The mood is minimalist black comedy, but it’s often difficult to laugh at actors who seem to have been chosen for their homeliness, as well as situations in which cruelty is presented so matter-of-factly. There’s little difference between his latest movie and the previous three, which constituted a trilogy, except that there’s an even greater tendency here to mix in the surreal, including an opening vignette that shows a couple in a tight embrace flying over a devastated city. If the trilogy was about death, then About Endlessness is obviously about the afterlife, which makes you wonder where Andersson plans to take this progression next.

What links the vignettes of everyday people suffering everyday torments and emotional setbacks is a mood of muted hopelessness, characterized by an absurd scene of a waiter pouring an endless glass of wine that spills out onto the table cloth, seemingly oblivious to the mess he’s making. Though a few tableaux have repeated storylines, like the one about the medically challenged priest and another with a middle aged man suffering years later for slights he received as a schoolboy, most are stand-alone jokes that work as jokes, but mainly in hindsight. As they’re happening the viewer tends to be busy pondering the meaning of it all. 

And that seems to be Andersson’s purpose, though I, for one, ended up drawing no conclusions, either serially or comprehensively. That said, I’ve always enjoyed Andersson’s films, and not just because his style is so provocative; but rather because as a filmmaker he seems so assured of that gift I mentioned above. There’s nothing self-conscious about his attitude toward humanity or his audience, which he assumes is as concerned for the average zhlub as he is. His is not a world I would like to occupy, and I sincerely hope his depiction is not an approximation of what Swedish life is really like, but from the constantly overcast skies to the painfully functional architecture, it’s a world you can identify with and fall into, if only for 76 minutes, which is a blessing. The “endlessness” he refers to, I assume, is the eternity of death, not that of being stuck in the cinema all day. 

In Swedish. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

About Endlessness home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Roy Andersson FilmproduktionAB, Essential Filmproduktion, Societe Parisienne de Production, 4 1/2 FiksjonAS, ZDF/ARTE, Arte France Cinema, Sveriges TelevisionAB, Film Capital Stockholm

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Media Mix, Nov. 15, 2020

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the government’s plan to allow couples to use national health insurance to pay for fertility treatments. We’ve written about related topics in the past, so here is a list of articles that address fertility, giving birth, abortion, and birth control. Some of the information may be dated, of course. Also, it’s important to remember that childbirth is also not covered by national insurance, though central and local governments tend to provide subsidies to women who have babies.

1999: Legalizing the birth control pill

2004: Stem cell research and abortion

2006: Foster parenting

2011: Morning-after pill

2012: Abortion as an economic issue

2016: Women who don’t want to have children

2018: Sex education in schools

2019: Contraception and women’s reproductive rights

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TIFF 2020

Here are the articles about the movies and events I covered for the 33rd Tokyo International Film Festival home page.

Possessor

Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone

The Last Bath

TiTi

Come and Go

Asia Lounge with Tsai Ming-liang

The Old Town Girls

Alaya

The Real Thing

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Media Mix, Nov. 1, 2020

University of Tokyo

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the controversy over the six rejected nominees for the Science Council of Japan. As pointed out in the column, it was Akahata, the press organ of the Japanese Communist Party, that broke the story, which naturally gives rise to the suspicion that had they not reported on it, it may not have been reported by anyone. In the Aera article cited, Honorary Prof. Tatsuru Uchida of Kobe College made the claim that the media and the public in general are probably not surprised that the Liberal Democratic Party would reject pro forma appointments to a government-related group for political reasons. He says that ranking politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists according to their loyalty to the ruling party became normalized during the administration of Shinzo Abe, and the public has absorbed this truth, not to mention the press. It goes without saying that they would do the same thing with academia, and no one in academia might have protested if the JCP hadn’t raised its own voice. After all, the six rejected scholars didn’t call up any reporters and tell them that the LDP may have broken the law by not appointing them. They probably accepted it as well. However, once the JCP did make a big deal out of it, the rest of the media fell in line and so members of the Council were solicited for their views, and they then said that what the Cabinet did was wrong. This docility may be a function of how universities are structured and promotions are administered. No one wants to risk their careers protesting against what they probably see as a lost cause. After all, when the government took away professors’ right to govern themselves in 2014, they didn’t rise up and complain. According to Uchida, most universities now are essentially limited corporations, which means instructors and professors are treated as salarymen, and the government knows how to control people who see themselves as employees of a company rather than members of an institution. 

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BIFF 2020: Oct. 30

A Balance

The 25th Busan International Film Festival ended today and, as usual, the press office sent me a final report. Total attendance at offline screenings came to 20,135, or 92 percent of capacity, which is surprising given that there was only one screening per film and each screening was limited to 50 persons. I thought it would have reached 100 percent. Online “views” of related events (forums, awards, master classes) totaled 30,204. Community BIFF, an “audience participation” gambit held in the Nampo-dong area of Busan for the first time, was declared a success. It targeted young people and 37 of the 46 screenings were sold out. The idea seems to be to create some sort of year-long connection between BIFF administration and young people in Busan, though, by now, I would have thought it hardly necessary. Usually, the festival is swarming with young people, though I haven’t been to Nampo-dong in a few years.

Of the various awards that interested me, one of the Kim Ji-seok Awards, named after the late founder-programmer, which are given to worthy Asian films from all the sections of the festival save New Currents, went to the Iranian film The Slaughterhouse, which I thought was good but not quite as accomplished as 200 Meters, if we’re going to talk about Middle Eastern movies with socially relevant themes. My own choice for Best Actor at the festival, Lim Seong-mi, actually won one of the acting awards for her startling turn in Fighter, which also won the NETPAC Award, given by foreign critics to the best Korean film. Good Person won two awards, both given out by industry associations, which makes sense since it had the strongest conventional narrative of any film I saw this year. 

The two awards for the New Currents section, which showcases new directors (first or second feature), went to Three from Kazakhstan, and the Japanese film A Balance, which I caught this morning. Certainly one of the most original Japanese movies I’ve seen in recent years, the film’s parallel storylines reflect on each other in often stunning ways. Essentially a story about media justice and how we weigh moral obligations against our personal requirements, A Balance can come across as overly cynical if you think too much about it, but Yujiro Harumoto’s direction is so steady and lead actor Kumi Takiuchi’s performance so compact that it holds your attention in a vice. Takiuchi plays Yuko, a serious documentary filmmaker tackling a two-year-old scandal involving two suicides and two families left in ruins, thanks to the resulting media attention. Conscientious to a fault, Yuko is painfully honest with all the “victims” of the scandal and against all odds gains their trust, all the while trying to convince a TV network to run the finished doc, a task that becomes frustrating for all the wrong reasons. Meanwhile, she has to deal with a personal matter that threatens to turn into its own media scandal and uses her peculiar talents to make it go away without getting anyone hurt. 

As someone who writes about the Japanese media, I would have preferred Harumoto had stuck exclusively with the TV doc story, which is canny and frank about the journalistic priorities exercised by mass communications outfits in Japan. At one point, Yuko’s partner, who is handling the negotiations with the network, asks her to tweak a significant portion of the doc, and when she says she can’t change the “truth,” he responds, “Whatever we put together is the truth.” In comparison, the parallel, more personal scandal, which ends up consuming most of the film’s dramatic oxygen, seems designed to make a point about Yuko’s methods and attitudes, and comes off as being contrived, at least in hindsight. While it’s happening it’s pretty intense.

Cicada (c) Ojayuro Pictures

I watched the much-anticipated debut feature by Lee Chung-ryoul, Cicada, because it’s about the traditional Korean performing art form Dasiraegi, and yesterday I had enjoyed The Disciple, also about an indigenous art form, so thoroughly that I thought it might make an apt complement. No such luck. Whereas The Disciple used its traditional arts theme to say something about integrity and purity of intention in a digital world, Cicada mostly used its traditional art as decoration, a colorful means of making its protagonist an unruly outsider. Duk-bae (Lee Yang-hee) is a master of Dasiraegi on Jindo, the island where it developed and the only place where it is practiced. Dasiraegi is a kind of burlesque performance that is staged before a funeral as a means of helping the spirit leave this world while another is entering it. It is bawdy, scatological, and indifferent to the feelings of the mourners, who nevertheless donate more money if they appreciate the show. Duk-bae is determined to become a Living National Treasure after his female mentor, who is not long for this world, leaves it, though he has a rival. Out of nowhere, his estranged daughter, Su-nam (Ju Bobi), shows up with her young daughter in tow, asking for money and seemingly determined to leave her child in the hands of her irresponsible father and then disappear into the ether. Though the motivations of all involved are crystal clear, the story development is a mess of contradictions, or perhaps the ways of Jindo Island are just too site-specific for outsiders to understand. For me, the movie’s attitude toward suicide is shockingly casual and its view of redemption so dark as to be opaque. The Dasiraegi scenes were quite convincingly staged, however. 

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BIFF 2020: Oct. 29

(c) 2020 Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone Film Partners Inc.

I didn’t intend to watch the Japanese contribution to Window On Asian Cinema, Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone, a World Premiere, because I was asked to write about it for the English web page of the Tokyo International Film Festival next week and had a reserved seat for the Tokyo public screening. But due to a sudden last minute schedule change at TIFF another assigned screening was switched to the same time as Ora. Fortunately, it was available on the BIFF press screening platform.

The awkward title is meant to be an English language approximation of what the Tohoku dialect sounds like in contrast to conventional Japanese. I’m not a subtitler, but I would have advised against such an approach. Still, it’s easy to understand why the producers went this route. The award-winning novel on which the movie is based is written in tohoku-ben. It’s what made it a best-seller and, from what I understand, gives it its unique charm, so the producers obviously think that charm has to be impressed on foreign audiences, as well. It isn’t, and it doesn’t really need to be. The theme of a lonely old woman looking back on her life with some regret is pretty universal, and the specifics of her experience as expressed through her speech patterns can be conveyed by other means. And yet, while the director, Shuichi Okita, manages to drive home the drama without getting too sentimental, he can’t recreate the intimacy of the book, which is only hinted at on screen.

Then there’s Yuko Tanaka, who is 10 years younger than 75-year-old widow Momoko Hidaka, the character she plays in almost every scene of the movie. Tanaka still has a flawless, almost wrinkle-free complexion that tends to distract from her capable performance as a woman whose mind may be playing tricks on her while her body is slowly deteriorating. More to the point, in a number of flashbacks, her character is played by Yu Aoi, probably the most accomplished Japanese actor of her generation, and there’s a certain disconnect enhanced by their respective notorieties, both as actors and public figures. Of course, foreign viewers won’t pick up on these distractions, but the thespian firepower on display seems overwhelming considering the slightness of the material. Momoko ran away from her home in Iwate in 1964 to escape an arranged marriage, only to fall in love with and marry a man in Tokyo with whom she raised two children and pretty much did nothing else. With her husband now dead and her children uninvolved in her life, Momoko wonders what the difference really is between marrying a stranger selected by her parents and being a lifelong housewife. The beauty of Chisako Wakatake’s story is how compelling she makes this question, but, in the end, it’s a personal one that requires a very personal mode of explanation, and this movie, despite its earnest attempt at fantasy—Momoko is pestered by three mischievous hallucinations representing three renditions of herself—isn’t that. It’s basically a nostalgic two-hour visit with a nice old lady who is actually quite healthy in both mind and body. Don’t let the grey hair fool you. 

The Disciple

The Disciple, an Indian film that won a Best Screenplay award at Venice, also centers on a protagonist who ponders if he has pursued as meaningful a life as he hoped. In Sharad’s (Aditya Modak) case, however, he thinks this not at the end of a life, but at several junctures along the way. Sharad is the titular student of a Guruji (Dr. Arun Dravid) who follows a more ascetic style of classical Indian music, Raag, that demands total devotion to the point of denying money, career, family, even ego. As in a good Hou Hsiao Hsien movie, The Disciple dips into Sharad’s life seemingly at whim, sometimes catching him at the foot of his father, also a devotee of Raag who didn’t have the talent to get anywhere with it but became a kind of hopeless apologist for the genre. During his early 20s, Sharad sits at the foot of his Guruji, and finds himself coming up short in terms of discipline (his sexual frustrations lend the film a tragicomic cast) and inspiration. In early middle age, he’s gained weight, as well as the frustration that comes trying to make a life out of an art that demands he forsake everything else. 

Director Chaitanya Tamhane structures the story in conventional dramatic style, but not chronologically. Sharad’s pursuit of “the truth” in his music may be linear, but his success in reaching some kind of understanding is intermittent, and Tamhane builds tension through an accumulation of non-chronological incidents that become more dramatically fraught as the movie progresses, climaxing in an oddly affecting scene in an outdoor restaurant where a noted music critic bursts the young man’s idealistic bubble by telling him the truth about his artistic idols. It’s not that his heroes were fools or hypocrites, but rather that what he admires about them others find ridiculous and impractical. Adding a parallel side plot about an amateur classical vocalist who makes it as a pop singer, Tamhane also shows how technology both enhances and undermines the artistic purity of a musical form that’s been around for thousands of years. He greatly admires the kind of devotion that goes into it, but his movie finds its own truth in showing how devotion can’t stand up to the demands of modern life. 

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BIFF 2020: Oct. 28

Fighter

This year, the Asian Film Awards were presented at BIFF for the first time. Of course, the organizers hoped to have a real ceremony with a real audience, so transferring the awards to Asia’s biggest film festival made sense, since there is already a built-in audience on hand and, from what I understand, the Asian Film Awards need all the publicity they can get. But this year they had to settle for a YouTube presentation and shoutouts on the Asian Contents & Film Market website. Not many surprises here. Parasite, of course, won Best Picture, as well as Best Screenplay and two technical awards, well after its sell-by date. The Chinese Best Director is someone I’m not familiar with, and while I know the Best New Director, Japanese filmmaker Hikari, I haven’t seen her film, 37 Seconds. Lee Byung-hun predictably won Best Actor for The Man Standing Next, which, I hear, is also South Korea’s official submission for the next Best Foreign Film Oscar, so I’m doubly discouraged that the print they’re showing on the BIFF screening platform doesn’t have English subtitles. I also don’t know the Chinese Best Actress winner, though I’m very familiar with Ryo Kase, who won the Best Supporting Actor prize for To the Ends of the Earth, which feels as if it came out a decade ago, so much has happened since it was first released in Japan in the summer of 2019.

At the Inzai branch of BIFF, I watched the world premiere of the South Korean drama Fighter, another example of a very plain, descriptive English title. One thing you can say about South Korean movies: You know what you’re getting with the title. The fighter in this instance is a North Korean defector named Ree Jina (Lim Seong-mi), a bitter, frustrated young woman who would prefer being left to herself in Seoul but has to make a living, not only for herself, but also to save money to get her father out of China, where he’s presumably at the mercy of brokers who helped him get out. Jina’s “fights” are against South Korean prejudice and government functionaries who demand special kinds of thanks for their assistance. It’s all very predictable, though director Yun Jero, who’s made a bunch of documentaries and a debut feature, Beautiful Days, that was selected as the opening film at BIFF in 2018, keeps things real with a low-key style that allows the characters to come through fully. As Jina, Lim is a real find. Her sudden vocal tonal shifts and the way she conveys rage and frustration through only her eyes justifies Yun’s preference for tight closeups. 

Jina channels her frustrations into boxing, a sport she takes up at the insistence of the owner and head trainer of the gym where she works as a janitor. Though they’re initially intrigued by her military training in hand-to-hand combat (“Why do South Koreans think North Koreans are all commandos,” she snarls), they also sense that her fighting spirit isn’t the same as that of the rich women who patronize their establishment to look cool. As a “North Korean refugee” Jina attracts some low-level media attention, and so she’s able to gain traction on a possible pro career, but the movie mostly hovers just above ground level and never falls into the usual sport movie cliches. It’s a character study that just happens to be about boxing, and while I wish Yun has been a bit bolder with the story, he lets his lead actor tell it, and she carries it off admirably.

Hong Kong Moments

If Fighter feels slightly empty of substance, the China-Germany documentary Hong Kong Moments seems stretched beyond its capabilities. An attempt to get at the gist of the riots that gripped the city in the fall of last year during the campaign for city council elections in November, the movie does a good job of showing the native qualities that make Hong Kong such a unique metropolis, but fails to explain the basis of the conflict. Having resulted from Beijing’s unilateral insistence on forcing an extradition law on the territory, the battle is over self-determination, but very little mention is made about the form this particular government has taken. There’s a lot of talk about democracy, with several people who support Beijing asserting that Hong Kong, even now, is, as one taxi driver puts it, the “most democratic place in the world.”

Director Zhou Bing isolates half a dozen people, including a pro-Beijing teahouse owner, a pro-demonstrator EMS nurse, an incognito hardcore demonstrator who condones violence because he knows the communist regime is implacable, a young police officer, and two council candidates representing the two sides of the conflict. The fact that Zhou has more success explaining the sense of place that all these Hongkongers have in common than he does forming a coherent narrative of what went on during the three months covered is probably a function of the chaotic circumstances themselves. There’s some truly stunning footage of the violence as perpetrated by both the demonstrators and the police, as well as breathtaking drone shots from above the action. Typical of Zhou’s approach is a scene on the night of the election when the pro-democracy side gets shut out of the counting station, followed by a scuffle that makes you wonder if the pro-Beijing side is up to no good; but the brouhaha quickly calms and things go smoothly. Alongside horrific shots of the effects of rubber bullets and police losing their shit for no reason there are scenes showing couples playing badminton and workers getting boisterously drunk, as if to show that life goes on amidst all this turmoil, but that really tells us nothing about the conflict itself. Zhou is an impressive technician but he has a shaky grasp of the journalism part.

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