I finally got a chance to see a movie in the new cinema center. Actually, I think the multiplex theaters are better quality, at least in terms of movie-watching: the screens are larger and the seats more comfortable. This one had a stage, too, so the screen is recessed, and I thought the picture quality wasn’t as good as it would have been had it been shown in a multiplex. And this was definitely a multiplex sort of movie: Peter Chan’s “Wu Xia.” Unfortunately, the print that was shown was the one for commercial distribution in Korea, meaning it had no English subtitles, a fact that the organizers neglected to point out beforehand so a lot of journalists walked out as soon as they realized it. I stayed and enjoyed what I saw, even if the “detective story” didn’t make any sense to me. Though I would have to see it again with subtitles, either English or Japanese, in order to make a fair judgment, I think there’s a limit to the creative breadth that a martial arts movie can offer, even one as ambitious as this. The action requirements are so strict that even the most subtle characterizations and plot details get lost in the mayhem. “Wu Xia” is pretty impressive–for a kung fu movie.
The new Kim Ki-duk movie, “Amen,” is another stylistic statement of purpose. Though I’ve never really cared for Kim’s highly allusive morality tales, he had a signature style that was always worth checking out: austere, clean, orderly. I use the past tense because he appears to have abandoned that style. With his last movie, “Arirang,” he adopted a more documentary approach, and “Amen,” filmed on the fly when he was in Europe last year, using one actress who doubled as camera operator, is basically a camcorder road movie. What makes it a Kim movie is that Christian forgiveness thing again. The young woman, a dancer, goes to Paris to meet a man, who isn’t in his apartment. She’s told he went to Venice, so she hops on the train, and while asleep in a sleeping compartment is drugged, raped and robbed by a man in a gas mask. As horrifying as that may sound, it’s mainly played as an inconvenience, and as the woman makes her way across Europe, looking in vain for this guy, the gas mask character stalks her, returning her things one at a time and begging for her forgiveness. It’s all very simplistic, and without Kim’s name attached would be mistaken for a student film–lots of continuity lapses, non-existent sound design. Like a lot of established, respected directors, Kim is obviously tired of doing the same thing over and over again (up until three years ago he released films like clockwork), but why go backwards?
Jafar Panahi moves backward to documentary as well with his new film, but for him it’s because he has no choice. Banned by the Iranian government from making movies for the next 20 years, he and another director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, train their cameras on Panahi in his huge, comfy Teheran apartment as he talks to his lawyer on his iPhone, reenacts the script he was working on when the ban was imposed, feeds his daughter’s pet iguana, and has a long conversation with the young man who is carrying out custodian duties in his building on a temporary basis. As the title says, “This Is Not a Film,” because he can’t make a film, so in the end he refers to it as an “effort,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and enlightening, or that it doesn’t share with Panahi’s best work a certain formal elegance. It’s also quite dramatic. The lawyer does not have good news–it seems inevitable that Panahi will get some kind of jail sentence (as of now he is still out of jail)–and the director’s attempt at black humor (“Shall I keep my bag packed by the door?”) barely hides his fear. More tellingly, being told what to do and what not to do contradicts everything about his personality–he’s a director, after all, something that’s pointed out by Mirtahmasb when, after a monologue Panahi says, “Cut.” Mirtahmasb mentions that Panahi isn’t the director, he’s the subject. “It’s an offense,” he jokes, but the pain on Panahi’s face is palpable. Even more revealing is his explications of scenes from two of his movies, “Crimson Gold” and “The Circle,” in which he discusses how amateur actors often hijack a scene unexpectedly. He is afraid that his “acting” in this “effort” will be false, because it’s acting. As always, Panahi values truth above all, which is what makes his situation so maddening, for him and for those of us who count him as one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. As I said, he remains free at the moment, but ironically Mirtahmasb is in jail.