Here is my Japan Times story about this year’s Busan International Film Festival. As is always the case, space restrictions prevented me from writing all I wanted to write about the festival and the movies I saw, though, for the most part, I think the piece conveys the tone of the event. A few things I might add is that the political situation that has threatened to derail BIFF for the past several years is perhaps getting out of hand. The Iranian director, Bahman Ghobadi, who was a member of the New Currents jury, put the matter into perspective when he said during the jury press conference that while he is concerned about the possible quashing of free speech on the part of the mayor and other government officials, he can’t quite bring himself to despair when he sees the wide variety of viewpoints on display. After all, he can’t make the movies he wants to make in his native country, and gave in interesting example: When he shows people drinking beverages he may be asked by the censors to include dialogue that points out that these people are not drinking alcohol. Those are niggling little restrictions, but they indicate larger, more forceful restrictions on themes and intentions. “Your problems in Korea are small” in comparison, he said.
When I had breakfast on Saturday morning with Shin Suwon, the director of the opening film, “Glass Garden,” we talked a little about this but it didn’t really seem like a big deal to her, either, even though she is a member of the Korean Directors Federation, which is, technically, still boycotting the festival. As an independent filmmaker, she is more concerned with how such political considerations affect funding. As I said in the piece, the administration of deposed president Park Geun-hye had blacklisted lots of artists it didn’t like from receiving government funds for their work. Such funding is extremely important to filmmakers, like Shin, who aren’t connected to large entertainment companies, but she told me that she’s never had trouble getting money due to the political content of her work, only for, as she put it, the “non-commercial” nature of her movies, something that all independent filmmakers in South Korea have to deal with. The fact is, as vital as Korea’s film industry is, and as innovative and imaginative as its independent directors are, indie films still have a very tough time financially in the domestic market. They have trouble getting financing and then after they’re made have trouble getting distributed. Even the superstar independents, like Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo, are distributed sparingly. Their reputation is huge, but they are mainly appreciated at foreign film festivals and in Korean art houses for maybe two or three weeks a year at most. Though certainly the alleged government crackdown hurt them, in a way it’s probably difficult for them to tell how much it’s hurt them, since it’s a tough life in the first place. The fact that they can even make such consistently high quality films under such circumstances is a miracle.
Consequently, I was disappointed that I didn’t see more Korean independent films. I usually see at least four movies a day, but this time I didn’t because of other commitments. In any event, this is what I did see.
During our interview, director Shin Su-won stressed the pastoral elements of her newest movie, and compared to her previous two films, Pluto and Madonna, there was less physical violence and existential dread. Nevertheless, the power dynamics that affected the main character, a biology researcher named Jae-yeon (Moon Geun-young), contained their own measure of emotional violence. She’s having an affair with her boss and mentor, and when a colleague steals part of her research into photosynthesis and then the boss to boot, Jae-yeon, already suffering from self-esteem problems due to a disability, decides to chuck human relationships altogether and retreats to the forest, where she grew up. In a nutshell, Jae-yeon believes human relationships all lead to death, while plants are eternal in some way, and she continues her research, which she believes will not only resurrect certain dead things, but bestow everlasting life. Meanwhile, a disgraced novelist starts stalking her and appropriating her story for his next book. Shin isn’t entirely successful in getting all these disparate plot elements to gel, but the movie has a weird, forceful integrity that can only be credited to the director’s vision. As I told her during our chat, while watching it I kept thinking, “A man could never make this movie.” And she immediately said, “That’s right.”
Our Time Will Come
Ann Hui, who was the first woman director to have a feature selected as the closing film at BIFF, is a consistent filmmaker who ranges quite far in terms of genre and theme, though I tend to find her style rather conventional, especially for a Hong Kong artist. Her latest was a must-see because it’s about the underground resistance during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in the 1940s. Hui frames the action with interviews with actual survivors of the underground movement, who weren’t more than adolescents at the time. The plot is sufficiently action-packed and there are some very tense scenes. Moreover, she skillfully develops the intrigue by pulling characters into the underground who otherwise would never have been involved in politics had the Japanese not invaded. And the incorporation of gangster motifs made it a distinctly Hong Kong production. In essence, I think I could have done without the interview framing device. It was an unnecessary distraction.
Normally, this type of melodrama doesn’t interest me, but I felt I should see it for two reasons: it was directed by a Korean woman, Jeong Jae-eun, who hasn’t made a narrative feature in ten years; and it is set in Japan. Jeong said she wanted to make an original movie in the mood of the Japanese novels she adored as a girl, but for me this is very Korean in tone and style–much like a slick, well-made Korean TV soap opera–except that it’s in the Japanese language and stars Miho Nakayama, an actress whom Jeong has admired ever since her star turn in Love Letter. The main attraction for Japanese female moviegoers is Korean heartthrob Kim Jae-uck, whose Japanese is flawless. The movie’s plot is pretty standard romantic ick, though. Nakayama plays a middle aged novelist who is slowly succumbing to early stage Alzheimer’s. Kim plays a Korean exchange student who has mostly wasted his tuition money on pachinko and works in an izakaya, where he meets the novelist. They strike up a friendship that involves a golden labrador and the novelist’s collection of books, and the friendship blossoms into forbidden love as the novelist struggles to write her last book with the younger man’s help. There are no surprises, except maybe that Nakayama actually does a pretty good job of portraying the onset of dementia without histrionics. If you like this kind of thing, then you’ll like it.
The feature debut by Singapore’s Kirsten Tan is set in Thailand and is a fairly conventional mid-life crisis tale about a successful Bangkok architect, Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), who somehow comes to the conclusion that his life and marriage have not led to the happiness he thought they would. Walking the streets one day, he encounters a street performer and his elephant and thinks he recognizes the beast as Popeye, his pet when he was a child being raised by his ne’er-do-well uncle. He buys the elephant from the street performer and decides to bring it back to his hometown, where he thinks it belongs. The movie is a road trip-with-pachyderm, filled with encounters sweet and sour by turn, and while the spiritual destination is predictable, as they say, it’s all about the journey. Warakulnukroh and the elephant work exceptionally well together, as if they really are friends for life, which, in a way, makes the surprise ending that much more bittersweet. Tan does some marvelous things with long shots, and provides a different emotional dimension to the Thai countryside, which isn’t all jungle and steam. Some of it is actually quite dry and dusty.
Sennan Asbestos Disaster
Kazuo Hara’s documentary about the residents of the Sennan area of Osaka’s lawsuit against the government is grueling, but not so much because it’s 3-and-a-half hours long. Though asbestos has been a known environmental hazard for decades, the Japanese government didn’t really recognize it as such until the 80s, though documents show they were aware of the dangers even before WWII. Sennan contained a high concentration of asbestos factories, and dozens of workers, not to mention residents of Sennan who didn’t even work in the factories, have been afflicted with respiratory diseases for many years. A group of workers and residents brought the lawsuit in the early 00s, and Hara is there for the whole tortuous process, which lasted more than 10 years. Though the government keeps losing, it also keeps appealing, drawing the ordeal out as more and more victims die very painful deaths, which Hara documents in heartbreaking detail. It’s a maddening film to watch for several reasons, mainly because the faceless bureaucrats who oversee workplace safety seem totally oblivious to the suit, but also because many of the workers don’t see the point in the suit, because as one asserts–while hooked up to an oxygen machine–he was “allowed” to work for a living by his factory and thus raise a family and have a good life. It should be pointed out that half of these workers are of Korean heritage, and that all are from lower working class backgrounds. Their disposability is made clear in the last half, when they have to occupy the offices of the ministry of labor in order just to get noticed.
Another feature I felt compelled to see though I was pretty sure it would be crap, the latest John Woo actioner returns the Hong Kong director to his “bullet ballet” mode, but this time the action takes place in Japan. In fact, the movie is a kind of remake of a Japanes movie that starred the late Ken Takakura, which I’ve never seen but heard is also crap. Nonetheless, it’s a movie that apparently inspired Woo as a young filmmaker. However, he’s told journalists that he was somehow unable to secure the film rights for a remake, so he had to settle for the rights of the novel the film was based on. Whatever, because it’s obvious that all he’s retained is the odd couple, “Fugitive”-like plot structure, where you have a man framed for murder on the run and being pursued by a cop who slowly realized the guy isn’t guilty. In this case, the man on the run in a Hong Kong lawyer (Zhang Hanyu) who has just quite working for a major Osaka pharmaceutical company and wakes up one morning to find a dead woman in his bed. The cop is played by Masaharu Fukuyama. The dialogue is an uneasy mix of Cantonese, English, and Japanese that becomes more confusing as the impossible plot grinds on. Of course, the gunfight scenes are thrilling in their way-out choreography, but there aren’t this many guns in Japan and probably never have been. It’s a ricidulous, embarrassing mess that will probably make a lot of money.
Though no revelation, E Oni’s thriller was one of the sturdiest films I saw this year, another confirmation of the bedrock quality that is expected of any Korean director. And since my main theme was women directors, it was one I felt I needed to see. Unlike Glass Garden, Missing could have been directed by a man, but given the specific parameters of the story I think it made more sense for a woman to make it. Ji-seon (Uhm Ji-won) is in the middle of a messy custody battle over her infant daughter, struggling with a freelance publicity job that often requires late nights with clients, so she’s forced to hire a nanny. The job market is tight and she’s forced to hire a Chinese immigrant who seems to get along with her daughter very well–and then one day she arrives home and there’s no trace of the nanny or her daughter. Ji-seon’s frantic search for her child is mostly a solo affair that doesn’t get much help from the police and which leads her into a seedy underground where a whole different class of people reside. As an issue film, Missing starts out navigating the murky waters of Korea’s divorce and custody laws, which work against working mothers like Ji-seon, but it also takes in illegal immigration, the importation of foreign wives, underground organ donation, and the general poor treatment of women, especially when it comes to jobs and economic security. And it does so by seamlessly incorporating these elements into a suspenseful plot that loses nothing in terms of excitement. Just another solid Korean feature. It seemed particularly apt that the president of Korea chose Missing as his token screening during his visit to the festival.
A Taxi Driver
Reportedly the biggest box office hit of the year in Korea and based as much as it could be on a true story, A Taxi Driver focuses on the legendary independent cabbie who drove German journalist Jurgen Hitzpeter from Seoul to the city of Gwangju following the 1980 declaration of martial law. Students descended on the city to protest the various military actions and were met with brute force that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. The world did not know about it, and Hitzpeter, who had concealed his reasons for being in the country at immigration, had to word secretly. As the titular driver, Song Kang-ho gives one of his typically populist readings of an everyman, a single father whose tireless work ethic is leavened by opportunism and cynicism. He steals the fare from a company driver and prior to arriving in Gwangju derides the student movement as a club for spoiled brats. Once he arrives in the war-torn city, the scales gradually fall from his eyes. Make no mistake about it, this is big budget entertainment, with the government goons portrayed as fascist overlords and the proletariat represented by a group of self-martyring taxi drivers. There’s plenty of action and a great deal of sentimental back-and-forth, but as with a lot of major Korean films it makes its long-winded point faultlessly.
Goodbye My Love North Korea
The circumscribed nature of the narrative of Kim Sou-young’s documentary makes it all but useless in lending any meaning toward understanding the current situation in North Korea. Kim chronicles the lives of 8 North Koreans who left their native land in the 50s to study at the Moscow Film School. While they were away, Kim Il-sung, spooked by ally Kruschev’s Anti-Stalinist speech, tightened his grip with purges of party members who were too close to the USSR, and the 8 film students decided to defect to Moscow and settle in Kazakhstan. Only two were still alive when Kim made the film, and it’s mostly about their expat experience, which was actually quite successful. One of them even became a leading Soviet director, but without any critical evaluation of the work it’s difficult to understand the context for this success, or, for that matter, what contributions they made to the annals of film. All the movie really does is provide the viewer with proof that these things did happen, but why we should care much about it is a point that’s overlooked.
The Scythian Lamb
Most of the many Japanese films that played at BIFF this year have either already opened in Japan or will open here in the next few weeks, including some World Premieres. This was the only one I saw, and it doesn’t open in Japan until February. Based on a manga, it didn’t initially seem very promising, but in the end I fell for its clever script and the surprisingly subtle lead performance by Ryo Nishikido as a mid-level bureaucrat in a fictional dying seaside town in Central Japan. The premise of the story is an experimental government program. Convicted criminals who have demonstrated good behavior in prison are granted parole under several conditions: they must live in a designated rural municipality for at least ten years and not get into trouble during that time. Nishikido’s official and his boss are the only people in town who know about the six ex-cons assigned to their bailiwick, and one of the young official’s jobs is to make sure they don’t come into contact with one another. The aid, as the supervisoer puts it, is to kill two birds with one stone: alleviate the economic effects of rural depopulation and save the government money on housing criminals. The story mainly centers on his relationship with the most accommodating newcomer, a young man sent up for involuntary manslaughter who seems determined to turn his life around. However, when the ex-con starts making moves on a young woman the official is interested in and another ex-con decided to restart his criminal career and tries to get the other ex-con involved, things get hairy real fast. The ending wraps things up a bit too neatly, and the side characters are mostly lazy stereotypes, but it’s one of the better mainstream Japanese films I’ve seen lately, topical and psychologically credible.
The Day After
Of course, it wouldn’t be a BIFF without at least one movie by Hong Sang-soo, and this year’s contribution is one of the director’s better efforts, though an argument can be made that since he basically makes the same movie over and over, “better” is a meaningless qualifier. A successful literary critic and publisher, Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo), is having an affair with his assistant, and his wife finds out about it, but a little too late. The assistant has already gotten sick of Bong-wan’s “intellectual cowardice” and left him. Bong-wan interviews a new assistant, Areum (Kim Min-hee), and after he hires her, on the first day of work his wife shows up and, thinking Areum is the mistress, abuses her physically and verbally. Though a perfect comic setup for one of Hong’s typical male-bashing stories, he makes it more interesting with a fractured time structure and several twists that invariably dig the knife deeper into the collective Korean male ego. As with all Hong films, I find it best to watch them in Korea, where the audiences understand the humor instinctively and laugh uproariously at many of the lines. When I watch his movies in Japan, there’s usually silence. Context in all things is everything.
The Battleship Island: Director’s Cut
Another big domestic box office hit, The Battleship Island will not likely be shown in Japan, though this special “director’s cut,” 19 minutes longer than the initially released version, has more to say about Koreans who collaborated with their Japanese overlords during the colonial period. The movie takes place on the coal mining island of Hashima, off the coast of Nagasaki, in 1945 as Japan was quickly losing the war. Koreans are hoodwinked into going to work under atrocious conditions in the mines while their women are forced into prostitution as comfort women. Moreover, the Japanese who carry out these terrible deeds are portrayed as cartoon crazies, though it should be pointed out that everyone in the movie, even the Korean patriots, are exaggerated characters; which makes sense. Though some Western critics have compared the look and feel of the movie to blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan what they’re referring to is the bloody, violent set pieces, which are marvels of choreography and emotional payoffs. It’s an extremely slick production and as such less than believable as history. I don’t for a minute doubt that the Koreans were mistreated, but I do strongly doubt if the rebellion–if there was one–went down in this matter, mainly because the timing was too dramatically perfect. The problems with the original cut, according to Korean critics, was that it didn’t honor history, but history has never been honored very accurately by the movies. Bring some healthy skepticism for a very rough and entertaining ride.
I Want to Go Home
Yasuo Takamatsu, the subject of this 60-minute documentary, is already semi-famous in Japan. He lost his wife in the March 2011 tsunami that struck the northeast coast of Japan and has never recovered her body. Consequently, he learned how to scuba dive and ever since has spent every weekend in the waters surrounding their small fishing town searching for her. The filmmaker, Singaporean Wesley Leon Aroozoo, never mentions what the viewer is immediately thinking: Takamatsu’s mission is a fruitless one. So the movie is basically a study of Takamatsu’s life right now and his memories of the life he lived before, intersperse with recollections of that day and what Takamatsu–or anyone, for that matter, could have done to save his wife, who was mainly the victim of poor city planning, it would seem. The documentary is invaluable for how it addresses the specific tragedy of the Great East Japan Earthquake, but adds little to the literature of grief, maybe because Aroozoo is too polite to dig deeper into how Japanese people process grief. We’re expected to infer everything from Takamatsu’s story, but his is unique, and uniquely opaque.
A Free Man
Like I Want to Go Home, A Free Man takes as its subject a Japanese individual and was directed by a foreigner, in this case German filmmaker Andreas Hartmann, who was an artist-in-residence for a while at Kyoto’s Goethe Institut. While there, Hartmann made the acquaintance of a young homeless man, Kei Sakamoto, who is homeless by choice, meaning he has no interest in the conventional way of living that includes job, family, and upward mobility. He seeks freedom in everything, and in the beginning at least Sakamoto’s purity of intention makes him a compelling subject. Gradually, however, you get the idea that Sakamoto is mostly self-deluded and searching for something he isn’t sure about. He’s maddeningly inarticulate about his motives, and his past–directionless during his college days, followed by an aborted attempt to be a soldier in the Self-Defense Forces–indicates a lack of understanding of how the world works. Similarly, Hartmann’s movie, while beautifully shot and imaginatively edited, is trapped into an attempt to make Sakamoto into someone the viewer is supposed to care about, and he never really succeeds. The interesting bits are those that show how the young man is unable to control his destiny. His job as a day worker on an archaeological site shows how the system works and his own powerlessness. But Hartmann, further hemmed in by his evocative title, wants the movie to be about something else.