Concluding the magnificent film series “Love Will Tear Us Apart” at the Japan Society in New York is Oasis, the third feature film from the highly esteemed novelist-turned-filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. Perhaps no other film of such sensitivity and physical and emotional nakedness deserves to cap this collection of confrontational films from Japan and South Korea. In Lee’s limited filmography of five feature films, Oasis is undoubtedly one of his finest and most audacious works. In this film, Lee touches upon the more disturbing, rejected, and hidden aspects of life and corporeality and in the process reveals in a most moving way the (physical, sociocultural/political, ethical) power of attraction between two people.
Browsing: Love Will Tear Us Apart
From the first sequence, Kim Ki-duk plunges both his characters and the spectator in doubt: is it dreaming or waking? A man crashes into a car, but then he wakes up. The first dialogue of the film occurs only after three minutes. Is the film in Korean or Japanese? The man speaks Japanese while the police speak in Korean, yet they are not surprised by this difference and understand each other perfectly. Fifteen minutes into the film the title unexpectedly appears, further blurring the lines where the narrative begins and ends, where waking begins and dreaming ends, and vice-versa. With Dream, Kim delivers one of his most magnetic films, hypnotic in its insularity and compactness of narrative and execution, so that the entire film itself reads like the car crash in the beginning but set in underwater slowed-down movement, suffocating, agonising, and visually compelling all at the same time.
Jo Jae-hyeon holds the rare distinction of being one of the few actors who has worked with Kim Ki-duk multiple times. They began their collaboration on Kim’s debut film Crocodile (1996) and eventually made five films together, with Jo playing a mix of leading and supporting characters. Bad Guy is their last collaboration, with the title an appropriate term to describe their films: not only Jo’s characters of inscrutable, mute masculine force against women, themselves, and eventually the whole world but also the accusations of misogyny hurled at Kim. In both senses, Bad Guy is the culmination of their collaboration.
The title is just ambiguous enough to perhaps seduce spectators who are not quite familiar with Kim Ki-duk’s cinema to walk into it expecting a thoughtful, decorative meditation on the passing of time through the trials and tribulations of a couple. Time is indeed about a meditation on time through the lens of a relationship. But the way Kim literally fleshes out this premise is a whole other matter, so that “trials” and “tribulations” are actually an understatement. The film begins with harrowing footage of the reality and materiality of cosmetic surgery, following which a woman who has just undergone surgery emerges from the clinic’s doors. The left door presents an image of “before”/“ugly,” while the right door presents an image of “after”/“pretty.” What happens between the “before” and “after” is what constitutes the film, which is nothing less than a whirlpool of jealousy, obsession, self-loathing, and utter angst, coupled with haunting imagery, as only Kim can present. In fact, this film presents a kind of horror unlike any to be found in Kim’s other films.
The second weekend of the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” series presented by Japan Society is a focus on Korean cinema, or in the case of Lee Sang-il, zainichi Korean cinema. Friday’s screening was devoted to Lee and his newest feature film, Villain (2011). Saturday, 10th March, will see an epic quadruple bill of three of Kim Ki-duk’s more recent films and Jung Ji-woo’s 1999 controversial film Happy End. (For a complete list of screenings, visit http://www.japansociety.org/film.)
Tale of Cinema is Hong Sang-soo’s own take on the coming together of sex and death, as well as film. One encounters here Hong’s usual formal and narrative preoccupations with repetitions and parallel situations between three characters. But Tale of Cinema not only presents what could possibly be the most unfulfilling, discomfited sex scene in all of Hong’s films, complemented by a death wish that also ends up being unconsummated, but also introduces two new aspects of Hong’s film grammar. Voiceovers and zoom-ins/outs make their first appearance in Hong’s cinema here, appropriately enough, given the film title and narrative of the mirroring of life and cinema. How this mirroring wreaks a kind of quiet, tortured havoc in those who happen to fall into it constitutes the film’s perverse charm. Lead actors Uhm Ji-won, Lee Ki-woo, and Hong regular Kim Sang-kyung bring to life the distressed characters in a marvelous, blasé way.
Sex entwined with death and politics finds an even more ardent interpretation in this film, which begins with the martial-sexual posturing of a group of men and one woman, presumably before they commit collective suicide. Presumably, for snatches of images of novelist/actor/ultra-nationalist Mishima Yukio and his ritual suicide are interspersed with the sequence as a kind of parallel commentary on it. The spirit of Mishima undeniably hovers above the film, which was made only a few weeks following Mishima’s actual suicide by seppuku (disembowelment) in November 1970 in the face of a failed coup d’état.
Running in Madness, Dying in Love begins with a two-minute black-and-white montage of demonstrators and riot police, followed by a switch to colour and of one male protester Shihei (Yoshizawa Ken) escaping the fray and running in the streets. In this way, Wakamatsu leaves no doubt as to the sociopolitical context of the ensuing narrative. Cut to the interior of an apartment, in which the off-screen sounds of an argument between two men provide the audio while on-screen is a woman. The economy of form is astonishingly lucid, for this formal juxtaposition of an image of a woman ensnared between two men, and their respective ideologies clashing off-screen, encapsulates the narrative. This woman turns out to be Yuri (Muto Yoko), Shihei’s sister-in-law. The two men arguing are Shihei and his brother, who is a policeman. The brothers’ argument pivots around their conflicted interests and political positions. In the heat of the argument, a gun goes off. Yuri realises that she is holding the gun and is overcome with guilt and a death wish in expiation for her sin. But Shihei convinces her to flee with him to the countryside and make everything look like a suicide. As a result, Yuri and Shihei become bound to each other in guilt and death, and as their journey to flee progresses, in desire and sex.
The “Love Will Tear Us Apart” film series at Japan Society resumes tonight with the world premiere of Wakamatsu Koji’s latest film, Petrel Blue Hotel (2012). Petrel Blue Hotel will make up the first half of a double bill of Wakamatsu’s films. Another one of Wakamatsu’s films will constitute a double bill with Hong Sang-soo’s 2005 film Tale of Cinema on Thursday, 8th March, to round out this middle-of-the-week portion of the series. (For a complete list of screenings, visit http://www.japansociety.org/film.)
If water was only somewhat integral to Vital, in Snake of June it becomes fundamental. In this film, one of his most accomplished and concentrated works apart from the early films that make up his Tetsuo series, Tsukamoto drowns his characters in water to speak of repressed desire and bodily/embodied experience. Water here is poignant with regards to re-feeling one’s way or re-sensing one’s body in the world, and conveys for Tsukamato both the literalness and monstrosity of bodies as communicating vessels of desire and pain. In this way, Snake of June is not too far removed from the Tetsuo films and their exploration of human-machine bodies. This time, Tsukamoto’s nightmarish human-machine body intrudes upon the lives of a seemingly innocuous couple and breaks the monotony of their lives. The result is a perverse variation of a love triangle guided by a cancer-stricken man who finds a new will to live and combat his own bodily pain by psychologically and physically tormenting this couple.