Thursday, 13 November 2008

Secret Sunshine

I had a pleasant Sunday afternoon last weekend catching up on a screening of Secret Sunshine, the feature film from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Jeon Do-yeon (Scandal) plays the mother of a small boy whose life becomes hedged around with grief and recrimination after she moves to a provincial Korean city near Pusan. Though Jeon won best actress in Cannes, the film has only played three times in the UK – twice at the London Film Festival and once, a year later, at the Korean Film Festival. This is where I finally managed to see it, at the Barbican, introduced by programmer and critic Tony Rayns.

Lee Chang-dong is a fascinating man. He began life as a teacher, then went to France to write a novel. At the age of forty Lee began to make movies (after an apprenticeship with Park Kwang-su, who filmed one of his stories). Before you know it he was made Arts and Culture minister for South Korea, serving two years before being forced out by a US trade insistence on a lowering of the quota system, which, as in France, subsidizes locally-made films by taking a small percentage of the box-office takings.

Lee's film Oasis won best director prize in Venice in 2002, but it’s taken until now to follow that film up. Secret Sunshine is as morally refined as a Bresson film; its almost made from beaten metal. Jeon, in almost every scene, plays the mother who, dealing with disaster after disaster, finally turns to religion before, like Larry Flynt, becoming disgusted by it. It’s a soft howl of a performance.

As a film it’s partly an attack on organized religion where the main character, it has been suggested, may herself be God. Yet her rage at God is extraordinary. In one of her most throwaway scenes, where become mad with rage and incomprehension against her train of suffering, she looks up into the heavens, seeming to transmit defiance with every ounce of her being. In another section of the film, her sabotage of a Christian rally, playing a CD over the PA system with a Korean pop song crooning ‘lies! lies!’ is also something to behold. By joining her local Christian group, she discovers a congregation who like to talk about suffering, but have no real comprehension of what suffering entails. Indeed, they are spooked when they see it. There’s something devilish in suffering, not the divine purging of legend.

My favorite Lee Chang-dong film remains Peppermint Candy (1999), one of the unheralded masterpieces of South Korean cinema. While his compatriots go for blood and mayhem, sober and serious Lee examines issues of the wholly abandoned, exploring, at the same time, the idea that life is somehow fundamentally evil. These are dread films from the world of the Demiurge. Hope is something that happens in Hollywood films, and in religion, and there can be something pitiless about hope. Yet these films are not hopeless.

Not a single Lee Chang-dong film has received even a one-screen release in the UK (even the US released Oasis, as did France, Japan and the Netherlands). He’s unknown here. You’ll not find him (or for that matter any other serious filmmaker) discussed on BBC arts shows.

It was a stark reminder, if reminding is needed, of the various and complicated blindspots in UK distribution. Films have not turned up that should turn up, films that might get a small audience, that are worthy of discussion on The Late Show (a program that no longer regards film as an art form).

Off the top of my head there's Wen Jiang’s Devils on the Doorstep from 2000, also a Cannes prizewinner, the Russian film Ostrov (on the back burner at Artificial Eye, but hopefully out next summer, a year late). There’s Li Yang’s Blind Mountain (you got it, a Cannes winner). Suo Masayuki’s Japanese courtroom drama I Just Didn’t Do It is an omission (curious fact – his film before that was adapted into the Richard Gere vehicle Shall We Dance)

I could go on, but all I suppose I'm saying is, go see them if you can.

Anyhow, here's the Secret Sunshine Trailer

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Defiance [The Review]

This is not a review. I left half-way through Defiance, in an act of, perhaps, Defiance. Defiance is highly thought of in the Oscar race. Daniel Craig plays the lead character, a rugged freedom fighter and militia man, a proto-Israeli if you like. He’s tipped for an Oscar nomination; US audiences like the story, based on a true incident, of Jewish Byelorussians fighting back against the Nazis.

After German troops storm his village and kill many of the inhabitants, with the help of the local police, Tuvia Bielski (Craig) heads for the silver beechwoods and soon find himself in charge of several dozen refugees of all ages and backgrounds.

With his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber again returning to his East European Jewish roots), Tuvia finds some early success in launching attacks on Nazi convoys and killing enemy soldiers. But the two brothers, in classic Russian style, do not see eye-to-eye. Tuvia believes in keeping the locals on-side whereas Zus favours what is in effect all-out war. Tuvia makes an effort to persuade members of an embattled Jewish ghetto that they must escape and join him. Zus feels that the elderly and infirm are simply slowing them down. Both, of course, are right.

After an ugly tussle which ends with fisticuffs on the muddy woodland floor, Zus leaves the ever-growing Jewish camp to join the Russian militia. These ex-Red army soldiers are only marginally better than the men they are fighting, but at least, Zus reasons, he is out there killing Germans. The Jewish militia-men find as much random anti-Semitism in the drunken Russian militia-men as in their foes, and the Russians refuse to share their antibiotics with the Jewish camp when a typhus epidemic breaks out in the bitterly cold, snowbound woods. The Red Army, it might as well be said, were aggrieved by the German attack; after all they had done everything to help Hitler, including the use of a submarine base and the use of Russian icebreakers for U-Boats attacking allied shipping.

But this isn’t a history lesson, this is a mainstream Hollywood movie. Director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, I am Sam, The Last Samurai) has a certain way of doing things - mighty liberal themes, rich cinematography, and a mawkish love of sentiment. His scripts, generally, are leaden, a-historical, badly written and portentous. But his films do reasonably well because he makes up for his shortcomings in the competent direction of big-name actors.

I broke off seeing Defiance because I was sick of it. Sick to death of it. It was only halfway through and yet this interminable melodrama, droning on, was stretching out for another endless 90 minutes. In the time remaining, I could go home and watch the whole of Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece from 1962. Instead of watching Defiance I could have watched 142 minutes of Come and See from 1985, a Russian drama also set around the Nazi genocide in Byelorussia, a film so highly thought-of by Spielberg he organised cast-and-crew screenings at the Saving Private Ryan shoot.

In Come and See, you have the raw horror – the horror of war, not Fiddler on the Rough, which waltzes with as many cliches concerning Russian-Jewish heritage as it claims to shoot down. In Ivan’s Childhood you have the desperation and the cold, the wintry Russian landscape, the fragility of loyalties and friendships. You have the desolation of the young. You don’t have contrived relationships, weddings in the snow cross-cut with attacks on Nazis, binding religious ceremonies while blood is spilled, as if it was the Godfather, except Jewish, and in Russia. You have real, bitter relationships formed out of frost and fire.

So there you have it. This is not a review of Defiance. Good luck to it all the way to the Oscars, yet another overblown piece of Oscar carrion for the daws to pick at. No doubt Daniel Craig loved being out of his Bond persona, no doubt Liev Schreiber felt energized by his reconnection to an ancestral past, and Jamie Bell extended his emotional range in some sense. It’s a magnificent topic for a film. But mawkish, tedious Edward Zwick is not the man to do honor to those few and fabled Jewish insurrections, when the underdog bit back, and when people didn’t behave like actors, hugging each other, like acting classes in the woods.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Milk - The Re-Run

There are the first rumblings of a Sundance Film Festival boycott; not just the boycott of Mormon businesses in Utah advocated by many enraged Gay Rights activists, but an actual wholesale rejection of the esteemed (but increasingly creaky) festival itself.

Last week, Proposition 8 was passed by a vote in California. It reverses the right to civil gay unions and has effectively annulled over 18,000 of them (including the George Takei one) retrospectively.

The perception is that it was largely bankrolled by the Mormon Church (who spent tens of millions of dollars in a well-resourced campaign) has lead to five days of picketing in Hollywood, with Drew Barrymore manning the barricades and Melissa Etheridge announcing that she will refuse to pay income tax until she's "allowed the same rights" as other taxpayers. Mormon entertainers, including Gladys Knight and Brandon Flowers of the Killers, look likely to get an ugly reception at their California gigs in the next few months.

In a recent development, one influential blogger has called for the boycott of the Sundance Film Festival. This has created an angry response from liberal Mormons who point out that an attack on the festival and on Utah tourism in general will only harm the liberal areas and cities of Utah.

This has lead to an impassioned plea from Sundance blogger David Poland who has suggested a Harvey Milk model for boycotting specific businesses. The host hotel for the festival, The Marriott, can expect a downtown in business after it was outed by various bloggers as Mormon-owned. Hotelier Brent Andrus is on record as donating $20,000 for the Prop 8 Campaign.

It's extraordinary to think that a late-arriving Gus Van Sant film, whose gayness has been deliberately downplayed by the studio that made it (nothing sinister there - just a close observation of the way Brokeback Mountain reporting may have damaged its Oscar chances), has suddenly become the template for a whole new political campaign.

With uncanny timing, Harvey Milk's fight against Proposition 6, and his select boycotting of homophobic businesses nearly thirty years ago, looks likely to play itself out all over again.

The official website for Milk is here

Oscar Noms

Daniel Craig, 'Defiance'
Benicio Del Toro, 'Che'
Richard Jenkins, 'The Visitor'
Ben Kingsley, 'Elegy'
Mickey Rourke, 'The Wrestler'

Current state of play for Oscar 'Best Actor' Public Poll for LA Times.

Go vote here

Friday, 7 November 2008

OldBoy - The Octopus Eating Scene

With the news that Steven Spielberg is to remake the South Korean psychodrama, everyone is wondering whether that movie's most famous scene is about to be reproduced. Would Will Smith ever chow down on a slippery, live cephalopod?

Ah yes. The Octopus. The scene 'has become an iconic image in the minds of many Asian cinema fans,' according to Variety. It's one of the very few shots that didn't feature in the original Japanese Manga on which the film is based. When I called him up to talk about it, Park Chan-Wook revealed the lengths his actor had to go to in the search for the prefect take.

The scene unfolds as follows.

Choi's character has fought his way out of an inexplicable incarceration after fifteen grueling years of mind-games and private torment. He is now at large in the city, in front of a sushi bar where he receives a wallet of money and a mobile phone from a passer-by. He enters the bar, and sits on one of the red-upholstered bar-stools. He's wearing sinister, comedy sunglasses. 'I want to eat something alive', he intones dully to the pretty woman serving as a sushi chef.

He's given a whole octopus on a green plate. The phone rings, and it's a phone call from his tormentor. After hanging up he rips off the head of the octopus and chews on the tentacles, which sucker and writhe around his face and even creep into his nostrils. He faints face-down onto the sushi counter as the tentacles still wriggle from his lips.

'I want to say straight away that most people in Korea don't normally eat octopus of that size,' he tells me. 'But it's true we do eat it when it's still alive'. Park wanted to show the 'hatred' Choi's character felt after that mocking phone-call from his invisible tormentor, but also his desire to 'touch' after not touching a living thing for fifteen years.

'We filmed past midnight in a real Pusan restaurant called Gozen,' says Park. Pusan is a massive harbour overlooking the Sea of Japan. It's famous for its seafood, as well as its film festival.

'The props department had ordered a total of seven octopi from the fish market, via the restaurant's established contacts, and they were kept in the fish-tanks until we needed them' It was only on the seventh take that they got the final shot they wanted 'with the tentacles really moving around in a good way'.

It turns out that each retake was torture for Choi Min-shik. Despite his formidable action presence, he'ss a committed Buddhist. 'Before every take we had to do a prayer to apologize to the octopus for killing it,' recalls Park of that evening.

'It was very hard for him to kill something like that, let alone seven creatures in a row. It took him a long time to recover'.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Joaquin Phoenix Quits Movies to Focus on Music.

It's official.

Phoenix's publicist, Susan Patricola, has confirmed his earlier comments to TV's "Extra": The upcoming Two Lovers will be his last performance on film.

"He has said that Two Lovers is his last. But this is not strange. Joaquin has been directing music videos and been involved in music for the last number of years," she says.

Phoenix first talked about his decision to "Extra" this week while attending a fundraiser in San Francisco, abruptly ending the interview after the reporter wondered whether he was joking.

The 34-year-old star received Oscar nominations for his roles in Gladiator and Walk the Line. He learned to play guitar on the latter.

Phoenix co-stars with Gwyneth Paltrow in the romantic drama slated for release Feb. 13.

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When Hunter S Thompson shot himself in 2005, America lost a distinctive voice. Best know as a substance-abusing anarchic sonafabitch in pursuit of the American Dream in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where he was dubiously channeled by Johnny Depp, a long-standing friend, Hunter’s reputation as a pioneering skeptical journalist, star reporter of Rolling Stone, inventor of the Gonzo style, had long since drifted into obscurity.

One of the good things about this documentary by Oscar-winning film-maker Alex Gibney is how it restores Dr Gonzo to some semblance of seriousness. He was very much more than the Ralph Steadman caricature, a sort of drug-addled holy fool. At one point in the 1970’s, at the peak of his powers, Thompson was a formidable influence on the political landscape of America.

A mixture of talking heads, home videos, TV clips, film clips, recycled documentaries all pulled together with a Johnny Depp narration (sadly only ever reading from the books and never commenting on his own experiences with the man), the talking heads in particular are impressive. It’s a slight surprise when you see Republican Pat Buchanan speaking some warmly about him, and the former president Jimmy Carter not quite bringing himself to admit that it was Hunter’s early unequivocal support for him, when he was just a not very famous governor of Georgia, that later helped him clinch the 1977 election.

This is a feelgood documentary which avoids the darker part of Thompson’s psyche. It skimps on the details of his suicide. It says nothing about his early years. No doubt through issues of space it neglects a good deal of his writing, and skimps the quarrels with his friends. So you get many sequences from an interview with Jann Wenner, co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, climaxing as he rubs a tear from his eye, but you hear nothing of his fall-outs with Thompson after 1975. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that a New York media mogul should be treated with kid gloves; Graydon Carter is the producer here, after all.

History may well show that Thompson’s most important work was his Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trial ’72, in which he fearlessly exposed both the Washington political establishment and the journalistic cabal that supports it. Gonzo is especially good on this, while at the same time never quite getting to the heart of what Thompson believed politically; the overweening sense is that he simply hated being lied to, and whoever was in the establishment would have received his ire.

There have been several documentaries about Thompson, one of them even cannibalized here, but this is far and away the best of them. That said, those seeking a serious analysis of Thompson’s work will not find it in Gonzo. But what it lacks in seriousness it more than makes up with an enthusiastic, appealing bundle aimed at a younger generation. He may have spent his life attacking the American Dream, but in many ways, and here’s the irony, he actually lived it.

‘Politics is the art of controlling your environment’, he once wrote. He made an art out of politics, and his life became a work of art.

**** out of five

Gonzo receives its UK release on 19th December 2008