Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 15, 2014

Sony versus North Korea

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

In the hack of the century, Sony Corporation emails were released to the media with shockingly inappropriate statements made by studio executives about their employees and public figures, including President Obama.

Despite Hollywood’s tilt toward the Democratic Party, private communications reveal contempt for the chief executive who is the butt of stupid racial jokes. Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal, two extremely powerful Sony execs, exchanged email on their way to a fundraiser for Obama at Jeffrey Katzanberg’s mansion in November 2013.

Pascal: “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?”

Rudin: “Would he like to finance some movies.”

Pascal: “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked Django?”

Rudin: “12 YEARS.” (A reference to “12 Years a Slave”.

This is the same Rudin who bragged about his ”The Manchurian Candidate” being ”a very, very angry movie”, one that is “honestly distressed about a lot of things going on in the country right now” in 2004. In 2013, when Hollywood was coming out with some tame “social” dramas like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Rudin described this as “fantastic news for those of us who love trying to make them and have to fight hard for those opportunities” as if Wall Street would tremble at the prospects of Leonardo Di Caprio crawling across the floor after taking Quaaludes.

Meanwhile, Pascal is a major donor to the Democratic Party who is married to Bernard Weinraub, a former business reporter for the NY Times. One of the hacked emails revealed an exchange between him and Maureen Dowd over the proposed content of an article she was writing about “an old boy’s network” controlling Hollywood. There was agreement between Dowd and Weinraub that the article should not be “too antagonistic”.

One imagines that this would have meant sweeping some revelations, courtesy of the hacked emails, under the rug:

1) Men are paid more than women

Sony’s 17 biggest-earning executives are predominantly white men. According to a spreadsheet called “Comp Roster by Supervisory Organization 2014-10-21,” Amy Pascal, the co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment is the only woman earning $1 million or more at the studio.

2) It’s not just executives

Sony paid Jennifer Lawrence less than it paid Christian Bale or Bradley Cooper, her co-stars in last year’s hit movie “American Hustle.” Lawrence was paid 7 percent of the movie’s profit, while Bale and Cooper received 9 percent, according to emails sent to Pascal.

The emails contain unflattering comments about Hollywood superstars like Angela Jolie, who is referred to as “a minimally talented spoiled brat”. I think I’ll offer critical support on this.

The hackers call themselves the Guardians of Peace, a fairly obvious reference to the North Korean government’s likely role in organizing the hack. It was angry over the new film being produced by Sony titled “The Interview”, a “comedy” about a couple of American TV reporters being lined up by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un when they gain access to him under the guise of doing an interview. Ha-ha-ha. Dan Sterling, who wrote jokes for Jon Stewart, was the screenwriter. Ha-ha-ha.

As it turns out, Scott Rudin produced another “comedy” about North Korea, this time demonizing Kim Jon-il, the current dictator’s father. Titled “Team America: World Police”, it was supposedly a satire on American military power. It incorporated the “edgy” style of “South Park”, the cable TV show written and directed by Trey Parker, the film’s director/writer. In my CounterPunch review of a J. Hoberman book, I referred to the long time film critic and scholar’s take on Trey Parker’s film:

In the service of human interest, Team America recruits a replacement commando from the Broadway hit Lease. (He’s first seen singing “Everybody Has AIDS.”) His job is acting, something that intrinsically amuses animators Parker and Stone. Their marionettes vomit, bleed, and explode into organ parts. Indeed, these puppets show more guts than the filmmakers, who direct their fire at very soft targets: French and Egyptian civilians, a Communist dictator, and a bunch of Hollywood showboats. Despite some pre-release Drudge-stoked hysteria regarding an “unconscionable” attack on the administration, no American politicians appear in the movie. (The movie has since garnered Fox News’s seal of approval.) Nor do any media moguls. The filmmakers never satirize anyone who could hurt their career—not even Michael Moore enabler Harvey Weinstein.

When a Sony executive learned that the film concluded with a graphic depiction of Kim Jung-in’s head being blown to bits, he rightly worried that North Korea might be prompted to respond. After he asked the film’s creative team to tone down the conclusion, co-star Seth Rogen blew his stack over the threats to artistic freedom as revealed in a hacked email: “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy. That is a very damning story.” This is the same Seth Rogen, by the way, who made headlines defending Israel against the BDS movement a few months ago.

In today’s NY Times, there is little interest in trying to understand why North Korea was moved to hack Sony emails (although I would have been overjoyed to see them under any pretext). Instead, the emphasis is on Japanese fears about the rogue state:

While many Americans seem to see North Korea as too distant to keep them awake at night, many Japanese see it as a very visible threat. Until three decades ago, North Korean agents occasionally snatched people off beaches in neighboring Japan to serve as Japanese-language teachers, and long-range North Korean rockets on test runs still fly ominously over Japan’s main islands.

Now I wouldn’t put it past the North Korean government to commit any number of heinous acts, but I wonder what the real story about “snatched people” is in light of this report from the March 11, 2002 NY Times:

In court, Meguni Yao, the former wife of a Japanese leftist, said that when the couple lived in North Korea during the 1980’s, she tried to lure lonely Japanese students, some of them studying abroad, to North Korea. There they were to either join a government-supported ”Japan Revolutionary Village” or to train North Korean spies for work in Japan.

Is it possible that the “abductees” were simply young Japanese leftists who made the mistake of relocating to North Korea? Who knows?

What I do know is that North Korea has ample reasons to be afraid of and angry at both Japan and the USA. Keep in mind that Japan colonized Korea in 1910 and imposed a vicious regime that even the anti-Communist south regards as a stain on the country’s history. Korea was a source of raw materials and cheap labor, corresponding to the model identified in Lenin’s essay on imperialism. During WWII up to 200,000 Korean women were forced to become prostitutes to serve the Japanese army, euphemistically called “comfort women” while twice that number of men were sent to work in Japanese war plants against their will. Meanwhile, after the fashion of Nazi German’s Dr. Mengele, the Japanese experimented with captive Koreans in Unit 731, as Nicholas Kristof reported in the March 17, 1995 NY Times:

He is a cheerful old farmer who jokes as he serves rice cakes made by his wife, and then he switches easily to explaining what it is like to cut open a 30-year-old man who is tied naked to a bed and dissect him alive, without anesthetic.

“The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down,” recalled the 72-year-old farmer, then a medical assistant in a Japanese Army unit in China in World War II. “But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming.

“I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped. This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.”

Whatever other sins he is guilty of, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the ruling dynasty in North Korea, deserves historical accolades for driving the Japanese out of Korea. For this transgression, he was punished by the USA that under the fig leaf of UN-sponsored conflict resolution, invaded Korea and killed 290,000 North Korean soldiers and was responsible for nearly 3 million civilian casualties in the south and north combined. That is about 10 percent of the total population in 1950. Can you imagine how the USA would react if a country that had invaded and killed 30 million of its citizens would react to a “comedy” that climaxed with the assassination of its president? Of course, that is completely hypothetical question given the fact that the USA has ruled the world for the better part of a century. Eventually that will change under the impact of economic transformations that will render the imperialist monster toothless—the sooner the better.

 

June 27, 2014

Secret Reunion

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

Jang Hoon’s “Secret Reunion”

Korean Border Noir

by LOUIS PROYECT

In April 2013 I wrote a survey for CounterPunch  on Korean War movies made by Koreans that included Jang Hoon’s The Front Line, about which I wrote:

Set during the final months of the war, soldiers from either side have not only grown war-weary; they have gotten into the habit of dropping off gifts to each other-like wine and cigarettes-at a designated secret store-box at the bottom of a bunker near the front lines.

This is the second reconciliation film directed by Jang Hoon. His “Secret Reunion”, a 2010 film I have not seen, is about former north and south Korean spies bonding together out of a shared interest.

The very good news is that “Secret Reunion” is now available on Netflix streaming. It is Korean filmmaking at its very best. If you are familiar with Korean film, that’s reason enough to check it out. If Hong Kong cinema has seen its day, you can make the case that Korea not only carries on in the grand tradition but also elevates it to a higher level.

read full article

January 4, 2014

Old Dog; Old Partner

Filed under: farming,Film,Korea,Tibet — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Now that I have gotten through the “prestige” Hollywood movies the studio sent me in November and December, I can finally get back to the kind of movie that I really care about—the leftwing documentary or the narrative film made in some peripheral nation on a shoestring budget featuring a non-professional cast. When I took one look at the back of the DVD for “Old Dog”, I knew I was back on native ground:

When a young man notices several thefts of mastiffs from Tibetan farm families, he decides to sell his family’s dog before it is stolen and sold on the black market. His father, an aging Tibetan herder, is furious when he discovers their dog missing. When the father seeks to buy the dog back, it leads to a series of tragicomic events that threaten to tear the family apart, while showing the erosion of Tibetan culture under the pressures of contemporary society.

Ah, just my kind of film. Given the theme, I was willing to cut the film a lot more slack than something like “Inside Llewyn Davis”. Fortunately, the film succeeded just as much as art as it did as social commentary.

The Tibet of “Old Dog” has nothing in common with the idealized version that revolves around the Dalai Lama and snow-capped mountains. This is not Shangri-La but a landscape of arid rolling hills and dirt roads. The main character, a young unemployed longhaired alcoholic man named Gonpo (Drolma Kyab), is seen as the film begins driving a noisy and underpowered motorcycle slowly along a dirt road with a strange looking dog with matted fur trailing behind him attached to a chain.

Wary about the growing number of dog thefts in rural Tibet where the breed—a Tibetan mastiff coveted by rich Chinese yuppies in the same way that some Americans dote on French bulldogs—is used to herd sheep rather than be shown off on a leash in a rich neighborhood, Gonpo has decided to sell the dog to a man in the nearest town who sells them to Chinese customers.

With the proceeds, he has lunch with his cousin, the local chief of police, and then spends some more on getting drunk. He returns late at night and teeters back into the house he shares with his father, a man who still dresses in traditional garb and raises sheep on a hillside, and his wife. The next day his father is angry that he has sold the dog behind his back and demands that he bring it back. That he does, but not without complications. Like their dogs, the Tibetan rural folk with roots in a nomadic mode of existence, have an uphill battle against the dominant Chinese nationality.

Although the film has an important message to deliver, it is not preachy. For those familiar with the deadpan minimalist irony of an Aki Kaurismäki or a Jim Jarmusch will be familiar with director Pema Tseden’s style. In an iconic scene, you see father, son, and daughter-in-law sitting glassy-eyed in front of a poorly focused television set watching a Chinese infomercial for a bracelet that looks like gold but that is even better.

“Old Dog” can be seen on Amazon.com and is well worth it for those looking for a film off the beaten track. It doesn’t get much more off than this jewel of a film.

Probably by coincidence, “Old Dog” has much in common with “Old Partner”,  Korean film that mourns the passing of a traditional way of life embodied in a work animal’s role in the life of country people. I reviewed the film, which is now available as a Netflix DVD, back in December of 2009. I will repeat the review now just to allow you to read them side-by-side for comparison’s sake.

In keeping with the high standards of the Korean film industry that I have called attention to in past reviews, one is a documentary titled “Old Partner” showing at the Film Forum. The “old partner” referred to in the title is a 40 year old ox on his last legs, the prize possession of Choi Won-kyun and Lee Sam-soon, husband and wife farmers, who are stooped over from old age and backbreaking work. The general mood of the film evokes Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written in 1750 as a kind of resigned protest against industrialization:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

In the same manner as Gray’s poem, there is a muted but recognizable rejection of industrialism’s benefits. Choi refuses to use insecticide because it threatens to poison his ox. He also refuses to use a rice-harvesting machine because too many grains will be lost. Even though he is in his 80s, he prefers to gather up the rice by hand. His wife, who is forced to work alongside him, nags him throughout the film. Sell the ox. Get a machine. Use insecticide. He ignores her all the while, facilitated no doubt by the fact that he is nearly deaf. Meanwhile, the only sound he strains to hear is the bell attached to his ox’s neck that provides a kind of soundtrack throughout the film. Its constant tinkling reminds you more of a Buddhist temple than hard labor, accentuated by the sight of the beast’s oddly beatific gaze.

Choi travels everywhere in a cart drawn by his beloved ox, even to the nearest city where he observes a demonstration by local activists against the importation of American cattle. They chant “No to Mad Cow!” Choi says not a word as he trudges slowly by, but it is clear that he is in sympathy, as is the film’s director no doubt.

An interview with director Lee Chung-ryoul is worth quoting in its entirety:

Where did the idea from the movie come from? Why do you think it was important to make this film?

I happened to visit a cattle market for coverage in 1999 where I saw an ox shed tears looking at his former owner as he was being pulled away by his new owner. That moment reminded me of my father’s ox from my childhood.

Before industrialization, the business of the Korean countryside was the sole domain of oxen and our fathers. They were heroes, idols and the driving force of Korean agricultural development. Since industrialization, however, they had nothing to do. Oxen became only beef; our fathers retired and aged with an aging town.

The situation makes me sad. So I wanted to recollect the devotion and beautiful sympathy of farmers and oxen in this film, and the scenery might be the last moment of this age. This film is dedicated to the oxen and our fathers devoted to this land.

How did you meet this farmer?

For five years, I traveled around the nation to find a proper ox and farmer. In early 2005, someone told me there was a proper man and an ox in a small town in Bong-wha. I was so lucky to encounter them.

What elements of the South Korean culture are portrayed in the movie?

Before the introduction of farm machinery to the countryside, our farms totally depended upon oxen. This film portrays the core of Korean agricultural practices. Also, it shows aspects of traditional Korean culture, such as patriarchy, unequal conjugal relationships and the commitment of parents to educate their children at any cost. It also shows the affection for oxen, who are considered family members and collaborative partners, not just animals.

 

June 26, 2013

New York Asian Film Festival 2013 — Korean films

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 10:05 pm

If like me, the thought of shelling out $11 to watch “The Bling Ring” and similar dreck at your local Cineplex leaves you cold, I urge you to check out the schedule for the 2013 N.Y. Asian Film Festival (http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2013) that begins on June 28th and runs through July 15th. I have been attending these festivals for the past two decades and they make living here worth it.

This year the organizers made nine Vimeo screenings available to the press in keeping with the gradual move away from DVD’s. While some of my colleagues in NYFCO are unhappy with this, it presents no problems for me. The nine films are not necessarily the ones that I would have liked to see but they are broadly representative of the fare being offered. Over the next few days I am going to be blogging about the films on a country-by-country basis. Today I start with Korea, whose film industry continues to impress me for its overall level of brilliance.

Scheduled for Wednesday, July 03, 3:00pm, “Confession of Murder” is Jeong Byeong-Gil’s first film. Like 2010’s Chinese-made “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, the film owes more to Agatha Christie than John Woo. It is complicated story with a surprise ending. While nominally a policier, a genre that South Korea has virtually made its own, it does make much of an effort to psychologically probe its central characters—a function of their not being what they seem.

The film is based on the premise that Lee Du-seok, a serial killer of ten women, has come out of hiding just after the statute of limitations has run out. At his press conference, the handsome and charismatic killer announces the publication of a book based on his evil deeds that turns him overnight into a media celebrity. The film strives for satirical commentary on the rot at the heart of TV shows like Entertainment Tonight (or its Korean version to be more exact) but it is best when the attention shifts to Detective Choi, who was knifed in the face by Lee just after his final killing. Choi is a typical tough-as-nails anti-hero who breaks departmental rules almost every day but is deferential to his mom who treats him like an impertinent 16 year old she is sending to bed without supper. Their moments together on screen were much more entertaining to me than the car chases or convoluted plot twists.

“Juvenile Offender” that plays at Friday, July 05, 2:15pm and Thursday, July 11, 6:00pm is Korean filmmaking at its best. Directed by Kang Yi-Kwan, it is riveting character study of two of Korean society’s “losers”. We first meet Ji-gu, a sixteen year old who lives in poverty with his sickly grandfather, as he and some friends break into a house that the gang-leader describes as belonging to his uncle. “Take anything you like”, he says. The cops eventually arrest everybody but only Ji-gu goes to jail because he is unable to afford a lawyer and has nobody to vouch for him. After spending close to a year in jail, he is told by the warden that they have located his mother Hyo-seung who abandoned him as a baby when she was just his age. To complete the cycle of “irresponsibility”, Ji-gu has impregnated his own girl friend just before getting picked up by the cops.

She picks him up from jail and takes him with her to the apartment she shares with Ji-Young, the proprietor of a hair-styling salon who she knew from high school and who has given her a job sweeping the floor and other menial tasks. Although she has been generous to Hyo-seung, who lives with her for free, she never tires of reminding her that she is nothing but a deadbeat. Hyo-seung is the classic “victim” psychologically while Ji-young is the classic passive-aggressive. The tense standoff between the two women breaks down, however, as soon as Ji-gu shows up. Unlike his mom, he does not feel particularly grateful. Nor does filial respect describe his ambivalence toward his mother, who he asks where she has been all her life. After seeing the two hapless souls trying to fend for themselves after being evicted from Ji-young’s apartment, you can understand why she never came around for him. She can barely take care of herself. The two work menial jobs and stay just barely one step ahead of homelessness, while working to make for lost time as mother and son.

The performances of Jung-hyun Lee as mother and Rae-yeon Kang as son are deserving of the awards they have garnered from three different film festivals. Jung-hyun Lee is a mixture of truculence and vulnerability as is her son. The screenwriter and director clearly understand how such qualities become endemic in those not on the inside track of the race for the survival of the fittest in today’s South Korea. We are thankful to blogger A.J. Albone for transcribing a panel discussion with the director last April:

I interviewed police, to know what was the real present situation of Korea, which were the social problems of young offenders and young single mothers. I shot the film in real locations, for instance, the scenes shot in the reformatory were a real location. For me it was very important to make a very realistic film.

When I started making this film, I decided to convey a very real situation – the situation of social issues, but at the same time I wanted to make a beautiful film, thinking of the Korean audience. I wanted to make a film that was not only interesting in terms of content, but also beautiful.

I had never had such experiences before. I was absolutely not at all acquainted with the problems of juvenile offenders and young single mothers. After finishing this film I got interested in such social problems. I started also to try and find more information about such issues. I started becoming very aware of present Korean social problems.

ADDENDUM

Screen shot 2013-06-26 at 6.03.21 PMA scene from “The House”

While it is not part of NYAFF 2013, I would put in the good word for “The House”, an animated film presented by Korea Society out at The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens on Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 1 PM.

This is an animated film that never quite figures out whether it was intended for adults or children. It is about a slum neighborhood facing demolition in order to pave the way for the kinds of high-rises that make Seoul and most of China such a sterile eyesore. It is a critique of gentrification and beyond that the modernization that is transforming Korea along the lines of Karl Marx’s observation in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

As an obstacle to the developer’s plans, spirits dwelling in the slum housing create all sorts of obstacles in his path. At first the young heroine Ga-young, who has lost all her money when her mutual fund goes bust, is anxious to regain her old wealth and move into a fancy high-rise but as she gets to know the spirits around her made visible by a magic bracelet she is persuaded to resist the incursion by real estate developers. All in all, the plot will remind any New Yorker of what has been happening in downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg over the past few years.

The biggest problem with the film is that it can’t decide whether to go full-tilt toward making a film exclusively of interest to adults or one for kids. There is a bit too much “Disney” in it, reminiscent of Casper the Friendly Ghost, but all in all worth seeing.

 

April 19, 2013

Pathology and Reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

My introduction to Korean films and the changing political landscape in the south was Lee Chang-dong’s 2000 masterpiece “Peppermint Candy”.  Not only was it a fearless assault on South Korean repression of strikes and student protests in the 1980s, it was my pick for best narrative film that year leaving Academy Award winner “Gladiator” in the dust. If Hong Kong cinema had become increasingly formulaic by then, South Korea picked up the slack and turned into by far the most fertile ground for new cinema in the world.

Chang-dong Lee went on to write and direct other masterpieces, including “Mother” and “Poetry”, but even more importantly to serve as a symbol of progress in the south and reconciliation with the north in his capacity as Minister of Culture and Tourism in 2003-2004 under reformer President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh continued the policies of Kim Dae-jung who ruled from 1998 to 2003. Widely regarded as the Nelson Mandela of South Korea, Kim instituted the “Sunshine Policy” that sought to bring the two halves of the country closer together.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/19/pathology-and-reconciliation-on-the-korean-peninsula/

September 20, 2012

Korean film festival at the Museum of Modern Art

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

For those who follow my film reviews, you will know that I regard Korean film as among the best being made anywhere in the world today. I will be covering this year’s “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today” festival at the MOMA that began yesterday and runs through the 30th. This is the schedule. I strongly urge film buffs in NY to give it a shot:

http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/films/1307

July 31, 2012

The primary academic McCarthyite was Karl Wittfogel

Filed under: Korea,racism — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

Karl Wittfogel

What follows is page 94-99 in Bruce Cuming’s brilliant “The Korean War: a history”, published in 2010. The book is not just a history of the war. It is a deeply insightful study of the politics and culture of the early 1950s, when the Korean War was raging. I simply can’t recommend this book highly enough. This passage that deals with a side of Karl Wittfogel that was unknown to me gives you an idea of the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to put “orientalism” on trial even when the viewpoint was that of a noted Marxist scholar like Wittfogel as well as Leon Trotsky.

ORIENT, OCCIDENT, AND REPRESSION: HOW THE BEST MINDS CREATE STEREOTYPES

The primary academic McCarthyite was Karl Wittfogel, who had a strange trajectory out of the same milieu as Bertolt Brecht: he was the leading ideologue of the German Communist Party in the early 1930s, and the leading proponent of Karl Marx’s theory of “the Asiatic Mode of Production.” Stalin purged him for reasons that are not entirely clear, and Wittfogel came to the United States and established himself as a scholar with his magnum opus, Oriental: Despotism. Marx’s theory appraised Asia by reference to what it lacked when set against the standard-issue European model of development: feudalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, capitalism. A brutal satrap presided over a semiarid environment, running armies of bureaucrats and soldiers, regulating the paths of great rivers, and employing vast amounts of slave labor in gigantic public works projects (such as China’s Great Wall). The despot above and the cringing mass below prevented the emergence of anything resembling a modern middle class.

Leon Trotsky, his biographer Isaac Deutscher, the Soviet dissident Nikolai Bukharin, and Wittfogel all likened Stalin to Eastern potentates, especially Genghis Khan, and thought his regime was a species of Oriental despotism, the worst features of the “Asiatic mode of production” coming to the fore. It is stunning to see Trotsky open his biography of Stalin with a first sentence remarking that the old revolutionist Leonid Krassin “was the first, if I am not mistaken, to call Stalin an ‘Asiatic'”; Trotsky depicts “Asiatic” leaders as cunning and brutal, presiding over static societies with a huge peasant base. “Cunning” and “shrewd” were standard adjectives in stereotypes of Asians, particularly when they were denied civil rights and penned up in Chinatowns by whites-only housing restrictions, leading to uniform typecasting from a distance—peering over a high board fence, so to:speak. “Brutal” was another, at least since Genghis Khan, with Pol Pot and Mao reinforcing the image in our time. The broadest distinction, between static or indolent East and dynamic, progressive West, goes all the way back to Herodotus and Aristotle.

Marx never really investigated East Asia, but learned enough to know that if China fit his theory, Japan with its feudalism (and “petite culture”) clearly did not. Wittfogel, however, applied his notions of Oriental despotism to every dynastic empire with a river running through it—China, tsarist Russia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Incas, even the Hopi Indians of Arizona. By this time he had done a full-fledged, high-wire tenko ( Japanese for a political flip-flop), reemerging as an organic reactionary and trying to re-produce himself in, of all places, Seattle—the most thoroughly middle-class city in America. Wittfogel wrote for many extreme-right-wing publications and played a critical role in the purges of China scholars and Foreign Service officers during-the McCarthy period. Hardly any scholars would testify against Owen Lattimore, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s prime professorial target, but the University of Washington furnished three: Wittfogel, Nikolas Poppe (a Soviet expert on Mongolia who had defected to the Nazis in 1943), and George Taylor, a British scholar-journalist.

After teaching in the Philadelphia area in the mid-1970s– where I was pleased to meet Olga Lang, Wittfogel’s first wife (“Why did you divorce?” I asked. “Irreconcilable political differences,” she answered)—I wound up at the University of Washington, which has one of the oldest East Asian programs in the United States. Around that time Perry Anderson published Lineages of the Absolutist State. At the end of this magisterial book rests an eighty-seven-page “Note” on the theory of the Asiatic mode of production,’ where Anderson shows that Marx’s views on Asia differed little from those of Hegel, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and a host of other worthies; they were all peering through the wrong end of a telescope, or in a mirror, weighing a smattering of knowledge about Asia against their understanding of how the West developed. Nor did Marx ever take the “Asiatic mode” very seriously; he was always interested in one thing, really, and that was capitalism (even when it came to communism). Anderson called Wittfogel a “vulgar charivari” and recommended giving this theory an unceremonious burial, concluding that “in the night of our ignorance … all alien shapes take on the same hue.” I eagerly recommended his book to my colleagues: a good friend said, “He doesn’t know any Chinese.” Another responded, “Isn’t he a Marxist?”—meaning Anderson, not Wittfogel.

The theory never really got a proper burial, though, it just reappears in less-conspicuous forms. It isn’t politically correct to say “Oriental” or “Asiatic” anymore. Stalin is long dead, but Stalinism is apparently not, and it’s still okay to say almost anything about Stalinism. Furthermore, lo and behold, one set of “Orientals” has kept it alive: journalists use the term time and again to describe North Korea, without any hint of qualifying or questioning their position. The idea that the DPRK is a pure form of “Stalinism in the East” goes back to the 1940s, and was constantly reinforced by Berkeley’s Robert Scalapino, a Cold War scholar who came along in the late 1950s and benefited as Much as anyone from the post-McCarthy accommodation between the right and the middle. North Korean political practice is reprehensible, but we are not responsible for it. More disturbing is the incessant stereotyping and demonizing of this regime in the United States. When Kim II Sung died in 1994, Newsweek ran a cover story entitled “The Headless Beast.” Assertions that his son is simply crazy abound, but when they enter the thinking of fine analyst such as Steven Coll in The New Yorker, a magazine with a venerable tradition of fact-checking [except when it comes to Bob Dylan quotes], you might ask which psychiatrist diagnosed Kim? Another expert recently wrote, as if everyone knows this, that North Korea is “a hybrid of Stalinism and oriental despotism.

Kim Jong Il, of course, specializes in do-it-yourself stereotyping, masquerading as the Maximum Leader of a Communist opera bouffe in elevator shoes and 1970s double-knit pants suit, fattening himself while the masses starve, which makes it hard to argue that “Oriental despotism” is not the name of his politics. But there is no evidence in the North Korean experience of the mass violence against whole classes of people or the wholesale “purge” that so clearly characterized Stalinism, and that was particularly noteworthy in the scale of deaths in the land reform campaigns in China and North Vietnam and the purges of the Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, North Korea remains everyone’s example of worst-case socialism and (until 1991) Soviet stoogery, leading American observers whether at the time or since to deem it impossible for the DPRK to have had any capacity for independent action in 1950.

In fact Kim and his late father, and the ideologues around them, continue the ancient monarchical practice in East and West of “the king’s two bodies,” a body politic and a “body natural.” The latter is an ordinary, frail human being who happens to be king, who will go to his death like anyone else: Kim Jong II, in short, with the dyspeptic, cynical, irritated face of a man who, from birth, had no chance of living up to his father—yet he has to be king. The other is a superhuman presence, an absolutely perfect body representing the god-king, maintained through the centuries as an archetype of the exquisite leader. (And with this you get North Korean inanities such as Kim Jong Il scoring eagles on his first golf round.) In death the body natural disappears, but the soul of the god-king passes on to the next king. In Pyongyang this translated into Kim II Sung’s “seed” bringing forth his first son, Jong II, continuing the perfect “bloodlines” that his scribes never tire of applauding. The family line thus becomes immortal, explaining why Kim Ii Sung was not just president-for-life, but remained president of the DPRK in his afterlife. The high-level defector Hwang Jang-yop told Bradley Martin that the two Kims “turned Stalinism and Marxism-Leninism on their heads by reverting to Confucian notions.”‘

North Korea is thus a modern form of monarchy, realized in a highly nationalistic, postcolonial state. “The social unity expressed in the ‘body of the despot,'” Jameson pointed out, is political, but also analogous to various religious practices. That the favored modern practice of such regimes should be nationalism (the leader’s body, the body politic, the national body) is also entirely predictable. But the Western left (let alone liberals) utterly fails to understand “the immense Utopian appeal of nationalism”; its morbid qualities are easily grasped, but its healthy qualities for the collective, and for the tight unity that postcolonial leaders crave, are denied. When you add to postcolonial nationalism Korea’s centuries of royal succession and neo-Confucian philosophy, it might be possible to understand North Korea as an unusual but predictable combination of monarchy, nationalism, and Korean political culture.

July 27, 2012

Three outstanding Asian films

Filed under: Asia,China,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

As nations with a distinct identity going back for thousands of years, China, Korea and Japan provide a deep well of historical sagas on a par with Beowulf, the Iliad or any other more familiar Western tales. Not surprisingly, the film industry of each country has tapped into this rich vein in order to create memorable works. This review takes a look at “Sacrifice”, a new film opening today at the Quad Cinema in NYC by acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige of “Farewell, My Concubine” fame as well as two fairly recent films on Netflix streaming that will appeal to those who enjoy swordplay and thrillingly choreographed battle scenes involving thousands of men in armor, and to those who are tired of postmodernist irony. One is a Korean film titled “War of the Arrows” that is based on the Manchu invasion of Korea in the 17th century, an event that actually resonates with more recent history. The other is a masterpiece by John Woo titled “Red Cliff” that is set in 3rd century AD China and that thankfully rescues the great director from the hit-making CPA-driven machinery of Hollywood.

“Sacrifice” is based on the classic play “Orphan of Zhao” that was written in the 13th century by Ji Jun-Xiang and is the first Chinese play known to Europe. It was adapted by a number of important authors, including Voltaire. Like much of Shakespeare’s tragedies, revenge is a key element of the narrative in Kaige’s film as well as the two others.

As is so often the case in this genre, warlords are the dominant characters. The film begins with a bloody attack on the Zhao clan by a rival named Tu Angu who seeks to usurp his rivals in a Macbeth-like manner. Every last one of the Zhao clan is slaughtered except the chieftan’s son who is being delivered  by court physician Cheng Ying while the mayhem is occurring.

When one of Tu Angu’s henchmen comes to Zhao’s chambers to retrieve the newborn child and deliver him to be slaughtered, the mother and the physician plead for mercy. Against his better judgment the warrior allows the child to be delivered to safety. When Tu Angu learns that the infant is still alive and concealed somewhere in the city, he orders all newborn male children to be seized from the parents and brought to him, including Chen Ying’s own son who was born within hours of Zhao’s.

In a mix-up that is part deliberate and part accidental, Tu Angu kills Chen Ying’s newborn son thinking that he was Zhao’s, as well as the boy’s mother. Chen Ying is now left alone in the world with nothing but the son of the leader of the Zhao clan who is led to believe that he is the physician’s son.

Showing a shred of remorse for having killed what he thought to be the physician’s son, Tu Angu becomes a godfather to what he assumes is the physician’s son and teaches him the martial arts, including swordsmanship. Chin Yeng has an ulterior motive in allowing the boy to be groomed by his wife and son’s killer. Once the adoptee has reached adulthood, he will learn that his godfather killed his real mother and father. The physician is sure that  the youth will seek bloody vengeance.

Despite the expected presence of swordplay and pitched battles on horseback, “Sacrifice” is much more about human relationships and particularly the divided loyalties between Zhao’s son and the two father figures in his life. As one of China’s finest directors, Chen Kaige elicits memorable performances from Ge You who plays the physician and Wang Xue-Qi who plays Tu Angu.

Asked in an interview how he feels about the inroads that Hollywood is making into China, Chen Kaige answers that his films should generate mass appeal to audiences tiring of tinseltown superficiality. Considering his words, it should be obvious that “Sacrifice” is just the sort of thing that will appeal to American audiences tired of another stupid Ben Stiller movie like “Watch” that opens today as well:

What I can say is that we need to develop the market, if we want people to watch a variety of films; you need a variety of audience. This is a like a chain. Young people under 20, they go to McDonalds, they drink Coca Cola, they wear Nike and they watch Hollywood movies.

You can’t imagine the kids will say to you, “Let’s go to McDonalds, and then let’s go to the Peking Opera.” No way. It’s natural the young kids want to watch U.S. movies. The U.S movies are providing something interesting – high technology, a feast of visual and sound effects, it’s like playing a game.

What can we do? We are facing a big challenge from the invasion of Hollywood films. I think we should stay with the situation. We don’t need to be scared or screaming like crazy saying “The wolf is here!” I feel we should make more stories people can relate to and not just make big films to compete with Hollywood. You can have your own story to tell, which is wonderful.

“War of the Arrows” begins in the same fashion as “Sacrifice” with Chinese warlords wiping out another clan, this time Koreans. And as is the case with “Sacrifice”, it is left up to Nam-yi, the sole male survivor of the attack, to wreak vengeance on his father’s killer. The only other survivor of the attack is his younger sister Ja-in. So, basically you are dealing with a mixture of Macbeth and Hamlet with a lot more action. Who can ask for anything more?

In “War of the Arrows”, the main weapon is a bow and arrow as the title indicates. Nam-yi is a master archer who is living a purposeless life other than perfecting his martial arts. On the day of his sister’s wedding, the same warlords that killed his father raid the compound and seize his sister. The rest of the film is dedicated to his pursuit of the kidnappers and the vengeance for his father’s killing.

While vengeance is a fairly universal theme in Asian film, either of the costume drama genre such as this or in more modern gangster films of the sort that John Woo perfected, it probably resonates more deeply with Koreans who were victimized by both the Chinese and the Japanse at different times in their history.

In preparing for another essay on the Korean War as represented in Korean film, I began reading Bruce Cumings’ “The Korean War”, a book published in 2010 that I can’t recommend more highly. Cumings is not only an authoritative and radical historian, he is also a gifted prose stylist who writes with genuine passion.

The book details the great feats of the anti-Japanese resistance in the 1930s that were led by Kim Il-Sung in Manchuria, the same location as the film’s narrative. Instead of a heroic resistance using bows and arrows, Kim Il Sung led a relatively small band (350) against far more powerful Japanese forces that relied on Korean traitors.

Director Kim Han-Min’s next film is titled “Battle of Myeongryang, Whirlwind Sea” and is scheduled to be released next summer. The AsianWiki describes it as follows:

Movie depicts the Battle of Myeongryang which took place October 26, 1597. The battle involved Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who had only 12 ships under his command, against the Japanese navy which had over a hundred ships. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin was able to successfully defeat the Japanese navy.

I would like to think that the director is channeling the spirit of Kim Il-Sung but am really holding out for the day when South Korean filmmakers can tell the truth about Kim Il-Sung himself, who was one of the last century’s greatest nationalist heroes next to Fidel Castro and Ho Chi-Minh.

Currently the only version of “Red Cliff” that can be seen on Netflix is the theatrical version, which is an ample 2 ½ hours. Although my remarks are based on this version, I  would urge you to consider purchasing the 2-DVD uncut version from amazon.com as I just did.

Red Cliff tells the story of the war between the Han Dynasty’s Chancellor Cao Cao and two southern warloards Sun Quan and Liu Bei. The climax of the film is a naval assault on the castle at Red Cliff defended by the outnumbered southern forces in the summer of 208. Although John Woo said that only 50 percent of the film is historically accurate, a monumental battle did take place that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty.

While the historical details of the actual battle are murky, this much is known. It did take place on the Yangtze River, which plays as much of a role in Chinese civilization as the Nile does in Egypt or the Mississippi in American (such as it is.)

Woo’s orchestration of the climactic scenes are about as stunning as any I have seen in this genre and make its Hollywood counterparts such as Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” look trivial by comparison. (Petersen, a rather good German director, should like Woo leave Hollywood behind if he wants to retain whatever integrity he still has.)

Like “The Orphan of Zhao”, the battle of Red Cliff has inspired many Chinese writers, including the 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. There are also video games but I doubt that any could surpass Woo’s film which broke the box office record previously held by Titanic in mainland China, thus helping to realize Chen Kaige’s dream.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Woo’s work but suffice it to say that there would be no Quentin Tarentino if there was no John Woo. Tarentino’s films are practically a plagiarism on Woo’s work but without the visual poetry and the deeper moral sensibility.

After sixteen years in Hollywood, Woo returned to Asia to make a film that he had been dreaming about since the mid-80s. In an interview with the July 12, 2008 Singapore Strait Times, he explained his quest:

Woo says his patchy career in Hollywood was a learning experience: ‘In every film I make, be it an entertainment film or something more individualistic, I would search for some meaning that could sustain me for the period of film-making.’

But he hints that the experience had soured considerably by the time he did the Ben Affleck vehicle Paycheck (2003), a widely panned sci-fi thriller. [I saw it for the first time myself a month ago and can recommend it without reservations, if for no other reason that it is based on a Philip K. Dick novel.]

The script passed through many hands and was hemmed in by market considerations and budgetary constraints and there was also little room for improvisation once shooting started.

‘It was very different from how I worked previously as I would make changes on the fly. And it was hard for me to find meaning,’ he admits.

At the same time, there was a momentous event which prompted him to look back East – China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

‘I was very excited and moved and I even cried. I thought I should return and make more meaningful movies. Since I have learnt so much in Hollywood, why not take what I have learnt back to China?’ he says.

Having straddled both East and West, he wanted Red Cliff to be a conduit to expose Western audiences to Chinese culture. That is why the West is getting a single-serving version of the film clocking in at just 21/2 hours.

‘Western audiences don’t understand our history. They might even have trouble telling Zhou Yu from Zhao Yun since the names sound similar,’ he says. Zhou Yu is the military strategist to Sun Quan while Zhao Yun is a key general in Liu Bei’s army.

With all due respect to John Woo, I don’t worry much about Western audiences in general. After all, 40 percent of Americans reject the idea of evolution. My reviews are geared to the most intelligent Americans (as well as my readers worldwide), those who have come to the conclusion that capitalism is an irrational system or at least willing to listen to somebody who has such a belief. If you are looking for something to keep your spirit elevated in these most dismal times, I can recommend “Sacrifice”, “War of the Arrows” and “Red Cliff” without reservation.

September 21, 2011

Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 6:52 pm

When I think back on my favorite directors from what I consider the golden age of movies, roughly the end of WWII to early 60s, there are a few things that they seem to have in common. Firstly and most importantly, they are humanists. Although only some share my leftist sympathies (Kurosawa, Ray, De Sica), they all sought to give meaning to the lives of ordinary human beings through their work. Additionally, they were very much engaged with their national culture even though none could be described as nationalistic. Their films were very much concerned with traditions that united their countrymen culturally. This frequently meant using dialog that was drawn from the vernacular. Finally, they navigated easily between high and low culture. They sought the widest audience without watering down their art form. In a very real sense, they were following a path that Shakespeare had pioneered in Elizabethan England.

Alas, the golden age is no more. These great directors are all dead now and Hollywood’s heavy commercial hand has been felt across the planet, especially in the age of globalization. There is at least one happy exception to this sorry trend, however. For people who have been reading my film reviews over the past few years, you will know that I regard Korean films among the best in the world today. Not only that, they are a welcome throwback to the Golden Age with their humanism, their engagement with indigenous traditions and culture, and their ability to entertain while reaching the greatest heights of artistic achievement.

I urge my fellow New Yorkers to see for themselves how great Korean cinema is today by attending the Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today series at the Museum of Modern Art that begins tomorrow and extends through October 2nd.  Yeonghwa is the Korean word for film, “a good word for cinéastes to know, given the Korean film industry’s success at festivals and among critics and audiences worldwide” as the Korea Society’s website describes it. The Korea Society has curated the festival, as well as a number of others I have attended in the past few years.

I had a chance to preview three of the films that are part of the MOMA program and my high expectations were met in spades.

The first was “Rolling Home with a Bull (Sowa Hamkke Yeohaenghaneun Beop)”, a picaresque tale about the thirtyish son of small farmers who decides to sell his father’s ox, an animal that the old man clings to despite the mechanization sweeping the Korean countryside. Two years ago I reviewed “Old Partner“, a documentary that featured an old couple just like the parents of the young lead character in Rolling Home that I likened to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written in 1750 as a kind of resigned protest against industrialization.

(The trailer below and for “Hanji” later on lack subtitles but are included to give a feel for the cinematography.)

Sun-ho (Gan Young-Pil) absconds with the family ox one morning and departs for the auction yards where he hopes to make good money. He is sick of farming and aspires to the literary life (he competes in a local poetry contest). His parents tell him that he is wasting his time and urge him to get rid of his books. Furthermore, like the worrying parents of all single men and women everywhere in the world, they keep trying to fix him up with the nearest available women—in this case blind dates with local Vietnamese and Laotian women.

Sun-ho is not interested in women, still carrying a torch for the one who dumped him for his best friend seven years earlier. While he is on the road trying to find a customer for his father’s ox, he gets a call from her. Her husband has just died and she wants him to take part in the mourning. This leads to major emotional complications for Sun-Ho who still resents her, especially when she makes overtures to him on the very day of her dead husband’s cremation.

Somewhere toward the middle of the movie, it takes a magical realist turn with the bull becoming a vehicle for Buddhist meditations and imagery. Although this ordinarily just the sort of thing that would make me squirm in my seat, I loved every minute.

“Rolling Home with the Bull” is funny, smart, and dramatically compelling. The acting and writing are first-rate. Put that one on your list for sure.

“Hanji (Dalbit Gileoolligi)” was directed by Kwon-taek Im who was born in 1936, has over 100 films to his credit, and is considered Korea’s leading director. The IMDB biography on him states:

He grew up in the southern city Kwangju, where he completed senior high school. His family suffered considerable hardships and losses in the Korean War, so he had to move to Pusan in search of work: he was a labourer before trying to start a business recycling US Army boots into shoes.

Considering the life he has led, no wonder Kwon-taek Im has much more to say as a film-maker than the young UCLA and NYU film school graduates that are dominant in Hollywood today.

Hanji is artisanal paper of the kind that feudal records were maintained on. It is a dying art in Korea that is subject to the same kinds of globalization pressures as the ox-dominated agriculture in the countryside. The Korea Society website notes:

A bunch of lunatics try to make paper that supposedly lasts a thousand years in the middle of the night,” says Im. “It’s madness. We Koreans export electronic goods and cars, but we are losing some important assets, which are cultural treasures like hanji.

Im’s film is both a mind-expanding introduction to the art of making such paper of the kind that you might see on a Korean version of PBS as well as a compelling drama about the lives of the people who are part of this cultural tradition.

The main character is a low-level civil servant named Pil Yong (Park Joong Hoon) who is charged with heading up a project to make the hanji business profitable by drawing in local experts to work on restoration of court records from a medieval dynasty. As he gets deeper into the project, the commercial aspects become less important to him. In a nutshell, he is on the cusp of the same “modernization” dilemma facing Sun-Ho and his bull. Both movies are terrific introductions to Korean art and culture and cannot be recommended highly enough.

Finally, I refer you to “Dance Town”, the third in a “town trilogy” directed by Jeon Kyu-hwan, a master of urban anomie and displacement. (The entire trilogy is being shown at MOMA.)

Like “Journals of Musan”, another South Korean film that showed at the MOMA a few months ago (one that I regrettably missed), this is a bold departure from the narrative that when North Koreans defect to the South they will find paradise.

Jung-nim Rhee (Mi-ran Rha) is married to a North Korean man who appears to have no complaints about the system other than it declares imports illegal that he deems a necessity for his lifestyle and that he can afford. This includes skin cream for his wife and pornographic videos for the two of them.

When word gets out that he is buying banned goods, he decides to defect to the South. Jung-nim goes first on a Chinese ship while her husband makes plans to join her.

Rhee is a quiet, reserved person who accepts the apparent generosity of her new hosts even when they are as boorish as the security official who debriefs her, calling her at one point “my little commie”.

A solicitous female whose job it is to welcome new arrivals into their state-funded apartments shows her about the new digs, eager to make Rhee comfortable. But as soon as she gets down to her car in the parking lot, she snoops on Rhee through a hidden camera that transmits to her laptop.

Rhee soon becomes part of a labor force in the South that treats its “liberated” brethren from the North not much differently than Mexicans are treated in the U.S. She begins working in a steam laundry, a decidedly downward position from her life in the North. And even more disastrously, she becomes something like prey for the degraded sexual appetites of the men she meets.

“Dance Town” is relentlessly downbeat but dramatically compelling. In many ways, it struck me as inspired by Theodore Dreiser even though I doubt that the director had the novelist in mind. When an artist decides to take on the underside of his or her society without mercy, you are likely to end up with something like “Jennie Gerhardt” or “Dance Town”. Long live naturalism!

July 6, 2011

2011 NY Asian Film Festival: a spotlight on Korean movies

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

Some of the best films I have seen in my capacity as a member of the New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) are those shown at the yearly New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), and among those Korean films rank the highest. One in particular—”Save the Green Planet!”—was impressive enough for me to nominate as Best Film at NYFCO’s award ceremony in 2005. That was enough to raise eyebrows among my colleagues to astral levels, a function no doubt of their unaccountable preference for “The Squid and the Whale”. My advice to Netflix members is to rent “Save the Green Planet! right away to see what you’ve been missing. If you don’t love this film, then clearly something is wrong with you.

Although there was the usual embarrassment of riches at this year’s NYAFF, time constraints and personal preferences persuaded me to focus on Korean film offerings. In no particular order of preference, here goes:

1. Battlefield Heroes:

Imagine one of Shakespeare’s history plays written from the viewpoint of the lowliest of soldiers and you get an idea of what this raucous costume drama is about. Set in the seventh century, it pits the Silla kingdom allied with the Chinese Tang dynasty against its larger Korean rival, the Goguryeo (the same word as Korea) kingdom. If you’ll recall Henry V’s speech to his assembled army that was about to take on a much larger French force, you’ll get an idea of exactly what “Battlefield Heroes” was about:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Instead, director Lee Jun-Ik’s “heroes” do everything they can not to shed blood. They are peasants dragooned into the army who are promised land and money to fight for Silla’s glory. It becomes obvious from the start that they would be much happier at home with less land and less money in exchange for their lives.

“Battlefield Heroes” is a debunking of a powerful tradition in Asian film that treats the battlefield as hallowed ground. The frightened peasants forced to don armor do everything in their power to escape the fighting, relying on the experience of one peasant who has served in an earlier and just as senseless battle. He urges his comrades to keep a low profile and run from the fighting on the first opportunity.

This is the kind of war movie we need more of–an antiwar film actually—something in the spirit of “Catch 22″ or “MASH”.

2. Haunters

If you’ve seen David Cronenberg’s “Scanners”, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this film is about. The “scanners” are human beings who have the power to compel other people to carry out criminal or violent acts through mind control. As much as I like Cronenberg’s debut film, it can’t hold a candle to director Kim Min-suk’s movie which takes itself far less seriously. If Korean humor is an acquired taste, then I can assure you that five minutes is all it takes to get in the groove.

The mind-controlling “haunter” is one Cho-in, who we meet as a child in the opening moments. He has been blindfolded by his mother who understands that his power to control people comes from his eyes. When his abusive father (a character found frequently in Korean film as we shall see in the next film under review) begins beating his mother for no good reason, Cho-in removes the blindfold and compels his father to go out into the street and break his own neck.

Years later Cho-in has become a thief, using his mind-control powers to get pawn shop owners to open their safe, his favorite modus operandi. This time he has chosen the shop whose owner has just hired Kyu-nam, a junior high school drop-out whose last job was in a junk yard. For reasons never explained (and there was no need to given the film’s supple subversion of logic), Kyu-nam cannot be controlled. When Cho-in kills the owner of the shop for no good reason, Kyu-nam resolves to track his nemesis down and defeat him.

The spirit of this film owes a lot to Tim Burton’s Batman movie with all sorts of wacky sight gags and over-the-top characters. Particularly likeable among them are Ai and Bubba, Kyu-nam’s friends from his last job at the junkyard. These are a Turk and a Ghanaian whose Korean is flawless, a delight one can be sure for local audiences—as well as me.

3. Bedevilled

In 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered on the streets of Queens. When neighbors ignored her screams, the case became a symbol of urban alienation and inhumanity. This pattern appears to exist in Korea as well, if the opening scene in “Bedevilled” has any relationship to current realities, which I fear it does.

Hae-won, a female loan officer at a Seoul bank, would have been the last person to come to Kitty Genovese’s aid. In the beginning of the film, she is seen observing a rape but when called upon to identify the assailants to the cops, she refuses. She is also hostile to an old woman applying for a loan, a touch that would hit home with audiences impacted by the current financial crisis which has likely had some impact on Korea. When Hae-won discovers that another loan officer, like her a female, has granted the loan, she goes ballistic and slaps her in the face in full view of the staff.

After her boss orders her to take a leave of absence, she decides to go to a remote island where she used to visit her grandfather when young. On the island she is greeted by her childhood friend Kim Bok-nam who is thrilled to have a visitor from the outside, all the more so since just about everybody who lives there abuses her in a kind of grand guignol version of Cinderella. Bok-nam is driven like a mule, forced to pick potatoes all day long and put up with abuse from her husband in the evening, including sexual.

The film is a relentless and horrifying depiction of sexism that is similar to what I have seen in other Korean movies, but ratcheted up to the point where you feel like screaming. Eventually Bok-nam takes action against her tormentors in a style that evokes slasher films. However, this is not really a horror movie in a conventional sense. It is much more about the failure of one woman to bond with another who once meant very much to her. This lack of human solidarity is much more frightening than Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth.

4. The Unjust

This is a film about crooked cops who conspire with corporate bigwigs to victimize a hapless sex offender for a crime he did not commit. The moral rot of the society depicted in this movie is like that of Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” and American film noir of the immediate post-WWII period. There are no heroes to speak of, only men whose flaws are less pronounced than others’.

An epidemic of child murders has created a political crisis in Korea. Failing to catch the perpetrator, the authorities decide to pick a scapegoat. The job of organizing the miscarriage of justice falls on the shoulders of detective Choi Cheol-Gi, who is bitterly resentful over having been bypassed for a top post only because he has not graduated from the prestigious police academy. He decides to pin the rap on Lee Dong-Suk, a sex offender who has an air-tight alibi. To get Dong-Suk to confess, he enlists the aid of Jang Suk-Gu, a heavily tattooed gangster (a Korean yakuza in effect) who has sunk his tentacles in the construction industry.

Their alliance is countered by that of a prosecutor named Joo-Yang who has corrupt ties to a powerful company that is Jang’s rival. Joo-Yang suspects detective Choi Cheol-Gi of criminal activity on the side and is anxious to get the goods on him. The film consists of a steadily mounting conflict between the two rotten blocs until they are resolved in the end in a bloody climax that will leave you emotionally and psychologically drained. No country in the world is capable of making such powerful policiers today, including the United States where Martin Scorsese could learn a thing or two by watching such a film.

5. City of Violence

This was directed by Ryoo Seung-Wan, who also directed “The Unjust”. It is a vengeance tale that the Koreans are so good at, embodied in works like “Old Boy”.

It is the story of a group of high school buddies who reunite in their home town after one of their band, a tough ex-con, has been murdered outside of the beer joint he runs. At his ceremony, one of them—a cop from Seoul—decides to team up with another former gangster to track down their buddy’s killer. He turns out to be the sole remaining member of their band, a man named Pil-Ho who exudes evil and who has the city in a vice-like grip. To make room for a gambling casino, he is evicting working people from their homes, a plot element that no doubt rings true with Korean audiences. Unlike “The Unjust”, this is an old-fashioned story of good versus evil.

If it is old-fashioned in its plot elements, it is certainly quite forward looking in its cinematic vision. The city where the action takes place is overrun by gangs, who in a set piece do battle with the cop and his ex-gangster comrade. One gang is dressed in baseball uniforms and uses their bats as weapons. While one can never tell how much a Korean film-maker has absorbed from Hollywood, this is exactly what you can see in Walter Hill’s 1979 film “The Warriors”, which was based on Sol Yurick’s novel. Yurick, for what it is worth, was one of the country’s most respected Marxist writers of fiction and who is still going strong at the age of 86, god bless him.

New York Asian Film Festival information is here.

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