Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 27, 2007

Two Asian films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:48 pm

Two films premiering soon at New York’s ImaginAsian Theater show the strong influence of Asian comic book art. Opening on February 2nd, the Korean-made “Tazza: the High Rollers” is based on the comic strip of the same name and is directed by Choi Dong-hoon. It will be followed on February 16th by “The Taste of Tea,” a Japanese film that includes ‘manga’ artists (manga is the Japanese word for comic book) as major characters and that captures the spirit of this popular art form that literally means “random (or whimsical) pictures”.

“Tazza” (Korean for ‘master’) can best be described as being in the tradition of “The Hustler” or “The Color of Money”. In these films, an ambitious young pool player seeks the advice of an older master in order to crawl to the top of the game. It is clearly understood that billiards is a metaphor for life itself.

The high rollers in “Tazza” are professional gamblers who play the card game ‘Hwatu’, the Korean word for War of Flowers. Go-ni, the young aspiring gambler, is tutored by the legendary Hwatu master Pyeong, now retired, who advises him at the outset that becoming a master gambler involves certain rules:

Rule Number One: To win, you must become a beast. Ruthlessness is a must.

Rule Number Two: Your hands must be quicker than your eyes.

Rule Number Three: No game is safe. Trust no one.

Final Rule: There are no friends for life, just as there are no enemies for life.

On his way to the top, Go-ni runs his tutor’s arch-enemy Agwee, another master gambler who is in the habit of chopping off the hand of any card player caught cheating. For those who have seen “The Hustler,” there is obviously a comparison with Fast Eddie (played by Paul Newman) getting his thumbs broken after he is caught hustling.

The Hwatu master Pyeong is played by Baek Yoon-sik, one of Korea’s most respected actors, who was cast as an evil Korean industrialist in the 2005 dark comic masterpiece “Save the Green Planet“. In that film, his character was kidnapped by a young man suffering from the delusion that the industrialist was from another planet bent on conquering Earth. Go-ni is played by Cho Seung-woo, another enormously popular actor.

“Tazza” was the second highest grossing film in Korea last year. If it sounds like pulp entertainment (and what is wrong with that?), it is also veiled commentary on the Asian “economic miracle”, which like the stock market bubble was based on a gambling mentality.

In an interview with director Choi Dong-hoon included in the press notes, he recalls the 90s, the period in which the film takes place:

The original series has the late 50s to the late 60s as its time period, and, since that was an interesting time for Korean society in general, it served a great purpose in the series. But I tend to see gamblers as people who are looking to get filthy rich quick, so they can get their hands on a fancy BMW or some other outrageously expensive car and show it off to the world. In that point of view, I settled on the 90s as the time period for the movie. The 90s was a time when everyone – from rich married ladies to prominent professors to ordinary office workers – played hwatu in some form or another. On the outside, the 90s was a flashy time. The Korean society seemed more sophisticated and developed. But if you look closer, that was also the time the grand Seongsu Bridge collapsed. And people would gamble for money in secret. Basically, the 90s was a period where we all seemed grand and fancy on the outside, but were rotting and breaking down on the inside. It was also a time when virtually everyone and anyone, from the millionaire to the lowly construction worker, could play hwatu.

* * * *

While watching Katsuhito Ishi’s “The Taste of Tea,” I couldn’t help but think about “Little Miss Sunshine,” the completely overrated American film. Both films are whimsical and affectionate views of families made up of eccentrics. As is the case with automobiles, the Japanese product is far superior.

The Harunos live in a small town in the mountains just outside of Tokyo. The husband Nobuo is a professional hypnotist who puts people into trances so that they have LSD-type hallucinations that they seem to enjoy. Every so often he puts the rest of his family into trances just for the heck of it. His wife Yoshiko is a retired manga artist who is making efforts to get back into the business. Her father, also a retired manga artist who lives with them, whiles away the day singing ancient pop ballads or imitating Sumo wrestlers, especially for the amusement of the Haruno’s two children Sachiko and Hajime.

Sachiko is an 8 year old girl who leads a completely normal life except for those moments when her 60 foot likeness appears in the sky above her out of nowhere. Her brother Hajime is a high school with a raging case of hormones and a flair for the ancient board game Go. When a beautiful girl transfers into his high school and joins the Go club, he pedals home at top speed shouting the following at the top of his lungs over and over for the entire five miles: “Go club–Go–Go Club–Go!!!”

Rounding out the household is mom’s younger brother Ayano, who is there for a visit. He is a long-haired audio engineer and raconteur. Among the stories he tells to Sachiko and Hajime is that of finding a huge egg in the woods when he was a child himself. For reasons that he does not understand to that day, he decided to take a shit on top of the egg that was half-buried in the earth. Only later would he discover that it was not an egg at all but the skull of a yakuza killed by fellow gangsters. Eventually his soul begins to haunt Ayano, showing up unpredictably just like Sachiko’s 60 foot doppelganger. During his visit, Ayano is pressured into recording the hypnotist father’s brother’s birthday song for himself. The brother, also a manga artist, is accompanied by the grandfather and a female artist that works with him. In their spaceman costumes and stylized robotic dance steps, they evoke Devo, the 1970s Akron band.

“The Taste of Tea” is rather short on character development and instead is content to take things on their surface. Structured as a series of deadpan comic scenes, it relies heavily on cinematography that pays obvious homage to manga. It is also reminiscent the “low camp” that fascinated cultural critics of the 1970s and 80s, including Susan Sontag. All that is needed in key scenes is words like “Pow!” and “Gasp” superimposed across the screen, just as occurred in the Batman television series of the time.

“The Taste of Tea” is wonderful stuff but a bit long at 143 minutes.

Scheduling information for these films is at http://www.theimaginasian.com/index2.php


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