Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 25, 2007

New York Asian Film Festival 2007

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:45 pm


A scene from “Dasepo Naughty Girls”

New York Asian Film Festival 2007 began last Friday night and will continue to July 5th. I want to urge everybody in the New York area to check the schedule at http://www.subwaycinema.com/ and come out for some of the most innovative and exciting film fare in the world today. “Reorient”, the last book written by the renowned socialist scholar Andre Gunder Frank, argued that Asia will leapfrog Europe and the USA sometime in the 21st century and regain the preeminence it enjoyed before the West colonized the East. Although I have my doubts about some of the economic arguments that Frank makes, I feel that there is more than a grain of truth when it comes to cultural matters. There is little doubt that Asia excels in film today, a medium that for our epoch is equivalent in importance to the novel of the 18th and 19th century. Thanks to Grady Hendrix of Subway Cinema, the indefatigable organizer of the film festival and all-round great guy, I received screeners for a number of the films and will begin blogging about them today. I will group my reviews by country and start with Korea, the origin of some of the most brilliant film-making I have seen in the past 10 years.

1) “Dasepo Naughty Girls” (2006)

Dasepo High School is a Korean version of the high school featured in John Waters’s “Hairspray.” Dasepo, which means useless, is a school filled with promiscuous, cell phone addicted adolescents who spend every free moment having sex or discussing it. If the East is supposed to overtake the West, it is doubtful that the students from Dasepo will be leading the charge. That being said, it is a sign of the health of Korean society that such characters can be the heroes of such a genre and gender-busting movie, a clear indication that Confucian/puritan values and capitalist acquisitiveness no longer have a grip on the population they once did. Dasepo’s students are pure libidinous spirits, whose rebelliousness evokes Jean Vigo’s “Zéro De Conduite.”

Apparently, their randiness is contagious. After a social studies teacher begins lecturing them on the uniqueness and superiority of Korean civilization, he is shocked to discover that the students are having none of it. One tells the teacher that Tae Kwan Do, the Korean martial arts discipline, was borrowed from Japanese karate. Shaking his head in dismay, he tells the students that he is at fault, not them. If he had been doing his job properly, they’d be more persuaded of Korean greatness. He demands that the students punish him for his failure. He pulls his pants down, revealing a woman’s panty, and orders the class monitor, a sexy girl, to come up to the front of the room and spank him with a whip that has been concealed in a box filled with S&M paraphernalia. After each lash, the teacher moans in ecstasy.

The film revolves around the trials and tribulations of a handful of characters. Poor Girl is, as the name implies, a poor girl who lives in a shack with her mother on the outskirts of town. To escape poverty, the mom has joined a pyramid scheme, which literally means selling little pyramid models. But the real money comes from Poor Girl’s part-time job as a call girl, which more often than not involves not sex, but taking part in her clients’ fantasies. One of the clients is a top gangster who enjoys cross-dressing as a woman named Big Razor Sis. When Poor Girl visits Big Razor Sis, she gets paid for allowing her client to take pictures of them together. “Don’t we look like twin sisters,” Big Razor Sis asks at one point in obvious contradistinction to his heavy-boned, gorilla-like features.

As in all high schools, students like Poor Girl tend to be looked down upon by the wealthier students. She has company in “Cyclops”, a student with one eye in the middle of his forehead. Cyclops’s beautiful sister is nicknamed “Double Eyes,” but not all is as it appears. “Double Eyes” is actually a transgender male who has become the object of affection of Anthony, a rich boy who grew up in Switzerland and who has had 1000 girl friends and more than 11,000 text messages exchanged with them–he keeps careful count. Even after he discovers that “Double Eyes” is a boy, his ardor remains. Like Joe E. Brown in “Some Like it Hot,” he understands that nobody is perfect.

If this were not enough, “Dasepo Naughty Girls” is a musical in the Bollywood style. At the drop of a hat, the students will burst into song. There is so much more I can say about this terrific movie, but will instead urge you to see it on June 29th.

A scene from “Cruel Winter Blues”

2) “Cruel Winter Blues” (2006)

This is a gangster movie that dispenses with the pyrotechnics and choreographed fight scenes typical of most films in this genre. Instead, it is a character-driven study of life in a small town and the impact that a couple of gangsters make on it in their plans for revenge against a rival gangster.

The older of the two is Jae-Moon, a brutal thug with a Yakuza-like tattoo covering his back. Jae-Moon is played by Sol Kyong-Gu, the star of “Peppermint Candy,” a great movie about the corruption of big businessmen in Korea, and perfectly cast for another villainous role. Jae-Moon is accompanied by Chi-Juk (Jo Han-Seon), a recent recruit to Jae-Moon’s gang who is a Tae Kwan Do expert forced into the criminal world to pay for his mother’s hospital expenses. Chi-Juk has strong personal ties to the town and especially to the Tae Kwan Do instructor there. He is continually bullied by Jae-Moon, who understands that the gangster code of honor bans striking back at somebody higher in rank.

The two men have come to an ugly, god-forsaken rural town called Bulgyo to await the arrival of Dae-Shik, who has murdered Jae-Moon’s friend earlier that year. They begin to hang out at Dae-Shik’s mother’s restaurant to get word about when he is expected to show up.

Dae-Shik’s mother is played by Na Moon Hee as a kind of symbol of Bulgyo. She is as inhospitable as the town itself. When the two men come into her restaurant for the first time and order dumplings, she doesn’t even bother to stop peeling vegetables and turn around to greet them. The only thing on the menu is stew and if they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else.

After a few minutes, Jae-Moon goes out into the backyard behind the restaurant in search of a bathroom. After he discovers a dog tied to a tether that Dae-Shik’s mother is raising to be sold for food, he begins pissing on it out of sheer malice. Caught in the act by Dae-Shik’s mother, he and Chi-Juk are punished by eating a meal heavy with hot peppers. The two men not only take this in good sport, a subtle bond begins to grow between the brutal Jae-Moon and his prey’s mother who begins to become a surrogate mother.

The film is filled with striking images of the small town and the surrounding countryside, from which director Lee Jeong-beom draws out the inner beauty. In one scene, Jae-Moon accompanies Dae-Shik’s mother to a mud-hole where local women are eking out a living. She has brought them a hot meal that they share around a fire. After they’ve had a few drinks, they begin to make salacious invitations to the sheepishly grinning gangster.

Those who expect a John Woo style redemption of the older gangster will not find it here. He goes to his death as he as lived, without regard for himself or for his enemies. All you can say is that along that twisting road, he has learned to rediscover the shred of humanity that he thought he lost long ago. You can see this uniquely human drama with flawed major characters on July 1.

Both movies are filled with the characteristically dark-hued comic insights of the best Korean films. Unlike Hollywood comedies, Korean films do not aim at the lowest common denominator audience of the typical multiplex. The jokes are not telegraphed nor are they lingered over ad infinitum. The acting is of the highest order and the screenplays are for the ages.

Highly, highly recommended.

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