Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 23, 2018

The Lovers and the Despot

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm

Today I want to take a look at another very interesting film distributed by Magnolia but would like to start with a few words about the company’s origins and how to see its really fantastic collection through VOD at budget prices. It was founded in 2001 by Bill Banowsky and Eamonn Bowles with a major share of funding by Mark Cuban, the billionaire who has had a long-time commitment to art house cinema. In 2003, Cuban purchased Landmark Cinema, a string of 58 theaters specializing in foreign and independent films. One of them, the Landmark Sunshine on Houston St., was in the news recently when it fell victim to crushing N.Y. real estate realities.

After seeing and writing about Magnolia films for the past 15 years or so, I can assure you that they are at a consistently high level. Go to their website and browse through their inventory and you will see an amazing variety of first-rate films that can be seen for $2.99 on Youtube or other streaming outlets such as iTunes or Amazon, including the one discussed below that I watched last night.

“The Lovers and the Despot” documents the strange tale of two of South Korea’s film personalities who were kidnapped and spirited away in 1978 by North Korean agents in order to help realize the dreams of Kim Jong-il, the father of the current “despot” and the son of the family dynast Kim Il-sung who was still in power that year. Unlike his father, Kim Jong-il was less interested in reunifying Korea under the aging despot’s odd mixture of Confucianism and Stalinism than he was in producing films that could compete in the Cannes Film Festival and other glitzy gatherings that had hardly anything to do with the north’s austere values.

The first to be seized was actress Choi Eun-hee. Born in 1926, she was as famous in South Korea as Julia Roberts was in the USA. Still alive in 2015, when the documentary was made, she provides some stunning insights into the despot’s strange cinephilia that led to her captivity. During her time in the north, she made secret recordings of Kim Jong-il on a microcassette recorder that reveal him to be a far more complex figure than is generally understood. We hear him complaining bitterly why North Korean films are always so propagandistic. Why couldn’t they make films like the ones he loved, like Friday the 13th, Rambo and the Hong Kong action films that were to have such a huge impact on Quentin Tarantino.

We learn from the documentary that Kim Jong-il was raised in isolation from other children in a palace where he was served by the kind of staff you’d see serving royalty. Feeling lonely most of the time, his major source of consolation was foreign films. Eventually, he built up a library of 15,000 VHS cassettes that were what kept him from falling apart psychologically.

Six months after Choi Eun-hee’s abduction, North Korean agents seized her ex-husband, the director Shin Sang-ok who might be compared to Stephen Spielberg or Martin Scorsese at least in terms of his fame and fortune. When Choi Eun-hee was cast for one of his films, the two fell in love, got married and raised a family. Their children offer commentary on their parents in the film as well. Their parents ended up divorced after Shin had an affair with a younger actress. As you can see, South Korean film directors are not that different than their Hollywood counterparts.

In 1978, Shin Sang-ok got on the wrong side of the South Korean dictatorship—exactly why the film does not go into. Wikipedia states that most of the films he made in the 70s were flops but his biggest problem was pissing off Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who was arguably more despotic than the Kims. After Park closed down Shin studios, the director fell into dire straits.

Supposedly, Shin was abused by the North Koreans. Kept in prison, he tried to escape repeatedly and was tortured—at least according to his ex-wife who had reconciled with him after he turned up in the north. After a few years of being brainwashed and beaten mercilessly, he saw the light and became not only a supporter of the Dear Leader but willing to restart Shin studios in the north. Cranking out films at a pace that would make Woody Allen look like a slouch, the two lovers became major personalities in North Korea and enjoyed the kind of freedom that would be beyond the reach of the average citizen. After 11 years of living high off the hog, the two won political asylum from the US embassy in Vienna. Ironically, Kim Jong-il accused the USA of kidnapping the couple.

South Korea had little use for the two, with many politicians and journalists accusing them of taking part in an elaborate hoax. That the North Korean security forces were involved with kidnapping, however, is not that difficult to establish. Taking place between 1977 and 1983, there might have been hundreds of victims. Even the North admitted to abducting 13 Japanese citizens.

If you want to see an example of Shin’s work in the north, this Godzilla knock-off is on Youtube with English subtitles:

In 2009 I was fortunate enough to see four North Korean films at the Korea Society in N.Y. None of them were made by Shin and all of them were quite good. If they were available on Youtube or elsewhere, they would go a long way in showing a more human side of the people that Donald Trump wants to exterminate.

In 2009, none were available but all—thankfully—can be seen with English subtitles now.

Traces of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CalkPIfkMhQ

The Tale of Chun Hyang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSzQyA88ejY

Wolmi Island: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkKSMJ8vf18

The Flower Girl: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey2fvPtBsiA

My favorite of the four is “The Flower Girl”, about which I had this to say in 2009:

Along with a number of other North Korean movies, “The Flower Girl” is analyzed by U.C. Santa Barbara professor Suk-Young Kim in a lecture titled “Kim Jong-il and North Korean Films” that can be seen online. Kim also gave a talk at the Korea Society on the opening night of the mini-festival that is not online, however. I cannot recommend her lecture highly enough since it is both illuminating for its insights into the role of North Korean movies and the video clips she discusses in the course of the lecture. You will see a longish excerpt from “The Flower Girl” as well as one from a remarkable Robin Hood/socialist type movie drawn from Korean legend that includes Hong-Kong type martial arts.

In framing her approach to North Korean movies, Kim explains why Kim Jong-il was so keen to promote the medium:

Now, why was film so important for Kim Jong-il, in addition to all the reasons that I laid out here? We tend to think that Kim Jong-il is a leader who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which is true because he was the biological son of the founding father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. But we have to think that North Korea is the first hereditary socialist country, where power to rule was passed down from father to the biological son. And before this was officialized, we did not know who the next leader of North Korea would be. I mean, it was certain that Kim Il-sung would handpick somebody before he passed away, but it wasn’t sure if it was going to be his son or somebody else in his political retinue.

So in a way, Kim Jong-il had to really work his way through — he had to use whatever talent he had to really pave the road to power. And he was — he is known to be an extremely talented artistic person by all accounts, and he tapped into his artistic talent to really prove his filial piety for his father, Kim Il-sung. And this is an extremely interesting fact if we consider how North Korea is still observing traditional Confucian values of patriarchy, and in this light, the nation itself is seen as an extended family structure. So to respect and preserve the authorial power of the patriarchal national leader was extremely important.

And another factor that plays into this rationale is that Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, lived long enough to have witnessed de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union, and whatever happened to the Maoist legacy after the Culture Revolution. So he was extremely keen on preserving his legacy after death, and in this sense Kim Jong-il effectively used film to really create this mythical aura about his father and perpetuate his legacy by creating these everlasting images.

September 29, 2017

Bruce Cumings on the Korean War

Filed under: Korea,war — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

August 11, 2017

A Taxi Driver

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

Opening on August 11th at the AMC Empire 25 in NY and the same day nationally, “A Taxi Driver” is a South Korean film based on an important event in the country’s history. In 1980, during a rebellion in Gwangju against a recent military coup, a German reporter named Jürgen Hinzpeter came to South Korea to cover the rebellion but had no way to reach the city except by cab since all public transportation had been shut down by the military. Even a cab would have trouble getting through since all the major roads had been blockaded. It was up to a cab driver named Kim Sa-bok to drive the reporter into Gwangju, taking dirt roads to bypass the military guards. As a result of Hinzpeter’s film footage of the occupying military’s massacre of up to 600 people, the South Korean government was perceived worldwide as a bloody dictatorship.

This is not the first South Korean film to dramatize the Gwangju uprising. In 1999 I reviewed “Peppermint Candy”, a film I included in my list of the greatest 100 ever made. Yongho, The anti-hero of “Peppermint Candy”, is a businessman who has had a long history of malevolent behavior, including serving as part of the assault on Gwangju. From my review:

Peppermint candy is something that Yongho is especially fond of. His first love is Sunim, who works in a candy factory. When he is in the army in 1980, she sends him candy to remind him of home and her love. One night his company is rousted from bed in the middle of the night for some sort of mysterious engagement. The sergeant abuses the men, calling them “bitches,” as they struggle to get their gear together. When Yongho’s peppermints pour out of his knapsack, the sergeant punches and kicks him because candy is not allowed.

The soldiers are dispatched to Gwangju, where students and workers have been protesting for democracy. Yongho, a raw recruit, kills a young student who is not part of the protests. She has wandered into the confrontation, just trying to make her way home. Besides this young woman, every other woman he knows on more intimate terms is treated badly by Yongho who treats the opposite sex as objects to be fucked and then ignored.


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December 25, 2014

The Interview

Filed under: anti-Communism,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

The good news is that “The Interview” will have little impact on American public opinion vis-à-vis North Korea since it is such a flaccid work, unsure whether to make fun of its co-stars or to deliver Reagan-era sermons on the evils of Communism. It succeeds at neither of these competing goals.

The bad news is that it is one of the lamest comedies imaginable, a formulaic imitation of films like “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Zoolander” that feature a leading character of monumental stupidity. The “jokes” boil down to the main character saying or doing idiotic things. It is, of course, possible to make a comedy featuring such a character—the Peter Sellers Pink Panther films being a prime example. But the Pink Panther films revolve around ingenious set-ups where the stupidity of Inspector Clouseau is put to good use.

A year after leaving the Trotskyist movement, I took a writer’s workshop at NYU that was largely a waste of time. But one thing the instructor told us rang true. He said that comedy was much more difficult to write than serious literature. I complete agree with this based on the evidence of Hollywood comedies over the past 25 years or so. Blake Edwards, the director and screenwriter for the Pink Panther films, illustrates comedy done with intelligence. Edwards started off as an actor in the 1940s in films directed by John Ford, William Wyler and Otto Preminger, three masters from the Golden Age of American film. By contrast Seth Rogen, who directed and wrote the screenplay for “The Interview”, acted in Judd Apatow films, a major contributor to the epidemic of unfunny comedies Hollywood cranks out on an assembly-line that are marketed to 15-year old boys who can’t get enough fart, tits and penis jokes.

Rogen plays Aaron Rapaport, the producer of “Skylark Tonight”, a soft news show of the sort that might appear on MTV. James Franco, who has been directed to mug in every scene to the point where you can barely stand another minute of his eyebrow-wagging and hand-flailing histrionics, plays Dave Skylark. It is the same sort of overwrought performance that made “Spring Breakers” unwatchable. Along with Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, Franco is now one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for scenery-chewing renditions of “colorful” characters.

In the entire film, there is not a single word that comes out of Skylark’s mouth that can be mistaken for what an actual person might say. Like Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in the Apatow film that obviously inspired “The Interview”, Franco’s character is intended as satire—a TV newsman who does not understand how foolish he appears. If you ever want to see how such a character can be developed skillfully, I’d refer you to the Mary Tyler Show that played on CBS from 1970 to 1977. It was a comedy based on a TV news show that featured Ted Baxter, a vain and pompous news reader who was close enough to the real thing (think David Gregory) to work as satire. Rogen was not writing satire; he was writing burlesque and a rather crude one at that.

As you probably know, since the film’s Kim Jong-un is supposedly a fan of “Skylark Tonight”, he invites Rapaport and Skylark to come to North Korea to interview him. When the CIA learns that they are given this opportunity, they recruit Skylark to poison him with ricin. But in the course of spending time with the dictator, Skylark decides after the fashion of Dennis Rodman that he is a nice guy after all and backs out of the assassination plot. It is only when he discovers that a grocery store near Kim’s palace is filled with fake fruit and vegetables that he decides to go through with the plot.

Once Skylark is back on board for the mission of killing Kim, the film descends into completely idiotic action sequences where the North Korean military and the two newsmen (plus a woman that has been assigned to be their handler but who is secretly an enemy of the regime) engage in machine gun battles out of the Sylvester Stallone/Chuck Norris playbook. It is as slapdash and uninspired as the preceding more “comical” scenes. After Skylark and Rapaport commandeer a tank and blow Kim’s helicopter out of the sky, the film proceeds to a happy ending. It is this conclusion that supposedly angered North Korea sufficiently to organize the Sony hack that has been in the news.

There are those who regard “The Interview” as a virtual conspiracy mounted by Sony, the State Department and the Rand Corporation. In a December 23rd interview with Democracy Now, U. Cal/Santa Cruz professor Christine Hong states:

You know, what’s interesting to me about this is the fact that if you actually look at what the Sony executives did, they consulted very closely with the State Department, which actually gave the executives a green light with regard to the death scene. And they also consulted with a RAND North Korea watcher, a man named Bruce Bennett, who basically has espoused in thesis that the way to bring down the North Korean government is to assassinate the leadership. And he actually stated, in consulting with Sony about this film, that this film, in terms of the South Korean market, as well as its infiltration by defector balloon-dropping organizations into North Korea, could possibly get the wheels of a kind of regime change plot into motion. So, in this instance, fiction and reality have a sort of mirroring relationship to each other.

Frankly, I don’t think that the North Koreans have much to worry about. This film is a limp and toothless enterprise that would have a lot less impact on the north than the far more sophisticated films that the south has cranked out over the years, especially those that appeal to their longing for national unity and peace. If anything, the liberal presidency of Kim Dae-jung, whose overtures to the north were a departure from the hardline anti-Communism of previous governments and whose initiatives were reflected in “reconciliation” films such as the great “Joint Security Area”, would be much more of a threat to the status quo in the north—and for that matter the reactionary Chaebol-dominated neoliberalism of the south.

I suspect that revulsion in the south over the failure of the conservative government now in power to get to the root of the corruption that allowed an inadequately regulated ferry to sink and cost the lives of 300 young people, will eventually return a liberal government to power. Of course, as is the case everywhere, including the USA, such governments are not likely to redress the class inequalities that allow the Chaebols to dominate Korean society.

In a CounterPunch article on Korean War movies that I wrote last year, I touch upon some of the political issues that the north and the south are grappling with. They are issues that are far more important to how things unfold in the coming years than a work of such crowning stupidity like “The Interview”:

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 “Secret Sunshine” 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.

Roh’s presidency was marred by personal corruption and a willingness to make concessions to neoliberalism, especially the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. in 2007. Despite this, Roh remained committed to rapprochement with the north. In 2011 Wikileaks released an American diplomatic cable to South Korea calling attention to Roh’s concerns over the mistreatment of North Korea.

Economic stagnation under Roh led to him being ousted in 2007 by Lee Myung-bak, the CEO of Hyundai, one of South Korea’s top chaebols. One year into his presidency, Lee trashed the Sunshine Policy and warned the north that he would end economic cooperation unless it abandoned its nuclear weapons program. Elected in 2012, South Korea’s first female president Park Geun-hye has been following Lee’s policies to the letter–hence the current crisis.

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


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.

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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.


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:


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