Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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:


July 31, 2012

The primary academic McCarthyite was Karl Wittfogel

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,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.


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.

March 18, 2011

Korkoro; Korean American Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Korea,Roma — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

Despite some problems, Tony Gatlif’s “Korkoro” (Roma for freedom) is one of the most important films scheduled for release in 2011 (it opens at the Cinema Village in New York on March 25th) since it is the first film to deal with the Nazi slaughter of the Roma people. In the closing credits, it states that perhaps as many as 500,000 of Europe’s two million “gypsies” died in concentration camps or on the killing fields.

To my knowledge, Tony Gatlif is the only director of Roma descent. Two of his movies are favorites of mine. The 1993 documentary Latcho Drom shows Roma musicians from every corner of the world performing their own music but with the influences of the country they are living in. The 1997 Gadjo Dilo (crazy outsider)  is a fictional study of a love affair between a gadjo and a Roma woman that is fraught with the expected cultural clashes.

“Korkoro” is set in rural France on the eve of WWII and begins with a small horse-drawn caravan traveling down a dirt road in a forest. When they stop for a rest, one of the men spots something in the distance and begins running after it. It turns out to be a young French orphan named Claude who prefers homelessness to the prison-like conditions of a French orphanage. After debating what to do with this gadjo, the elders decide to take him as one of their own.

They set up camp outside a small village in wine country, looking to get seasonal work as grape pickers or to sell their wares on the street. The village is divided between those who would welcome the nomads and those—who like today—would support their removal, or even their extermination. Two of the friendlier townspeople are the mayor Théodore Rosier (Marc Lavoine) a veterinarian by trade, and a schoolteacher named Lundi (Marie-Josée Croze) who also works as a clerk in city hall. In an early scene, she processes the tribe’s passports, a reminder that such papers were originally intended to control movements within a country. (I examined this history in a Swans article.)

One day in the course of his work as a veterinarian Rosier is injured by a horse on a road outside the village and lies helpless in deep pain, where he is discovered by members of the Roma band who perform first-aid using potent folk medicine. This binds him to the group, even to the point of selling them his father’s house for five francs. The fascists have made a nomadic existence punishable by imprisonment or worse and having a house protects you. The problem, however, is that the Roma view such a stationary existence as barely more tolerable than the jail Rosier rescued them from.

Lundi develops affection for the Roma children who are enrolled in her school. But like Rosier she discovers that they resent the discipline of traditional learning, a fetter that is in its own way as constraining as the house he bestowed upon them.

This is the central dramatic conflict in the film that serves as a counterpoint to the more deadly conflict between the fascists and the nomads. As members of bourgeois society, Rosier’s offer of a permanent location and Lundi’s of classroom discipline appear far preferable to the Nazis and their Vichy cohorts. As it turns out, the two are not exactly bourgeois. They are members of the French Resistance and are in as much danger as their devil-may-care wards.

Gatlif made a calculated decision not to develop his Roma characters with as much depth as the French couple or Claude, the young boy. Perhaps this was a function of any minority’s director and screenwriter’s belief that the majority audience member needs someone to identify with. However, this leaves one with the feeling that more had to be said about the Roma characters whose main role in the film is to play music (exceedingly well) and to serve as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the dilo (crazy) ways of the French villagers who hate them.

Despite the Zionist establishment’s harping on a new holocaust, the only people who have reasons to worry about such a thing are Europe’s Roma who are facing the same threats as depicted in this movie—short of extermination, at least at this point. In an interview with the director in the press notes, Gatlif is asked “Do you think this film resonates with current times or is it just a historical recreation of the past?” His reply:

Writing it, I wanted it to echo what’s happening today. We’re living through the same thing today, only there’s no death in the end. There’s no more political extermination, but from a psychological and political point of view nothing has really changed. In Italy under Berlusconi, the Roma are still subjected to discriminatory laws. Same thing in Romania and Hungary. Even in France the Roma are often parked in unhygienic places, from which they are driven away and expelled. French law only authorizes Traveling People to stay in one place for 24 hours. The number of authorizations they need to be able to stop somewhere is incredible, which by the way enables them to be constantly tracked.

Long-time readers of my blog will know that I am a huge fan of Korean film. The good news for New Yorkers is that you will be able to see some recent work at a Korean American film festival (http://www.kaffny.com/) that began yesterday. I had the opportunity to see two of its scheduled full-length films that are confirmations, if any was needed, that this country is miles ahead cinematically even if its economy is sputtering. (Perhaps the two trends are related.)

The House of Suh” is a documentary that reminds one of Tolstoy’s epigraph in “Anna Karenina”: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This is a family tale that has the dimensions of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. A Korean military man decides to leave his native land after his young son accidentally falls off a roof and kills himself. He brings with him his wife and two other young children, a boy named Andrew and his older sister Catherine.

They move to the Chicago suburbs and begin the kind of life that appears conventional, at least on the surface. They are church-going and hard-working, a profile that matches practically any Korean dry cleaner in New York. But the father soon develops a conflict with Catherine, who develops an unruly streak in high school. She runs with a fast crowd and resents authority. Eventually the clash between father and daughter leads to bloody altercations at home. When he dies of cancer, she doesn’t even bother to pay her respects.

Eventually Catherine leaves home and becomes romantically involved with a man named Robert O’Dubaine who is as amoral as her. Both live for the moment and appear to be fairly representative of the kind of cocaine/disco culture that made the 80s so memorable. Her younger brother Andrew chooses another path and stays loyal to his mother who opens a dry cleaning business.

When Catherine and Robert clash over money and more intimate matters, she decides to kill him. Using her obvious power over her sibling, she persuades Andrew to shoot Robert. He is arrested shortly after the incident and found guilty of murder. Eventually Catherine is arrested as well.

Most of the film consists of Andrew speaking from behind bars, where he sizes up his family’s tortured tale and reflects on Korean immigrant values in general. While Korean Americans obviously do not have an Arthur Miller in their midst (and which ethnic group does, for that matter?), director Iris Shim does a very good job of transforming the raw material into a totally compelling tale.

Toru and Hyung Gu

Although “The Boat is nominally a gangster film, it has much more in common with the French Nouvelle Vague of the late 50s and early 60s, especially “Jules and Jim” or “Breathless”.

The main characters are two young men named Toru (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who is Japanese, and Hyung Gu (Jung-woo Ha), who is Korean. They work on a small boat that smuggles goods back and forth between Korea and Japan.

Their boss is a Korean who seems pleasant on the surface but is given to bouts of rage. Early in the film, Toru tells his boss that he would like to serve him as a dog serves his master. To drive his point home, he begins barking to the amusement of his boss—at least initially. After a minute or so, the boss glares at him and growls, “Do you think this is a joke?” It is a bit like the scene in “Goodfellas” where Joe Pesci intimidates Henry Hill at one of their first meetings: “Do you think I am funny?”

When the boss has Toru and Hyung Gu kidnap the daughter of an enemy and bring her to Japan, their loyalty to each other and to the boss is severely tested. While someone operating on more conventional grounds would emphasize the gangster elements of the plot, director Young-nam Kim is far more interested in how the two men, who barely understand each other’s language, begin to bond with each other. In one of the more memorable scenes, the two perform an off-kilter Karaoke number that is truly inspired.

Go to http://www.kaffny.com for scheduling information on these two films and what I am sure will be other top-notch offerings.


February 15, 2011

I Saw the Devil; Poetry

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Two new South Korean movies deepen my conviction that this country is producing some of the finest in the world. Furthermore, one of them, “Poetry”, is directed by Lee Chang-dong who I am now convinced should be grouped with the greatest directors of the past half-century, including Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene and Akira Kurosawa. Given the names of these three directors, it should be obvious where my preferences lie. I have a deep love for films that display an affection and respect for the salt of the earth, especially when they reach the level of fine art.

While not quite ascending to this rarefied level, Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil”, which opens on March 4th at the IFC Center in New York, is a roller coaster ride of a thriller that features two of Korea’s top actors in a cat-and-mouse revenge tale of the kind that Korean audiences dote on. Kim is a master of genre-bending, with a horror movie (A Tale of Two Sisters) and a “Western” (The Good, the Bad and the Weird) that takes place on the Mongolian steppes in the 1930s to his credit.

“I Saw the Devil” is a mixture of Hollywood serial killer movies, particularly those based on the Hannibal Lecter tales, and a genre that is unique to Korea in many ways, the revenge tale that was perfected by Park Chan-wook in his Vengeance Trilogy, of which “Oldboy” is the most popular installment.

Choi Min-sik, who was the tormented victim seeking revenge in “Oldboy”, plays Kyung-chul, the serial killer in “I Saw the Devil”. The husband of the woman he has killed in the opening moments becomes his relentless pursuer seeking revenge. When a search party turns up his wife’s severed head in the marshes not far from Kyung-chul’s home, Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hyun, a star of “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) vows to make the killer suffer just as much as his wife did in Kyung-chul’s torture chamber. Soo-hyun is surely capable of inflicting such punishment since he is an elite special agent of the Korean security forces. It turned out that Kyung-chul picked out the wrong person to kill.

Not only is Soo-hyun determined to track the killer down, he will not be satisfied by taking his life. Instead, after he finds and beats him into unconsciousness, he puts an electronic tracking device down his gullet that will allow him to follow his every step. When the spirit moves him, especially when Kyung-chul is about to take a new victim, Soo-hyun steps in and delivers a new round of beatings to the mystified serial killer. How does that guy keep finding me?

Director Kim Jee-woon proclaims deeper philosophical goals for his latest genre-bender, even quoting Nietzsche in the press notes: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” But—thankfully—the film is much more about action than meditation. From the moment it starts until its macabre conclusion, this is an exciting, often darkly comic, movie that Hollywood is no longer capable of making.

If you are looking for an escapist joy-ride that will send shivers down your spine, then I can’t recommend “I Saw the Devil” highly enough.

Defying conventional expectations of how to write a lead character, director Lee Chang-dong’s screenplay revolves around Yang Mija, a 66-year-old woman living on a government pension and working as a part-time maid for an elderly male stroke victim. Not only is she not rich and powerful, she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Imagine trying to sell such a script to the Hollywood studios that foisted “Inception” and “The Social Network” on us.

Mija cares for her teen-age grandson Wook, who returns her maternal care with one insult after another. His room is filthy and he expects to be waited on hand and foot by granny.

In the opening scene, young children playing by a nearby river spot a dead body floating toward them, a local high school girl who has committed suicide. After leaving a doctor’s office at the city hospital where she is first told that she might be senile, Mija spots the mother of the dead girl crying inconsolably near the ambulance that contains the body. When she returns home, she asks her grandson if he knew the girl. He shrugs his shoulders and says he does not, expressing no sorrow over the suicide of a classmate. He is obviously missing some basic human feelings.

A day or so later, Mija notices a flyer for a poetry workshop at a nearby adult learning center and decides to enroll in the class, even though the enrollment period is past. She tells the registrar that she might be good at poetry since she was supposedly saying “odd things” all the time when she was young. The class is one of the few places in her dreary suburban neighborhood that provides an escape from caring for her lout of a grandson and the elderly man who relies on her for his most basic needs, including baths, while verbally abusing her.

When she asks the instructor where an inspiration for a poem should come from, he tells her to look closely at objects in nature and try to see them for the first time and find words to express her wonder over them. Since she loves flowers, this does not seem impossible. She begins to carry around a notebook with her and finds words to describe camellias and other beautiful objects even though the word “bleach” has escaped her, as she confides to a doctor. She can only remember “Clorox”.

Some days later, a father of one of Wook’s high-school buddies shows up at Mija’s home and mysteriously tells her that she has to come with him to meet with four other fathers of members of Wook’s clique. They meet at a private room in a restaurant, where she is informed that 6 boys, including Wook, had been serially raping the girl whose body had been floating down the river in the opening scene. Their cruelty and her shame had made her decide to kill herself. But not all is lost, the men tell Mija. The girl’s mother has agreed to a pay-off. As long as the boys’ parents can come up with the cash, she won’t go to the cops. This presents Mija with a dilemma. A welfare recipient and a part-time maid, she would never be able to come up with her share.

There are elements of “Poetry” that can be found in earlier movies by Lee Chang-dong. Like his most recent Secret Sunshine, this is a tale about a woman suffering from a mental impairment in a small, conventionally minded if not stifling, provincial Korean city whose illness sets her apart from her neighbors. Also, like Peppermint Candy, it is a powerful indictment of sexism. With the fathers discussing the settlement as if their sons were in an automobile accident and toasting each other with bottles of beer once they learned that the girl’s mother had accepted, there is not much to distinguish them morally from their rapist sons. Indeed, it is implicit that they are accessories after the fact.

Yang Mija is a character of enormous complexity, even though she is what one might consider a most ordinary human being. As a symbol of the director’s worldview, her yearnings for another more aesthetic experience are in sharp, if not tragic, distinction from the confinements of a meager social existence. This is compounded by her status as an older woman suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Lee Chang-dong’s development of this character is a major accomplishment, ranking in some ways with the classic fiction of a Chekhov or a Tolstoy. Perhaps his prior career as a novelist gives him a leg up. In any case, he has a special genius for creating powerful drama out of the lives of people who live ostensibly undramatic lives.

In one of the most astonishing scenes, Mija visits the mother of the dead girl in order to convince her to accept the payoff. The mother, a farmer, is working in the nearby fields. When Mija approaches her, the sheer beauty of the mountains and the flowers that surround the fields overwhelm her and she forgets to bring up the topic that brought her there, a function no doubt of the Alzheimer’s as well. The poignancy of the exchange between the two women will linger with you after seeing the film, perhaps for decades.

Yoon Jeong-hee, who was born in 1944 and who was one of Korea’s top actresses in the 60s and 70s, plays Yang Mija. She came out of retirement to work with Lee Chang-dong in a film for the ages.

Usually, I don’t quote other film reviews here but I was struck by what the New York Times had to say. If you aren’t ready to accept the word of the Unrepentant Marxist, then at least be guided by the newspaper of record. It might get war and unemployment wrong, but on movies it can be reliable–some of the time.

Out of pain, Mija finds a way to see, really see the world, with its flowers, rustling trees, laughing people and cruelties, and in doing so turns reality into art, tragedy into the sublime. It’s an extraordinary transformation, one that emerges through seemingly unconnected narrative fragments, tenderly observed moments and a formal rigor that might go unnoticed. Yet everything pieces together in this heartbreaking film — motifs and actions in the opening are mirrored in the last scenes — including flowers, those that bewitch Mija outside the restaurant and those in a vase at the dead girl’s house. The river that flows in the opening shot streams through the last image too, less a circle than a continuum.

At one point, Mija asks her poetry teacher with almost comic innocence, “When does a ‘poetic inspiration’ come?” It doesn’t, he replies, you must beg for it. “Where must I go?” she persists. He says that she must wander around, seek it out, but that it’s there, right where she stands. In truth, there is poetry everywhere, including in those who pass through her life, at times invisibly, like the handicapped retiree (Kim Hira) she cares for part time, a husk of a man whom she will at last also see clearly. The question that she doesn’t ask is the why of art. She doesn’t have to because the film — itself an example of how art allows us to rise out of ourselves to feel for another through imaginative sympathy — answers that question beautifully.

“Poetry” is now playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and elsewhere around the country. It is not to be missed.

December 31, 2010

Marty Hart-Landsberg on Korean tensions

Filed under: Korea — louisproyect @ 10:26 pm

What’s Happening On The Korean Peninsula?

by Martin Hart-Landsberg

What’s happening on the Korean peninsula?  If you read the press or listen to the talking heads, your best guess would be that an insane North Korean regime is willing to risk war to manage its own internal political tensions.  This conclusion would be hard to avoid because the media rarely provide any historical context or alternative explanations for North Korean actions.

For example, much has been said about the March 2010 (alleged) North Korean torpedo attack on the Cheonan (a South Korean naval vessel) near Baengnyeong Island, and the November 2010 North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island (which houses a South Korean military base).

The conventional wisdom is that both attacks were motivated by North Korean elite efforts to smooth the leadership transition underway in their country.  The take away: North Korea is an out-of-control country, definitely not to be trusted or engaged in negotiations.

But is that an adequate explanation for these events?  Before examining the facts surrounding them, let’s introduce a bit of history.   Take a look at the map below, which includes both Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong Islands.

full: http://media.lclark.edu/content/hart-landsberg/2010/12/31/whats-happening-on-the-korean-peninsula/

April 23, 2010

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Now playing at NYC’s IFC Center, Kim Jee-Won’s “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is, as the name implies, an homage to Sergio Leone’s most famous spaghetti western. As a member in good standing of Korea’s New Wave, Kim might be expected to subvert the genre and that he does. While retaining the trio of desperate characters (weird substituting for ugly) and the nonstop action of the original, Kim is far more interested in mining Leone’s original for comic possibilities. And as anybody who has seen a Korean New Wave film can tell you, they are some of the funniest movies being made today even if they cannot exactly be described as comedies in the Judd Apatow vein—thank god. Think Buster Keaton instead.

“The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is set in 1930s Manchuria (actually filmed in China’s Gobi Desert) and has the parched, endless horizon look of Leone’s original. The plot, such as it is, borrows almost as much from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with a search for ancient treasure using a map that the movie’s antagonists are all killing each other to get their hands on. The movie starts with an evil Korean businessman dispatching his underling Chang-Yi “the bad” (the Lee Van Cleef role played by Lee Byung-Hun) off to rob a train, where the map is stored in a heavily defended freight car. Supposedly, it contains the location of the buried treasure of the Qing Dynasty.

Before Chang-Yi and his gang have a chance of raiding the train Jesse James style, Tae-Goo “the weird” beats them to the punch. Storming through the passenger section of the train, firing guns left and right like Yosemite Sam, Tae-Goo is bent on robbing cash and jewels. But when he discovers the map, he figures that bigger treasures are in store. Tae-Goo is played by Song Kang-Ho, the same actor who played one of the incompetent small-town cops in “Memories of Murder”. He is a gifted comic actor who might remind you of Hong Kong’s Sammo Hung. “Weird” does not quite describe the character. He should be thought of more as uncontrollable, bearing some resemblance psychologically to Eli Wallach’s “ugly”.

Just as Tae-Goo takes off from the looted train in a motorcycle across the Manchurian desert, his trail is picked up by a bounty hunter named Do-Won (Jung Woo-Sung), who is the “good” one and Clint Eastwood’s counterpart. The rest of the movie consists of the three main characters pursuing each other and the map with occasional interventions by assorted bad men from the Japanese army and Manchurian gangs, including a motley crew of Russians, Chinese and Koreans. For director Kim, Manchuria in the 1930s is a badland in the style of classic Westerns, including the Italian imports. Indeed, the press notes state that his aim was to create an “oriental Western”.

You know, however, that Kim has no interest in being confined by realist conventions. His movie is filled with anachronisms and absurdities that tip you off at once that his intention is as much spoof as action melodrama. Do-Won the bounty hunter is dressed in cowboy clothes including a ten-gallon hat. Not a single character bothers to ask him why he is wearing a costume. For his part, Chang-Yi dresses like Prince and even has two earrings in one ear. All in all, the effect is pastiche but not in the self-conscious postmodern fashion seen in some European movies. “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is targeted for the mass market and are fortunate to have such entertainment at our disposal at a time when such values are utterly lacking in the Hollywood products.

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