Karumen kokyo ni kaeru / Carmen Comes Home (1951)

29 01 2014

With its instance on being lighthearted and charming, it’s difficult for one to critically evaluate Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home without sounding like a kill joy. It’s a gloriously photographed film, Japan’s first in color, but the novelty of the photography eventually weighs on the actual content. While I frequently criticize Kinoshita for forcing the pathos in his films, he doesn’t even bother to try here in this film. There’s the same, drippy melodramatic tearjearker touches one comes to expect from him, but the tone of the experience is too jovial for that to make the film feel particularly overwrought. Instead, the probably here lies in his complete lack of interest in his characters. His ambition is not nearly as great as it is in a film like Twenty-four Eyes, but the result feels similarly empty.

1

Lily Carmen is a famous dancer in Tokyo. However, the locals in her hometown recall fondly her days as a youth. Her father, who experiences some difficulty walking, is ashamed of his daughter’s profession. The fact that she’s never returned home is preferable to him, as he shows no interest in ever confronting her about what he understands to be a dirty profession. Carmen and her friend, Akemi Maya arrive in the village to much fanfare. However, Carmen’s father is still resistant to speaking with her. He intentionally hides whenever the two girls gleefully announce their presence. Upset with his refusal to listen to her, Carmen and Maya decide to put on a show for the entire village. They do it in the name of the art of dancing, but the villagers are attracted by the potential for nudity.

2

Kinoshita’s script paints with rather broad strokes, establishing a binary immediately between rural and urban life. To his credit, we never see Carmen and Maya’s life in Tokyo so all of this characterization of city life might be a inward critique of the small village’s own ignorance of it. On the other hand, that would be giving Kinoshita too much credit when he continually sympathizes and places himself with the perspective of the villagers. It’s the same characterization made in Murnau’s Sunrise. The city and its materialism represents evil and decadence. The rural village is return to the simple, idyllic life that we should aspire towards. To Murnau’s credit, he critiqued this himself in his own film, City Girl, which paints both spaces as having their strengths and weaknesses. The reality comes in what you yourself do with the space your given, which sounds like some neoliberal “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” rhetoric, but it’s not. To be more blunt, this type of binary isn’t exactly false (farm life is different from city life, sure) but it is instead represented in such a one-dimensional way that it becomes characterization tools for the actual characters in the film.

3

There is an awful lot to like in the titular character, Lily Carmen. Of course, Hideko Takamine is fantastic in a role that requires her to channel a bubbly personality, one that would seem to be the antithesis to the women she played in most of Mikio Naruse’s films. One important similarity would be the connection of sexwork, always at least happening on the periphery in Naruse’s world, if not in the center. Naruse’ stoic, broken (physically and mentally), and sad women immediately register as worthy of our attention and sympathy. Carmen, however, is constantly trying to earn this and its because Kinoshita’s script limits her in some sort of obstacle course that seems designed with the intention to only see her fall and have us laugh at the conceited big city girl. She repeatedly refers to her work as a dancer as art but that word is greeted with only smirks and giggles by the men of the village, all of whom’s condescension Kinoshita aligns with. Like the men of the village, he sees this art as merely smut and Maya and Carmen as victims of a society that thrives off of such work. Any pride they take in their profession is unmasked and pulled out to the center of a horny public who classifies their pride as stupid.

4

In the end, Carmen and Maya do put on a show for the village and yes, they willingly display their bodies in a crowded makeshift theater. This final act doesn’t really tie things up. Carmen’s father accepts the money made from his daughter, but he still sees it as tainted. The blind music teacher who Carmen once loved gets back his accordion because the new owner, still drunk from the show, gives it away in an act of good will via personal intoxication. Most importantly, Carmen and Maya control their show, controlled their sexuality, and can now happily return to their normal lives in the city. It all feels a bit too cute, especially when the consequences are kind of amazing. Carmen’s father still sort of hates her, and Kinoshita glossing over this detail is weirdly poignant. Also, Carmen’s lyrics celebrating the “dapper man beside me” are matched visually with only her female best friend. It could be a celebration of personal independence in a world whose foundation is in heterosexual coupling.

5

The conclusion still feels cheap and unearned, if not uninteresting. Maybe there is something feminist about Kinoshita’s discourse here, but the conclusion is only reached through the most simplistic and contrived of manners that I hesitate to connect with his work as truly revolutionary, or hell, even interesting. He provides an intriguing narrative for his protagonist, but there’s not enough of her. Instead, the film ends with a weirdly fascist sentiment, celebrating the blind Mr. Taguchi as the model Japanese citizen, because of his commitment to the military during the war.  Carmen’s unrequited love for him is ignored and instead, the village, perhaps a shade less conservative, can move with its typical routine. There’s a subtext here, however illusive, that evokes something absolutely heartbreaking. Kinoshita’s ignorance of it isn’t transgressive, but instead an oversight by a filmmaker who was more interested in the easiest elements of his scenario. It’s a shame, someone as driven and likable as Lily Carmen probably deserved a better director.

6

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Short Term 12 (2013)

23 01 2014

Before I even watched Short Term 12, I knew what I was probably going to think of it. That’s not to say that my response was already pre-formed, but instead that the makeup of film such as this is so typical, that my feelings towards such films tend to be uniform. An arty, independent film with a big name actress that looks a bit better than the rest of independent cinema. Oh, and it’s also about troubled teenagers, which sounds like a dismissive category, but when such depictions are done right, they’re easy for me to love. I figured I would have to wrestle with a certain sentimental or cathartic hitting me and clashing with what might not actually be a good film. This is a worthy effort, there’s a lot to admire, but good intentions aren’t invincible and the film’s subtext seems like a problem that can’t be ignored.

1

Grace and Mason are both counselors are a foster-care facility. They’re passionate, thoughtful, and seemingly experienced authoritative figures. The conflicts of the day are many, but their reserved nature balances the chaos of the establishment. The two live together and there is implications that their romance isn’t exactly new. They aren’t married, but they live in a spacious house and their closeness suggests that such a step would not be far away. In the mean time, Grace is pregnant and she intends to have it terminated. Back at the foster-care facility, fifteen year old Jayden arrives. A sarcastic and cynical 15 year old girl and a frequent victim of self-harm. She puts a wall against Grace, but the two eventually bond, instigating Grace herself to finally open up about her own past.

2

As I’ve hinted at already, there’s something very inviting about Short Term 12. Aesthetically, it’s not exactly groundbreaking, but the conventional “realistic” aesthetic (ie steadicam/shaky handheld camera) is given a visually boost here. Yes, there’s a lot of out of focus closeups that aren’t particularly inspired but visual style is a least a tad above just typical middlebrow Hollywood fare. One could argue that an “uglier” style (think the similarly-themed Manic) might be beneficial to building an atmosphere that is, above all else, unpredictable. The film’s tonal shifts are intentionally abrupt and I think poetic, yet not intrusively so is a good fit here. Basically, I like the look achieved here, although it’s nothing new nor is it especially impressive. It’s nothing more than “nice” looking, but it shouldn’t be anything more.

3

Cretton’s problems as a filmmaker begin when he forces psychology into his characters. One of the most dramatic sequences in the film involves a standoff between Grace and the facility’s manager. He’s allowed Jayden to return to her father, who Grace has discovered to be abusive. The dialogue here might be cringe-worthy in someone’s else hands, but Brie Larson delivers the line “she told me the only way she knew how” with a force that forgoes any reservations about sincerity. The discourse of this sequence is about the difficulty in communicating something as traumatic as abuse. Opening up isn’t easy, yet Cretton himself seems to draw the motivations of his characters to these hacky psychological reasonings. He contradicts himself by saying there’s an easy for anxiety and unrest, and even worse he suggests there’s a way to cure it.

4

Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin ends with the film’s protagonists, Neil and Brian finally reconnecting some fifteen plus years after being sexually abused. Neil holds Brian and explains his thoughts via voiceover, ” I wanted to tell Brian that it was over now and that everything would be okay. But that was a lie, plus I couldn’t speak anyway. I wish there was some way to go back and undo the past.” Araki’s ending is cathartic and transcendent without accepting the idea that the trauma that abuse of this kind brings is not someone can just overcome. Cretton, on the other hand, attempts to cure Grace through catharsis. She meets up with Jayden and the two triumphantly smash his car with a baseball bat. The moment is moving and certainly we can celebrate the release of all that built up pain, but the reality is that the pain hasn’t been released. I’m supportive of them beating the shit out of an abusive father’s car, but you wake up from that and the suffering of memories can come back and hit you. Cretton doesn’t allow for this and instead, his film suggests that Grace has completely moved on and is ready to start a family.

5

The cathartic car-smashing sequence comes right before a montage that, as artfully done as it is, has the ideological content of a Hallmark film. The music builds up Grace’s accomplishment, and we see her and Mason at the doctor. Viewing her fetus’ heartbeat, tears streak down her face and without a word, we understand that she will happily continue along with the pregnancy. The superficial anti-choice politics of such a sequence isn’t the problem on its own. Instead, the bigger problem comes with its proximity to a scene confronting real child abuse. The film frames Grace terminating her pregnancy alongside her father abusing her. The juxtaposition is sappy and eye-rolling, not to mention sort of disgusting. I can ignore some boring anti-choice subtext in an art film, but to frame that choice as the equivalent to her own abuse is, well, dumb. It’s ultimately just another mark against an already flawed enough film. I’m not exactly mad about it, just kind of disappointed that it goes the easiest route possible.

6





The Color Wheel (2011)

21 01 2014

Maybe it wouldn’t be unwise to start a review of The Color Wheel by contextualizing my generation as especially cynical. Generational characterizations tend to be stupid, thinly veiled insults thrown from our elders, but cynicism is at least reflected in the attitudes of young American filmmakers. Let’s not dance around the word: mumblecore. There, I said it. The Color Wheel looks like it could be tagged with such a term, but doing so would ignore the discourse of what the genre or movement constituted. Yes, it’s a film about young people but its distance eventually becomes the thing that pulls an audience in closely, perhaps too close for comfort. It’s a film that acknowledges the work that came before it, but also suggests that attempts to find the profound in the banal have yet to be successful. I hesitate to call it a masterwork, but it already feels like an important movie.

1

JR breaks up with and moves out of her professor’s apartment. She enlists the help of her brother, Colin, to help move her stuff of the apartment. The two don’t particularly get along. They seem repulsed by each other, and Colin’s claims that their parents don’t care about JR seem true enough to sting. JR is critical of Colin for his lack of aspiration. He has a unremarkable job and lives with their parents, still. His stability is sad, but JR’s lack of it is equally upsetting. Separated from her professor, she doesn’t actually have anywhere else to live and her dreams of becoming a television anchor seem illogical. After moving her stuff out, the two get invited to a party hosted by childhood friends.

2

It seems like an oxymoron to claim that the mumblecore movement ever had any iconography since it clashes with the original logistics of making such a film. Still, I would claim that there are icons of the movement and they’re mostly white, middle class, 20-somethings. The adjectives listed by Bill Sage in Hal Hartley’s Theory of Achievement, incidentally set in Brooklyn, acted as a guideline for constructing the ideal protagonist of such a film. There is a little resistance to this in The Color Wheel but it be a mistake to claim filmmaker Alex Ross Perry has simply followed the mold. Filmmakers will continue to be interested in what they can relate to, so inevitably we get a ton of independent filmmakers making movies about this very limited group of people. That’s the excuse at least, but Perry deserves credit for making a film that acknowledges this convention and criticizes it.

3

 

Interestingly, none of the reviews I’ve read have seemed to focus on JR and Colin’s casual racism. Why would they? It’s not suppose to be a big deal. This is, unfortunately, how a lot of white people talk now a days, but it is interesting that their “ironic” racial humor is grounded in an experience that has no diversity. The only confrontation the two have with race physically is in Jim Crow-era figures in an antique shop. They’re not repulsed but amused by the offensive nature of the products. Later Colin compares his perception to black women to gay men’s perception of all women. The audience of such a film, which likely matches that of its characters, is not going to be particularly offended by these moments but their placement seems more than just casual banter to me. The world Perry shows, despite incorporating  Boston and New York City, is entirely white. However, it might be the first of these such films to realize this limitation and call attention to it. How can Colin even make such a statement about black women when there’s none in his social circle? The film is unified by the idea that JR and Colin have closed themselves off from the rest of the people in their group. Those outside of it don’t even stand a chance.

4

There isn’t a profound commentary on race relations nestled away here, but instead a dull pain that pokes at you reminding you of its painfully white context. The social interactions that alienate JR and Colin and eventually lead them into the film’s jarring (yet also fitting) conclusion is one birthed of separation itself. The party they attended is, of course, all white but more importantly populated with sharply dressed individuals who impress each other with their promising careers. JR and Colin are  lost something reflected in the surreal and cruel manner in which Colin is treated. Immediately upon entering the party, a man pours wine in his shirt pocket as if to mark him as fuck up. While much of recent American independent cinema has foundation in characters who are struggling. This suggestions sounds weird, but these typical protagonist find solace in their broken hearts. Their concerns tend to be failed romances and the constant effort of moving on. In this context, one must look at the end of The Color Wheel as the opposite. Sure, mumblecore was inspired by the rhetoric of Ray Carney and the uncomfortable nature of truth, but this truth has repeatedly been represented as awkwardly fumbling your words in front of cute girls. It resonates but seems inconsequential, an almost fetishization of the banal.

5

The tensions in The Color Wheel seem to build up like an infection, until Perry finally takes a needle and pokes at the area, letting the puss run out. This illustration is gross, but it kind of underscores the sensation of the film’s incestuous finale. On a formal level, the sequence is astonishing, a single take of JR constructing an alternate universe in which Colin is a teacher. All of the unpleasant parts of JR and Colin’s personalities become their tragic fall. Throughout the film, JR articulates herself in a stylized, sarcastic voice. One that attempts to remove any sincerity from the discourse. It has built a wall, protecting the two from the outside forces that seem to do nothing more than hurt them, but in the process it has shut out the possibility of them connecting with anybody else. Their embrace is jarring, sure, but also the only logical step for two people so actively opposed to reaching out. Perry says American cinema needs to be more cynical, but I think the word he’s looking for is pragmatic. He’s deromanticized the films that his echoes and in the process, shows something really ugly. I’m still partial to the life-affirming quality of Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, but Perry elegantly articulates why reverie is not always good.

6





Barcelona (1994)

20 01 2014

The frustrating part about discussing Whit Stillman’s films is that, inevitably, adjectives like “charming” and “likable” come to my mind. They also populate most of what I’ve read about him. The limitation here is that his films can only be seen through this language, and the experience is this just something that is pleasant and nothing more. Barcelona is indeed charming and very funny, but a film’s humor or its charm can’t be divorced from the emotional connection you make with it. The language around Stillman suggests something light and frivolous and while the lives of his protagonist seem to be that of great privilege and little consequence, there is something urgent and sad happening in their lives. In a way, I’ve found that both this and Metropolitan are sneaky films.

1

Ted is a salesman for a Chicago-based company working in Barcelona. He’s not exactly outgoing. His cousin, Fred, arrives unannounced. Fred is a bit more outgoing, but being an officer for the US Navy becomes an invitation for rude behavior from locals. Additionally, Fred is remarkably sensitive to this ill will, which complicates things when both become involved with local women. Ted falls for Montserrat, who is still somewhat involved with an outspoken yet sleazy newspaper writer. Fred is involved with Marta, who doesn’t seem to be particularly honest in her attentions.

2

Working from the skeletal narrative of Barcelona, one could fine plenty to criticize. The fact that Fred and Ted’s foreign treatment is given serious attention might give one the impression that Stillman is sympathetic to their situation. In a way, he is, but not to the degree that the characters themselves feel slighted. Moving on from there, we get a story about male friendship following that of failed heterosexual romances. These things typically are boorish, trying to further validate the gendered differences that heterosexual relationships illuminate, but never providing any insight into why they are that or where they come from. Stillman’s approach is different, though. The hurt of a mean woman who just won’t love you is not redeemed by the “true” companionship of another good male friend. I mean, on paper, that’s what happens to Fred and Ted but their growth doesn’t come at the expense of another character. The most important trait I have found in all of Stillman’s films is that his characters are all flawed, weird, and complex, but he cares for them.

3

More important than these character’s flawed personalities is the fact that they’re not presented as such. Sure, they are imperfect characters but hesitate with this description because I feel like it evokes the rhetoric used to talk about a filmmaker like John Cassavetes. You can imagine Ray Carney saying something similar, but in this case, he’s talking about it in the context of raw and frank emotional intensity. Stillman’s world is the opposite, the flaws of his characters aren’t made a point of, instead, it’s almost as though the filmmaker just accepts them as an inevitability. The power of his film comes from getting so familiar and comfortable with these “flawed” characters that the very things that even their annoying features become admirable. It doesn’t absolve of them of personal critique, but it does validate all of their experience as worthwhile. Stillman is a man so the slant is obviously towards his male protagonists, but the periphery characters also matter to him. Their existence is not to justify certain actions or progress a story along.

4

With the setting changing from Manhattan to Barcelona, Stillman’s aesthetic begins to more closely resemble that of Eric Rohmer. I think Stillman is operating on a same field, anyway, and least in his perceptions about relationships. If there’s a difference, it’s that Rohmer seems to explore the things that make relationships function and eventually fail. Stillman is more singular, perhaps explore the inner struggle of his character, but such word choice suggests something much heavier than his films. It’s important to stress that he’s funny and again, it works with everything else he manages to achieve. He hasn’t made a poignant film that is funny, but instead one that resonates in part because of its humor.

5





Metropolitan (1990)

16 01 2014

It’s always a struggle to begin these reviews, but I’m finding this to be especially the case with Whit Stillman’s debut, Metropolitan. There’s not a shortage of things to talk about, in fact, that’s what I’m wrestling with right now. Where do I begin with a film like this? I could talk about how it’s charming, and despite some stoic performances, is actually really amusing. But there’s more to what Stillman is doing beyond effective filmmaking. In a sense, I find this film “enjoyable” and “good” at least in the way I typically approach the medium but it’s sticking around in my heart in a way that I need to unpack in a way that’s different than usual. It’s a film that resonates with me deeply, and I think it’s related to what I’m going through in my life but I still can’t endorse all of it. Then again, sometimes great art isn’t that easy.

1

Tom finds himself at a debutante ball, something he is usually opposed to. Afterwards, he inadvertently winds up at a sophisticated after party. The party is populated by a number of self-identified U.H.B., or urban haute bourgeoisie. Tom keeps up a certain facade around the group, but he’s definitely just below them on the financial scale. He continues going to debutante balls with the group and continues meeting up with them at the after parties. In the process, he learns of the group’s distant connection with his ex, Serena, who he’s never really gotten over. However, someone else in the social circle, Audrey, has eyes for him.

2

Tom, the outsider of the group, is the film’s central protagonist. An alienated, anxious, heartbroken asshole so typical in serious art films. At the time of this writing, there’s a movie in theaters called Her and it has this type of protagonist. The “sensitive” soul whose been wronged, and we’re meant to sit with him as he figures it out. We feel for his every moment. I want to make it known that Metropolitan is not this kind of movie. Tom fits this mold, but he is not absolved of critique. All of the characters are unpleasant on some level, perhaps inherited by their privilege and obliviousness, and Tom is no exception. Sure, he makes less money and lives with his mom on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (which is sort of a thing to the rest of the group) but he still isn’t perfect. He speaks wisely about literature with Audrey, but thirty minutes or so in it’s revealed that he never really reads literature, he merely reads literary criticism.

3

Maybe the most crucial element to Stillman’s debut is the fact that he balances this critical view of his character with some admiration for them. Maybe it isn’t obvious to everyone, but there has to be something resemblance reverence or else he wouldn’t devote so much time to them. It’s a hard balance to explain, let alone achieve but basically the despicable nature of the characters doesn’t exactly humiliate them. We laugh at their woefully upper-class rhetoric and scoff at the victimization implied by a character like Charlie, but there’s something there. I hesitate to call it humanism, because the term makes my eyes roll but there’s something in them. It’s indescribable, they’re dorks and easy to hate but you’re compelled to follow them and it’s not quite a perverse interest in seeing the downfall that they vocally lament.

4

There’s an unavoidable level of artifice here, but it actually works in a perfect way. In one episode, Tom is amused that the group plays bridge. ” I couldn’t believe you’re actually going to play bridge, such a cliché of bourgeois life” he cries, with Nick retorting, “That’s exactly why I play. I don’t enjoy it one bit.” The performance of bourgeoisie doesn’t seem productive or logical, especially since we get so many hints that these are kind of entitled brats, but Nick’s performing of the identity (even though that is his identity, no matter how he asks) is a template for Tom. Tom’s performance of bourgeoisie has to be more convincing because he lives in a crammed apartment with his mother and has to rent his tuxedo. Maybe the most important thing to remember here is that these kids are still that, kids. I’m not going to claim they;re innocent or some bullshit like that, but they inherited this lifestyle and they seem either too eager or apprehensive about fulfilling the expectations. In talking about what she finds so attractive about Tom, Audrey mentions that he doesn’t always agree when it’s convenient. The formality of charming, easy-going conversation is somewhat lost on Tom, though he eventually adapts. In this sense, the film acts as something of an antithesis to Pasolini’s Teorema. In that film, an outsider comes in and shakes everything up, changes the perception of the elites. Here, an outsider invades the territory of the bourgeoisie and they eventually suck him up, if only because Tom, like the rest of the group, is actually brimming with anxiety.

5

The charm of the film rests in large part of Audrey’s shoulders. In this, I have my biggest problem with the film and weirdly, it’s a problem I might have with myself. She’s delightful and Tom’s repeated avoidance of her only makes her easier to like. I found myself repeatedly thinking “awww” and saying it out loud whenever her romantic intentions were halted by Tom’s own inability to get over his last relationship. My problem here comes from that fact that, like everything else, Audrey is obviously a construction from Stillman’s pen. She’s easy to fall in love with and the film’s conclusion is life-affirming, if not wish-fufillment. But isn’t it selfish? If nothing else it seems sort of cheap, maybe just a personal moment of realization that love stories are often crafted from the same, limited perspective, which is something I touched upon in my review of Our Sunhi. I don’t see Stillman critiquing this framing of relationships like Hong, but the artifice of it points to the fact that it might be something of a fantasy. This doesn’t cheapen the end of Metropolitan, it’s the kind of thing I needed in my life now, which I don’t expect everyone who reads this to fully understand. I mean, it’s real enough to me. Oh, it’s also really funny, that helps a lot.

6





Doro no kawa / Muddy River (1981)

13 01 2014

It might be hard to contextualize the state of Japanese art film in the 1980s. For whatever reason, it is the least accessible (in terms of distribution, home video release) and least interesting decade in the country’s film production, at least in the west. The golden age of the 1950s was a thing of the past, replaced with kinetic, chaotic, and “radical” aesthetic of the Japanese New Wave and Art Theater Guild that produced most of the “serious” films that came from Japan in the 60s and 70s. Muddy River, which is filmmaker Kohei Oguri’s debut, is a conscious throwback to the aforementioned “golden age” of Japanese cinema, a shomin-geki pastiche. It nails the visual style of that era, while introducing a uniquely quiet tone to the proceedings.

1

Nobuo lives with his parents in a noodle shop along the river. It functions as the family’s main source of income. He seems to latch on to relationship with other adults because he has no friends that are his age. Nobuo meets Kichi, a boy who seems to be his age. Despite their shy personalities, the two start something of a friendship. Kichi lives in a houseboat along the river with his sister, Ginko and his mother, who we never see. Because of this assumed neglect, Nobuo invites Kichi and Ginko over to his house, both of whom fit in well with Nobuo’s parents and the family’s noodle business. Nobuo’s father promises he’ll take the two boys to an upcoming festival, but then he disappears.

2

Most of Oguri’s debut is a slow-burn, with excellently photographed frames quietly building into a sequence. However, the film’s opening is as jarring and electrifying a sequence as I’ve ever seen. It follows the aesthetic of the rest of the film, but it is so quick and precise in its commentary. We begin with a shot of the noodle shop, Nobuo greets the guest, a man who drives a horse cart. He’s upset by the visible injury of the man’s ear, but the man erases the tension by offering Nobuo his horse cart. “I’m going to buy a truck” he says, which is followed by some musing on the progression of technology. A few moments later, oncoming traffic jolts the horse, and the cart crushes and kills him. In this short sequence, we get a pretty clear political discourse. Not that the rest of the film is particularly outspoken, but this discourse does mesh with the rest of Oguri’s vision. The horse cart man (which is how everyone refers to him as) is done in by the very thing that prevented his financial demise. Man’s hopeless labor is what keeps him alive, but it is also this labor that kills him, quite literally. The illustration is blunt, and maybe the reason for the scene is more about pathos than politics, but it is representative of the film’s other labors. Pardon the pun, but their work barely keeps them afloat.

4

It’s worth mentioning that Oguri’s motivations here aren’t one-dimensional, they aren’t strictly related to politics. It’s no surprise that such a political image opens a film that could be categorized as “humanist” when one considers that he is channeling Ozu, Naruse, et al. Those two filmmaker, and a few of their brethren have never been categorized as political filmmakers, but in their work I do see critiques of social infrastructures, but their salience comes from the fact that it’s all woven into something that’s grounded in reality. Yes, “humanist” or whatever, but political because it is personal. Oguri is working from the same template. One might argue that this more importantly a film about disappointment, anguish, and other emotional sensations that aren’t as easy to read, analyze, and study. However, I think they’re are connected.

5

This is a film told from the perspective of a child and because of that we must assume some naivety. Time is constructed in a opaque way, so we don’t know how time has passed in the film’s duration, but it is a pretty crucial period in Nobuo’s life. In the film’s running time, he confronts death twice, and sex once. It’s interesting that these events are all abstractions of living and loving. I mean, grizzly freak accidents aren’t how we’re meant to encounter our mortality and discovering your best friend’s mother is a sex worker isn’t how we’re meant to discover sexuality. Is there anything inherently wrong about learning about life this way? In Oguri’s hands, these aren’t transgressive moments, but instead common “coming of age” fodder. He frames these moments with such care and grace that their impact on Nobuo isn’t sensationalized. He isn’t quite sure what they mean, and the film isn’t going to force what it should mean to him.

6

“Coming of age” tales aren’t traditionally framed as stories about the socialization process, but Oguri seems keenly aware that the two are related. The sadness felt by the adults, who are periphery characters, seems like a introduction to children that things aren’t going to be that amazing. Of course, Nobuo, Ginko, and Kichi aren’t particularly upbeat. Kichi seems the least aware of his situation, where as the other two children have come closer to the learning the “harsh truth” or whatever. In reality, I don’t think we just one day lose our innocence and become cynical assholes. It’s a gradual process, one that doesn’t always result in the same type of person. Nobuo is wrestling with his conditions, Ginko has peacefully accepted their limitations (and it’s broken her heart), while Kichi tries to outwardly reject it. It’s important, I think, to clarify that none of these children are meant to represent stages of maturity. Such an idea would undercut the film’s grace, as it is not a work meant to make declarative statements about the unrest of daily existence. We know it’s there, Oguri knows it’s there and we haven’t found the “right” answer to endure the daily struggle. It sucks being a kid, basically.

7





Our Sunhi (2013)

7 01 2014

I could probably tell you what it’s like to have your heartbroken, but in doing so I would be making a gigantic assumption. The assumption that all experiences are the same, and while having your heartbroken might feel the same to everyone, the context of how that happened is very different. I don’t mean in the case that everyone has their own story, but instead that my perspective, as a straight, white, cis male isn’t the only one in the situation. There’s countless films, yes even art films, that will impose this perspective. The sad dude isn’t the only participant in this situation, though, and Hong Sang-Soo’s latest, Our Sunhi, is one of the most crucial examples I can think of that tries to decenter the perspective of the failed romance narrative.

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Sunhi, a recent college graduate, returns to her place of higher learning. She’s interested in getting Professor Choi to write her a letter of recommendation. Although he confesses that she was his favorite student, his letter, written in 30 minutes, is unimpressive. She continues to hang around campus, hoping to get him to write something more flattering. During that time she runs into an old flame, Moon-soo. After several drinks (as per usual for Hong) it’s revealed that he’s still very much in love with her, while she is more ambivalent. She also runs into her mentor, Jae-hak, who has been harboring a crush on her as well. Again, she proceeds with drinking.

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The American title here is particularly fascinating, Our Sunhi, which implies a plural possessiveness over the film’s central protagonist. The perspective is obviously that of the three men in love with her, Professor Choi, Moon-soo, and Jae-hak. The language here indicates the downfall of all their romances, as their possessiveness is not particularly compatible with Sunhi’s intentions to go to grad school in America. This isn’t to say that the three men in the film are particularly unpleasant. They seem nice enough, and with the exception of Moon-soo (when drunk), Sunhi enjoys their company. They’re all attractive enough too! One might ask what’s her problem, but the reality is that love isn’t an solvable equation, it isn’t a game show with correct answers or “right” behavior. It’s a weird and dumb and amazing thing that is often inexplicable. Hong isn’t implying there’s something transcendent about romance, but the opposite. It’s banal, but it still functions in a way that cannot be predicted.

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So what’s the big deal then? Hong’s just made another movie about how emotions and people are complicated, right? Well, yes, he has, but I do think there’s something political to be found in his musings. The film’s most telling bit of dialogue comes from Jae-hak, who asserts that women are realistic, and men are too emotional. In the western world, the inverse statement is often accepted as conventional wisdom. Women are visceral, men are logical. However, we have plenty of evidence of the opposite here. It’s Moon-soo who seems a step away from tears in every scene. It might not be that either gender is inherently more emotional, but instead of our emotional relation to each other, which is of course crucial in the films of Hong and his hero, Rohmer. Both make films that are so particular in how heterosexual relationships function (and more often, fail) that they kind of have to be about gender because there’s so little room for deviation. The men in Hong might seem more emotional, but that’s because they are confronting women about their relationships and they don’t see anything outside of a romance as being worthwhile. So when the women say no, they cry.

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Moon-soo is the most emotional character here and maybe he is really sad, but part of his heartbreak is self-inflicted. He only sees the romantic potential in Sunhi.  She sees him on the street while in a chicken restaurant. She invites him to join him, but he’s hesitant. He submits, but assumes she’s leading him and when his romantic intentions are spoken, he feels teased by Sunhi’s rejection. He can’t see his relationship with Sunhi beyond what happened in the past because in it, he possessed her. She was his Sunhi, and he can only assume that she says no because he did something wrong, or he’s inadequate. Maybe he is, but this assumption hurts his psyche, and doesn’t allow him to even account for Sunhi’s own feelings. The centering on the male in all romantic narratives forces a breakup to be seen as a problem to be fixed. You must correct your mistakes and then you’ll “win” her back. The friendship that Sunhi herself craves should be a win if Moon-soo does care about her. Now, I’m not an idiot. I understand it’s perfectly reasonable to not get over someone. It’s happened to me, but I am suggesting that heartbroken dudes aren’t doing favors for their own pain by centering the relationship on themselves. It’s possible that’s why things didn’t work out in the first place.

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I don’t think anyone has called Hong a political filmmaker, but I do think there’s something political happening in a film like this. Sure, it’s about relationships but at the risk of sounding banal, the personal is political. In this case, Sunhi’s unease is caused by coming into contact with men who see her being “to date.” These are the nice men of the world. They want to caress her, make her feel nice, take care of her, etc. Their intentions are pure but that doesn’t make them saints, nor does it mean Sunhi should date any of them. The revolutionary impulse in Hong is that he provides us with relationships that aren’t tragedies because they don’t work out, but instead tragedies because the heartbroken men never learn and thus, women like Sunhi go through a cycle of men who are perfectly nice but still come at the potential relationship with a skewed perspective. I see this shit everyday among well-meaning male peers who want to “get a girlfriend” assuming it’s a thing you make happen. Hong’s achievement here is showing men that are lonely because they won’t be loved and contrast it with the far worse prospect: being a woman and wanting to be consumed whole by men for the sake of love. Maybe he hasn’t decentered the “lost love” narrative from men, but he has tried to make a film that suggests there’s another participant in a breakup and that participant is like, another human being. I don’t see that a lot.

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