Book Texts – Foreign Film Reviews II

WET NOODLES

I Come with the Rain
Directed and written by Trần Anh Hùng

As a scholar of global culture, I was intrigued by a recent release, probably still screening in some theaters. The movie sports at least four titles as of the moment, three of which are translations of its English title, I Come with the Rain (나는 비와 함께 간다 in Korean). The cast list also reads like an actors’ assembly convened by the United Nations, complete with that august body’s usual marginalization of women: an American (Josh Hartnett), Japanese (Kimura Takuya), Korean (Lee Byung-hun), Canadian (Elias Koteas), Chinese (Shawn Yue), Spaniard (Eusebio Poncela), token-female Vietnamese (Trần Nu Yên-Khê, the director’s wife), plus a handful of gun-toting Filipinos and a roomful of naked Filipinas presumably standing in for all the other nationalities left unrepresented.

Trần Anh Hùng, who wrote as well as directed, had done a few films earlier, mostly set in Viet Nam (including The Scent of Green Papaya [1993], actually shot in France), and generally well-received by art-film connoisseurs. I Come with the Rain appears to be his bid to acquire hit-maker status, drawing on his ability to interweave a wide array of characters in fascinating Oriental locales. Unfortunately, the attempt misfires so resoundingly that only a marvel greater than what Kimura’s miracle-working character can conjure up will enable the film to achieve wider release elsewhere before it shows up on video and the internet.

I Come with the Rain isn’t wanting in good intentions, so I found myself rooting for it to take off even after its hopelessly anachronistic climax. The challenge of maintaining exclusivist high-art aesthetics must have clashed with the thriller genre’s requisite of catering to as wide a viewership as possible, and while this may have resulted in an occasional masterpiece – witness Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) or Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – in this instance what emerged is an indeterminate hybrid comprising several arresting concepts that fail to coalesce in the end.

The movie’s narrative signals its problems from the get-go. After a cleverly misdirected opening, where Kline, a detective, is overpowered and vampirically bitten by an angst-ridden serial killer, we flash-forward to a couple of years later, where Kline, now permanently traumatized, is summoned by someone who claims to own the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company. This man is never seen by Kline or the audience, preferring to convey Kline’s assignment via a menacing lens and speaker set.

We learn that the CEO’s son, Shitao, has fled to Asia, and Kline has to track him down in his last known whereabouts, an orphanage in Mindanao. Upon reaching the place, Kline is informed by another detective that Shitao had been killed by the henchmen of a powerful mine operator, but Kline replies that he has evidence that Shitao has turned up in Hong Kong, where he intends to go next. Why Kline does not fly directly from Los Angeles to the former crown colony is anyone’s guess – I thought at first that the director was preparing to link the US with its neocolonial stronghold, the Philippines, as well as with its war-on-terror campaign on the country’s Muslim minority.

As it turns out, Mindanao’s main function is to provide scenic contrast with the First-World settings of the US and Hong Kong: jungle foliage and fauna, muddy roads, congested slums, sleazy expats, sapphic go-go girls, youthful killing machines, oh my. Far be it for me to espouse political correctness and positive images for any group, but one wonders what a fellow Asian might have in mind when he insists on depicting misery in the Third World: just in case the people living there had no idea how underdeveloped their condition is, perhaps?

I Come with the Rain sustains this impressive display of cluelessness upon reaching Hong Kong. The major Asian characters, presumably long-term residents if not natives, speak mostly English even to one another (Lee Byung-hun valiantly compensates with well-timed outbursts of rage, from all those TOEIC review sessions maybe). And if Trần Anh Hùng had any symbolic purpose in casting a Korean to play a sadistic Chinese gangster who literally crucifies a supposedly genuine faith healer played by a Japanese – well, these bouts of against-the-grain inspiration are just beyond me.

Trần may have also missed out on the lament of most Hong Kong film scholars – that recent movies made by their own enfants terribles tend to portray a universalized space that is no longer recognizably Hong Kong in character. This is a trend increasingly being manifested in national cinemas that have succeeded in appealing to a global audience, starting with the festival distribution circuit: filmmakers no longer need to connect with their own mass audiences so long as their output can be supported by a large enough number of fans in the West. The fact that I Come with the Rain isn’t home-grown in Hong Kong points up this problem even more egregiously.

What makes thrillers and horror films ultimately worthy of attention is their willingness to face abjection, an all-too-human condition that more wholesome genres shy away from. I Come with the Rain provides its share of hair-raising situations, but winds up advocating a redemptive ending modeled on the passion of Christ. How Trần ever came to believe that such a resolution (an Asian Messiah, how radical-chic) would complement his too-precious notion of infusing a “low” genre hybrid with high-art values is a lesson on the dangers of intellectual inattention. Apparently the early-Church memo stipulating that salvation was meant for everyone (the secular definition of “Catholic”) missed him by a millennium or two. I Come with the Rain, sure, but I got trapped in the puddle of my own pretension.

[First published November 9, 2009, as “Clueless Global Hybrid, Now Showing” in JungAng Daily]

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TWO GUYS, WHILE WATCHING AVATAR

Avatar
Directed and written by James Cameron

At a screening in downtown Seoul.

“I can’t believe you convinced me to watch this movie again. It wasn’t so great the first time we saw it.”

“You said you had nothing better to do, so I thought why not get another pair of tickets since we’re already here anyway.”

“Yeah but don’t you feel uncomfortable? I mean we’re in a dark hall surrounded by all these foreigners.”

“You know you better stop calling these people foreigners. We’re in their country, so here we’re the foreigners.”

“I remember in my hometown the cheapest grocery was run by a bunch of these people, and we always called them foreigners. I only figured they were Koreans after I came here.”

“Quiet, the movie’s started. Aren’t you going to put on your glasses?”

“Thanks, but I got 20/20 vision.”

“They’re for the 3-D effect. Just put them on.”

“Oh, so that’s how they function. I thought they were meant to dim the brightness on screen. What’s the guy saying? These glasses are cool.”

“You mean the hero? He traveled almost six years in deep sleep and when he wakes up it’s 2154.”

“That’s just like the time I went to high school. What kind of planet would you call Pandora anyway? Sounds like it was named by some Wiccan tree-hugger.”

“I knew an ex-Marine like the main character, all stoic just like that, strong but quiet.”

“I envy that kind of manly, totally macho culture. What’s he doing now?”

“You mean my friend? It’s a she. Married, with four kids.”

“What a shame. I mean, why would they let women join that kind of outfit? It compromises American masculinity. Just like all these foreigners with their feminine culture, where even the guys wear pink.”

“I don’t think cultures have genders. And you better be quiet, or they might get offended.”

“Are you kidding? They hired us to teach them English, so as long as we talk fast I’m sure they won’t have a clue as to what we’re saying. Get a load of this character, the colonel. Last time we watched I thought he was going to be the hero.”

“Well he wanted to destroy the planet to get their resources, so the ex-Marine had to fight him in the end.”

“Wait a minute, now I’m getting the drift. The corporation calls in the military so they can acquire this unobtainium thingy, but the movie makes a hero of the guy who stops them, right? And he does it by joining up with these Na’vi people of color?”

“Actually everything’s just fictional, so the Na’vi aren’t real people of color because no one on earth right now has blue skin.”

“Whatever. Hasn’t anyone figured this out yet? It’s a pro-Taliban movie! No wonder the Na’vi language sounds like Arabic. I can imagine Kim Jong-il smiling while watching this.”

“North Korea isn’t Muslim, it’s Communist. They don’t believe in religion.”

“You mean there’s a difference? If you’re American, all your enemies are the same. They all want to destroy us, and they’re all foreigners like these people here.”

“One more time, they’re not the foreigners, we are, okay? And a lot of destruction in the U.S. was done by locals. Some of them were even in government and the private sector.”

“Oh, I know what you mean – the liberals. Hollywood’s their propaganda machine.”

“Well this is a Hollywood movie we’re watching. Oh good, here comes my favorite character, the Latina hottie.”

“Yah, she really rocks. Too bad the colonel has to shoot her down. But it’s her fault, trying to save these Na’vi sympathizers. Hey, did you notice the resemblance? Na’vi, naughty, Nazi –”

“I think you’re over-reading. There’s some interesting psychology in the movie though. See how the colonel keeps calling the ex-Marine ‘son’? Makes it more ironic when they wind up trying to kill each other.”

“Just like that mythology guy, Narcissus. I did learn something in high school, after all.”

“I guess it’s worth becoming a Na’vi just like the ex-Marine does with his avatar, just to be able to ride one of those flying dinosaurs.”

“They’re dragons, man. And hey, they’re purple. James Cameron and his gang must have been ingesting some serious substances when they proposed this project. I mean, whoever heard of jellyfish and mountains that float on air? And trees that operate like the World Wide Web?”

“Now that you mention it, I kind of like the way the Na’vi communicate with nature by plugging in with special strands in their hair.”

“I do that all the time, with my USB flash drive. So that’s really how we’re supposed to feel? That the Na’vi are better than the Americans?”

“The invaders are called ‘sky people’ by the Na’vi, but in the future we can’t really be sure if Americans will be in outer space, or if the U.S. will be around at all.”

“Don’t tell me you’re taking the side of these hostiles! The U.S. of A. has been here for over 200 years, so why shouldn’t it be around forever? It’s still the king of the world, that’s for sure.”

“That reminds me, do you think the movie will win the Oscar? Cameron’s up against his ex-wife, you know.”

“Yeah, but she made that anti-war movie, plus he should win because he’s got the bigger hit, and he’s the guy.”

“Movie’s over, let’s step outside and get more popcorn.”

“Omigosh, my celfone’s gone! It must have dropped out of my pocket on my way here! Great, now I can’t find out where I’m supposed to meet my students this evening, on top of having watched this lousy movie with a bunch of, of…foreigners! What do you suggest we do this time?”

“How about we stay on and watch Avatar again?”

“Okay.”

[Submitted February 2010 to JungAng Daily, originally intended for Oscar awards week; unpublished]

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HIT IN THE (MULTI)PLEXUS

Wan-deuk-i [Punch]
Directed by Lee Han
Written by Kim Dong-Woo

The latest Korean blockbuster film is a departure from the disaster releases that had been dominating the local box-office since Bong Joon-ho’s Gwoemul [The Host] set an all-time record in 2006. What is even more surprising about the current hit, Lee Han’s Wan-deuk-i (hereafter Punch), is that it is nothing like its title at all – closer to an air kiss from a distant lover on a dreamy autumn afternoon.

Yet Punch also partakes of the same elements that marked the disaster-film cycle set off by Gwoemul: it is insistently and daringly populist, and it looks at Korea during an age of global interaction (on which more later). More important for practitioners of film everywhere, it demonstrates the admirable willingness of Korean talents to grapple with the exigencies of genre production, constantly searching for ways to infuse difficult and complex material with accessible treatments. The manner in which Punch reconfigures melodramatic requisites, for example, exhibits its makers’ expert grasp of the strategies of excess and containment – i.e., one should provide an unusual amount of the genre’s primary element (chills in horror, laughs in comedy, tears in melodrama, sex in pornography, etc.), yet also ensure that the narrative eventually returns to a condition of normality in order for the viewer to achieve catharsis and closure.

Surprisingly, the element that Punch elects to overindulge in is the exact opposite of what its genre stipulates. Lee (drawing from a recent best-selling novel) provides a series of comic set-ups that serve to subtly foreground the pathos endured by the characters, so that toward the end, when the central tearjerker scene is staged, one could hear even male viewers unable to hold back their sniffles – a smiling-through-tears tactic more devastating than what manipulative Hollywood dreck like James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), for all their outsize budgets, are able to achieve. The ending, happy but not (yet) triumphant, confirms that although the movie might have masqueraded for the most part as a comedy, it has remained true to its melodramatic ideals.

The plot concerns a street-smart young man, Wan-deuk (the Korean title is a jokey variation on his name). Generally well-behaved although unable to control his bouts of rage, Wan-deuk remains devoted to his diminutive hunchback father and struggles to maintain a decent performance in high school. Unfortunately for him, his teacher, Dong-joo, insists on singling him out in and outside the classroom, and harasses him even at home, since he lives across from the rooftop quarters Wan-deuk shares with his father and “uncle,” a mentally challenged man his father befriended and trained for his dance performances. As a child Wan-deuk used to wander the provincial cabaret where his father tap-danced, but since the father believed that his son will have a better future by studying in Seoul, he decided to move there (near Dong-joo’s place, as it turned out) and earn a meager living by selling trifles at markets outside the city.

The turning point arrives when Dong-joo, also a minister at a church that assists illegal immigrants, discovers that Wan-deuk’s mother is a Filipina who abandoned her family right after weaning her son from breast milk. The news traumatizes Wan-deuk, who already resents Dong-joo seriously enough to pray in church for his teacher’s demise. The process by which the narrative illustrates how these estranged characters manage to accept one another and discover reserves of strength in themselves is enabled by an impressive traversal of the delicate line separating humor from tragedy, without tumbling over into either extreme.

Key to the success of this type of undertaking is the performances. The title character is played by (from the perspective of world cinema) a newcomer, Yoo Ah-in, whose credibility as a mature-beyond-his-years teenager derives from parallel real-life experience as a high-school dropout. The actual lead, however – the character responsible for driving the plot forward – is Dong-joo, played with flourish and acute comic timing by Kim Yun-seok, previously identified with violent, even literally bloody film noirs. The supporting cast – Park Su-young and Kim Yeong-jae as father and “uncle” respectively, and Park Hyo-ju and Kang Byeol as Dong-joo and Wan-deuk’s respective love interests – partake of the same bounteous reserve of colorful representation steeped in what hip-hop artists would describe as dope realness.

Even a seeming anomaly like the casting of Yoo Ah-in, whose character looks like neither of his parents (and better than both, actually – star-is-born alert, everyone), makes complete sense for people who marry inter-racially as a matter of course – not among Koreans, but among Filipinos. The fact that he is endowed in several other respects adheres to the biological principle, recognized in Philippine culture (and recently being acknowledged in the US), that positive traits tend to emerge more prominently in hybrid offspring.

Yet as mentioned earlier, a successful genre project also requires the curse of containment. In Punch this is brought about in the portrayal of Wan-deuk’s mother, who functions more as cipher than as character, remorseful over her initial abandonment, resolved to make amends to her husband and son, relieved that through them she might finally find some ease over her hardscrabble existence. The rupture in this formulation derives from the fact that the role is essayed by Jasmine Lee, who in real life started as an immigrant wife in Korea but succeeded in becoming a national celebrity after the untimely death of her husband.

The source novel’s character was actually Vietnamese, although the temptation to change her nationality to Filipino was understandable: the Philippines has virtually become an extension of the southern island of Jeju-do, the primary warm-weather destination for vacationing Koreans, many of whom choose to stay longer (for English training and business investment), sometimes for good. Yet where most other Asian wives would have remained helpless, hampered by differences in both culture and language, the typically Westernized and English-speaking Filipina would have been able to clamber her way up the social ladder one way or another, especially if she’d had the “good education” that Wan-deuk’s father quietly boasted to his son.

A kinder way of responding to this potential shortcoming is by answering that first, gender politics cannot be a national priority in a country that is technically still at war and whose economy lacks a Third World that it can exploit, thus situating its population in a perpetual crisis position even amid its First-World prosperity; and second, a culture whose pre-modern Confucian ideology is even more resolutely patriarchal than its current conservative-Western aspirations has no model for feminist enlightenment anywhere within itself. (Indeed, a previous all-time Korean blockbuster, Lee Jun-ik’s Wang-ui namja [The King and the Clown, 2005], is an example of how internalized misogyny can inadvertently ruin any well-intentioned queer text.) Like Gwoemul, Punch compensates in the next best possible way, by presenting its male characters as society’s Other, feminized in relation to the relatively powerful and wealthy majority. It remains then for Korea’s Asian Others – Filipinos and other immigrant populations – to continue demonstrating how and why gender progressivity is not merely ethical, but in fact beneficial and indispensable in strengthening the strands of the social fabric.

[First published November 28, 2011, as “Punch Tackles Fil-Korean’s Search for Mother” in ABS-CBSNews.com]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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