While people are prone to getting sentimental about the power of story, the truth is that narrative is nothing more than a means of providing structure to a series of disconnected things. Thus, rather than delivering their ideas in the form of bullet points, artists use stories as a means of linking different ideas and providing an emotional context that will shape how a particular work makes you feel about those ideas. On the crudest possible level, having all the bad guys smoke while all the good guys drink Pepsi is a pretty good way of encouraging your audience to gain a good impression of Pepsi and a bad impression of smokers. However, while narrative is one of humanity’s most enduring and effective methods of structuring information, it is far from the only means at our disposal.
Literary culture has long resented the cultural primacy of narrative and so many literary types are prone to treating the ability to read for style and subtext rather than plot as a sign of intellectual sophistication. One way of approaching the history of art house film is to date its creation to the point in the 1960s when European directors stopped trying to tell mere stories and began making art. In fact, one could push this analysis even further and suggest that European art house film was born amidst the boos that echoed round the cinema during the first screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a film that begins as a missing person story only to rapidly lose interest and set about trying to recreate the emotional texture of feckless upper-class Italian lives.
Just as literature has experimented with alternate means of ordering information, film has developed techniques that allow directors to structure their ideas around such abstract principles as character, theme or mood. An excellent example of this type of filmmaking is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life where a series of incredibly disparate vistas including family drama and warring dinosaurs are held together by the concept of ‘grace’ or (as I argued in my review) the pointlessness of seeking to impose narrative order on disparate lives. For those people not used to using principles other than narrative to make sense of a film, Tree of Life was a mess of incoherent and portentous ideas. For those people well versed in the techniques that Malick chose to deploy, Tree of Life was as beautiful as it was transparent. There is nothing inherently better about building a work around a theme rather than a story but our culture does a pretty good job of teaching us how to make sense of stories and so works built around moods and themes have acquired a touch of exclusivity. If you can make sense of The Tree of Life then it’s a sign that you’ve put in the effort of watching difficult films rather than just filling your headspace with Doctor Who and rolling news.
The problem with experimental techniques is that the good ones inspire imitation and the more a technique is imitated, the more likely it is that it will enter the mainstream and lose that hint of exclusivity. What many people now think of as the Golden Age of TV is really just a rather grandiose way of talking about the fact that art house techniques have escaped the cinema and begun turning up in TV dramas. Indeed, people who have watched more than a single season of Mad Men will find themselves perfectly capable of making sense of a film like L’Avventura as both works put a lot of effort into emotional texture whilst refusing to provide narrative closure and stressing the existential void that lurks at the heart of every character. Aside from depriving art house film of its much-valued hint of exclusivity, the democratisation of post-narrative techniques also speaks to a growing conservatism and intellectual exhaustion at the heart of art house film. If Millions of people tune in to watch Don Draper wander around an existential wasteland of mild-depression and meaningless sex, then how experimental is a film that makes use of precisely those techniques and subjects? Clearly, art house film is getting old and it’s time for something new… something like Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea.
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Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil tells of a South Korean intelligence agent who responds to the death of his wife by tracking down the man who murdered her. However, instead of simply killing the man, the agent decides to install surveillance equipment that will allow him to continue punishing the murderer over an extended period of time. Initially, the killer is taken aback by the agent’s hatred but he soon comes to enjoy the confrontations and so lures the agent into an increasingly brutal contest of wills. Hideously violent, unflinchingly brutal and yet beguiling to watch, Kim’s film offers a traditionally Nietzschean warning to those who would consider embarking on a quest for revenge:
Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
While Kim’s film is beautifully made and eminently entertaining, I cannot help but wonder why it is that he felt inspired to make a film with this particular message. Back in 2005, Kim directed the wonderful A Bittersweet Life in which the protagonist exacts a bloody revenge on his employers for the way in which they deprived him of a personal life and yet responded with furious anger the second he stepped out of line in an effort to grab some happiness for himself. Given that A Bittersweet Life convincingly communicates the idea that revenge is a necessary but ultimately self-defeating course of action, it is strange to see Kim making yet another film with this precise message. Especially when the message in question is so blindingly obvious that it scarcely merits a passing thought at all let alone enough thought to fill two entire films. Even more puzzling is the fact that Kim is not alone in his desire to brood over the morality of vengeance. In fact, South Korean cinema has produced so many revenge films in recent years that one can comfortably talk about them constituting a sub-genre in their own right.
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The Bright Lights Film Journal have my piece on KIM Ki-duk’s Arirang, winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes film festival.
Back in the late 90s and early 00s, KIM was one of Korean cinema’s golden boys. Hugely productive and critically acclaimed the world over, he was held up as an example by a generation of young Korean filmmakers busy taking their first steps on the international stage. Then, in 2008, KIM suddenly stopped working and dropped out of sight. Arirang is an autobiographical documentary made by KIM in an effort to work out why it is that he cannot make films. Now before you dismiss this as one of those self-indulgent ‘I’m writing a song about not being able to write a song!’ stunts, you should know that Arirang is not a straight film. In fact, it ends with an outright lie. This suggests that KIM knows that many of his ‘reasons’ for not working are fictitious and so Arirang can be seen as being about a man intent upon confronting the lies that plague his life:
Much like the suggestion that he might be acting, the use of a song as generically miserable as “Arirang” serves to question the authenticity of Kim’s self-diagnosis. “Arirang” can be sung at any time because while it articulates, it does not deconstruct. Its diagnosis is so general that it applies to all ills, and the same might well be said of Kim’s diagnoses of his own miseries. Is he really unable to work because two assistants failed to follow his example? Or because he cannot come to terms with the fact that death may well be the end of life? These seem less like insightful diagnoses than convenient tragedies that can be draped across Kim’s problems in order to allow him to vocalise his misery without actually analysing it — convenient fictions that smell of untruth.
Arirang is a delicate, moving and intensely personal film about grief, depression and creative block. However, while it may be breathtakingly honest, I wouldn’t believe a word of it.
Videovista also have my review of Yim Pil-sung’s Hansel & Gretel.
Over the past month I have been reading and watching a lot of stuff that consciously plays around with pre-existing forms of imagery. For example, Blindness (2008) seemed to address not just metaphorical blindness but also the idea of blindness as a metaphor. I also sat through not only Stephen Moffat’s direction-less Jekyll (2007) but an equally uninspiring theatrical reworking of the original novella by James MacLaren entitled (somewhat unoriginally) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
One of the main problems with Hansel & Gretel is that while it plays around with the idea of Hansel and Gretel, it really does not have anything to say. It is a film that draws heavily from the del Toro tradition of stories about abandoned children and in bringing together those two traditions, all it really manages to do is make us realise that del Toro’s stories are hardly revolutionary.
However, in thinking about this film and Blindness I could not help but wonder whether there isn’t some kind of bell curve for reinventions. Fail to do enough and your story comes across as hackneyed but do too much and the story gets lost or, as in the case of Blindness, the metaphor effectively becomes so flexible that it becomes effectively meaningless, thereby leaving the writer looking like a pretentious pseud.
On a completely unrelated subject, this month’s Videovista also featured my review of the old TV mini-series Escape from Sobibor (1987), which, if nothing else, shows how films such as Schindler’s List have helped make mainstream media a good deal less squeamish about the Holocaust than it used to be.