April 24, 2005

Udine Dispatch. 2.

Koreanfilm.org contributors Adam Hartzell files another dispatch from the 7th Udine Far East Film Festival.

There are certain films that do not lend themselves to being well-received at festivals by those taking a festival in as I'm doing here, seeing so many films back-to-back over so many days and then reporting on the drive-by experience. The films that can get lost are those that take a while to seep into you. Hong Sang-soo's Woman Is the Future of Man is a good example of what I'm talking about here. When asked by a friend what I thought of Hong's continued tale of male/female mismatching after our first viewing, I told my friend to get back to me in a week because I couldn't sort out my impressions of it immediately. Within a week, my friend wouldn't be able to get me to shut up about the film. Woman Is the Future of Man has been a part of my future practically every day since, especially whenever I stare out a cafe window and find myself absent-mindedly fixated on a passerby.

Desert Moon The Japanese film Desert Moon (Aoyama Shinji, 2001) may be such a film. I say "may be" because it could also be that I'm just ignorant of many of the references, cinematic and cultural, or it could be an incomplete film or one with structural faults. Only time with it will tell. Part of the enjoyment of the film is trying to figure out where we're headed, whether or not the wife and daughter of Nagai (Mikami Hiroshi) have passed away, disappeared, or simply got up and left Nagai. Although the dialogue purports that Nagai is a workaholic, we really don't experience Nagai as such, but as a man haunted by something. I like the atmosphere of the film, the aura surrounding the characters and the story, which is very much enhanced by the sound design, particularly the wonderful, dampened noises within an indoor racquetball club.

It is somewhat ironic that I am so impacted by the sound because this is one of the films where I should have been impacted by the cinematography, since it was one of the two films chosen (the other being Lady Snowblood) to represent the work of cinematographer Tamra Misaki. There are some interesting shots such as the cascading images of Akira (Toyoto Maho) and the young male prostitute Keechie (Akiyoshi Kumiko) in bed and the visual effects that allude to the presence of something bigger than Nagai surrounding him, but otherwise, nothing dramatic on the level of what we'd expect when discussing great cinematography. Perhaps another film Tamra had done with Aoyama, the caramel colorings of Eureka (2000), would have made a greater impact. But that film clocks in at well over 200 minutes, a difficult film to program at a festival like this. What is valuable about showing Desert Moon for such a series is how it demonstrates that subtlety can be, ironically, as vivid a sign of great lensing as well-placed artificial lighting and vibrant colors. Tamra has stated that, "Artificial light... shouldn't be used for its own sake," and this aesthetic may be what has left me impressively unimpressed.

Velvet Hustler
I caught my first film from the Nikkatsu Action Series today, Masuda Toshio's The Velvet Hustler (1967) and it has definitely motivated me to catch more. Watari Tetsuya plays Goro, a hitman who is too cool for any rule, gangsta strolling through scene after scene with such manly-man signifiers as opening a bottle with his teeth, blowing away the smoke of a just-fired gun, and working his cigarette like an appendage. Goro ain't the only hip cat on these Kobe streets because several other steady Mod-ing Japanese men and women are shimmering along with him in their own boots made for more than just walking. Goro shines no greater than in a wonderful scene in which he restarts the action on the dancefloor with the most subtle of choreographic moves as all present begin bunny-hopping behind him. (Seriously, it really works.) This cool consistency allows for a dramatic moment when Goro loses his cool, a scene that was expertly paced by Masuda, allowing for full-on effect of the dramatic camp that Watari was capable of. Sushido Jo plays an outlandish meta-hitman, the hitman sent to off the hitman Watari, and he was present along with Masuda to introduce the film through Mark Schilling's translation. Sushido, now in his 70s, apparently hasn't let his age slow him down because his animated comments didn't need any translation for the crowd to get the gist. He and Masuda appear to still be playful with each other after all these years, demonstrated by the elder Masuda's refusal of Sushido's sarcastic assistance as he descended the stairs from the stage. "I don't need your help, punk!" Masuda appeared to say, which Sushido followed up with by throwing a well-executed, joking missed punch at Masuda.

The Velvet Hustler was followed by another actioner, Derek Yee's One Nite in Mongkok (2004), the film I'd heard most about prior to coming to Udine. The story begins über-violently, setting up a battle between two gangs in Mongkok (a section of Hong Kong); the local police come under significant pressure to resolve it quickly. Stumbling into this gang war is Lai Fu (Daniel Wu), a hitman from the mainland who acquires the non-job-related services of a prostitute named Dan Dan (Cecilia Cheung). The film provides quality performances all around, especially commendable due to the ease with which this story could have stepped into histrionics. Director Yee capably juggles a great number of characters so that each receives clear enough differentiation without relying too heavily on character clichés.

And it is these action films, with their choreographed fighting and shootouts, that are the most effective when experiencing a festival as I am here. As Goro noted to his love interest (played by Asaoka Ruriko), "Vulgar is more interesting." So such scenes of virulent violence, acrobatic action and sassy style affect marathon viewers such as me more powerfully when collaged together with film after film over a few days. But the true test of a film is the one that stays with you years later, for the spectacle can tarnish over time if the substance can not withstand the future years to come.

(Note: The rush of blogging can make one vulnerable to mistakes, and I made a major one in my first dispatch. Malaysia is not an archipelago as I wrote, but a peninsula. I apologize to Malaysians everywhere for misrepresenting their beautiful country. The bright side is the embarrassment of that mistake will more likely keep me from making that mistake, or one like it, again.)

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Posted by dwhudson at April 24, 2005 3:07 AM