April 29, 2005

Udine Dispatch. 4.

crimson-pistol.jpg How Monday went for Koreanfilm.org contributor Adam Hartzell at the 7th Udine Far East Film Festival...

It was raining even harder Monday morning, impeding my early departure to the second theater on the other side of town to catch another Nikkatsu Action film. Thankfully, it dissipated soon enough for me to rush over via cab to catch Ushihara Yoichi's Crimson Pistol (1961). The original English title was Rebel Without a Grave. Although such a reference might seem unnecessary, it worked off the James Dean image the lead actor, Akagi Keiichiro, had after his untimely death at the age of 21 when he crashed his go-cart on the Nikkatsu lot. The film follows a circuitous route of gangster alliances, along with a love interest between Akagi's character and a blind woman for whom he sets up the obligatory fantasy of a miraculous cure. It all comes off as campy now, with lines such as, "As long as there is crime, he'll be busy," sparking laughter in the audience. I don't know if my schedule will allow me to catch more Nikkatsu Action, but Crimson Pistol's faults counter The Velvet Hustler's good marks.

Letters From an Unknown Woman Letters From An Unknown Woman (Xu Jinglei, 2004) was a film unknown to me, one that I wasn't even planning to see. However, due to an unintentionally long afternoon nap, I had missed Bae Chang-ho's Road (2004), so I felt I should catch something else before the film I was most anxious to see, that being Park Chul-soo's Green Chair (2004). In her second feature, Xu is a Jane of all trades, directing, writing, co-producing and acting in the lead. The film is a reworking of Stefan Zweig's 1922 novella already adapted by Max Ophuls in 1948; this time, the setting is China in the 1930s. The unknown woman quickly reveals herself and her multiple relations to the writer who receives her letter. The film has a nice pace, with wonderful images of the two parties glancing at each other. However, the whole leaves me unfulfilled. There doesn't seem to be much depth and it ends without much impact. Still, Xu is quite capable of handling all the individual roles she's taken on and she shows even more promise now for better works in the future.

Someone else who once showed promise but got lost in the recent success of his country's cinema is Park Chul-soo. Park can feel free to take some of the credit for getting me interested in South Korean cinema because his 301, 302 is the first South Korean film I ever saw, since it the first to receive an international release. I was intrigued then and haven't stopped watching since.

Green Chair

In Green Chair, Park again settles in on a controversial topic, a thirty-something woman, Mun-hee (played by Suh Jung from The Isle) jailed for having an affair with an underage boy, Hyun (Shim Ji-ho). After her initial time in jail, her sentence is reduced to three years of community service. However, upon release, she returns to her boy on the edge of becoming a man, Korean manhood and womanhood commencing at the age of 19. They proceed to have a lot of creative and tender sex (well, some of it isn't tender, but for once, for a South Korean film at least, this isn't because of rape but simply due to the fact that the couple has just been having too much sex).

Thankfully, Park refuses to bring the plot towards punishment for this sexual freedom. This is particularly nice to see since women of all the world's cinemas are so often denied sexual agency for archaic Madonna/Whore dichotomies. Park merely explores what sex means to some of us and why we spend so much time exploring our own and others' bodies. Oh Yoon-hong plays Mun-hee's friend and develops a wonderfully fresh characterization. I'm happy to see her get more acting work after The Power of Kangwon Province. (She actually directed a short independent film recently entitled One Night Affair.) Park's tropes are on full display; we have the funky perspectives (this time, a number of scenes in which characters look down into the camera or whole scenes are purposely rendered slightly blurry); we have the exposure of a director-like figure as in Farewell, My Darling and Kazoku Cinema; and we have the wonderful Korean take on a Greek chorus we witnessed in Push! Push! during the final dinner party of Green Chair. One can even make out some similarities to Jang Sun-woo's controversial film Lies (2000). There's a control to Park's chaos, but there is chaos nonetheless, which prohibits me from fully grasping what Park intends here. But I look forward to further viewings in order to figure out this invigorating film. I'll be sitting in Green Chair for a while just as I have sat with South Korean cinema since 301, 302.

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Posted by cphillips at April 29, 2005 3:25 PM