April 9, 2006

Seoul Dispatch. 1.

Koreanfilm.org contributor Adam Hartzell sends a first dispatch from the Women's Film Festival in Seoul, running through April 14.

WFFIS 06 The 8th edition of the Women's Film Festival in Seoul (WFFIS) comes at an auspicious time with the recent nomination of Han Myung-sook as South Korea's first female Prime Minister. (In South Korea, the Prime Minister is the head of the cabinet and is second in line only to the President.) So it's only appropriate that a film with a legal theme opens the festival. That would be Sisters in Law, the powerful documentary by Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi which follows two Cameroonian sisters, prosecutor Vera Ngassa and judge Beatrice Ntuba, and their tireless work in the Cameroon legal system. Judge Ntuba is particularly inspiring with her equal parts toughness and empathy properly spread across all the vast responsibilities she has. There is nothing schizophrenic about this temperament switch. It is obvious how someone so precious with her son, so compassionate with a woman prisoner she has sent to jail, can also be so stern and demanding in the courtroom.

The Power of Kangwon Province I saw Sisters in Law as part of a screening of African films at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, so instead of attending the festival's opening ceremony, I headed downtown with my Koreanfilm.org compatriots, Darcy Paquet and Kyu Hyun Kim, to share witness to the second month of a marathon of one-person protests against the announced changes in the screen quota in South Korea. Oh Yoon-hong was the singular representative on this day of the ongoing protest, standing behind a sign that read "The Power of Korean Cinema" alluding to her most representative work, The Power of Kangwon Province. Actor Ahn Sung-ki (Chilsu and Mansu, White Badge, Arahan) is credited as the brainchild behind this creative series of consecutive protests that luminaries of South Korean cinema have participated in, such as Taegukgi's Jang Dong-gun (whose protest had to be relocated after his fans mobbed him), Choi Min-shik of Old Boy (who returned his medal of honor to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism) and Old Boy's director, Park Chan-wook (who took his turn in the protest while in Berlin during that film festival). South Korean law permits permit-less protests if only one person is administering the protest. So for 146 days, the number of days required for theatres to screen South Korean films before it is scheduled to be downgraded to 73 days on July 1st, a different advocate in the South Korean film community will stand alone together in front of the Kyobo Insurance building in downtown Seoul.

I spoke with Oh while three photographers snapped and one cameraman filmed our conversation. Although our conversation was stilted somewhat by translation difficulties, she made it clear how seriously she and her fellow artists/activists take this issue. Although South Korean films dominate the multiplexes here, reaching over 75 percent of the box office take in January, she does not feel enough time has passed for South Korean cinema to fully develop an industry worthy of withstanding the marketing pressure that films from the United States can bring upon all nations.

Green Chair As someone who focuses a great deal on the cinema from South Korea, it's obvious where my sympathies lie, so I won't pretend I'm a disinterested party. I see the benefit to myself (not financially, believe me, but more in a humanistic way, since I write about all this at a significant financial loss) and to cinema as a whole by allowing a space free from the dog-eat-dog world of power-privileged capitalism desired by most of those with disproportionate financial advantages. However, I did pose to Oh this question: "How do you respond to those who claim that the screen quota only ends up benefiting the South Korean blockbusters such as Taegukgi and Silmido or other mainstream fair such as the Marrying The Mafias and My Boss, My Ad Nauseums rather than the very films that she herself performs in, such as Popee and Green Chair?" Oh admitted that she wasn't clear if the present screen quota does indeed help those films. Here is what needs to be looked into further, to see what would allow for the greatest good for the widest cinema.

Unfortunately, the discussion of the screen quota is too often stuck in a fantasy of laissez-faire capitalism that even those who advocate for it don't want. Case in point: I type this report out in a South Korean coffeehouse chain near my "Love Motel" fully packed with porn. This coffeehouse chain is almost a complete replica of another chain from the United States with only minor adjustments in spelling and the color-coding of it's brand. Companies would rather have government assistance in prohibiting such trademark/patent/copyright infringements than the anything-goes free-for-all that a truly laissez-faire capitalism would allow. Such capitalist exploits would equally allow the consumption that Love Motel's wares, prostitution and other variants of the sex industry, which at least the advocates of the God of the Free Market in the United States seek to prohibit their Financial God from freely marketing. (As for me, the writer trying to save money, I stay in greatly cheaper Love Motels than many people do in South Korea for the sole pleasures of a place to shower and a place to sleep while traveling. Ain't no lovin' going on in my Love Motel room, if you must know.) So even though those who claim to want free markets actually want certain restraints on what a truly free market would allow. Politics is partly the discussion of what should and shouldn't be allowed to prosper in our societies as we negotiate towards establishing agreed upon goals. One of my goals is a vibrant cinema, and I don't see a multiplex full of the business decisions that bring us Yours, Mine and Ours representing the film desires of Oh, me, or others all that well. So Oh is clear that she is unclear how the screen quota helps her indie spirit, but she only sees trouble ahead if the present quota is maintained.

Take Care of My Cat Which brings me back to my reason for being here, the 8th edition of the Women's Film Festival in Seoul. Amongst all the questions posed about the screen quota, significant consideration should be made regarding how the screen quota might have helped South Korea establish a significant number of renowned female filmmakers, especially when compared to other Asian countries. Directors such as Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat), Im Soon-rye (Waikiki Brothers), Park Chan-ok (Jealousy is My Middle Name) and others emerging every year are a significant part of the compelling work coming out of South Korea for the past ten years.

This year's festival has four major focuses outside of the general compiling of shorts and features directed by women throughout the world. Along with Sisters in Law, this year's festival will feature the greatest number of African films at any festival ever before in South Korea. A series of films by female documentary pioneers will be shown, such as raw footage from the 1968 protest of the Miss American pageant. The image of Korean women in a selection of films from the "Korean New Wave" will be investigated, focusing particularly on Shim Hye-jin's portrayals in Black Republic (Park Kwang-su, 1990), Out To The World (Yeo Kyun-dong, 1994), and Green Fish (Lee Chang-dong, 1996).

A Question of Silence The work of Dutch director and screenwriter Marleen Gorris, best known for her Oscar winning Antonia's Line (1995), is being featured as well. During the first full day of the festival, I saw two of her earlier works, her debut, A Question of Silence (1982), and her second feature, Broken Mirrors (1984). Besides being completely entranced by the 80s-esque, synthesizer-knob-tweaking soundtrack, I was quite impressed with these two films as greater wholes, especially A Question of Silence. A psychiatrist is brought in to a trial as a formality to declare the accused insane. Yet in speaking with and listening to these three women, all strangers until the day they pummelled to death a male boutique owner, the psychiatrist begins to realize there was something else going on in the actions of these women. Bit by bit, we learn more about these women; the plot is perfectly paced. By taking the "you have the right to remain silent" to an extreme, we witness how silence doesn't speak more than words but allows for dignity in the face of the contempt of court exhibited, at times, by courts themselves. Several in the packed house at the screening I attended seemed to appreciate the statement, for the applause began early on with the credits.

Broken Mirrors A sizable crowd attended the 11 am screening of Broken Mirrors as well. (I would learn from regulars that most screenings are well-attended.) Broken Mirrors provides a glimpse into the lives of a group of prostitutes who work in a brothel in Amsterdam. Although each verges on a stereotype (the money-grubber, the saint, the ditzy blonde, etc), each character is more fleshed out and un-cliched than such categories often allow. A parallel story runs along with the ins and outs of the brothel business involving a suburban mother who is kidnapped by a serial killer. Presenting the killer to us from behind, we obviously begin to question every john that enters the brothel, making the serial killer every john. Those still resistant to the benefits of feminisms will quickly label both Broken Mirrors and A Question of Silence man-hating films, but such requires one to ignore the milk-drinking, god-like voice of the god-fearing older man in the shack of Broken Mirrors and the efforts by the male defense attorney that are deflected by the same legal protocol the women laugh in the farcical face of. As for me, I'm happy to see the 80s were more fulfilling culturally than I remember them as a teenager. (Speaking of the 80s, the early Pat Benatar haircuts are back amongst the teenage girls here in South Korea, along with a re-fashioning of the mullet, a haircut that refuses to die.) Ignorant of Gorris's films prior to this visit, I'm greatful to film festivals like WFFIS for bringing to my attention exemplary works that have slipped out of my radar love until now.

Malie But just as film festivals present the gems, there are also the rough stones that are far from accomplished works. Sandwiched in the middle of the two great films I saw was Malie, the directing debut of Taiwanese actress Joyce H Cheng. We follow an anchorwoman as she deals with the criticisms of her mother that continue to nag her in the form of an ethereal presence. Although moments of the film might resonate with those who have had similar fights with their mothers as those experienced by Malie (Vicky Chen), the film has too many faults to resonate more universally. The color of the print was horrid and the sound was poorly done as well, once even having a cell phone continue ringing as the character had it up to her ear. The filter placed upon the ghostly mother was not consistently utilized when she walked around the set, and the double and triple takes were a poor attempt at an artfilm aesthetic. Add to this a few lazy references to Jung by dropping the cover of one of his books on us, and you get an idea of how this film was trying too hard while accomplishing less. So, unless you have an interest in the topic of reconciling one's caustic relationship with family members who have passed away, I'd recommend passing this film on the way to another if it comes to a festival near, or, in my case, not so near you.

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Posted by dwhudson at April 9, 2006 3:13 PM


Adam: Absolutely fascinating to read about this staged protest, person by person. Thanks!

Posted by: Michael Guillen at April 10, 2006 9:56 PM