Friday, July 12, 2013

NYAFF 2013 Mondocurry Report: The end becomes the beginning part 1 South Korean

Thursday was either the last day of movies at the Walter Reade Theater or the first day of movies at Japan Society (ringing in the beginning of Japan Cuts…I was determined to experience it as both, catching two excellent South Korean features at the former before jetting over to the latter for a screening of a film by a director whose work continues to entice and expand my mind, along with a q & a with him afterwards and a wee bit of burlesque.

If there were only 3 films on the agenda for today, why do I feel like there is so much to write about? Ah yes, on this day the NYAFF crew came up with the impressive idea of preceding two of its features with short films, by the most major of players in the South Korean film scene, making these second screenings of the films stand out as unique from the first time they were shown.

So we begin with a short film ONE PERFECT DAY falling somewhere in the romantic comedy department, by renowned Kim Jee-Woon, in need of something of a rebound (at least from my point of view) after the clunk and thud of his stab at a “late period” Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Last Stand. This was an at times highly amusing and overall oddly interesting piece, paced and lighted with the intensity of a brooding psychological thriller despite its seemingly light subject matter.  The protagonist is a hapless clod in the most extreme sense (resembling the counter-intuitive anti-sexuality of the make lead in Alien Bikini, if you’ve seen it). We see snippets of dates gone wrong, but keep returning to one in particular that is an agonizing. Before feelings of sympathy can take hold, the guy is shown clearly to be self-centered, belligerent, and entirely insensitive. Kim Jee-Woon, within a mere 20 odd minutes, shifts the mood from hilarious to depressing and then even hopeful. We are made to feel sorry for the leading man, seeing that the most antisocial traits are often the product of upbringing, and the final romantic showdown…is intense. The game of paper, scissor, rock is taken to unprecedented levels of suspense and philosophy, making this a brief bit of onscreen alchemy to seek out.

This was shown, fittingly, before the very offbeat take on the same genre, HOW TO USE GUYS WITH SECRET TIPS by new though already quite assured director Lee Won-Seok.  Right off the bat it is way out there in the best sort of way. The story is built around a series of self-help VHS tapes that will show women who are ‘tired of trying to succeed in a man’s world’ to do just what the movie’s title suggests. They are narrated by something of a Willy Wonka figure. In fact, several moments of the film has a vibrant retro 60s vibe to it, the video’s funky tones seep right through into the story. The video is found by a woman in her early 30s who is confident in her abilities as an assistant director Choi Bona of an ad agency, and there are lots of short bursts of visual anarchy suggesting the director is well versed in the language of advertising – but fed up with being passed over because of her unwillingness to be giddy and kotow to her male colleagues.

I loved the bursts of bizarre that are very much related to the videos, and there are some very humorous predicaments. But somewhere midway through, I felt I kind of lost the thread of the main character. Yes her change is necessary to show how far the video has taken her from her true self, but I still feel like her centrality to the story suffers. I think I may have also been disappointed by how there is such a left field aesthetic, yet midway through SECRET TIPS basically gets back to following the path of a typical romantic comedy. Her suitor is funny, but I kinda felt like his receiving equal status in the story is thrust upon us, and distracted from Choi‘s transformation.

I also felt like it’s hard to divorce this movie from the experience of watching fellow South Korean RC VERY ORDINARY COUPLE (to be fair, it may very well be my favorite film of the festival so far). They share a lot of elements that are probably cultural…or then again maybe they are universal to RC movies everywhere. I admit I am not a fan of the genre and terribly versed in it. But VERY ORDINARY blew me away by actually messing with the genre, reflecting on it even, and I’d wished SECRET TIPS had remained in the unique territory it had started out in.   

The next short film was a collaboration between Chan Wook Park and his brother Park Chan-Kyong. It shows the director’s interest in exploring ritual and culture outside of the mainstream, as is the case in some of his previous short films (Night Fishing, . It is a sparse and minimalist production following a young girl and elderly man…perhaps her grandfather, or a teacher… as they enter a secluded patch of wooded mountainside and engage in traditional drumming and singing. Briefly stunning in the raw power of the girl’s singing, channeling forces far older than hers, the film fades out as unassumingly it arrived.

The feature that would follow, JUVENILE OFFENDER, is a hard hitting drama focused on youth culture and poverty dealt with to different degrees by South Korean films such as Bleak Night, Breathless Poetry, yet handles things with a delicate touch. It shares with Kim Ki-Duk’s recent stunner Pieta the theme of mother and son becoming reunited after long abandonment, although that film is far more fantastical  while JUVENILE OFFENDER is extremely realistic. The situations detailed throughout are painful to behold, but the film never becomes melodramatic. The difficult situations the characters go through are balanced with a determination to hold onto hope and embrace the company they keep with one another. But don’t let that make it seem like it’s an easy film to watch. The cyclical nature of abandonment, lapses into violence, and insurmountable debt are not presented matter-of-factly.

This is easily one of the best films of those I’ve managed to see at the festival thus far. I feel a strong need to see it again when not rushed, but indeed my eye was often on the clock as I was to race across town for the screening at Japan Society to follow. Rushing to the lobby as soon as the credits started rolling, I paused to give a cheery wave to Db before setting off.

Will report on the events at Japan Society in Part 2.

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