Friday, June 3, 2011
"Box of Death" was the first Korean film to be shot with a Mitchell camera which was the standard camera during the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930s and was used on everything from Bugsy Berkley musicals to "Citizen Kane". There is a well known anecdote about Stanley Kubrick personally buying several of these cameras at a rock bottom price to use on "Barry Lyndon" when a studio was liquidating its assets. The cameras produce an amazing image and they were put to good use in many of the shots in this film.
However, because they were shooting synchronized sound the movie was shot almost exclusively on a set except for the shot of the village in between gorgeous mountains that opens and closes the film and a scene towards the end where two of the characters climb a mountain. Other than that the whole film was shot on a set and unfortunately it is quite noticeable in places that there is a photograph and not an actual landscape behind the characters. The lighting is also a weak point of this movie as the bright arc lamps used on the film aren't use that well. This becomes especially noticeable in the frequent night scenes where the bright arc lamps are unconvincingly motivated by lighters and candles and the terrible day for night photography makes it occasionally confusing when a scene is occurring.
As director Kim Su-Yong mentioned after the screening (there were quite a few film critics and film directors present at the screening) the eye-lines in the film are perfect and the camera work throughout is extremely well executed. Tracking shots are well used and there is often very creative editing and shot selection in key scenes. Suspense is created in key moments in novel ways and fight scenes and action scenes often have unique effects like objects flying at the camera (which caused laughter from the audience but I thought was effectively done and I'm sure was effective at the time of the film's release).
Almost everyone who spoke after the film screening mentioned the terrible, wooden acting in the film and the theatrical nature of the filming. However, I thought most of the acting was quite good and certainly appropriate to the melodramatic story being told. It may be that because the film is essentially now a silent film the theatrical acting seems more appropriate but I rather liked the acting. I think it was clear though that Kim Ki-Yŏng's focus was on getting the technical side perfect and a secondary concern was the acting and the story (though the story is admirably tight in its construction and thanks to the strong direction very easy to follow without dialogue).
There are some well done montages in the film and one extremely well staged scene in which the main character, a communist pretending to be a friend of a family's dead brother, goes into the room of the daughter of the family. She is in her underwear and looks embarrassed so he turns around to let her put her clothes on. While he's turned around he looks, along with the audience, into a mirror on the dresser and watches her dress. After putting on her clothes she sees him watching in the mirror and storms out of the room. The scene was extremely well done and I am tempted to watch the movie again just to see it one more time.
Overall the film is very strong debut. I actually think the lack of sound helped the film, or at least my viewing of it, because it really focused my attention on the visuals and highlighted the excellent shot selection, staging of the characters, and editing throughout the film. Another interesting thing to note is that, again because it was filmed on sets, almost every shot is a closed composition where all the characters and objects are carefully placed in the frame. This is very similar to Kim Ki-Yŏng's most well known film "The Housemaid" and in both of these films he shows he is able to make the most out of very limited, small spaces. Hopefully the film will eventually be released on DVD or for streaming on the KMDb website. A strong debut from one of the most distinct Korean directors.