Wednesday, June 22, 2011
The film is rather convoluted and opens with a zombie talking ominously to the camera, than a man in a suit explains the story to the audience, than a narrator explains the situation, and then there is a flashback to show how the events of the story unfolded. The story is similarly convoluted but at its core there is a young woman who is married (to Park Nou-Sik) and whom is terribly treated by the other women of the house until she finally commits suicide, leaving behind her only son. She comes back as a kwishin and gets her revenge on those who wronged her. Unlike "Song of Death", "Wolha Public Cemetary" focuses most of its energy on detailing the various ways in which the girl has been wronged and the actual kwishin revenge takes up only the last ten minutes of the movie, which is rather disappointing. However, there are a couple of good scenes that deserve mentioning.
One of my favorite scenes was after the girl's suicide when her husband finds her body and sees she has written a suicide note. He holds the note up and as he reads it a voice sings the words for the audience to hear in the style of Pansori. This was similarly done in Lee Doo-Yong's 1980 film "The Last Witness" when a suicide note is sung on the voice over as a character onscreen reads the note. In this film though, we cut from him reading the note to a small group of women dressed all in white around the girl's coffin and one of them is singing out loud the suicide note. That is, the non-diagetic sound becomes diagetic in this scene, whereas in "The Last Witness" it remains non-diagetic. Either way I really like this device and am now curious if this is something commonly done in Korea. That is, the singing out loud of suicide notes.
One fun sequence that occurs in this film is when one of the ajumma who wronged the girl is now being tormented by her kwishin. Following the principle I discussed in relation to "Song of Death" where the kwishin doesn't directly act on the characters, she just appears in their heads and scares them into doing things to themselves the ajumma is walking around the house at night being terrified by the kwishin. Suddenly a cat hisses at her and the audience jumps. She is angry at the cat for scaring her but then she looks again and now the cat is a human skull! She is startled again but then the skull starts moving and the narrator from the beginning of the movie walks out from the shadows holding the skull and starts talking to the ajumma. It is a bizarre sequence, but in the context of the film rather fun.
Perhaps surprisingly this film is rather bloody and includes a severed limb and a severed head. But overall it's not that scary because the climax of the movie literally involves people walking around aimlessly when suddenly loud music plays and a shot of a strangely lit kwishin with blood on her mouth laughing is inserted. The character is startled and walks off in another direction until the same shot is inserted again. This goes on and on and on and on.
Despite this rather disappointing climax, the story itself is fairly engaging if extremely convoluted and because it proved so influential in starting the kwishin production cycle it deserves a pass on a lot of stuff. Most of the elements in this film would be improved in later Korean horror films, but this one gets bonus points for being among the first. It is also available on an out of print DVD that has english subtitles and is worth watching if only to get a sample of what the kwishin films of this time were like.
|In the bottom right of the poster it says|
"Women must be accompanied by
Men to this movie." That's how scary
In "Song of Death" the female character is an orphan who was raised at a Buddhist monastery in the mountains (a common practice in Korea). A rich matriarch comes up with the plan of marrying this girl to his unwed son in order to produce a child. Everything goes well until it is discovered that the girl is sick and too weak for childbirth; either she will die or the baby will die. In the relationship between the manipulative, unlikable mother, the disinterested son, and the exploited girl there are several tense scenes in which the threat of violence hangs over everything. The family, of course, chooses the baby and the girl dies in childbirth and a son is born into the rich family. The rest of the film follows the ghost of the girl as she gets her revenge on those who have wronged her.
But while there are some interesting commentary in the film on class and patriarchy, the film really shines on a formal level and features some terrifying set pieces that stand up well even to contemporary horror films. There is also an incredible score throughout the film, the highlight being the titular "Song of Death" which starts off as an atonal theremin bird song imitation and slowly turns into a creepy electronic melody. The characters in the film can hear the song and when it starts you know the kwishin isn't far off.
The film is extremely fast paced and enjoyable and the second half of the film, after she comes back as a kwishin, is essentially terrifying set piece after terrifying set piece. What makes this film, and all kwishin films so terrifying is that they are grounded in reality. The kwishin can't physically interact with reality, they only manifest themselves in psychological hallucinations. You don't have to believe in ghosts or UFOs to be scared by the kwishin in the film because they are the hallucinations of characters slowly being driven mad by the evil things they have done. In every kwishin movie made in Korea this concept is exploited extremely effectively so that the film becomes terrifying because it's main conceit, of the kwishin seeking revenge, can't be easily dismissed in the same way that zombies or vampires can.
My favorite set piece in the film, and a concrete example of the way the kwishin concept is used, occurs towards the end of the film when the mother who was responsible for the girl's death is alone at night in her house. She hears the "Song of Death" and knows the kwishin is around and grabs a knife and slowly walks around the house following the sounds she hears. A wah guitar plays tastefully in the background as she looks for the kwishin when suddenly someone appears and she lunges for them with her knife. She falls over onto the ground and looks around; it was only her imagination. She puts the knife on the ground but then sees that there are bloody footprints on the ground leading up the stairs. She is losing her grip on reality now as she slowly walks up the stairs clinging to the knife and occasionally slicing through the air. At the top of the stairs the kwishin suddenly appears in front of her and she again lunges and struggles with the kwishin, stabbing frantically when the kwishin disappears and she looks down to see that she has stabbed herself with the knife. The bloody footprints are gone now and she dies at the top of the stairs.
What's incredible about this scene, all of the scenes in the movie, is how the audience is able to understand both what is happening as it appears to an objective observer, and what is happening inside the character's head, and is further able to keep the two clearly separated. As soon as the mother collapses at the top of the stairs it is clear that what has happened will be interpreted as a suicide possibly stemming from her guilt at killing her daughter-in-law, but having seen what happened from her point of view as well we know that this isn't the whole story. That is, there is a sequence of events that fits comfortably with rational analysis and there is another sequence of events that can only be explained by supernatural concepts and both of them are presented in the film as equally plausible.
There is also an incredible sequence at the beginning of the film that is repeated with variations at key points later in the film in which the girl, in a sort of premonition before she is taken away from the monastery, has a terrifying hallucination inside the Buddhist sanctuary. In a tour de force of psychedelic effects distorted lenses, color filters, and fast zooms of Buddhist statues and Buddhist paintings create an incredibly effective, disorienting feeling of unease. Buddhist themes are continued throughout this film, and much of the kwishin mythology appears to be taken from Buddhist ideas, but I don't feel qualified to discuss it at any length. It is something I'm very interested in though and certainly in this film Buddhism is an important part of the imagery and themes.
Monday, June 20, 2011
In fact, just as "Singing in the Rain" was constructed around the set of songs that the film studio owned, "Military Academy" seems constructed around stock footage and military spectacles they filmed and then intercut with footage of the actors. These include a huge rugby game between the air force, army, and marines, a massive military parade, a military funeral, and a massive graduation ceremony. The story of the film serves the purpose of fitting all of these spectacles into a story, and not much effort is made to make it cogent or interesting. It is certainly not as successful as "Singing in the Rain" and while I'm a huge far of Park Nou-Sik's acting, he only has a small part in the film and can't carry it with his charisma.
Outside of the spectacle, the movie features various military pranks and hazings and the love interests of the various officers. One of the officers commits suicide before graduation and his two sisters provide the requisite crying and grieving to keep the female audience interested (at least that seems to be the thinking behind their characters). Technically the quality of this film is also quite low and almost every seen features transitions featuring characters walking into and out of the camera. It's lazy camerawork and it seems like they didn't plan any shots in advance and tried to fix everything in editing, using the walking towards and away from the camera as the go to transition. In addition numerous shots are out of focus, including close-ups, and because they are cut in with shots that are in focus I can only conclude that this is not a problem of projection or restoration; the film was just shot this way.
Overall the entire film was dissapointing and not worthy of Park Nou-Sik. There is not doubt a story about why the film was made in the first place, perhaps he was forced to make it by the government, but I don't agree with the Korean Film Archive's decision to restore it. It is clearly a quickie film made without the investment of the director and detracts from his otherwise excellent filmography. Even if you are a fan of Park Nou-Sik, and there are plenty of good reasons to be so, this is one film I would say stay away from. It lacks the energy and skill he brings when he's working on his own projects and he isn't the star so he is only on screen in a few scenes.
Sunday, June 19, 2011
To give an idea of the darkness of the film, the story revolves around a couple who are only able to meet on Sundays. It is revealed that the female has become pregnant and unable to make enough money to support a child decide to borrow money for an abortion. The movie then follows the male character as he goes from friend to friend trying to get someone to loan him an abortion. He finally resorts to stealing the money but while his girlfriend is at the clinic he goes to a bar, gets drunk, and starts buying drinks for another woman and then runs off with here. As the midnight bells sound signaling the end of Sunday he goes back to the clinic only to find that his girlfriend has died in the operation. Then the friend who he stole the money from finds him and proceeds to brutally beat him and in the end he is left aimlessly riding the trolley cars; drifting along with a destination.
What was brought up by Darcy Paquet, who led the discussion after the film, and several of the audience members was the similarity with the film to Modernist European films like those by Michaelangelo Antonioni and Modernist Japanese films like those by Naruse Mikio. These connections are quite astute and the connection is quite strong not only in the themes and the narrative but also in the way shots are framed, buildings become an important elements in the shots, and the distancing and isolation of characters through long shots. To be a little more specific about the influences I would say "L'Aventurra" by Antonioni, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad" by Alain Resnais, "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" by Mikio Naruse, and "La Dolce Vita" by Fredrico Fellini (in it's thematic concerns and it's episodic nature).
What is interesting is that all the films that it has so much in common with are all from the early 1960s, yet this film was made in 1968. At that time European and Japanese film had gone in a completely different direction and the films all of these filmmakers were making in 1968 were very different from their early work. So we can see that there is 'time lag' in Korea. My hypothesis is that because of the censorship in of foreign films in Korea it there was a significant lag from when foreign films were made and when they were seen by Korean directors. I don't think normal South Korean citizens could have seen the films mentioned above, but because of film directors higher status I believe they would have had chances to see these films, if only in 16mm prints.
Darcy connects this 'time lag' with a desire on the part of Korean directors to be modern and 'with the times' and hence the importance of isolation and disconnection from society in the film. I don't agree with this but it is an interesting connection. Another thing involving the time lag, and the connection with "Aimless Bullet" is that many of the characters seem taken directly from Korean literature of the Colonial and Post-War Periods. That is, if you watched "Aimless Bullet" and this film back to back you would think that Korean society hadn't advanced at all in the interim period, and perhaps it hadn't. The character of the drunken intellectual who "graduated top in his class but can't find a place in society" is common in Colonial Period literature; for example see the 1921 short story "A Society that Drives you to Drink" by Hyon Chin-Gon.
The abortion topic seems racy or possibly taboo, but it was actually surprisingly common in Korean films of the 1960s. Perhaps it was being encouraged by the government to keep the birth rate low? For an example of another film with an abortion related sub-plot see the 1961 film "Under the Skies of Seoul".
Overall "A Day Off" is one of the strongest Korean films I have ever seen and I might even say it is better than "Aimless Bullet" (if only because the print is a lot easier on the eyes). It would certainly fit comfortably in the Criterion Collection and hold its own against any of the European or Japanese art films of the 1950s and 1960s. While the film is available as part of the Korean Film Archive's "Lee Man-Hee Collection", it really deserves its own DVD and I hope sometime in the future it is put out by itself. It is an amazing, singular film that deserves to be viewed on its own terms rather than within the context of Lee Man-Hee's career.
Friday, June 10, 2011
This was a bizarre film that seemed designed to appeal to as large a segment of the audience as possible. While listed as a comedy, it borrows elements from the melodrama, action, and gangster dramas and not to parody or satirize them but to use them quite earnestly to tell the story. In fact, the story is essentially a framing story involving Young-Pal and his friend who both work as nightwatchmen and then a melodrama involving younger characters inserted into the middle of the story. It also features girl on girl fight scenes (with men leering and cheering them on), an interracial sex scene (a black guy is the leader of a gang), the two leads dressing in drag to teach a kindergarten, and a folk musical number featuring a duet between the young couple in the film (I'm assuming at least one of them was a popular singer at the time). Basically the film was all over the place and seemed aimed at giving something to everyone.
The film centers around two middle-aged male characters who work as nightwatchmen who enforced the curfew in place in Korea at the time. The film reminded me a lot of 1950s and 1960s comedies that featured television personalities like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", Jerry Lewis comedies, Buddy Hackett comedies, and other things in that they rely strongly on physical comedy and the strong personality of the lead to carry the films. The main difference between the Hollywood comedies and this film is that the Korean leads in this film completely lack any charisma and they fail to sell the majority of the gags in the film. For example, the first scene in the film is the two leads yelling 'Thief!' and then running down the street after a thief. The film is sped up as they bumble along going down wrong alley after wrong alley in pursuit of the thief. Perhaps at the time the effect of sped up action was a novelty, but its combination with a rather earnest action score creates a strange impression and didn't generate the laughs it seemed like it wanted to. One of the next sequences in the film is the two of them interviewing a mute lady to find the owner of the house. As she attempts to communicate through gestures they begin to mock her speech and gestures and eventually find someone else to talk to. Yuck.
The plot itself is rather amazing and involves a set of twins who were separated at birth. This is shown in a flashback where the two leads watch through a hole in the makeshift tent where a woman is giving birth. The scene goes on for quite a while and focuses on the women's screaming and panting with the two leads watching surreptitiously and giving each other thumbs ups. When the baby is born the mother falls asleep in exhaustion, the midwives go to get some water, and the two leads sneak into the tent and steal one of the babies. There are then two stories about the two girls, one who became a nurse and is engaged to the folk singer, and the other who became a 'bad girl' and is dating the black guy in charge of the gang of criminals (who are constantly working out). There is also a plot about some unsavory loan sharking gangsters. There is more as well but the plot reaches a dramatic conclusion several times at is revealed that 1) one of the twins is actually a man and 2) they are not twins but triplets and 3) the gangster is actually the father of the triplets and 4) the girl dating the black guy goes to jail. It is a very heady concluding fifteen minutes and had the audience laughing as each new revelation was made, though the movie itself seemed earnestly presenting these melodramatic twists.
The Korean Film Archive did a nice job restoring this film as demonstrated by their demonstration prior to the film of selected scenes before and after restoration. The film was very watchable if still suffering problems with specks, dust, and discoloration. I'm glad that the KOFA is taking the time to restore films like this one because it really gives a new perspective on Korean films as generally the only older films that are preserved are art films or critically acclaimed films. It's nice to have an opportunity to see run of the mill commercial productions to understand the context in which the exceptional films existed.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Today I watched this film at the Korean Film Archive and I have to say that it doesn't mess around when it comes to melodrama. The film was directed by Pak Ho-Tae who would go on to direct the "Red Cherry" series during the erotic film boom in the 1980s. I have to say I really enjoyed this film and I hope I'll be able to see many more 1970s melodramas while I'm here. What made the film so good was that it wasn't a straight melodrama, it mixed in action sequences and gangster genre conventions to supplement the central story of the fallen woman and her redemption.
Just a few notes on the print; it was in very bad condition. I don't think it will be seeing a DVD release anytime soon. The entire film is tinted a reddish hue and has scratches throughout. While this was pretty quickly forgotten about, it appears that the entire film doesn't exist and throughout the movie there would be sudden cuts and jumps within the scene. For example, in one scene a group of gangsters enter a restaurant to intimidate someone and approach him sitting at the table. Just as they start to throw the table the film cuts suddenly to the middle of a conversation near a lake by the park. Cuts like this happened dozens of times throughout the film and they seemed to occur whenever there was violence or action. Perhaps some type of censorship? Other fight scenes like the climatic, well-staged action scene at the gravel pit at the end of the film appeared to be generally intact. This eliding of parts of the film gave it a strange surrealistic feeling and really heightened the melodrama as the improbable events and coincidences piled on top of each at an ever increasing speed.
Three times in the movie characters would begin talking to someone whose back is turned to have the character turn around at the end of their soliloquy to find that it was not the person whom they expected. Rather than this distracting from the film it really heightened and gave it a very unique tone (which the strange tinted film and constant elision added to considerably). With director Pak Ho-Tae's later erotic melodramas in mind it's interesting to see how he constructs the rape scene that is central to the plot of the film; it drives away the man whom the protagonist really loves and gives her a daughter. The construction of the scene is very suggestively done and despite the fact that no one takes off their clothes it is rather tense and disturbing. The actor portraying the rapist has a great, long statuesque face that is perfect for the movies and he makes the most of it in this scene, looking alternatively passionate and coldly disinterested.
One last thing I want to mention about the film is the heavy use of the zoom lens throughout the film. While I haven't done any research on this yet, my hypothesis is that the use of the zoom lens at this time is attributable to the direct connections between Hong Kong and Korea. Many film directors from this time period made films in Hong Kong and many crew and cameramen made films in Hong Kong and films with Hong Kong casts and crew in Korea. There was also a lot of equipment exchange and I'm curious to what extent this use of the zoom lens is due to the Hong Kong connection and to what extent it is just a world-wide trend towards heavy use of the zoom lens in the 1970s. Regardless, this film uses the zoom lens extensively and, like many of the best Shaw Brothers films, uses it in addition to tracking shots; not as a substitute for them. Rather than simply being a cheap imitation of a tracking shot, as zoom shots were often criticized of being, they serve a unique aesthetic function in the film.
This film also got me thinking about Kim Ki-Yŏng and his increasingly bizarre melodramas from the 1970s and 1980s. I think if his films are seen in the context of the Korean films that were being made at that time his films seem much less bizarre and much more brilliant. A lot of the things that struck me as quirky and eccentric when I saw many of Kim Ki-Yŏng's 1970s melodramas (for example "Insect Women" or "Io Island") turn out to be qualities shared with other melodramas of the time. Like the claustrophobic framing, the camera work, and the strange colors and lighting. I will have to watch more of both Kim Ki-Yŏng's films and other 1970s melodramas to form an argument but it seems like there is some connection there that is worth exploring.
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.