Im Sang Soo's The Old Garden is a love story set against the aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising between a socialist on the run and the woman hiding him, his eventual capture and incarceration, and their ultimate separation. It's a simple story, plainly told, but what makes it affecting are the performances and particular details--the context and circumstance of their coming together and forcing apart and the precisely calibrated way their characters respond. The man (Ji Jin-hee) is taciturn when sober, ranting mad when drunk. The girl (Yum Jung-ah) matter-of-factly gives herself to the man, then grows increasingly bitter because he refuses to be content with the relative safety and considerable comfort of her home, looking constantly to Seoul and his friends there as they are hunted down one by one.
Characterization is substantial, and subtler than what you might expect to find in a melodrama (it's based on a novel by prizewinning author Hwang Sok-yong, who spent much of the 80s in exile). Im Sang Sook helps by telling the story at a relatively understated emotional pitch, cutting loose only for the man's capture (an action sequence involving tunnel and motorbike--and steel pipe--all the more wrenching for its slow build up and startling release), and during an insurrection where kids barricaded themselves into a building tossing cocktails down on riot police, and the police fight back with tear gas rockets and meter-long truncheons (at one point Im photographs the police moving around in the gas clouds, their silhouettes suggesting armored creatures from space). A moving (if somewhat conventional) film that, thanks to no small part the performances, rings true.
Lee Kang-hyun's The Description of Bankruptcy is a documentary essay on the credit situation in Korea. It begins with a collage of sounds and images that coalesces into a series of testimonies on how people are persuaded and wooed take on more credit card debt, hounded for payment and sucked dry on mounting interest cost. Lee intercuts this with other footage to create powerful juxtapositions--an East Asia Economic Summit, where rich foreigners sip champagne and laugh, or a concert commemorating the June Resistance, celebrating the victory of democracy and justice when the struggle is yet unfinished.
Afterwards, at a party--well, Tony Rayns can always be depended on to hold forth on a few iconoclastic if not shocking views on the world, politics, and the State of World Cinema at the Moment, and last night was no exception. The following is a collage sample of maybe a fraction of what Tony said last night, and definitely represents his views, not mine--and maybe not completely his, as I was a touch tipsy from Korean wine, not to mention my first cigarette in, god, four, maybe five years...?
He considers France's cinema to be in deep trouble. Fewer people are buying tickets to watch arthouse films, and the reason why Cahiers du Cinema is coming out with an English online version is because fewer and fewer French have been reading it. Yes, France likes to think it's the great center for cinephilia, but that's mainly momentum and tradition.
India, well, he says attempts of India to expand its audience worldwide just aren't working out. Nothing will change in India, because the society doesn't change. There is a flexibility with the middle or upper classes, yes, but the lower classes remain the same, and will remain that way. 'Bollywood' will always have its mass audiences, but it won't grow further, and may shrink some, thanks to television...
Japan--that's been in trouble for decades. I pointed out animation, though, and he had to agree with me there--animation remains strong and is actually penetrating the American market.
Only South Korea has a 70% share of its nation's market; that is unique in the world right now, outside of the USA. Since their democratization in 1993 the country has shown a great hunger for films of all kinds, which is why Pusan when established found its tickets selling out and its theaters showing all kinds of fare--foreign, silent, documentary, what-have-you--packed. Other festivals have sprouted; film magazines too. South Korea, he declared, is the most cinephilic nation in the world, and while the surge was strongest in the '90s, it's reached the point right now where its growth is stable.
More, South Korea's influence is growing--in Japan it used to be fashionable to display all things Korean; entire shops were devoted to Korean actors. Korean films and television were being shown all over Asia (and I confirmed that, yes, Korean TV and actresses were popular in the Philippines). Korea in effect occupies the same position Hong Kong's films used to have--better, since the Koreans are more media savvy, and have more venues (cable, the internet) than Hong Kong had in the '80s. The craze in Japan is over now--a passing fad--but Korea's film industry continues strong.
If you talk to Korean film industry people, they'll tell you that the industry is in trouble, that everything is unstable. But, Rayns pointed out to them, they can't see more than three months ahead, or backwards: two years before people talked of a slump; then a moderately budgeted historical drama came out and broke all records to become the most popular film in Korean history. Then The Host came out, and did better than that. After such a phenomenal surge, it's only natural for the boxoffice to slump.
Korea's films are strong in all respects--commercial features, independents, digital, documentaries, shorts, animation. Before this it was just an outpouring of talent, long held back by the military regime; now it's a reflection of the country itself, which is changing rapidly socially and economically. I asked if it'll continue; he said (and I can't disagree with him) nothing continues forever; this will change. But at the moment, it's sustainable.
Korean has a strong and lively independent film movement; Japan as a lot of indie filmmakers too, but like their Sundance counterparts, there's a parochialism, an inwardness and innocence and ignorance to their filmmaking that makes their product so bad. All they know is how to tell their own lives, indulge their own appetites for sex and violence, use their friends in their films.
China has a strong independent movement--and film industry--but it's being choked by censorship. The independent filmmakers depend on international festivals and sources for funding, and it's not a healthy situation for a filmmaking community. In India only the state of Kerala gives significant support to its filmmakers, so they continue to work (Adoor Gopalakrishna seems to remain active). But Adoor's films aren't being shown anywhere else, even inside of India (you can't get a DVD in New Delhi, for example). His films need film festivals in order to be seen.
Will China emerge as the new Hollywood? Maybe, but first it has to work out its issues with Hollywood, which is furious at the fact that, say, the day a new Spiderman comes out in the US two days later there are pirated copies being sold in China for a dollar. The government keeps a stranglehold on the Chinese market--only 20 films a year, from the entire world--and Hollywood struggles to get as many of its films on those twenty slots. They want that changed. All other films are shown in China in pirated copies. They want that changed too.
Rayns also had this little Oscar anecdote: in 1994 three Asian films were nominated--Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, Anh Hung Tran's The Scent of Green Papaya; the winner was Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque. At his acceptance speech, Trueba said a very odd (and oft-remarked) thing: "I'd like to thank God, but I don't believe in God, so I'd like to thank Billy Wilder." All this has been noted and known and written about.
What isn't as well known is that Wilder was a friend of Trueba; more, Wilder had previously called every one he knew in the Academy and actively campaigned for Belle Epoque and against the Asian films. "No, don't vote for Farewell, it's not good, I've seen it and I don't understand it. Vote for Belle, it's much more like my films..." Beyond its other issues, Tony said, China is going to have to deal with racism, too.