Friday, April 27, 2007

Jeonju Days 2 & 3: Jiri Menzel, and Tony Rayns' naughty bits

Hanok Village

One co-juror turned out to be Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel--Closely Watched Trains (lovely, rueful, funny, tragic comedy), Larks on a String--accompanied by his beautiful wife, Olga. Mr. Menzel was quiet at first, but managed to get him talking by mentioning Karel Capek."My favorite writer," he said; "not just the play, but his novels, short stories, journal pieces."

"My brother helped produce Capek's play in Manila." I explained about my Evil Identical Twin.

"Really? It has not improved with time, I'm afraid. That play does not speak too much to our times anymore."

"But you do like Capek?"

"Oh, I like his plays, but his novels--there is this book,
The War with Salamanders that fits the present day so much better. Humans discover that salamanders are intelligent and can be taught to work. They use them as a source of cheap labor. The salamanders revolt, and eventually take over the world--ironically with help from the humans, who can't resist sellingthem the necessary arms."

"That sounds like China right now."

"In the book, the Chinese are involved in the foolishness."

Later, I asked him: "so where do you keep your Oscar statuette?" He smiled and said: "I know of someone--very nice guy, very talented--who keeps his statue on an altar in his house. Mine is in a cabinet. In the cabinet is some old shoes, a pair of skis, some odds and ends. I keep things I never use in that cabinet."

On movies: "I dislike war movies. I used to like them, but now no more. Even anti-war movies like The Deer Hunter are very violent, but they seem to be glorifying war, not condemning it. Somehow the violence is still made very attractive."

"You know what Truffaut said: that the greatest anti-war films are Chaplin's Shoulder Arms and the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Because they refuse to take war seriously."

"That's right, I agree! Also, my favorite films are old films. The silents, they never age. The silent comedies, especially."

Mr. Min, the festival director, was kind enough to bring us out to lunch at the city's Old Village, a historical distric full of traditional Korean homes, some of which have become restaurants. We sat in a small hut next to the main house, and the waitress brought dish after dish after dish; Mr. Menzel didn't have much of an appetite, but Olga was interested in everything (no idea how she kept her knockout figure). "This is white kimchi," Mr. Min explained; "and this is crab in chilies and sesame seed." "It's raw," I noted. "Excellent! And much easier to eat than cooked; you just put the crab shell in your mouth and suck out the meat." "What is the yellow?" Olga asked; "Crab fat," I said. "The best part. In the Philippines we fry it up with garlic and pour it over steamed rice. Heart attack fare."

Maybe the highlight of the meal for me was a small dish full of what looked like fish bones, with some meat still on them. This dish I could smell being brought in the room; when I picked it up, it had a distinct rotten fish smell, and the translucent meat indicated it was still raw. "What is it?" I asked; Mr. Min informed me that it was fermented fish bones.

I nibbled on the flesh. Like sashimi, only much saltier, much fishier and maybe left several weeks too long out in the open. "Delicious," I told Mr. Min. Meant it, too.

That afternoon instead of resting for the opening ceremonies, I was talking to the staff. "Call me So," one of them said. "Ah, so!" I said; "how do you say 'hello?"

"An-nyeong haseyo."

"And 'thank you?'"

"Gamsa hapnida."

Then I taught So some Tagalog.

"If you say 'maganda ka' the girl will smile. It means 'you're beautiful.'"

"Oh, good, good!" He was furiously scribbling the words down.

"If you say 'napakaganda ka,' the girl will give you a kiss. It means 'you're very beautiful.'"

"Oh, thank you, thank you!"

"If you say "mayaman ako, kakasalin kita,' the girl will go to bed with you."

"Oh?" So's jaw dropped. "But what does it mean that the word is so powerful?"

"'I'm rich, I'll marry you.'"

"Oh, the romantic style! Very good!" When Chloe, another staffer, approached us, So said: "Maganda ka!"

"That won't work; she's not Filipino."

"What is he saying?" Chloe asked. So explained.

"Oh!" Chloe exclaimed, smiling in embarrassment. "There, see?" I said. "Still works. Just don't use the other words on a Filipina or you'll end up spending the rest of your life in Manila raising ten Korean-Filipino brats."

"Of course, of course!"

Opening ceremonies, I put on the only long sleeve shirt I had--black--and a pair of black pants, and black leather shoes sizes too small from years of neglect. Looked in the mirror and told myself with some grim satisfaction, "you look like a flamenco dancer several hundred pounds overweight." Mr. Menzel came out in a jacket--which beat my flamenco outfit right there, while Olga was gorgeous (and I had to tell her so) in some classy elegant outfit.

Bussed to the arts center or wherever it was; was herded down a long red carpet, Oscar Awards style. While we marched, Mr. Menzel took one look at the arts building and said "it looks like a crematorium." I had to bite my hand to keep from dropping to the carpet from laughter. Our escort stoped us. "Please stand here while the photographers take your picture. Flashes hissed and blazed; I said "now I know what a firing squad feels like."

It wasn't over; at one point during the show (which featured American Idol type ballads, rap dancers, and some kind of avant garde piece using traditional Korean instruments that wasn't at all bad), we were escorted to the stage to say a few words.

When it was my turn, I stepped up to the mike. "An-nyeong haseyo," I said. The crowd roared. "It took the JIFF staff the whole afternoon to teach me that phrase. Anyway, gamsa hapnida for inviting me here. I was asked to judge independent films, and I hope to see many interesting and exciting such films.

"We have a word in Filipino, mabuhay, which means 'long live.' Mabuhay to independent filmmaking and mabuhay the Jeonju International Film Festival."

You should have heard the crowd. For a moment I thought I could run for office in this country.

The opening film, Han Seung-ryong's Off Road, might best be described as Tarantinoesque in structure and sensibility (fractured storytelling; an example of the road genre, complete with appropriate references to other road films; some clever twists). What raises it beyond Tarantino is the director's strong sense of sympathy for his characters, and the sadness that hovers over the whole film.

After the screening and at the reception, a very tall, imposing man strode towards me. "What are you doing here?" I asked. "I always go to Jeonju," Tony Rayns said. "Only this may be the last time."

At which point Rayns and I are kidnapped by a bunch of Korean film industry bigwigs and whisked back into the Old Village, where they settle in what can only be some kind of high-class drinking joint, serving expensive shoju and bar chow.

One of the dishes looked like raw mussels. The man beside me said "I don't think you should eat that."

Tony said "oh let him; he's Filipino."

I tried it. It was incredibly bitter. The sweet sauce it came with helped it go down. "It's strong. What is it?"

"Mussels, aged until they've rotted. Told you he'd be fine," Tony said.

"In our country," I replied "we have many kinds of movies but no monster movies."

"That's nonsense! You have plenty--"

"Plenty in human form. We don't have many creature monsters--giant ant, giant crab, plague of cats or dogs or rats. Partly it's budget, but partly also it's because we'd never be frightened. Giant crab or ant, or rat? Instead of being frightened, we'd be hungry. That monster would be bar chow before dinnertime."

Tony thought it over. "You know, you may have a point."

I looked at the extravagant spread. "I hope this isn't Dutch treat," I said.

"No, they'll take care of you. See that man? That's Mr. Soon. He wants to be the next president of South Korea."

"Is the movie industry that powerful that presidential candidates have to fete them?"

"Of course."

I asked about United States pressures to
increase the quota for Hollywood films. "Yes, it happened, but unfortunately for Hollywood the liberalization didn't matter. Koreans still prefer Korean over Holywood films. The market share for local films is 70%.

"Curious I walked into you. Philippine cinema has been on my mind lately. Been transferring some old Filipino films from VHS to DVD. Thinking of Lino Brocka, and Ishmael Bernal a lot." He added with a twinkle in his eye "saw Bernal naked, you know."

"Now you have to tell me that story."

"Oh, it wasn't much. We went to a bath house in Japan. The manager presented him with a young man. Ishmael said 'but he looks like a fucking horse' and refused to have anything to do with him. What he probably wanted was a Filipino, which wasn't available there, of course."

"I know I'll hate myself for asking this, but...was he well endowed?"

"He was average. I remember when we had dinner with Christine Hakim, who was seated beside him, and poor Christine, who had not the slightest clue who she was dealing with, asked: "Are you married?" Without blinking an eye Bernal replied "yes, but my husband couldn't come."

You don't want to know what he had to say about Park Chan Wook, most of which I happen to agree with, but would never have that much guts to say out loud.

The next day, saw Im Kwon Taek's Beyond the Years, his 100th film. Tony was there ("a huge flop, a catastrophe!"). The film told the story of a father, son, daughter troupe that traveled bars and inns, singing for their living. The son (a drummer) falls in love with his beautiful singing sister (adopted, or so they say); the father has designs for keeping his daughter with him always. By turns moving, compelling, immeasurably sad, it asks what price an artist must pay for the purity of her art, and where does love and family and happiness fit into all of this (trailing behind the artist, usually, as he or she leads a nomadic life)?

I've always thought Im an old-fashioned filmmaker with strong interests in traditional Korean culture. He does experiment with structure (we see the brother, a middle aged man, talking to an old acquaintance, and his story fitting slowly in piece by piece), but its a measured experimentation. One shot was particularly expressive--a scene of brother and sister sitting in the grass, the sister singing. The camera slowly revolves around them, keeping the couple on the lower right corner of the screen; it's as if they were on some giant diorama, the landscape turning, while they acted as pivot to the great wheel--as if the world may change and move around them, but their love for each other is a fixed constant.

I asked Tony what he thought afterwards. "It's a remake of an earlier film, but I thought it was very fine."

"Why did it flop, then?"

"Because Korean audiences don't want the past, they want the future. Because the film doesn't speak to their concerns now."

That night I met Gulnara Abikayeva, a critic from Kazakhstan (!). I know, but apparently they do have a film industry there, fifty filmmakers using government funding to make ten films a year, mostly on historical subjects ("we'd like more modern works, too, she said." Then she asked "are you the film critic? Noel Vera?"

"Yep. Why?"

"Critic After Dark?"


"I have a copy of your book."

"You do?"

"I never expected to have the book, then meet the writer."

"I never expected to meet anyone who had my book."

So I'm being read in Kazakhstan--who knew?


Anonymous said...

Clearly then, you are a big deal. Very nice.

I'm ashamed to admit I've never seen "Closely Watched Trains," much less any of the other films/filmmakers mentioed above.

On the other hand, you've unknowingly written the ending to a monster movie I'd definitely pay to see.

Noel Vera said...

I'm getting my fifteen seconds of fame (it's gotten shorter, thanks to attention spans).

Anonymous said...

Just so you know you're more read than you realized, I've read your book too and greatly enjoyed it. Stumbled on it at that bookstore near the theatre in the Rockwell Mall. It made my night-owl work stints in Makati more tolerable reading it during work breaks at 24-hour Starbucks and ChowKings. I particularly enjoyed your interesting takes on films by Joyce Bernal (whom I ran into at Greenbelt's Cafe Breton one night). You've made me quite anxious to see many more Filipino films because of your commentary.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks, adam! Glad to know someone else's reading...

Sachin said...

I also wanted to say that I loved your conversation with Tony Rayns. I do agree with what Tony said about French cinema. I have been believing that not only for French but Western European cinema for a few years now. But my assumptions have been based on the film submissions I was seeing coming in from those countries for our film festival. The quality of movies (features only) was much richer from Eastern Europe than those from Western Europe. I do realize that my judgement was based on a limited sampling where I was looking at the works of new film-makers or independent films.

And about India. Yeah that is a decent assessment about things from Tony. Nothing will change, despite so many efforts by Indian film-makers to offer different films. And the West may rave about Johnny To & other Hong Kong gangster movies, but Bollywood's gritty gang movies have been largely ignored. Not sure why. I remember how some people at VIFF were awed at the voting rigging scenes shown in Mendoza's Slingshot. They talked about it as though they had never seen such a thing on film. But this aspect (about money changing hands in slums for votes) has been covered for years even by average Bollywood film. Can't blame the audience though because these Indian/Bolly movies never get shown at film festivals and are always confined to Indian areas in North America/U.K.

Although I am curious about that 70% Korean market share number. India's number would be much higher than that. Only the big cities like Delhi, Mumbai have multiplexes which show Hollywood films. But if you go to other smaller cities, they are dominated by local Bollywood films. I would put that market share to 90%. Which explains why Hollywood is partnering with Bollywood recently to produce Bollywood films because it has realized that it can't compete with the local song and dance stuff.

One more thing about Korean cinema. I believe the example that Tony might have used for that low budget historical drama was The King and the Clown. Before this movie's show at VIFF 2006, you could tell that Tony was choked up talking about this Korean film. He said something along the lines of that he always liked it when a film with a low budget 'wiped the floor' with big budget movies (or something along those lines). He went on to say that The King and the Clown broke records when it came out and its hold was overtaken by The Host.

Ok, I have said enough :)

Noel Vera said...

Mind you, what Tony said was said around eleven at night, if I remember right, and god knows how many cigarettes and glasses of wine. So details may be told (or reported) erroneously.

Sachin said...

But doesn't wine bring the truth out? :) Regardless of any errors, I quite enjoyed what you wrote.

If I ever meet you in person, I will make sure to bring the wine :) There is some great Canadian wine which is worth trying.

Noel Vera said...

In vino veritas? Maybe. But then I was having my first cigarette in years, and it gave me quite a buzz, so there's that to consider.

I'll take your word re: Candian wines. Actually, I don't know good wine from grape juice, but I'm willing to learn.