Saturday, February 28, 2009
Re-watching Woman is the Future of Man, the conclusion took on a greater importance, beginning with the dream sequence at the soccer field. In my first viewing, I didn't really recall the importance of the red scarf, but on a second look it seems to dominate the mise-en-scene of the last section. It actually provides the only real clue (other than Mun-ho's eyes closing) that we have entered a dream sequence (this is typical of Hong). The presence of the scarf in the rest of the film, for myself, was a reminder of this dream, and I found it difficult to not see the last scenes of the film as dream/nightmare. And upon a second viewing and reflecting back on the rest of the narrative, it also de-stabilized the reality of anything before the dream as well. I should add that this reading is heavily informed by my own interpretation of Hong's latest film, Night and Day, which ends with a dream sequence that really caused me to re-examine the rest of the narrative ( I am anxiously awaiting the DVD release so I can have a second viewing). Incidentally, Night and Day's dream alludes back to his first film, The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, which similarly has a dream sequence near the conclusion.
When I say the reality of the earlier scenes was de-stabilized, I do not mean to suggest a "whole film is a dream" kind of interpretation. Rather, it is a more modernist idea of a certain unreliability at the heart of the narrative, a questioning of who is telling/showing me this, and why. The most obvious example of this is in the two "flashback" scenes in the first half of the narrative. After a brief opening outside of Mun-ho's house, Mun-ho and Heon-jun have a long conversation at a Chinese restaurant, filmed in one long take of over six minutes, although with a few lateral camera movements to and from the front counter. Mun-ho gets angry at Heon-jun for having hugged his wife when they visited him in America, and gets up to leave. Following an attempt at seducing the waitress, he looks out the window and makes eye contact with a woman across the street. The next portion of the narrative is signalled as a flashback, cutting from Heon-jun's look.
This is also the first music we have heard since the opening credits. The music continues into the next shot, in which we see Heon-jun exit a cab and pass in front of the camera.
The next shot shows a man enter the frame, at which point the music stops.
Re-watching the film, this whole sequence seems quite ominous, although I did not interpret that way on first viewing. Nevertheless, I do think it is meant to be disconcerting in some way even without knowing what will happen next. We see the man with Seon-hwa (who we haven't been introduced to yet) and learn he is an old high school friend who has just finished his miltiary service. He aggressively forces her into a cab with him. The next shot is of Seon-hwa entering a restaurant and sitting down with Heon-jun, where he tells her that she was raped by this man.
The question becomes, and this is not an unfamiliar one within art cinema, who is telling me this? It cannot be Heon-jun, since he was not there. But it could be his imagining of this episode. But then, why the ellipsis of the actual rape itself? Is it because he does not believe her story? Or is his story questionable? The next sequence shows the two at a love motel, where he rather violently watches her genitals and has sex with her in order to "cleanse" her. The scene is quite uncomfortable and cannot help but identify Heon-jun with the same behaviour of this "aggressive and phallic man" (as Huh Moonyung calls this character and other marginal male characters in many of Hong's films ). This is especially so because we are presented this scene almost in place of the rape scene that has been "cut".
Next there is a scene at the airport in which Mun-ho brings Seon-hwa in order to have a tearful farewell to Heon-jun, who is leaving for film school in America. We next cut back to the restaurant for another long take of five minutes in which Seon-hwa is discussed. After Heon-jun leaves the table, there is a narrative and formal repetition in which Mun-ho asks the waitress to pose nude for him, she refuses (as she did with Heon-hun), and then the camera follows her to the counter. The camera pans back at Mun-ho looking out the window at the same woman as Heon-jun. After her ride finally arrives, Mun-ho's flashback begins.
It is tempting to see this flashback as more clearly Mun-ho's. He is in every scene, and the sequence ends with a rather unflattering sequence in which he prematurely ejaculates. However, the first scene of the flashback shows him forcing himself on Seon-hwa, at which she gets angry and says that "You're all animals. You and that bastard just want sex. Real animals." The fact that she mentions Heon-jun and implicates him with Mun-ho, who had just tried to force himself on her, is suggestive of sexual violence that is constantly referred to and ellided. It should be noted that while they are waiting for Seon-hwa later in the film, Mun-ho says to Heon-jun that she called him a "real animal", not a complete lie but omitting the fact that she said the same thing about Mun-ho as well.
Another oddity to Mun-ho's flashback is the strange doubling of Seon-hwa's friends.
These two shots appear before and after the scene in which Mun-ho forces himself on Seon-hwa, and they seemingly erase it, as Mun-ho and Seon-hwa meet at the wedding and seem to get along well, agreeing to meet the next day.
This dream-life effect continues in the rest of the narrative, culminating in an actual dream sequence and then a repetition of the rapist character from earlier. Kyunghee, Mun-ho's student with the red scarf, has a jealous and obsessive classmate, Minwoo, who follows her and Mun-ho to a love motel. This character brings the narrative full circle, both literally and figuratively. All of the male characters are stuck in some way, unable to break out of circular thinking, especially as centered around women and sexuality.
What to make of these observations? I'm not sure. Hong's films seem to me to be very elusive in their meaning. But I do not think that they are apolitical, as some critics and even Hong himself has claimed. Certainly, they are less overtly political than many of the First Korean New Wave directors that dealt with the highly charged politics of Korea's immediate past. And compared to Lee Chang-dong, Hong's films lack a real political force, partly because of their content but also because of their less direct, more ambiguous style. To view Hong's films as imaginary, dreams and fictions is not the same as saying they are lies, but they are nevertheless unreliable as any kind of foundational truth. They are examples of a post-structuralist skepticism that can and of course has (repeatedly) been seen as conservative or reactionary because of its apolitical nature.
As much as I admired Hong's films at first viewing, I did feel they were somehow lesser than Lee's more straightforward political films. I still feel this way to some extent. I don't think Hong's greatest films can be compared to the artistic and social force of the masterpieces of a director like Lee or, perhaps more so, a Hou Hsiao-hsien. But I'm starting to find a greater appreciation of what Hong is trying to achieve, not only artistically but also socially (for me the two are as impossible to really untangle as form and content). If the personal is political, than Hong's work is clearly very socially charged. But form is also a social statement. As much as I continue to love Lee Chang-dong, a third viewing of his 1999 film Peppermint Candy revealed a certain crudity in the form that may make the film less progressive than its message indicates. This attempt at analyzing Woman is the Future of Man, on the other hand, has revealed a much deeper, more critical film than it first appeared.
Apologies for the length of the post, and for its roaming nature, but this is what blog postings are useful for, I think, especially to those of us used to more academic writing. Anxious to read other accounts and perspectives on the film.
A couple of things stick out. It is Hong's shortest film at 87 minutes. All of his films before this were at least 20 minutes longer. This is partly because of production problems:
"There was a large section where it was shot out of sequence. It was a reminiscing autumn scene, but in the editing room the content wasn't the problem but the beat was too loose. No matter how we tried, we couldn't control the pace by editing. During that process, the part up to the present ending was perceived as a whole and thought it was neat this way. I was lucky" (Huh, 73)
As a result, the story is much more direct and condensed than his earlier films, and the structure is simpler as well. This extends into the style of the film. For example, the Average Shot Length (ASL) of Hong's films are:
The Day a Pig Fell in the Well : 24 seconds
The Power of Kangwon Province : 33 s
The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors : 53 s
Turning Gate : 58 s
Woman is the Future of Man : 99 s
Tale of Cinema : 64 s
Woman on the Beach : 71 s
However, this is countered by one element in the film: the use of music. This is Hong's first time working with the composer Jeong Yong-jin, and it marks a turning point in his scoring practice. Music was used very sparingly in his earlier works. In his first film, The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, there is an alienating, modernist score played at the beginning, an overt effect very much at odds with the filmmaker Hong would become. By the time of his fourth film, Turning Gate, music had disappeared completely with the exception of the end credits. But when he started working with Jeong, music starts to take on a greater importance in Hong's work, as Hong has acknowledged:
"In the past, I rarely met with the composers and recognized their independence. I wanted to try something different with Jeong Yong-jin because he is young and communicates well with me. He isn't the type of composer who would say 'leave the music to me.' I discuss things with him more often than any other composer I worked with." (69)
The use of music gives the impression of being quite prominent in the film, although in fact there is not a great deal of screen time with musical accompaniment. Besides the opening and closing credits, there are 10 other short bursts of non-diegetic music (according to my count), each lasting around 15-20 seconds. But the music does not act as an "unheard melody" that is meant to go unnoticed. Instead, Hong uses music to end shots and transition into a new scene, and thus makes it hard to ignore. Not being well-versed in music, I'd be curious to read any thoughts people may have about this new aspect and how it may or may not be an expressive technique to counter the overall minimalism of the visual style.
So, what is the effect of this greater austerity? Well, perhaps perversely, it made me think more about the very few short takes that occur. If you'll forgive one last dose of empirical data, the 51 shots can be broken down as follows:
0-30 sec: 4 shots
30-60 sec: 10 shots
60-90 sec: 9 shots
90-120 sec: 11 shots
120-180 sec: 6 shots
180-240 sec: 5 shots
240 sec-over: 2 shots
Thus, Woman is the Future of Man features more shots over three minutes than it does shots under ten seconds. So, is there any particular significance to these short takes, the way we would expect especially long takes in a more conventionally edited work to take on greater importance? As it turns out, I do think these shots are more loaded or let us say expressive than ordinary, although in one instance I think this is something of a parody. During Mun-ho's flashback, he tries to force himself on Seon-hwa and she gets upset, yelling at him that he, just like Heon-jun, is an animal who is only interested in sex. The next shot is the shortest of the film, of a chrysanthemum with two bees. The obviousness of this symbolism I find rather amusing, especially since the rest of the film is so empty of this kind of loaded and singular meaning. Even the conversation between Mun-ho and Seon-hwa that follows makes explicit reference, with Mun-ho pointing out how beautiful the flower is and Seon-hwa stating that it seems to attract the bees. This reduction of the chracters to a natural world of sexuality both conveys a certain accuracy in terms of their behaviour while at the same time being overly simplistic. If the film shows nothing else, it is how human sexuality is far too complicated to be reduced to the level of bees.
Another short take provides the only example in the film (at least that I recall) where we move into a scene. Mun-ho and Heon-jun are sitting on Seon-hwa's couch and Mun-ho looks at a picture. Hong cuts to his point-of-view of Seon-hwa as a little girl, dressed in traditional Korean clothes. Agian, this rare short take and even rarer cut into a scene makes this shot even more heavy with meaning. The attempt by Heon-jun to return to his past is an attempt to place Seon-hwa is this place of purity and innocence, similar to his attempt to "cleanse" her by having sex in the hotel room earlier. Woman seem to be the future of man only because men seem unable to deal with the future as opposed to the past.
Also of interest is the fact that one of these short takes recalls an earlier one. The first short take of the film occurs at the 12 minute mark, and takes place immediately after Seon-hwa has gone with her former high school friend in a cab. We see her enter a restaurant, where she will meet with Heon-jun and tell him that she was raped by this man. In another short take later in the film, we see this same space from a different angle in the first of three pictures taken by Heon-jun that he is showing Seon-hwa. This is an easy detail to miss; I only noticed after going back and looking at the short takes and trying to interpret their significance. But I think it is important. This repetition emphasizes the dream-like nature of the whole narrative, and also, for myself, is part of a greater reconsidering of the whole first half of the narrative. This will be the subject of my next post.
Huh Moonyung, Hong Sang-soo (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007)
Friday, February 27, 2009
Indeed, as Chris noted in his post, my choice to offer this as a FOTMC selection derived from my interest in hearing others comment on the film as a film. I've done the kind of research on these films that Marc mentions as possibly necessary, including days and days screening the various versions in different languages released to specific markets as well as reviewing -- and producing -- variously overheated cultural studies prose about the films as ideological texts or historical documents. Yet none of that has helped me to make sense of this film as a film.
I'm gratified that some FOTMC folks have found the film(s) compelling, and not especially surprised that others have found them less than interesting. That said, I find that I'm pondering a set of questions about our disparate ways "in" to a film.
First, I wonder about the "auteur" question that Peter raised -- which I understood to be the idea that this film was multiply authored and thus defies conventional "auteurist" approaches to cinematic analysis, which presuppose a singular vision as a defining feature of cinematic composition -- and its application to Disney, or any animated production. Indeed, Walt Disney was always what we might call a "corporate" filmmaker. (I'm using the term "corporate" here in its ensemble sense, or a group of people perceived to act as a singular entity.) Though Disney himself did draw, animate, envoice, direct and produce certain productions; very early on, he "farmed" out much of the labor. So, in some ways, it seems the case of Disney also tests our limits in contemplating as an intrinsically collaborative -- indeed, "corporate" -- medium.
Second, I find that I'm wondering if the film makes more sense when considered as "experimental cinema." The value FOTMC commentators seem to have found in the film seems more in that tradition of cinema criticism, than in either film history or in more auteurist approaches. (My own background is as a cultural historian who approaches a broad array of popular culture texts through the lens of performance studies/theory, so I'm fairly unschooled in "experimental cinema" as a tradition.)
Finally, I'm struck -- after our fairly energetic consideration of such issues within Bad Influence -- of the relative absence of commentary about "taste" in the film. A number of commentators, perhaps more than any previously chosen film, professed that Disney and/or animation more generally were just "not their cup of tea". I wonder, then, how such issues of "taste" inform the the shaping of critical vocabulary more generally.
Thanks, everyone, for being game for this/my characteristically off-kilter choice for February's Film Club. Even though the conversation wasn't huge, I found everyone's contributions clarifying to my approach to the film. What's more -- I always thought that "real" film studies types would know just what to make of this defiantly odd film. I'm now relieved to learn that it's not just me who's both completely flummoxed (and also quite fascinated) by this wackadoo little movie.
I saw my first Hong Sang-soo film almost a year ago. I had been living in Korea for a few months, and noticed Hong's first film, The Day a Pig Fell in a Well (1996), for sale on DVD. I had heard of the film and of Hong, so I decided to give it a try. My reaction was not overly enthusiastic (see my initial review here), especially at first, but something about the film intrigued me. At around this time, I also purchased a book on Hong by Huh Moonyung, part of a series on directors published by the Korean Film Council. The more I read about Hong, the more I wanted to see more of his films. I purchased his next two films, The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) and The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) (see respective reviews here and here), and my interest started to turn to fascination. I'm not entirely sure why, since although I liked the films, they did not overwhelm me as absolute masterpieces. There were probably a number of factors, but the major ones that come to mind are:
It is as a Hong film, and in relation to his other work, that I will begin my discussion of Woman is the Future of Man. More to come.
Friday, February 20, 2009
I am asking because this might be the first time we've had a film of this kind as the film of the month. How does the ambiguity of its intentions and sources affect your view of it?
It is a tremendously interesting work, but it is not stimulating much discussion. And I guess I am just trying to figure out why.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
... and in the process make the three-dimensional live-action person look flat and unreal. Or, shadows could be cast from the animated characters onto a live action space...
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
I suppose if I were more familiar with Disney's early output, especially Fantasia, I would be less impressed by The Three Caballeros. But as it happens, I came into this viewing knowing very little about the evolution of animation and was kind of pleasantly shocked at the cinematic imagination on display here. I'm wondering if the initial obligations to the OCIAA removed, or in the least lessened, certain obligations to narrative and even stylistic coherence, thereby freeing up the minds and artists at work here to really give us something special, for the most part.
It has such a wildly playful and insanely free-form style that its almost hard to watch. I'd be very interested to know what kids think of it. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to watch it as a child. It's funny to me that Disney tried to promote it to an adult audience by highlighting the "beauties" and the Latin music, because, in a way, I think it might be completely acceptable only to a child's sensibility. (I don't partake, but, I imagine it is also perhaps one of the great movies to watch while high)
A better film historian than me would have to chime in here, but, isn't the whole aspect of the "film" in this movie kind of ahead of its time? For example, in the first sections, the way it plays with the narrator/subject relationship. Some of the sportive ways it plays with the notion of itself as a film reminded me of Ophuls' La Ronde which is 6 years later and considered inventive for similar approaches.
It was refreshing, and I suppose somewhat disturbing, to see a cartoon animal so absolutely bonkers for human chicks. One of the reasons I feel asleep (totally "R.E.M asleep") in WALL-E was because I couldn't wrap my arms around the love story with all that metal. It's a little easier to swallow cartoon beasts in love(at least they can subtly add some femininity/masculinity to the designs), but nothing beats Donald Duck after "supposedly" Latin American women.
I only say "supposedly" because it looks like some of these scenes were shot near the Santa Monica pier with those locals. Regardless, we are sure to never again see so much lust on display from an animated character that doesn't say "Diggity, diggity, all right!"
These sequences go on for so long and are so obsession-filled, that it strikes me as hilarious that there would be a sense that this was keeping in line with the idea that it intended to "cultivate good will" with these other American republics. One walks away from the film with the impression that one of the major reasons to head down south, if not the main reason, is for the girls.
Without the burden of a narrative, and with imagination, inventiveness and stylistic freedom, this film approaches pure cinema. It can almost be called Avant Garde at some moments. This surprised me. It's really a shame that it is laced with this boring propaganda. The way it plays with film form is almost worth the viewing, if live action girls running for their lives from Donald Duck isn't enough.
(Title of post is from a line Donald Duck says as he is being teased by girls. A line I would never have deciphered had it not been for subtitles)
Sunday, February 1, 2009
The Three Caballeros is the second of two films that Walt Disney developed as part of a brief producing partnership with the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA), led by Nelson Rockefeller. Put simply, as part of the U.S. State Department between 1940 and 1944, the OCIAA sought to utilize U.S. cultural production (film, radio, and live performance as well as journalism in all media) to cultivate good will among the "other American republics" in the Western Hemisphere and, in so doing, to counter any potential inroads made by Italian or German filmmakers. With the financial and diplomatic support of the OCIAA and the U.S. State Department, Walt Disney and several of his key directors and animators traveled to selected South and Central American countries (including Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil) in 1941. The purpose of this trip was to develop material for a projected series of films aimed toward cultivating pan-American affinities and promoting cooperation against European propagandistic incursions. The first resulting film -- the 42-minute featurette Saludos Amigos (1942/3) -- intersperses four animated shorts with documentary footage gathered on that trip. With additional financial support from OCIAA, Disney's team took another trip in 1943, this time to Mexico. Drawing upon material from both trips, Disney developed The Three Caballeros (1944/5) -- a more thoroughly animated feature, which folds the live-action footage into the animated spectacle following a narrative throughline featuring Disney's popular Donald Duck character as he meets two new characters, a Brazilian parrot José Carioca (originally introduced in Saludos Amigos and a Mexican rooster Panchito (making his character debut in this film). Released in 1944/5, The Three Caballeros arrived to theatres just as the OCIAA's operation as a semi-autonomous division within the U.S. State Department was ending and also as the popularity of such "Good Neighbor" era cultural projects was on the wane. Perhaps as a result, as film historian Eric Smoodin has noted, the Disney company promoted the film's blend of live-action and animation to an adult audience by emphasizing the array of Latin American beauties featured in the film and underscoring the film's extensive use of popular "Latin" musical styles. Though still listed commercially as among the "Disney Classics," neither Saludos Amigos nor The Three Caballeros have really entered the Disney canon, nor have the array of animated characters introduced within these films become especially iconic.
In the last several decades, a handful of scholars (in cultural studies as well as cinema studies) have found the films interesting as documents of this peculiar historical moment of explicit cooperation between the U.S. culture industry and the U.S. federal government. Perhaps as a result, much of the existing scholarship addressing Disney's "Good Neighbor" films emphasize them as "ideological objects," texts whose cultural interest derives from their "artefactual" status. And, while I find such "ideological" explications of these films to be intellectually enlightening and often quite entertaining, I yet wonder whether these films -- especially 1945's The Three Caballeros -- hold additional interest as "cinematic artefacts." What might yet be said about these films as films?
So, Film of the Month Clubbers, what do you see when you look at Walt Disney's The Three Caballeros? What do you think we're looking at when we're taking in the spectacular incoherences, absurdities and phantasmagorias of this film? Put another way, what the f*** do you think is going on in this curiosity from the Disney vault?