I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.
I noticed yesterday that this was available as part of Amazon’s Prime Instant Streaming service (along with Hahaha, the other Hong Sangsoo film I saw at the Vancouver Film Festival in 2010). I watched it the other night and was happy to see that it remains my favorite of Hong’s movies, all of which are marked by an unusual structure, in which elements, situations and/or characters from the first part recur later in the film, in ways that deepen, comment upon or subvert what has gone before. Oki’s Movie is the most structurally complex of the Hong movies I’ve seen (with the possible exception of the film that followed this, 2011’s The Day He Arrives), with a pretzel logic that twists the film back on its maker, questioning the motivation for making Hong Sangsoo films, or any films at all, in the first place.
At its most basic level, Oki’s Movie is a love triangle told four ways, made up of four short films, each of which has its own credit sequence of videotaped white characters on a blue background (the title song is the same for each film: Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”, a tune whose relation to Graduation Day is perhaps a nod to the movies’ film school settings). The most mysterious segment is the first one, which doesn’t fit the later developed patterns or (possibly) characters at all. Its title (“A Day for Incantation”) suggests that it’s the film that calls the other movies into being. Each of the of the latter three films focus on a love triangle between three characters: the girl Oki (Jung Yoo-mi), the boy Jingu (Lee Seon-gyun) and their Professor Song (Moon Sung-keun), each of whom are filmmakers. Each of the last three films correlates to one of their points of view. But the characters are mixed up in the first film: Jingu is a married film professor and filmmaker where later he will be a student, Song appears only as a fellow professor Jingu admires but begins to have doubts about when he hears he accepted a bribe to award another teacher tenure, and Oki doesn’t appear at all. Only at the end of the film, when an inebriated Jingu is doing an audience Q & A prior to presenting his latest film, does the question of a student’s relationship with her teacher come up. A girl in the audience claims to have had a friend Jingu dated when he was her professor, and that that relationship ruined the girl’s life by sabotaging her relationship with her boyfriend.
My theory is that each of the subsequent films are movies Jingu later made inspired by the situation the questioner presented: a student having an affair with her professor while she was also dating another student. In each film, he casts himself as the boyfriend/hero and Song as the morally dubious professor. In the second film (“King of Kisses”) Jingu plays the typical Hongian hero: romantic, obsessive and often drunk. This film is the most similar to the first one in both story and style (even the locations are the same: Jingu’s home in the first film plays Oki’s home in the second). One example of the rhymes between them: in each film Jingu hangs out on a park bench and falls asleep. In the second one, he meets Oki and asks her out, while in the first, he has a flashback to when he met his wife, who he suspects might now be cheating on him. (Although: maybe this is not a flashback: wikipedia asserts that it is, but the woman he meets is played by a different actress than his wife. Regardless, the story of the first Jingu’s wife remains a tantalizingly unexplored tangent, suggesting that the rest of the film could have gone off in a myriad of other directions, not just the Song/Oki story. Such loose ends that tease endless narrative possibilities are one of the things that make Hong’s films seem so realistic, like they create entire universes.) While the third and fourth films keep strictly to a single point of view, “King of Kisses” is narrated more or less objectively: we also get scenes from Oki and Song’s perspectives, thus we know that they are having an affair of which Jingu is ignorant. We also know that Oki is a little freaked out by Jingu’s obsessive pursuit of her, but that she does genuinely like him. The film ends happily, with Oki and Jingu together in the beginning stage of their relationship, wishing each other a Merry Christmas and remarking on what a nice warm day it is.
The third and shortest film (“After the Snowstorm”) is about Professor Song. After a blizzard, only Jingu and Oki show up for his class. The three engage in a Godardian Q & A session wherein the kids ask him about life and art he responds with gnomic aphorisms. It’s a kind of idealized version of the teaching experience, with two eager students lapping up Song’s wisdom (his best answer is when Oki asks why he loves his wife, he says “In life. . . of all the important things I do, there’s none I know the reason for. I don’t think there is.”). Later that night, after throwing up some bad octopus, Song decides to give up teaching and go back to filmmaking (“I was a bad teacher,” he cheerfully exclaims in voiceover). It’s unclear if this film takes place before during or after the love triangle situation, or if one ever even occurred in its world.
The fourth film (“Oki’s Movie”) would seem to be the most important, as it lends its title to Hong’s film as a whole. In voiceover narration, Oki tells us this is a film about two different walks she made along the same path in a park with two different men, one older (played by the actor who plays Song), one younger (played by the actor who plays Jingu), two years apart (the first, with the older man, on New Year’s Eve, the second on New Year’s Day). Intercutting between the stories, she points out the similarities and differences between the two men and her reactions to them. Pointedly, the men are never named, we assume they are the same characters as the Songs and Jingus we’ve seen before, because the same actors play them and they behave the same way. But that inference is undercut by Oki’s final line: “I wanted to see the two side by side. I chose these actors for their resemblance to the actual people. But the limits of the resemblance may reduce the effect of the two put together.” I think she’s saying that she made the film in an attempt to sort out an experience from her past, by writing a story in which she could see the two men she dated together and compare and contrast them, to better understand her own experiences with them. She had an ideal of art as catharsis, as a coming to terms with her own history. But the fact that these are only actors means that it doesn’t really help: even the greatest artist is still only working by approximation, and without the real thing, true understanding is impossible. Not only is the recreation never perfect, but her perspective is necessarily limited: the best she can create is her version of her memory of the story and the people in it.
Thus, Hong has made a film about a director who made a series of films adopting the perspectives of each of three people involved in a love triangle, based on a love triangle the director himself was once involved in. And in the end, Hong, through his character the director, through his character Oki, calls into question exactly how helpful filmmaking is as an attempt to resolve personal issues. The motive, then, for making movies has to be about something more than personal revelation. Art has to go beyond mere autobiography. The conclusion is the opposite of Alvy Singer’s in Annie Hall, where he gives the story of his relationship with Annie the happy ending it didn’t have in “reality” because “you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” For Alvy, the happy ending reassures him, brings him some kind of closure and perspective on his relationship. Closure that eludes Oki and the first Jingu. As for Hong himself, the answer appears to be a rejoinder to critics who presume his films, about movie directors who drink a lot and have complicated and clumsy romantic lives, are autobiographical. Movies aren’t real, they can’t be.1
This leads us back to the first film. Jingu the filmmaker/professor is meeting with one of his students, giving her advice on how to improve her film. “If you don’t fix it, the narrative won’t support itself. Your sincerity needs its own form. The form will take you to the truth. Telling it as it is won’t get you there. That’s a big mistake.” She accuses him of trying to impose a formal structure on her film out of greed, to make her personal statement more palatable to a mass audience. He gets angry, the form (“two turning points!”) is how the filmmaker can “take away what’s fake” in her. It’s not by being true to life that the filmmaker expresses the truth, but in submitting truth to formal constraints truth can be uncovered. Oki will realize that she made a mistake in trying to tell it like it was.
Director Jingu, at the Q & A at the end of the first film, expresses the hope that his film “can be similar in complexity to a living thing.” Answering a question about what the themes of his film are, he continues, “Starting with a theme will make it all veer to one point. We don’t appreciate films for their themes. We’ve just been taught that way. Teachers always ask, “What’s the theme?” But before asking, aren’t we already reacting to the film? It’s no fun pouring all things into a funnel. That’s too simple.” (“But people might like simple things better,” the questioner responds.) Near the end of her film, Oki tells us that “Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand,” which is a fitting a summation of the vision of the world expressed in Hong’s filmography. A world of circular narratives that bend and repeat themselves with variations major and minor, tied to the rhythms of everyday life in all its awkward fumbles, missed opportunities and mysteries.
1 This opposition to autobiography, or rather willingness to question the value and subvert the expectations of autobiographical filmmaking will be put to the test in Hong’s 2017 film On the Beach at Night Alone, which takes for its text the real-life scandal surrounding Hong and actress Kim Min-hee and constructs a hall of mirrors of self-deprecation, self-justification and self-criticism around it. An infinite regress of solipsism.
It wouldn’t be a trip to VIFF without a Hong Sangsoo movie, though it’d be tough for him to top the double he pulled at VIFF ’10 with Oki’s Movie and Hahaha, two of his very best movies. This one though is right up there, as Hong just keeps refining his quirky style, making it funnier, more elegant, and more subtly weird. Like Yasujiro Ozu or Eric Rohmer, Hong seems content to spend years creating endless variations of the same central subjects (in his case, vacations, infidelity, drinking, and lazy filmmakers) within the same self-mirroring narrative style (where is first films tended to have a dual structure, with the first half of the film varying the second, his later films have expanded that to threes, fours and more). And like Ozu and Rohmer, I never fail to find his films delightful. This might be Hong’s gentlest film, warm and hilarious. If there’s any justice, the Huppert name will finally get him the wider American art house audience he deserves.
My two favorite discoveries in four years of festival going are the films of Hong Sangsoo and the team of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai. I surely would have encountered these guys eventually in the regular world, but it was in seeing their films here at VIFF (Like You Know it All and Sparrow, in 2009 and 2008, respectively) that I fell in love with them. Subsequently, with each new festival I’ve looked forward to another trip into their worlds and this year is no exception. While I’ll be seeing the latest Hong film, In Another Country, this evening, I was a bit disappointed to find there would be no new To and/or Wai film here this year. Fortunately, the gap of narrative playfulness that so joyously marks their work (Wai’s especially, see for example, Written By, from VIFF 2009) I found in abundance in Romance Joe, by first-time director Lee Kwangkuk.
Lee is a former assistant director for Hong Sangsoo, and the film begins very much as a kind of mishmash of various Hong situations (a director has writer’s block, gets drunk, goes to a hotel in the countryside). However, Lee takes Hong’s narrational games, usually limited to a bifurcated story structure with later parts serving as variations on earlier ones, in a wholly original direction, piling story upon story in a complicated flashback structure. I counted at least six different time levels in the narration (topping Passage to Marseille‘s mere four), with “real” memories and made-up stories featuring the same characters and actors colliding in unpredictable ways. I’m going to attempt to roughly chart it out.
The film starts with the parents of a director talking to his friend about how the director has gone missing (1). The friend tells them he was just drinking with the director, and he was sad because he had writer’s block (2). We then see the director being abandoned by his agent in a rural hotel in an attempt to force him to get to work (3). The director in his hotel calls a local prostitute, who tells him the story of the time she met another director, who she calls Romance Joe (4). When she met him, Joe was thinking about killing himself, remembering a time when he was a teenager that he saved a girl, Cho-hee, from killing herself. (5) Then, we cut back to the first story, and the friend starts telling the parents about his idea for a new screenplay, about a boy who tries to track down his mother, a prostitute, but instead ends up hanging around another call girl instead (6).
At this point, Lee begins to intercut between the various narrative layers, with fictional and real characters showing up in the “wrong” stories, and no one ever quite remembering if they’ve known each other before (there’s more than half a dozen stories, but apparently(?) only one woman), all governed by an explicit Alice in Wonderland reference. But that’s not to say there isn’t an emotional core to the film. In particular the budding romance between Joe and Cho-hee is lovely and touching, though it ends drenched in the neon sadness of Seoul. As the director’s mother sighs “All these fine young lives wasted on film and whatnot.”
607 – Before getting to Day Four’s films, I wanted to mention this short by Liu Jiayin that played before Day Three’s showing of Thomas Mao. Liu made my favorite film from last year’s festival, Oxhide II, which also happens to be the highest rated film directed by a woman on my recent Top 600 Films of All-Time list. This 17 minute short consists mostly of one shot of a bathtub in a hotel room (the hotel apparently commissioned the film). A plastic fish, manipulated by Liu’s father, with only his hands visible, swims in the water and encounters some mushrooms, a cloudy sky and a fish hook. The mushrooms are played by Liu’s mother and Liu herself is the sky and hook. It’s a marvelous bit of silliness that conveys all the warmth of a family at play.
Hahaha – The first of two films directed by Hong Sangsoo at this year’s festival, it begins, unsurprisingly for Hong, with two old friends drinking and telling stories about women. The film proper is comprised of these two stories, which end up being about the same woman, though neither knows it, while the frame is played in black and white stills with voiceover (and lots of “Cheers!” as the two drink quite a lot). The Hong films I’ve seen all have a split structure, with the second half of the film telling a new story with some of the same characters in a way that mirrors and comments upon the events of the first story. This film has that same structure, but the stories are intercut instead of segregated. This makes the film a lot easier to watch, and this is definitely the film I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen a Hong Sangsoo film yet. As for the stories themselves, they’re Hong’s traditional terrain of romantic misadventures and misunderstandings and lots and lots of drinking. Again there’s a character who’s a film director, this time he falls for a tour guide who’s dating a poet who is best friends with a guy who’s on vacation from his wife with his girlfriend. It’s this last guy and the director who are the two narrators of the film. It’s as funny as Like You Know It All, one of my favorites at last year’s festival, if not quite as weird and certainly not as insidery about film festival life.
The Fourth Portrait – This Taiwanese film is about a precocious young boy named Xiang whose father dies, sending him first into the helpful hands of the school janitor, and then back to his mom, a prostitute (naturally) and step-father (who’s pretty much pure evil). Director Chung Mong-hong keeps this dire material much lighter than one would expect. Though the kid’s situation is rough and potentially terrifying, there’s enough humor and visual style (there are traces of both the Taiwanese New Wave and Wong Kar-wai, the latter especially in the scenes at the mom’s “lounge”) that things never get as horribly depressing as they might in a lesser film. There’s even a musical bit that sounds like a Chinese version of the Carl Orff song used in Badlands and True Romance). Xiang is surrounded by helpful adults, from the elderly janitor to a small time hustler to a concerned teacher. Even his mom is a decent sort. We never get the sense that Xiang’s situation is hopeless, instead, we can be sure that he’ll survive and thrive. The title comes from a series of drawings Xiang makes throughout the film: the first is his father, the second his friend the hustler, the third his older brother who may be haunting him and the fourth, more than a little cheesily, is the film itself.
I Wish I Knew – After last year’s excellent 24 City, I wasn’t quite prepared for this latest film from Jia Zhangke. While that film was a documentary that mixed scripted and acted interviews with real-life talking heads in a way that made one question the nature of documentary realism, this film is pretty much a straight and conventional film. It’s an epic collection of stories about Shanghai, told by the people who lived there and the children of the people who lived there. Shanghai was the epicenter for the most important developments in China over the 20th Century, from the European occupations to the Japanese invasion to the Civil War between the Communists and Chaing Kai-Shek’s KMT to the Cultural Revolution to the embrace of capitalism in the late 1980s. Even the Chinese film industry was based there for much of the century. Jia’s 18 interviews tell these stories in detail, with communists and KMT generals and movie stars and directors. Wei Wei appears, which marks two days in a row that we saw a film featuring this 88 year old actress, after The Drunkard. Also interviewed are Hou Hsiao-hsein (who’s actually the only person who doesn’t share a personal anecdote, he just talks about his film Flowers of Shanghai, though like many people in the film, his parents came to Taiwan from Shanghai ahead of the Communist victory). The film is very loosely structured, with the interviews coming not in chronological order of their stories, but rather the geographical order of where they have spread out. The Shanghai diaspora mainly went to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and so Jia goes to each of those places to seek out their stories. But these interviews are interspersed with scenes of present-day Shanghai, where frequent Jia star Zhao Tao wanders mutely around the sites of the old stories, neatly tying the old and new, the diasporic and the homeland together. It’s a beautiful film, about as good as a straight documentary can be.
Short Celebrity Addendum: Jia was there last night for a Q & A (he’s serving on the jury at the festival this year for the award for new Asian filmmakers that they’ve given out for 17 years or so, having previously won the award for his own first film Xiao Wu). I don’t know that I’ve ever been so giddy in a movie theatre. And then this morning, waiting in line for Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, I’m pretty sure we were standing behind a very confused Wallace Shawn (the screening was delayed for projection reasons and the staff were giving confusing directions to the old people). I attempted to help the maybe-Shawn through the line, but he either couldn’t hear me or was too confused to pay attention to a much taller man.
The Drunkard – Freddie Wong’s debut film is an adaptation of one of the most famous modern Chinese novels, written by Liu Yichang. In early 60s Hong Kong, a struggling writer juggles his declining career prospects (he goes from Hemingway ambitions through martial arts novels and screenplays to pornography), various women (a landlord’s 17 year old daughter, a couple of prostitutes, old and young, an elderly landlady played by Wei Wei, the star of the 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town) and copious amounts of alcohol. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046 are somewhat based on similar characters, though his films are so infused with his own obsessions that it’d be a stretch to call them adaptations. That the film was made for a mere $500,000 is remarkable, though it does explain the intimacy of the cinematography: almost always medium to close shots of small interiors. The nightclub scenes have the Christmas tree red glow you’d expect, but there’s nothing glamorous about the writer’s alcoholism. Neither is it ever reduced to any kind of social problem picture preachiness: he drinks and he writes, but not necessarily in that order. John Chang (the father of Chang Chen, star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is terrific in the lead role, nowhere near as debonair as Tony Leung in the Wong films, he brings a weary reality to every scene.
Crossing the Mountain – Vancouver may not have gotten Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, but we’re not wholly bereft of intentionally partially-subtitled avant-grade narrative films. Yang Rui’s opaque film, photographed in sharply focused, long-take HD, is set in Yunnan, along the Burmese border, the people here speak a local language, and she has chosen to only subtitle the “important” parts of the dialogue, even for the Chinese-speaking audience. Mostly a set of discrete, seemingly plotless episodes that are nonetheless pregnant with possibly meaningful images and juxtapositions, with more or less the same set of characters for most of the film who inexplicably disappear in the later sections (though we may have some clues at to their fate). It might be about the dangers of unexploded ordinance in Southeast Asia (still a problem, even in areas where the wars have been over for 30 years), but more than that it’s about living in a collision between past and present. The film is set in land that once belonged to a people that until quite recently practiced human sacrifice as agricultural aid (where these people are now, we can’t say, but assume they have merged with the general population), where kids try to watch TV and play karaoke video games (though the technology never seems to work properly) and old people pass the time with folk dances that look not unlike the Hokey-Pokey. Basically, it’s an impossible film to describe, and apparently quite difficult to sit through. Despite a warning from programmer Shelly Kraicer about the film’s difficulty and the need for patience with it, about the third of the audience walked out. I was glad to stay through the end. While it wasn’t the best thing I’ve seen at the festival thus far, I certainly haven’t seen anything quite like it.
Of Love and Other Demons – An adaptation of a Gabriel García Márquez story that I haven’t read, Hilda Hidalgo’s first film is about a teenaged girl in 19th Century Cartagena, the daughter of a Marquis, who gets bit by a rabid dog. Despite the Marquis’ disbelief, he is unable to prevent the local Catholic authorities from imprisoning her under suspicion of demonic possession (apparently the Devil works through rabies). The priest assigned to examine her of course falls in love with her (she’s not a stunning beauty, but has a fabulous head of red hair, three feet long and shockingly clean for the 18th century) to the detriment of his ecclesiastical career. More straightforward than I would expect from García Márquez, the film is essentially an ecofeminist parable about the evils of patriarchy, imperialism and the Church and its destructive effects on the environment (the girl is frequently seen communing with insects, and one of the reasons she’s suspected of being possessed is that she can speak the African languages of her family’s servants). It does leave open the much more interesting possibility that the girl actually is possessed, with the devil using her to wreak havoc with the nobility and Catholic hierarchy in the later stages of the Spanish Empire.
Icarus Under the Sun – A very low-budget film made by two Japanese women (one wrote and directed and stars, the other shot, directed and plays a supporting role) that’s a grungy, realist account of a young woman trying to find her way in Tokyo. She gets a job at a mahjong parlor and befriends the eccentrics who work and hang out there: the blind ex-thief owner, the slightly crippled boy named after Alain Delon, the crazy woman who loves the blind owner, etc. Of all the young adult coming of age films we’ve seen at the several festivals we’ve been to, this is bar far the most serious and probably also the most DIY. The dreariness of the girl’s life (always in darkness, the various characters dislike of sunshine is a key motif) is almost oppressive. In the end, she manages to escape into the daytime, but I don’t know that the catharsis is enough to compensate for the misery of the first 75 minutes of the film. I needed some air.
We’re back at the Vancouver Film festival for the third year in a year and unlike the 08 and 09 festivals I’m going to not only try and write about the films we see before six months have passed, but day by day as we watch them. We’ll see how it goes. Anyway, we arrived in town this afternoon and made it to two films tonight.
Made in Dagenham – Sally Hawkins is already getting some Oscar buzz for her performance in this crowd-pleasing dramatization of a strike at a Ford plant in the UK in 1968. The workers are the 187 women (out of 55,000 in the country) who sew the interiors of the cars together, and are classed as unskilled labor and make far less than comparable male workers. The strike quickly becomes about equal pay for equal work, annoying every man in the country (except Bob Hoskins, ho helps the striking women out). Hawkins is excellent as the leader of the strike, she manages to be both shy and fiery at the same time (and she deserved the Oscar a couple years ago for Happy-Go-Lucky, so even if this performance isn’t as singular as that one, I wouldn’t begrudge her any hardware she gets for it). Miranda Richardson does a lot of funny yelling as the government minister who follows the strike from a distance, and Richard Schiff (from The West Wing) is appropriately menacing as Ford’s American representative. Rosamund Pike, as the wife of one of the Ford execs his is nonetheless sympathetic to the cause gets the best speech in a film chock full of speeches, when she explains to Hawkins who her advanced degree from Cambridge somehow doesn’t keep her husband from treating her like she’s an idiot. Cinematically, the film isn’t much to look at. The draw here are the big performances and lefty reassurances.
My Film and My Story – At the opposite end of the budget and profile level is this student group project from Korea. Seven different kids at Konkuk University each directed one segment of this film about workers at a single-screen movie theatre on campus. The theatre is in the final stages of renovation before reopening (assuming they can win the support of the government), and the newly hired staff and strange customers have a series of mostly comical adventures. Two guys watch Happy Together and start to question their sexuality, a girl vehemently rebuffs the advances of a kid who talks about Lacan, another girl collects ticket stubs and nitpicks the temperature, but sleeps through the film and so on. It all looks quite polished (with only one sequence standing out narratively and visually from the whole, its placement at the film’s midpoint is certainly intentional), though the sound is a little rough at times. Best of all the sequences is one involving the manager of the theatre as she talks to her bartender about the cinema and why she loves it. It’s not as ambitious as Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, but it is more grounded in reality and the day-to-day life of the people who actually work in theatres, which doesn’t make for a transcendent film-going experience, but certainly a pleasant one.