Monday, November 28, 2011

OCCUPY NOWHERE: Akutagawa Rynosuke (1892-1927)

“As for my vague anxiety about my future I think I analyzed it all in A Fool’s Life (1927), except for a social factor, namely the shadow of feudalism cast over my life. This I omitted purposely, not at all certain that I could really clarify the social context in which I lived.”   -Akutagawa (1927, in his suicide note)

In 1915 the prolific Japanese writer Akutagawa Rynosuke penned the novella Rashomon which - combined with another of his stories titled In A Grove - became the basis for Kurosawa Akira’s cinematic “shot heard round the world,” as well as an American adaptation called The Outrage (1964) by Martin Ritt, starring Paul Newman.  Like Kurosawa after him, Akutagawa reinterpreted Japanese folkloric traditions and mined the caverns of his own dismal history in a quest for linguistic mastery, unflinchingly cinematic in his clarity despite his choice of medium.  Akutagawa’s two main phases of literary output could be generalized in the former by folkloric/historical extracts, and in the latter by autobiographical extracts.  All throughout, one constant exists; the dissolution of “truth” or “fact” through the blending of reality and fantasy.

Akutagawa’s later autobiographical works, such as A Fool’s Life and Cogwheels were dedicated to a character (himself) ill-at-ease in the purposeless patterns of daily life, whose obsessive dejection is the playground for revelation, no matter how pained.  The diary chronicle Cogwheels charts Akutagawa’s rise to a hallucinatory tipping point, steeped in the anxieties of one afeared of losing their mind.  A Fool’s Life is a poetic volume of epigrams (numbered 1-51) that express “moral and philosophical reflections, parables and metaphors” as Akutagawa collides pure fiction, autobiography, and sheer musing seamlessly.  It is this particular focus that inducts Akutagawa into the Occupy Nowhere conversation.  The character of his self undergoes existential upheaval while exiled-in-plain-sight by the tides of expectation and the mundane.

To celebrate Akutagawa’s consequential contribution to cinema, and the undeniable cinema of his language, I have included several excerpts from A Fool’s Life. Consider how each, in their brevity, resonates with Occupy Nowhere’s emotional core, and how Akutagawa interprets so many shades of escape or disenfranchisement – physical, emotional, psychological - which are dismaying but ultimately revealing.  He observes that which can only be expressed by one inhabiting that disenfranchisement, and also that which escapes them – as reflected in the opening quote above.  That sentiment of not knowing how to clarify his own social context is reminiscent of the same incapacity held by the first Occupy Wallstreet protestors.

This first selection entitled Self, is altogether a swan song for Occupy Nowhere, wholly about formative escape.  The exact volume that contains the stories referenced here can be found inexpensively on amazon and even at Brick Bat Books in South Philadelphia.


            With a graduate, sitting at a café table, puffing at one cigarette after another.  He hardly opened his mouth.  But listened intently to the graduate’s words.

            “Today I spent half a day riding in a car.”

            “On business, I suppose?”

            His senior, cheek reclining on palm, replied extremely casually.

            “Huh? – Just felt like it.”

            The words opened up for him an unknown realm - close to the gods, a realm of Self.  It was painful.  And ecstatic .

            The café was cramped.  Under a painting of the god Pan, in a red pot, a gum tree.  Its fleshly leaves.  Limp


            In the outskirts in a room on the second floor he slept and woke.  Maybe the foundation was shaky, the second floor somehow seemed to tilt.

            On this second floor he and his aunt constantly quarreled.  Nor was there a time when his foster parents had not had to intervene.  And yet, above all others, it was his aunt he loved.  All her life alone, when he was in his twenties she was almost sixty.

            In the outskirts in this room on the second floor, that those who loved each other caused each other misery troubled him.  Feeling sick at the rooms tilting.


            All at once he was struck.  Standing in front of a bookshop looking at a collection of paintings by Van Gogh, it hit him.  This was painting.  Of course, these Van Gogh’s were merely photo reproductions.  But even so, he could feel in them a self rising intensely to the surface.
            The passion of these paintings renewed his vision.  He saw now the undulations of a tree’s branching, the curve of a woman’s cheek.
            One overcast autumn dusk outside the city he had walked through an underpass. There at the far side of the embankment stood a cart.  As he walked by he had the feeling that somebody had passed this way before him.  Who? – There was for him no longer need to question.  In his twenty-three year old mind, an ear lopped off, a Dutchman, in his mouth a long-stemmed pipe, on the sullen landscape set piercing eyes.

30.  RAIN

            On a big bed with her, talking of this and that.  Outside the bedroom window rain was falling.  The blossoms of crinum must be rotting away.  Her face still seemed to linger in moonlight.  But talking with her was no longer not tiresome.  Lying on his stomach, quietly lighting a cigarette he realized the days he spent with her had already amounted to seven years.

            “Am I in love with this woman?”

            He wondered. Even to his self-scrutinizing self the answer came as a surprise.
“I still am.”


The hand taking up the pen had started to tremble.  He drooled.  His head, only after a 0.8 dose of Veronal, did it have any clarity.  But only then for half an hour or an hour.  In this semi-darkness day to day he lived.  The blade nicked, a slim sword for a stick.

**Look forward to a post about the film Portrait of Hell (1969), adapted from Akutagawa’s Hell Screen.**

Tuesday, November 22, 2011



Almodovar’s latest fits right into the OCCUPY NOWHERE fold, and brings the shared idea of “formative seclusion” more inward (literally) than any other film to be discussed in this column. It is also the first example of forced seclusion. Perhaps it is the stained-glass makings on protagonist Vera’s (Elena Anaya) body that brings percentages to mind, but The Skin I Live In gives new meaning to “the 99%.” So much of human identity exists beneath the corporeal surface – residing in memory, desire and cognition – despite the staggering significance we afford the exterior 1%. Vera’s sculpted surface, and her darkly concealing eyes evoke notions of icebergs; how the majority of their mass (upwards of 90%) is actually beneath the waves. Nothing of what is exposed can express what lies beneath. Vera, imprisoned in numerous ways by the calculating Dr. Robert Ledgard (a severe Antonio Banderas), turns inward on her own 99% - and cultivates a true identity of self awareness and freedom.

Dr. Robert Ledgard - a surgical genius, performer of two face-transplants - addresses an auditorium. He reveals aims to develop a synthetic skin replacement, boasting its resilience against burns and mosquito bites in “animal” testing. Not only has Ledgard produced the skin, he has tested it on a human subject, Vera. Like the sheer swatches of flesh he grows in petri dishes at the secret medical facility beneath his mansion, Ledgard’s agenda to “improve the species” is a veil upon his obsession. The fervor to develop this miracle skin arose from his wife’s tragic demise. Burned head to toe in an automobile fire but survived, she leapt to her death upon glimpsing her tortured reflection. She was unable to understand her own identity as entwined with her visage, which is the films conceptual crux. Though Ledgard’s intentions are far more personal than professional, the ethics and taboo surrounding his intra-special trans-genetic method (combining human and pig genetic material to firm and strengthen human skin) are timely considering the rate of medical and technological advances, congruent with raging debates over enterprises like stem-cell research, cloning, and genetically modified organisms. In a sense, the climate of controversy and the lethargy of ethical courses is what forces Ledgard to occupy his own nowhere within which his innovation can be viciously unbound.

As The Skin I Live In sway’s backward in time through the dreams of Ledgard and his prisoner Vera (between which a sexual dynamic arises), a new character, Vincent, enters the melodramatic fray. This charismatic lost young man crashes a gala party at Ledgard’s mansion. While high on pills, he has an unsavory ambiguous sexual encounter with Norma, the doctor’s emotionally unstable daughter. Ledgard stumbles upon his unconscious daughter outside who awakes into screams and sobs. He assumes the worst – rape - deciphers the Vincent’s identity, and kidnaps him. Ledgard holes Vincent up in a dark cave beneath his mansion, chained to the wall, starving, with only a blue tub full of drinking water. During this time, a very damaged Norma, commits suicide in the same manner as her mother. Vincent eventually graduates to small meals of rice, the ability to read magazines, and changes of clothes.

The worst comes as Ledgard indentures Vincent as an unwitting surgical pet. The stunning twist of the film is that Ledgard forces Vincent into rigorous sexual reassignment. Vincent moves into the mansion proper and is locked in as minimalist a room as can be conceived, monitored by a camera. The only communication allowed is through the intercom, to the caretaker of the estate. Food, books, magazines, and art supplies are delivered via an electronic dumbwaiter. Over the course of several years Ledgard sculpts Vincent’s entire body, down to the structure of his face, to bear an uncanny resemblance to his deceased wife. Thus, from the clay of Vincent, Vera is born. A stunning dark eyed beauty, whose every glance is as empty as it is full, and swells with as much fatalism as vitality.

Living in the skin of Vera - one of many levels of captivity - Vincent culls a personal language that eluded him in his bouts of unrequited love, drugs or craft  (making widow arrangements for his mother’s small vintage fashion boutique). Underneath his aloofness and drug use, Vincent seemed dissatisfied with his life, especially in his affections for a coworker - a woman who loves only women. In the reductive atmosphere of his imprisonment, Vincent/Vera discovers the discipline of yoga.  Vera learns two powerful truths; that a hidden place of solitude and infinity resides within, and that above all “art keeps you free.” Vera scrawls these words on the wall amidst an epic chronicle of ideas and observations drawn floor to ceiling.

A relationship exists between Vera as a sculpturo-surgical patchwork, Ledgard as the sculptor, and the layered fabric works of artist Louise Bourgeois (seen in books by Vera). Bourgeois taps into themes of sexual fragility, concealed emotional trauma, and “architecture as a visual expression of memory.” Almodovar interprets the existential challenge of holding the memory of oneself (the 99%) after the physical architecture of ones body (the 1%) is changed. Inspired by Bourgeois and his own circumstances, Vincent/Vera writes, draws and sculpts. For the first time he creates from a source of ingenuity tapped deep within. Later, in Vincent’s climactic savage bid for freedom, he embraces Vera Cruz, and kisses a picture of Vincent goodbye. A gesture built upon much introspection.

Upon returning to his mother’s shop, Vincent-as-Vera reveals his/her true identity. Here, The Skin I Live In twists its morally objectionable events into something devastatingly and strangely soulful, as something is alight between Vera (now a woman) and Vincent’s unrequited lesbian love, still working at the shop. Thus, the film concludes upon an end-which-is-a-beginning. The Skin I Live In builds the foundational significance for all the possibilities unseen after the final frame, but which were laid by the destructive-cum-formative experience of Vincent/Vera’s forced occupation of nowhere.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

OCCUPY NOWHERE: The Woman With Red Hair (1979)

“The Woman’s hair was reddish blonde. Lifeless and fake-looking. The color suited her rough skin.” 1  

1. If the first Pinku Eiga one saw were Kumashiro Tatsumi’s The Woman With Red Hair (Akai Kami no Onna), one would be starting arguably at the top, as he is considered to have brought the form to an artistic height. The Woman With Red Hair, recently screened at the 2011 NY Film Festival, is an adaptation of Nakagami Kenji’s equally spare short story Red Hair, which entails little more than a grueling sexual marathon between Kozo, a rugged construction worker with no conscience, and the nameless redheaded woman (Junko Miyashita) he picks up on the road, as the two escape working-class malaise and personal history. In many ways it stands as the basest most extraction of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris (1974), the inspiration for which is that Bertolucci once dreamed of seeing a beautiful nameless woman on the street and having sex with her without ever knowing who she was. Though described here in detail, the joy of Kumashiro’s film is not spoiled at all by foreknowledge. Its utterly earthly expression is its purpose. The Woman With Red Hair should be seen for its gritty non-intellectualism, where that sole concentration on the body, absent of any morality or “story,” is absolute. 
2. The opening sequence says a great deal rather simply. With the camera set low, the redheaded woman walks toward us astride cars and trucks in the middle of a busy road. Framed by the ground and the arc of a distant overpass, she emerges from the behind the crest of the road. Just as in the opening lines of the book (written above), the first visual detail is the woman’s hair. The woman is established immediately as an object (the hair), and as a motion contrary to the industrial currents of the day (a meaning more significant to Kozo [the driver of the truck in question] than herself). Cut to a shot that scans the ocean and the surrounding seaside industrial landscape, and ends on the emergence of an oncoming truck. Elegantly quick editing captures the woman and the truck’s crossing with a sense of electricity. After the freeze-frame title, the film cuts to a close-up of dirt being dumped from that same truck at a construction site. The sounds of heavy machinery resound.

3. Kozo; Marlon Brando to the redhead’s Maria Schneider, is introduced with every bit of his malingering and unscrupulous character on display. Kozo delivers the truck and conspires with his friend/coworker Takao to leave early. A young woman, yet to be named, sidles Takao to give him a lunch. He is indifferent. These events are intercut with another sequence in which Kozo and Takao (in different clothes) have secluded this same young woman in what looks like a seaside parking-garage and gang rape her. The oppositional sounds of the ocean during the rape, and of machinery during the excavation, amplify the already disjunctive nature of the time/place shifts and establish a kind of seasick violence to both acts. The back and forth cutting conceals how Kumashiro favors the “long take,” and prefers simply to slowly zoom in and out, or apply handheld techniques to keep actions immediate. The events at the construction site emerge as the present. Driving away, Kozo and Takao reveal through ebullient conversation that the rape occurred three months prior and that the woman victimized - the woman who now clamors for Takao’s attention - is their boss’s daughter Kazuko.

4. In as unsavory and pointed a way as John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), sexual rape is used to reflect the rape of resources (material and human). Herein lies the film’s subtext - a vague but physical revelation about the rapacious development of ¾ century Japan earned on the backs of laborers who feel no connection to the result, or even the process. “Buildings come down and go up at a pace unmatched in other cities of the world; six months’ absence from a major Tokyo district is sometimes enough to render it virtually unrecognizable.” 2  To underscore this point during the rape, Kazuko realizes the futility of her resistance and shouts “Okay okay!! But not here.”  Kozo replies, “Any place’s the same,” and the rape continues as planned. The backfire comes later when Kazuko, the brunt of some revenge act against her father’s rule of law, becomes pregnant and expects Takao to “take responsibility.” Her logic dictates that Takao is the father because he was the first one inside her. This thread ironically produces the only opportunity for tenderness in the whole film because Takao eventually rises to the occasion, and the two bolt to Kyoto to start a new scraping life together.

5. “The days when a laborer rhythmically dug a hole and mixed cement with a shovel were over. In three or four hours an excavator could to the work of five men working three days. ….Instead of swinging a pick you pulled a handle. Though he [Kozo] loved cruising around in trucks, [He] hated being sent out by the company to operate excavators and bulldozers at other work sites.” 1

6. Later that day, Kozo picks up the redheaded woman at a gas station bus stop in the rain, not realizing they had passed earlier. He brings her back to his squalid cramped apartment, and the two commence a symbiotic coital escapade devoid of identity. As long as the rains defer construction jobs, Kozo and the redhead isolate themselves indefinitely. Their malaise is existential but their ultimate act of reclusion is diverting rather than introspective. Uniquely, Kozo and the redhead understand and assert that very aversion. Whenever they feel an admission or inquiry bubbling up, they dive into antidotal sex acts as a proxy. What raises the couple’s entrenchment above a mere exercise in salacious misogyny (a benchmark of the Pink Film industry) is their intent towards mutual exploitation and adherence to anonymity (another quality shared with Last Tango).

7. Kumashiro presents his content not intellectually, but within a framing that is bodily. Thus it is dangerous to flirt too strongly with conceptualization when discussing The Woman With Red Hair without overstepping the bounds of a story deliberately concerned with surface values. French conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin of the Philadelphia Orchestra poignantly observes of his own discipline, “the first quality of a conductor is to be absolutely without afterthought, without anything between the mind and the gesture. As soon as we start to think about the physicality of the thing, I think we are lost.”

8. Nakagami, author of the source novella, is even more insistent of the redhead’s anonymity than Kumashiro, simply calling the story Red Hair and not The Woman With…, She is defined by façade even in the title. Only the fact that she has two children (one three years and the other four), the impression that she is escaping an abusive relationship, and that she learned her favorite sexual position from her husband, are expressed. Yet Kumashiro makes it stirringly evident that her history claws from within. Director and author alike, fully appreciate the potential of withholding her history. The audiences’ curiosity is activated without ever being satiated. All throughout, torrents of emotion swell within the redhead and in true bipolarity, they spurt out of her in sudden episodes of tears, which she alternates with sexual elation and banal conversation.

9. “On the way home from Sakoto’s [Kozo’s Cousin] house, the woman wept. But Kozo had no interest in finding out about the woman’s past. All he needed was a warm body….The woman washed her tear streaked face at the sink and dried it with a towel, and a few minutes later spoke in a voice that sounded as if it was someone else who had been weeping so pitifully.”1 Kozo does in fact wonder about her past, with a shallow insecurity about the source of her sexual prowess, but he quells that curiosity, as does she, by diving into more unthinking sex.

10. With his short story Red Hair as no exception, author Nakagami Kenji (1946-1942) is venerated for giving voice to the Burakumin minority of Japan, himself a Burakumin – the prejudice against whom was virulent in the early to mid 20th century. Nakagami speaks of alienation from within an unspoken alienation, and breaks open a gritty, unkempt, sexually unhindered, morally ambiguous swath of society. Kumashiro’s film, made shortly after the publication of Red Hair, has the same brazen spirit of marginal individuals writhing in marginality, which cannot help but reflect something of Japan’s then-modernity. Like the terseness of Nakagami’s prose, Kumashiro’s use of rough Kansai accents and carefree popular music places the film in time and buoys his characters’ evasions of a reality that is only ever shown in periphery.

11. The Woman With Red Hair is elementally diametric to an upcoming film in the OCCUPY NOWHERE column; Teshigahara Hiroshi’s Woman in the Dunes (1964). Where Red Hair - awash with rain, water, the sea, menstrual fluids, semen, sweat, saliva, urine - has fundamentally to do with saturation and evasion, Dunes pervades with depravation – sand, heat, dryness, scraping, the panic of a man imprisoned, and his industrious efforts to get out of a massive sand pit that he finds himself stuck in with a woman. Both films have to do with forms of decay, and the fragmentation of human identity into body parts, instincts, and textures. Both films depict in different measure, and with different meanings of the word “pleasure,” how “the search for pleasure involves taking hostages and exerting control over a limited environment when the world outside is beyond one’s control.”1 However the glaring divide is that Dunes’ captivity is forced, and Red Hair’s hostages are elective. (Zimmerman)  

12. Kozo and the Redhead’s alienation is essentially nonparticipation-as-protest against working-class / status-quo distastes, and a reaction to the rapidity of change.  Kozo cares little for his specialized skill in the professional sphere because it is ultimately abstract to him. In the interim of a rainy season that halts construction, Kozo is addicted to acts of penetration in the intimate sphere; in bed with the redhead where they perform all manner of sexual acts which are direct and appraisable to them both. The film’s entire metaphoric potential is drawn across this thread; industry and construction which level history in architectural terms, parallel to sexuality which is here used to level the past in sensual terms. The finitude of the couple’s escapism, and the fact that mitigating circumstances (the weather) have allowed that very escape, becomes clear to them. The final lines of the film, uttered unexpectedly by the redhead reveal this awareness. “It’s raining again, we can stay in bed all day. But its not always going to rain like this.”

13. Nakagami ends his story where it began; with hair. “The woman with red hair pressed her lips to Kozo’s throat. Her lips were wet and unbelievably warm, thought Kozo. The red hair shone.” Kumashiro interprets by freeze-framing the woman’s face and hair in a throw of pained ecstasy as the credits roll. She remains an object…. but an object by her own design.

1. Nakagami Kenji, Eve Zimmerman (translation by), “The Cape: and other stories from the Japanese ghetto.” Stone Bridge Press, 2008.
2. Donald Richie, “Introducing Japan.” Kodansha, 1978.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


1. With eight features to his credit, Britain’s David Mackenzie (Asylum, Hallam Foe) is somehow still below the radar of popular discourse, which may change with two of his recent works having shown at the 20th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival, one of which (Perfect Sense) will be distributed theatrically in January. In his 2004 treatment of Alexander Trocci’s Young Adam, Mackenzie masterfully exploits the sensuality of cinema, devises drama through structure, and accesses the disclosive potential of sexuality in an ongoing investigation of human impulse as a microcosm of social impulse.

2. A rippling skin of water fills the first frames of Young Adam and cuts to a solitary swan floating in the chop. The camera holds this icon for but a moment before delving beneath the water, revealing its dark rugged legs aflutter in the translucent blue/green. We sink lower to riverbed debris. In its rise back to the surface, the camera closes in on the silhouette of a woman’s body, lifeless, non-descript, floating up to the ripples. Like the opening sequence of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet - which, after a montage of idyllic and then suddenly violent suburbia, burrows beneath the grass to reveal writhing insects - the murky underbelly will be Young Adam’s stage.

3. Scotland, after the war. Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor) works on an old fuel barge with Leslie (Peter Mullan) and Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) and their young son Jim (Jack McElhone), carting fuel cargo up and down the rivers and canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Les and Joe discover the unknown woman’s body floating in the river and fish her out. This grim catalyst precipitates a degradation of morality the length of the film that slips between timeframes of Joe’s past with a woman named Cathie Dimley (Emily Mortimer) and his present on the barge, as subtly as it lists between the tone of a dream and bleak reality. Eventually a wending portrait draws the span of time and souls together.

4. From the start, Director/writer Mackenzie ensconces in a dour and dense mood, yet is somehow electric in that regard. He paints a portrait of constriction. The canals are scarcely wider than the barge that is used to traverse them, and the tunnels are even tighter. The bowels of the barge haven’t a single opportunity for privacy; small cabinet sized quarters sectioned off by thin walls or curtains, a ceiling just tall enough for someone to stand, a tight and steep staircase, dark. The outdoors, overcast. A cool muted palate and the pervasive cold physically accentuate a sense of contraction, of shrinking space, ambition, expectation, and the massing of disappointment. The inside of the barge is first shown warmly, with the faintest suggestion of isolation as form of freedom. That irony soon collapses. The slow crawl of barge life, emblematized by the camera’s glide, weighs everything like the riverbed debris. A flashback expresses Joe’s stifled creativity as a writer. Even the structural non-linearity of Young Adam confines the viewer to an unpredictable clarification of the dramatic elements.

5. We learn that Joe is adrift, at times like the floating corpse; silent yet teeming with a history concealed. He drifts, and deposits, and when he perceives Amontillado’s cask 6. being mortared around him by complacency, stagnation, or expectation, he drifts once more, always a trail of eviscerated souls behind him. He purports to be the architect of his waywardness – an objection to commitment, sentimentality and normalcy - but he sometimes seems the victim of its inherency. A shot of Joe walking from bow to stern as viewed from above, gives the impression he is standing still as the barge moves beneath him.

6. Though much the observer, Joe learns best through touch. “I was struck by the fact that sight is hypnotized by the surfaces of things; more than that, it can only know surfaces at a distance, meager depths at close range. But the wetness of water felt on the hand and on the wrist is more intimate and more convincing than its colour or even than any flat expanse of sea. The eye, I thought, could never go to the center of things.” (Trocci, p.29)  Joe’s mistrust of sight leads him to acts of physical penetration as a primary mode of research and experience. One of the first things we see him do is touch, from which we continually appraise his corporeality, as does he. After plucking the woman’s body from the water, he looks at her intently, draws her translucent petticoat over her buttocks, and as if wanting to leave a trace of himself, places his palm gently on the pallid skin between her shoulder blades (shown in close-up). The film too is obsessed with surfaces; wood, water, gravel, iron, coal, skin, cobblestone, and hypnotizes through clean gliding movements that read like caresses. Presiding over this is the fact that a film too is bound to a surface (the screen), therefore confinement resounds even in the medium itself.

7. Though the draft of the narrative is slow, its dramatic movement is a powerful undertow, and wastes no time in the commencing. Ella ties the laundry on the line as Joe, framed by the wide river, watches the body being taken away. Through memory-like incisions that Trocci describes as a “brainwave;” Joe’s hand against the wet skin, a close-up of Ella’s equally corpselike lips, the dead woman’s leg sliding off the gurney and her heel dragging in the gravel, Mackenzie draws together death and a spark of erotic awareness between Joe and Ella.

8. That very night, Joe undertakes the first proactive steps in an affair with Ella, right under Les’s nose. At dinner he grazes Ella’s calf with his own, testing her, studying her microscopic reactions. He runs his hand gradually up her thigh and under her panties, testing further until Ella removes his grasp. They remain almost unflinchingly placid above the table, where below, like the swan and the murk, something unclean transpires.

9. Later that night Joe breaks away from Les at the pub, knowing Ella will be alone on the barge. Seizing the moment they consummate their curiosity. Thereafter, Ella becomes increasingly driven in their affair. A sense of abandon sparks life and softness in her where there was none. Joe’s abandonment is like a political act, a political philosophy. He’s a libertine. She [Ella] is going on some weird instinct about mortal spirit. So the erotic charge is essentially mutual but is coming from a very different place. A strange sort of eden, like being a child again.” (Tilda Swinton, actress) Hers is antidotal against marginalization, where his is an act towards it. Characteristic of Mackenzie, the sexual exchanges are rugged and earthy, without the sheen or idealism of more commercial fare. 11. These scenes increasingly ascribe to personal meaning. For example, after Jim is sent off to boarding school she says to Joe, “Every time I see him go….it breaks my heart. He needs an education.” Presumably she wants Jim to have options other than working on the barge his entire life. As such, the demands of an increasingly educated society alienate her from her own son and create a gulf of loneliness that she navigates by busy work and by the diversion of a primal enterprise with Joe. In the scene in which she expresses these feelings to Joe, Ella bears her breasts and he kisses them in the midst of her mournful maternal sway.

10. These scenes increasingly ascribe to personal meaning. For example, after Jim is sent off to boarding school she says to Joe, “Every time I see him go….it breaks my heart. He needs an education.” Presumably she wants Jim to have options other than working on the barge his entire life. As such, the demands of an increasingly educated society alienate her from her own son and create a gulf of loneliness that she navigates by busy work and by the diversion of a primal enterprise with Joe. In the scene in which she expresses these feelings to Joe, Ella bears her breasts and he kisses them in the midst of her mournful maternal sway. 

11. Past and present, everything Joe does is an analysis of his own loneliness,
 an antidote, but of a confirmation that that loneliness isn’t exceptional. What sparks his passion is any confrontation with a soul as electrically lonely as his own, which is as affixed to that loneliness as he is. In a strangely Zen exercise, he probes into these individuals – literally through sex - as a way to understand himself through them as a reflection. On this point Joe Taylor finds a conceptual kinship with William James (Jeremy Renner) of The Hurt Locker (2008), a film that also favors personal storytelling over explicit socio-politics. Like Joe he relegates himself from society as a deliberate mode of actualization. As with Joe’s pattern of sexuality, James, part of a US bomb-squad in the Middle-East, only sparks when in the field, faced with perilous but empirical matters, situational analysis and survival. He is equally tactile, equally stilled on the surface, equally spare on words, equally at odds with expectation and normalcy. Much like James’s reaction to banal domesticity, what diffuses Joe’s passion most is when those lonely souls he courts become comfortable and expectant, shattering the mutual veneer of a dismal worldview and eliminating their viability as a test subject. Ella does this by anticipating their marriage and future. In the course of his exteriorized self-study, Like James’s reckless decisions in the field, Joe is astounded by what acts he is willing to partake of in anticipation of a consequence which never befalls him; citing the sexual hazing scene with Cathie that undulates between rape and play. Her unspoken unblinking forgiveness afterward signals her invalidity as a mirror and is his queue to move on.

12. As attained easily on a barge, the peripheral world remains so for most of the film. The viewer has only passing revelations on which to hinge a socio-political subtext, as do the characters, which follow the dead woman’s story through newspaper articles. After Les discovers the affair, seemingly by Ella’s machination, he leaves and Joe finds himself assuming his post. In a conversation with Joe, Ella puts forward Les’s fear that “Once fuel rationing stops, the trucks’ll take over.” Just after this remark, the barge is shown easing through a dense fog. So dense that Ella must direct from the bow with shouts. Joe spies prisoners paving a road. The infrastructure that will eventually supercede the canals is being built-up before Joe’s eyes. This moment resounds with notes of entrapment; that of Joe having inherited a scraping conventional life, that of a systemic uncertainty about his navigating a changing world, that of guilt.

13. At this point of the film Ella’s brother-in-law dies, having fallen off his Lorrie and then run over by a bus; an off-screen event coupling even the industry of roads with death. As if inviting full collapse, Ella asks her grieving yet brazen sister Gwen (Therese Bradley) to stay on the barge. In a transparent scheme of “going to the pictures,” Gwen and Joe have sex in an alleyway in town; an unsavory means to an end for Gwen to spite her sister’s seeming happiness, and for Joe to incite a way out. Joe moves into a shared flat in the city and becomes infectiously drawn to the trial of one David Gordon, a plumber and family man convicted of murdering the woman found by Joe and Les with whom Mr. Gordon was having casual relations. Joe’s intimate knowledge of the circumstances of the woman’s death; that she is in fact Cathie Dimley, that she cannot swim, that she slipped into the river after telling Joe she was pregnant with his child, that he did nothing to save her, that he covered up the evidence of their clandestine sexual contract that night (revealed in bits of savage dramatic irony) is Mr. Gordon’s only salvation, yet the guilt does not impel Joe to speak out in other than an ineffectual unsigned letter which he drops at the court. Joe writes his confession in a phone booth, where even the airing of the truth is conditional, confined and anonymous.

14. Young Adam is in a sense a post war story. Not just WWII. Post any war. That story about a society that’s so traumatized by so much violence for so many years and trying to get itself together and trying to construct all sorts of boundaries, and intellectuals feeling alienated and not wanting to join in… Unable to relate to his generation’s status quo optimism - the gulf of which is sealed in the image of three university students walking past him with utter levity - Joe unmoors from trappings of monogamy, career, possession, morality; the very buoy of his alienation. But Joe tangentially participates with society; allowing the cogs of industry to turn by carting fuel on the barge, and allowing the machinations of justice to churn by bystanding the wrongful sentencing of Daniel Gordon.

15. The story is partly an indictment of the death penalty and the ease of factual distortion. The seeking of a conviction is as much a feverish means-to-an-end modality as Joe’s own sexual exploits. The halls, corridors, and arches of justice are as narrow as the tunnels, canals, locks, and the barge. In the courtroom where “truth” is excised in short parentheticals and strung together to paint portraits of extremes, Joe plays with his pocket mirror and watches himself watching with the detachment he affords all his tests of fate.

 16. By trial’s end Joe is more intense than ever. He steps to the river’s edge framed again by the ripples. We look down upon him from behind almost as though his were now the body floating dead. He looks at himself in the pocket mirror, the last time he will do so seeking glimmers of humanity or reason to think lightly of life. And Joe’s great nightmare, that it is indeed possible to live a life without leaving fingerprints, to drift through without responsibility…that seemed some kind of liberal dream… it’s actually a nightmare.”  (Swinton)

17. Where at the end of the novel Trocci writes, “…the disintegration had already begun,” Mackenzie masterfully interprets; From above and behind, the camera swoops into a ¾ close-up of Joe looking at the river. Joe’s absence-of-presence is a weight where it should be a weightlessness. He holds and then walks off, the weighty pack on his back, into the deep blurred disintegration of the background. The film is merely a preamble to Joe’s ultimate course of immorality and marginalization in a world where justice is subjective and guilt is livable.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


"Love in Winter"
Published in Korean Quarterly

It is almost difficult to write a review of ADDRESS UNKNOWN because it requires one to reinsert oneself in the miserable company of its alternately unfortunate, pitiful, frustrated, victimized, and demonstratively cruel characters. That's not a qualitative judgment of the film itself, which is handled with a bravura banality and startling savagery, but merely an observation of the tone and texture of the sore and gritty world Kim Ki-duk sets before us.

Kim Ki-duk’s 6th film follows another coupling of society’s downtrodden and reveals the stages in which they perpetuate their own piteous overthrows, as well as deal with the realities of a difficult life spurred on after war, interrupted by occupation. The context of Kim Ki-duk’s dreary and often grisly account of a rural South Korean town bordering an active US army base in 1970, is critical as a contribution, but not as a singular cause, to the misery. 17 years after the armistice of 1953, South Korea finds itself having traded Japanese rule after WWII for an American occupation and continued military presence, yet to substantially find it’s footing and concrete its new north-south binary culture. Despite the centrality of its context, like a good film, ADDRESS UNKNOWN derives dramaturgy from a number of conflicts and conditions. Whittled down though, nearly every strain, every desperate scraping act, every wrenching pitiful submission in ADDRESS UNKNOWN stems from one single force – the desire to be loved.

Whether it is a mother living in a converted bus on the outskirts of town, sending letter after letter in a vain effort to locate her son’s father in the US, or Chang-guk the illegitimate half-black child of her and her former army boyfriend who struggles through racism, poverty, and fatherlessness. Whether it is Eu-nok, the young woman who’s right eye is blinded by her selfish brother with a homemade beebee gun and which garners her ridicule, or Ji-hum the timid near-speechless boy who pines for her, victimized by two miscreant thugs who plague him with violence and theft. Whether it is they, or any of the other characters in this film, the desire is the same.

The presence of the army base is none-the-less felt constantly, with jets and planes flying overhead like punctuations to the unfolding tragedy, English being alternately embraced and despised by locals, and soldiers filtering out into the town on recreation or drills. James, one such troubled American – more troubled than we first realize - injects himself Eu-nok’s family, using her as a cover for his drug abuse and eventually exchanging restorative eye surgery at the military hospital for her becoming his “sweetheart.” James turns out to be at the breaking-point of his sanity, is emotionally fragile, and is at complete odds with being stationed in Korea without any real conviction or understanding of his purpose. It is because of this nuance that Kim’s film is not simplistically critical of America’s post-armistice presence, but rather contains a note of complexity in the attitudes of those men and women stationed at the 38th parallel.

Amidst the sprawl, again, this cast of desperate beings strives for one utterly simple essential attainment…. Love. Love in the form of acknowledgement, acceptance, and tenderness. They hope for nothing more than a future brighter than the consuming bleakness of the winter of 1970. 

**Available on Palisades Tartan DVD**


With her debut film, Take Care of My Cat, writer/ director Jeong Jae-eung eschews simplistic sentimentality and confining causality as she fluidly unravels the thread connecting five female friends as they struggle against the riptide of young adulthood. Tae-hee, Hae-joo, twins Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo, and Ji-young, freshly graduated from high-school, all hail from the industrially booming port city of Inchon, pictured with vitality and texture by cinematographer Yeong-hwan Choi. Each of these young women finds themselves in a differing stratum of the attitudinal spectrum as they negotiate expectations, changing roles, and varying ambitions in the unstable medium of a developing South Korea. In fact, simply by following the scattering orbit of these young women, a dynamic socio-economic portrait is scrawled scene-to-scene. The girls act almost as status milemarkers, Hae-joo attaining the “top” and Ji-young holding the bottom, and the backgrounds; pedestrians, city streets, service workers, office workers, buildings, and shantytowns, fill the gradation into something rounded.

The foremost of Jeong’s concentration is character. Ji-young, somewhat sullen and reserved, has lost both her parents and lives in a collapsing ramshackle home with her ailing grandparents in the poorest section of town. Finding a job proves almost impossible. She keeps the depth and nature of this condition to herself, but it surfaces in tones of bitterness. Ji-young has two qualities to sustain her; creativity and patience, devising the most intricate textile patterns by hand, quietly hoping to study abroad and expand her abilities. She has partly the platform to bound out of the dismal pocket of existence into which she has been thrust, and around which so may others seem to build success.

Intrepid Hae-joo wills herself into a pitfall of narcissism and materialism after starting her ultimately low-level job at a big city brokerage house, made through connections by her affluent family. She moves into a clean but meager dorm-sized apartment in Seoul, dreaming of bigger and better things. Her action of removal provides the most blunted impact against the group’s waning solidarity. Her ambitions are common and vain which splinters the fracture further, especially between herself and Ji-young. This turn of character makes her seem unlikable and yet Jeong earns her a modicum of sympathy for the anonymity and under-appreciation that will be systemic in her corporate ladder climb.

Tae-hee floats in the middle of the spectrum and seems at first the most “free,” but is burdened by her split roles; working at her father’s tradition hot-rock healing spa for free, types for a young poet stricken with cerebral palsy, and tries to be the sustaining thread between her circle of friends. Tae-hee combines qualities of selflessness, self-destruction (smoking), naivety, maturity, modesty, and passion. A mix of so many opposites, she doesn't know what she wants out of life, but knows deep down that it resides somewhere other than Inchon and that it has none to do with material possession.  

Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo are twins. Their spirits are high and playful. They have each other no matter what, and this is possibly why they seem so resigned to things, so at ease. They hawk jewelry on the streets and have an air of contentment about them. None of Hae-joo’s feverish ambition or Ji-young’s sunken woe rubs off on them. Nearly peripheral in presence, but wholly essential to the roundness of this film, they are simply “going with the flow.”

And between these five is passed around Tee Tee, Ji-young’s kitten. This helpless beacon of innocence passively represents a stage of their lives that has been lost.

The question might arise; why review a film with one decade under its belt? The reason, more than any excellence of craft, is its sustaining relevance. Take Care of My Cat is as indicative of its own time and place; 2001 Inchon, South Korea, as it is of ten years later, where all the same concerns of uncertainty, identity, economy, and connectivity (elegantly exemplified through the use of onscreen text-messaging, and constant use phones), seem like an unmodified transplantation, not only through time but through culture. These women wade through the same practical and existential mire of circumstance and choice that can be found this very day in America, or any developed/developing nation for that matter. Jeong culls something universally appreciable out of the specificity of her sororal cross-section. Choosing Inchon; a city growing incongruously in different directions, appearing to be in a constant and ambiguous fluctuation between construction and destruction, as the home of this narrative simply adds to the dramaturgy, wedded to the struggles of its protagonists.

The greatest competence of Take Care of My Cat, which is a pooling of so many wonderful talents and intuitions of modern/ independent filmmaking, rests in the telling. Jeong’s narrative, under the knife of editor Hyeun-mi Lee wanders but does not stray, floats yet does not drift. Her story is a construct of passing moments that ebb and flow rather than arc, yet the continuity never appears broken because Jeong has found a means to thread everything together tonally. Take Care of My Cat provides an accumulating person-centered narrative that meanders as a rule but never actually loses its focus on these five characters and their dispersal into the currents of life.


**Available on Kino International DVD**


Published in Korean Quarterly

“I tell you. In this crazy world we have to be like crows.”
“What kind of courage does a crow have?”
“Crows aren’t courageous, but they are tough – tough enough even to attack a scarecrow. “The crow sits on top of its head and picks out its eyes.”

As unremittingly dismal as Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths (1957), as socially observant as Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), as basely existential as De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and drawing from shades of American Noir, STRAY BULLET (OBALTAN) creates an effect of having been dragged through the worst mire of post-armistice South Korea, where the sweat is left on our brow, the sting remains dull in our gut, and the dirt laces the fibers of our worn clothes. STRAY BULLET leaves a residue on the viewer because it sinks us into its universe wholly with no sense of how to resurface. Misery loves company one might say, and director Yoo elects us as such for the Song family as he dredges the bottom-most experience of this period of social upheaval.

STRAY BULLET, a reference to waywardness and drifting through experience, depicts the darkest turns in the life of public accountant Chul-ho Song (Kim Chin-Kyu, of The Housemaid) who struggles with money and the fracturing post-war era. Burdened in this time with the responsibility of supporting two children, a mentally trouble mother, a malnourished pregnant wife, his troublesome jobless younger brother Yong-ho (two years since returned from the war), his sister Myong –sook who resorts to prostituting herself to American Soldiers in order to make ends meet, and upholding the roof of their dilapidated home, he hasn’t even the money to visit the dentist to resolve his ever-constant toothache or buy his young daughter a pair of pretty shoes. But he tries. He endures. He blankly thrusts himself into each grueling seemingly ineffectual day, wearing the strain on his face, his posture, his stride, and in his decaying tooth.

Yoo’s vision is steeped in the piteous condition of the Songs, microcosmically indicative of the condition of an economically polarizing South Korea still reeling from war and occupation (first by the Japanese and afterward by the US.). Soldiers return home and cannot find work, those who have jobs make meager sums, and an elite class (movie stars in particular) occupies the higher tier while the poor get poorer – a wedge driven home by the aesthetic noir-esque contrast of scenes drown in shadow, or awash in midday sun. Kim Hak-sung’s location shooting also lends immediacy, gravity, and authenticity to a story that requires all three qualities.

The concerns of OBALTAN are socio-economic, but also existential, and moral. Yoo plainly exposes extreme conditions in lieu of directly criticizing or politicizing the catalyst of those conditions – even though critique and politics are perhaps unavoidably involved simply through his act of observation (enough to have the film banned upon its initial release). Yoo also allows for a range of relationships to form and be challenged in ways more subtle than the main thread of economic disparity.

Scathing moments of Lee Beom-seon’s script ask fundamental questions of morality in a time where dog-eat-dog is the rule. The frequent orator of these questions is younger brother Song Yong-Ho. Seeming at first the most aimless, spending his days drinking and complaining with war buddies, he emerges as the most complex, immediate, and the most desperate among the group, inherent in the crude culminating bank robbery scheme he hatches, and the argument that takes place just before with his older brother.

Yong-ho:  “I admire your [Chul-ho’s] way of life; reasonable, honest, and poor as hell. But your life is like a ten-cent peep show -- watching others get what they want. That's not enough for me. You and your toothache! You think you’re helping us by not going to the dentist? That’s how all tragedy starts. By some stupid futile sacrifice like that. Why do we have to live in a cage? A cage of conscience!”

Chul-ho: “How could we live together without any conscience?”

Yong Ho:  “We’d just live, that's all. I should have been bitter enough to take things into my own hands before my mother went crazy and before my sister sold her body away! I should have started cheating the first day we had that pitiful little shop in the market. I should have cheated before those god-damned bullets went through my belly!”

All the other characters seem by degrees to submit to the banality of their suffering, seem to be – as the cab driver remarks of delirious post-surgery Chul-ho Song at the end of the film, “like one of those wild shells that fired aimlessly.” Their courage to endure and participate in scraping by with threadbare souls might even be seen as complacency next to Song Yong-ho’s fever-pitch, or even Myong-sook’s nefarious methods, but they can hardly be blamed in acknowledgement of the reality of their circumstances and challenges, especially as the film concludes its escalating downward spiral with only one small modicum of hope resounding.

Now, after 50 years of history, are these conditions yet changed? Is the polarity and disparity any softer, and does the disadvantage enabled by the system still produce attitudes like Song Yong-ho’s? Watching a film like Jong Jae-eun’s TAKE CARE OF MY CAT from 2001 as an example, one might fearfully see that the same spectrum endures, only the gray-scale is much subtler.

**Available on Cinema Epoch dvd**