Wednesday, May 9, 2012

East Meets East : An interview with Samuel Jamier, film curator of Japan Society NY.

In March of 2012, the Japan Society of NY hosted a groundbreaking film series titled Love Will Tear Us Apart. Programmer Samuel Jamier selected films about twisted, obsessive, and unconventional love from Korea and Japan to underscore the historically tenuous relationship between those cultures, while highlighting this past decades’ emergence of a collaborative artistic rapport. The fact that the Japan Society, under Jamier  -- himself Korean-born, but raised in Brittany, France -- is responsible for an event of this dynamism, complements the bi-cultural collaborative by both presenting it and also embodying it. “Ultimately revealing a similar visual grammar and inclination towards the emotional violence that flows beneath the quiet surface of societal restraints,” Love Will Tear Us Apart articulates a bodily cinema, asking aloud, with visceral pronouncement… Why is it so difficult to be happy? ( 

Prior to his work at the Japan Society, Jamier worked with the Korea Society (“I was running the corporate, policy, and cultural programs, which at the time were called ‘contemporary issues’ -- interesting designation, when you think about it.”) He also participated in the programming of the 2007 New York Korean Film Festival, where he “placed a few titles here and there. Retrospectively, I would say it's easy to guess which ones!” (He considers his choices of gangster films a "specialty"). But he does not feel that his transition from that agnecy to the Japan Society informed his curation of Love Will Tear Us Apart. “If anything, it was a very personal choice. I basically started off with a few Tsukamoto and Kim Ki-duk titles, then everything took shape from there. The young Tokyo-based Korean actress that I brought to introduce the series, Hyunri Lee, also influenced some of the picks, and the general aspect of the series. Initially, I had this grand (and retrospectively a tad pretentious) vision of a series covering East Asian cinemas: Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Korea. Japan of course. At some point, I even thought of having a European cinema component. Overall, I got all the films I wanted.” The resulting bi-cultural vision for Love Will ear Us Apart was concise, and for that reason, powerful.

Love Will Tear Us Apart marks a unique moment in a rather homogenous film-curatorial history (for the Japan Society in particular). When it comes to curating film for a cultural institution - the freedoms and constraints – Jamier says, “I do like to think what I curate and program has a unique, non-institutional edge to it. Typically, the ‘societies’ or ‘institutes’ promote one national culture. The logical consequence is that your focus necessarily excludes everything else. In the case of Korea and Japan, I think the cross-cultural link is almost blindingly visible, not just because of direct collaborations between actors, directors and producers, but also visually, narratively.

“Institutions specifically dedicated to film have constraints of their own. The usual approach is to organize a director-focused or actor-focused retrospective, or a national cinema-based festival or series. In the past few years, I've tried to go for a more multi-faceted, plural approach, combining elements of all three approaches I've just mentioned, seamed together by one concept and one narrative.

“One of the things that I enjoy the most at Japan Society is that I do benefit from a fairly wide margin for maneuver. On the other hand, being the only film person in an institution of this size can be a very lonely experience. Explaining what you have in mind can be extremely challenging. When it comes to cinema, and Asian cinema in particular, people have a lot of prejudices; they just assume they know a good film when they see one.”

When it comes to future programming, Jamier says, “My hope is that caution be thrown to the wind! I think we're going through a time of conservative programming, overall. Risk-taking has really fallen at the bottom of the agenda….Frankly, if cultural institutions don't take it as their duty to show things that the audience doesn't know, who will? In the age of quasi-absolute accessibility, people have become lazy, and tend to stick to what they already know...

“I don't consider myself an example, far from it; as a matter of fact, maybe I could even be taken as a counter-example in some circles. When I program, I try to think creatively, as if I was actually making a film, in a way. These days, the kind of mentality in cultural programming in New York is: money first, then the event takes place. ‘Oh, if we do this, we'll get corporate sponsors’... at the expense of a genuine artistic vision. Perhaps it's a bit naive on my part, but to me, the "vision" comes first. Then you make it happen -- and do you best doing so.”

Introducing Ki-duk Kim’s Dream, Jamier referred to the film as the festival’s “most emblematic”, in terms of the Japan/Korea collaboration. In Dream, Japanese and Korean is spoken by its protagonists respectively, yet mutually understood. Dream presents a cultural dichotomy and diffuses it in the same stroke, which seems to be at the heart of Love Will Tear Us Apart. *See Korean Quarterly’s Fall 2011 issue for an article on Dream* And Jamier is aware how significant his own cross-cultural personal status plays into his identity here in America. “Obviously, it's important in this country! People often refer to themselves, using hyphenated epithets and such….There’s actually not a whole lot of Asian programmers that program Asian cinema. In that sense, my ethnicity comes into play, to a degree. I'm also often told that the programming I do is very French... well, if people say so, maybe they're right.”

Discussing the festival’s featured film Villian, made by zainichi (Korean-born Japanese) filmmaker Sang-Il Lee, Jamier muses: “What kind of debt does the film owe to the origin of its creator? On a formal level, at a surface level, one's tempted to answer: ‘not much’, but at the same time, the film focuses on one outcast character, a loner full of resentment towards society, filled with violence... It's the kind of narrative or character that easily brings to mind some rather notorious Korean narratives... the Kim Ki-duk films, in particular, who's himself a bit of maverick in the Korean film industry. On the other hand, you have films like Blood and Bones by Yoichi Sai, another Zainichi director whose work in Japan is very well known. And well, that's clearly a film that owes a lot of its substance to the director's ethnic background, to say the least. When it comes to problems of identity, the answer is never a simple one.”

In an age where -- thanks largely to the Internet, as well as increased travel and communication --  boundaries of information and "experience" seem to be disappearing, Jamier says, “I think every time you bring down some kind of barrier, you find yourself with some new form of partition or partitioning. In the end, people themselves build these barriers. Probably it's a defense mechanism; there's been such an all-out assault on the viewer/spectator in the past few years. Technically, there are so few things that are not available one way or another.  One consequence of that is that audiences become more a tad more local, and refocus on what they're already familiar with. The positive side… is that it draws some adventurous souls to territories and realms they'd probably have no idea about. And cinema is an excellent gateway to that.”

Picturing Humanity - Lee Sang-il’s VILLAIN is a new kind of Noir.

Sang-il Lee’s film Villain (2010) One of the benchmark selections of the Japan Society of NY’s Korean/Japanese crossover film series Love Will Tear Us Apart. Villain is an elegant and unsettling exercise in the eroticism of loneliness, centered on the murder of a young woman and the small constellation of people drawn into the turmoil. Director Sang-il Lee’s award winning adaptation of Yoshida Shuichi’s likewise celebrated novel (of the same name) is most alluring for its urgent score and clean visual aesthetic, which transposes a contemporary horror-genre aesthetic to an emotive human drama. Villain traces its mood and its sense of melodrama back to the days of American Film Noir, a genre of the 40’s and 50’s dedicated to common people caught in exceptional orbits of loneliness, violence, and desperation, driven to their worst. These associations aside, Lee’s film, both classic and contemporary, is most affecting because of the palpably broken hearts put forward by its cast, which Lee’s sense of framing and editing ardently emphasizes. 

Though the subject of director Lee’s Zainichi (Japanese-born Korean) ethnicity isn’t necessary to understand or even appreciate this film, it seems hard to imagine that it did not inform his depiction of protagonist Yuichi, at odds with the normal stream of society, who hates with the passion with which he loves.

Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) lives in a dreary Nagasaki fishing village, daunted by the visage of a wide ocean. “If you face the sea everyday, you feel like you've reached a dead-end.” He has no friends, and no lover. He works construction jobs and looks after his aging grandparents. Short on words and yet driven by fierce desire, Yuichi could nearly have stepped out from a Ki-duk Kim film. The only thing Yuichi is beholden to his extravagant car, which he uses to escape the imprisonment of an otherwise stagnant existence. Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu) lives in an equivalent monotony in Saga, working at a men’s clothing store along the same street that she was born and raised. She shares an apartment with her sister, whose boyfriend is a reminder of Mitsuyo’s single-ness. Yuichi and Mitsuyo discover each other on an online dating site, and when they meet in person, they fall into an obscure and clumsy love. Around this time, a woman’s body is found at Mitsue Pass, and Yuichi is implicated as a murder suspect.

Yuichi and Mitsuyo try to evade the police, as the murder, its participants, and its aftermath are gradually revealed in the present and flashback. Through the victims, the murderer, and the families that lie in the fallout of this tragedy, Villain makes one wonder; should someone be judged upon their worst or best moments - their most wholesome or most selfish impulse?

One could easily imagine Villain translated to the 40’s, or any other decade of the 20th century for that matter. What holds Villain to the present is primarily its objective time markers; phones, email, online-dating. The existential urgency that encircles these embedded elements, and the false autonomy that new technological forms have always engendered, isn’t a new phenomenon. Yuichi follows the age-old paradigm of getting a car to feel “adult” and “free.” Lee’s soft inclusion of these components – another similarity between he and Ki-duk Kim - is a compliment to the story’s human focus and is the crux of its timelessness. All things being equal, the desolation of Yuichi’s traditional hometown is the desolation of Mitsuyo’s modern hometown, is the desolation of empty nighttime roads, is the desolation of a lighthouse, is the desolation of hearts so eager to be touched and accepted, is the desolation of love diffused across emails and text messages, is the desolation of secrets.

Director Sang-il Lee’s chose Yoshida Shuichi, author of the original source novel, to co-write the script. This is often (but not always) a boon to the resulting film, not just as a matter of credibility, but because a formative collaboration occurs between two very different modes of storytelling that expand and contract a story when they come into contact. In the realm of the written word, a reader’s imagination is the camera. The reader births imagery from within, and makes the experience of an author’s specific words entirely idiosyncratic to their mind’s eye. However, with cinema the architecture of another world is imagined for the viewer. Therefore the abstraction of interpreting written words, which is the thrilling basis of reading, can be found cinematically in a filmmaker’s ability to create spaces of ambiguity, subtlety, and silence. Inside these spaces, a viewer asks questions, injects their imagination, and makes connections.

Director Lee and author Yoshida balance the brooding weight of what is shown in Villain with what isn’t shown. As actress Eri Fukatsu speaks of Mitsuyo, “She isn’t a character that can be understood in the mind. She is moved by a force rather than a rational thought.” After connecting emotionally to the film, this systemic and enigmatic “force,” is the space and silence that the viewer is charged to interpret. Villain’s final frames create an expanse all their own.