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.”

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