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From August 5th through the 14th, Film at Lincoln Center presented a major retrospective devoted to the director, King Vidor. Below is a commentary on the screenings that I attended.
La Bohème from 1926 was Vidor’s next work after his very successful The Big Parade—one of his strongest silent films, unfortunately screened in this series only in a digital format. It is based on Henri Murger’s famous Scenes of Bohemian Life, the source for Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera, and was a project selected by Lillian Gish who was then at the peak of her career. Her magnificent performance as Mimi is one of the most memorable aspects of this moving work. Although the director had some disagreements with the actress about her approach, he nonetheless went on to say that “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.” (John Gilbert who was the lead in Vidor’s previous feature, is also superb as Rodolfe.) Gish had substantial control over the production but the material was evidently congenial to the director who here displays his mastery of melodrama, a genre of which he was to become one of the finest practitioners in Hollywood, alongside such sterling exemplars as D.W. Griffith, John M. Stahl, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli, among others. La Bohème features striking photography by Hendrik Sartov, who had worked with Gish previously, but regrettably the original elements do not appear to have survived in a pristine state, diminishing what visual pleasures it must have originally afforded. The presentation featured live piano accompaniment by the excellent Donald Sosin who performed along with all the silents in the series.
The Crowd, another of Vidor’s most important silent films and one of his most expressionistic despite its commitment to naturalism, is about the marital and economic struggles of a low-level worker in a large New York firm. It too has an extraordinary pair of leads: Eleanor Boardman—the director’s second wife—and James Murray, whom he discovered and who went on to have a tragic life that later inspired an unproduced screenplay by the filmmaker. The theme of the American Dream was to prove a crucial one in the Vidor’s career and his work displays a remarkable class-consciousness—he went on to re-use these protagonists in his even greater Our Daily Bread of 1934, one of the most left-wing films ever produced in Hollywood, which was screened in this series only in a digital format. A bravura crane shot traversing an endless series of office desks would seem to have influenced similar shots in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Orson Welles’s The Trial. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard said, “Make films about the people, they said; but The Crowd had already been made, so why remake it?” I hope someday to have an opportunity to see Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of the film with a score by Carl Davis. Dave Kehr’s capsule review for the Chicago Reader is worth quoting:
King Vidor’s 1928 classic, with James Murray as the “average man” picked out of the crowd by Vidor’s gliding camera. In his autobiography, Vidor claims he sold the project to Irving Thalberg as a sequel to his hit war film,The Big Parade: “Life is like a battle, isn’t it?” Accordingly, the misfortunes that befall Murray are hardly average, but the melodramatic elements are integral to Vidor’s vision of individual struggle. The camera style owes something to Murnau, but the sense of space—the vast environments that define and attack his protagonists—is Vidor’s own.
Immediately after The Crowd—and released in the same year—Vidor directed two romantic comedies—a genre that he only infrequently essayed—that demonstrated the delightful talents of the underrated Marion Davies. The first, The Patsy, is the more substantial. In a hilarious sequence, the actress does amazing impressions of Gish, Mae Murray and Pola Negri. Marie Dressler is amusing too as the character’s unsympathetic mother. The second film, Show People, a spoof of Hollywood, is slighter but quite charming and co-stars the appealing William Haines as the love interest of the heroine. Davies does an equally astonishing impression of Gloria Swanson here.
Vidor’s subsequent feature of the following year, Hallelujah, a religious musical with an all-Black cast, is one of his most perfectly realized and was a personal project partly financed with his own salary, although it proved to be a popular success. The director commented on the inspiration for the film:
I used to watch the negroes in the South, which was my home. I studied their music, and I used to wonder at the pent-up romance in them.
In his 1953 autobiography, A Tree is a Tree, he said about Hallelujah:
The sincerity and fervour of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives. In many instances the intermingling of these two activities seemed to offer strikingly dramatic content.
The film is also notable for the indelible first screen appearance of Nina Mae McKinney.
Street Scene, from 1931, is an adaptation of the eponymous, acclaimed play by Elmer Rice—it later became an opera with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes—but, like Hallelujah, is photographed, very creatively, like a silent movie, despite almost entirely being filmed on a single set. The distinguished source, however, like that of many stage works turned into motion pictures, does seem to hamper the film somewhat—one would have liked for a scenarist to have re-written the dialogue for the new medium. One asset is the incomparably beautiful Sylvia Sidney in the lead role. The justly famous theme music—it is a clever pastiche of George Gershwin—is by Alfred Newman.
Vidor’s following feature, The Champ, released the same year and which was an enormous success, is less original and more conventional in style but nonetheless incredibly moving, especially for Jackie Cooper’s astounding child performance. The film helped revive Wallace Beery’s career. As heartbreaking but more complex as a work of social criticism is Stella Dallas from 1937, a superior remake of the excellent Henry King silent of the same name—again with a Newman score and elegantly photographed by the superb Rudolph Maté. The effect of the director’s accomplishedmise-en-scèneis amplified by a marvelous cast, particularly Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Shirley, and Alan Hale.
Vidor’s next work, The Citadel, released the following year—an adaptation of a novel by A.J. Cronin, who wrote the classic novel, The Stars Look Down, famously filmed by Carol Reed—seems less personally charged despite Vidor’s admiration of the material but is certainly worth seeing. Handsomely photographed by Harry Stradling, it too has a wonderful cast, including Robert Donat, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Francis L. Sullivan, Cecil Parker, Nora Swinburne, and Felix Aylmer.
After this, Vidor contributed most of the outstanding black-and-white Kansas sequences in David O. Selznick’s The Wizard of Oz, as well as those of “Over the Rainbow” And “We’re Off to See the Wizard”; he then completed a masterpiece, Northwest Passage of 1940—shot in glorious Technicolor—a patriotic itinerary Western about the French and Indian Wars of the eighteenth century, which was screened in an astonishing 35-millimeter print from the archive of the George Eastman Museum. The director replaced W. S. Van Dyke after shooting began but his visual imagination was wholly engaged despite this. The cast includes a charismatic Spencer Tracy and an unusually good Robert Young in lead roles.
His following film, Comrade X, released the same year, is an entertaining, if lightweight and less personal, comedy—an apparent attempt to duplicate the success of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka—attractively photographedby Joseph Ruttenberg, and with an amusing screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, with uncredited work by Herman J. Mankiewicz. Of the leads, Clark Gable is characteristically excellent while the stunningly gorgeous Hedy Lamarr is surprisingly so. The fine secondary cast includes Eve Arden, Felix Bressart, Oscar Homolka, and Sig Rumann, the latter especially hilarious.
Vidor attempted something more significant and more in line with his thematic preoccupations with his next opus, which was released the following year, H.M. Pulham, Esq.,from the novel by John P. Marquand, which Harold Bloom unpredictably prophesied—in The Western Canon—would prove to be a permanent book. Certainly a creditable achievement, the film nonetheless seemed to me to be less imposing than one might have expected given the director’s expected affinity for the material. One weakness may be Robert Young’s performance which lacks the pathos and wit that Ronald Colman brought to a comparable role in a more satisfying adaptation of a work by the same author, The Late George Apley, by a filmmaker of comparable stature to Vidor, Joseph Mankiewicz. Lamarr is again unusually convincing as the bewitching object of his youthful affection. The supporting cast includes Ruth Hussey, Charles Coburn, and Van Heflin. The director’s note on H.M. Pulham, Esq. is worth citing:
Here was American life today told in terms of American humor, romance and a generous sprinkling of our home-grown satire. In addition, the story covered a span of more than 30 years, and I saw a chance to present a sort of American cavalcade of the significant events of this century while telling the human story of an American gentleman.
The book is written in the first person. It was all told from Harry Pulham's viewpoint. This is responsible for much of the deep human psychology of the novel. Here was a challenge. Could a motion picture be told completely in the first person? It would mean that nothing could happen in the entire picture unless it was seen or witnessed or experienced by Pulham. We decided to try it. The result is that in the picture nothing happens that is not experienced by Pulham.
So Robert Young is in every scene of the picture or is in the room when every scene happens. In the case of telephone conversations, no one is shown at the other end of the line. We only hear what Pulham hears. We do not see the other person at any time, for this would be letting the audience see something that Harry Pulham didn't see.
Much more ambitious was Vidor’s next work, An American Romance, a very personal project released in 1944, the third part of an informal “War, Wheat and Steel” trilogy with The Big Parade and Our Daily Bread.(The novelist John Fante was an uncredited contributor to the screenplay.) Unhappily, the film was severely cut by about fifty minutes and was unsuccessful commercially. What remains, artfully photographed in Technicolor by Harold Rosson, is of genuine interest, however, if maybe not amongst the director’s supreme achievements—two sequences of industrial assembly are especially compelling. An American Romance stars Brian Donlevy—whom the director thought was miscast—and Ann Richards. (Vidor originally wanted Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten, all of whom were unavailable.) This too was shown in stellar 35-millimeter print from the George Eastman Museum. In A Tree is a Tree, Vidor had this to say about his experience after finishing the film:
When the picture was previewed in Inglewood, Louis B. Mayer came to me on the sidewalk in front of the theater, put his arm around my shoulders and said, 'I've just seen the greatest picture our company ever made'. However, an order came from the New York office to cut half an hour. They cut the human elements of the story instead of the documentary sections, explaining that this was the only way a half hour could be taken out without complications in the musical soundtrack. In other words, the film was edited according to the soundtrack and not according to the inherent story values. At the lowest emotional level I have reached since I have been on Hollywood, I went to my office, packed up and moved out of the studio. The picture was not a box office success. Many of the inhabitants of Hollywood and Beverly Hills have never seen the film and many do not even know it was made. I spent 3 years of my life on the project and MGM spent close to $3,000,000.
His next movie, the grandiose Duel in the Sun from 1946, a sublime Western photographed in dazzling Technicolor, is mesmerizing despite considerable interference from its producer, Selznick, as well as cuts demanded by ratings review boards. Disagreements with Selznick purportedly caused Vidor to quit the project two days before the end of shooting. Like other prominent films of the producer, such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, uncredited direction was undertaken by many hands, including Josef von Sternberg (who also served as color consultant), William Dieterle, William Cameron Menzies, Otto Brower, Sidney Franklin, along with Selznick himself but, even so, Vidor’s vision is discernible. (Duel in the Sun also had three cinematographers: Rosson again, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan.) The source for the story is a novel by Niven Busch whose distinguished contributions as a screenwriter include Howard Hawks’s The Crowd Roars, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, and uncredited work on Minnelli’s Gigi; he also wrote the book that was the basis for Anthony Mann’s The Furies. Jennifer Jones is uncommonly convincing in the lead role and breathtakingly alluring. Gregory Peck gives a brilliant, atypical performance as her rakish lover. The secondary cast is probably the most notable of Vidor’s entire career, including Gish again, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Sidney Blackmer, Otto Kruger and, above all, Butterfly McQueen. The film was screened in a superlative 35-millimeter print from the Museum of Modern Art.
The erotic intensity of Duel in the Sun is continued in The Fountainhead from 1949–after Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel—one of the pinnacles of Vidor’s œuvre. The director’s ambivalence toward the author’s ideology generates a productive tension with the material. Rand’s dialogue is deliriously crazy; for the director, it serves as one vehicle for the expression of the larger-than-life passions that surge through his characters’ lives, as one can observe in many of his most essential films, such as Hallelujah, Duel in the Sun, and later in Beyond the Forest—released the same year but disappointingly not screened in this series—and Ruby Gentry from 1952, shown here only in a 16-millimeter print. With his cinematographer, Robert Burks—most celebrated for his terrific collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock—he found the most enthralling visual correlatives for these almost cosmic energies. A glamorous and entrancing Patricia Neal is a revelation in a cast that includes Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey, and Ray Collins.
Vidor’s Hollywood career concluded with Solomon and Sheba in 1958, a difficult production that he did not judge as fully successful. In 1964, he executed a very strange essay-film in 16-millimeter Kodachrome, Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics, which reflects his religious views—he was a Christian Scientist—and which is a kind of brief for philosophical idealism. (For an intriguing defense of this work, as well as an interpretation of the director’s style, see Fred Camper’s fascinating article, “The Myth of the Avant-Garde Film.”) He completed another short documentary in 16-millimeter in 1980, Metaphor, mostly a record of conversations on the title’s subject between Vidor and Andrew Wyeth, his favorite American painter. Wyeth’s favorite film was The Big Parade, which he claimed to have seen at least 180 times! Both films were screened in a digital format. As a footnote to the retrospective, the final program also featured Journey to Galveston, also from 1980, an estimable short 16-millimeter portrait of Vidor—shown in digital—at his ranch, directed by Catherine Berge, who talked at length about the background to the film before the presentation.
The lives of three proletarian families in London form the fabric of Leigh’s eighth theatrical feature, another vividly traced and superlatively acted portrait of everyday working-class struggle. Cab driver Phil (Timothy Spall) and his grocery-cashier wife Penny (Lesley Manville) deal with the fallout of their heavyset son’s (James Corden) heart attack, while Penny’s colleague Maureen (Ruth Sheen) contends with her daughter’s unplanned pregnancy; meanwhile, Phil’s fellow driver Ron’s (Paul Jesson) homelife grows ever more fraught as his teenage daughter (Sally Hawkins) seemingly has eyes for two different boys, one of whom may be stalking her.
The main depressives, played by Leigh regulars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, are a cab driver and supermarket cashier with two extra-large children, one of whom stoically mops up after the elderly while the other strains the capacity of the family’s living-room couch.
Humanistic tearjerker or misanthropic troll opera? Leigh uses a somber cello-rich score to infuse this quotidian suffering with a mystical edge and high-culture gloss—and yet, thanks to the generally enthusiastic performing, the movie borders on farce. (It’s revealing that Leigh would be a fan of Todd Solondz.) The most Dickensian of British filmmakers, Leigh populates All or Nothing with a grotesque assortment of drunken hags, persistent old wankers, creepy loners, belligerent slugs, and nut-job taxi fares—not to mention the pair of lissome young actresses compelled to contort their features into hilarious Kabuki-mask scowls. The ensemble is as compact in its way as the cast of a sitcom—and no less inclined to squabble and whine. The exception is Ruth Sheen’s chipper impression of a single mother with a pregnant daughter.
Mike Leigh paints a warm and tragic portrait of the title character (Imelda Staunton), a good-hearted wife and mother in 1950 London who works as a cleaning lady but also as an unpaid abortionist. Much of the film’s potency derives from its personal edge–the passion for precise period decor, the title dedicating the film to Leigh’s parents (a doctor and midwife), and even the childlike classification of many characters as either good souls or villains. Leigh evokes British director Terence Davies in a brief cinemagoing scene, and the same innocence Davies brought to his stories of postwar Britain informs this parable of a person whose good works land her in prison (also the great theme of Roberto Rossellini’s Europa 51). The detailing of Vera’s family is close to perfection.
Leigh constructs the movie as an accretion of briskly delineated scenes: Vera and husband attending a picture show, Vera helping her plain daughter find a mate. The vignettes cut across class lines—moving from cramped, dingy flats to the palatial homes that Vera cleans, and showing, among other things, the means by which a poor little rich girl [ . . . ] terminates the fruit of a casual date rape.
Vera Drake divides neatly in two. As customary with Leigh, there’s a Manichaean streak—the selfish characters are truly odious. But what’s most provocative is the way that comfy social drama turns into unrelenting weepie [ . . . . ] As the dramatic space constricts and celestial music builds, our Vera is turned, most horribly, to stone. Her anguished solitude as she is judged by a world of powerful men in uniforms and wigs cannot help but invoke the passion of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Joan [ . . . . ] Building up to a shattering conclusion, Leigh’s movie is both outrageously schematic and powerfully humanist.
Played with star-making sparkle by Leigh stock-company player Sally Hawkins (whose performance earned her the Best Actress Silver Bear at the 2008 Berlinale), Poppy is a single, 30-year-old elementary school teacher whose relentless optimism is not always welcome. She has to deal with a child being bullied, and she’s unnerved while taking driving lessons from a bitter, racist, and damaged instructor (a wonderful Eddie Marsan), as antisocial as Poppy is trusting and open.
As the critic Harold Rosenberg observed, Dostoevsky’s Myshkin is “less a dramatic figure than an edifying one,” and, in writingThe Idiot, the author was urgently seeking something beyond art—namely that which “man can be.” It would be unfair to burden the entertaining and occasionally glib Happy-Go-Lucky with such weighty intent, but, for all his reputation as a sour miserablist, Leigh has made some blatantly utopian movies—most obviously his paean to popular art, Topsy-Turvy, and, in a different register, the pro-choice passion playVera Drake.
More than a few critics were troubled by the unrealistically safe saline abortions performed byVera Drake‘s angelic outlaw heroine. But in opposing a criminal state, this warmhearted busybody embodied the promise of a more enlightened social order—the safe, reassuring abortionist of the future. So it is with the altruistic Poppy, whose adult devotion to education and occasionally expressed childish desire to fly seem to herald a further stage of human development.
Another Year observes four seasons in the lives of longtime married couple Tom and Gerri (the marvelous Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen); their 30-year-old bachelor son Joe (Oliver Maltman); and Gerri’s single, middle-aged work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville). A houseguest so frequent she’s practically family, Mary at first seems a harmless sad sack, drinking too much and bemoaning her failures in life and love. But as time passes, and summer gives way to fall, Mary’s depression grows, and her behavior becomes ever more erratic.
For all its undemonstrative realism, there are bold tones of expressionism to Another Year. They're present in the broader strokes of some of the acting – in the protective personae that Mary and Ken have created for themselves – and in the look of the winter section, where all warmth and colour are bled out of the visuals as the film contemplates death, loneliness and life's unhealed wounds.
It’s an unspoken convention of recounted-flashback tales that even though the events are told by A, B learns everything that we do—everything, that is, that we can see or hear in the flashback. ButHahahadecouples the verbal recounting from the visual presentation. Here listener B definitely does not grasp what we witness happening onscreen in the tale as told.
Hahahais a parallel-protagonist tale. Two pals meet for some drinking before one, Munkyung, leaves South Korea for Canada. Through a series of flashbacks, they regale each other with their recent adventures, mostly amorous. The plot is structured as two alternating streams, crosscutting one man’s tale with the other’s and usually returning to the framing situation of their drinking bout. But because we can see what each one recounts, we come to realize that both stories are populated by the same people, notably the tempting female tour guide Seongok. And those people have their own relationships, which we must piece together out of the glimpses we get in each man’s tale.
Neither Munkyung nor his pal Jungshik has a clue that they are part of a fairly tight circle. The result, as usual with Hong, is a comedy of ironic misunderstanding and the puncturing of male pretension.Hahahacan also be seen as his response to the rise of network narratives. Characters in such a film don’t usually realize the larger mosaic they’re part of [ . . . . ] Normally that lack of awareness isn’t the main point of the film. Here it is, and it’s wrung for classic humor at the protagonists’ expense.
In Oki’s Movie, Hong gives us another fractured plot, but now in the form of four short films. They center on three characters: Song, a film director turned professor; his student Jingu; and Oki, the woman both men are interested in. The raggedy credits of each short suggest handmade movies, but what we see in each one is the polished style familiar from Hong himself, including his current interest in abrupt zooms.
The four-part structure is far from transparent. It might be taken as a series of episodes from the trio’s lives.
The idea of ambiguous variation is made explicit in the final mini-film, “Oki’s Movie.” It’s a sustained exercise in—yes, again—crosscutting.
In both Hahaha and Oki’s Movie, Hong takes what’s offered by tradition—in this case, the romantic comedy and the conventions of flashbacks, crosscutting, and restricted narration—and creates a fresh structure. The play of novelty and norm is engrossing in itself, apart from the vagaries of the drama.
a creatively blocked director currently teaching film (Yoo Joon-sang) arrives in Seoul to meet with an old friend, only for that friend to seemingly stand him up. He then sets about wandering the streets, encountering several women and drinking a fair amount of soju along the way. The night draws to a close and a new day dawns, though this new day feels suspiciously similar to the one that preceded it.
But instead of going with my previous method of seeking out the moments that are repetitive while the story moves forward, I wondered what it would be like to go with an idea that repeats itself in its entirety. I started with the thought that a man would go to the same place three times and then we'd see what happens.
I shotThe Day He Arrivesin color and tried switching it to black-and-white just to see what it's like but it looked better. And I was lucky. You need to shoot black-and-white films a bit differently, such as with the lighting and all, but the contrast was already strong thanks to the structure of the lights for the scenes shot indoors and the clothes that the cast wore, Kim Bo-kyung's white blouse in particular, looked nice in black-and-white. It goes down to personal taste but I guess I thought that winter in Seoul went well with black-and-white.
It’s a measure of Hong’s growing international reputation that Isabelle Huppert is recruited to play three roles in another mazelike plot.
Yonju, staying with her mother in a coastal hotel and beset by family problems, tries writing film scripts. In the first, Anne, a French filmmaker, is vacationing with a South Korean director and his pregnant wife. As Anne gets involved with a hunky, good-natured lifeguard, the director is also making a play for her. Cut back to Yonju, trying another draft. In this one, Anne is a rich housewife from Seoul having an affair with a married man—again a director, but played by a different actor. As she waits for him to join her at the hotel, she meets the same lifeguard and romantic complications ensue. Back to Yonju trying another draft. Now Anne is accompanied by another woman, an older professor. They meet the first director, pregnant wife again in tow, while Anne has become preoccupied with getting life advice from a monk. Once more, needless to say, the lifeguard plays a central role.
In Another Country provides plenty of social comedy. Hong’s customary satire of Korean males’ awkward sexual aggressiveness is now accompanied by digs at westerners’ search for mystic Asian enlightenment. But the narrative structure is amusing in itself. Hong cajoles us into enjoying the surprising but inevitable recycling of situations, lines, and camera setups. Few filmmakers can make audiences laugh at the mere appearance of a shot and tease us to expect a replay of or departure from what we’ve already seen. Even if we couldn’t say precisely when we saw that image before, we recognize it and participate in a light-hearted game—the game of form.
Our Sunhiis about a hugely momentous event that hasn’t, to my knowledge, been dramatized on film before: a professor writing a grad-school recommendation. Sunhi approaches Professor Choi for a reference that will help her study in the States. As she coaxes him into revising his initially cool letter, he becomes attracted to her, as does another university employee Jaehak. Meanwhile Sunhi meets her old lover Munsu, and he becomes attracted to her all over again.
This sheerly formal gag is pretty esoteric, I grant you, but it’s typical of Hong’s urge to tweak the simplest materials. In his hands, the lowly two-shot becomes a structuring constraint, a way of deliberately limiting his choices to show us what he can do with it–not least, comic variation.
Hong Sangsoo has been playing with time from the start of his career. He has tried replays from different viewpoints (The Power of Kangwon Province, 1998), replays that differ in details (The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 2000), odd déjà-vu experiences (Turning Gate, 2002), and all manner of theme-and-variations plotting [ . . . . ] So it’s a bit surprising to find him exhuming the old reliable setup of letters recounting events in the past. Yet here as ever he has a couple of tricks up his sleeve.
[ . . . ] Hong has scrambled the flashbacks inHill of Freedom, but he offers a comically exact motivation. Kwon, a young language teacher in Seoul, returns to find a sheaf of letters written to her by a Japanese admirer, Mori. He taught with her at the school two years earlier. He has come to Seoul to reunite with her, and he has left her a letter every day. She starts to read them in the school lobby, and Mori’s voice-over narration establishes the beginning of his story. He tells how he found lodging, left a note at Kwon’s apartment, and paid his first visit to the “Hill of Freedom” café.
So far, 1-2-3 preparation. But when Kwon starts to leave the language institute, she staggers on the staircase, as if stricken, and scatters the letters on the steps. She gathers them back up in random order. This sets up the scrambled timeline of the flashbacks to come. (Hong mischievously zooms in on a letter she fails to retrieve, hinting at a gap in the story that will follow.)
What Kwon learns, in mixed-up order, is that Mori’s search for her leads him to meet and hang out with his landlady’s nephew, while also becoming romantically involved with Youngsun, the café owner. In the grip of a possessive lover, Youngsun attaches herself to the fairly passive Mori. Their affair plays out in Hong’s usual mix of drinking bouts and pillow talk.
By the time we’re used to this pattern, Hong sets up a new game. As he keeps cutting back to Kwon reading through the letters, accompanied by Mori’s voice-over, Hong gradually reveals that she is reading them in the Hill of Freedom café—the very place Mori hoped to meet with her (but never did).
It's Hong's nature to throw undigested material pell-mell into the crannies of his movies: he's not interested in integrating it into a schema (in fact, the idea would surely repel him), but the impact of his films lies in the wash of dissonance created by this material, a dissonance that belies the light comedy of the films' surface structure.
The first layer ofHill of Freedomis a puzzle, but not a difficult one. The story of the ill-planned visit to Seoul by Japanese Mori (Ryô Kase) is told via a bundle of letters that he sent to his romantic object Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), who was out of town while Mori was searching for her. Before she reads the letters, she drops them, assembling them in the wrong order and losing one page. Thus the story is told with a jumbled chronology that recalls Resnais'sJe t'aime, je t'aime. At film's end, Kwon finishes the letters and finds Mori on the eve of his return to Japan. Mori's subsequent narration announces a happy ending, with Kwon moving to Japan with him and the couple having two children.
The events of Mori's stay are, typically for Hong, staged as awkward comedy: a series of encounters that are at best failed connections papered over with good will, and at worst open warfare, with the most notable of the encounters being Mori's affair with the friendly waitress Young-sun (Moon So-ri, wonderfully dotty). We see almost nothing here of Hong's usual device of giving alternate, incompatible versions of the same event.
But the detail that Hong creates underneath the lightly borne surface structure is amorphous and bottomless. What makes him a great filmmaker is the effortlessness with which he generates this behavioral material: clearly this is a case of the artist living within the act of creation, with no sense of labor in the way he fills his canvas with disorienting details.
In summary, a different film lurks beneath the ragtag fairytale story that we piece together. And this not-very-hidden under-film speaks to us, obscurely to be sure, of sickness, violence, dissolution, and bad decisions.
Hong is frequently, and I think reasonably, compared to Rohmer, and Mori's sleepiness and its relation to our spectatorship forges an especially strong link betweenHill of Freedomand Rohmer'sLa femme de l'aviateur (The Aviator's Wife). If one were to synopsize the similarities and differences in the way the two filmmakers use narrative, one might say that Rohmer creates a contrast between his characters' ability to construct clean conceptual frameworks, and the entropic reality that is always too multifarious to support the narratives that the characters create. Whereas it is Hong himself, not his characters, who sets up the rickety infrastructure of a decipherable world, all the while feeding in a darkness and surrealism that makes modernist art impossible to sustain.
At first sight, Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then looks pretty familiar. It tells two stories, or the same one twice over: a film director visits an unfamiliar town, spends a day with a younger woman he meets, and possibly learns something about himself (or fails to). Along the way, he drinks too much soju and makes a fool of himself.
Both sections feature a youngish-verging-on-middle-aged film director named not Hong Sangsoo, but Ham Chunsu (Jung Jaeyoung, from Hong’s Our Sunhi)—which is near enough for comic discomfort. He’s visiting the town of Suwon to present one of his films, but has arrived a day early.
What are we witnessing here? Love? Lust? Or just lines? We don’t really know, yet we’re never far from seeing real emotions floating to the surface, and from seeing those emotions yield ironic comedy.
There’s a sweetly weary resignation to the idea of life going on, repeating itself incessantly, as people make the same mistakes over and over again, yet survive them by the skin of their teeth. The essential tone of his films could be described as “deep inconsequentiality”—and maybe there are some substantial insights to be had from their superficiality. One is the lesson that drunkenness is the truest form of honesty.
But this time, the film doesn't get a lot of help from the structure itself or the difference in storyline. Even though it looks doubled, the differences are very much in small details, like the differences in the emotional attitudes, facial expressions, voice intonations, things like that. That's what I wanted to do in the beginning, I realized, maybe I wanted to make a film that doubled structurally, but the difference is heavily in the surface level. If there is an obvious difference in storyline or it's structurally completed and understandable at the end, it's easy. But this one—what is this? [laughs] Just two different worlds that logically cannot be explained. Just different worlds. You can sense the difference. Because I cannot make a clear explanation of the relation between two parts; I was hoping that the audience can go to this kind of limbo state, if I can call it this, and “oooh, what is life?” or something like that. [laughs] Maybe that's what I want.
In comparing these two parts, if I can call them parts, some elements can be well connected, and make the audience feel that they can explain the difference between the two in terms of morals and attitudes. But some elements are not meant to be like that, and the two worlds are meant to be quite independent. If one is able to offer a clear explanation about the relationship between the two parts, then that can be a pleasant thing. But that encloses everything…You know what I mean? This way we can proceed with some pleasure of making sense, but still feel that the two parts are quite independent. Not one moralistic message.
If you believe there’s a clear reason for these two worlds to exist, once you find a clear meaning between them, then these worlds themselves disappear. Once we make clear sense out of these two worlds, they are just used up. It happens that it’s not easy to give them a clear meaning. So all the questions are kept alive if there’s an infinite possibility of worlds. It’s like a permanent reverberation.
Painter Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuk) hears secondhand that his girlfriend, Min-jung (Lee Yoo-young), has recently had (many) drinks with an unknown man. This leads to a quarrel that seems to end their relationship. The next day, Young-soo sets out in search of Min-jung, while she—or a woman who looks exactly like her and may or may not be her twin—has a series of encounters with strange men, some of whom claim to have met her before.
If the auteur theory didn’t exist, it would have to be invented to account for the effect ofYourself and Yours. In any other movie, when a man recognizes a young woman in a café, and she says he’s mistaken her for her twin, we might be inclined to take it as a brush-off. In a Hong movie, the scene makes us think back through all his other plots that have relied on doubling. So maybe this time he’s found a new variation? Has he got an actual pair of twins who will circulate through the scenes, constantly being taken for one another?
The film begins in Hamburg, where actress Young-hee (played by Kim herself, who won the Best Actress prize at Berlin for this role) is hiding out after the revelation of her affair with a married filmmaker. Back in Korea, a series of encounters shed light on Young-hee’s volatile state, as she slips in and out of melancholic reflection and dreams.
I wonder whether Kim Min-hee would come across as quite so mercurial and troubling here if we hadn’t previously seen her as the protean, infinitely deceptive ingénue fatalein Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. I suspect she would, but that past knowledge certainly adds a layer of meaning to her performance. More immediately pertinent, it also adds further resonance to know that Kim Min-hee and Hong Sangsoo were themselves having an affair, which they eventually announced publicly [ . . . . ]
It’s perhaps this real-life back story—whether the viewer is aware of it or not—that contributes an emotional intensity not always foremost in Hong’s films, which tend to be somewhat coolly detached moral comedies. Kim herself, on screen practically throughout, charges the film from start to finish with a magnetic intensity, whether she’s in full-blown soju-fury mode or more introspectively melancholic. The film comes in two parts—Hong often segments his films into self-contained units—and you might even choose to see it as two films (each chapter comes with its own opening credits).
The brilliance of Kim’s performance is that she’s so hard to read throughout, not because she conceals emotion but because her face, rounded and impish, seems to convey so many things at once: in these table-talk scenes, where she’s seen largely in profile, her face can suggest at once tenderness, amusement, and outright contempt, or perhaps all at once. It would be wonderful to see Min play out-and-out comedy, but what she gives here is something much more nuanced and shifting, a portrait of a woman whose energies are constantly mobilized to fight her pain, and constantly restraining herself from going on the attack against everyone around her. It’s often said that people find it hard to distinguish Hong’s films from one another except in their finer details and their individual structural peculiarities, but this one very much stands alone in its melancholic tone, the sense of carrying the weight of emotional bruising.
Shot in moody black and white,The Day Afteropens with book publisher Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) fending off his wife’s heated accusations of infidelity. At the office, it’s the first day for his new assistant, Areum (Kim Min-hee), whose predecessor was Bongwan’s lover. Mistaken identity, repetition compulsion, and déjà vu figure into the narrative, as the film entangles its characters across multiple timelines through an intricate geometry of desire, suspicion, and betrayal.
Herein lies the most intriguing part of Hong’s play with time: the apparent continuity between discontinuous moments and realms.
This continuity comes in part from the deceptive realism of Hong’s film world, which typically consists of creative types in Korea, messy romances, desolate vacations, long meals, circuitous conversations, and emotional outbursts after too much soju. These narratives play out across dreams, memories, and present realities without any shift in tone, texture, or logic.
The result is a world that possesses the unreality of a dream, but without the manifest strangeness of surrealism, only tickling oddities — a random dog, an overzealous window washer, funny coincidences and parallels — in situations that are otherwise perfectly, disarmingly quotidian. Paradoxically, this intensifies the mystery of each scene: Is this past or present? Dream or waking life? Where are we in time and consciousness?
This mystery hovers over The Day After (2017), Hong’s latest film to receive a US theatrical release.
Despite his preference for the long take, Hong’s is not an aesthetic of austerity and contemplation. In fact, his long takes, usually of characters in conversation, feature frequent zooms and pans that dilute the durational effect of an unbroken shot. Unlike slow cinema in the Ozu tradition, then, Hong’s experiment with time is rarely felt in any single shot but rather in thearrangementof shots and scenes. Bordwell refers to this as Hong’s “geometric model” of storytelling — a more rigorous narrative structure than that employed by his Asian contemporaries — which carefully builds a hidden pattern of repetition and symmetry into the story. It’s this geometric storytelling, Bordwell argues, that sets Hong apart from his “Asian minimalist” peers.
But Bordwell perhaps does not go far enough. What sets Hong apart goes beyond narrative structure, and lies more fundamentally in his particular interest in time. Whereas slow cinema foregrounds time’s physical passage, Hong foregrounds its deeply subjective nature. His is not time that flows independently of the human subject, but time as remembered or dreamed, though not necessarily by any particular character. The Day After, for example, does not feature personal flashbacks; nevertheless, it follows a sequential logic that can only emerge in retrospect, when associations form between nonconsecutive moments. This is a kind of time only tenuously connected to the real.
As [Hong] declared in one interview: “The fragments of memory, dream, imagination and fragments of reality are just different in name only, but they all share homogeneity.”
This mysterious homogeneity keeps Hong’s film world forever riveting, no matter how mundane the action.
The story involves an aging poet who somehow senses that he is going to die soon and settles in at the hotel to wait for death. His two sons, one a well-known art-film director with a creative block and the other secretly divorced, come to visit. A young woman who has recently broken up with her married lover is visited by a sympathetic character who may be her sister, cousin, or friend. They encounter the poet by the river, and he compliments them effusively for adding to the beauty of the scene. Conversations about life ensue. The women take naps, the men bicker. Sang-soo’s typical parallels and repetitions unfold. It’s a lovely film.
It’s an impressive film, in part by virtue of its setting. The Hotel Heimat stands beside a river which is covered in ice and snow. Even the further shore with its mountains, is reduced to shades of light gray in the misty, cold light. All of this is enhanced by the black-and-white cinematography that creates a background against which the characters and the small trees create simple, austere compositions.
Sandakan No. 8
At the Walter Reade Theater, from March 18th to the 27th, Film at Lincoln Center presented a retrospective devoted to the great, extremely prolific actress—and one of only a handful of genuine Japanese female motion-picture stars like Hideko Takamine, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyo, Setsuko Hara, and Ayako Wakao—Kinuyo Tanaka, who also directed six features, of some repute, which are all being screened in new digital “restorations”—I look forward to seeing these shown some day in their original format, i.e., 35-millimeter. Of likely much greater interest to serious local cinephiles, however, is the presentation, in 35-millimeter, of six classic films in which the actress only appeared. Remarkably, she collaborated with such notable Japanese directors as, for example, Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Ozu (one of his unused scripts was filmed as The Moon Has Risen in 1955, which was Tanaka’s second work as a director), Heinosuke Gosho, Mikio Naruse, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujirō Shimazu, Keisuke Kinoshita, Daisuke Itō, Hiroshi Inagaki, Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa—he also made a memorable, biographical film about her, Actress, in 1987—Kaneto Shindo, Yasuzo Masumura, and Kei Kumai, among others.
One of her most astonishing performances was in Ozu’s magnificent, profoundly moving A Hen in the Wind from 1948, about a wife and mother who resorts to prostitution to pay for the medical expenses incurred when her young son falls gravely ill. The film is unusual in the director’s œuvre for its melodramatic subject and the concomitant overt physical and emotional violence it depicts but it nonetheless conforms to the rigorous, idiosyncratic, mature style that Ozu pursued with exceptional single-mindedness for decades. A Hen in the Wind is also noteworthy for its relevance to Robin Wood’s powerful argument, in his brilliant essay—in his important book, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond—on what he calls Ozu’s “Noriko Trilogy” of masterpieces—the first film of which, Late Spring, was released the following year—that the director should be read as a feminist critic of the traditional Japanese family rather than as an upholder of that institution—I think the plangent ending of this work might well be read as ultimately affirmative. Tanaka receives excellent support here from several other actors who were associated with Ozu, such as Shuji Sano, Chishu Ryu and Takeshi Sakamoto.
Melodrama, although here in a period story—the setting is the feudal world of 17th century Japan—is a hallmark too of Mizoguchi’s incomparable The Life of Oharu, the sad tale of a lady at court who becomes a courtesan and falls into prostitution, the first in a series of films adapted from classics of Japanese literature—it is loosely based on Sailaku Ihara’s The Life of an Amorous Woman—that the director undertook with the intention of winning international prizes—and indeed he won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival three years in a row. (Mizoguchi, like Shimizu, was Tanaka’s lover and she made fifteen films with him; he subsequently opposed her decision to become a film director.) The bitter feminist critique throughout Mizoguchi’s work—which Wood also championed—and strongly visible in this film—which was co-scripted by his regular collaborator, Yoshikata Yoda—also invites comparison with A Hen in the Wind—Tanaka is here too an icon of victimhood—but the director’s approach to the material—with abundant long takes in depth and many elaborate tracking-shots—is formally very different, although the eminent critic Noël Burch famously contended that both filmmakers were paragons of a distinctively Japanese mode of representation—Roland Barthes defended a similar thesis in his book, Empire of Signs. Tanaka’s performance dominates The Life of Oharu but it is worth highlighting the compelling brief appearances of the Kurosawa regulars, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.
Kei Kumai’s absorbing Sandakan No. 8 from 1974, which he co-scripted, is an even harsher tale of exploitation, female suffering, and degradation, and also a work of feminist, sociopolitical critique, here again with a focus on prostitution—it tells the story of a pretty young journalist that befriends an elderly Japanese woman that was coerced into sex work in British Borneo in the 1910s and 1920s—but the technique here is less refined and more sensationalistic—the use of the zoom lens, for example, is not inexpressive but is nonetheless inelegant, however the film does feature some attractive color photography. Ozu and Mizoguchi, by contrast, despite their significant stylistic divergences, both proceed largely by indirection but Kumai’s more expressionistic approach does have its emotional rewards. Sandakan No. 8 is the least of the movies that Tanaka did not direct in this series but it is a worthwhile one, and Kumai is a filmmaker with an international reputation whose work regrettably is rarely shown. Tanaka won the Best Actress Award at the 25th Berlin International Film Festival for her extraordinarily poignant performance.
More impressive is another seldom screened title, Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke from 1935 by Shimazu, from his own screenplay, an adaptation of a classic novella by Junichiro Tanizaki, A Portrait of Shunkin, which in 1961 was filmed in color by Teinosuke Kinugasa—he is especially known for works like a A Page of Madness and Gate of Hell—and recently effectively staged by Simon McBurney with the Théâtre de Complicité. The film, set during the Meiji era, tells the story of a beautiful blind koto player who inspires an overwhelmingly passionate devotion in her male servant and student. The now underappreciated Shimazu—his films are inordinately difficult to see in 35-millimeter and he directed more than 140—does not emphasize the source’s perverse, masochistic eroticism as McBurney did so memorably, but he does display considerable subtlety and a certain mastery of the main elements of the classical style—although this fine work does not evidence the enthralling formal eloquence of Ozu, Mizoguchi or Naruse—especially composition, editing, and abundant camera movement, but as in many Japanese studio films of the period, here there are many unorthodoxies in technique and scene construction of the kind that impelled Burch’s interesting perspective—indeed a sudden deployment of subjective, handheld camera very late in the film is almost avant-garde in its departure from established norms. Tanaka is again marvelous, here less characteristically cast in an imperious role, although ultimately she too becomes the object of shocking violence.
Several major Japanese filmmakers began their careers as Shimazu’s assistants, including Gosho, Shiro Toyoda, Kozaburo Yoshimura, and the undervalued Kinoshita—the latter was the subject of a terrific Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective in 2012, and he scripted Tanaka’s first work as a director, Love Letter from 1953. His early film, Army, from 1944—like Kinoshita’s others, is not often shown—is the multigenerational story of one family’s relationship to militarism, from the dawn of the Meiji era to the invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s; it demonstrates a similarly accomplished classical mise-en-scène to that of his master, with complex long takes and many compositions in depth, but this admirable work’s genuine originality and most unforgettable episode lies in its amazing, extended, final sequence—in which Tanaka’s character runs toward a procession of marching soldiers to see off her son who is departing for war—its strategic employment of arresting long-shots, use of a highly mobile camera, and intricate montage combine to stunning effect. This scene is also striking for its ambivalence, with Kinoshita’s ineradicable pacifism subverting the propagandistic nature of the story—it ended his career as a director until the close of the war. Tanaka’s inimitable performance is complemented by that of Ryu, who is also striking here.
Naruse’s supremely touching Mother of 1952—Tanaka is just tremendous as the eponymous heroine who struggles to sustain her family and her husband’s laundry business after both his death and her teenage son’s—was for many years the only film by this magisterial director available in the West although it is relatively atypical—despite its domestic tragedies, it lacks the fatalistic pessimism of a work like When a Woman Ascends the Stairs from 1960 and, with its comic elements, it has a lighter tone than any of the other titles under review—although some of the simplicity of his late style is already visible here and indeed there is something mysterious about how the exquisite mise-en-scène produces its unexpected emotional effects. The découpage of Mother is, like most of the other films in this series, broadly in accord with classical norms—Ozu is the director whose film is under review here that is most unorthodox in his approach to constructing a scene—but the narrative structure has affinities with neorealism—it is episodic rather than linear in its momentum, even if there is an exemplary economy in its conception and execution. This work is also notable for a charming early appearance of the handsome Eiji Okada, who later gained international fame for starring in Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais (1959) and Woman of the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigashara (1960).
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