Over Your Dead Body/Kuime (Miike, Japan: 2014)

MIIKE is one of Japan’s most prolific contemporary directors with rarely a misstep in his extensive body of work. In Over Your Dead Body, Miike takes on one of Japan’s most noted ghost stories, that of the betrayed Oiwa, whose spirit won’t rest until her deceitful and murderous husband Iemon pays for his sins. The acts of the  ‘erotic evil character’ (iroaku), who was simultaneously attractive and repulsive, of Kabuki, who thrilled audiences in Japan in the 19th century, gave birth to the most prevalent archetype – that of the wronged woman –  who continues to haunt Japanese horror cinema, the vengeful ghost (onryo) with her long dark hair, white skin and disfigured features.

Miike, as should be no surprise, gives the ghost story of Oiwa a particularly modern twist, by merging together fantasy and reality through focus on the manner in which rehearsals for a production of Yotsuya Kaidan bleed into the ‘real’ lives of the cast. Evoking Todorov’s concept of the fantastic, Over Your Dead Body operates on dual levels merging the psychological with the supernatural. The story of Iemon and Oiwa on the stage is mirrored by the tempestuous relationship between Lousuke (Ebizo Ichikawa) and Miyuke (Ko Shibasaki), with Miyuke’s understudy (Miho Nakanishi) for the part of Oiwa forming the final part of the dangerous triangular structure of the original play (in Yotsuya Kaidan, this role is taken by Ume – the beautiful granddaughter of a wealthy businessman).

Dennis Harvey in Variety (September 5, 2014) dismisses Miike’s film ‘a boring movie’ and ‘ a handsome tedious rather tedious exercise’. Yet for me, Over Your Dead Body is a triumph of slow building tension and the awful visceral horror for which Miike is noted. In this regard, it reminded me of both Miike’s Audition/ Odishon R and Imprint (Masters of Horror, TV: 2006) If the purpose of the original Kabuki play was to depict a decaying socio-political order and the subsequent loss of the spiritual, then Over Your Dead Body draws our attention to the fact that at the centre of history is repetition. Thus the purpose of intertwining rehearsals of the play with the unravelling world of its actors is an essential part of the narrative and not merely an empty formalist gesture as suggested by Harvey.

To say much more would be to say too much, except to suggest that Over Your Dead Body is worth seeking out, not just for Miike’ completionists but for fans of Japanese horror more generally. Evoking the colour palate of Japanese Edo-gothic, Over Your Dead Body is sumptuously horrifying reminding us of that in contemporary Japan, a stagnant economy and corresponding ‘youth bulge’, has lead to social isolation and alienation as marked by the increase in lonely deaths (kodokushi) among the middle aged and elderly population and the withdrawal from society (hikikomori) among the younger generation as well as high suicide rates. If we fail to listen to the past, we are doomed – a salutary lesson that underpins much contemporary Japanese horror cinema with Kurosawa’s recent Creepy/Kuripi Itsuwari no Rinjin  (2016) a case in point.

The DVD can be bought via Amazon although I would recommend pay a little bit more for the Bluray

References

Harvey, D (2014). Toronto Film Review: ‘Over Your Dead Body’, Variety, September 05, 2004, http://variety.com/2014/film/reviews/toronto-film-review-over-your-dead-body-1201299283/ (accessed 18 October 2016).

Shirane, H. (2013). Early modern Japanese literature: an anthology, 1600-1900. Columbia University Press, pp. 456-457.

Todorov, T. (1975). The Fantastic. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP.

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Creepy (KUROSAWA, Japan: 2016)

 

One of my favourite Japanese directors, KUROSAWA Kiyoshi has made one of the most significant contributions to Japanese horror cinema starting with Sweet Home (1989) – which is well worth watching if you can track down a copy – and most recently with Creepy/Kuripi Itsuwari No Rinjin, based upon the novel by Yutaka Maekawa. His 2001 techno-horror Pulse/Kairo is one of the most haunting, evocative explorations of the alienated state of late capitalism: people disappear leaving just burnt ashes in their wake, signifiers of the fragile nature of existence and the processes of personal and historical amnesia. Creepy explores psychological rather than supernatural horror: here the monster – that which disrupts the narrative and needs to be removed in order for order to be restored – could be anyone/is everyone.

Creepy takes place in a seemingly normal neighbourhood where a retired policeman, Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) lives with his wife, Yasuko (Yuko Takechi) after retiring from the police force after a confrontation with a particularly brutal serial killer, changes his world forever. On the surface the neighbourhood seems idyllic, yet the neighbours are less than welcoming and Yasuko is increasingly isolated while Takakura becomes distracted looking into an old case where a family went missing in a neighbourhood similar to theirs, leaving behind their youngest daughter, Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi). Meanwhile the strange neighbour who lives next door, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa) who has a sick wife and teenage daughter, latches onto Yasuko’s loneliness and a strange, creepy relationship develops between them.

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Unlike the phantasmagoric threats of his earlier films, here the threat is other people, particularly those living in close contact. In a sense, this makes Creepy more frightening than his  supernatural horror films. How well do we know our neighbours when the concept of a community has been fractured and fragmented by our modern lifestyles in which technology has become a replacement for connection and personal communication? While Takakura begins to realise that the neighbourhood that the Honda family lived in ‘looks like a crime scene’, he fails to recognise that it is in fact a mirror image of his, and that in fact from a distance the two neighbourhoods including the placement of the houses are exactly the same.  The slow build-up to the eventual dénouement is creepy, as in the title of the film, and as past and present convalesce in a shocking final 30 minutes and a refusal to offer the review a neat resolution: the circularity of time and double structure which brings together different and disparate temporalities* articulates Kurosawa’s mediation of the nature of time, memory and the past which unifies his work, whether ‘horror’ or ‘not’.

 

Creepy, has been, unfairly in my opinion, compared to his other films and seen as lacking as a result. I would argue that Creepy is one of the most accomplished films that Kurosawa has directed: I found it genuinely frightening and horrific and compulsive viewing. I would highly recommend seeing it. Creepy is on at the moment and will have its premiere at the London Film Festival: details available here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff.

Full Screening Dates in the UK are as below and are reproduced from Eureka’s website:

London, Haymarket Cinema (2016 LFF – UK Premiere), 8 October 2016  Book Now

London, Vue West End Cinema (2016 LFF Screening), 9 October 2016  Book Now

Nottingham, Broadway (Mayhem Film Festival), 16 October 2016  Book Now

Sheffield, Showroom (Celluloid Screams), 22 October 2016 Book Now

London, Curzon Soho (2016 London East Asia Film Festival), 23 October 2016

(more to be announced… )

 

*See Lim, Bliss Cua. Translating time: Cinema, the fantastic, and temporal critique. Duke University Press, 2009.

 

 


Train to Busan

As a specialist – or so I like to think – in horror cinema, I have seen many zombie films ranging from the good, bad to the mildly indifferent. And just when I thought there the zombie genre was near exhaustion along comes Train to Busan with its hordes of ferocious zombies terrorising the passengers on a high-speed train whose destination is, of course, Busan. Known for his anime films and their insightful critical commentaries on socio-economics conditions in contemporary South Korea – The King of Pigs/Dwaejiui Wang (2011) and The Fake/Saibi (2013) which took on the consequences of bullying within the stratified structures of South Korea’s High School system and its impact on adulthood and religious fanaticism respectively, it is no surprise that Director YEON imbues his first live-action film with social critique utilizing the figure of the zombie as a metaphor for class disparities in late-capitalist South Korea where the gap between the uber-rich and the poor has never been more divisive.

The zombie is not an indigenous monster and the recent spate of zombie films from East Asia could be seen as an example of the globalization of horror cinema mirroring the contemporary Western obsession with zombies especially on the small screen e.g. The Walking Dead (AMC: 2010-) and iZombie (CW: 2015 – ) . With films such as Zombie 108/Z-108 qi cheng (Joe CHEIN, Taiwan: 2012),  Yakuza Apocalypse/Gokudo Daisenso (MIIKE Takeshi, Japan: 2015) and I am a Hero/Ai Amu a Hiro (SATO Shinzuke, Japan: 2016), the archetypical long-haired ghost with her creaking joints, strange vocal range and fractured body seems to have been displaced by the zombie, the living dead of Marxist thought, spectres born from neo-liberalist geopolitics – linked to the rise of corporate capitalism and the corresponding alienation brought about by the illusory freedom of consumption necessitated by the economics of the free market.

Image result for train to busan

The slow-moving, crippled, zombies of early zombie films are no longer figures of fear, instead we have fast-moving, communities of the living dead – 28 Days Later (Danny BOYLE, UK: 2002) and World War Z (Marc FORSTER, US: 2013) who are gradually becoming conscious, as envisaged by George ROMERO in his fourth instalment of the Night of the Living Dead series, Land of the Dead (US: 2005). In Train to Busan, the zombies are by-products of a leak at nuclear plant and while fast-moving, they lack the type of consciousness to repeat basic human actions which means that ultimately humans will triumph as consciousness will always prevail over pure instinct.  Despite the hordes of zombies who infect those they come across with impunity, Train to Busan’s success lies not so much with the set-pieces – as extraordinary as they are, but with the resilience of human spirit brought into focus by the presence of death. As in BONG Joon-ho’s The Host/Gwoemul (2006), the re-establishing of familial bonds – specifically those between a father and his daughter – is central not just to the narrative trajectory but to the film’s global success.

Image result for train to busan

The father here is Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and the daughter, Soo-an (KIM Soo-ahn). Seok-woo is a busy fund manager who is separated from his wife and although she lives with him, he spends little father to daughter time with Soo-an. However, he begrudgingly concedes to Soo-an’s birthday wish to visit her mother in Busan. Once on the train, Seok-woo must fight to the death to keep his daughter safe. And it is through the reconnection of father and daughter and Seok-woo’s realisation that the world of corporate capitalism to which he belongs is responsible for corrupting the fragile human relations between people, pitting rich against poor, young against old, able-bodied against disabled as embodied by the zombie threat that the film’s success lies. The desire to preserve one’s life at the expense of others is and ignore the suffering of others are essential components of late capitalism which operates through the alienation of man from his labour, and construction of a sphere of pure consumption which offers respite from the psychological warfare of capitalism. The Train to Busan offers the viewer a glimpse into contemporary socio-economic conditions in South Korea – which mimics those in the West – and argues for the importance of connections between people as the only possible response to these spaces of dissolution and destruction, private, public and environmental.

Train to Busan merges our expectations of the contemporary zombie film with action-packed scenes of zombie hordes mercilessly creating havoc and destruction both on and off the train with the family-centred [melo]drama which connects us to the film emotionally as well as viscerally. It is a film that needs – or perhaps more appropriately – demands to be seen on the big screen. It is nothing but spectacular. But it is the human heart of the film brought into relief by the hordes of zombies that makes us stay.

As a preview to the London Korean Film Festival 2016, Train to Busan is showing on 6th October at 7pm at Picturehouse Central. For tickets visit: https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/Picturehouse_Central/Whats_On

The animated prequel, Seoul Station/Seoulyeok, is showing at LKFF2016. Details available: http://koreanfilm.co.uk/

 

 

 

 


LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL 2016

 

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I can’t quite believe that The London Korean Festival is now in its eleventh year. I remember attending the Festival five or six years ago when attendance wasn’t great and there wasn’t a great deal of buzz around it. These days, however, it is one of the foremost film festivals in London, and something I look forward to with great anticipation.

The programme has been carefully programmed and curated to offer viewers a wide range of films and creative, experimental work from South Korea. There is something in the festival to please everyone: from the casual filmgoer, to the cinephile and the lover of big-budget action films. For me, what is especially exciting is the focus on woman directors with eleven films ranging from The Widow, the first and sadly only film, from PARK Nam-ok, to BYUN Young-joo’s Helpless – the director best known for her wonderful and heart-breaking trilogy of documentaries on the comfort women – The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997) and My Own Breathing (1999), and JEONG Jae-eun’s coming-of-age film Take Care of my Cat (2001). In a move rarely seen in film festivals, the London Korean Film Festival’s Opening Gala is a film directed by a woman. LEE Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath is a psychological thriller about the desperate search for the missing daughter of a political who is running for the National Assembly. Having previously worked as writer and assistant director on PARK Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance (the final film in what is now known as the Vengeance Trilogy 2002-2005), LEE’s second film – her first Crush and Blush (2008) is also showing – promises much.

The other films in Special Focus: The Lives of Korean Women through the Eyes of Women Directors are:

Paju (PARK Chan-ok: 2009)

Forever the Moment (YIM Soon-rye)

Cart (BOO Ji-young: 2014)

Our Love Story (LEE Hyun-ju: 2015)

The Way Home (LEE Jeong-hyang: 2003)

The second strand is called Hits from 2015-2016. I think we can all agree that 2015-2016 has been a record-breaking year for South Korean especially on a global stage with Train to Busan (YEON Sang-ho: 2016) breaking box-office records around the world for a foreign film and a fan favourite with audiences at the recent FrightFest (Shepherds Bush, August 25-29). Great things have been written about The Wailing, NA Hong-jin’s follow-up to his breath-taking thriller, The Yellow Sea (2010) which had its UK premiere at The 60th London Film Festival. Luckily for those that missed it, there is a teaser screening on 06 October 7:00pm at Picturehouse Central.

Having managed to see it myself, I recommend that you don’t sit around and wait for the DVD release but see it on the big screen. It is a hybrid of World War Z (Marc Forster, US: 2013), 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, UK: 2002) but with a particularly South Korean flavour. The zombies are way too quick and there are far too many of them, I would rather run into the shambling zombies of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (US: 1978). The Train to Busan is a high octane zombie film with a touch of melodrama that keeps you riveted to the seat throughout. Luckily the animated prequel, Seoul Station (2016) is showing in this strand.

 

The other films in this strand are:

Dong-Ju: The Portrait of a Poet (LEE Joon-ik: 2015)

Fourth Place (JUNG Ji-woo: 2015)

A Violent Prosecutor (LEE Il-hyung: 2015)

Inside Man (WOO Min-ho: 2015)

The Phantom Detective (JO Sang-ho: 2016)

The Hunt (LEE Woo-chul: 2016)

Asura: The City of Madness (KIM Seong-soo: 2016)

One Way Trip (CHOI Jeong-yeol: 2015).

The third strand is Indie Firepower, programmed by Tony Rayns. Traditionally independent films have struggled in South Korea, due to the lack of funding and once completed, exhibition sites. As such it is nice to see an independent movement growing and represented here. Two of the films are by a young director, PARK Hong-min. His first feature A Fish (2011), was shot in 3D, and is the manner in which he did so, makes A Fish one not to miss.

His second film, Alone (2015), is also showing in this strand. The other films are:

Jesus Hospital (SHIN A-ga: 2011)

Soju and Icecream (LEE Kwang-kuk: 2016)

A Mere Life (PARK Sang-hun: 2013)

Miss Ex (JEONG Ga-young: 2016).

Classic Revisited: LEE Jang-Ho Retrospective is the fourth strand and is programmed by Mark Morris, Oxford University. LEE Jang-ho was one of the most important directors of the Korean New Wave and influential in changing the shape of South Korean cinema indelibly. The films showing in this strand are:

The Man With Three Coffins (1988)

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EON Wu-dong (1985)

Good Windy Days (1980).

This is a great chance to  these influential films the way they were meant to be seen – on the big screen and to get an sense of the strong history of South Korean cinema.

The fifth section is Animation and consists of just two films:

Kai (LEE Sung-gang: 2016)

The Tayo Movie Mission: Ace (RYU Jung-oo)

 

Documentary forms the sixth strand and is a genre that South Korea has a long and proud tradition in. The films showing are:

Cinema on the Road (JANG Sun-woo)

My Korean Cinema: Episode 1-8 (KIM Hong-joon)

Wind on the Moon (YI Seung-jun: 2016)

Factory Complex (IM Heung-soon: 2015)

Breathing Underwater(KO Hee-young)

The last section is Mise-en-Scene Shorts which previews the work of up and coming directors. Showing are:

Summer Night (LEE Ji-won: 2016)

Love Complex (OH Seong-ho: 2015)

You Should Know That (HAN Ji-su: 2015)

Deer Flower (KIM Kang-min: 2015)

Bargain (LEE Chung-hyun: 2015)

Nae-ap (KIM In-geun: 2015)

Birds Fly Back to the Nest (JEONG Seung-o: 2016)

Keep Coming (KIM Geon: 2015).

There is also a showing of Artist Videos, with Lux and Ricardo Matos Cabo which focusses on work by CHO Seoung-ho and YOON Soa Sung-a.

The festival concludes with Yourself and Yours by HONG Sang-soo, one of South Korea’s most internationally renowned directors. A fitting end to what is an awesome programme.

Further details:

Official website: http://koreanfilm.co.uk/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theLKFF

Twitter: @koreanfilmfest

Special thanks to The Korean Cultural Centre for all their help and support over the years.

 

 

 


The 1st London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF) 20th – 30th October 2016

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The London East Asian Film Festival, organised by Hye-jung Jeon, is an annual film festival which brings together the best of East Asian film, including both mainstream and independent cinema. Her vision is to bring together Asian films that will help audiences understand the diversity and richness of East Asian cinemas and cultures. This festival plays a vital part in de-orientalising ‘Asia’ and ‘East Asia’ by making visible local connections, cultural specifity and global flows between East Asia and the West. This is perhaps best epitomised by Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden which is based on Sarah Watter’s bestselling historical thriller, Fingersmith (2002).

The festival is divided into five carefully curated and programmed strands: Official Selection; Competition, Retrospective, Stories of Women, and Film Festival Focus. In the Official strand is a film by one of my favourite Japanese directors, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Creepy, which has been creeping out audiences on its way to us in London. To say that I am excited is an understatement, especially as Kurosawa will be in attendance at the festival and doing a Q&A after the screening of the film.

It is a film that NEEDS to be seen on the big screen and is a chance to get to know one of Japan’s foremost directors whose 2008 film Tokyo Sonata won Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The opening film is The Age of Shadows by KIM Jee-woon who will also be present at the screening. KIM Jee-woon operates with precision with a saturated cinematic palate that affects viewers on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

Of special importance is the screening of Spirit’s Homecoming about the Comfort Women which will be followed by a Q&A in association with PAWA.

The fact that this film was crowd-funded testifies to its importance and is another film that should not be missed in my opinion. The Comfort Women are women, used as sexual slaves during the Japanese Occupation of Korea, who were subjected to harrowing ordeals at the hands of soldiers. Their stories are captured in the documentary series, made up of The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997) and finally My Own Breathing (1999), directed by Byun Young-joo. This fictional addition to the stories of these women, whose voices had been silenced and whose voices will be silent when the last comfort woman dies, forms a part of the representation / restoration of history that should never be forgotten.

Another special mention goes to the screening of Beautiful 2016, an omnibus film, with shorts by JIA Zhangke (China), Stanley KWAN (Hong Kong), Alec Su (Taiwan) and NAKATA Hideo (Japan & another of my favourite directors), co-produced by the Hong Kong International and Film Festival Society (HKIFFS) and Heyi Picture, encompasses the philosophy behind the inception of LEAFF. The ‘Beautiful’ film series has been running since 2012 and boasts shorts by KUROSAWA Kiyoshi, TSAI Ming-liang, Christopher DOYLE, HUANG Jianxin and many others.

The Retrospective section of the Festival is devoted to PARK Chan-wook, who rose to fame in the West with the second film in his Vengeance Trilogy, OldBoy (2003) and has been making audiences laugh, scream and even cry ever since. His 2009 vampire film, Thirst, is a cinematic tour-de-force, while his 2006 fantasy drama, I’m A Cyborg: But That’s OK is one of the most lyrical and beautiful films produced in contemporary times. I recommend catching the later, as it is one of those films that doesn’t get as much critical or cultural appreciation as his others.

The Full Programme is:

Thursday 20th October

19:30 – AGE OF SHADOWS (ODEON Leicester Sq, sc1) | Q&A | Official Selection

Friday 21st October
18:30 – THE HANDMAIDEN (Picturehouse Central, sc1) | Q&A | PCW Retrospective

Saturday 22nd October
10:00 – GREAT PATRIOTEERS (ICA Cinema, sc1) | Film Festival Focus
13:30 – BAFTA talk w/ PCW & NIGHT FISHING (BFI, sc1) | Q&A | PCW Retrospective
15:30 – GOSANJA (Curzon Soho, sc1) | Q&A | Official Selection
18:00 – SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE, OLD BOY, LADY VENGEANCE (Picturehouse Central, sc2) | INTRO | PCW Retrospective

Sunday 23rd October
10:00 – CURTAIN CALL (ICA Cinema, sc1) | Film Festival Focus
15:30 – TUNNEL (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Q&A | Official Selection
18:00 – GOODBYE SINGLE (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Q&A | Official Selection
20:30 – CREEPY (Curzon Soho, sc1) | Q&A | Official Selection

Monday 24th October
14:00 – NFTS seminar w/ PCW | PCW Retrospective
18:30 – BEAUTIFUL 2016 (Curzon Soho, sc1) | Official Selection
20:30 – HARMONIUM (Curzon Soho, sc3) | UK PREM | Official Selection

Tuesday 25th October
18:30 – A YELLOW BIRD (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Q&A | Competition
20:30 – MIDNIGHT DINER (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Q&A | Special Spotlight

Wednesday 26th October
18:30 – THE WORLD OF US (Regent Street Cinema) | Q&A | Competition | Stories of Women
18:30 – STOKER + DAY TRIP (Hackney Picturehouse, sc3) | PCW Retrospective
20:30 – BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK (Regent Street Cinema) | Stories of Women

Thursday 27th October
18:30 – HEE (Regent Street Cinema) | Q&A | Stories of Women
20:30 – SPIRIT’S HOMECOMING (Regent Street Cinema) | Q&A in association with PAWA | Stories of Women

Friday 28th October
15:30 – KARAOKE CRAZIES (Curzon Soho, sc1/3) | Q&A | Competition
18:30 – JOINT SECURITY AREA (Ritzy Picturehouse, sc2) | PCW Retrospective

Saturday 29th October
10:00 – BREATHING UNDERWATER (ICA Cinema, sc1) | Film Festival Focus
15:00 – NESSUN DORMA (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Offical Selection
15:30 – SPIRIT’S HOMECOMING (Sheffield Showroom) | Q&A | Stories of Women
18:30 – THIRST + JUDGEMENT (Ritzy Picturehouse, sc2) | PCW Retrospective

Sunday 30th October
10:00 – THE LAUNDRYMAN (ICA Cinema, sc1) | Competition
13:00 – PEKAK (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Offical Selection
15:30 – BANGKOK NITES (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Official Selection
18:30 – I’M A CYBORG + BITTER SWEET SEOUL (Hackney Picturehouse, sc3) | PCW Retrospective
19:00 – THREE (Ham Yard Hotel) | Q&A | Official Selection

*Subject to change (venues, times)

For up-to-date information, please visit the official Facebook site:http://www.leaff.org.uk/

Web Page:

On Twitter: @LEAFilmFest

You will find me on twitter, talking all things East Asian especially with relation to horror cinema and videogames, although I have been known to ramble about K-Pop and K-drama @ColetteBalmain

Mark your diaries and book your tickets. I hope to see some of you there.


Tokyo Tribe (Sono, 2014)

 

Sono is one of the most prolific Japanese directors, although not up to the standards of Miike who manages more than one film a year without a noticeable drop in quality. Ever since Suicide Club/Jisatsu Saakuru (2001) and Exte/Ekusute (2007), I have been a big fan of his work. Suicide Club has perhaps the best opening sequence in horror.

Unfortunately, I found the overt misogyny of  his 2010 film Cold Fish/Tsumetai Nettaigyo (2010) very hard to come to terms with. Humour, black or not, around rape is highly problematic. I didn’t feel that I could watch it again, and therefore never wrote a review as films need repeated viewing in order to write a proper review – at least for me it is the case. I suspect that part of my problem with it was culturally located as rape itself, is unfortunately, a common component of Japanese cinema. Since then, I have avoided Sono’s films but the trailer of Tokyo Tribes was interesting and I felt that perhaps I had been too hard on Sono. After all missteps are common in any field of the arts and most great directors have one or more turkeys in their back catalogue.

So back to Tokyo Tribe, a film that sets out – consciously  or unconsciously – to offend women and members of the LGBTQIA community in the first 10 minutes. The overall concept is great. A hip-hop musical about competing tribes in a dystopic Tokyo, who eventually come together in peace against a common enemy, is both inventive and innovative. Tokyo Tribe is based on the best-selling manga by Santa Inoue (1987-2005) which was published in Boon, a street fashion magazine which is now published by Shodensha, and feels like a throwback to the mid to late 1980s. The fact that Sono choose to introduce the tribes to the audience by having Mera – the boss of Bukuro Wu-Ronz – trace the geography of the different tribes over the half-naked body of a policewoman (who tries to arrest him on her first day on the job) alerts us to the insistent discourses of male voyeurism and fetishism than run throughout the film. The fact that the female tribe members, are either prostitutes, or dressed up like 2000s Missy Elliot and coded in non-normative terms,  is highly problematic. In addition, the schoolgirl heroine, Erika, who has some kick ass moves – we are told that she comes from Wong Kong (Hong Kong) – is often freeze framed or in slow motion as the camera pans in up skirt to linger on her white underwear is even more troubling.

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Not another panty shot please!

While as other critics have argued, Tokyo Tribe like other Sono films, embeds a social critique of Japanese society, politics and patriarchy, it seems to me that the film simultaneously constructs figures of female empowerment and strips them off that empowerment by overt sexualisation through the use of  terms ‘cultural scopophilia’. I use the term ‘cultural scopophilia’ here to foreground the othering of cultural and ethnic difference in Tokyo Tribe through the visual lexicon of fashion as signifier of Otherness. Erika’s innocence – or sexualized innocence as connoted by her schoolgirl uniform at the beginning – is the opposite to the hyper-sexuality and non-normative sexuality of the Kabukico Gira Gira girls. In addition, while the Mushashino tribe might be all about love and peace, there are limits to this love and peace – as the transcribed lyrics go “No homos, we ain’t Kissing Dudes”. While homophobia, unfortunately, remains at the heart of contemporary hip-hop and rap, Sono did not have to replicate and foreground this homophobia.

Nkoi gets his ‘freak on’

Further the son of the film’s bloated baddy, Lord Buppa (Riki Takechi), Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) keeps slaves that they don’t eat for dinner and pleasure, as his personal puppets cocooned in an ivory room in which his harem have to position themselves as furniture or perform for him in order not to incur his wrath. Once again, suppressed homosexuality is coded as inherently deviant and monstrous, in its opposition to dominant heterosexuality which is capable of ‘peace and love’ but not, as I pointed out previously, to all.

There is much to be enjoyed in its visual excesses and poetic raps, it is just necessary to be aware of what problems such excesses may mask. Excess is not necesssarily subversive. Here excess functions as licenced rather than unlienced carnival, the former  of which props up the dominant ideology by allowing space for subversion and by controlling that space. While I always enjoy Sono’s visual mastery, I was uncomfortable with the gender and sexual politics on display here. As much as it could be claimed that Sono is critiquing such politics, in the end he reinforces such politics at the level of image and sound. In repeating the visual and aural legacy of hip-hop which is predicated on the oppression of women and non-normative sexualities, the message of ‘love and peace’ rings rather hollow.

 

 


PAINTED SKIN (HUA PI: GORDAN CHAN: 2008)

As part of my research for my forthcoming book on East Asian Gothic Cinema, I have been watching as many mainland Chinese films as I can. Of these, Painted Skin is one of my favourites. Directed by the prolific Gordon Chan, Painted Skin is based upon a short story by Pu Songling in Strange Tales from A Chinese Studio about a beautiful sixteen year old woman who turns out to be a monstrous demon, whose abject interior is concealed through the use of a carefully painted human pelt.

In Chan’s film, the supernatural elements are downplayed as the dominant communist ideology of China allows no space for what are seen to be archaic beliefs at odds with a secular society. By replacing the monstrosity of the original folktale with a melodramatic love story between a human and a fox spirit, known as Huli Jing in China, Painted Skin domesticates the monstrous other and in the process foregrounds filial loyalty and patriarchal values around appropriate femininity.

In the film, Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun) – a fox spirit – who keeps her beauty and youth through a diet of human hearts, is taken into the household of General Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) and becomes obsessed with him, desiring to take the place of his much-loved wife in both his bed and his household. However as in the original story, her disguise is discovered and she is cast out from the household. But rather than being killed and trapped by the forces of good, she sacrifices herself in the name of true love in order to bring both Wang and his wife, Peirong (Zhao Wei/Vicky Zhao) back to life.

Like many Chinese films, the narrative is considerably more complex than this short synopsis suggests. There is an inexperienced demon hunter, Xia Bing (Betty Sun), who joins forces with Pang Yong (the ever present Donnie Yen), an ex-general in Wang’s army who is in love with Peirong, to vanquish Xiao Wei. In addition, there is Xiao Wei’s chameleon companion, Xiaoyi (Qi Yuwu), who serves his mistress by bringing her hearts and tries to prevent her sacrificing her humanity for Wang.

Despite the presence of Donnie Yen, Painted Skin is not a typical martial arts fantasy with fight scenes few and far between. Rather it focuses in on female subjects, who attempt to escape from predefined, constraining stereotypes of womanhood through agency and activity. However such agency and activity is limited, and in the end both Peirong and Xiao Wei must conform to the age old archetype of the self-sacrificing woman: an archetype which is not limited to East Asian cinema but can also be found in Western cinema. Yet, it is the performances of Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun that make Painted Skin so compelling and an engrossing watch. As anti-feminist as the ending might at first glance seem to be, the image of Xiao Wei confined to eternal life in her original form as a white fox lingers in the memory encapsulating her inability to be truly human suggests the difference between the demonic and the human is not so clearly defined as in the day when the original story was written. Further, beauty, we are told, is only skin deep. A necessary reminder in an age of selfies which promotes unrealistic images of beauty and plastic surgery which offers us the tools to become as unrealistic as those images that we are perpetually bombarded with.

 

Notes

The best translation of Strange Stories of a Chinese Studio, is in my opinion, the Penguin Classics version, which is translated by John Minford (2008).

East Asian Culture has many variations on the fox spirit, including the Japanese Kitsune and the Korean, Gumiho.

This review is subject to copyright. I am happy for it to be shared but please do not cite without permission from me as portions of this will appear in my forthcoming book.


12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 (OH Inchun: 2015)

 

 

BiFan 2015 Review: 12 DEEP RED NIGHTS: CHAPTER 1, A Competent But Unremarkable Practice Run

English Language Trailer

Director OH’s 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter I might not be particularly original, especially in terms of South Korean horror, but it is effective. A low-budget take on the vengeful ghost narrative, OH manages to create a suspenseful and interesting tale of office politics, spurned love, suicide, and alienation. The omnibus structure – 12 Deep Red Nights is composed of four short films – works well here producing short, sharp spurts of horror in which horror is mainly generated through the operation of the fantastic (cf. Todorov): the fantastic is that which is generated through uncertainty – in which explanations for events can either be supernatural or psychological without the narrative foreclosing on one or the other.

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Searching for Sound in ‘atmosFEAR’

The four short films in order are ‘Driver’; 11:55PM; ‘atmosFEAR’ and ‘The Secret Night’. In the first, a taxi driver, In-sik, is made an offer he can’t refuse, but should have refused, by his mysterious, beautiful female passenger. The second short revolves around a translator, Young-ran, who is finishing up work for the night when her doorbell rings persistently at 11:55pm: should she answer the door or not? The third, my personal favourite, concerns an audio sound engineer who in attempting to capture ambient sound at night, records something quite different and much more menacing. The final film, takes on the office politics as a young female employee who is suffering from financial problems returns to the office at night only to run into her unpleasant superior with deadly consequences.


Office Politics in ‘The Secret Night’

For a low-budget independent film, 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 is effective enough, playing on fears of the alienation that lies at the heart of modern South Korea as a result of the economic miracle which has created an ever increasing gap between the super-rich and the working classes. By placing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, OH taps into contemporary socio-cultural anxieties around the isolating nature of late-capitalism. Purportedly the first in three anthologies, 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1, is sandwiched between OH’s mainstream commercial features, Mourning Grave (Sonyeogoedam: 2014) and Chasing (Jabaya Sanda: 2016). There is enough here to create anticipation for the next two instalments if OH’s success allows his time to complete them.

Notes

See my review of Mourning Grave (OH In-chun: 2014)

OH’s short Metamorphosis is well worth seeking out. My review: Metamorphoses (변신이야기, OH In-chun, 2011)

Tzvetan Todorov  distinguishes between the fantastic, the marvellous and the uncanny in his book, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1975). The fantastic is defined in terms of uncertainty, ‘The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event’ (Todorov 1975: 25). In opposition to this, the uncanny is rooted in the psychological, while the marvellous in the supernatural.

 

Please note that the images are courtesy of HanCinema: http://www.hancinema.net/hancinema-s-film-review-12-deep-red-nights-chapter-1-84776.html (accessed 8th July 2016).


Mourning Grave (OH In-chun: 2014)

A high-school boy, In-su (Kang Ha-neul) returns to his hometown in order to face up to, both literally and metaphorically, ghosts from the past. Like his Uncle, with whom he is staying, In-su has the ability to see and speak to [female] ghosts who have suffered violent and untimely deaths. Returning to his school, In-su discovers that someone is violently murdering his classmates. As he attempts to unravel the trauma in the past that has resulted in the present vengeance, In-su is accompanied by a unnamed girl ghost (hence the alternative title: Girl Ghost Story) whose presence is unexplained. Just who is responsible for the deaths, and what was the original trauma that led to such dreadful and bloody vengeance.

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Mourning Grave is a welcome addition to one of my favourite Korean horror genres, High School Horror, and Director OH manages not to merely recycle the old but to breathe new life into the genre. Traditionally High School Horror of the vengeful ghost variety, is female-centric, and male characters are either non-existent or marginal to the plot. Mourning Grave breaks with this tradition, with its empathetic male protagonist In-su who seeks to right the wrongs of the past. The relationship between In-su and his constant female ghost companion (Kim So-eun) is nicely realised and the relationship has an authenticity to it which is aided by excellent performances by the two leads, Kang Ha-neul and Kim So-eun. In-su’s Uncle, Kim Jeong-tae (Seon-il), who is trying not to speak or appease ghosts, is also haunted by a female ghost, who despite his attempts to ignore her and banish her, refuses to leave.

mourningwomen

Other critics (including Pierce Conran) have pointed out that the trend in Korean horror these days is towards hybridity. Mourning Grave demonstrates this hybridity in multiple ways. Firstly, through the character of Seon-il, who as Shaman priest (Mu) and Exorcist is the centre of a number of comedic interludes, and seems to have been imported in from classic Hong Kong Horror Cinema and secondly through multiple intertextual references (as with Seon-il) to other horror cinemas and specific films, including Carrie (Brian de Palma, US: 1976) (in particular the prom scene), and Carved: A Slit Mouthed Woman (Koji Shiraishi, Japan: 2007) – the visual iconography of the ghost is obviously a direct reference to the Japanese urban myth on which the film is based. The concept of the ghost fracturing into a number of different characters as a result of the trauma of her death was an interesting one, and added another layer of mystery to the central narrative enigma in a similar way to  A Tale of Two Sisters without giving the plot away.

 

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This is not to suggest that Mourning Grave isn’t scary or that it doesn’t have the sort of socio-political commentary around bullying that is associated with High School Horror. The bullying that lead to the death of the vengeful female ghost is horrific when it is eventually revealed, as is the reluctance of teachers and other students who are not directly involved in the bullying to intercede. Here, as elsewhere, after all according “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” (a quotation often attributed to Edmund Burke, but who never said these exact words). Those who look away are situated here as equally culpable as those who actually perpetrate the violence against those weaker than them.

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Mourning Grave harkens back to the early days of Korean horror cinema, when well-made genre films were all the rage, and first time directors produced films that were both narratively and technically proficient and resonated with young and older audiences alike, with prospective actresses queuing up to be considered for roles in the films. With his feature film debut, Director OH shows technical expertise, an ability to not to over-complicate the cinematographic frame, and a distinctive aesthetic style in addition to generating excellent performances from his cast. OK Clarice Eunhae’s score never overwhelms the image, instead it adds to the underlying melancholic sensibility that imbues this ghost story and coming of age story.  Director OH’s feature film debut, like his short films, is engaging and extremely well-directed and I look forward to his next film with a great deal of anticipation.

Overall, this is a film for fans of Korean horror cinema, and in particular High School Horror, which hearkens back to the age of the well-made genre film while at the same time, being innovative and original.  I really hope that Mourning Grave will do well at the domestic Box Office, and demonstrate to producers and directors in South Korea that horror film remains a lucrative investment – after all horror is perhaps the one genre that travels across national and international borders the easiest. I find myself wondering about a US remake, but really do not think it would work.  While the film has transnational elements, seen in the intertextual and visual references to both Eastern and Western horror, it still has a specifity which marks it out as Korean without Director OH pandering to the exoticism and orientalism that underpin the West’s desire for a traditional, nostalgic and markedly Korean products that confirms stereotypes around Confucian values and irreducible alterity.

 

And finally, what is not to like about a film that opens with a subway ghost!

subway

 


Hope (Lee Joon-ik, South Korea: 2013)

 

A young girl, So-won (Lee Re) is walking to school one day, but instead of being accompanied by her friend as usual, she is on her own. Even though the school is a short distance from her home, she is abducted by a remorseless paedophile and rapist Choi Jong sool (Gang Seong-hae) who brutally assaults her and leaves her for dead. Found, So-won is taken to hospital where she undergoes emergency surgery to try and repair the damage done to her during the merciless attack. As a result So-won is left with major physical and psychological scars and the film charts the slow and painful process of healing of not only So-won but her parents and the wider community. Can Hope/hope persist despite trauma?

Hope  is Director LEE’s 9th feature, and a welcome return to cinema for a director who not long ago was contemplating leaving the industry partly as a result of the failure of his engaging 2011 film, Battlefield Heroes, which I personally enjoyed. Hope is Director LEE at his best, dealing deftly with difficult issues in a quiet but heart rendering manner. I met Director LEE in 2012, and he was one of the nicest people, and funniest, that I have ever met. Yet, watching Hope is a devastating experience, seemingly at odds with the Director’s sunny personality. However, the social critique in Hope is a common theme in his films, as is the finely tuned understanding of relationships, particularly here in relation to the family.

 

While typically such a film would deal with the search and capture and then suitable punishment by the law or outside the law by family members, Hope is more concerned with So-won’s battle back to health, overcoming both her physical and psychological traumas. Signs of the attack are etched through the scars on her face and the ileostomy that she has to wear as in order to live, the surgeons are forced to remove her colon and divert waste into a bag that is attached to a stoma (the small bowel brought out through the stomach). So-won’s devastated parents, Dong-hoon (Sol Kyung-gu) and Mi-hee (Uhm Ji-won), grapple to come to terms with their daughter’s injury and their guilt over her attack. Her father, Dong-hoon struggles to eke out a meagre living at the metalworking factory where he works, while her mother Mi-hee who runs their small grocery store, aptly enough named after their daughter, ‘Wish’s Variety’, is coming to terms with being pregnant with their second child. As working parents, Mi-hee and Dong-hoon are constantly struggling to have enough time together as a family with Dong-hoon so tired at the end of his working day that he leaves the parenting to the equally tired Mi-hee. On the day of the attack, Dong-hoon is called into work early while Mi-hee is opening up the shop, meaning that So-won ends up walking to school on her own. The attack itself is left to the viewer’s imagination; instead shots of the broken and bloody body of So-won in the aftermath of the attack communicate the horrific nature of the assault just as the shots of a broken kite and a rolling bottle of alcohol before the attack signal the horrific nature of what is to come.

hopepicture

 

Based upon a shocking true event in which a young girl was brutally assaulted and her attacker sentenced to a derisory 12 years by the Court, Director LEE’s film was criticised by some in South Korea for shining a spotlight on the unpalatable existence of child assault and stranger abuse, and in addition for subjecting the family of the original attack to increased media attention. Statistics reported by Bae Hyung-jung in an article originally published in The Korean Herald (03/03/2010), are stark: of ‘5,948 suspects who were investigated on charges of sexual abuse from January 2007 to July of this year, 2501 … were not prosecuted, according to Justice Ministry data. Even among those who were prosecuted, only 0.4 percent were handed down a life sentence and more than 42 percent were fined and 30.5 percent received a suspended term, according to the Health Ministry data.’ It needs to be noted that in the UK, while those who do get convicted get substantially longer sentences there is a history of the non-prosecution and high level cover up of sexual abusers, as highlighted by the Jimmy Saville case. And then there is the all too frequent rape of young girls in India about which little is done. These two current examples (and there are many more sadly)demonstrate that Hope’s message has a much wider application than just related to incidents in South Korea and the particular horrific assault on which the film is loosely based. And in addition to contemporary human rights issues, Hope is one of the few films to represent disability in a direct manner, without being melodramatic in the process. Although in the US alone over 100,000 people a year have surgery for a permanent or temporary ostomy, it remains a taboo topic and relegated to representation in film as the object of revulsion or ridicule. It is refreshing therefore to see how So-won and her parents learn to deal with So-won’s ‘new normal’ (a term widely used in the ostomy community): the embarrassment of the bag leaking while she is in hospital, the rustling of the bag against the skin (and Dong-joon’s ingenious solution to it), her desire to be treated normally and her gradual coming to terms with such a radical change in her bodily integrity.

hope2

Together with this refreshing approach to disability and highlighting human rights abuses (and it needs to be noted that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by those known to the child: either other family members or people in authority that they have contact with), Director LEE displays his usual sensitivity and understanding of relationships and how relationships can be broken and then reformed, perhaps encapsulated most fully by the relationship between So-won and Dong-hoon which is pivotal to the emotional resonance of the film. Terrified by men after her attack, So-won retreats into herself and refuses to allow her father to help her. In order to bridge this gap, Dong-hoon dresses up as one of her favourite TV characters, Kokomong, visiting her in hospital and then accompanying her to and from school. While this allows for much needed moments of light relief, I found the relationship between the two to be authentic touching a reality that many directors never get close to. Indeed, it is the subtle and moving performances by Lee Re, Sol Kyung-gu and Uhm Ji-won that together with Director LEE’s subtle and nuanced filmmaking make Hope such an extraordinary cinematic tour-de-force. It is no surprise that the film won the award for the best film at Dragon Film Awards, or that all three of the main actors were recognised for their performances in 2013.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a film about retribution and punishment, then this isn’t the right film, however if you are looking for a film about recovery, redemption and hope, then here it is. Tackling a difficult subject with a great deal of sensitively, this is one of Director LEE’s finest films to date.

Notes

  1. The only other film that I remember dealing with an ostomy is the French Canadian revenge thriller, 7 Days (Daniel Grou, Canada: 2010) and here it is meted out as punishment to the rapist and murderer of a couple’s young daughter. [I do really recommend 7 Days; I found it an extremely powerful piece of cinema, but it is very much the opposite approach to that taken by Director LEE in Hope].
  2. I had a temporary ileostomy when I was much younger and think this is why Hope particularly resonated with me.
  3. The Korean title, So-won, I have been told translates as ‘Wish’ but was changed into Hope for UK and US release as Hope is a girl’s name in English. I have used ‘Hope’ here for the title of the film, but need to put a caveat that actually Wish’ has a much more subtle meeting in Korean ‘To a non-native speaker, maybe less so. Nuance. Wish feels more unattainable? phonetics? wish is softer on the lips and to the ear…wistful, fleeting, sad.’ (thanks to Jin Hee Cho for these words of wisdom).