Tuesday, August 16, 2011

(Cinematic) Life is Pain

Yeah sure, we like to believe that utopian vision that the creation of art is for the betterment ("good") of society.  That it offers us hope for humanity and its survival by allowing insights into mind, body and soul that build bridges between cultures and identities; that puts a positive spin on the capabilties and freedom inherent in the world.  But what if it were actually the reverse?  What if, in its execution and thematics, it made us feel more uncomfortable about the role of art in sharing with us the absymal nature of life - the painful struggle that leads to...what?  What if art were a struggle - an act of "ultra-violence" that doesn't bridge but heightens the ingrained divisions.  

Many of these questions have been proposed over time by underground movements in art, music, film, and the like, but it's only been recently when they've peaked their heads into the ostensible mainstream, ie. work operating on a production & socio-cultural level that is pitched to an audience beyond the fringe.  In these works, the envelope of commercially palatable strategies is pushed far (sometimes too far) in a last ditch effort to shake up the dramatic comforts that cocoon.  They are further instigators in a cause for a reflection of "evil" which must parallel and ultimately transcend "good."  And to accomplish this, they impose strategies that are both reflexive and not, Exploitation and exploitative of the same.

I'm going to highlight three recent thrillers from South Korea, Serbia, and Japan, that I believe operate in this territory, issuing troubling ultimatums about the representation of mankind's deepest fears and desires.  Each solves them in different ways - sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully.  There may be a great morality at play, but it is continually squashed by the immoral progress depicted.  Each unspools as a sort of post-modern riff on Dante's Inferno - the honorable innocent descending into a morass of sin, slime & sleaze - though more often than not, it is a rite of passage not exactly of their own design.

The most conventionally stylish and disposable is Kim Ji-Woon's South Korean serial killer revenge saga I Saw the Devil.  A slice of high-brow torture porn that considers the nature of vengeance with more venom than any other work in a blue-moon, it ultimately aestheticizes perversity to the extent that its discomfiting idea of retribution begins to operate on a kind of pleasure principle level - doled out rhythmically throughout the 2.5 hour run time.

Absurdity upon absurdity doesn't illuminate in quite the same way that fellow countryman  Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy did (and each shares more than a aesthetic/thematic similarity - doughfaced Choi Min-sik stars in both, albeit in reverse roles), but it equally makes sense of the destructive nature of unrelenting obsession and its ties to the trauma of memory.  Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hun) is a kind-off James Bond-ish secret agent on a mission - except his mission is to track and continually punish Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), a serial killer who murdered his pregnant fiancee.  This is accomplished by force-feeding Kyung a tracking device/microphone that allows Soo-hyun to continually bring him to near death before resucitating him.  Of course, the further Soo-hyun drags it out, the further he gets disconnected from his initial goal, and, of course, the more careless he becomes.

I Saw the Devil is the most bravura turn yet for the well-regarded, but, until now, clumsy genre work of Kim.  As is the case with Cold Fish, discussed below, every moment of the 2.5 hours is earned - the hole Soo-hyun digs grows bigger and bigger, and we, the audience, fall down with him.  As is the case with A Serbian Film, however, there is an ingrained morality to the drama which makes the terror feel more a visceral assault than a cerebral one (as is the case with Cold Fish).  

A Serbian Film is the cause celebre of the recent festival circuit (a programmer in Spain was arrested for the distribution of child pornography for screening it), becoming a fulcrum in the debates around the limits of representation.  It seems that once you start calling it art, the gloves come off.  As inferred above, art is misguidedly seen as something sacred, and, most forthrightly, the world doesn't need work that wallows in its filth and then dares to call itself social commentary.  With the no-holds-barred landscape of sex online, it is a wonder that "newborn porn" is any surprise at all, though that's become the main talking point of this work.  Suffice it to say, A Serbian Film is an object more than a film - something that can easily be read from the provocation of the title alone.  Director Srđan Spasojević makes no concessions towards audience empathy or even the spectacle of terror contained within.  A Serbian Film represents the damaged psyche of a nation torn by inexplicable violence - and it seeks purely to represent that, rather than examine, critique, or exploit.  Thus, it has been wildly misread, both on the positive and negative side.

There are a few tips that place this more definably in Lynchian dream-land than the blunt instrument of say a Hostel (also set in stereotypically Eastern European wastelands). Miloš is a retired porn star at a financial dead-end. He agrees to a lucrative final performance - a reality-porn commissioned by a shady group of businessmen and executed by crazed producer Vukmir. The hallucinatory scenarios Miloš finds himself in blurs the line between greater filmic reality, the film's own reality, and the film within a film being shot. The saturated darkness of the image & pounding techno-trance soundtrack induce a nightmare state that blurs the distinction further. All of these elements are less meant to confuse Miloš than the viewers themselves. By forcing them to witness the logically unimaginable - rape, necrophilia, pedophilia - it shows how the cinema may be the best representation of life as a neverending dream(nightmare). But the action that is represented, and the aesthetic tactics employed, offer no real illumination -  just hopelessness (whether real OR surreal).

On the flip side of the humorless sagas of I Saw the Devil or A Serbian Film, Sion Sono's Cold Fish unsettles with its subversive comedy (in fact, it may be the ultimate definition of that).  As Sono has grown more ambitious in his agenda, the range of his technique has been revealed in a way the initial shock of Suicide Club could not have anticipated.  It has a way about it that veers unrelentingly from comedy to terror, running a gauntlet of stylistic maneuvers, without ever seeming to lose control, even as its ostensible "protagonist," road-side fish store proprietor Shamoto does.

Cold Fish is the ultimate feel-bad, another notch in the poet/filmmaker's totemic investigation of the Japanese socio-cultural psyche.  Unlike I Saw the Devil or A Serbian Film, it is generally bereft of the type of genre theatrics that sometimes excuse representation (save for one bloody slip-and-slid at the climax), and its examination of the male libido in regards to uncontrollable rage is infinitesimally more sophisticated than Serbian Film's ham-fisted fucking towards death.  

Shamoto is presented at the movie's opening as almost a carciature of the "emasculated male" - trapped in a sexless second marriage and putting up with the indignation of a  daughter who despises him for his seeming spinelessness. This miserable family unit is inextricably spun into the web of the gregarious and appealing rival fish store owner Murata, whose confidence and grotesque virility represent everything Shamoto is not.

Sono really lets things simmer before finally doling out that hopelessness he gleefully cites as missing from Japanese film and which could be said to be the underlying theme in the aesthetic attack of all of the works cited above.  But despite his amoral self-promotion, the feelings riled up here are complicated - both pitiful and epic, with a core psychological understanding absent from most other genre work.  Cold Fish is ultimately able to accomplish a lot more being placed alongside other gore-works such as Alien Vs. Ninja & Mutant Girls Squad (other films produced by the Nikkatsu Corporation Sushi Typhoon imprint) than it would in any other context - and it presents a convincing case for how negative art blanks out positive art to become convincing as a response to the human condition.

Cold Fish
A Serbian Film
As can be seen in these two stills, beyond all of the above films merits, there is something unnerving at play that continually calls into question their actual reasons for existing outside (or above) the ghetto of "video nasties."  Each of the works view women with a kind of multi-faceted scorn that, again, could be seen as both exploitative and critical of the same.  The Nihilistic DNA is thus many layered - with the critical attack of misogyny itself containing misogynistic venom.  Good & bad, positive and negative, art and the anti - they all wrap around themselves and create a unique experience that is, in fact, fundamentally, Life Affirming.

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