May 28, 2013

Pieta: An Avenging Mother Goes to Extremes

Most people I know have strained relationships with their mothers. But nothing compares to the parent-child dynamic in Kim Ki-duk's masochistic drama Pieta. In short, you might wish your mother guilt-tripped less and complimented more but whatever your issues may be, they're likely to dwarf when set aside those of loan shark Gang-do (Lee Joeng-jin) and the martyr-like woman (Jo Min-soo) who shows up on his doorstep, in search of forgiveness for abandoning him as a child many years ago. It's hardly love at first sight. Rather than hug his long-lost mom, he slams the door on her hand, slaps her face, even rapes her before he finally decides that maybe she really is the one. This total acceptance causes him to re-evaluate his way of living -- crippling indebted machinists so he can collect money from their insurance policies isn't the kind of work that would make a mother proud. Suddenly, he's got someone to live up to, this tireless, self-sacrificing woman who cooks him eel and knits him a sweater.

Personally, I've always thought that unconditional love was a bit of a false ideal. That's the type of affection we get from dogs. Do we really not want a person to judge us when we're doing the wrong thing or accept us no matter how far we transgress? Isn't there something to be said for conditional love, the idea that certain boundaries need to be maintained? Duk certainly thinks to seem so for when you see just how far this mom is willing to go to avenge her son, you realize that that kind of absolutism lacks compassion, surely an integral part of love. Forgiveness seems so much more powerful than a blind commitment; empathy feels more noble than devotion. Don't believe me? Check out Pieta. By the end, you'll see that an extreme version of a mother's undying love is just as twisted as the problematic relationship you're having with your own mother. In fact, consider yourself lucky!

May 21, 2013

Planet of Snail: He's Deaf, Blind and Happily Married

You don't have to surf too long on YouTube to track down some archival footage of deaf-blind disability-celebrity Helen Keller speaking in her strange, otherworldly tongue. Barely intelligible, she sounds as if she were speaking a foreign, even alien, language akin to English but not quite. That said, her incomprehensible speech registers as something of a miracle. How in the world do you learn to talk if you can't hear or see the words? Is it all vibration and touch? However she did it, you won't find a similarly eerie vocalizing from Korean deaf-blind Young-chan who actually sounds pretty normal in Yi Seung-jun's Planet of Snail. But the truth of the matter is that although blind like Keller, he's not completely deaf -- he hears sounds as if through a fog. Even so, you do get the sense that he too exists on that other planet, as you watch him "hear" other people as they type words out on the backs of his fingers or read braille by way of a device slung over his shoulder like an electric guitar.

Like Keller before him, Young-chan's a writer but whereas Keller was a memoirist, Young-chan is a poet and aspiring playwright. It's the latter that gets the most screen time in Planet of Snail, as he goes to visit a theater company staging a play about a deaf-blind woman (his critique of the lead actress's performance is almost perfunctory) before mounting a kind of bible play himself with some of his friends from a school for the deaf and blind. He's hardly Beckett made real but there's nevertheless a very definite real-ness in the bleak Job-like reality he's put in script form. Throughout his endeavors, whether he's exercising just outside the kitchen or changing a fluorescent light bulb in the bedroom, he's ably assisted by his wife Soon-ho, a lovely hunchbacked midget who recognizes her soul mate even with his limitations of communication and who loves him enough to support his growing independence, even if it means sacrificing her own sense of purpose in life.

May 1, 2013

Forbidden Quest: Making Some Noise for Love, Sex, and Literature (a.k.a. Porn)

I believe that while watching Forbidden Quest this past weekend, I said the sentence "This movie is good" aloud three times, the word "wow" twice and the expletive "shit" (appreciatively) once. These were not the only times I was moved to speak, and as I'm sure my dog Silas would attest (if he could), I am not in the habit of talking to the TV. When a movie gets me to sound off in private, something unusual is going on. And Kim Dae-woo's directorial debut Forbidden Quest is unusual: an 18-century historic drama about a populist pornographer with artistic aspirations.

Funnily enough, the first involuntary sound the movie caused wasn't an appreciative word or a sigh of pleasure. It was the barked laugh that erupted when one government thug (Lee Beom-su) pulled out a red, hardened bull's cock as his weapon of choice to protect a court intellectual (Han Suk-kyu) tracking down a forgery. That inflamed billy club came as a hilarious shock to me as did the calligrapher (Kim Ki-hyeon) copying porn in the back room of the shop which the scholar was investigating. Does it naturally follow that said scholar would try his hand at writing erotica or become the lover of the queen (Kim Min-jung) who'd become his muse? Probably not. But Kim's script isn't about the probable. It's a warped fantasy about what happens when porn becomes an obsession, even centuries before you could get it online by the touch of a finger.

There are plenty of interesting questions raised by Forbidden Quest about honor, betrayal, love, intimacy and sex and how they interconnect. Compare the very obvious sacrifice made by the eunuch (Kim Roe-ha) to be near the royal lady to the torture the scholar undergoes to hide the identity of his illustrator. Love isn't a trifling affair for anyone here. I didn't clap, alone in my apartment, for Forbidden Quest when it was over. But I did shed a silent tear which spoke volumes, some of them quite dirty.