March 30, 2018

The Story of a Blooming Flower: Juche in Japan

Sang Gyu's The Story of a Blooming Flower may be the first North Korean movie I've seen that isn't primarily set in the country in which it was made. Based in Japan, the story concerns a "flower breeder" who, under the pressures of capitalism, sells the patent to an iris, that his mother — a botanist as well — was developing shortly before she died, to the highest bidder only to see that flower become the trademark plant of street prostitutes. Shame ensues. As a form of restitution, this guilt-ridden son devotes his life to cultivating a new begonia (sourced from the Andes!) then finds himself once again in financial straits when his daughter gets outclassed by an arranged marriage for her boyfriend. Will he sell the new flower to provide her with an enticing dowry? Or will he travel to North Korea and find his life changed after meeting the adult version of a young teenager whom he ragefully and wrongfully pushed into the street because he mistook her for a commonplace hooker?

Here's a hint: His best buddy, a philosophy professor whom he's known since childhood, has recently succumbed to a mysterious illness and has left behind him some writings extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. The Juche Idea is the future! Principles take precedence over profits. And while his recently acquired dignity coupled with a red hybrid in full bloom may garner the attention of the press, you often sense that his wife, who stands sulkily to the side, is less enthusiastic about this new religion. Weird bits of realism creep into The Story of a Blooming Flower again and again. Oddly, despite his passion for all things Pyongyang, there is no subsequent talk of his moving his entire family there so they can take over a national arboretum or a municipal greenhouse. It could be that those snatches of dialogue ended up on the cutting room floor. Or perhaps a sequel is in order: The Story of a Blooming Magnolia.

March 25, 2018

The Red Chapel: Kim Jong-il's Comedy Club

The Red Chapel a.k.a. Kim Jong-il's Comedy Club has got to be the weirdest, funniest, most disturbing documentary about North Korea because it so clearly displays the grievous shortcomings of the hermit nation as well as its critics. On the Korean side, you've got a totalitarian regime, a populace terrified into crying and laughing on cue, a capitol city that's a questionably functional theme park, an institutionalized xenophobia that turns potential cultural exchange into pure propaganda, and an abhorrence for the differently abled that manifests in their complete invisibility (at best). On the Western side, you've got a kind of flippancy towards injustice, a know-it-all attitude that attempts to bully others into submission, a self-aware mocking of the rules that doesn't realize that "playing fascist" is "being fascist" regardless of intent, an exploitation of the handicapped, and a biased misinterpretation of history that sidesteps the pain experienced by the oppressed.

You may say that the crimes of North Korea are worse than those of the West but they're both pretty damning. What saves your sense of humanity are the two Danish comics — of Korean descent — who undermine both the rigidity of the country they're visiting and the misguided manhandling of their misguided but well-meaning manager Mads Brugger. Simon Jul Jorgensen, a big bear of a performer, takes a wily approach to the proceedings. He's along for the ride but he also isn't afraid to establish parameters as to what he will and won't do. Jacob Nossell has a harder time of it. A self-described spastic, he senses a hate beneath the niceties of his guides/hosts and struggles to find a way to be compassionate even as he's smothered by his assigned attache who embodies a mad confusion of affection and rigidity. As the spokesperson of pain internalized and witnessed, Nossell stands amid the chaos like a lone Cassandra, able to see what's wrong with this picture but uttering his insights to deaf ears. Like to laugh with discomfort? You've found the right movie.

March 21, 2018

South Korea: Success at All Costs: No Critical Thinking

There's something irresponsible and upsetting about the hour-long documentary South Korea: Success at All Costs for while directors Barbara Necek and Aline Hoorpah definitely presents damning evidence about pet cloning, plastic surgery, long work hours, charlatan shamans, abandonment of the elderly, and staggering suicide rates (the highest in the world), all these facts are dropped amid an endless list of success stories that sabotage in asides. What's the point of hearing that one young man has eyelid surgery in order to improve his chances of getting a good job then learning a few months later that he still doesn't have that job if you're going to end it with "It's just a matter of time before he gets it"? Why claim to get unique access to a factory town, a town in which every aspect is owned by the company — schools, apartments, stores — if your guide is a stooge employee speaking as if from a company script? How can you show clips of people jumping off a bridge (quite possibly to their deaths) as little more than interstitial content?

Is it that Nacek and Hoorpah had to get institutional sign-off so that they could use much of this footage? Are they intentionally subverting a propaganda film by striking one jarringly cheery tone then constantly sounding the note of discord? Is this cinematic sarcasm? Whatever these two are trying to do, it didn't work for me. South Korea: Success at All Costs is a missed opportunity to celebrate what South Korea is doing right, where they've gone wrong, and how the two overlap. Missing as well: any thoughtful examination of international cultural influencers like K-pop, K-drama, and Korean cinema. They would've been wise to dig deeper instead of simply presenting a mixed message, as if culling facts from warring pamphleteers. The additional choice to layer on a British-accented voice-over instead of simply adding subtitles to the Korean speakers was also a grave mistake, although likely not one made by the co-directors themselves.

March 20, 2018

Gook: In the Shadow of the Rodney King Trial

Han-guk means Korea. Mi-guk, America. Because of the second syllable here, some believe the racist term "gook" comes from ignorant U.S. soldiers mishearing Koreans say the names of these countries. It's not the only possible root but it's touched upon with lovely poignancy in writer-director-actor Justin Chon's Gook when the movie's protagonist, a first generation Korean-American store-owner named Eli (played by Chon), must explain the graffiti-ed insult — that's been spray-painted onto his car by vandals — to a wide-eyed 11-year-old girl (Simone Baker) who hangs out at his shop when she's skipping school. Korean-American heritage comes into play in a variety of interesting ways throughout Chon's sophomore feature film: the relationship between Eli and Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, Justin's real-life father), the cranky liquor store owner who used to be a business partner with Eli's dad; the somewhat-doomed R&B aspirations of Daniel (David So), Eli's browbeaten brother; the cultural clash between the two siblings and the black neighborhood surrounding their store, tensions which have been exacerbated by the travesty of the Rodney King trial and the ensuing riots, both of which serve as a backdrop to the action.

Basically a slice-of-life film, shot in exquisite black-and-white by Ante Chang, Gook is the type of shoestring art-film that you hope earns Chon some studio respect so that his next heartfelt movie can be made without pulling in favors. The winner of an Independent Spirit Award literally as "Someone to Watch," Chon's clearly got talent to spare as a director, screenwriter, and actor... possibly a hair model, too. You might recognize him as Eric Yorkie from the Twilight movies but this guy appears to have his eyes on something deeper than a fat wallet. So would someone pull out their fat wallet and starting funding his next film? Or at least pony up enough money for him to produce a new video with BgA (Boys generally Asian), his mock K-Pop band?

March 14, 2018

Factory Complex: She Works Hard for Little Money

The exploitation of women in the workplace is hardly something new. We've all seen Norma Rae at this point and we all know about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy. Or at least, we should! Yet this harsh reality of second-classing the second sex is hardly restricted to the American workplace. In the deservedly prize-winning Factory Complex, director Im Heung-soon zooms in on the systemic mistreatment and abuse of the female labor force, an ongoing oppression that's playing out not just in South Korea but also in countries where South Korean companies have taken root. And while the documentary definitely has firm roots in the garment industry, with testimonials of textile workers from both the homeland and further afield, it also broadens the scope of its inquiry — or better yet, its condemnation — of the sexism, misogyny, and utter human disregard to include air line workers, call center operators, and even check-out clerks.

Please understand, this isn't Harlan County USA or Roger and Me. For while Factory Complex definitely has its grit and its devastating details, the film also has an unapologetic artiness. (It screened at the Venice Biennale in 2015 and you can't get much artier than that.) As much a creative as a chronicler, Im can't resist adding surreal interstitials — two cloaked female heads sharing unheard secrets; an expanse of black wig invading a section the grocery store. Are they weird? Yes. Do they get in the way of the larger story? Not really. Plus, once you've seen laborers being gunned down in Cambodia simply for staging a protest as they fight for better wages, you know your sympathies lie with Im as an artist-activist, quirks and all. Equality now! Equal rights, equal pay! The future is female!

As Shirley Chisolm once said, "In the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing — anti-humanism."

March 8, 2018

Right Now, Wrong Then: Oops, He Did It Again

The paradigm of the lovable rogue has not aged particularly well. For whereas ten years ago, many still considered the hard-drinking, womanizing, lone-wolf ne'er-do-well an inexplicably appealing type, nowadays the general consensus is not so flattering. At least for the moment, an asshole's an asshole. And while the leading men in Hong Sang-soo's movies could certainly be cited as examples of that no-longer-so-likable Lothario, there's one major difference: Hong recognizes who they are as much as we do. We don't come away from his 2015 movie Right Now, Wrong Then with the impression that filmmaker Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong) is an attractive bad boy who can't help being bad. To the contrary, he comes across as a preposterously immature middle-aged dude with an age-inappropriate haircut, a drinking problem, and a sad need to seek validation by seducing a pretty woman 10 years younger than he is. He's a specimen, an outdated archetype, more than he's someone out to trigger our sympathy.

As if to underscore that this guy is caught in a cycle of unawareness, Hong divides the film into two parts that more or less repeat the same story with minor variations. Think of it as a scaled back, hyper-naturalistic version of Sliding Doors or Melinda and Melinda only this time, the choices made by the protagonist aren't going to be that radically different when we switch from part one to part two. In both sections, Cheon-soo will court the model-turned-painter Yoon Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee), imbibe too much at a very small party, then bullshit at a poorly attended screening of one of his films. If one sequence ends more happily than the other, that's merely luck at work because Cheon-soo is destined to make the same basic mistakes, although the severity of them may change depending on the day. It's as if, Hong is letting us experience a "what if" scenario that acknowledges that our choices are more likely to be similar if we had a chance to do it all again. There are second chances for sure but sometimes, they're just second times to lose.