November 20, 2011

Visitors: When a Filmmaker Works in Charcoal, This Is What Happens

The three films in Visitors are best described as discarded sketches. By which I mean, they come across as both unfinished and unwanted. The first, Japanese director Naomi Kawase's "Koma" definitely feels as though she's testing out ideas for a bigger film, more than making an actual short movie. Characters are underdeveloped, and the story -- about a young man who comes to pay his respects to his grandfather's former employer only to find himself seduced by a crazy woman who may be misinterpreting him as her spirit bridegroom -- is skeletal and would require more fleshing out to be compelling. Watching "Koma," you definitely pick up on Kawase's background as a documentarian, what with its stories within stories, and its personalization of history, even its use of nature photography as segue. But what is she documenting exactly? An aborted creative process? Dunno.

Next up: Hong Sang-soo's "Lost in the Mountains." It's the most successful of the bunch but it's also the most disappointing because it seems to end halfway. Hong, on familiar ground to be sure, relates the woes of a young writer (Jeong Yu-mi) who keeps plotting her own disappointments: first by popping in on her best friend unexpectedly, then by calling up the married professor (Moon Seong-geun) with whom she had an affair, and then by sleeping with her humpy ex-boyfriend (Lee Seon-gyun) whose career has outstripped her own. A chance encounter involving all four has her tossing aside a coffee cup belligerently and driving away but you feel that the story is really only beginning. This is Act I. Where is Act II? Come to think of it, don't most movies have three acts? I think so!

The final entry is "Butterflies Have No Memories" by Lav Diaz. It's hard to believe that Diaz, like his counterparts here, couldn't find better actors ("stilted" would be kind) or a better cinematographer ("murky" would be generous) or a composer to add some drama where little is found but even if he had, no supporting talent could've rescued this script which is really a second draft. "Butterflies..." might be too short to qualify as a feature film but even so it takes a good third of the movie to even introduce the plot. Quasi-political, the central action concerns some poor guys who decide to don conquistador masks and kidnap their better-off Canadian cousin as a way to make money. This is an instance where you wish Diaz had been invited to a writer's lab at Sundance to refine his tale of the downtrodden losers out to make a quick dime. Was his international application rejected? Who knows?

I think what frustrates me most about Visitors, though, is that both Diaz and Kawase -- Kawase especially -- have chalked up some serious awards yet as an introduction to their work Visitors left me feeling that maybe the awards were misprized. If a short anthology is designed to give a quick taste of a few artists, then Visitors has left me looking for a meal elsewhere. May I see another menu?


  1. "Canadian cousin"? Sorry to say this, but I've started suspecting you haven't even understood the stories being told in these films. As for your all too Hollywoodean expectations ("good" actors, "good" cinematography, "Act II" and so on) I humbly suggest you may want to widen your cinematic horizons.


  2. Hey Tribu, I'm not sure why you put "Canadian cousin" in quotation marks. There's a character in the movie who is a cousin of a character and is from Canada. Having watched literally hundreds of Korean movies, I hardly think my expectations are "Hollywoodean" as you put it. That said, I would be curious to hear what recommendations you have for me to see. I'm open!