[drop the red lantern]

I have just seen Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou’s claustrophobic 1991 film about a woman who becomes “Mistress Four” in a wealthy Chinese household sometime in the early twentieth century. The film received a great many awards and is widely considered a classic. I hated it.

Though it presents as a chick flick, centered on female characters and chock full of fancy costumes, it’s a decidedly misogynistic movie. The plot is driven by the wives’ (and a servant girls’) struggle for the attentions of the Master in a ritualized environment where every coupling is formally announced to everyone else through elaborate ritual. To make this plot work, it’s crucial that the women have about the same level of characterization you get in a high-end porno: Third Mistress was an opera singer, Fourth Mistress is a college girl who’s father was in the tea trade, and so on. As in a pornographic film, the outside world is excluded; everything takes place within the household. Clearly that’s an artistic choice meant to heighten the claustrophobia, but the story itself acknowledges that the women leave the house, sometimes unaccompanied: the Master offers at one point to take Songlian out for dumplings at a place she likes, and Third Mistress manages to get caught in a hotel having an affair with the family doctor.

And that’s what gives the lie to the whole thing. At the end, Songlian is driven mad by her helplessness in the face of the servants’ murder of Third Mistress for her affair. She paces the courtyard, alone and disheveled. There is, first of all, sheer laziness in that. Declaring your lady character insane is much easier than imagining how she might live with her trauma, and also totally unrealistic. And there, again, is the misogyny: depicting women as fragile, with minds that snap all too easily.

And it also goes against the facts we know. We know that Songlian connives. We know that she’s unhappy. We know that people come and go from the house. Why does she stay, permitted to pace about the place? Alas, we know too little of that outside world to imagine what she might fear in it. Everything is inward-focused, to the exclusion of reality itself.

OK, so is this some kind of complicated metaphor for life under Mao? Is the hothouse craving for the Master’s attention, and the infighting, and the murderousness of the servants, all some kind of allegory about the Communist Party? I don’t think it is, or if it is, it’s just not good enough.

Raise the Red Lantern is, in the end, a stylized costume drama. And it is, admittedly, haunting and compelling in some of its imagery. But it’s an overbearing film that dehumanizes its characters to no particular end.

Also, it’s boring.

[scattered thoughts about avatar]

Spoilers galore. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading now.

So about those big ol’ robot suits. Why would you have them carry guns and knives in artificial hands, so that they can be dropped or taken by an enemy? Wouldn’t you just make the weaponry integral to the suit? The only reason to carry a weapon is because it’s not already attached to you. It’s not advantageous. Also, why would the suit fall down when the driver is killed? Makes no sense.
Overall, not enough backstory. Jake Sully’s connection to his own life is so tenuous that there’s really no question of loyalties. How could he side with an angry colonel, who himself has so little depth that he seems to have come out of Dr. Strangelove, but stripped of irony? The colonel offers him legs, but those can be obtained with money, we already know. There’s just not enough there.
We also don’t know enough about why the mining company wants the unobtainium, what it’s used for, or who’s backing them. Is this like the US trying to get heavy water in World War II? Is it like our current thirst for oil? Or is it Alcoa hitting on a copper mine? We know it’s expensive, but not why, and it’s a relevant point. Also relevant is the general attitude back on earth towards Pandora and Pandorans. Why? Because I’d like to know whether a defeat of this small, poorly armed security detail (seriously, no cruise missiles or drones?) will be Black Hawk Down, meaning a hasty retreat, or 9/11, meaning we come back in giant numbers and invade everything in sight.
Of course, what keeps it from being 9/11, or even Dances with Wolves, is the total lack of ambiguity. Because the mining company and its security force are largely men and all adults, there’s no conflict of civilizations. Regardless of the moral right of European settlers to show up and settle on Native American lands, settle they did, and that turned fights with the natives into threats to home and family. Indeed, Native Americans killed and kidnapped whole families, women and children included. That’s enough to motivate serious and even disproportionate reprisals, as was 9/11, and as is every terrorist attack on Israel.
There’s no equivalent on Pandora. Why is the colonel so invested in the fight? There’s no reason at all. He doesn’t even have Jack D. Ripper’s paranoia. Nothing. He just wants to go kill. His character, and the Marines who cheer with him, are an insult to actual Marines, who generally don’t want to go blow up indigenous peoples for the enrichment of corporations (even if that turns out to be the gig sometimes). Marines, or the ones I’ve known anyway, want to fight to defend our country by attacking and destroying those who would attack and destroy us. It’s not pretty, but it’s purposeful. It can turn pretty blunt, like just wanting to kill the fuck out of Muslims, but that’s because they’re seen as a threat to our way of life. Without that threat, I just don’t see the motivation.
So the Na’vi are spared the ambiguity of the Native Americans in Little Big Man or Dances with Wolves because they never encounter a child. And the Marines are given no chance for ambiguity. This same lack of ambiguity is acceptable when the enemy is presented as a kind of implacable evil, as in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but it falls apart when the enemy is human and identifiably ourselves.

[scattered thoughts about precious]

1. OK, so who at Sunkist thought a product placement in Precious was a good idea? It’s there twice: once as a can next to Precious’s abusive mother as she hunkers in her gloomy apartment, then again as the label across the drink machine at the welfare office. Peculiarly, Mariah Carey’s character comes back with two cans of fake-label soda, drawing all the more attention to the product placement. In fact, throughout the movie, the only brand label we ever see is Sunkist. (McDonald’s and, inevitably, Oprah get mentioned, but we don’t see either. Oprah had been nationally syndicated only since September 1986.) The tag lines that come to mind are not good. “Sunkist: What your incestuous mama drink while she beat you.” “Thirsty? On welfare? Sunkist is for you!” This is not exactly ET eating Reece’s Pieces.

2. Mariah Carey was actually very good. Mo’Nique was extraordinary. Gabourey Sidibe was just OK. Her face isn’t terribly expressive.
3. There are very few men in Precious’s world. I think that’s probably an accurate depiction of a life like that, and it points to a very serious social problem.
4. I saw the movie with a couple of people who work in social services. It’s like seeing Office Space with your cube-mates. Afterwards, one of them told me, “When I found out she was HIV-positive, I was like, ‘Oh, now she can get housing!'”
5. Speaking of HIV, the film takes place in 1987, and a number of its characters are very poorly educated. When Precious tells the class that she’s HIV-positive, it seems anachronistic that there’s no fear, no panic, no immediate freakout, particularly considering that a number of these girls were in contact with Precious’s blood earlier on. The first anti-HIV drug, AZT, was introduced only that year, so AIDS was widely perceived as an absolute death sentence. ACT UP was founded in 1987. Public understanding was primitive at best.
6. The whole welfare process, as depicted in the film, is incredibly humiliating. You’re forced to answer incredibly personal questions from a case worker who has the power to take away your minimal livelihood. What’s your home life like? What’s your mother like? What’s your father like? They’re the kinds of questions it’s actually illegal for the HR department of a private company to ask. It’s painful to watch, and it must be painful to live through. At the same time, the process is shown to have failed utterly — Precious had never even been to a doctor — so it’s largely an exercise in humiliation and enforced lying before power.

7. The teacher and her partner have a beautiful home. Was that affordable in Harlem in 1987?

[the cup]

Many years ago, I saw a lovely Tibetan film called The Cup. It has been a long time, but I finally watched it again, and I found it just as sweet, moving and lovely as before. It’s the story of some monks in a Tibetan monastery in northern India — refugees, mostly — and one young monk’s passion for soccer during the 1998 World Cup.

I guess I don’t have all that much to say about it right now except that I would encourage you to see it if you can.

[cinema faux]

The Korea Society is presenting three nights of happy workers: Films from the North will be shown on May 12 through 14.

I’m sure they’re all stellar, like all socialist art. And who can resist any film that “took the Bulgarian box office by storm in the late 1980s”? That’s Hong Kil Dong, a kung fu movie that sounds less horrible, or perhaps just more surreal, than the films about turning your town into a model socialist village and going to the countryside for emergency agricultural work, respectively.

So, who’s game?

[sing along with buffy]

Gothamist strikes again, this time picking up on the Buffy Sing-A-Long each month at IFC, at which Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans get together and sing along with the musical episode, Once More, With Feeling.

I am definitely in the Buffy fan camp, but I am currently working my way through the series and haven’t yet seen the musical episode, which is two seasons ahead of me, so no spoilers please. Indeed, our most recent episode, Hush, is kind of the musical episode’s opposite: super-creepy floating dudes known as The Gentlemen steal everyone’s voices. This is one of the scariest episodes in the series, capturing the flavor of an actual nightmare.

[bong joon-ho festival]

Looks like there’s a mini-festival of Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s films coming to the IFC Center later this month.

The only Bong film I’ve seen is the brilliant Barking Dogs Never Bite, a richly textured dark comedy that captures contemporary Korean life better than anything else I’ve seen or read.

From what I hear, though, his subsequent films, Memories of Murder and The Host, are supposed to be great as well. The Korea Society has more information on the films.

Check it out if you have the chance!

[kim’s video debut]

Any New York City film buff is familiar with Kim’s Video. Especially in the days before Netflix and GreenCine, Kim’s was the place to go for your obscure cinema needs.

The video chain’s founder, Korean-born Yongman Kim, dropped out of an NYU Film School class that included Jim Jarmusch and Lees Ang and Spike. He has now at last gotten around to making his own film debut as director of 1/3, a psychological thriller set in the East Village and involving both a Buddhist monk and the snorting of cocaine from off someone’s ass.

The film opens in New York City on Friday, October 6, at City
Cinemas Village East

[있어요! / i have it!]

At last! At last I have it! From the Koryo Bookstore on West 32nd Street, I have procured a region-free, English-subtitled edition of the first Korean movie I ever saw, and one that I have wanted to see again ever since: Barking Dogs Never Bite, a.k.a. A Higher Animal, a.k.a. Dog of Flanders. More when I’ve actually re-watched it.

[koreans in uzbekistan]

There is a beautiful shot about a quarter of the way through the South Korean film Wedding Campaign that captures as well as anything the dislocating loneliness of the foreign. Man-taek, an aging bachelor farmer who has come to Uzbekistan in search of a wife, is standing at his hotel window, gazing out into the Tashkent night; a trolley crawls along the street below, its cables giving off irregular showers of blue-white sparks that light up the empty, alien street. The dancing shadows, the sensation that even light has become something strange and incomprehensible, sent a little chill of recognition through me, and I thought of our first night in Korea, gazing out the car windows at hundreds upon hundreds of red neon crosses floating in the night, their meaning obscure.

Wedding Campaign — the Korean title, Naui Gyeolhon Wonjeonggi (나의 결혼 원전기), more literally translates to “My Arranged Marriage” — is the story of Man-taek (Jeong Jae-yeong/정재영) and his best friend Hee-chul (Yu Jun-Sang/유준상), a taxi driver. They are nearing 40 and unmarried, a near-hopeless situation in Korea, especially in the countryside, whose towns have come to resemble old-age colonies as the young have migrated to Seoul in search of education and opportunity. The opening scenes, which are very funny, introduce us to Man-taek’s aimless, pathetic life of nocturnal emissions, drunken binges and bad karaoke over civil-defense loudspeakers.

Fate intervenes when Man-taek’s grandfather discovers a mysterious being who speaks Korean but looks white, or sort of white, and has to ask about the meanings of certain words. It turns out this strange creature is the new wife of someone in town and is from an unpronounceable place far away: Ooz-bek-eess-tuh? Something like that. Soon Hee-chul is arranging a journey for the two bachelors, through an expensive matchmaking service, to this mysterious country far away where there are Koreans who apparently want to marry aging men from the motherland so they can move there. (The film gives a cursory explanation of how Koreans ended up in Uzbekistan: basically, Stalin deported 172,000 ethnic Koreans from the Far East to Central Asia in 1937 as part of his broader policy of genocide through deportation.)

Once the pair arrives in Tashkent, along with two other bachelors whose stories (and terrible suits) provide additional comedy, there are plenty of twists, turns and complications, but it’s obvious from very early on that Man-taek will forgo the various pretty girls paraded in front of him in favor of his translator, Kim Lara (Ae Su/애수). Indeed, the film falls back on a number of romantic-comedy conventions — the oaf who turns out to be loveable, the agonized howling of separated lovers, the inevitable romantic success of the protagonists — but there are two things that make it all hold together. The first is the unusual plot and setting, involving not just the community of Korean Uzbeks, but also the sleazy business of marriage-fixing for the sake of visas and the precarious situation of Kim Lara, who turns out to be a North Korean refugee who hopes to earn enough to buy a forged South Korean passport. The film was actually shot in Tashkent, and the strangeness of Koreans among mosques, and of mosques among Soviet buildings, lends an atmosphere of unpredictability.

The second strength of the movie is Jeong Jae-yeong’s performance as Man-taek. I’ve always been annoyed by movies about losers or unpopular girls who suddenly get a makeover and get the boy or girl of their dreams, because the character in the initial loser phase is usually played by an attractive, talented actor and is typically more attractive and fun than your average real-world non-loser. The actor just has to switch gears, from playing an oaf to playing a romantic lead, which is something that any capable actor should be able to do.

Jeong Jae-yeong manages to avoid this clichá by playing an oaf who remains an oaf, yet somehow manages to be believably attractive to Kim Lara. Man-taek never ceases to be the sweaty, stuttering, stubborn, sloppy-eating, binge-drinking fool, yet he manages throughout to express an underlying dignity that the audience believes well before Kim Lara falls in love with him.

Adding to the believability of the central romance is the film’s layered examination of what it means to be alone and alienated. Man-taek is never alone — he has a best friend and a family and lives in a small town — but he is nevertheless a man apart, aging into a role for which his society has little respect. His experience of Uzbekistan is, of course, all about being somewhere alien, while Kim Lara, as a North Korean refugee, is also alone in the world, living in fear of discovery by the authorities.

That Lara is North Korean adds to the layers of alienation. In some sense, the Uzbek Koreans are a proxy for the lost Koreans of the North: a group of people who are Korean in a way that is recognizable to South Koreans, yet who are obviously from a different world. There’s a touching moment when Kim Lara takes Man-taek to a Korean restaurant, where the half-starved bachelor wolfs down a meal that is at last familiar. He asks Kim Lara what she thinks of the food and whether it’s too spicy for her (Koreans rightly believe that a lot of foreigners can’t handle the amount of pepper paste they slather on everything). She says it’s delicious, using the formal mode. Man-taek corrects her, telling her she should say it in the informal mode appropriate between friends. Then he grins, with a mouth full of food, and declares that he’s never taught anyone anything before. Kim Lara tells him that whoever he takes back with him to Korea, he should teach her all about South Korean manners and customs.

The obvious emotional subtext, of course, is that Kim Lara secretly wants to be that woman. Less obvious, but perhaps more important, is her own sense of awkwardness in terms of South Korean manners, to the point that a South Korean could mistake her for someone foreign-born. Has the North really drifted so far from the South? It’s hard to know for sure, but we are approaching the time when there will be no one left alive who remembers Korea as a unified entity. (Even today, Koreans who remember an undivided Korea are recalling not a unified independent country but an annexed territory of Japan.) As the language of each country moves in its own direction, as the cultures drift ineluctably apart, will North Koreans become as foreign as Korean Uzbekistanis?

I don’t think they will, but Wedding Campaign manages to hit on a number of Korea’s fears: that its farms will be abandoned, that the countryside will be emptied of young people, that the population as a whole is aging too rapidly, that the North is drifting away. Still, these themes never weigh down the movie, which stays funny and light on its feet while giving its main characters enough depth and complexity to keep the viewer sympathetic. If you have the chance, go see the second showing this Sunday afternoon at BAM Cinematek.