Thursday, November 6, 2008

Two Films That Are Way Way Out There

This comes in the wake of Barak Obama's victory in the U.S. presidential election yesterday.

I'm still feeling high from that victory. I've seen two films since. Both are films that I've been trying to see for quite a while now.

The first is Nagisa Oshima's DEATH BY HANGING(1968), which has been written up in so many books as epitomizing Japan's New Wave but is a really hard film to get to see. It's virtually impossible to find in the U.S., here in Hong Kong, and even in Japan. I looked for it at various video stores in Tokyo a few months ago to no avail.

I won't get into the logistics of how I finally got to see this film, which I first read about more than 10 years ago, but it was a treat. That said, I can't believe it was ever produced. It's one of the strangest most experimental films I've ever seen. It's divided into 7 sections. For me 2 were gripping and ridiculously intense. The others were too disjointed and anti-cinema for me. These sections were like watching Godard from the 80s and 90s where there's no effort whatsoever to accomodate the viewer.

The film is almost unclassifiable. It starts out like a documentary, then quickly turns into an absurd play. Overall, it is a treatise or interactive inspired dissertation on capital punishment and Japan's historical role and treatment of its underclass. I cannot imagine the film finding any sort of audience in Japan. I don't know the facts, but I'd be willing to bet that it made no money. It is just too intense a film, too experimental, too out-there. Indeed, it's an indictment on Japan and simultaneously a call for real soul-searching but made by a film genius.

It is definitely one of those super obscure intellectual films that you have to be a ridiculous film snob to have seen.

The second film was Kim Ki Duk's debut feature CROCODILE (1996), which was trademark Kim Ki Duk. It was bizarre but strangely compelling and original. Even though it was the first feature film the guy made, there were moments of complete originality. In fact, the film contained two things I've never seen before in my life. One, the main character dives into the river, and while underwater blows and inflates a balloon. I've never seen this before in real life or in a movie. Two, the main character picks up a turtle at the river's edge and paints its shell blue before releasing it back into the river. Again, original.

The film was clunky at times and had big gaps in narrative. Still, it had enough elements and signs of promise. The film was strong visually and told the story with pictures, which to me, is always a sign of a filmmaker using the medium. Most films are well-made and do indeed tell the story with the sound off. Try it sometimes. Park Chan Wook's OLD BOY is great to watch with the sound on mute.

Watching a movie with the sound off is also a good way to focus on the picture and see just how interesting or mundane a film truly is. I tried watching FAILURE TO LAUNCH with the sound off. The director truly took no risks in making that film. There isn't a single original or inspired shot in the picture. Instead, just the usual 'coverage' of conventional shots. They might as well have made that film on auto-pilot. Maybe they did. That film quickly dies without the sound.

The point is, CROCODILE was a treat despite its inadequacies and despite the fact that the copy I managed to get my hands on didn't have the best picture or sound quality. I can't believe anyone produced it. It was a truly bizarre film. It was clearly meant to be a low-budget quickie cheap entertainment, but Kim Ki Duk subverted it and turned it into a surreal and at-times visually stunning personal picture complete with his obsesssions and neuroses.

This guy is a true creative force. In his prolific output and sheer originality, the only person who even comes close in the history of cinema was Rainer Warner Fassbinder. And of course, both were complete originals. Not every film of both filmmakers was impressive. They each had some duds, but overall, they made more interesting and original films in a short period of manic productivity than some studios do in a lifetime.

By the way, tonight we will go see QUANTUM OF SOLACE. I can't say I'm a huge James Bond fan though I've seen my share of 007 films, but I thoroughly enjoyed the last one. So Jene loved that film. Hope this one is just as much fun.