Saturday, March 13, 2010

New Film: Like You Know It All

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

For his ninth feature Like You Know It All (2009), following the diaristic structuring and Paris setting of the filmmaker's arguably lesser Eric Rohmer-inspired previous effort, Night and Day (2008), writer-director Hong Sang-soo renews his signature diptych narrative construction in his return to his native Korea. As such, Hong lends credence to those interpretations of his work that would emphasize the cultural specificity of his divided homeland in the formulation of his stories' constructions, from The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) onward, beyond the clear and continued examination of male and female natures (within a decisively Korean cultural context, to be certain) which these same divisions often facilitate, and which as always are present in Like You Know It All. Then again, Hong's latest has lost little of the aforesaid Rohmer influence, stringing together a series of conversations, meals and rounds of drinks - especially rounds of drinks - where mostly youngish artists and students ceaselessly feel out potential romantic pairings and rehash frequently unpleasant pasts, within a precise geographical and seasonal setting. Consequently, Hong easily claims the title as the most Rohmerian of all major world directors, with a body of work that demonstrates a similar consistency - albeit at level ever so slightly below the French master's corpus. Thus, to get the verdict over presently, Like You Know It All is fairly standard work for Hong, which is to say much better than most, and quite welcome once every year or two, whether or not much has changed from the director's past efforts.

In the case of Like You Know It All, it is less a matter of outright invention than it is a synthesizing of previous works. Specifically, Like You Know It All adopts the zoom lensing of the filmmaker's A Tale of Cinema (2005) - which upon its earlier release felt well outside the main current of the director's work, but which by virtue of this latest piece now becomes far less marginal - within a series of restaurant, bar and hotel room set-pieces that are likewise found in the director's work from The Power of Kangwon Province, again, through Woman on the Beach (2006). Hong typically favors horizontally organized two-shots and multi-figure compositions throughout these scenes, thereby further crystallizing his debt to Rohmer and in particular to that director's "Comedy and Proverbs" cycle, with Summer (1986) providing a touchstone, as it was for Night and Day. From this spatial base, Hong zooms in and out, selecting subject matter from his naturally-lit, visual field. In this respect, as in A Tale of Cinema, Hong's camera figures articulate a narrational presence; the viewer sees as objects of interest are identified by the camera.

That Like You Know It All's zoom shots are paired with a narrative about a filmmaker, moreover, confirms a certain organic interrelation between form and content. More importantly, however, Hong uses his camera to convey interpersonal power dynamics throughout, whether this entails a sudden pan to exclude the filmmaker-lead Ku (Kim Tae-woo) on the edge of a multi-figure composition after his stature in the group has been eclipsed by that of a second, more famous director; or when the latter's departure from the frame and the room leads to Ku's renewed preeminence in the center of the frame - on the cusp of a drinking contest that ends rather badly. At this latter juncture, Hong holds on a doorway after the lead and two others leave the hotel room, only to show their somewhat unexpected return with a very drunk porn-star gnashing in Ku and a festival colleague's arms. Hence, Hong plays on his viewer's expectations in much the same manner as he did in his masterpiece The Power of Kangwon Province, where static set-ups were frequently procured for comic effects.

Like You Know It All
in fact manages to remain quite comic throughout, whether it is in Hong's above noted manipulation of form, his narrative repetitions (such as Ku's repeated naps during the festival screenings he is set to judge), the writer-director's dialogue passages (an off-rhythm jab at a second, better-known filmmaker - "have you always been this short?" - is a personal favorite) or in Kim Tae-woo's admirably awkward embodiment of the filmmaker lead. Ku, further, represents a relatively straight instantiation of director Hong himself: he is a foreign prize-winner who always makes the same sorts of film, whether or not they are understood. And he is a filmmaker who always makes films about himself, as Ku's ex Gosun (Ko Hyun-jung) points out.

Gosun later asks for Ku's promise that he will not make a film about her, before deciding that she does not care. The fact that Ko's character does so on the sand, after her appearance alongside Kim in Woman on the Beach, suggests that Like You Know It All might thus offer an autobiographical extension of the director's experiences with the 2006 picture, in addition to its recasting of Summer's concluding set-piece sans the formation of the heterosexual couple and the psychologically clarifying 'green ray.' Hong's autobiographical reinvention of Rohmer's idiom accordingly rejects the latter's (crucial) redemptive dimension.

Like You Know It All is available on an English-subtitled, Region 3 DVD through YESASIA.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

New Film: Shutter Island

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Martin Scorsese's
Shutter Island, from Laeta Kalogridis's adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel, provides further evidence of the director's retreat from artistic relevance, following a decade in which the filmmaker's excesses overshadowed his accomplishments in Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004) and even 'best picture' winner The Departed (2006). Shutter Island proves no less distended in its narrative form, which is ironic certainly when one considers the film's clear indebtedness to the "b" film format that was itself distinguished by its relative economy. It is unclear precisely what lessons Scorsese imbibed from these films - save for his simulated rear-projections, overtly artificial mise-en-scène and conspicuous pulpiness - given the film's substantial narrative fat. Of course, more than your King Kong's (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933 - no "b" film in the truest sense, though a reference all the same) and Isle of Forgotten Sins' (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1943) of the world, Shutter Island owes, and indeed significantly refers to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick (particularly the latter's The Shining, 1980), from which Scorsese's film generates its subjective modality, to say nothing of the 1940s Gothic melodramatic cycle instantiated by the thematically relevant Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944).

Indeed, Scorsese draws on Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) for its psychoanalytic denouement whereby Leonardo DiCaprio's U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels comes to the learn the truth of his own traumatic past. In this way, Scorsese returns to the same crudely Freudian logic of his first feature Who's That Knocking on My Door (1967) - in the case of the earlier picture it was the Madonna-Whore complex - though to less immediately gratifying aesthetic effect. (Indeed, the 1967 film provides a notable intra-corpus point of reference thanks to its significant narrative fragmentation, which with the earlier picture more strongly recalls the contemporary work of Jean-Luc Godard.) Scorsese combines the personal trauma of Shutter Island, however, with the public trauma of Dachau, which gratuitously figures in recreations of the concentration camp (that Scorsese pairs with
problematically lyricized murders of Nazi officers). As such, Scorsese finds another starting point in Alain Resnais's cinema of fifty years earlier - namely his similarly structured, comparative Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Then again, where the French director's cinema has improved with age, finding its most personal expression in Private Fears in Public Places (2006), Scorsese's seems to have moved in the opposite direction, moving from the first-person tenor of his earliest films to the less reflective generic exercises of his past two works.

This is not to say that Shutter Island does not instantiate a world view; again it proposes a meaninglessness in the face of Dachau and the violence that as always Scorsese claims as ubiquitous, a 1950s, Hydrogen bomb-era existentialism (and perhaps even a nihilism arguably), even as DiCaprio's lead "bears witness," in the words of film scholar Lisa K. Broad, to the sins of both the Nazi's and those of Shutter Island. On this basis even more than with the film's somewhat uneven application of style, Shutter Island emerges as the work of an auteur - albeit of a maker seemingly in his decline.
Shutter Island also introduces a politics in the film's adoption of a HUAC-centered conspiracy that the protagonists fear will some day produce sins comparable to those of Nazi's. To the extent that one takes this governmental crime seriously, the most viable current equivalent might just be the muddled-headed thinking of 9/11 "truthers." Then again, since this conspiracy is revealed to be toothless, one might just as well conclude that Scorsese has come to this very conclusion on his own. Commensurate with the film's philosophy, grand theories ultimate cannot explain the world's sins.