Saturday, May 16, 2009

New to Hulu Plus: The Housemaid (1960) / Dry Summer (1964) / Touki-Bouki (1973)

Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (Hanyo; 1960, South Korea) may be the most oddball film globally to conventionally hold the mantel of the greatest film of its national cinema. Then again, there are very few films indeed that have as fully embodied their cinematic homeland's spirit as does Kim's opus, given Korea's latter-day production of Jang Sun-woo, Hong Sang-soo and Park Chan-wook, among many others. The Housemaid compares with - and one might even argue that the film inspired - Hong's career-defining exposition of the educated Korean male, whose passivity and sexual libido Kim satirizes, in opposition to the aggressive female. Kim, moreover, never ceases in criticizing the bourgeois ambitions of his film's focalized family, whose peak is reached with the arrival of a television set, making them the wealthiest household in the neighborhood. As the picture's patriarch then offers, they could be the happiest family too if only his disabled daughter would have her leg braces removed.

The Housemaid opens with a pre-credit conversation where a man's adulterous affair with his female housekeeper is discussed, thereby naturally framing the picture's forthcoming narrative subject. However, as the film's concluding direct address later emphasizes, The Housemaid far exceeds the basic parameters of parable - Kim in fact lambasts the simplicity of this form - launching instead into the same absurd territory then being explored by the great Luis Buñuel. Kim's truly is an astonishingly irrational, stipulative, what-if narrative, accompanied by a very explicit sense of metaphor, whether it is the rat dying on the plate or the lightning striking the tree.

Like postwar Buñuel, moreover, Kim's narrative is equally characterized by a liebestod thematic, which in the case of the latter occurs once the dim-witted, but again sexually aggressive housemaid is invited into the middle-class household. The Housemaid never skirts the erotic subtext (soon to be text) implied in the invitation of a young woman into the middle-class family unit, just as it never fails to repay the wages of this eros.

Kim Ki-young's architectural setting greatly suits the picture's sexual ethos. In the family's well-healed home environment, Kim's camera mobilizes, moving laterally across the exterior sliding glass doors, both compartmentalizing family and servant and also providing the opportunity for a surveillant visuality.

Metin Erksan's exceptional Dry Summer (Susuz yaz; 1964, Turkey) registers a similar sense of surveillance, though in its case its voyeurism is constructed in conjunction with the subjectivity of the film's astonishingly unsympathetic co-lead Osman (Erol Tas). Erksan consistently frames his striking female lead Bahar (Hülya Koçyigit), the wife of relation Hassan (Ulvi Dogan), within eye-shot of Osman, whether the latter is in the recesses of the composition gazing at the buxom beauty - for instance as she wades in the spring, her skirted hiked up; we the spectators provide a mirror reflection of the leering Osman - or spying on the young bride through a hole in the wall (as for instance when she and Hassan make love). Indeed, when the pair share an intimate moment, Erksan's camera is often present, passing over Koçyigit's supple legs or peering at her clevage beneath her blouse. Dry Summer matches The Housemaid's eroticism, and even more remarkably, its level of perversity.

Naturally, it is Osman who provides the film with its deviance as well: from Osman's misuse of his pillow (following one of the above incidents of voyeurism) to a dialogue he conducts with a scarecrow that he has dressed in Bahar's scarf to the ultimate consequence of his unceasing covetousness. By the time, Osman enacts the desire that Erksan has all along made palpable, we as viewers are entirely inclined to root against one of the screen's most complete villains.

Osman's sins likewise extend to his treatment of both Hassan (which I will not treat here, so as to avoid spoilers) and that of the larger community. In the latter case, because of the eponymous dry summer, Osman decides to claim his propertied rights with respect to a spring that is located on his property. In so doing, Osman transgresses the traditional understanding that the spring belongs to the community, using it instead to irrigate his farm - he thus secures a competitive advantage over the other farmers by asserting his private property rights over the public welfare. This claim leads to successive court decisions that first side with the community and then with Osman; as such, Erksan, though he clearly facilitates sympathy for the community, nonetheless suggests that Osman isn't necessarily acting outside the law, just as he marginally undercuts the aforementioned sympathy with the revelation that his fellow farmers lack industriousness. Yet, Osman continues to cling to his possession even when the villagers state their willingness to buy water. Osman is not therefore a reasonable capitalist but a paragon of greed (which again extends to his sexual appetites, even when this means that he acts without honor or justice).

In the end, Dry Summer presents its age-old public-private debate within an equally eternal rural landscape that Erksan brings to tangible life, whether it is the tall grass canopies through which Hassan chases his lover or the particularly vivid spring and adjacent irrigation ditches that provide the narrative's focus. It is here that Erksan secures his classical denouement, visualized in an extraordinary graphic metaphor (pictured above), which poetically provides justice for Osman's horrific actions.

If Dry Summer articulates a subject that is as old as civilization itself, its direct presentation of Osman's appetites nevertheless secures a certain quality of the modern. Djibril Diop Mambéty's Touki-Bouki (1973, Senegal), on the other hand, expresses its subject within the decisively contemporary context of Senegal's independence from France (ca. 1960), in a form that is no less current in its modernist fragmentation of the narrative's space and time span. This is, importantly, a film that is aware of and quite indebted indeed to the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, and due to its young hoodlum lovers on the run subject, to Breathless (1960) specifically. Yet, it is perhaps even more for Mambéty's fractured soundtrack, bringing in operatic choral passages, traditional drum beats and the recurrent "Paris, Paris, Paris, it's paradise on earth" refrain that establishes the Godard influence (and accounts for its appreciation by Martin Scorsese). Like countryman Ousmane Sembene's pivotal work of this period (namely Black Girl, 1966 and Mandabi, 1968), France remains perpetually in Touki-Bouki's background.

Thanks to an incipient jump in space and time between the violent slaughter of a steer (Erksan's film gives us a chicken experiencing the same fate) and the film's male protagonist Mory (Magaye Niang) driving his motorbike down a recently paved four-lane highway, Mambéty immediately establishes the film's defining jumble of ancient and modern, which the director likewise figures, for example, through the sound of a jet passing above the film's impoverished village setting. Early on Mambéty's camera remains ethnographic, articulating Senegal's transitional limbo, often from positions high above the depicted places.

Mambéty nonetheless dispells this objectivity in a subsequent fantasy image depicting Mory and love interest Anta (Mareme Niang) riding into town in a parade in their honor. Mambéty introduces this passage through a systematic use of cross-cutting bridged by a monologue delivered on an empty road, which he thereafter replaces with the aforesaid procession. The director indeed relies on this technique frequently, conflating disparate locations whose identities are not always evident initially. Touki-Bouki requires an active spectator, and even then does not entirely lend itself to unmistakable narrative clarity.

In fact, Touki-Bouki circular conclusion brings into question the status of all the action depicted in the narrative, procuring a world that permits that it might be read as subjective. In this regard Mambéty further establishes his modernist bona fides. The director's dual reliance on montage and long takes moored to moving vehicles only reinforce this classification, and again Mambéty's inheritance from Godard. Touki-Bouki, no less than the works of Sembene listed above, confirmed a highly meritorious Sub-Saharan African in the decade-and-a-half following the nation's independence. It is cinema's great loss that the most recent decade-and-a-half marked the loss of Senegal's two greatest directors.

Update (8/18/13): While the original post commemorated the inclusion of these three films on the former Auteurs website (now Mubi), all three films, at the time of this update, have become available through Hulu Plus.


Edward said...

I just finished watching these three films and they are all great. Thanks for the great reviews!

Michael J. Anderson said...

I'm just happy that you watched all three films. That was my hope - especially with "Dry Summer," which I had never heard of before I viewed it.