Friday, September 29, 2017

#608: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring

Directed by: KI-DUK KIM
2003, TSPDT Rank #887

Ki-Duk Kim is one of the most controversial directors to emerge from South Korea in recent years, making his mark in the early 2000s with a run of disturbing films about cruelty and violence such as Bad Guy and The Isle. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring was an oddity among this group of films, winning international acclaim and festival awards for its apparently simple tale of a Buddhist monks' journey from childhood to adulthood and, eventually, spiritual mastery.

However, there are a number of disturbing themes in this film as well, which are sometimes masked by the beautiful cinematography of a floating temple and the surrounding forested valley which serve as the film's only settings. In fact, the film's seasonal structure suggests that human nature is cyclical, as well as inherently cruel and violent, even when carefully fostered in a peaceful environment of piety and isolation. The young apprentice tortures animals in the first part of the film, eventually giving in to the temptations of lust and murder, and although he is eventually able to purify his soul through elaborate rituals of self-punishment, his own apprentice is later seen to have inherited the same cruel impulses as he once had (although the versions of the film shown in Western countries only hint at scenes of animal cruelty cut from the original Korean version of the film).

Those who found spiritual solace in the film may have missed the harsh undertones hidden beneath the film's serene and beautiful surface. Kim doesn't take Buddhism literally here (he was raised Christian), instead using it as a symbolic framework for a meditative and disquieting examination of human nature and making many of the films' rituals up himself as a sly inversion of Buddhist teachings. The film has proved successful in the West as an exotic Asian import, but it may take more time for the film's true meaning to be grasped by a wider audience.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

#607: Performance

1970, TSPDT Rank #178

Nicolas Roeg made his directorial debut with this mind-bending psychological thriller, together with his co-director Donald Cammell, who wrote the script, while Roeg took charge of the film's cinematography. As such, the credit for this film, especially its complex themes of identity and the repercussions of performance, should go as much to Cammell as to Roeg, although the fact that Roeg went on to have a much more notable directorial career (with much of his work building upon this film) has led him to be given most of the retrospective credit for it.

Certainly, the stylistic make-up of this film was unlike anything that came before it, which is likely Roeg's doing. He employed audacious cross-cutting throughout the film, while using primitive visual effects to convey abstract psychological themes in a very uncanny way. The presence of Mick Jagger and Stones girlfriend Anita Pallenberg also elevate the film, giving it a dose of rock 'n' roll energy and wild-side flair that conventional British actors wouldn't have been able to convey. Jagger's musical performance in the film isn't all that spectacular, but it performs an important narrative function and allows Roeg and Cammell to make proper use of their famed star.

The other music in the film, provided by Jack Nitzsche, Randy Newman, and others, is uniformly excellent - giving the film a unique, earthy feel which complements its groundbreaking visual style. This unusual confluence of elements has made Performance a veritable cult classic, but Roeg and Cammell probably also deserve a fair amount of credit for liberating films from the burden of linear, reality-based narratives. While others, such as Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni, had tread this ground before, Roeg and Cammell did it here in a particularly arresting and immediate way, resulting in an uncanny film that has influenced many of the most adventurous filmmakers of the past few decades, while continuing to confound expectations today.

#606: The Green Ray

Directed by: ERIC ROHMER
1986, TSPDT Rank #350

Eric Rohmer was a master at exploring the minutiae of human nature, the tiny details within his characters' interactions that hint at some hidden truth not usually discussed or even acknowledged. In The Green Ray, Rohmer eases the viewer into a character study of Delphine, a lonely young woman who finds the prospect of summer vacation unbearable, as she has no one to share it with. At first she just seems indecisive and flighty, but eventually we realize that it's something deeper. She leaves Paris to three different vacation spots, and each time finds herself alone with nature - not comforted, but instead made even more aware of her isolation. These quiet scenes are the most powerful moments in the film: the frame becomes filled with rich greens and blues, and Delphine's inner feelings can be sensed as she moves through the beautiful landscapes in a somber recognition of her empty emotional state.

But Rohmer chooses these moments carefully, never wallowing in them or forcing them upon the audience. Instead, the effect is subtle and fleeting, and the viewer is otherwise given plenty of occasions to watch Delphine in various attempts at social interaction, searching for something to hold on to, attempting to make connections with those around her. Then, Delphine overhears a discussion of Jules Verne's novel The Green Ray, and the rare light effect to which the novel (and the film) owes its title to. This phenomenon is never fully explained, acting as a mysterious force as the film moves towards its conclusion.

While the conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous, it gives the film the feeling of a parable, from which the viewer is meant to draw their own conclusions. Was there value in Delphine's journey, or was it all merely a random series of disappointments followed by an equally random moment of satisfaction? Is there hope in the film's final scene, or is it merely a mirage, to be followed by more misery? Rohmer doesn't answer these questions, leaving the viewer with a feeling that Delphine's journey is only just beginning, and that there's no real resolution in life - only a collection of fleeting moments that we must attempt to make sense of in retrospect.

#605: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

1975, TSPDT Rank #198

If Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life was a celebration of hedonism and sexual freedom in the medieval era, Salò suggests that these qualities have been corrupted by the ruling classes in the modern era. The film transposes the Marquis de Sade's infamous novel, The 120 Days of Sodom, to the Republic of Salò, the fascist regime through which Mussolini ruled Northern Italy with the support of the Nazis between 1943 and 1945. The plot, which follows four fascist leaders as they degrade and torture sixteen lower-class girls and boys, is remarkably similar to Sade's novel, essentially equating the upper-class depravity of libertinism with fascism.

Salò has long been considered one of the most shocking and disturbing films of all time (one of the reasons I had not seen it before now), but while much of its more superficial shock value has worn off due to the recent arrival of "torture porn" films like Hostel and The Human Centipede, what remains most disturbing about the film is its examination of the inherent evil of modern power structures. In fact, beneath every act perpetrated by the four fascists lies a sick satisfaction derived from the feeling of having power over the powerless. During one bout of particularly humiliating torture, one of the men notes that it is his "social privilege" that excites him, and that without inequality, there can be no true happiness.

Although his films were always influenced by his Marxist views, with Salò, Pasolini's philosophy took a decidedly dark turn. Here he makes the grim suggestion that victims are often complicit in their oppression, with the simultaneous assumption that these willing victims are the ones who will eventually become oppressors of others. Those who resist are shown to have little besides a cruel and painful death ahead of them, devoid of honor or dignity, with its only value being to provide the perpetrators and their collaborators with entertainment. Within this context, it seems that Pasolini had abandoned the idea that redemption was possible for humanity, arriving instead at the conclusion that cruelty only gives way to more cruelty in a bottomless downward spiral of meaningless depravity.

Pasolini described Salò as not only a critique of fascism, but of modern society as a whole. He spared no one in his unrelentingly pessimistic vision of humanity, least of all the audiences who would see the film in the aftermath of his brutal murder by a male prostitute only days before the film's premiere. In witnessing the vile events portrayed in the film, without a single protagonist or sympathetic character to identify with, the viewer also becomes implicated in them - as a passive spectator of the brutal and disgusting spectacle which the film presents. While he probably meant this film as more of an angry personal statement than a final testament, Salò ended up becoming both - one of the most uncompromising films ever made as well as a definitively disturbing look at the corrupting nature of modern power structures.