Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Intention, Perhaps


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The first Korean-made films I ever saw were actually in-flight videos on a trans-Pacific Korean Air jetliner. I don’t remember much about these videos; only that they were promoting historical sites to visitors to the country, and I wasn't even visiting the country. I was only stopping over in the Seoul airport on my way to Thailand, where I was planning to try my hand at teaching English as a Foreign Language, eating lots of vegetarian Thai food and living in a semi-tropical climate for as long as I could stand. All of which I did. (It turned out to be exactly 500 days.)

The Seoul airport was the first ground I ever touched in Asia, and the only place I ever went to in Korea. Any traveler will tell you it doesn’t really "count"- I never got my passport stamped or left the duty-free zone. But I still have extremely vivid memories of my brief time in that airport without any family or friends – traveling outside the United States without them being another first for me.

When I came back to live in this country after those five hundred days I still had a hunger to connect to the world outside of it, especially to the countries I'd visited, however briefly, in East Asia. So when the spring 2001 film festival season in Frisco rolled around, I determined to see films chosen from those countries: Iron Ladies, which I’d somehow missed while in Thailand, Land of Wandering Souls from Cambodia, and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, my first Korean-made feature film. At the time I was unconditionally blown away by Land of Wandering Souls, a documentary about the laying of fiber-optic cables under one of the poorest countries on Earth, but my response to Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, while very positive, was more qualified. I loved the glimpses into daily life in a city I never saw for myself except through the window of an airplane, but was just starting to fumble my way around true "film festival" cinema. I still hadn't seen very many films more structurally experimental than Mystery Train or Memento yet, and though I loved the conceit of recounting the same events from differing perspectives a la Rashomon, I wasn't certain that Hong's approach, difficult if not impossible to fully synthesize on a single viewing of this film, was the correct one.

After the passage of time I came to feel that it was. Not only had many of Hong's images and lines of dialogue stuck in my memory, but reading other discussion of the film, usually on the internet, had helped to make its clear virtues stand out and any questions or doubts I might have originally had recede. I eventually started trying to catch up with Hong’s other films on DVD (up through Turning Gate), and though they all impressed me, especially the latter, none seemed to match up to what I was now considering to be the formal brilliance of Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors. The structural complexity of the film and its parallel but asymmetrical repetitions, I now felt, stressed the importance as well as limitations of human perception and perspective on defining our reality, or realities.

But, though I now owned it on DVD and had checked out a scene or two, I still hadn't rewatched the film in full. And I knew that my memory of the actual film was becoming incomplete and distorted. So when I got it in my head to run a Blog-a-Thon on a single film, it was one of the first to come to mind: a film I knew I'd liked and would want to share with others, one I wanted to see again and had easy access to, and as a bonus, one that deals directly with something I greatly enjoy about internet discussions of film but don’t feel I see much of on my own blog: the friction and reconciliation between (slightly or greatly) differing viewpoints.

Seeing the film again last Friday, and subsequently studying it carefully on DVD in the past few days, I finally realized just how much I’d misremembered it. I'd completely forgotten whole scenes and even characters like Soo-jung's brother and Jae-hoon's other love interest. I'd forgotten major aspects of even the lead characters, such as Jae-hoon's wealth (in each of the Hong films I've seen this week, morally weak but sexually successful male characters all have a trait that lets them trump more "average" guys: fame, fortune, beauty, a position of authority, or a combination thereof). I'd even gotten the basics of the structure I so admired wrong: I’d only remembered a telling and a retelling and in my post announcing the Blog-a-Thon had referred to the structure as simply "bifurcated", overlooking the fact that the parallel scenes were nested in a flashback structure and were temporally fragmented in a much more complex way.

However, as you can probably guess, I don't feel weird or bad or anything but fascinated by the distorted mirror through which I've been recalling my first experience with this film. It only provides further evidence, though it might be overly "neat" for me to say it out loud, of the "limitations of human perception and perspective on defining our reality, or realities."

This reflection was a part of a day-long Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon. My second piece on the film will be published here later today.