Monday, August 25, 2008

Adam Hartzell on No Regret

Too busy to get much writing done lately, I've consoled myself by making some hopefully helpful improvements to my blogroll, finally adding links to more Frisco Bay film organizations and bloggers (where possible, the latter will be listed in order of most recent publication).

Even better, my buddy Adam Hartzell has offered up a new piece on a Korean film set to play Frisco Bay starting this weekend. Without any further ado, here's Adam:

My reception of a film can often be affected by where I see a film, especially when I see a film outside of the United States. And being that I’ve had many opportunities to travel to South Korea, seeing certain films in the urban spaces of Busan or Seoul has influenced my take on them. I don’t find it necessary to extract such 'outside' influences from my interpretations of films. I don’t watch films in isolation but in concert with my surroundings inside and outside the theatre, in communion with the time and place of the screening. But when a film I saw in one space enters another space, I find myself in a conundrum, aware that a film I loved seeing in Busan, South Korea might not be so vibrant in its effects here in San Francisco. This is the predicament I find myself in with No Regret, the first feature film from South Korea by an out Gay director, Leesong Hee-il.

No Regret follows the young adult beginnings of Su-he (Lee Young-hoon) as he leaves an orphanage for a factory job that he quits after choosing self-respect over getting-by. But then finding he does indeed need to get by, he ends up in a 'host bar' selling his body while trying to avoid selling his soul. The 'madam' of this host bar is reluctant to bring Su-he on since he’s found gay-identified employees find the emotional demands of the job more difficult to navigate. These complications become personal for Su-he when a lover from his past walks up in the club.

This is a film with an unapologetic Queer 'supertext' that would have been harshly censored in South Korea as recently as the early 1990’s. But the screening I attended in a multiplex at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2006 was packed. (No, that’s not a spelling mistake. The city transliterates its name with a 'B', whereas the festival retains the old 'P' transliteration.) All seats were occupied and even more butts were bumming seats from the steps inside the theatre. The young crowd was a hopeful sign of politics not to come, but already here, a possibly Gay-friendly politics that will lead to future political beefs marching in the streets of Seoul and elsewhere throughout the peninsula. The crowd’s excitement before the screening and uproarious applause after made me happy, despite the overly melodramatic ending.

Yet I worry more about the reception of No Regret in San Francisco. My experience of the political potential of the young Koreans filling the seats of this screening with a palpable energy and anticipation, then their resounding applause of appreciation during the credits, will never be severed from my feelings about No Regret, however flawed a film an 'objective' take without that experience might reveal. I was happy to find it playing at Frameline in 2007 and am even happier to see it picked up by Regent Releasing to screen at the Lumiere Theatre on August 29th. However, since San Francisco is an oasis of Queer films, No Regret could be accused of taking some turns that readers with well-dog-eared copies of The Celluloid Closet might find clichéd. The San Francisco viewer might find the ending in particular to be a bit overly melodramatic and guilty of self-loathing. I excuse the melodrama because South Korean cinema has a long melodramatic history, and such allows this Queer film to nestle up nicely with the history of genre in South Korean film. And as Guy Maddin asked us at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year, give melodrama a chance, since it enables us to live within our dreams, often something we must suppress during the realities of our everyday. As for the self-loathing, I’d have to ruin the ending to provide my counter-interpretation.

In the end, I’m well aware that in spite of my fondness for No Regret, others might not find themselves smiling at the end of the film in the glow of the future and the hope of the present energized around them in the theatre as I did. Their experience can’t possibly be mine. I will respect how your time and place will affect your interpretation of No Regret when you go see it in San Francisco. But in sharing a little bit of my experience to take with you into yours, I hope you will find it night well spent.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

SFFS Screen at the Kabuki

I finally made it to a film at the Sundance Kabuki's SFFS Screen- the San Francisco Film Society's dedicated venue for year-round bookings of festival-style films with very limited commercial potential but high aesthetic merit. Though the films have distributors they might well have bypassed Frisco Bay theatrical runs were it not for these (generally) week-long bookings in the smallest house in Japantown's recently-remodeled octoplex. I still haven't figured out how to predict the Kabuki's new pricing system with its somewhat confusing amenities fees -- my reserved-seating ticket cost $9, which was a little less than I had expected for a Tuesday night. I think weekend shows cost more, and matinées a bit less.

The film I saw was the Forsaken Land, a prize-winner from the 2005 Cannes Film Festival that I'd missed at the 3rd i South Asian Film Festival a couple years back. I'd never seen a film from Sri Lanka before now, and though I'm not sure how much this one told me about the country that I hadn't somehow gleaned from geography books, news reports and travelers' tales already, it was certainly very beautiful, if bleak. Set around a country dwelling in a region of strong winds, tall grasses, thin foliage and an ever-present military, the Forsaken Land eminates sexuality, danger, and the wearing-down of human bodies in the face of daily hardship, all in an austere, nearly-wordless style that may seem to familiar to viewers of past SFIFF films like Los Muertos and Blissfully Yours. And though director Vimukthi Jayasundara often may seem more like a borrower from those films or others than a presenter of a strikingly original aesthetic, he nonetheless has captured some unforgettable moments in his camera.

One favorite shot shows a woman, who we have just watched being rubbed up against by a sexual predator on a packed bus ride, enter her home and collapse supine on her bed, as if in agony from the travails of her routine. The camera's position at the head of the bed hides her face and emphasizes her elbows and knees, all of which point to the ceiling in a defensive position like a porcupine's spines. Another set of shots captures a young girl going out into the road during the onset of afternoon rain, the light from the sky transforming the grass into a rainbow of yellows, browns and greens. If you're at all interested in films that pack a visual wallop and that sparsely portion out their narrative beats, you really ought to see Jayasundara's film in a cinematic setting.

The Forsaken Land plays through August 14th at the Kabuki. Future SFFS Screen offerings include the documentary Hats Off August 22-28, the Italian film Days and Clouds August 29 through September 4, Germany's Yella September 5-11, the magical-realist, Kazakhstan-set Wind Man September 12-18, and both Youssou N'Dour: Return to Gorée and Opera Jawa beginning September 19th. I'm not sure if the latter two opening the same day means there will be two SFFS Screens for a week, or if they'll share the same screen and alternate showtimes, but I do know that the Indonesian musical phantasmagoria Opera Jawa was one of my favorite films seen in 2007, and I'm very glad to get another chance to see it in a cinema. It's one I'll be recommending to friends both in and out of cinephile circles.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Travel Logs

I'm back from a very pleasant and rejuvenating trip to Costa Rica- my first time in Central America. Since it had been quite a while since I had a vacation that involved neither family nor a film festival (or both), I felt like I was getting some much-needed perspective while there. But though most of my time was spent in rural areas and wildernesses where it was easier to view monkeys, sloths, and tropical birds than movies, my thoughts did turn to cinema from time to time. I tried to be on the lookout for traces of homegrown Costa Rican filmmaking but came up empty. I did catch a broadcast of Ernst Lubitsch's charming Bluebeard's Eighth Wife the one time I stayed in a hotel room equipped with television. And I at one point made a foray to a mini-multiplex in the country's second-largest city Alajuela, where I caught a dreadful Hollywood product (X-Files: I Want to Believe), picked from the four available options -- all big-budget films from major North American studios -- because it was the only one not dubbed in Spanish and that seemed less likely to feature more explosions and adolescent power fantasy than my travel companion and I were in the mood to suffer. Too bad it was still such a bad movie- succeeding at simulating the veneer of intelligence but nothing more. Anyway, for the most part this trip was a real break from cinephilia.

Back in Frisco, where the options for moviegoing are more varied (more on that soon), I was pleased to see that the interview I conducted with Guy Maddin last May was published at GreenCine during my absence from the blogosphere. I hope the conversation is as enjoyable to read as it was to have. The occasion of the interview was the San Francisco International Film Festival's screenings of Maddin's tongue-in-cheek travelogue of his hometown, My Winnipeg. If you missed this film at the festival or during its brief run in town, it's still playing through Thursday, August 14th in San Jose, at the Camera 12 cineplex. Definitely a film worth a little travel time to get to see on a big screen.