Six Asian Films from SIFF 33: Short Takes on The Elephant and the Sea, Manufactured Landscapes, No Regret, Protagonist, Sakuran, and White Light/Black Rain

elephantseaFace to Face: A Flower Horn fish and Berg Lee (Photo: Greenlight Pictures)

Originally published in the May 26, 2007, issue of Northwest Asian Weekly.

THE ELEPHANT AND THE SEA

Gorgeously shot in Kuala Selangor on Malaysia’s west coast, this contemplative drama from writer-director Woo Ming Jin juxtaposes the serene beauty of lush green forests (luxuriantly heavy with humidity) against the dire poverty of the surrounding village. It’s a place where the river meets the sea, and the water imagery reaches a near-intoxicating potency, especially in glimpses of a ruined pier whose remains suggest a shipwreck.

Berg Lee is superb as Ding. A tall and angelically impassive youth with a slight frame, he resembles a manga action figure in some shots, his vaguely mullet-ish feathery hair coating his neck like down. Yet he’s essentially powerless, drifting through dead-end jobs, hocking every item he can find to sustain existence.

Woo utilizes sound design instead of music: The dripping of a faucet, the shuffle of shoes on cement, and the rushing roar of a waterfall are as expressive as the film’s off-kilter dialogue. When a “lottery fish” catches Ding’s eye in an aquarium store, the salesgirl swoons, “You will either see the numbers on his body, or they will come to you in a dream.” That dream is the movie itself.

pyramidPhoto by Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of Mongrel Media

MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky tours Asian dumping grounds that teem with Western waste: He sifts through the rubble of dismantled computers shipped East for low-paid laborers to recycle and canvases landscapes ruined by factory pollution in particularly picturesque ways. Burtynsky also observes displaced residents along the Yangtze River who’ve been “paid per brick to take their cities apart,” just before rising waters from Three Gorges Dam flood the remains. There’s a fleeting shot of a little boy, perhaps aged 6; the look of fear, incomprehension, and devastation in his eyes is unmistakable. It isn’t merely a home that’s being destroyed, which would be bad enough, it’s an entire childhood, an entire world.

While such footage has historical value, Burtynsky and director Jennifer Baichwal make a critical error in refusing to take a moral stance on the atrocities they record. The photographer’s declared neutrality might seem genuine if he were giving his art away for free, yet an unframed Burtynsky can fetch as high as $16,000, according to the artist’s representative at the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco. Baichwal and her subject think it’s enough merely to “present” beautified suffering for high-end consumers. I say that neither can differentiate between reportage and exhibitionism.

The following capsules originally appeared in Northwest Asian Weekly in the issue dated June 2, 2007.

NO REGRET

no regretOne of the most sadistic films I’ve seen in over 30 years of movie-going. Though there’s comparatively little bloodshed, the South Korean writer-director Leesong Hee-il’s debut demonstrates its hatred and contempt for gay men through increasingly lurid and emotionally exploitative plot twists. What can one say for a movie that culminates in a man being buried alive in an open grave, his screams muffled by masking tape, as his “boyfriend” impassively watches?

The director shows some visual talent; he achieves a stunning chiaroscuro effect in a dark boardroom that’s illumined by a thin line of bay windows facing downtown Seoul. His screenplay, however, consists of such dreadful maneuvers as staging a needlessly graphic death scene for the one sympathetic character.

The lead actor Lee Yeong-hoon, as a laid-off factory worker-turned-table dancer, performs as well as anyone could, given the film’s ungenerous treatment of male prostitutes, yet his handsome face and equally handsome backside cannot redeem what amounts to homophobia in drag as a love story.

protagonist

PROTAGONIST

Oscar winner Jessica Yu’s new documentary marks a quantum leap upwards in terms of style and subject from her previous feature, the distasteful In the Realms of the Unreal. Yu begins Protagonist with four men reminiscing about their fathers; from there, the film progresses to a kind of meditation on masculinity, with each man recounting how his father’s behavior (physically abusive or fearful and ineffectual) determined the son’s quest for identity. Yu’s husband, the martial-arts connoisseur Mark Salzman, amusingly speaks of watching “Kung-Fu” in the early 1970s and seeing in David Carradine a “model of a man who was custom-made for me,” as opposed to his own needlepoint-stitching pop.

Yu’s editing brilliantly dovetails unsuspected connections between her four disparate interviewees. What’s more, she uses ancient Greek tragedy as a counterpoint to their stories. Choruses of marionettes recite passages from Euripides in addition to enacting poignant recreations of bank robberies and bitter childhood memories. Janie Geiser’s puppet design and Robert Conner’s animation sequences are as refreshingly ingenious as Yu’s directorial choices.

SAKURAN

sakuranMika Ninagawa’s directorial debut covers much the same territory as Memoirs of a Geisha. Her manga-inspired film—awash in so many vibrant kimonos, swirling cherry blossoms, and rapid cuts that watching it is akin to being inside a kaleidoscope—largely succeeds where Geisha bombed. The entrancing beauty Anna Tsuchiya uses her expressive eyes to convey the highs and lows of a courtesan’s life; there’s more going on in her performance than in Yuki Tanada’s unsatisfying script, which foregoes character development but not melodrama. The images and music, however, are confident to a fault. Ninagawa and her cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka frame dazzling shots through the prism of flame-colored fish darting through glass cages. Composer Ringo Shena anachronistically weaves together a jazz trio, Brazilian tango, fuzz-guitar from the Jimi Hendrix school of playing, and a brightly orchestrated, toe-tapping Broadway musical finale that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in Chicago. The handsome young actor Hiroki Narimiya has a few fine moments (too few, it turns out) as Tsuchiya’s first great love.

white light black rainA drawing by a survivor of the atomic bomb (Image courtesy of HBO)

WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN

Director Steven Okazaki interviews 14 survivors from the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when his made-for-HBO documentary ended, I was left wanting to spend more time among the old people, learning from them and about them. The interviews are chopped up and spliced in with one another — a few seconds here, a few seconds elsewhere — so that it takes more than half the movie’s 85-minute length for a connection to build, to take root in our hearts and minds. There should be a cut of this film, someday, geared to viewers who have longer attention spans. The delicate Sakue Shimohira made the strongest emotional impression on me, especially as she describes her sister’s response to their mother’s death.

Okazaki edits a montage of drawings and paintings made by children who survived the bombings; these dark, colorful portraits of the apocalypse and its aftermath prepare us — to an extent — for the almost impossible: a look at footage of the victims’ burn wounds, of the infected sockets where eyes and limbs once were.

Except for the use of Brian Eno’s ambient piece “Late October,” most of Okazaki’s music backgrounds are too distracting. Still, the movie cannot help but be devastating to experience. — NPT

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