Saturday, March 24


The Academy's train not taken

I don't really believe in the concept of "perfection" in art, and I love many of my favorite works of art for their flaws, limitations, and shortcomings as much as I love them for their precision, their ambition, or their aesthetic achievements. But if you were to ask me what film I considered the closest to "perfect" of those I've seen, I probably would blurt out Sunrise without giving it a second thought. This film is a technical and stylistic marvel that sums up much of the history of film up to its moment of release in September 1927, including in its palette many of the hallmarks of German expressionism, French impressionism, Soviet-style montage, Scandinavian pastoralism and Hollywood melodrama. Critics and admirers of the film have pointed out the many dichotomous structures that make up Sunrise, and though I loved the film before I read it, I very much like Lucy Fisher's opening argument from her BFI monograph on the film, in which she proposes:
Rather than embrace fixed divisions, Sunrise is a text marked by fluid boundaries - junctions that trace the subtle connection between entities rather than their clear demarcation. It is this complex mode of 'border crossing' (this world of 'Both/And' -not- 'Either/Or' [Berman, 24]) that makes the film so poignant, resonant, fascinating and modern.
What is probably most enchanting about Sunrise for me could be described as one of these dichotomies or "border crossings": its extremely sophisticated telling of its extremely simple story, of a man and a woman falling in love with each other all over again, as if for the first time. To me, a sophisticated telling of a simple, even primal, story is the raison d’être of most of the greatest narrative cinema I know, and I can't think of a more classical example than this film made by German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau on his first Hollywood try.

For it is a Hollywood film, with a budget larger than any its studio (Fox) had ever allocated to a single film, Hollywood stars Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien (both of whom grew up here in Frisco) in the lead roles, and studio-dictated probable compromises to Murnau's vision such as intertitles, and in some prints, a score and a resultant lack of tinting. However, it was more of a critical sensation than a commercial one. Which brings me to the point of this post.

As you may have noticed, Sunrise is often listed or grouped among the films that have won the A.M.P.A.S. Award for Best Picture. This is because the first year that the Academy Awards were held, there was no category called "Best Picture". Instead, there were two categories, which according to my favorite source of Academy Awards information (data and dish alike), Damien Bona and Mason Wiley's Inside Oscar, were entitled "Best Production" and "Unique and Artistic Production". The former went to the large-scale fighter pilot saga Wings, while Sunrise took the latter category's prize.

As little as I talk about them on this site, like many cinephiles I'm fascinated by the Oscars, even as I've grown very cynical about their usefulness as a barometer of genuine aesthetic achievement. For years, perhaps as a kind of sentimental attachment to these awards, I've liked to think of Sunrise and Wings as equal Best Picture winners at that first ceremony (which I've learned was not held until May 1929). So last month, when fellow blogger Edward Copeland researched the Academy's official position on whether the two films' awards were "roughly equivalent" and learned that the official word was that, no, only Wings deserves to be considered a "Best Picture" winner, I wasn't surprised, but I was very resistant to his suggestion that I "defer to the Academy" on this issue. It sparked a somewhat intense, though civil debate in the comments section of his post. In case you don't feel like reading all the comments, I'll quote a pair of sentences that form the crux of my position:
I have never encountered any evidence that in 1928[sic] the Best Production award won by Wings was considered any more prestigious or important than the Unique and Artistic Production award Sunrise won. There's even a paragraph (unfortunately unsourced) in wikipedia that suggests the opposite.
Well, I've recently encountered some evidence that Wings was considered more prestigious and important. Perhaps vague, perhaps inconclusive, and definitely incomplete. But evidence nonetheless, and I feel I ought to present what I have so far.

I thought that by looking up articles on the first Oscars I might be able to learn these two awards relative importance at the time through their prominence in media coverage. So I went to the public library's microfilm holdings. It turns out that, though the first Oscars were handed out by Academy president Douglas Fairbanks at a very brief ceremony held on May 16, 1929, they had been announced nearly three months earlier. The February 20, 1929 issue of Variety magazine lists the winners in a page seven article entitled "Academy Awards Talent Credit for Making-Writing-Acting-Titling". Titling? It refers to the first and only Oscar awarded for the writing of silent movie intertitles, which went to MGM's Joseph Farnham. And the award is listed in the eighth paragraph of the Variety article, after mentions of the awards for best performance (Emil Jannings & Janet Gaynor), best direction (Frank Borzage, dramatic for Seventh Heaven & Lewis Milestone, comedy for the Two Arabian Knights), and best writing (Ben Hecht for his original story Underworld & Benjamin Glazer for his adaptation of Seventh Heaven). Continuing in Variety's order, cinematography (Charles Rosher & Karl Strauss, Sunrise), art direction (William C. Menzies, the Tempest and the Dove), and engineering effects (Roy Pomeroy, Wings) are listed before the article comes to the categories in question in the twelfth (Wings for "production of most outstanding picture") and thirteenth (Sunrise for "production of most unique and artistic picture") paragraphs of the story.

Twelfth and thirteenth paragraphs? This was not what I expected. I thought I'd be able to determine which was the "real" best picture winner from the headline, like you can on every newspaper throughout the land on Oscar Monday these days. I didn't know how to interpret the burying of these two awards almost to the end of the article, just before the "Special" awards for the Jazz Singer and Charlie Chaplin. Did the fact that the "outstanding picture" award came slightly first mean that it was slightly more prestigious (though still less prestigious than title writing or engineering effects)? Or was saving "most unique and artistic picture" to next-to-next-to-last, rubbing shoulders with the award to the film that "revolutionized the industry", and to the man cited for "acting, writing, directing and producing the Circus" a more prestigious placement?

Reading the May 22nd, 1929 coverage of the ceremony itself told me that in the months since the announcement of the results, Variety had made up its mind as to which was the most important award. As a side note, Frisco Bay residents will be interested to know that the lead paragraph of this page 4 article relays the intention of Stanford University to follow "the lead of the U. of Southern California in recognizing the [motion] picture as a subject for a formal course of study" the coming fall, which was apparently announced at the same dinner where the awards were distributed.

But the only awards mentioned in the article, other than a quick sum up of the winners and runners-up (but not the categories they were honored for) in the last couple paragraphs, were Wings, for "most outstanding picture of the year" and the special award to Warner for the Jazz Singer. The award to Paramount head Adolph Zukor for Wings was presented in an unusual manner. A "screen dialog" between the Academy president and Zukor was, as the article puts it, "photographed and recorded in New York and projected by a small portable machine". This may not be conclusive proof that the Academy itself considered the Wings award the most important of the evening; there could have been equally unique methods of presentation for the other awards that Variety chose not to cover, or it could be that Zukor only got this treatment only because he was unable to cross the country to attend himself. But I have to admit these are at best weak possibilities, not at all corroborated by the more detailed description of the event in Inside Oscar (which still doesn't mention how the "most unique and artistic picture" award was received). I'm pretty convinced that the "most outstanding picture" award won by Wings really was the big award of the night, and that it's only sensible to consider it the predecessor of the "best picture" award, to the exclusion of Sunrise's award.

I can't decide if I'm disappointed or not. I like Wings a lot. William Wellman is one of my favorite directors of the late twenties and thirties. And, as one of the biggest spectacles of the year, filled with ground-breaking special effects and an epic scope, it makes some sense that Wings would be the first in a line of films to include the likes of Ben-Hur, Patton, Braveheart and Gladiator, even if I personally value it more than all those combined. However, I also like to imagine a world in which simple or primal stories told sophisticatedly, like say, Shadows, the Conformist, Dead Man and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, might have been the ones earning the film world's most prestigious honor the year they were released, without consideration of their box office success. In that world, Sunrise is definitely the Best Picture of 1927.

Speaking of that year, this post is an under-the-wire entry in the 1927 Blog-a-Thon, which includes another take on Sunrise as well.

Friday, March 23


Hong Sang-soo at the SFIAAFF

The SF International Asian American Film Festival has wrapped up here in Frisco, but it lives on this weekend at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Camera 12 in San Jose. The latter venue will provide the last chance to sample the festival's retrospective on Korean director Hong Sang-soo, when it screens his newest and perhaps most accessible film Woman on the Beach on Sunday at 6:30 PM.

It's been a wonderfully hectic week for me, between immersing myself in Hong's films, taking in the odd film by another director (like Ryuichi Hiroki's It's Only Talk, which wasn't as odd as I'd hoped,) hosting a Virgin Stripped bar By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon and reconnecting with cinephiles I hadn't seen in a while. One was Asian cinema devotee and sf360 contributor Jennifer Young, who swapped reactions with me at the AMC 1000, making me wish I'd had time to fit the just-announced prize-winner Owl and the Sparrow into my viewing schedule, just before we ducked into a question-and-answer session with Hong following Tuesday's screening of Woman on the Beach, which I'd seen on Sunday. She also had the foresight to record Hong's responses on a digital recorder, and the generosity to offer her transcript up for publication here at Hell On Frisco Bay. Here it is:
Q: What’s your take on reality?

Director Hong: In the true sense there's no such thing as reality – it's just a word that we use for convenience. There's no such thing as reality. For example if I say, "Can you pick that apple up," you know it's an apple because I point at it, and we both agree to call it that. But when I look at the apple I perceive different things, you perceive different things, so it's approximate. So when I say something and you seem to respond, we feel we are in the same sense, the same perception, but in actuality we don't share the same exact thing. Even though we try to share our feelings about the same apple if I tried for 100 years to explain how I feel about this apple you will never understand how I feel. Right? So it's always an approximate thing- reality. So there is no such thing as reality.

Q: What's the starting point for your films?

Director Hong: Usually for me I am starting with a stereotypical attitude. I try to detach myself from the temptation to make something because I feel...[can't hear the rest of this sentence]. I try to tell myself I start from the structure and if I'm lucky I may get to the point where I find something new. And the new thing can be truer than my stereotypical reaction to the things.

Q: Who were some directors who inspired you?

Director Hong: Very many, many directors I liked. Jean Renoir. Eric Rohmer. Luis Bunuel. Some films of John Ford. Very many directors. When I was looking at them for the first time they stayed in my mind as a kind of reference point. So they told me something. Each director. When I'm doing something wrong one of them says to me "you are doing something wrong"! That's what I hear in my mind.

Q: Drunkenness and how it's been a catalyst for the characters in your films.

Director Hong: The situations or the characters I don’t realize when I choose. A situation comes to me and when it feels right I use it. The drinking scene happens to be the kind of scene that appeals to me. I can say that because I drink a lot. It comes to me more often. It just comes to me when I think about the script. I don’t find any reason to refuse it so I just use it."

Q: How did the long shot become such a big part of your style?

Director Hong: In the beginning of my filming I didn’t think about that, but like the drinking scene it just happened. I just used this kind of style of framing and the long take and then I tried to analyze it myself and I couldn't find the real answer. The only answer I found was that each director, I think, needs to discover a space, a temporal limit, and in that limitation that he feels he can explore more. So instead of putting into smaller frames when I have this bigger frame and the long take I feel I can bring up more things from myself.

Q:On the topic of style, you used to not use any kind of zoom but you did in Tale of Cinema. I believe and you use it in Woman on the Beach too. Talk about your use of the zoom and what it means to you.

Director Hong: It doesn't really mean anything. [Audience laughs] Like many elements in my movies they change, as I grow older. In Woman is the Future of Man when I was shooting I wanted to use the zoom but time was not enough so I had to postpone to when I was shooting Tale of Cinema. The first day of shooting I could use the zoom, I used it. It technically shows the actor's face closely without cutting in. If you cut in you have to stop and re-shoot with a long take and you have to ask the actor to do the same thing, which I really don't want to do. That’s one reason for not shooting it. And the other is a little bit of an alienation thing. When it's too emotional I like to feel detached a little – not too much. In Tale of Cinema I used it more. Here it was more a technical reason. I used it to show the face more closely without asking the actor to do the same thing.

Q: Was the final scene an attempt to change her negative perception of Korean men?

Director Hong: She says she doesn't have much respect for Korean men but right after that she needs help from Korean men. I thought about that scene near the end of a shooting day. A long time ago I was in Seoul in the metro. I was very tired and depressed. It was summer, so I was wearing short sleeves and this woman hit me here on the arm. I was surprised and I looked back. She was very gentle; she had a very gentle face and had a baby on her back. She just saw a mosquito on my arm and she hit my arm. And she was so embarrassed but when I saw her face I felt so good. Even though she's a total stranger and a female a mosquito is biting this man so she must stop it. It's very – you know what I mean? I felt so good. So I wanted you to experience the same thing.

Q: Does the setting of the seaside resort having any meaning for you?

Director Hong: I don't travel a lot, so the places I've been are very few. I tend to choose the settings from the places I've been, and I like that place.

Q: Talk about the repetition; every feature has at least one story that is repeated twice and the comment by the character in this film that she'll not be repeating the same thing he did; perhaps this is a comment on a departure of this style in future films?

Director Hong: When I released this film I wrote a simple statement where I said the repetition of the structure is a very good medium to show things, but if we repeat as a human being it's a sign of sickness. By using that structure I show how bad it is to repeat. We all know that each moment has to be perceived as a new moment but somehow in our brains like hair something is always twisted or tangled and you repeat things. For example somebody praised a specific action or you did something very well. Then inside something twists and you want to do it again for somebody who doesn't need that thing. Our mind is so fragile it's always being twisted. That's why we do repeat things. But to show that one of the means is comparison so I try to show that through repetition in the structure.
Thanks so much, Jennifer, for sharing this!

Wednesday, March 21


Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors: the Blog-a-Thon directory

You've come to the right place. This post is the hub of the Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon being held all day today, March 21st, 2007. It will be updated with links to other blog entries on Hong Sang-soo's 2000 film, also known as Oh! Soo-jung, as they come in. If you have written (or drawn, podcasted, etc.) something about this film today, please leave a comment below or e-mail me with an alert.

The contributions are already coming in, starting with Squish's review at the Film Vituperatem, presented in his usual segmented reviewing style- only moreso, as befitting this divisive film.

Oggs Cruz in his write-up of the film at his Oggs' Movie Thoughts talks about his "metaphorical devirginization, into Hong Sang-soo's cinema" and then of Soo-jung's devirginization.

David Gray starts a piece that he e-mailed me for publication here that begins with the "image of a tram halted in mid-air", and works out from that crucial point in the film.

Adam Hartzell has posted an essay using a Chuck Stephens line as a jumping-off point to a much larger discussion of "doubt" at Notes Inspired By the Film, his new blog adjunct to

And my own first piece, a reflection on my original experience with the film, and why I selected it for this Blog-a-Thon, is now up as well. I've also written what amounts to a "dog ate my homework" note. Hopefully my kind (and smart! and extremely good-looking, all of you!) readers are more understanding than Mr. Holmes, Social Studies, 7th Grade.

Philip of London Korean Links has posted a delightful contribution that assesses the access to Hong's films in the UK and contemplates Rashomon, kissing, and his own mixed feelings about Hong. Sometimes "rambling" (his word) can be a hell of a lot of fun to read.

UPDATE 3/22/07:

Michael Guillen, proprietor of the Evening Class, brought his trusty digital recorder to the q-and-a following last night's screening of Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors at the Pacific Film Archive, as part of the SF International Asian American Film Festival. However, Director Hong is soft-spoken enough that Michael felt the recording would be better represented by this reconstruction than an attempt at a literal transcription. It was cross-posted at Twitch. I can't think of a more fitting way to present a discussion of a film that, as Michael puts it, "says so much about the limitations if not the fabrications of memory".

UPDATE 3/23/07:

Jennifer Young sent me her transcription of the greater portion of Hong's q-and-a from the previous night's screening of Woman on the Beach. Though he doesn't speak specifically on Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors here, most of his comments lean enough toward the general, encompassing and illuminating all his films, that I think it's well worth including them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Those are the "official" entries so far. I'm expecting a few more after-the-official-deadline pieces to come in, so continue to look back in the next day or so.

A hearty thanks to Andy, Atom, David, Girish, Philip, Samuel, Thom and the sf360 staff for helping me spread the word about this event, as well as anyone else I'm overlooking.

Here are a few links to other articles on the film, which were published long before I even thought of, much less announced this Blog-a-Thon (let me know if I’ve left any out):

acquarello at Strictly Film School.

Michael Atkinson at the Village Voice.

Marshall Deutelbaum has indicated that his essay, "The Deceptive Design of Hong Sangsoo’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors," which appeared in the November, 2005 issue of New Review of Film and Television Studies, is available at in its entirety on line here.

Darcy Paquet and Adam Hartzell at


Cable Car Suspended

I'm very pleased with the way this Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon has gone. And it's still going: comments sections are starting to sprout discussions, and I'm expecting at least three late entries to arrive in the next couple days, so keep your eye on this site. I'm a little embarrassed to reveal that one of the late entries is my own. I'm happy with the reflection I was able to complete, but I haven't been able to finish my essay yet. This is what I get when I mix one part over-ambitiousness, two parts procrastination, two parts delightful distraction (including unexpected houseguests among other things), one part disorganization, and one part having all my notes swept by a gust of underground wind out of my satchel and onto the third rail of the BART train as I was about to head over to the Pacific Film Archive to hear Hong's q-and-a (I'm not joking, and you should have seen the look on my face when I realized what had just happened), and stir.

The thing about notes, though, is that the act of writing them down is almost as helpful a memory aid as looking at them afterward. I'm pretty sure I still have most if not all my ideas up there in my head, clamoring to get out onto an essay. And perhaps it's for the best; viewing the film once again and hearing some of Hong's answers in the q-and-a helped clarify some of the issues around his working method in general and Virgin Stripped bare By Her Bachelors in particular.

Thanks for your patience.


Intention, Perhaps

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.


David Gray on Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors

David Gray doesn't have a blog ("as of yet", he says) but that hasn't prevented him from contributing to this Blog-a-Thon. I'm extremely glad he took me up on my offer to publish e-mail submissions for the event here at Hell On Frisco Bay! An offer that still stands, if any other blogless readers out there aren't wholly satisfied by leaving comments on others' pieces.
In Hong Sang-soo's Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors the image of a tram halted in mid-air during its ascent by a power outage and swaying back and forth is literally central, occurring at the halfway point of this carefully structured film. And this tram contains the titular virgin, Soo-Jung who is deciding on her way whether to meet her boyfriend Jae-Hoon at a hotel for a prearranged deflowering. As Soo-Jung stands in the interrupted tram, waiting for its stillness to break either up or down, she assists a mother by holding her screaming baby, in a beautifully constructed metaphor of her stuck life. Each of the three men in her life, all after her in their different fashions yet for the same reason, behave in childish, demanding ways toward her, and she is content to hold them as they scream.

Until this small intermediary scene we have been following the narrative of Soo-Jung’s suitor Jae-Hoon, in his soju-soaked courtship of Soo-Jung. It is the very screams of this baby that carry the viewer back to the beginnings of the same courtship, which we will see all over again, this time from Soo-Jung’s perspective.

That Soo-Jung should see Jae-Hoon as the most attractive of the men in her life is hardly surprising if her older brother is in any way a representative male. In his first appearance he comes into her room late at night and begs for a hand job until she wearily gives in. And then there is her boss Young-Soo, the man who has introduced her to Jae-Hoon. He hardly seems notice her at times, but then nearly rapes her, stopping short out of physical cowardice, not any moral compunction. Perversely and tragically, she comforts him in this brutal scene. It is after the mid-point of the film, this central metaphor, that we see both of these "sex scenes." Their placement into the narrative that Hong has been implanting in his audience’s mind through the first half of the film has a shocking effect. Scenes that seemed comic the first time through take on a much darker feel. Hong further complicates matters by giving us alternate versions of many of the scenes we have already witnessed.

Ultimately, Soo-Jung acquiesces to Jae-Hoon's pleas, and she ends the film no longer a virgin, after another disquieting scene in which Jae-Hoon repeatedly tells her that he will be gentle, while at the same time his body belies his words. Words and actions seem to constantly be at odds in Hong's film, as if the characters are constantly trying to persuade themselves that what they are saying is true. Jae-Hoon, in one of his most selfish moments, loudly berates Soo-Jung for not being interested enough in him. He raves that she has made him consider marriage, and does she realize what a monumental thing it is for him to consider marriage? Here Jae-Hoon really is nothing but a big baby.

In the final shot of the film, Jae-Hoon tells Soo-Jung that he has found his match, and she tells him she has too, but if we follow her gaze as they embrace we know this is not true. They see the world oppositely, which Hong highlights not only through their wildly different memories, but also, in a wonderful shorthand, by showing two separate point-of-view shots at critical points in the film as they each look out the window of the hotel room. Jae-Hoon sees the hotel chef walking from left to right, and later Soo-Jung sees the same chef walking back in the opposite direction. But Soo-Jung remains trapped on this motionless tram, and what can she do but wait for it to start moving again, and take her somewhere?

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is the first of Hong Sang-Soo's films I've seen, and over the past few days I’ve seen two more, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, and Woman on the Beach, all thanks to the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. They are all fresh and still flowering in my mind, but I am eager to see more. These hurried thoughts on Virgin don’t even touch on much of what I have loved about Hong’s films, like the little glances we get of Seoul, and the great funny drinking scenes that seem to be a fixture. I eagerly look forward to reading what everyone else has to say about the film.

Saturday, March 17


Equinox knocking

OK, this is almost certainly my last post here before resurfacing next Wednesday, March 21 for the Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon. Actually it'll still be Tuesday here in Frisco when I start collecting and posting links as they come in, just in case any come in from a time zone where the 21st begins before it does here.

I just finished watching Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors and Turning Gate courtesy of the SF International Asian American Film Festival. The prints felt like pretty much perfect fits with the wall-filling screen at the AMC Van Ness, and Turning Gate's was particularly pristine and beautiful. I have to say that to my surprise I'm already kinda sold on using this multiplex as a venue for a film festival, and the renovations happening at the SFIAAFF's usual home at the Kabuki are going to have to be pretty good if they're going to stack up.

Earlier, I posted some preview coverage of films playing this year's SFIAAFF. I've just been tipped off that the Four Star has inked in the dates of its week-long engagement of my favorite film from last year's festival, Linda Linda Linda: April 6th-12th. Another of last year's SFIAAFF films I didn't see, Journey From the Fall, opens there April 20th.

Konrad Steiner stopped by to let me know that he and Irina Leimbacher, until recently Artistic Director of SF Cinematheque, have developed a program at Artists' Television Access called Kino21 which will show Yvonne Rainer's Journeys From Berlin/1971 March 29th, Bruce Baillie's gorgeous hour-long epic Quick Billy April 26th, and films by Chris Marker, James Benning and more on selected Thursdays through the summer months. ATA will also feature on March 30th an evening of films by my friend who also happens to be one of the most talented lo-fi filmmakers around, David Enos.

If you're already sore from kicking yourself for missing the new print of Jean Renoir's the Rules of the Game when it played the Castro last week, don't forget you have second chances all this week at either the Opera Plaza or the Rafael.

Michael Guillen recently pointed out two fascinating programs happening at venues that until now have unfortunately not been at the center of my radar screen. The first is happening tonight: two programs of animated shorts on 16mm at Oddball Films, a place I've yet to check out for myself. Spike & Mike may be playing down the street, but the twisted cartoons Dennis Nyback is showing were made by some of the legends of animation such as Friz Freleng, Robert Clampett and the Fleischer Brothers.

The other is an SFMOMA series of remakes, reimaginings, and their sources entitled Fidelity and Betrayal and running select Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons through April 22nd. This is a heavy-duty series that I only regret not learning about until too late to catch the first few episodes in the serial I'm most anxious to see in just such a situation: Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires. There's still time to catch the last three episodes, screening with Irma Vep by Olivier Assayas at the Phyllis Wattis Theatre tomorrow afternoon. Of the many other notable highlights I'd like to draw attention to an April 1 screening of the Entity with Peter Tscherkassky's appropriations Dream Work and Outer Space. I was dismayed to learn that the latter short was jeered by patrons of the Castro when it played before John Carpenter's the Thing recently. I suspect the people who appreciated the unusual programming choice far outnumbered the few vocal dissenters, though. It's probably not even worth worrying that any of the latter will be in attendance for the Entity or any of the other films in this series.

From 1946-1954 the SF Museum of Art ("Modern" wasn't added until 1975) was host to the legendary Art in Cinema series that helped inspire a generation of artist-filmmakers and inquisitive audiences. When the SFMOMA moved to its current location in 1995, the new building included a theatre designed for film and video screenings, but for various reasons it has only occassionally been a real cinephile destination. It seem that in the past several months an effort has been made to change that with the programming: the Werner Herzog retrospective, the Rob Epstein-curated series of documentaries, and now Fidelity and Betrayal. After this last series ends, the venue will prepare to host screenings for the 50th SF International Film Festival, running April 26-May 10. The one program announced to play there so far is the complete Hurricane Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke: a Requiem in Four Acts on Friday, May 4th. That's two days after a Castro-stage conversation between Wesley Morris and Spike Lee, who is this year's recipient of the annual Film Society Directing Award. SFMOMA, here's a long-overdue welcome to the list of Frisco theatre links on my sidebar.

Friday, March 16


25th SFIAAFF preview

It's a busy week for me. There are only a few days until the March 21 Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon I'm hosting here, and tonight the Hong Sang-soo film in question screens at 9:30 PM at the AMC 1000 Van Ness here in Frisco. The 25th SF International Asian American Film Festival is now underway, and between working, writing, other commitments, and conflicts built into the festival program, there's no way I can possibly see all the films I want to there. That's why I decided to break down and view a few on screener DVDs graciously provided by the festival. I watched three festival films on screeners last year and though I didn't try to hide it I wasn't exactly upfront about it either, which I regret. Since then I've only grown more frustrated by writing which seems to pretend that the difference between going to a cinema and watching a DVD at home is not worth mentioning, and more thankful for the exceptions (like this). For me the difference can be enormous, at least with a large portion of the films I most want to see. I consider a screener an option of last resort, used only when I'm all but certain I won't have another reasonable chance to see a film I desperately want to.

It certainly wasn't the way to see Lee Jun-ik's King and the Clown, by any definition a pageant too grand for my living room. It follows a twosome of ribald namsadang performers from the streets of Seoul to the court of King Yonsan, who has a surprising reaction to their mockery of his regime. The film's political and sexual themes intrigued me, but I never really connected on a plot-character level on this first viewing.

I'm terribly frustrated that prior commitments will keep me from the Castro Theatre this Sunday afternoon, where I'll miss out not only on the second chance King and the Clown deserves, but also Pavement Butterfly. I rarely watch silent films at home now that I've been spoiled by the many opportunities to see them in Frisco theatres with live musical accompaniment, like the one Robert Israel will be providing for this 1929 Anna May Wong vehicle from her career peak in Europe. Having never heard of the film before I popped the disc in my player with low expectations but was completely enthralled. Not so much by the story which, as you might guess from the film's title (Street Angel with an Asian twist), is a fairly standard sub-Borzage melodrama: a fan dancer afflicted by a lecherous would-be blackmailer finds a refuge in an artist's loft but it proves to be a temporary one when the truth about her past isn't revealed. And the video transfer I watched was of a rather poor quality. But what I could see of Richard Eichberg's direction, his moody depiction of Paris decadence and dingy backalleys, and most especially Wong's performance as the dancer, were plenty to make me forget the usual home-viewing limitations and distractions, even without any music or other soundtrack at all.

Unlike the 2004 SFIAAFF presentation Piccadilly in which she's second-billed but steals the show, Anna May Wong is the central character in Pavement Butterfly. After seeing it there can be no trace of doubt that she had the star quality to carry a film, if only the pan-European film market hadn't fragmented at the coming of talking pictures, or if only Hollywood had been more enlightened. It's worth mentioning that Wong's Chinese ancestry, while noted, is not particularly important to her role in the film, at least not at a superficial level of analysis (though those who want to follow the film's subtextual perspective on miscegenation will find it fruitful to so do). And though her beauty, her Asian-American identity, her star persona (to the degree it was allowed to blossom) and her acting ability all get tangled up with each other in the entity we call her "performance", I really think it takes a kind of genius to play a scene like the one midway through the picture where she's forced at knifepoint to lie to the man she's fallen in love with, and make it not only credible but heartbreaking. I'd love to see the other four collaborations between Wong and Eichberg someday.

Like Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, So Yong Kim's In Between Days is an intimate portrait of young love that shares its title with a classic Cure song. It's an assured debut with an astonishing lead performance (first-timer Ji-Seon Kim as Aimie, a Toronto immigrant struggling to navigate the messy, conflicted emotions of her intensifying crush on a friend) and a sense of space's impact on character. But otherwise they're completely different films- honest!

Grace Lee's American Zombie (pictured at the top of this post) is another truly International Asian American production (financed in South Korea, made in Los Angeles) and, like In Between Days it was handsomely shot on DV. Though the festival publicity department has not asked me to adhere to a word count on this particular film, I'm having trouble thinking of anything useful to say about it that doesn't, in some small way at least, betray the unexpected delights the film has in store. I'll just say that, while it may not be a masterpiece, this look into a marginalized subculture is a fascinating and structurally unique curio. It certainly must be the first in-depth exploration of documentary filmmaking ethics that also at various points feels like a comedy, an exploitation film, and a post 9/11 political commentary. Come back after you've seen it (it plays tonight at the Pacific Film Archive and tomorrow at the AMC 1000 Van Ness, both times with filmmakers expected to appear in person) and we can discuss it in more detail in the comments section below.

In the meantime, more SFIAAFF coverage has been collected by David Hudson at Greencine Daily.

Friday, March 9


See it with your own eyes

Shuji Terayama's rarely-screened Emperor Tomato Ketchup has just been added to the SF Cinematheque's Cinema of Shock program showing at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this Sunday. Other films being screened Jon Moritsugu's Mommy Mommy, Where's My Brain and Stan Brakhage's non-exploitation autopsy documentary the Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes. I'm not sure I'll ever have the stomach to see that film with my own eyes again, though I'm glad I watched it once. So don't expect to see me at the YBCA this weekend, even though I'd very much like to see the Terayama film.

Wednesday, March 7


Korean film watch

On March 21st, exactly two weeks from today, this site will be the hub of a Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-A-Thon, timed to coincide with the the Hong Sang-soo retrospective at Frisco's upcoming International Asian American Film Festival, or SFIAAFF. But Hong's films are not the only ones made on the Korean peninsula that Frisco audiences can catch in the next few weeks. The SFIAAFF is showing two others: a Dirty Carnival (March 16, 18 and 24) and King and the Clown (March 18 and 24). The Tiburon International Film Festival is showing Bloody Tie on March 23rd. And of course Bong Joon-ho's the Host opens at the Embarcadero, the Stonestown and the Rafael theatres this coming Friday. Monday night I attended a special screening of Bong's debut feature film, Barking Dogs Never Bite at the Clay Theatre introduced by the director in person. He seemed a little sheepish about showing a seven-year-old film to an audience of a hundred or so, making a joke about wanting to erase all our memories, Men In Black-style, after we'd finished watching it.

He needn't have been concerned. Barking Dogs Never Bite doesn't have the awkward feel of many a first feature, if that's what worried Director Bong (as he was addressed by Roger Garcia when bringing him and a translator onstage) was worried about. The film is full of assured silent storytelling as well as bitter dialogue, strong photography with each frame emphasizing whatever is most crucially important to the narrative, and good acting. It's true the he characters he created this first time out aren't always very easy to relate to, not because they're of another culture but because they seem programmed to always make the absolute worst decisions available, until the plot dictates otherwise. There were times when I was annoyed by contrivance and others where I was bothered by the dim view Bong seems to take of his fellow humans. But these apartment dwellers' consistent indifference to and passive (sometimes aggressive) aggression against each other is used as a landscape from which to highlight a few genuine acts of courageous humanity. More importantly, the "loveable loser"-dom of the leads, Lee Jung-jae and Bae Doo-na, is an asset to the plucky scenes that exhibit what seem to be Bong's real strengths as a director: gifts for putting together top-notch physical comedy and action sequences. I'm glad my memory didn't get wiped; I'm more excited than ever to finally catch up with the Host, said to heavily feature both of these pleasures, this weekend.

The screening was presented by the SF Film Society, which is gearing up for its 50th annual International Film Festival April 26-May 10th. And they clued us in that this mini-Renaissance of Korean filmwatching opportunities won't be followed by a long drought. At least two Korean films will be part of the 50th SFIFF: Ad Lib Night by Lee Yoon-ki, and the Old Garden by Im Sang-soo, who directed the President's Last Bang and a Good Lawyer's Wife.

Monday, March 5


For a few dollars Morricone

The Roxie and the Castro have both printed up calendars of their schedules up through late April, available at the respective theatres and elsewhere. Highlights at the Roxie look to include Robinson Devor's Police Beat (which has only been available in Frisco via broadcasts on the Sundance Channel, and then only in a reportedly cut version) April 6-12, Claude Chabrol's Comedy of Power April 20-26, and a number of free screenings, such as a Saturday morning series of film and video entitled Cine Del Barrio. Regular readers here could have pieced together from my previous posts practically the entire Castro program, including the restored print of the Rules of the Game March 9-14, the SF International Asian American Film Festival March 15-18, the Antonioni retrospective (also at the PFA in Berkeley) on various dates in March and April, and Two Or Three Things I Know About Her March 30-April 5. What I haven't mentioned yet are the slew of musicals in April (including Pennies From Heaven April 16th), a Friday the 13th MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS-presented prom movie triple-feature with Carrie as the blood-red centerpiece (also mark May 25th on your calendar for Gremlins, Howard the Duck and Troll 2), and best of all, the outstanding lineup of films chosen for the April 20-25 tribute to Ennio Morricone, probably the greatest living legend of film music (his main competition for that position being John Barry, who'll soon get his own tribute in the form of a James Bond series when the next Castro calendar is published).

Morricone's music seems ubiquitous to me; it exists well beyond the films he wrote it for, which in my book is one of the marks of a great film composer. The first Morricone-scored film I saw was probably the Untouchables, but I'm certain I knew some of his themes, particularly the famous ocarina call from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, well before that, even though I wasn't lucky enough to grow up in a household with spaghetti Western music in the record rack. As I've watched more films scored by Morricone over the years, I still hear a great deal of his music long before glimpsing the images he composed it for, sometimes in the most unlikely of places. The classic example is when I first saw Once Upon a Time in the West and immediately recalled the iconic harmonica smear as the third critical sample in the trifecta of musical collage that forms one of my favorite pieces of danceclub strangeness, "Little Fluffy Clouds" by the Orb (the other two being Rickie Lee Jones' reminiscences of skies in Arizona and Pat Methany's recording of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint). Years ago I was in a band which occasionally performed a cover of "Magic and Ecstasy" (quite different from this version) from Exorcist II: the Heretic, a film I've still never seen. And the only film featured in the Morricone montage put together for the Oscar ceremony last week that I hadn't seen before, Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, was accompanied by a theme I'm sure I've heard elsewhere. Perhaps in the background to a This American Life segment or two?

What minor epiphanies of recognition might the Castro's Morricone week bring me this time? Several of the films in the series would be near the very top of my to-see list even if I didn't know Morricone wrote their scores. Knowing it, they're at the top of my to-hear list too: Sam Fuller's long-shelved White Dog (playing with U-Turn April 20), Dario Argento's giallo horror Four Flies on Grey Velvet (with Once Upon a Time in the West April 21), Sergio Leone's Mexican revolution picture Duck, You Sucker! (with another unseen Western Italiano the Big Gundown, April 22). and Investigation of a Citizen Under Suspicion (with Petri's a Quiet Place in the Country, also unseen, April 24). Perhaps one or more of these will unlock the memory of a melody hidden in some unlabeled drawer of my brain. Or, like the first time I watched and heard the terrific percussion-heavy score of the Battle of Algiers (playing April 23 with the Mission, the only film of those I've seen in the series that I don't like), the music will be completely new to me and feel like another sort of revelation. All of these double-bills have great appeal, but the program I feel I can most heartily endorse is the April 25 pairing of Malick's Days of Heaven and Pasolini's Arabian Nights, both of which I've seen in gorgeous new prints in the last few years.

I remember the reports from watchers of the Golden Globe ceremony a little more than seven years ago that, when Jennifer Love-Hewitt was called upon to announce the winner of the award for Best Original Score, she not only balked at pronouncing the name of the composer behind the Legend of 1900, she assumed that "Ennio Morricone" was a band. When Morricone failed to be nominated for an Academy Award for that score, I realized he probably never would earn a competitive Oscar. He immediately became in my mind the classiest choice the Academy could pick to give an honorary Oscar to, following in the footsteps of Alex North, another composer who also never had an Oscar until receiving an honorary one in 1986. At the time I was rooting for it to happen soon; these days my investment of interest in Oscar decisions is a lot lower, but it was no less classy a pick. And if it helped put the wheels of this touring retrospective in motion, I'm particularly happy for it.

That said, let me be the millionth voice in the blogosphere to ask what devil's bargain is it that if Mr. Morricone gets an award, Celine Dion has to be involved? And was it my imagination or was the look on the honoree's face as her performance was announced something along the lines of "what have I gotten myself into?" If there's one shortcoming of the Castro tribute, it's that a screening of Once Upon a Time in America wasn't arranged so we could all cleanse our memory of whatever "I Knew I Loved You" was supposed to be.

And as much as the presence of a live orchestra must thrill the Kodak Theatre audience, I have to admit I was a little disappointed in how the orchestra tended to bland Morricone's scores out; so much of the innovation of his approach, especially in the early part of his career, rested in his unusual orchestrations and even recording practices. Russell Lack, in his superb history of film music, Twenty Four Frames Under, writes on Morricone:
One could perhaps isolate his tendency to avoid traditional symphonic development, concentrating instead on creating overlays which get at the thematic heart of the film rather than the incidentals demanded by a particular action sequence.
The Academy orchestra may have played the notes perfectly right, but it rarely came very close to sounding like a Morricone orchestra. It's really just another example of Oscar's tendency to treat the honors it bestows as some kind of branding tie-in, making whatever originality, personality and energy in a film or a filmmaker seem secondary to the glow of Oscar-worthiness they get by their association with the Academy Awards. I guess that's inevitable with something like the Oscars. When Alex Patterson of the Orb incorporates a piece of Morricone into his art it feels like a natural, but when a four-hour-long celebration of American-style middlebrow filmmaking does, not quite. Still, his tribute was a highlight of watching the Oscar ceremony at the Roxie Theatre, something I tried for the first time this year.

Anyway, of the hundreds of scores Ennio Morricone wrote, very few were for films that ever came close to winning or being nominated for Oscars. Most of the ones playing at the Castro April 20-25 weren't; only three (Days of Heaven, the Mission, and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) were deemed Academy-friendly enough to even make it into the montage of clips played as part of the tribute. (I assume that the exclusion from the montage of the Battle of Algiers, which earned Gillo Pontecorvo two Oscar nominations in 1968, was somehow connected to the "don't mention the war" theme of this year's ceremony.) I hope to be there for some of these, but I suspect it's the more "disreputable" films I'm more certain to attend.

See you there!

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?