“Best” Questions from 2013 BIFF Q/A

safe

I recently went to the 2013 Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. I saw several features and shorts, none of which I feel particularly compelled to write about at length. I will undoubtedly mention them in my next installment of “Last Few Movies.” More than the films, however, I was struck by the questions following a short film showcase of five international movies. These questions struck me as, well, rather stupid.

1. “There was an extra in the background in that one scene where the old men are talking. She had white hair and looked very old. Who was she?” (Question asked after the screening of the Chinese film, Three Light Bulbs.)

This was a pointless question [the identity of a single extra in a given scene], however, the filmmaker, Min Ding, did make good use of her time to answer extremely well and provide excellent information. That particular old woman, (in a scene full of old people) who had nothing to do with the story, was not special—nearly the entire cast was made up of non-actors such as herself. Good info. Dumb question.

johnny loves dolores

2. “When the lady sends money to her daughter . . . is it really a front to pay the blackmail of a “coyote” who helped her across the border?” (Question asked for Filipino/American production Johnny Loves Dolores.)

I take this question to be a moment where a cinema novice attempted to use a newly learned term [“coyote”: apparently someone who helps people cross the border, usually from Mexico into the United States]. In any event, crossing the border, I think, is more of a Mexican thing. People moving from the Philippines generally have to arrive via airplane or boat. Either the question-asker was not aware of this or they thought the characters were all Mexican rather than Filipino. Another reason this question is stupid is because I doubt a “coyote” could blackmail anybody—much less a nice middle-aged cleaning lady with no money. And what exactly can a “coyote” blackmail with? “If you don’t pay me more money for helping you then I’ll tell the cops you’re here illegally.” “Okay, but when they ask who you are and how you know that, don’t you think your illegal activities of bringing illegal immigrants into the country and blackmailing them might come to light?” Ridiculous. This question is more absurd when you consider that this film is not about illegal immigrants at all and the fact that the woman sending money home to her daughter is so minor that it is an almost innocuous plot point. It reveals her character and situation, yes, but there are no clues given to assume that she is lying. Filmmaker, Clarissa de los Reyes, took the time to diffuse the question by saying that in all the times she’s screened the movie that this was the first time she ever heard such a peculiar interpretation.

“Look at me! Look at me! I know the term ‘coyote’!”

kilimanjaro

3. “Why were the characters old?” and “Why did they have to work in a factory?” (Questions asked of the Swedish film, Kilimanjaro.)

There were several random detail questions like this concerning many of the films. These were the ones I remembered the most. This movie was a playful comedy-drama about life and death and the main character happened to be an old man working in a factory. That is almost exactly what director, Nima Yousefi, said in response to these questions. It just happens to be about that. No secret meaning necessarily. “Why is Lassie a dog?” “Because that’s the story I wanted to tell.” I will admit the film would be tonally quite different if it was dealing with younger, healthier people and many of the jokes regarding the monotony of repetition might have been lost had the characters not been working on an assembly line. “Why is Gandalf a wizard and Frodo a hobbit?” “Because that’s the story I was telling and I felt that the themes I was trying to convey could be best served by these choices.” I found these questions weird because they kept cropping up and many times the audience would not accept the flippant answers. “No, no. There has to be some deep, specific reason why you made those choices.” “You’re right. There may be. But now that I’ve made it, it’s your job to figure out why.”

three light bulbs

5. “Why was it a relationship between a daughter and father and not a son and father or a son and mother or a daughter and mother or perhaps a close uncle?” (Another question in response to Three Light Bulbs.)

This is an amalgam of several questions asked by different members of the audience. Again, it deals with specifics that the artist (in my opinion) has no business answering. Art is meant to be interactive. The artist creates and the audience interprets (and everyone interprets differently, making every piece of art as variable and personal as can be). The other presumption in these questions might hint that people felt the story might have been serviced better had the genders been different, when that really isn’t the point. This particular drama is about these particular people and they happen to be these genders. Granted, the relationship might look different if it was not a father and daughter, but this story happened to be about a father and daughter. Deal with it. Many people seemed to demand that every single decision made by the filmmakers be extremely intentional and have deep meaning that they could share directly (as if the movie itself was not explanatory enough). Perhaps, most baffling of all was that the director had explained early on that the story was somewhat autobiographical of her relationship with her own father, yet these questions persisted.

desperation

5. “I really liked all the symbolism and powerful imagery and I understood what you were getting at, but could you just explain what it all meant?” (Asked of many of the films. The South Korean Safe, the Filipino/French Prologue to the Great Desaparecido, as well as the others mentioned).

This is another question that was not precisely asked, however, it was expressed many times through various actual questions. Again, my objection comes from an audience demanding their personal experience be validated or corrected and explained by the artists. I wanted to tell them they were all watching movies wrong. I can understand asking some questions like this, but not down to every detail. If you have to probe as deeply as this then, odds are, you probably didn’t get what they were getting at. These questions might make more sense if we were watching the films of Bela Tarr, Alejandro Jodorowsky, or David Lynch…but even then, I don’t want them to spell it all out for me. Art is a co-production. The seer adds as much narrative and context as the sayer. Great films require some work. Great films require immense amounts of chewing. They are not pablum to be swallowed without thought or flavor. None of these five films were terribly obtuse or difficult to grasp and much of the symbolism was simple or open, but this audience was dissecting every nuance like the Holy Grail was hidden away in each second of film.

There were several intelligent questions, but I was far more struck by the abundance of bizarre ignorance. I must credit the filmmakers themselves for taking the time to answer the idiotic questions in such a way that they added information that was both interesting and not even exactly asked for. Kudos.

rocky horror picture show2

BONUS: Rocky Horror Picture Show live performance synopsis fail: For Halloween I attended a live show of the classic cult musical—film shown on a big screen, actors performing in front, and a rowdy decked-out crowd shouting things at the screen. There was a man behind me who knew nothing about the movie, the show, or the midnight performance tradition. I overheard a woman (we’ll call her “Dumb Lady”) delightedly explaining it like this:

Dumb Lady: [paraphrased from memory] “Well, this is one of the shittiest movies ever made and when it first came out people threw tomatoes at the screen it was so bad. Then it became a tradition to watch the movie and make fun of it. I’ve done this like ten times. It’s so much fun to put this old, shitty movie in its place. The acting and everything is just so old and bad. It really is just a bad movie.

Hello, Face. Meet Palm. You know how I said that art is all subjective and the individual assigns the meaning? I almost take it back in light of this striking ignorance. Some people don’t understand comedy or camp.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 21st 2013.

Pulgasari Ain’t Sorry (longer version)

Where do we begin? There is actually quite a bit that can be said about the North Korean film Pulgasari (1985). First off, it is famous for being directed by Shin Sang-ok who was a prominent South Korean filmmaker until he and his wife were kidnapped by North Korea at Kim Jong Il’s behest. He was commanded to make great films for The Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A hostage director forced to make bad movies. Bananas. It’s like Misery.

"Rawr" means I love you in Pulgasari.

“Rawr” means I love you in Pulgasari.

Pulgasari has been compared to the Godzilla franchise quite a bit and there are definitely an abundance of similarities (Kenpachiro Satsuma, most famous for playing Godzilla in several movies, actually plays Pulgasari). It  also has some elements of Der Golem (1920) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). He also looks a little bit like the monster from Night of the Demon (1957). Unfortunately for Pulgasari the title just isn’t quite as memorable.

Here’s the set up: starving peasant farmers are being oppressed by an evil despot king. Ironic…especially considering that several people have stated Pulgasari is meant to be pro-North Korea propaganda. The despot king is allegedly meant to represent capitalism. I’m not so convinced and actually wonder if that was just director Sang-ok’s excuse and he’s really making a slam against the Kim family. Anyway, government officials tell the peasants that they need to make iron weapons for them because “some bandits are causing a ruckus at a certain location.” These bandits are never seen. The peasants say they don’t have any iron so the government makes them use their own farming equipment to make weapons. Hmm…a nepotist tyrant who spends money on weapons to fight imaginary foes while his starving people are forced to glorify their ruler. Sounds kinda familiar.

Pots and pans are all the peasants have and the government murders them to take them. They even run over an old lady with a cart. We get it! The king is evil.

P-p-p-p-puppy power!

P-p-p-p-puppy power!

Ami (Chang Son Hui) is a lovely peasant girl who does her best to hold the movie together when the monster’s not on screen. The story doesn’t really start until Ami’s old blacksmith uncle is captured by bad soldiers and starved in prison. Ami sneaks him food, but instead of eating the ball of rice, he molds it into a toy dinosaur and dies. The figurine comes to Ami who accidentally sticks herself and bleeds on it, bringing it to life (♫ Suddenly Seymour!). Soon the creature starts eating needles. Finding it cute, Ami and her brother go to sleep with it. By morning it has grown from a plastic toy into a latex puppet.

Cut to a laughing executioner about to behead Ami’s love interest, Inde…for some reason. Just as the blade is coming down, the executioner is attacked by a terrifying rubber puppet who saves the day. Cue the squirrelly Saturday-morning-cartoon music. Pulgasari eats the executioner’s sword and we learn that the rice-monster grows bigger when he eats metal. Makes sense. Soon Pulgasari developes from a hand-puppet into a small child (because midgets are euthanized) in a rubber suit. Pulgasari then wanders off and we don’t see him for a while. Cut to a scene of the government beating an old woman.

This movie has a hard time settling on a tone.

We learn that some people have been captured. I think Ami’s brother is one of them. Doesn’t matter. Inde leads an attack on the prison where they are kept, but they get there too late and—in a scene that Attack of the Clones must have ripped off—the folks they were going to rescue just die right then. A battle ensues and the governor is killed. This gets the attention of the bad king. The government elite forces really suck and the battles feel reminiscent of the ewoks fighting the stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi. Also the sound effects of the swords clanging are hilarious.

pulgasari self control

They say it’s not just the fat content. It’s the sugars mixed in with the fat.

A man-sized Pulgasari appears and rescues Ami from bad guys and then they feed him weapons to make him grow big and strong. Eat all your iron, Pulga. Soon he’s a giant, towering over all the people—much like Godzilla but with a slightly more gargoyle look. Clearly this is bad news for the evil king. The scenes where the baddies try to logically deduce the creature’s weakness is like watching Adam West decipher a Frank Gorshin riddle, but naturally no matter how random or absurd it always works. They first try to trap Pulgasari in a giant wooden cage by capturing Ami and threatening to kill her if he does not comply. Ami pleads with Pulgasari not to listen and thus a short-lived 3 Laws of Robotics head game ensues. He goes in the cage and then they set it on fire. Since the cage is wood and Pulgasari is magic, naturally the cage simply burns away and frees Pulgasari to rampage once more.

New plan: get a crazy lady to exorcise the blacksmith’s spirit out of Pulgasari so he’ll fall in a hole and they can put rocks on him. Again, amazingly it works.

Later some dying guy informs Ami that Inde has been captured. It was at this point in the film where I realized that we never see anyone get captured. We only hear about it. Minor detail, but I notice things like that. I wonder if director, Sang-ok, could not bring himself to film another abduction after having lived through a real one. The memories! Sure enough Inde has been captured and they hang him. Inde’s only been peripherally involved in the story so we’re not too distraught by his permanent absence, but Ami sure is. Ami releases Pulgasari again by cutting herself over the rocks where he’s buried. This alarms the bad guys once more so they invent a weapon to stop Pulgasari once and for all. It is the greatest destructive invention of all time. With it they “can kill 104 Pulgasaris” and take over the world! The weapon is your standard cannon. . . oh, and it doesn’t even scratch Pulgasari.

Oh, man. Did I do that? I was so wasted last night.

Oh, man. Did I do that? I was so wasted last night.

Pulgasari destroys the king’s palace and squishes him. Hurray. The peasants are saved. But now there’s no more iron for Pulgasari to eat. Ami begs Pulgasari to go away and disappear rather than eat their farm tools. She knows that they will have to invade other countries and take over the whole world to feed him iron forever. Naturally. Finally Ami tricks him into eating a funeral bell (I think). Pulgasari turns into stone and then explodes. A tiny Pulgasari emerges from the rubble and transforms into a blue ball of light that goes into Ami…who is dead now for some reason. The end.

Pulgasari is your typical giant suitmation monster movie. Standard kaiju. Nothing special. The story is actually a bit more complex than your average Godzilla movie and the period setting gives it a nice mythical flavor. Pulgasari is a good guy fighting a corrupt government in order to help poor peasant farmers. He’s like a rubber reptile Robin Hood. Not a bad premise. It’s not dumber than most of the movies in the genre, but something just never felt right for me. The original Godzilla (1954) was a legitimate film with political undertones and clever metaphors. The rest of the franchise was silly, but most of them had the spirit of fun about them along with hokey environmentalist messages. Gamera (1965) and its sequels were also colorful and fun. The British film, Gorgo (1961), was dopey but I still liked it. Pulgasari has a decent development and cool costumes, but it also has yucky colors, a bad score, and instead of the spirit of fun it has the spirit of North Korea. Eww. It just feels kind of oppressive and grim. It never pulled me in. At times it takes itself too seriously and then at others it’s just too cartoony. I still enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as some other kaiju flicks.

The American Godzilla (1998) gets a lot of flack and I think I know why. Despite the story actually being more complex and the characters being more developed than most Godzilla films and other knockoffs, it just does not have the same feel. Something is missing. Pulgasari is kind of like that. And you what? I don’t necessarily hate either of them. Watch Pulgasari. It ain’t that bad.

Hell's bells, son! It's original artwork! Yes, I realize Kim Jong-Un was not in power at the time this movie was made, but perhaps its legacy still haunts him to this day.

Hell’s bells, son! It’s original artwork! Yes, I realize Kim Jong-Un was not in power at the time this movie was made, but perhaps its legacy still haunts him to this day.

I’ve got to wonder why they needed to go through all the trouble of kidnapping a foreign director to make a cheese-ball Godzilla ripoff. I’m pretty sure anyone could have directed this film. It’s not particularly arty or even that good. Maybe he botched it on purpose. Shin Sang-ok directed several movies for militant executive producer Kim Jong Il, but this is the most famous one outside of North Korea. I’m not convinced it’s chiefly a propagandistic movie. North Korea fascinates me. As a firm believer in the anthropological and cultural significance of movies from around the world and from different times I find Pulgasari rather telling. Kim Jong Il may have produced it and maybe he loved it, but I must say I expected a little more polish and professionalism from the people who brought us the Arirang Grand Mass Games and 4 year old cello virtuosos.

Check out article on The Red Chapel “documentary” in North Korea.

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle May 6, 2013.

Picture references:

http://www.zekefilm.org/2013/01/17/film-review-pulgasari/

http://areaoftheunwell.blogspot.kr/2009/08/any-old-irony.html

http://shelf3d.com/Search/movies%2Bto%2Bdownload%2BPlayListIDPL12q-6co85IFOXbnTGvINiFOtAByJiH-4

Burns and Allen Deconstructed: Classic TV with a Darker Subtext

On the surface The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958) appears like your typical early sitcom in the pioneering days of television. Gracie (Grace Allen) is a nutty and unsuppressible ditz who’s always mixing up words and meanings to delightfully malapropic comic effect, while her accountant husband, George (George Burns), is the cigar smoking straight-man. But look a little deeper and you see a subtly surreal meta tragedy of mythic proportions.

burnsandallen

What I am about to recount to you are my observations surrounding the legendary sitcom. Granted, my findings are based only on personal experiences and not necessarily founded in actual science.

George (Burns, that is) exists in seemingly two different worlds. First there is the husband and straight-man role he occupies quite serviceably, but he also dons the role as the semi-omniscent narrator to the events of the show. The laughter induced by a recent scene ends, the lights go down, and George appears in front of a curtain—passing through the looking-glass—and he begins to explain things to the audience directly. He summarizes and he fills in missing scenes and he puffs his cigar. It appears as though he has one foot firmly planted in a different reality. But is the other side of the curtain the real reality or are the laughs only in his mind?

If the audience is indeed real then is George Burns some sort of droll demigod? He is privy to certain information on the stage, but not all. He knows events that recently occurred and he knows some things that he was not even present for and occasionally he knows a few minutes into the next scene that will arrive shortly, but he rarely knows the ultimate outcome of these scenes. He only knows where he just came from, what other characters are doing right now off-screen and he knows everything that happened earlier and some things that have yet to transpire. He is borderline psychic, but even if he knows the route things will take he is still doomed to go through the motions and see them through to the end.

I knew this would happen.

I knew this would happen.

Here is the show in a nutshell: George Burns narrates half the events as they really happen before they happen but then he gets interrupted by the action as its happening, like the “tape delay” has caught up with him and is sucking him back four minutes into the past. What a hellish existence.

After a few laughs and a few cigar puffs Burns leaves the audience and returns to the sitcom world where his powers are meaningless and unknown. What if he could tell them all: “Hey, I knew you would say that” or “Don’t let her in. She doesn’t really have pie”? Surely they’d take him for a madman. I am certain Gracie would have some wry misinformed quip to lighten the mood should they conflagrate him a witch.

carnation

George Burns is a trapped victim living between two dimensions each equally alienating in their own way. There exists, however, another disturbing element to the Burns and Allen Show. Like many sitcoms and variety shows of the era when TV was new, commercials were oft times eerily interwoven into the events of the plot. Television had yet to fully separate the programs from the sponsors and the results were a Twin Peaks-esque nightmare of drama-driven advertising. Frequently characters will appear with strange quasi-hidden posters or product samples. Claiming to have some relation to the Burns and Allen storyline they would invite themselves in, skitter through their phony setups only to reveal their ulterior motives. It’s forecast pretty loudly so it’s hard to miss an impending in-show commercial, yet they always manage to surprise me with their thinness and surreality.

Burns knows this scam (I think), yet he is powerless to stop it. Perhaps he is aware that if he stops the advertisers from doing their bizarre ritualistic spiel then Carnation Instant Milk Powder will pull the plug on the money-flow that sustains Burns and Allen. Essentially to stop them is suicide. But what quality of life does he really have? Who is George Burns really? Does he sleep in the world of separate twin-beds, sitcom setups, and no toilets or does he make camp in front of the curtain?

burnsallen4

George Burns might have been a sort of failed Messiah. Perhaps he had it in his power to open up everyone’s eyes. He could have told the characters of the sham they were living. He could have given them the Pleasantville revelation that they are merely acting out a fictitious plot for the amusement of a savvy 50’s television audience. Maybe Burns could take Gracie and the cast by the hand and lead them to the other side of the curtain and open their eyes. But would this revelation not blow their mind? Think of the Square from Edwin Abbott Abbott’s mathematical masterpiece “Flatland.”

On occasion he does manage to pull Gracie to the other side, but her dimness of wit makes her ill-equipped to get a handle on things and she merely blathers on in character. Can she not recognize her salvation when it is at hand?

There is the risk that the studio audience on the other side of the curtain is just the hallucinatory manifestations of a deranged and deeply introspective George Burns. But how come Gracie pretends she can see it too when he transports her?

Maybe it’s a risk worth taking. They could escape the advertisements and the tinny laughter. Maybe color would even be granted the weary travelers. Would that then be Nirvana? Not the band, but the utopic state of being in the afterlife. Maybe the band. The British Nirvana from the 60s though, not the other one.

burnsallen5

It is mere folly to speculate as Burns proved to be a failed Messiah. He never did bring divine revelation to his fellow cast members of this sick play. Maybe he was just a lost lesser X-Men who never realized his potential. Perhaps he never knew the others were not semi-psychic. How alone he must have felt.

No, George Burns was no Messiah.

But he did play God later.

…John Denver was a terrible actor.

http://vintage45.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/the-george-burns-and-gracie-allen-show-1950-58/

http://culturalproductionblog.com/?p=391

http://www.popscreen.com/v/61X0t/The-George-Burns–Gracie-Allen-show

http://www.oocities.org/4christ.geo/tour/cast_list.html

http://www.homevideos.com/movies/ohgod

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle on April 18, 2013.