Gagman (개그맨, Lee Myung-se, 1988)

gagman cover

Is everything we see a waking dream or does it just appear that way? This question posed (or perhaps dreamed) by the protagonist of Lee Myung-se’s debut becomes a kind of key for unlocking much of what has gone before as Lee freewheels between fantasy and reality as his cast of movie obsessed dreamers attempt to inhabit their very own stretch of celluloid within the “real” world. Released in 1988, Gagman (개그맨) catches Korea in a moment of transition. Newly free of a lengthy dictatorship and back on the world stage after hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country was eager to promote itself as a modern liberal democracy. Hence, the arts were the first to feel the new freedom with young directors given the chance to create boundary pushing films and show just how far Korea could go. Lee was just one of these directors but Gagman is no political treatise (at least, not directly) preferring to experiment with form as a farcical exercise in meta comedy.

Cinema obsessed comedian Lee Jong-sae (Ahn Sung-ki) wants nothing more than to make the next great Korean movie which every one of the 40 million Koreans will fall in love with. Consequently he’s blagged his way onto the film set of a top director to whom he’s already sent his “prize-winning” script. Eventually thrown out, Jong-sae does not lose heart but promises the lead role in his movie to his equally film obsessed barber Moon Do-suk (Bae Chang-ho) whom he sends out on “research” missions walking into banks and asking about security. A fortuitous meeting with a feisty young woman in a cinema, Oh Sun-young (Hwang Cine), provides a another impetus for Jong-sae’s filmmaking dreams and so when he unexpectedly gets his hands on a gun after an encounter with a deserting soldier things just got real in a very unexpected way.

Lee signals his intent early on with a static camera shot focusing on the barber, Do-suk, as he waxes on about Kirk Douglas in the Vikings whilst simultaneously remarking on the fall in quality of his beloved dog meat. Do-suk feels that when it comes right down to it, Korean mutts are the best – not these scrawny poodles that cheap restaurant owners are substituting for the real thing. His comment might easily go for himself and Jong-sae, two scrappy working class Korean guys trying to make it in a walled off industry, but interestingly enough bar a mention of Sorrow Even Up in Heaven, Lee’s references are to European and American cinema rather than that of his homeland.

The most obvious of these lies in the central gag – that the gagman has a “funny” face. Ahn Sung-ki is saddled with a Charlie Chaplin moustache throughout the film (with the added bonus that it of course looks like a Hitler moustache to European/American viewers) and plays Jong-sae as someone who’s constantly doing a Chaplin impression with his strange walks and silent cinema plaintive looks. Ahn even begins layering his performance so that we get Charlie Chaplin impersonating Brando in the Godfather to recite the melancholy monologue which seems to open Jong-sae’s unfilmable script. For Jong-sae his existence is cinema, the life he lives is unreal or surreal always with an added dose of narrative in the ongoing story of his rise to greatness as the most famous Korean filmmaker of them all.

Fantasist as he is, Jong-sae has a way of pulling other people into his unrealisable dreams including the barber Do-suk and a young woman who unexpectedly starts canoodling with him in a cinema in an attempt to avoid some other creepy guys. Oh Sun-young is almost a mirror image of Jong-sae in her pragmatic realism though she too is looking at the stars and willing to engage in fantasy to get there. It is she who first suggests that the “research” they’ve been doing might have a more practical application and she is also the one to maintain a calm approach to their eventual need for escape but, even if she always has one foot in reality, Sun-young cannot escape the gravitational pull of Jong-sae’s strange dreamverse. Do-suk, by contrast, is a willing convert – just as obsessed with cinema and comics as Jong-sae, his desperation to be a part of the movies and unwavering faith in his friend lead him to give up everything in service of art even going so far as to get painful eye surgery to increase his box office potential (apparently a meta dig at a Korean celebrity who did something similar).

In keeping with the Chaplin theme Lee’s humorous universe is defined by slapstick and absurdity, his dialogue needlessly theatrical and mannered with a melodramatic seriousness. Nevertheless Lee makes the most of his canvas as the film goes on behind Jong-sae while he enters one of his reveries as in one particularly amusing scene in which he attempts to declare his love to Sun-young without noticing that she’s long wandered off and been replaced by Do-suk. Despite the cartoonish, comedic tone the atmosphere is a melancholy one reflecting the final destination of Jong-sae’s film project but also of his continuing inability to integrate the two distinct universes into one concrete whole which could be termed “reality”. In this Lee returns to that first question but this time he asks us as cinema lovers which world it is we live in, and which it is that is the more “real”.


Gagman is available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive but you can also watch the whole thing legally and for free via their YouTube channel!

The Girl in the Glass (ガラスの中の少女, Masanobu Deme, 1988)

The popularity of idol movies had started to wane by the late ‘80s and if this 1988 effort from Masanobu Deme is anything to go by, some of their youthful innocence had also started to depart. Starring Kumiko Goto, only 14 at the time, The Girl in the Glass (ガラスの中の少女, Glass no Naka no Shojo) is an adaptation of a novel by Yorichika Arima which had previously been filmed all the way back in 1960 starring another idol starlet – Sayuri Yoshinaga. Given a new, modern twist for the very different mid-bubble era, the 1988 edition of the familiar rich girl falls for poor boy narrative is no less tragic than it ever was. Gone is the cheerful, carefree invincibility of youth – The Girl in the Glass is a painful lesson in loss of innocence in which the forces of authority will always betray you but in the end you will betray yourself.

Middle schooler Yasuko (Kumiko Goto) has a very busy life. Accordingly, she maintains a coin locker at the station in which she keeps all the equipment she needs for her after school clubs which range from fencing to piano and cram school. Fiddling with the key one day she finds herself chatting with a rough young man who abruptly gives her something wrapped up in newspaper to stash in her locker with the instruction to meet him back there at nine to return it. Yasuko’s step-mother is a very strict woman who demands absolute punctuality and so Yasuko leaves a note to the effect that she’s taken the boy’s package home and will return it another time.

This is a big problem for the boy, Yoichi (Eisaku Yoshida), because the package contains a gun that some criminal types are quite keen to get back. After their factory closed, Yoichi and his Filipino friend have been forced into the fringes of the criminal underworld to make ends meet. Crafting pistols or adapting toy guns to fire real bullets, the boys are engaged in some shady stuff. Regretting his decision to get a random schoolgirl involved in all of this, Yoichi needs to get his gun back but also finds himself growing closer to Yasuko, particularly as he accompanies her on a personal journey to discover a few painful family truths.

Made the same year as Memories of You, The Girl in the Glass once again casts Goto as a spiky though eventually tragic heroine, unable to withstand the forces of time and society to fulfil her true love dream. The daughter of a prominent politician who is often absent for long stretches of time, Yasuko is devoted to her father though suspicious and hostile towards her noticeably cold step-mother. Her life is a tightly ordered one of swanky private school days followed by a series of clubs befitting an upper class girl, after which she is to return straight home lest she incur the wrath of her step-mother.

Yasuko, however, is getting to the age where doing what she’s told without question is no longer appealing. Yoichi’s appearance is then not an altogether unexpected development, but this very ordinary pull away from her overbearing family environment also coincides with its implosion as a chance telephone call tips Yasuko off to a long buried family secret. Yasuko’s father, so apparently doting on his pretty daughter, is forever the politician – cold, calculating and willing to sacrifice anything and everything for his political career.

Spouting nonsense about family values from the top of a bus with the resentful Yasuko made to stand beside him, Yasuko’s father is perhaps the symbol of a growing threat of a profligate and self centred authority whose selfishness and coldhearted austerity is already wreaking havoc on those who are excluded from Japan’s new found prosperity. Yoichi, fatherless, lives a typical working class life with his mother and younger sister. He’s left school but the factory where he worked has closed down and there are few other jobs for a high school graduate in these fast moving times. The family have taken in a Filipino friend, Jose, who also worked at the factory but is technically in the country illegally as his visa has expired. Yoichi has pulled Jose into the gun making business as a way to make ends meet, but even if the two are essentially nice kids making bad decisions, their accidental criminality will come back to haunt them.

About halfway through The Girl in the Glass, Yasuko and Yoichi end up on the run together. Holed up in Yasuko’s family summerhouse the pair enjoy a taste of domesticity as Yoichi cooks breakfast for an upperclass girl whose only culinary experiences have been in home-ec class, but their romantic dream is short lived. A stupid, pointless and tragic end, Deme dares to include the bizarrely silly outcome to a mad dash declaration of love which every viewer fears yet never believes will occur. The abrupt transition from romance to tragedy is not altogether successful as Yasuko’s coming of age takes on all of its painful, unforgivable wounds. Leaving on a note of total bitterness, there is no hope left for Yasuko, romantic love fails and familial love betrays. Strangely unforgiving, The Girl in the Glass lets no one off the hook from the corrupt politician, to the poor boy with empty pockets and a head full dreams, and the hardworking foreigner who finds himself caught up in someone else’s drama, but least of all Yasuko who is left with nothing more than the knowledge that she herself has been a prime motivator in all her suffering.


The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1988)

discarnatesNobuhiko Obayashi is no stranger to a ghost story whether literal or figural but never has his pre-occupation with being pre-occupied about the past been more delicately expressed than in his 1988 horror-tinged supernatural adventure, The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Ijintachi to no Natsu). Nostalgia is a central pillar of Obayashi’s world, as drenched in melancholy as it often is, but it can also be pernicious – an anchor which pins a person in a certain spot and forever impedes their progress.

Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama) is a successful TV scriptwriter whose career is on the slide. He’s just gotten a divorce and seems to be conflicted about the nature of his new found bachelordom. As if he didn’t have enough despair in his life, the closest thing he has to a friend – his boss at the TV station, tells him he thinks it’s better if they end their professional relationship because he plans to start dating Harada’s ex-wife and it would all get very awkward.

Feeling unloved, Harada takes a trip to his hometown on a location scout for another project and takes in a few familiar sights along the way. It’s here that he runs into a youngish man who looks just like Harada’s father did when he was a boy. Not only that, accompanying his new found friend home, the man’s wife looks just like his mother, but Harada’s parents died when he was just twelve years old. The mysterious couple are glad to have him in their house and treat him with the warmth and kindness that seemed to have been missing in his life, leaving him the happiest and most cheerful he’s been in years.

Now in a much better mood, Harada feels guilty about rudely dismissing the woman from upstairs who’d come to visit him the day before. Apologising, Harada strikes up a friendship and then a romance with the equally damaged Kei (Yuko Natori) but even if his mental health is improving, his physical strength begins to deteriorate. Looking pale and old, Harada’s teeth rot and fall out while his hair loses its color. Even so, Harada cannot bear to pull himself away from the warmth and security that was so cruelly taken away from him when he was just a child.

Harada doesn’t start off believing that the mysterious couple really are his late parents, but if even if they weren’t these two people who are actually younger than him take him in as a son, feeding and entertaining him. When Harada returns a little while later confused by what exactly has happened, his mother immediately treats him as a mother would – physically taking off his polo shirt and urging him to remove his trousers lest they get wrinkled from sitting on the floor. Having lost his parents at such a young age, Harada has been a adrift all his life, unable to form true, lasting emotional bonds with other people. Lamenting his failure as a husband and a father, this very ordinary kindness provides the kind of warmth that he’s been craving.

However, there is always a price to be paid. Harada’s visits become increasing tiring, taking a physical toll on his ageing body. Each hour spent in the past is an hour lost to the dead. His parents are both dead and alive, existing in a strange, golden hued bubble filled with the comforting innocence of childhood free from the concerns of the adult world. Yet each time Harada succumbs to his weakness and goes to visit them, he is doing so as a way of avoiding all of his real world problems. According to one of Harada’s scripts, the past becomes a part of you and is never lost, but memory can be an overly seductive drug and an overdose can prove fatal.

Contrasted with the warm glow of the post-war world of Harada’s childhood home, his life in bubble era Tokyo is one filled with blues and a constant sense of the sinister. Harada believes himself to mostly be alone in the apartment block save for a mysterious third floor light that hints at another resident who also favours late nights over early mornings. The light turns out to belong to a lonely middle-aged woman, Kei, who is also a fan of Harada’s work. Kei has her own set of problems including a wound on her chest that she is too ashamed to let anyone see. Ultimately, Harada’s self-centred inability to lay the past to rest and fully take other people’s feelings into account will deal Kei a cruel blow.

Harada sees everything with a writer’s eye. His childhood world is a dream, but his life is a film noir filled with shadows and misery. His environments appear too perfectly composed, like a TV stage set and, as if to underline the fact, at the end of each “scene” the colour drains from the screen to leave a blue tinted black and white image shrinking into a rectangle and disappearing like the dot going out in the days when television really did close down overnight. Whether any of this happened outside of Harada’s mind or reflects a constructed reality he wrote for himself in the midst of a mental breakdown, his dilemma is an existential one – return to childhood and the side of his parents by accepting the death of his present self, or say goodbye to remnants of the abandoned child inside him and start living an adult, fully “fleshed” life by killing off this unattainable dream of a long forgotten past which never took place.

Filled with melancholy, longing and regret, The Discarnates is the story of a hollow man made whole by coming to terms with his traumatic past and all of the ways it’s influenced the way in which he’s lived his life. Harada’s parents treat him as their twelve year old son, barely acknowledging that he’s a middle aged man with a teenage son of his own. They feel regret for all of the thousand things they were never able to teach him though they are unable to see the full depths of his inability to escape his interior bubble for the wider world. Unsettling, though not as obviously surreal as some of Obayashi’s other efforts, The Discarnates is one of his most melancholic works speaking of the danger of nostalgia and all of its false promises whilst also acknowledging its seductive appeal.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Shinichiro Sawai, 1988)

Memories of youIf you thought idol movies were all cute and quirky stories of eccentric high school girls with pretty, poppy voices then think again because Memories of You is coming for you and your faith in idols to make everything better. Directed by W’s Tragedy‘s Shinichiro Sawai, Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Love Story wo Kimi Ni) stars one of the biggest idols of them all – Kumiko Goto, only 14 years old at the time of filming. Seemingly inspired by classic Hollywood melodramas of the ‘50s, Sawai’s film finds its innocent protagonist attempting to live an entire lifetime in only six months as she succumbs to a cruel and relentless disease.

Giving no clue as to its eventual destination, Memories of You begins with two young men returning from a hiking trip. You can tell the pair are committed alpinists because of their distinctly alpine attire and by the way they look at a glockenspiel. In this early comic scene, Araki (Shingo Yanagisawa) is heading straight to an important job interview that he hopes will help him get his girl back if he’s hired so he’s talking a mile a minute whilst awkwardly changing into a business suit inside a photo booth.

The other young man, Akira (Toru Nakamura), runs into the star of film, Yumi (Kumiko Goto), on her way back from the hospital. Akira used to be Yumi’s tutor and it’s obvious she has kind of a crush on him. Unbeknownst to Yumi, the results of her tests are much more serious than might be assumed from her cheerful persona. Yumi has leukaemia and the doctors do not expect her to survive for more than six months at most.

Yumi’s devasted mother shifts her grief away from the pain of losing her only child, to that of her stolen future – no high school, no romance, no love, marriage, or children. Accordingly she asks teacher in training Akira for a considerable sacrifice – essentially, pretend to date Yumi and give her the kind of love story that she will never now be able to experience.

Needless to say, this is a little creepy given that Akira is in in his mid-twenties and Yumi is only fourteen. Of course, it’s all very chaste and innocent like something out of a shoujo manga but still even in 1988 the scenario rings alarm bells. Akira is conflicted about his new role as a fake boyfriend for a dying teenager but it would be heartless to refuse, though one may wonder about what effect all of this may have on his future chosen career.

The world of 1988 is noticeably sexist in that Yumi’s mother works as a cookery teacher, reminding her pupil’s that this is the most important course because they’ll all be competing with their future mother-in-laws in the great culinary battle to win their husband’s hearts. These girls are raised to be housewives and nothing more, although, Yumi’s mother is divorced and now has a career, is taking care of Yumi alone and is not particularly looking to remarry. So, swings and roundabouts in terms of social progress.

The film flits between the viewpoints of Yumi and Akira as they both try to adapt to this unusual situation. As is common in these kinds of films, Yumi is not quite as in the dark as everyone had assumed and is readying herself to say her final goodbyes. This also brings about a reunion with her long absent father who has emigrated to Canada where he has a new wife and younger daughter. Yumi’s family status is an uncommon one for 1988, yet there is relatively little stigma surrounding it. Perhaps her father’s return after three years is one factor in Yumi’s realisation of the seriousness of her condition (as her mother feared it might be) but the final reconciliation does at least bring her a little more calmness and stability.

Yumi’s illness is a mountain which cannot be conquered. The beauty of the natural world and the desire to overcome it, in a sense, through physical exertion are the chief motifs of the film as Yumi dreams of travelling to Switzerland – the spiritual home of alpinism (it would seem). The loving looks at the glockenspiel in the opening scenes develop into an underlying musical theme as they also recur during the lengthy cabaret sequence close to the film’s climax. Of course, Yumi finally attempts to climb her mountain with Akira as her guide but there is only so far she can proceed.

Despite its melodramatic touches and desire to be a grand tearjerker, Memories of You is too restrained to make the full force of its tragedy achieve the kind of emotional effect that it aims for. Filled with syrupy, orchestral music very much like that employed by classic Hollywood examples of the genre, Memories of You really wants the viewer to experience the intense sadness of such a young life taken by a cruel and indiscriminating disease but often overplays its hand. This isn’t helped by the unsettling nature of the “romance” between Akira and Yumi or the (entirely understandable) lack of chemistry between the leads who each give independently high quality performances. An interesting example of an “idol movie” which steps outside the genre norms, Memories of You doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions but is another nicely photographed effort from Sawai.


End credits and title song (not sung by Kumiko Goto)

As Tears Go By (旺角卡門, Wong Kar-wai, 1988)

as tears go byThese days, Wong Kar-wai is an international auteur famous for his stories of lovelorn heroes trapped inside their memories, endlessly yearning in vain for the unattainable. In many ways his debut feature, As Tears Go By (旺角卡門, Mongkok Carmen) is little different save that it owes more to its vague heroic bloodshed, gangster inspiration and is less about memory than inevitability and a man abandoning his dreams of a better life with a woman he loves out of mistaken loyalty to his loose cannon friend.

The film opens with Wah (Andy Lau) still in bed despite it being late in the day only to be woken by a voice so piercing it can only belong to an aunty. It seems a mysterious cousin whom he’s never met before will be coming to stay with him as she has something wrong with her lungs and needs to see a specialist in town. Seconds after he puts the phone down the doorbell rings to reveal the cousin, Ngor (Maggie Cheung), standing outside. Slightly put out, Wah goes back to sleep despite the continuous phone calls from his friend, Fly, who is supposed to be collecting a bill but is not having much success. As he will do for the rest of the film, Wah will have to go down there himself and stop Fly making things even worse for everyone than they really needed to be.

For the early part of his career Wong had worked as a scriptwriter (a self confessed hack at times) and was finally given the opportunity to direct his own work as the Hong Kong film industry began to boom in the late ‘80s. This was of course largely due to the fantastically successful action flicks being made at the time including A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, City on Fire etc. so it’s not surprising that he chose the relatively safe arena of genre for his first foray into the director’s chair. His existing connections also enabled him to cast arguably the biggest young stars of the day including Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and Jacky Cheung as his three leads meaning he had pretty much a safe bet on his hands whatever he decided to do. However, even if As Tears Go By is the most straight forward, even commercial, of his films that’s not to say it doesn’t bear many of the hallmarks of his later efforts.

Broadly speaking, As Tears Go By is a fairly standard gangster tragedy much indebted to Scorsese’s Mean Streets as its melancholic hero is caught between loyalty to his friend and the possibility of salvation through the love of a good woman. Fly is a one man disaster zone – a totally useless gangster who can’t take care of himself in a fight yet loves to buzz around irritating the hell out of everyone and starting gang wars over nothing every five seconds. Even the pair’s godfather warns Wah that sooner or later Fly is going to land him in big trouble and it would be better for everyone if they could find him something else to do. Wah seems to agree but is unable to guide his feckless friend away from the fleeting glory of the tough guy world. Wah is already tired of the gangster life, he feels old with it but knows somewhere deep down he’ll never be free. Either out of complete stupidity, mistaken loyalty and a desire for revenge, or just because he doesn’t think he deserves anything else Wah throws away his chance for something better in a pointless, though affecting, gesture of solidarity with Fly.

Shot by Andrew Lau (who would go on to direct his very own genre hit Infernal Affairs also starring Andy Lau only 15 years later), As Tears Go By sparks many of Wong’s consistent visual motifs including the use of slow motion and a persistent melancholic atmosphere which is also filled with tiny moments of contemporary life. Andy Lau makes for a super cool gangster hero in jeans, dark jacket and sun shades, cigarette hanging carelessly from his lips as he wanders about town in a perpetual statue of ennui. Like many of Wong’s subsequent lonely male heroes, he has an inner longing for something which he believes he can never have. Just as the best film noir tough guys do, he warns off his potential romantic salvation which comes in the pleasing form of Maggie Cheung by telling her that, being such as he is, he can promise her nothing because he’s learned never to bother thinking past tomorrow.

Taken on its own merits, As Tears Go By is an interesting addition to the canon of late ‘80s gangster movies which marries the classic tropes of heroic bloodshed with an arthouse aesthetic inspired by both “New Hollywood” classics and genre infused European cinema. Though he’d rarely return to such frenetic action scenes, here Wong shoots with energetic hand held camera and a kind of fury that might give Fukasaku a run for his money. Extraordinarily accomplished for a debut movie, As Tears Go By is very much a youthful feature which is stained with the same kind of unresolvable longing which would come to colour the rest of Wong’s work to date. A stylish genre effort, As Tears Go By is Wong finding his feet, but find them he does and leads us on a characteristically melancholy waltz as he does so.


Reviewed as part of HOME’s CRIME: Hong Kong Style touring season.

Such a pleasure seeing this again and in 35mm! Though there perhaps should have been a warning about how much of the film lacked subtitles (just as well I’d seen it before!).

As Tears Go By was previously released by Tartan in the UK but a word of warning as there was quite a big error involved with the UK edition in that Tartan were given the Mandarin dub of the film rather than the original Cantonese by mistake but opted to rush the film out in conjuction with the release of 2046 rather than fix the problem. Kino Lorber released the film in the US but maybe out of print. The good news is that the Hong Kong edition at least does have English subtitles.

Original trailer (no subs)

I’m not sure if the film’s title actually has anything to do with this song, but As Tears Go By is an appropriately melancholic ballad from The Rolling Stones, here’s a vintage version sung by Marianne Faithfull:

The original Cantonese title is Mongkok Carmen – Mongkok being an area of Hong Kong and Carmen referring to the opera by Bizet which certainly creates an interesting set of allusions!