Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

Hotel by the river posterTaking an extended sojourn in the melancholy world of European gothic, Hong Sang-soo takes Death to task in the Bergmanesque Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Gangbyun Hotel). Shifting away from formal experimentation to something much more straightforward, even traditional, Hong maintains his love of dualities and unexpected symmetry as he places an elderly poet in the grip of his own mortality side by side with a young woman dealing with the emotional fallout of having been involved with a man whose heart had frozen. Beautiful but barren, the snowbound landscape points to an inner winter where hope of an invincible summer has long since passed, leaving only regret and futility in its place.

Our hero, Younghwan (Ki Joo-bong), is about to do “something foolish” once again. Feeling the icy fingers of Death on his shoulders, he’s invited his two estranged adult sons to visit him in a small hotel where he has been staying at the grace of the management. Meanwhile, he spends his days composing a last poem and gazing idly at the snow-covered vista below which is where he catches sight of a beautiful young woman with a visible wound on her hand. Like Younghwan, the young woman, Sanghee (Kim Min-hee), is here in retreat though hers is of a more immediate kind. Broken hearted over lost love, she’s invited a close friend, Yeonju (Song Seon-mi), to help her through, making a sad vacation of a trying time.

Feeling his mortality, Younghwan’s desire to see his sons is born more of a poetic sensibility and a need to put his affairs in order than it is of any great paternal affection. “Men are incapable of grasping love”, Yeonju intones from two tables over after she and Sanghee accidentally become the only other diners in a quiet eatery not far enough from the depressing hotel. Meanwhile, Younghwan is trying to excuse his decision to walk out on his family when his sons were small through love as a life philosophy, that real love must be pursued at all costs even if it fails. He claims he left the boys’ mother because it would be wrong to stay out of a sense of “guilt” alone, but his lack of remorse for the hurt his individualised actions have wrought makes his justifications hollow.

Hurt is where we find Sanghee whose internalised suffering is neatly externalised in her wounded hand. Literally “burned” in love, she is one woman among many misused by a weak willed and insensitive man much like Younghwan himself. Yet where Younghwan wallows, superficially rejects his responsibility, and frostily tries to reconnect with his sons, Sanghee heals herself with the warmth of friendship, hibernating her way towards wholeness as if waiting for the winter sun. Younghwan sees beauty in the inviolability of snow, but Sanghee sees life even here and she values it. If the magpies can make a nest even in the depths of winter, there must be hope for her too.

Younghwan has no hope, for he knows his days are over. An aesthete, he is captivated by the beauty of the two young women, repeatedly complementing them on their attractiveness and eventually deciding to dedicate his final poem only to them after doubling back on his distant sons to return for more drinks with softer companionship. The poem is harsh and self lacerating, a confession of sorts but one made to a neutral audience and lamenting the oppressive forces of futility he subconsciously blames for an inability to pursue emotional authenticity.

Even Younghwan’s sons are mere echoes of himself – Byungsoo (Yu Jun-sang), the melancholy artist too afraid to pursue female companionship, and Kyungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo), a dejected middle-aged salaryman too ashamed to tell his father that his marriage has failed. In a piece of parting advice, Younghwa expounds on the meaning behind Byungsoo’s name – “byung” as in “side by side”, intended not only as a literal hope that the brothers would always be close (something which does not seem to have come to pass), but also to echo Younghwa’s two minds life philosophy. One mind capable of conceiving of heaven, and the other to walk the ground. One mind will try to conquer the other but, Younghwan councils, you mustn’t let it. His advocacy for balance in all things only further reinforces his failure to achieve it. Younghwan’s former wife describes him as an “absolute monster with no redeeming human features” which seems like a stretch given the broken, lonely old man before us but might well have been true in his youth full of a poet’s fire untempered by age’s regret.

The ironically named “Heimat” hotel is of course a temporary refuge, existing almost out of time with its old fashioned decor and atmosphere of faded grandeur. Younghwan is staying here for free on the invitation of a fan whose ardor eventually fades. A guest who’s outstayed his welcome, Younghwan is resolved to the coming end of his world, anticipating release if not redemption but lingering on until his day is done filled only with regret for life’s futility and its many disappointments. Hotel by the River finds Hong at his most poetic, but also at his most melancholy in a fatalistic reckoning which finds no escape from its eerie snowbound beauty.


Hotel by the River was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Kim Yang-hee, 2017)

Poet and the Boy posterA poet cries for the sorrow of the world, according to the hero of Kim Yang-hee’s melancholy drama, The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Sienui Sarang). Unfortunately for him, he lives in his own poet’s world, lonely and disconnected but never knowing the true depth of sadness which would give his verse meaning. Until, that is, he falls in love. Beauty turns out to be a doubled edged sword for a mild mannered yet emotionally brave artist struggling to comprehend his place in the world but discovering that some of it, at least, has already been decided for him.

Hyon Taek-gi (Yang Ik-june) is a 30-something aspiring poet married to a feisty shopkeeper. The couple have been married several years and though they are happy enough together, theirs is a marriage born more of convenience than passion. Having married “late” each has settled in to making the best of things, sure that a greater love will one day blossom between them. Mrs. Hyon (Jeon Hye-jin), feeling an absence in the family home, has been longing for a baby but Taek-gi has never been especially interested in that side of things and isn’t really keen on the idea of becoming a father.

Meanwhile, a brand new donut shop has just opened up in town which is good news for Taek-gi because donuts are one of his favourite things. Unsure whether it’s just his status as a purveyor of sweet goods, Taek-gi develops a fascination with the beautiful boy at the bakery (Jung Ga-ram) which is further inflamed when he accidentally catches sight of him in amorous moment with a female customer. To his mild surprise, Taek-gi finds himself captivated with the male physical form, experiencing feelings and desires he had not even known existed.

As his wife later puts it, a poet’s world is different. Taek-gi stops to appreciate the flowers, watches the children play, and makes a round about detour to a fast food restaurant to observe human life but he doesn’t quite live in the world he inhabits or allow himself to truly experience its beauty. As we first meet him, Taek-gi is writing a poem to open the map of his heart but quickly finds himself lost and wandering, unable to settle on a clear direction and ending up at a disappointingly familiar destination. The poem is interesting but imperfect, somehow hollow and inauthentic.

Taek-gi’s creative block is also an emotional one. What begins with a single moment of captivating beauty expands into something deeper and warmer as the poet gets to know the boy on a more intimate level. Seyun is a troubled young man from an impoverished family caring for his bedridden father while resenting his coldhearted mother. What he sees in Taek-gi is something between friend and father, both wary of and delighting in unsolicited kindness from a virtual stranger. Taek-gi’s wife teases him about his attraction to Seyun, probing him about the nature of their own strange relationship. She wonders if it’s really “love” without intense physical desire – something he has made repeatedly clear that he does not feel for her. Taek-gi insists that it is, citing another romanticised love which remained chaste as further evidence only for his wife to fire back that perhaps all he really wanted was the sadness of unfulfilled longing to complete his poetic world view.

Taek-gi later takes his words back, insisting that what he feels for his wife is not “love” and that their relationship was always doomed to fail. Yet it’s not carnal desire which brings him to this realisation so much a greater motion towards connection. Taek-gi who was always ill-equipped for life and never able to take care of himself, begins to look after the younger man both physically and emotionally asking for nothing in return other than his continued company. Despite his otherworldliness and alienation, there is something uniquely brave in Taek-gi’s willingness to tug on the thread of an unfamiliar feeling, uncertain what it is or might be but determined to find out. Disregarding the conservative values of his society which have led him to embrace conventionality in marrying “late”, supposedly “grateful” that someone allowed him the opportunity to marry at all, Taek-gi moves forward if cautiously, aware that his desires may not be accepted and may present a danger to those around him.

Then again, Taek-gi is a middle-aged man with a series of choices already behind him, many of which entail consequences and responsibilities it would be selfish and irresponsible to break even in the pursuit of individual happiness and fulfilment. Perhaps all he really wants is the grand failed romance that will open the map of his heart through breaking its spine, craving “sadness” to feed his art over “love” to feed his soul. True enough, sorrow does wonders for Taek-gi’s art even if he feels himself trapped by his previous choices and the restrictive social codes of his community but there is also something inescapably poetic in his magnanimity as he prepares to set the thing he loves free in a way he never was and believes he never can be.


The Poet and the Boy was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yuya Ishii, 2017)

tokyo night sky posterLearning to love Tokyo is a kind of suicide, according to the heroine of Yuya Ishii’s love/hate letter to the Japanese capital, The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yozora wa Itsudemo Saiko Mitsudo no Aoiro da). This city is a mess of contradictions, a huge sprawling metropolis filled with the anonymous masses and at the same time so tiny you can find yourself running into the same people over and over again. Inspired by the poems of Tahi Saihate, The Tokyo Night Sky is at once a meditative contemplation of city life and an awkward love story between two lost souls who somehow find each other in its crowded backstreets.

The heroine, Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), works as a nurse by day and supplements her income by night as a bar tender in a “girls bar” (basically a normal bar where all the bartenders are female and you have to pay an entrance fee on top of your overpriced drinks). Depressed and anxious, she wanders the city with a poetic interior monologue expressing her constant loathing for its indifferent soullessness. Meanwhile, Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a casual day labourer working on various projects in the run up to the 2020 Olympics. He describes himself as odd and is over sensitive about being blind in one eye. Unlike his friends and colleagues, Shinji prefers literature to parties and solitude to company.

The two first catch sight of each other in a crowded bar where Mika is trying to buy time before having to head back to a dull double date with her drunken friend and the lewd guys she’s invited to come along, and Shinji is trying to read away from the noise and chaos of his lodging house. They meet again when one of Shinji’s colleagues suggests going to the girls bar, and then seem to be constantly running into one another for no particular reason.

Though romance would seem to be the natural outcome of the “pointless miracle” of their repeated meetings, the process is a slow one. It’s obvious the pair share a deep, innate understanding of each other but they each have various problems which conspire to keep them apart. Shinji, describing himself as odd and assuming he’s annoying, is prone to nervous babbling which Mika correctly guesses is less down to a love of his own voice than a fear of awkward silence. For her part Mika is anxious all the time, brittle and insecure she instinctively rejects attempts at intimacy but somehow warms to Shinji responding to his confession of oddness with a comforting “well then, you’re just like me.”

The pair advance and retreat as they wander around the city they both claim to hate but as much as they keep each other at a distance their lives begin to overlap and run in parallel. Mika receives a text from an ex (Takahiro Miura) with a confused declaration of love while Shinji receives one from an old high school classmate (Ryo Sato) with much the same effect. Mika insists that love makes you boring, that you’ll never find someone who is prepared to love the most pitiable part of you, and that there is no such thing as love on this planet, but her protestations point more towards a kind of soul-searching and buried hope than they do of active rejection.

Ishii marries the romantic undercurrent with an ambivalent portrait of the stratified city. Mika, a nurse by profession, needs to take a second job to make ends meet while the more traditionally working class Shinji is a sensitive intellectual relegated to dangerous and insecure employment. As a day labourer he gets no employment benefits like sick pay or insurance – hence when he’s injured on the job he avoids letting anyone know for as long as possible because it means both loss of wages and a doctor’s bill. An older friend (Tetsushi Tanaka) has ruined his back through long years of overwork and is now left with nothing while a Filipino migrant worker (Paul Magsign) pines for home and the wife and child waiting for him there.

Shinji’s anxieties are partly economic – trapped in insecure employment which may well, as his older friend points out, dry up once the Olympics rolls around but the greater problem is inertia. During their journeys around the city, Shinji and Mika run into the same busker (Yoshimi Nozaki) who is always singing the same strange song about her underarms sweating which seems to echo their shared anxiety. Yet the song she offers them also provides a note of hope as she enthusiastically reaches the “Ganbare!” chorus, cheering the pair of frightened lovers on and encouraging them to pursue their dreams and desires rather than waiting around for something to happen.

Waiting has been Mika’s problem. Saddled with intense abandonment issues stemming from childhood trauma, Mika is always sure something bad is about to happen. Shinji partly shares her anxiety often claiming that he has “a bad feeling” about something or other but conversely, he begins to believe that the “something” could be good as well as bad. Rather than try and argue with her, Shinji concedes most of Mika’s points, nobody knows what will happen in the future, nobody can make any promises, and everything ends someday but that’s OK – it’s only life.

Ishii’s Tokyo is a soulless place filled with the melancholy and the empty but there’s beauty here too, if only people would look up from their smartphones every now and then to see it. Mika is afraid of being swallowed by the city and becoming one of its faceless masses but her listlessness and depression stand for the city itself as she refuses and rejects the process of living with all of its attendant risks. Ishii paints the city in all the colours of the night, but for all of its beautiful sadness it’s also a place of noise and chaos where existence is exhausting and the price of living high. It is, however, also a place of ordinary miracles offering hope to the hopeless if only they are willing to accept it.


The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Lee Joon-ik, 2016)

2016-03-12-1457751627-4889573Review of Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Dong-ju) first published by UK Anime Network.


Lee Joon-ik’s previous film, The Throne, was a big budget period affair examining the well known story of tragic prince Sado who was, in a sense, murdered by his own nation as personified by his  father, the king, for failing to bow to a tyrannous regime. Lee’s followup, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet, charts a similarly melancholy path in its exploration of the life and times of its titular wordsmith, unhappily born into an age of anti-intellectual fervour with only the desire to write verses. Yet another of the recent films to address the Korea’s colonial history, Dong-ju, like its hero, may be the most contemplative as it raises a number of questions not only about the nature of resistance but also of its intrinsic values.

Growing up in a Korean religious settlement in Manchuria, Dong-ju (Kang Ha-neul) and his cousin Mong-gyu (Park Jung-min) have been largely cushioned from the effects of the Japanese occupation, but are aware it’s only a matter of time before their village loses its special status and is swallowed by the powers at be. Both boys have literary aspirations with the more bombastic Mong-gyu opting for prose and the dreamier Dong-ju committed to the far less well received world of poetry. Firm friends as they are, literary rivalry aside, each is bound for a different course as Mong-gyu becomes increasingly involved with the independence movement whereas Dong-ju’s rebellion remains largely on the page.

After travelling to Japan as students, both Dong-ju and Mong-gyu are arrested for insurrection and incarcerated in the notorious Fukuoka prison where they are used as human subjects for experimentation. Regularly dosed with mysterious injections which blister the skin and weaken the constitution, neither lives long enough to see the return of their nation’s sovereignty just a few weeks later with Japan’s defeat at the end of the war.

Beginning with Dong-ju’s prison interrogation, the film is largely told through flashback as it follows the course of Dong-ju’s life from his adolescence in the village to domestic university and finally to Japan where he faces constant threat as an alien Korean in the land of the oppressor. Both he and Mong-gyu are committed to the idea that conscientious literature can change the world, even founding a student magazine dedicated to progressive texts. Mong-gyu, however, does not place the same faith in the art of poetry as does his friend, and eventually decides to head to China to join the left-wing arm of the Resistance movement in exile, only to become disillusioned with their extreme tactics.

Despite his loss of faith in Communist dogma, Mong-gyu remains committed to the idea of direct action and the eventual ushering in of the egalitarian revolution preceded by the expulsion of the Japanese. Far from opposing the draft of Korean students into the Japanese army, Mong-gyu plans to harness it to fill the army with capable, trained fifth columnists who will use the skills they learn in a foreign army to retake their homeland. After a brush with the ruling regime, Dong-ju tries to join the more active side of the resistance alongside his friend but is rebuffed. Mong-gyu knows his friend is not a born soldier and is much more valuable as a poet than on the front lines.

Dong-ju’s poetry is often not overtly political, anti-Japanese, or even anti-colonialist, but it is written in Korean – a daring act of political resistance in itself. During this era, Japanese was the dominant language, used in all official institutions and most schools (Dong-ju and Mong-gyu’s excluded because of its special religious status). One of the problems Dong-ju faces during his interrogation is that he delayed adopting a Japanese name much longer than was wise and subsequently continued to disseminate literature in Korean. When language is suppressed and nationhood denied to the extent that even names have been erased, what other means is there to reclaim an identity other than literature, and of literature what more powerful than poetry?

Dong-ju’s resistance to the brutalisation of of an oppressive regime is entirely internal. He writes in his native language about the things which matter, of his loneliness and youthful anxiety much of which is born of the uncertainty of his times. During his interrogation he is forced to sign a confession of his “crimes”, which he does, but with equal amounts of pride and shame as he wonders if his commitment to literature was time well spent when his comrades were dying in the streets. Was it responsible of him to commit himself to poetry rather than to medicine with all of its more immediately humanitarian benefits, or should he have thrown away the pen for the gun and joined the combatants in the armed struggle?

Mong-gyu, by contrast, feels only shame when he signs his papers which amount to a list of failed manifesto promises. Yes, he did plan all of these things but realised none of them, placing the lives of his friends in jeopardy as his did so. Perhaps he, like Dong-ju, should have agitated for social change through culture, rather than trying to fight an empire using only the empire’s cast offs.

There are no real answers to these questions, Korea regained its independence thanks to the collapse of the Japanese overseas empire rather than armed insurrection or the gradual enlightenment of the citizenry. Both men are left with a lingering sense of shame and impotence at having been unable to accomplish more in their cruelly shortened lives. Yet as for Dong-ju, there is rebellion enough in his poetry which bares all of his own soul as he suffered the torment of a poet forbidden from poetry, writing in a language proscribed by those that would seek to destroy the essence of his culture.

Filming in a crisp, washed out black and white, Lee imbues his world with a sense of melancholy and lost potential as two young men find themselves at the mercy of their times, fighting for their own independence as distinct from that of their nation but once again being denied. A necessarily sombre film unafraid to acknowledge the darkest edges of the colonial period, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet is a celebration of the enduring power of the poetic form as exemplified by Dong-ju’s beautifully heartbreaking lines.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal & A Whore

Ruined Heart
100% did not notice that sticker while I was watching the film…

Just “another love story between a criminal and a whore” –  so subtitles maverick Filipino film director Khavn his latest effort, Ruined Heart (Pusong Wasak: Isa na namang kwento ng pag-ibig sa pagitan ng kriminal at puta), though like much in the film you could read quite a lot more intro those few words than their subtext suggests. Light on conventional narrative and almost dialogue free, Ruined Heart is the deconstruction of the classic B-Movie. We have our noble, broken hearted outlaw and our damaged princess in need of rescue but what we’re denied is the sense of moral righteousness that generally pervades in a B-Movie and particularly in a film noir. The picture Kavn paints is of a hellish world where violence reigns and love will always be defeated.

There’s little point trying to tease out the plot bar the above ideas. What we are presented with at the beginning of the film is our dramatis personae – archetypes of this modern myth: The  Lover (Elena Kazan), The Criminal (Tadanobu Asano), The Friend (Andre Puertollano), The Whore (Nathalia Acevedo), and The Pianist (played by Khavn himself), each profiled against a butterfly patterned curtain neatly echoing Branded to Kill. Our hero, the Criminal, bonds with the Whore after offing one of her Johns, but their love is not to last after the Criminal decides to help The Friend rescue his Lover from the Godfather.

While all of this is going on we’re also treated to a far more surreal scene where the pianist reads out a street poem consisting of the repeated phrase “I am the poem of the world” before taking part in a bizarre ritual where he appears to resurrect the Godfather (Vim Nadera) who is now introduced for the first time. Is the pianist the god of this strangely operatic landscape, presiding over this violent world of song? For someone with such an elaborate introduction he makes relatively little impact thereafter. Is this hell, are we all dead already or merely doomed to relive these old stories over and over again to the point where names and language no longer have currency?

That said, there is something genuine to be found here in this otherwise cold landscape. The Criminal and The Whore find love against the odds though their romance is soon frustrated by the harshness of their world. They have fleeting moments of joy where they drink and dance and make music of all kinds. However, something is coming for them and however hard you try to escape there are things you cannot outrun.

Playing out more like an avant-garde opera than a conventional film, Ruined Heart offers little in the way of concrete explanations. Dripping with sometimes impenetrable symbolism the film paints an eerie, dream-like vision that often proves impossible to decode and like all the best poems, there are a hundred different ways to read it.

The score itself is an eclectic assault of catchy ’60s inflected broken heart ballads and electro pop, often repeating the same song in different arrangements (an apt stylistic choice given the nature of the film). Composed by a diverse collection of artists including French/German outfit Stereo Total who contributed to Third Window Films’ previous release pink musical Underwater Love, and Bing Austria & the Flippin’ Soul Stompers who provide the film’s catchy theme song, the musical element becomes the driving force of the film.

Shot with a youthful yet melancholy verve by Christopher Doyle, Ruined Heart is a high energy experience that proves difficult to digest, particularly on a first viewing. However, its extremely rich layers of symbolism and subversion of common archetypes lend it a mystifying and intriguing atmosphere that continues to fascinate long after the credits roll. More felt and experienced than understood, Ruined Heart may prove a difficult sell for some but comes bearing gifts for those that long to find them.


Ruined Heart is available on blu-ray in the UK now from Third Window films in a limited edition package which also includes a soundtrack CD (highly recommended for the CD alone). The blu-ray disc also includes Khavn’s short film with the same title and a similar theme (though filmed in an entirely different style and with a different cast).

First saw the film a couple of months ago and still can’t get this song out of my head.

Trailer for the film

 

Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Kiju Yoshida, 1969)

Snapshot-2015-11-17 at 11_12_15 PM-1889818228One of the foremost avant-garde filmmakers of the New Wave era (though he detested this term which, in fairness, is a retrospective and often arbitrary label), Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida has remained largely unseen in the West. Some of this is his own fault – fiercely independent, Yoshida nevertheless found himself working with ATG after leaving Shochiku but the relationship was an unusual one and often far from easy. All but the latest film in Arrow’s Kiju Yoshida boxset, Coup d’Etat, were completed more or less independently and only distributed though ATG and as such not truly “ATG” films. Though it bears many of the hallmarks of a late ‘60s ATG movie, Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Erosu Purasu Gyakusatsu) is one such effort and the one which helped to make Yoshida’s name even if it was only seen in an abridged version.

Structurally complex, Eros + Massacre mixes the world of the Taisho anarchists, Osugi Sakae and Ito Noe, with the contemporary Tokyo of the sixties through the prism of two modern students who are running a research project into the events surrounding their ultimate assassination during the panic after the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Eiko is a sexually liberated modern woman who engages in casual prostitution and her boyfriend, Wada, is a sexually impotent young man with a traumatic past and habit of playing with fire. The vision we see of the Taisho era is filtered through the perceptions of Eiko and Wada and, in fact, we start to see them as living with us in a real sense as Ito wanders around modern Tokyo, observing the fruits of her struggle and in one notable episode being interviewed by Eiko.

The film exists in two distinct versions – this is less to do with any kind of censorship, either commercial or political, than a legal or possibly moral issue. The fact is, the other of Osugi’s mistresses, Kamichika Ichiko, was still alive at the time the film was completed and had also become a serving politician. Unhappy with her portrayal in the film and unwilling to have a potentially embarrassing event from her previous life dragged back into the spotlight, she threatened to sue and Yoshida voluntarily decided to recut the film to remove many of her scenes as well as renaming the character to distance her from her real life counterpart. The shorter version of the film is the one which helped make Yoshida’s reputation and though nothing in the shorter version is not in the longer one, this version feels a little less “avant-garde” in tone than the intended full cut of the film.

Yoshida often gives way to surreal incidents such as the clash between the Taisho era followers of Osugi and a group of young rugby players tussling over the white wrapped remains of Osugi, the expressionist scene in which the mistress, Itsuko, clutches at a knife hovering in mid air causing the screen to fill with blood raining down from above or the repeated stabbings of Osugi each re-imagined in differing scenarios. His framing is always beautifully idiosyncratic as he makes use of the edges of the frames, disembodying his actors or dividing them with walls and windows. There is no sense of conventional narrative as timelines blur into each other becoming evermore indistinct and the dialogue is often elliptical or poetic rather than offering naturalistic content. Nevertheless, the shorter version retains fewer of these flourishes than are present in the original cut of the film.

Eiko is interested in Osugi because of his free love philosophy rather than any other political aim. Other than their interest in sexual politics, Eiko and Wada do not appear to be particularly politically active in any other way. Osugi’s ideas of total freedom do not even go down very well with his comrades who don’t approve of the way he treats his various women and his disingenuous denial that there is any discord between his band of concubines seems wilfully naive. Osugi’s treatment of the three women in his life – his wife, Yasuko, mistress Itsuko (who is financially supporting both Osugi and his wife despite Osugi’s advocacy of free love insisting on financial independence of all parties), and now his latest lover Noe, is extremely self-centred and unfair. As the first to live in this unorthodox fashion, it’s unsurprising that the arrangement comes in for criticism from all quarters. Yoshida posits that it was Osugi’s free love lifestyle that eventually lead to his shock execution during the chaos following the Great Kanto earthquake as his modern ideals threatened the very idea of the traditional family and ultimately the state itself.

By contrast, Eiko’s modern sexuality appears merely an attempt to ward of her sense of ennui. Where for Osugi sex was a political action (or so he would have it), for Eiko it’s a means of trying and failing to add some kind of meaning to her life. Eiko and Wada are not committed to any kind of rebellious action – they’re simply bored. They literally play with fire without understanding its consequences. Yoshida’s other central tenet is that youth is not beautiful – it is destructive. By implication, Eiko and Wada’s selfish pursuit of personal freedom and the modern commodification of desire is nothing more than willful self destruction.

Yoshida has stated that his primary idea for the film is how to bring about a revolution and to ask the question of what it is that needs to change. Osugi is shown up as a hypocrite whose ideals are imperfect and self centred, though his eventual murder is dictated by his refusal to conform. The fact that he envisioned a different future, wished to live in a different way, was sufficient enough to necessitate his death. The modern couple misuse their own freedom and are willing to watch the world burn just to feel the heat. They are incapable of effecting real social change because their focus is always inwards rather than a dedication to the betterment of all mankind. Confounding, intriguing and beautifully shot Eros + Massacre is far from easy to digest but is an essential entry in the history of Japanese avant-garde cinema.


Available now in the UK as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.

Reviews of the other movies in the set:

Poetry

 

Last year’s winner of the Cannes award for screenwriting, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry is the story of one women’s yearning to see the beauty of life and finding that often it’s only to be found in its blackest tragedies. Mija (Yun Jung-Hee), a sixty-five year old woman, is caring for her grandson in a tiny apartment of the edges of a city when simple aches and pains lead to the discovery of a serious health problem. Having seen a poster for a local adult education class in poetry writing, and recalling a teacher once predicted she’d one day become a poet she decides to enroll. In the midst of this she also discovers that her grandson has done something unthinkable, and that the reactions of others to these events ranges from the nonchalant to the wildly self interested. Bewildered by the conspiracy of these conflicting crises, Mija must reach an understanding of what must happen now and learn to see the beauty of life in all its ugliness so that she can finally write her own poem.

Although it has a gentle melancholy, Poetry is not quite as depressing as it sounds and is in the end deeply beautiful. Yun Jung-Hee’s performance is breathtaking, never straying too far into melodrama she keeps a film that might have become overwrought firmly rooted whilst allowing the audience to totally empathise with her character. It’s no wonder that this won the screen writing prize at Cannes last year as it’s incredibly well written and hugely literate.

Poetry is a beautiful film that everyone would benefit from seeing. It’s a real shame that this is the first of Lee Chang-Dong’s films to be released in the UK, hopefully it won’t be the last!