Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, Jung Yoon-suk, 2017)

Bamseom Pirates posterGiven its long and turbulent political history, Korea has become good at the art of the peaceful protest. Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, beomseom Haejeok-dan seoul bulbada) arrives just after another political storm has passed, but trouble once again hovers on the horizon courtesy of noisy neighbours. Yet it’s not so much the literal threat of the Kims in the North that’s the problem, but the way that fear is used and abused to serve certain needs – this is where avant-garde punk duo Bamseom Pirates aim their carefully crafted arrows. Unfortunately for them, they are too clever for their own good and their reliance on sarcasm leaves them frequently misunderstood.

The Bamseom Pirates are drummer Kwon Yong-man and bassist Jang Sung-geon – two young men living the life of starving artists in Korea’s underground music scene. As Jang points out, other bands smash expensive guitars but Bamseom Pirates smash rubbish picked up from around the derelict buildings where they play their shows to small crowds of likeminded youngsters. Though violence is often an integral part of many “punk” scenes, the clashes here are not born of over exuberance or warring factions of bands and their followers but of hired thugs deliberately sent in to make trouble, limiting freedoms of assembly and expression.

Kwon’s lyrics are deliberately incendiary but violence is not in the band’s agenda. Filmed over several years, Jung Yoon-suk’s documentary finds the pair performing at several protests and rallies usually in support of progressive causes including opposing privatisation, and labour reform. Though he is repeatedly pressed to explain himself, Kwon refuses to pin his convictions to the mast of any recognisable political faction, nervously aligning himself with the defunct Progressive Party and then only vaguely in citing an agreement with their progressive causes. This refusal is key to Kwon’s artistic statement as he finds himself attacked from all sides – the left, who might be assumed to be his allies, tear him down for his bourgeois upbringing and education at an elite university, but on the other hand one can’t say anything that sounds too lefty lest one be accused of being a “communist” and therefore North Korean sympathiser.

Bamseom Pirates rely heavily on irony and so they can’t resist pushing this central dichotomy to its natural limit. Thus Kwon’s signature song is called “All Hail Kim Jong-il!”, but as it turns out the song isn’t about that Kim Jong-il at all, but all the other unfortunate people throughout history who share his not particularly uncommon name and are now tainted by association. North Korea being the most taboo issue of the day, it comes up frequently in the band’s songs in which they often point out the uncomfortable truths about their neighbour – in particular, the theoretical benefits of socialism such as workers rights and a welfare state that should be (but aren’t) in place in North Korea but can’t be adopted into the South because of persistent fear of “Communism”. The fear of “Communism” has become a stick with which to beat the progressive cause or really any cause the conservative society does not want to engage with, shutting down all debate and undermining the “democracy” the previous generation fought so hard to win.

This all comes to a head when the band’s manager finds himself falling foul of Korea’s longstanding censorship laws regarding North Korea designed to prevent “acts which benefit the enemy”. Park, a high school friend of Kwon, and a jack of all trades who runs a small indie record label printing CDs for underground bands, is just as acerbic as the boys and frequently makes ironic comments about North Korea on his Twitter account, even once asking the Dear Leader to buy him some chocolate. Nevertheless, when he retweets a North Korean account he’s immediately arrested and brought in for questioning as a possible North Korean sympathiser. His brand of sarcasm is just too subtle for the censor, and he finds himself on the receiving end of an extremely harsh punishment which is in no way helped by Kwon’s honest testimony clarifying their stance on the North.

Park faces prison for making a stupid joke on Twitter while his lawyer sensibly points out that if he had said the same thing in North Korea, he’d already be dead. He would not last five seconds on North Korean soil and clearly has no desire to go there. Rather than simply capture events, Jung leans in on the central irony of the situation in its suggestion that perhaps there’s not as much difference between the democratic South and the despotic North as might be hoped when it comes to encouraging a full and frank freedom of expression.

Yet despite the satirical content of their music, Bamseom Pirates remain refreshingly unpretentious and keen to make fun of themselves as well the current political crisis of the day. There’s no posturing or claim of a great masterplan to change society through the power of punk. The boys just want to play their music to likeminded people and have fun while doing it. This self effacing charm makes their extremely loud and energetic performances a joy to watch, though Jung also captures their anarchic spirit in several music videos accompanied by garish onscreen captions featuring the lyrics plus the explanation that the sound balance has been “deliberately” miscaptured to represent the “imbalances” in modern Korean society and that the band’s various musical mistakes have also been left in in testament to their artistic integrity. Bamseom Pirates do not claim to speak for their generation, but they do all the same as the young fight back against the “mainstream” of a conservative society, refusing to accept the gradual erosions of the freedoms the preceding generation fought so hard for but have failed to protect.

Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Also screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 on 5th November at Close-up Film Centre.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death Powder (デスパウダー, Shigeru Izumiya, 1986)

death powderCyberpunk, for many people, is a movement which came to define the 1980s and continues to enjoy various kinds of resurgences and rebirths even into the new century. Beginning the the ‘60s and ’70s in dystopian science fiction afraid of the impact of advancing technologies in society, it’s not surprising that the genre began to actively embrace influences from the East and especially that of the more technologically advanced and economically superior Japan. However, when Japan made its own cyberunk cinema, the “punk” element is the one that’s important. These movies sprang from the punk music scene and often star punk bands and musicians as well as featuring high energy punk rock inspired scores.

Death Powder (デスパウダー) is among the first of these tech themed experimental films and is the only feature to be directed by folk singer and poet Shigeru Izumiya who had also starred in Sogo Ishii’s massively influential Burst City in 1982. Hugely indebted to Blade Runner, it takes that film’s noir stylings and terminology to create an experimental surrealist film loosely themed around two bounty hunters in search of a “replicant”.

After beginning with a chase sequence past neon signs and through a contemporary Tokyo where the faces of passersby have been pixelated out, the story focuses in on the pair of street punk robot hunters, Kiyoshi and Noris, who have been charged with investigating a gang hideout which used to belong to an artist who keeps trying to come back. However, when the duo arrive they find that the reason the artist, Harima (played by Izumiya himself), keeps trying to attack the place is that they’ve been holding his girlfriend, Guernica – an android, in the basement. After Guernica is killed in the resultant fighting, her body turns into a kind of powder which Kiyoshi later snorts. This “Death Powder” allows Guernica to colonise his body producing changes in both his mind and physiology.

This is what passes for a plot summary, though in keeping with the best of cyberpunk film making from Japan the narrative is irrelevant. One character even says to another “Like life itself, this makes no sense” – that being the point in a sense, creating meaning from the meaningless. Though it starts off with a Blade Runner-esque aesthetic bearing all of the hall marks which would come to be associated with cyberpunk from the neon signs, darkened streets and noir tinged atmosphere right down to the shades and trilbies costuming, the film quickly moves into the experimental realm with strange robotic sperm flying across the screen and melting vistas of city scenes and memories.

Kiyoshi begins to merge with Guernica’s consciousness, inheriting her memories and what may or may not be android fears and emotions. He “remembers” a flashback sequence featuring the very strange figure of Dr. Loo – a rock god mad scientistic who built Guernica for some undisclosed reason and then passed her on to Harima on whom it, apparently, depends whether not not she can become human which requires showing her love that transcends human love and will become “memories”. Like the replicants in Blade Runner she has a limited four year lifespan but when she dies her body will become a powder which gives life to other things.

Guernica is a created being, devoid of human flesh, but can she become human through experiencing human emotions and can she overcome death by downloading her experiences into another being’s consciousness? All fundamental questions found in cyberpunk explorations of what in means to be human in a world of advancing technology but once again Death Powder offers no clear answers so much as a surrealist and experimental exploration of the individual changes undergone by the individual rather than the society in the face of increasing mechanisation.

The borders between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, man and machine have all become so hopelessly blurred that concept of reality itself has become corrupted and no longer carries any kind of currency. While it may not have the raw and sophisticated artistic power of Tsukamoto’s later Tetsuo the Iron Man which has come to define the genre, Death Powder is a surprisingly accomplished low budget cyberpunk body horror extravaganza which places sensory experience ahead of narrative. Undoubtedly hugely influential yet now little seen or remembered, Death Powder is an essential addition to the cyberpunk canon and one which deserves to be as widely distributed as the classics which later followed it.

Opening sequence of the film (very trippy but dialague free until right near the end. Fast forward to around four minutes in for the nighttime chase through Tokyo!):

Attack! Hakata Street Gang (突撃!博多愚連隊, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

hakataSogo Ishii (now Gakuryu Ishii) was one of the foremost filmmakers in Japan’s punk movement of the late ‘70s and ‘80s though his later work drifted further away from his youthful subculture roots. Perhaps best known for his absurdist look at modern middle class society in The Crazy Family or his noisy musical epics Crazy Thunder Road and Burst City, Ishii’s first feature length film is a quieter, if no less energetic, effort.

Like his other films from the period, Attack! Hakata Street Gang (突撃!博多愚連隊, Totsugeki! Hakata Gurentai) is fairly light on actual plot but broadly follows a group of low level street punks who get themselves into trouble after accidentally shooting the son of a yakuza boss in the leg and leaving him to bleed to death. In trouble with both the law and the gangs the guys find themselves in the midst of a turf war they are ill equipped to handle.

Very clearly an early effort, Attack! Hakata Street Gang is an ultra low budget production filmed on the real streets starring Ishii’s friends rather than professional actors. It can’t claim to any level of aesthetic beauty and, in truth, is not particularly interesting in terms of look or style but is filled with Ishii’s characteristic energy and runs fast even given its brief 67 minute run time.

Generally, Ishii sticks to a naturalistic representation of the street punk world. Taking his cue from the realistic action genre pioneered by Fukasaku et al not long before the film’s release, Ishii employs a similar approach to the fight scenes shooting from the middle of the action and often from low angles. Full of handheld camera and shakey, unfocused shots Attack! Hakata Street Gang is filled with the kind of youthful freshness that was very in vogue at the time.

Ishii does not appear to want to offer any kind of critique of this extremely masculine, violent world but solely to capture it on film. The street punks themselves are not particularly well drawn but there is a notably strange set of characters including an ultranationalist and his younger brother with learning difficulties who wears an SS helmet and rides around on a pushbike with a large nazi flag flying on the back. Nicknamed “manji” (the word for the Japanese “swastika”) the boy is obsessed with warfare and dangerously gets hold of one of the guns his older brother has adapted from a toy to be able to fire real bullets. He’s more of a plot point than anything else but still offers a convincingly weird sample of modern street life.

Also in keeping with the recent brand of cool action dramas, the film has an energetic score which is perhaps more jazz fusion or blues rock than outright punk which gives it more of a nihilistic, sophisticated tone than the full on noise explosion of some of Ishii’s later efforts. By the time the guys have taken their final stand by capturing hostages and occupying the local kindergarten (literally kids with guns) it’s pretty clear that there is no way back for this collection of down and out street rats.

Perhaps more interesting as an early work of a master than in its own right, Attack! Hakata Street Gang is an energetic and youthful exploration of a little seen late 1970s subculture. Literally playing fast and loose, Ishii’s debut is in many ways a statement of intent and none the worse for it.

Trailer for the Sogo Ishii The Punk Years 1976 – 1983 box which includes this film (though unfortunatly does not include any 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


Pepi, Luci, Bom… + Q&A with Alaska

Pedro Almodóvar’s debut film may not be as polished as his later work, in fact it may be a bit messy and very rough around the edges but the trademark energy, wit, and charm are all here, and in abundance. Pepi (Maura), is listening to some music and playing with a sticker book when a policeman calls because he’s been noticing her funny looking plants. Fearing prosecution Pepi offers him other compensations, but the policeman takes things further than she was thinking, raping her and ‘stealing’ the virginity which she’d been planning to sell! Seeking revenge, Pepi enlists the help of her friends in a punk group, including Bom (Alaska), to beat him up, but it doesn’t quite go to plan. Later Pepi runs into the rapist policeman’s wife, Luci, (Silva) and convinces her to give her knitting lessons, where she finds out that Luci is a masochist upset that her husband treats her like his mother. These are our three crazy girls trying to make it in La Movida. The film is extremely funny, though dipping a little into poor taste at times which may spoil it a little for some. Even if it’s not an especially well made film, and its lack of budget and complicated production circumstances are very much in evidence it’s still a lot of fun and it’s very interesting for fans of Almodóvar’s more recent work to look at where it all started.

After the film the BFI brought out the actress and singer Alaska (Bom) to talk and answer a few questions about her work on this film. She began by commenting on the film’s genesis, that she was offered the part because she was friends with some artists that were also friends of Almodóvar’s and had read the script and recommended her. As there was no money at all to make the film filming would take place when enough money had been raised to buy the negative, consequently the film took a few years to actually complete filming here and there when possible. Other than Carmen Maura and Felix Rotaeta most of the cast were not professional actors but friends and other people from that particular underground scene at the time. Someone from the audience asked if she’d influenced her character seeing as there was a superficial similarity there with Alaska’s also being in a punk group, to which she replied no. She provided her own clothes/look etc seeing as there wasn’t a costume designer or stylist or even any money for costumes but the character was already 100% scripted before she got the part and Almodóvar was very strict about sticking to his script and did not allow any deviations from it whatever. However she did mention that the seen with the postman was originally intended to just be ‘hello’ but that the actor decided to go for it, much to the consternation of the producer because they only had the right amount of film for what was already planned out, but Almodóvar liked it so it worked out in that instance. A few questions also raised the question of how Alaska felt at the time regarding the changes in Spanish Society, whether she felt herself to be living in momentous times, she replied that being only fifteen or so at the time she just didn’t really react to it in that way. She felt sure that other people did, but being so young she was just really living her life. Someone then asked how she felt about Spanish society at the moment and she answered that she was old enough now to see that each generation criticises the next one for failing to react enough but perhaps it was just a case of times moving on and general apathy. Another questions asked if the film was representative of the youth of Spain during La Movida but she she pointed out that no, this was a definite minority subscene of people that were seen as ‘weird’ and that maybe the film was adopted by youth culture a bit later but at that moment didn’t really reflect it at the time of making. The question of reviews and reaction to the film was also brought up and it was pointed out that the film was more or less panned everywhere, there was not a good reaction anywhere. The film was screened at a couple of festivals where it received an adverse reaction particularly from feminist critics. One of the last questions asked for clarification on the film’s message and purpose, which in Alaska’s opinion (one that she was sure Almodóvar would share) were nil. She felt that if there was a message or purpose it was that there wasn’t one, and if anything simply a statement of intent – we are here and this is who we are, this is how we choose to live. What better message could there possibly be?