Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Suzuki Matsuo, 2007)

welcome-to-the-quiet-roomEveryone has those little moments in life where you think “how did I get here?”, but thankfully most of them do not occur strapped to a table in an entirely white, windowless room. This is, indeed, where the heroine of Suzuki Matsuo’s adaptation of his own novel Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Quiet Room ni Yokoso) finds herself after a series of events she can’t remember but which seem to have involved pills and booze. A much needed wake up call, Asuka’s spell in the Quiet Room provides a long overdue opportunity to slow down and take a long hard look at herself but self knowledge can be a heavy burden.

After her initial confusion, Asuka (Yuki Uchida) is informed by the no nonsense matron, Eguchi (Ryo), that she’s been brought in after an overdose. Everyone seems to assume it’s a suicide attempt, though Asuka can’t remember a thing. Apparently her roommate found her and called and ambulance and has now signed the committal papers which means Asuka is stuck here until the doctors say she’s fit to leave. Aside from the obvious, this is bad news because Asuka has a series of tight deadlines she’s been busting her gut to meet and is worried about losing her contracts. Whatever she might feel about it, it seems as if Asuka will have to rely on the kindness of strangers a little longer before she can finally get back to her exciting freelance world.

Aspects of Asuka’s previous life are illuminated gradually through flashback accompanied by her post-committal deadpan voiceover. After a brief career as a model, Asuka got married, divorced, and then hooked up with her present roommate, Tetsuo (Kankuro Kudo), who hooked her up with a series of freelance writing gigs which have only contributed to her stress levels with their ever present deadlines. Prior to her hospitalisation, Asuka was a rather silly, perky woman with a self confessed preference for “idiots” when it came to her circle of friends. Slowly and in the absence of her regular methods of self medication, all of Asuka’s illusions about herself and the way she was living her life begin to crumble. Finally able to cut through the noise, Asuka is forced to come to terms with a significant amount of guilt relating to a decision taken during her marriage whilst also acknowledging the effect crippling depression has had on her way of life.

Whilst in the hospital, Asuka comes in to contact with the other residents who have various needs and demands, each exemplifying the problems plaguing modern women. Tellingly, the majority of the women on the ward are younger – some just teenagers or young adults, all suffering with various kinds of eating disorders. One such patient, Miki (Yu Aoi), quickly befriends Asuka and teaches her how to survive in the increasingly surreal hospital environment. Asuka later makes friends with another recovering overdose patient around her own age, Kurita (Yuko Nakamura), but conversely finds herself harassed by the ward’s resident fixer, former adult video actress Nishino (Shinobu Ootake), while other residents make repeated escape attempts or go to great lengths to set their hair on fire.

Asuka’s Wizard of Oz inspired outfit, hair, and the silver Dorothy slippers which play into a repeated motif of Asuka’s memories of a high school culture festival, all reinforce the idea of the hospital as a strange otherworldly place in which Asuka will be residing temporarily until she completes her quest. The temporary nature of the space gives Asuka’s journey a rather melancholy atmosphere as she’s encouraged to forget all about her time there when transitioning back to the “real world” meaning that the fragile bonds and friendships created during in her hospital sojourn will have to be left behind. Finally learning to calm down and take charge of herself, Asuka rediscovers a long absent inner strength and the last image we see of her is in raucous laughter after an catching sight of an improbable event through a car window.

Matsuo opts for a less madcap treatment than the far out comedy of Otakus in Love but carefully balances an absurd sense of humour with dramatic weight as Asuka’s personal discoveries are intercut with increasingly surreal episodes. Yuki Uchida shines in a early comeback role as the two very different Asukas even if she almost has the show stolen out from her by another beautiful performance from Yu Aoi as the sensitive goth Miki. Tackling a weighty subject with warmth and good humour, Welcome to the Quiet Room is another characteristically off the wall character piece from Suzuki, but all the better for it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare, Ettore Scola, 1977)

4963Ettore Scola, one of the most celebrated filmmakers of Italian cinema in the late 20th century, returned to one of the country’s darkest moments for the film which is often regarded as his masterpiece – A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare). Set on one particular day in 1938 when Mussolini rolled out the red carpet for his fascist brother in arms, Adolf Hitler, it focusses less on this “historic” meeting of “likeminded” leaders of state than it does on two small figures each lonely and excluded from the festivities for very different reasons.

The film begins with a lengthy sequence of archive footage of Mussolini welcoming Hitler and other major German politicians of the time to a series of festivities in Rome. Today, there is to be a large scale parade to demonstrate Italy’s military prowess before their new allies. Antonietta (a surprisingly dowdy Sophia Loren), wakes her entire family including her six children and boorish husband so that they may get ready to attend the parade like good little fascists. She herself will not be going (though she would like to) as housewives and mothers do not get days off and she simply has too much to do. However, her day is disrupted when her pet mynah bird (Rosamunda) escapes and lands on a balcony opposite. Now she notices the gentleman who lives across the way hasn’t gone to the parade either so she decides to ask him if she can try and coax the bird back in through his window.

The man, Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni), is in something of a nervous mood. When we first see him he’s addressing a large number of envelopes whilst gazing mournfully at the photographs on his desk with half an eye on the pistol to his left. Somehow everything he does carries an air of finality, as if he’s tidying himself away, putting his affairs in order once and for all. Yet, Antonietta’s unexpected call reawakens something in him and suddenly he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. He tries to convince her to stay but she’s shy and slightly confused and, after all, she has so much to do, that she declines his offer and returns home only to feel a slight degree of regret and even resentment when she assumes he’s telephoned another woman right away. However, Gabriele pays a return visit on her and the two end up spending this very “special day” together.

A Special Day is about fascism and the fascist era in some senses, but in essence it’s about Antonietta and Gabriele – two lonely, lost souls each trapped in prisons to some degree of their own making but also those created by society. Antonietta is an ordinary middle-aged housewife. As a mother of six she’s more than fulfilled her societal role though she and her husband are thinking of another child as you get a special “big family bonus” with seven. Her husband is a high ranking fascist official and Antonietta herself is a big fan of Il Duce. Gabriele, by contrast, is an anti-fascist though perhaps more of a passive one. He had been part of the party for appearance’s sake but as we discover in passing fairly early on in the film, Gabriele is gay and an intellectual neither of which is particularly compatible with the fascist state.

Gabriele, played by Marcello Mastroianni brilliantly cast against type as the suave yet melancholy man out of place, has lost his job as a radio announcer precisely for the crimes of being gay and of being under committed to fascist principles. They fired him for not being a member of the party even though he was one because they said theirs was a party of “men”. The fascist credo says those who aren’t husbands, fathers and soldiers are not “real men” and Gabriele is none of these things. He also has a medical certificate which certifies him as not being a homosexual which is fairly counterproductive because, after all, who carries something like that around if they don’t have anything to prove in the first place.

Gabriele hates the fascist state most because it makes you deny what you are, to try to appear different to your authentic self so as to conform better to someone else’s ideals. Just as Gabriele’s identity has been erased by the desires of society at the time, so too has Antonietta’s though she is less well equipt to see it. She even has a scrapbook of fascist photos with slogans which proclaim that genius is something which only belongs to men and that a woman’s role is in the home, supporting her husband and raising his children. Effectively brainwashed, it had not previously occurred to Antonietta to question these ideas before but meeting Gabriele has planted the seed of doubt in her mind. She too has been forced to suppress her true nature and only now does she start to possess the courage to reassert herself.

Loren turns in virtuoso performance as an ordinary, aging housewife ashamed of the hole in her slippers and the ladder in her tights. Full of minor touches of brilliance such as her brief look into the mirror as if suddenly realising how old she’s become and starting to feel shy in front of this man she feels an obvious attraction to or her extended dreamy look towards the end of the film when suddenly surrounded by her family and finding herself mildly horrified by their fascist ideas, her performance in A Special Day must rank among her finest even in a career which is often marked by brilliance. Mastroianni, also cast against type, gives an equally accomplished performance as the quietly defiant Gabriele who knows what kind of fate awaits him and has already made his peace with the unfairness of his situation.

The film is cast in a heavy brown colour palate, almost sepia in tone, which gives it the feeling both of looking directly into history as if in a moving photograph and of emphasising the oppressive and rigidly restrictive society of the time. This is not a time for dreamers and outcasts, those who don’t readily conform to the fascist ideals will be ruthlessly discarded. However, through encountering each other and finding another weary, frustrated soul, something is reawakened in both of these isolated individuals. Here, there is hope for the first time. That if even two people can wake each other up enough to pierce this strange mass delusion then perhaps there might be a way out after all.


I actually had this queued up to post a little later but having just watched the film today I was slightly shocked to hear that director Ettore Scola has died at the age of 84 so I’ve moved it up a little to mark his passing. A Special Day is such a beautiful film that I could have written far more about it but it was running so long already.

A Special Day is available with English subtitles on Region A blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Unsubtitled scene from near the beginning of the film:

 

A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2015)

matterofinterpretation_keyartFirst published on UK Anime Network – review of Lee Kwang-kuk’s A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽, Ggumboda Haemong).


Romance Joe director Lee Kwung-kuk returns to the director’s chair with a another meta take on modern Korean life only this time he’s interested in the nature of dreams vs reality. A Matter of Interpretation is, ironically, a little closer to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo thanks to its repeated dream motifs but always stands at a slightly more abstracted angle than the comparatively more realistic Hong. Building on the promise of Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation further marks Lee out as a talent to watch in modern Korean cinema.

The film begins with a group of performers nervously waiting in a rather circus-like theatre before eventually deciding to cancel the performance because no tickets have been sold. Yeon-shin, the star actress, storms out and goes for a smoke in a nearby park. Her boyfriend eventually finds her and they talk about the film project Yeon-shin has just been bumped from in favour of a young pop idol. They break up and we time jump to the same bench some point later as Yeon-shin talks to a policeman who, it turns out, can also interpret dreams. Yeon-Shin has had a dream about attempting to commit suicide in an abandoned car only to find a man (who now has the face of Seo, the policeman) tied up in the car’s boot.

The car itself ends up becoming a recurrent theme in the film, appearing in the dreams of multiple people and eventually in reality (maybe?). The policeman (who frequently pulls out a pocket watch and seems to be late for a very important date) interprets Yeon-shin’s dream as being about regret over rashly ending her relationship with her boyfriend and a mixture of guilt and worry that he quit his theatre job soon after and she hasn’t heard from him since. There are other repeated motifs such as the date 7th February circled on a calendar and, like Romance Joe, a pre-occupation with suicide but A Matter of Interpretation proves an apt title for a film that’s so bound up with playful symbolism.

Also like Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation owes a lot to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo. Like Hong, Lee has opted for a concentration of static camera shots with his subjects centrally framed like a conventional landscape photograph albeit with the occasional creeping zoom. However, where Hong can be deliberately repetitious, Lee’s repeated motifs take on a different kind of playfulness – deliberately disorientating us with his mix of dream and reality to the point where we can’t really be sure which of the two is the “real” world. He’s also ported over his love of Alice in Wonderland (or this time Through the Looking Glass) which adds another surrealistic layer of whimsy to the film.

Ultimately, A Matter of Interpretation builds on the promise of Romance Joe to create something that feels much more well thought out as well as much more affecting than Joe’s rather distant atmosphere. Much of this is thanks to Shin Dong-mi’s engaging performance (even more so than her winning turn as the “coffee waitress” prostitute in Romance Joe) as the aging actress Yeon-shin who’s coming to regret some of her previous life choices and wondering how things might have been different. Whimsical is probably the best way to describe the film. It isn’t trying to be deep or profound so much as playfully thoughtful though its complex, interconnecting narrative symbolism is certainly likely to spur post viewing debate. Less contrived and undoubtedly more fun than Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation marks a definite step up for director Lee Kwang-kuk and hints at even more meta tales of playful absurdity to come from this promising director.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

Romance Joe (로맨스 조, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2011)

romance-joeReview of Lee Kwang-kuk’s Romance Joe (로맨스 조) up at UK Anime Network. First saw this at the LFF a couple of years ago but now it’s back alongside Lee’s latest film A Matter of Interpretation at the London Korean Film Festival.


Lee Kwang-kuk’s meta romantic comedy drama first got a London outing at the BFI film festival back in 2012 but now makes a welcome return visit as part of the 2015 Korean film festival in a strand dedicated to its director. Playing alongside a short film, Hard to Say, which was completed by Lee in-between Romance Joe and his new film A Matter of Interpretation, the film brings Lee’s meta concerns to the fore and offers plenty of Alice in Wonderland inspired absurdity to its otherwise straightforward plot elements.

Romance Joe is a film with many levels. On the first layer, we have an elderly couple arriving in Seoul to look for their son who came to the city to be a director 18 years ago but he’s not been in contact recently so they’re worried. His friend greets them and tells them their son had been feeling depressed lately over the suicide of a well known actress. He then starts to tell them about an idea for a screenplay he’s had about a director with writer’s block who checks into a motel where he’s told another set of stories by a prostitute who delivers coffee as a cover. From here the stories radiate out like cracks in a broken mirror though we never quite get the answers we’ve been looking for.

Lee has worked extensively with Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo and his shadow looms large over the film. From the cutesy title cards to the static camera with occasional creeping zooms and often unbearably awkward situations, there is certainly a lot of Hong in Lee’s film. However, where Hong takes the same situation and replays it with a different outcome, Lee gives you a set of intersecting stories which spring forth from each other. Lee’s interests are more surreal and metaphysical than Hong’s which are, ostensibly, more naturalistic in feeling than Lee’s almost hyperreal world.

In contrast to Hong’s social comedies, Lee also digs a little darker into the Korean psyche and reveals a strange preoccupation with suicide and abandoned children. The furthest point back in the film deals with the lonely mid forest suicide attempt of a teenage schoolgirl who’s become a figure of fun thanks to a loud mouth “boyfriend”. Her rescuer may (or may not be) the man we later come to know as Romance Joe. Though the two eventually bond, the story is not an altogether happy one as they’re rushed into fairly adult decisions which neither of them is really ready for.

Later, a young boy who may (or may not) be the child of the high school girl arrives at the “cafe” from which the prostitute operates looking for his mother who apparently last wrote to him from that address sometime ago and has since disappeared. Later, the prostitute receives a call from her own son safely in the country being cared for by grandparents while his mother earns the money in the city.

In many ways it’s a series of sad yet inevitable stories leaping out from inside each other each more heart rending than the last, though somehow it never becomes as affecting as you’d like it to be. Romance Joe feels like a deliberate experiment in form or at least a dedication to pushing conventional narrative structures into new and exciting places but it does so in a way that’s self consciously about form rather than content so that it never quite takes hold. It wants to discuss time and memories and stories but ends up mostly talking about itself and, in truth, a little lengthily, still Romance Joe does at least manage to offer an intriguing, beautifully filmed and often enjoyable surrealist tale that will have your mind in knots long after you see it.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

 

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!