Writing a novel is the kind of work one can do for a few hours at a time, and then one needs a break. For me, it’s a kind of process of letting my own ideas percolate, and they often do that best when I am occupied doing something else. Also, while I’ve been writing this, I’ve had an incredibly hard time getting into reading fiction. Nonfiction has been easy, but I crave storylines and yet fiction simply hasn’t drawn me in. Even the wonderfully funny and tragic novel The Comedians by Graham Greene hasn’t succeeded in drawing me in.
So, to fill my craving for plot while I am not reading fiction, one of the things I’ve been using to distract myself when not writing this month has been to catch up on some movies and TV series I’ve wanted to see but not seen. I’ve accumulated quite a list of movies and shows here, but my to-watch list is even longer. Still, I think I’ll post my thoughts on the films and shows I’ve seen, on my own or with Lime.
Last night, I watched Oh! Soojung (The Virgin Stripped Bare By her Bachelors) with Lime. This film is a treat for anyone learning Korean, as the conversation is (a) relatively simple and (b) repeated almost verbatim twice within the movie. We had problems with the subtitles last night and turned them off in the middle, but it didn’t impede my understand much at all. The film is two things: firstly, a very disturbing look at how we remember things differently from how they happen, and secondly, because of this, a really fascinating kind of cinematic Where’s Waldo puzzle for adults, with tiny details, and the assignment of lines, changing within each scene when you see it the second time through. And it really is for adults; it’s a movie with the least sexy sex scenes I’ve seen in my life, all of them off-putting an disturbing. It’s got an added disturbing effect when you see people who were originally cold, slightly manipulative, and even sometimes nasty to one another, suddenly being nice and sweet and silly the second time around, when you see how they remember the events you’ve just witnessed.
- Tonight, watching Closer was a strange experience. As you can see if you click through the site I’ve linked to for this movie, all of the actors have different opinions on what the movie’s “really” about. For me, it’s really difficult to isolate a meaning. Certainly I cannot find a “moral” in the way one might in more didactic films. In some ways, it’s also a bit like Oh! Soojung, the film I mentioned above, except that it seems to me, there is no implicit criticism, and you’re not really supposed to be horrified by anyone. One of the actors commented that you really need to like all of the characters, but by the end of the movie, I am not sure I liked any of them. They all seem just a too, well, pathetic, or weak, or selfish, or just plain weird, respectively. I do think that in some ways the movie is absolutely about the kind of overwhelming competition that can happen between men over, well, I don’t know, masculine superiority; but that’s not all there is to it. The movie seems to be a kind of demonstration of just how damnably fraught with peril human relationships are: one person values honesty over compassion, one values love over the pain of a betrayal; everyone’s operating with such different sets of demands and expectations. Given how all the characters are heard making direct comments about what love isand given how very deeply those comments conflict with one another, just as their actions conflict with their partners’ expectations or needsit’s quite possible that this movie could also be an essay on the dangerousness of the nebulousness senses of love that coexist for humans even when they are speaking one and the same language. All I know is, I’m not in the least surprised to learn that it was, at one time, a stage-drama.
- Taegeukgi is a better war movie than many I’ve seen, including Saving Private Ryan, but the interesting thing was
that in fact it reminded me, in ways, of the Spielberg film. Not the plot or the characters, but the way a lot of the battles were shot. In the thick of battle, we viewers were seeing things the way one imagines documentary footage shot in the battlefield might have lookedjust like that hellish opening of the film Saving Private Ryan, the only part of the movie that really makes war feel hellish. Well, in Taegeukgi, the technique is recurrent. The glimpses of wartime Seoul (including the most haunting snatch of old Korean wartime pop music), the portrayal of those left behind by the soldiers, the extreme-right death squads who went around killing anyone who’d gotten desperate enough to join the communist rallies for food (Is this historically accurate? I don’t know.) all came together to build a vision of the Korean War as a real and visceral hell, one that the ending pointedly suggests Korea still has not escaped from not just in terms of the split in the country, but also in terms of emotional and psychological effects. I personally wasn’t crazy about the last 15% of the movie, with the bizarre plot twist that served to make me think of Birth of a Nation, but I still really enjoyed the film and got a lot out of it. I recommend it.
- A Tale of Two Sisters. Well, a lot of this film was pretty cool, as good as I’ve seen in a Korean horror movie. But to be totally honest, parts of it confused the hell out of me. Characters showing up as ghosts within the mind of another character, I can understand. Even how the ghosts within someone’s mind can cause the person to do horrible things, I can understand. But there were moments when I just had to say, “Huh?” and then move on. I recommend seeing it with someone who can explain those puzzling moments to you.
- The Notebook. I saw this with Lime, her choice, because she’d heard it was good. I think she liked it, but I wasn’t crazy about it. The idea that medical science doesn’t tell us all there is to know about the mysteries of the human mind is all well and good, but the story just didn’t really grab me all that much, and the ending was cheesy. I recommend only seeing it if your girlfriend really, really wants to.
- Please Teach Me English. This movie is one of the funnier Korean movies I’ve seen, especially for anyone who has studied or taught English in Korea. There are some absolutely priceless scenes, like when the self-styled playboy student first meets his teacherI knew a guy exactly like that!or when an oral exam is likened to interrogation by a crack military team who point a gun in your face and ask you what your favorite movie is, and then follow it with the EFL oral-exam kiss-of-death: “Why?” I recommend this movie to anyone who’s ever studied or taught a foreign language.
- Juon. Ah, the madness of Japan. This movie is more like a series of linked short stories about a mommy and kid gone way, way wrong. Don’t live in a house where a Japanese guy kills his family and himself. They’ll f*ck you up. Bad.
Seriously, though, I liked Juon. I don’t know that I will enjoy Juon 2 as much, and actually I’m a little leery to even look at it, because the original was so good in my opinion. I recommend Juon to anyone who wants a damn good fright.
- Hard 8. (Also known as Sydney.) This noir film is one I’d never heard of before a week ago, but someone posted about it online and I thought I’d give it a go. It turned out to be one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who also did Magnolia and Boogie Nights, it was a strange, enchanting little movie about, well, I think more than anything it was a story about the kinds of relationships that are possible between people, and the kinds of atonements. It’s full of people who aren’t quite right, aren’t quite good, and yet you sympathize with all of them. It’s beautiful that there’s no “bad guy”… the biggest contender for that spot changes from time to time,
in this villainless, heroless story. I recommend it highly to anyone who likes a story with no easy answers.
- Speaking of no easy answers, do you remember Jacob’s Ladder? I vaguely recalled it from having watched it sometime in the mid-ninetiesafter all, it came out when I was sixteen and hadn’t started seeing films in the cinemaand something possessed me to watch it again. Let me just say, yes, it is different from the much more recent M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense, but I think both the horror and the twist are used to much greater effect in Jacob’s Ladder. I hardly remembered anything accurately from the movie, but I think the kind of story it is, and the way it is told, are near-perfect. If you haven’t seen this movie lately, watch it again. It’s well worth it.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I don’t like when people pan this movie because most of the panning has been the most blatant show of ignorance I’ve run across. People complain that it has no plot, that it’s got silly gags, that the picture looks bad, that the acting is wooden. Sorry, folks, but all these things they’re complaining about are garbage, once you understand what this movie is about. It’s about paying homage to the serial films that our parents and grandparents watched on Saturday afternoon for a nickel a pop. It’s a silly, fantastical adventure in a world where World War II never happened, where evil German scientists are plotting to destroy the world and rocket a new Noah’s Ark into space, where the world can depend on only one hero: Sky-Captain. If you have no imagination, no sense of comic-book-like morality, no tolerance for caricature, you shouldn’t watch this movie. It won’t challenge all of your assumptions; it won’t make you think too hard; it won’t surprise you with its complexity. It’s full of the kind of impossible things that the serials were also full of, one being a map hidden under a table with chewing gum even though the character obviously didn’t have time to hide it. There was no really efficient continuity editing in the old serials, you see, and nobody much cared, either. It was about good, (literally) old-fashioned fun. It’s an excellent movie for those who still remember how to have fun.
- Another movie for those who remember how to have fun is The Incredibles. It’s not the most innovative film in terms of the superhero genre, really; kind of a middle-class, “we’re okay” version of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel The Watchmen, which will also soon be a movie, it seems. I’m a know-nothing when it comes to animation, too, so I don’t know if the CGI was stunning or just okay. But I do know that the movie grabbed me and pulled me in, and I had a lot of fun with it. You will too.
- While Sky Captain was underrated, I think The Butterfly Effect was really overrated. Well, I don’t actually know how it was rated, but I know that a lot of people saw it here in Korea… it was in the cinema for a long time, and the local shops bought DVDs right away when they were available. People really seemed to like it. Hell, I even watched it twice, with Lime, once seeing the theatrical release and once to see the Director’s Cut with the alternate ending. I think the alternate ending is, by the way, far superior, but it’s also a kind of poor man’s Donnie Darko. Actually, it’s kind of a halfway cross between a pulp SF time travel plot and Donnie Darko. It held up to a second viewing, but I think it’s more worth seeing in rental, not in the cinema. The ideas certainly aren’t all that new: going back in time to change one little thing in the past inevitably changes other things, and ultimately can change everything. This is not new. The only new thing is the curse, the gimmick that the character had inherited from his father the ability to do this, and somehow does it with his own mind. It was alright, and fun, even, but there are better movies out there.
- The Village. It’s really, really hard for me to figure out what I think of M. Night Shyamalan. In some ways, he’s realizing a lot of the kinds of themes I’d like to tackle, were I a filmmaker: how do we deal with the horror of the modern world? How do we cope with crises? How do we reconcile ourselves with our own mortality? But there’s something about Shyamalan that also rubs me the wrong way, in the same way that the Twilight Zone episodes from both the old series and the 80s New Twilight Zone series did. (No surprise, then, that I’ve read he considers himself as making feature-length Twilight Zone episodes.) There’s something about these movies of his that really, really grab me, but at the same time, once they have me, they seem to just giggle and say, “Heh heh heh… gotcha”. The spookiness and confusion of Jacob’s Ladder, by contrast, communicated something much deeper to me, about acceptance, and the nature of attachment, and the danger of fighting too hard for what you think you want. It’s not that there isn’t something in Shyamalan’s work that’s deep worthwhile. I remember thinking to myself about how ironic it was that “The Towns” sounded so horrible, and that I’d never thought of the 1800s as so horrifically violent as the village’s elders presented them to be. The idea of past-utopian golden ages and such, of past-simplicity and the penalties paid for withdrawing from the modern world and all of its horrors, these are interesting things to think about. But at the same time, I think Shyamalan is limiting himself in a way, by being satisfied with merely making feature-length Twilight Zone episodes. I think he could do more. But, still, every once in a while, I need one of these kinds of stories. It’s something I gew up with and I love, even though I know it’s always holding back on a deeper payoff.
- Monster. This movie was shocking and disturbing to me. Not the homosexual love affair between the prostitute and a young woman she metthat was one of the softer, more engaging parts of the filmbut the murders and the way that Charlize Theron’s character had all kinds of justifications for what she did. As a study of human evil as it emerges from self-righteous victimhood and an all-too-powerful ability to generalize, it was fascinating, but in the kind of fascinating way that also made me feel a little sick, or a little tainted by having seen it. Like with the movie Barfly, I felt like washing myself with a scrub brush after having seen it.
- The School of Rock could have been garbage, and for a little while it almost was, in my book, but Jack Black somehow made it work. I can say I didn’t buy the film whole cloth: unlike some I know, I don’t find rock music all that liberating, and I certainly don’t think it’s any kind of way to “stick it to the man”. I don’t think kids will somehow magically find out how to speak up for themselves, or be more relaxed about life, because they are suddenly into rock music specifically. A girl who plays beautiful classical guitar, a boy who can play bebop on a saxophone, might well be just as liberated by it (I know, because I was, and have always found playing jazz to be more satisfying all around than playing rock music).
Still, you can’t help but like the lovable loser character that Jack Black plays in this movie. He is a Loser, but his heart is in the right place and he certainly cares about the kids, once he comes around to realizing it. I’m glad I didn’t see it in the theater, but it was worth a few hours in a DVD-room. And if you like rock music, you might even enjoy it more than I did.
- Rocky. My friend John mentioned that he thought Rocky was a good film, and what do you know, when I bought the computer I’m using now, used, it had a downloaded .avi file of Rocky on the hard drive. When Lime found out, she expressed a strong desire to see the film, and finally, after some resistance, I gave in. I was really pleasantly surprised. Lime had a little trouble with the accents, declaring that the Brooklyn accents the characters sports sounded French to her, but she and I both really enjoyed the story. A loser boxer collecting money for the mob, who is in love with a terribly shy, nerdy sister of his friend. He gets a big break to box in a real match, and suddenly from a life headed nowhere, he has a break at being a real boxer… and he doesn’t beat Apollo Creed in the end, even though he does achieve his goal of staying on his feet to the end of the match. It’s actually a damned fine film, and I will likely see it again someday.
- While laid up with a big hole in my mouth where a wisdom tooth used to be, I managed to watched the complete series of Dead Like Me, to the end of the series with the conclusion of Season 2. It was worth it, so very very worth it. TV like this just isn’t getting made all that often. As seems to be a trend with interesting TV shows these days, death is the center of the show, but the characters, the brilliant humor, the references to film and TV of the past, and the wonderful writing of both of the main plotlines all made this show simply outstanding. I know some people can’t get over the fact that the story is unrealistic, that, yes, it’s a tale of a group of modern-day grim-reapers snatching souls from the about-to-die, but it’s their loss. This is some of the best television I’ve seen in my whole life. It’s a shame it was canceled after only a second season, but the good thing is that it was made at all. Here’s hoping for more like this.
- I’ve also been working my way through the TV series Lost which got a few Koreans all riled up about the supposedly anti-Korean portrayal of one of the characters. Well, I don’t buy that complaint, especially considering how very nice and decent one of the other Korean characters in the show is… I’ve written my criticism about that elsewhere. But I do want to say that, even though it has the potential to really become an awful show if it lasts beyond one season, I am liking what I’m seeing, so far.
- The British comedy The Office. If you haven’t seen this, you need to. It’s just brilliant, side-splittingly funny comedy about mediocrity and work.
I’ve also seen some TV series, or parts of TV series, lately.
If you think that was long, look at my to-watch list…
I’m also looking forward to the following non-Korean films: Adam Simon’s Brain Dead (not the Peter Brook gore-fest), Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, Bullets of Love, Ginger Snaps, The Manchurian Candidate (the original, not the remake), The Third Man, Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare, Gothika, Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, Rosemary’s Baby, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Cell (which I’ve seen before, but want to see again), The Brothers Quay Collection (a series of short films with very strange special effects seen in many of the horror movies listed above, like Jacob’s Ladder, The Cell, and, apparently, Gothika), Le Corbeau, and The Bicycle Thief.
As for TV shows, I plan to finish watching Lost and to get into the BBC series Ultraviolet, which is a kind of thoughtful, cerebral vampire show that ran one season (ie. six episodes), and which has been getting rave reviews since. Gee, some of the other shows made by the same people who made Ultraviolet also look pretty good… gaa, gaa, wait… my list is long enough as it is.
Ah, so much to see.