Korean(?!!) Movie Review #9: One Million Yen Girl (2008)

One Million Yen Girl(Source)

Starring: Yû Aoi (Suzuko Satô), Mirai Moriyama (Ryôhei Nakajima), andf Ryūsei Saitō (Takuya Satō). Written and directed by Yuki Tanada. In Japanese with English subtitles. 121 minutes. Available to view online here.

This last month has just been insanely busy for me, with family, bosses, and magazine editors all conspiring to keep me from writing here. So, it was with a certain envy that I finally sat down to watch One Million Yen Girl, about a 21 year-old woman (Suzuko) who escapes her own problems by randomly moving across Japan, saving one million yen (US$9730) at odd jobs before moving on to the next location. If only I had the same freedom.

Minor spoilers follow…

The movie opens with Suzuko finishing a two-month sentence in prison, with the backstory taking up the first fifteen minutes. Working as a waitress after graduation, and living with her parents and twelve year-old brother Takuya, Suzuko is persuaded by a coworker to move out and find a place together with her. Once they sign a lease on a place though, not only does the coworker reveal that her boyfriend is joining her, but she breaks up with him on the moving day, leaving Suzuko to live with a complete stranger. She soon chafes at his palpable sense of entitlement to the new arrangements.

One Million Yen Girl 1

Already, it is very easy to blame Suzuko for her later problems: she should have been more assertive with her coworker. She should have moved out immediately, and so on. Confrontation-avoiding is, after all, one of the main themes of the movie. It is stressed repeatedly as her fleeting presence in various locales compels her to constantly shy away from social situations, with Yû Aoi’s waif-like appearance further adding to her impression of meekness. (Or is that last just a stereotype of mine?)

One Million Yen Girl 4(Source)

But on the other hand, most viewers will likely empathize with Suzuko’s vulnerability after leaving home, as well as her implied reluctance to return to her parents, dreams of independence stalled. Also, while it’s easy to overlook on a first viewing, she turns out to be a surprisingly complicated character, showing her mettle on several choice occasions.

The first, when her flatmate throws away a kitten she brings home, leaving it to get run over in the street, to which she responds by suddenly moving out and throwing all his possessions away. When he claims that one million yen was amongst those, and charges her with theft, she refuses to avoid prison by claiming that they slept together, in which case the charges would have been dismissed as a lovers’ quarrel. (Alas, she appears more resigned than defiant here.)

Like much of the movie though, this is very abrupt, and would have benefited from a few more minutes of seeing their relationship deteriorate first. But it does help us to understand her impulsive streak.

Next, we’re back to the opening scene of her leaving prison, to return as the target of neighborhood gossip.

One Million Yen Girl 2Back with her family and working again (partially to help pay an additional 200,000 yen fine), their first family dinner together is a jarring scene in which her parents soon start shouting at each other about the near-affairs they’re each having, while across them her precocious brat of a brother berates Suzuko for (supposedly?) ruining his chances of getting into a good university. No wonder she resolves on the spot to leave, albeit not before beating up some former classmates who name-call her on the street, and slowly warming to her brother as they come to realize they’ll miss each other. Unbeknown to her, it’s also revealed that he’s being bullied at school.

Soon, she’s at the first of her stops, working at a beachside cafe over the summer. We see her: working; being pursued by a local; awkwardly attending a beach party with him; then finally sharing his bewilderment when, almost before you know it, she’s gone, one million yen richer.

Next, at her second job as a live-in worker picking peaches in the mountains. Where, after some slightly comedic moments with a coworker as she adjusts to her living arrangements and 5:00 am starts, and the elderly hosts rapidly warming to her, some drama ensues after she refuses to be the village’s photogenic ‘Peach Girl.’ The ensuing village meeting called seems rather unlikely, as does their formidable hatred for city folk that suddenly erupts when she continues to refuse, but viewers may appreciate this jolt given the movie’s slow pace. Also, that it’s what propels her to her third job at a large gardening store in a city an hour from Tokyo, where a romance changes everything.

One Million Yen Girl 3A clarification and confession are in order here: I watched the movie the first time thinking that Suzuko’s plan was to save one million yen at her first job, move on, bring the total up to two million at the next, and so on. Partially, this was because the movie title reminded me of a story I once read about a Korean woman who spent most of her twenties amassing savings of 100 million won (US$89, 675), which frankly I was projecting as I watched. In hindsight though, I didn’t pay enough attention during one scene with her brother after the tempestuous family meal, in which she explains that she needed one million to move at all. As Cathy Munroe Hotes at Nishikata Film Review explains, the figure:

…not only matches the amount that she allegedly threw away, but it is also the practical amount that she needs to start up in a new location. Renting accommodation in Japan is a very pricey affair, with landlords demanding key money and other non-refundable fees, a deposit and sometimes several months rent in advance.

It still sounds a little high to me, especially for someone living out of a suitcase. But I am — would have been — happy to suspend my disbelief, and concede that the figure does has have a nice ring to it. (And that I’ve never lived in Japan, which is more expensive than Korea.)

I only raise it because, learning later that her purpose in leaving was never really to save money, then I realized I’d been watching the movie through rose-tinted glasses, forgiving several minor — but cumulative — flaws.

One Million Yen Girl 5(Source)

The first, because if she did plan to save,then at least she would have had a goal at all, rather than being content to find jobs that merely occupied her without leading anywhere. Take that goal away, and suddenly Suzuko was no longer someone with a steely resolve I could admire, who reasserts her independence and makes the best of a bad situation, but instead someone simply running away from her problems.

In itself, that isn’t a bad thing, let alone make for a bad movie. But as it proves to be a mindless escape she seeks, this is reflected in how she lives and works at her first two jobs too. Indeed, no matter how some readers may feel I’m skimming over events in my descriptions above, and that there’s plenty there to engage viewers really, I’ll go so far as to say that, well, nothing really happens between her leaving home and arriving at her third job. (Which is a good hour of the movie.)

One Million Yen Girl 8To be specific, we see precious little beyond her working and then crashing in her room(s). Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: many viewers like Peppermint Candy (2000), for instance, precisely because it required them to actively fill in so many of its gaps themselves (whereas it just frustrated me personally), and would surely be tempted to do the same again here. But with so little of the main character to go on in this particular movie though, it can easily lead people to fill that hour with things that aren’t really there. To pick on one (sorry!), Cathy Munroe Hotes is quite mistaken when she claims that:

The scenes at the seaside and in the mountains were particularly insightful into how an outsider becomes a part of a new community and the ensuing awkwardness of conflicting expectations of members of that community.

As not only is Suzuko deliberately in both communities for a very limited time (and it would come as a surprise to most to hear the beach cafe and customers described as such), but she clearly doesn’t want to become part of either one at all, instead shying away from human contact wherever possible. Moreover, not only did this make perfect sense when I thought she planned to accumulate savings, but it still makes sense knowing she just intended to make enough money to move on too (source, above).

However, understanding her reluctance to remain firmly on the fringes of each community, doesn’t exactly make for a satisfying movie. So while I was watching, I found myself yearning for something memorable, for more of what she did beyond work, for more insight into her thoughts and feelings. For more of anything really.

Yu Aoi CoverTo be clear, this isn’t a reflection on Yû Aoi’s acting skills. Actually, in this, her first starring role, I’d agree with a gushing fan who said (source, right):

…she is the undeniable main character and she gives a knock-out performance that’s worth mentioning! Her expressions of shyness, embarrassment, awkwardness, determination and loneliness are played flawlessly! I don’t know what it is about Yu, but it’s always so easy to sympathize with her characters. She has a certain charm and elegance about her that can easily win over any audience. (Author: acerk21)

Also, while it’s true that there isn’t much range to her performance, as:

…what we get is exclusively the shy, sad, and awkward Yû Aoi with none of the radiant, confident, and smiling. She’s on screen almost the entire two hour running time so the appeal may come from sheer quantity more than anything else, but she performs well and demonstrates she is capable of carrying a film on her own…. (Author: sitenoise)

Again this isn’t her fault, and I look forward to seeing her playing (hopefully) very different characters in more starring roles. But this showcasing of her abilities would have greatly benefited from fleshing out her character more.

To an extent, this gap is filled by extended letters to her brother, read out aloud while we see further scenes of his deteriorating situation with his bullies. Many reviewers find these banal, and only there to play on viewers’ heartstrings. But they do make him a much more vulnerable, sympathetic character, and his refusal to tell his parents or teachers about the bullying — even when a perceptive school nurse provides an opportunity — offer a clear parallel to Suzuko’s own refusal to deal with her own problems, and indeed *spoiler alert* it is precisely her love for her brother — in hindsight, evident in the letters — that precipitates an ultimate return to her family *spoiler over*.

Yu Aoi Busan Internation Film Festival 2010(Yû Aoi at the Busan International Film Festival, 2010. Source)

Letters to a 12 year-old brother though, provide a poor window into the mind of a 21 year-old woman. It is with some relief then, that we see her move to her third and final location, and — despite her best intentions — falling in love with coworker Nakajima, after first — with little prompting — confessing her past to him. (Which again emphasizes the first two trips as more of a backdrop to this moment, rather than something memorable in their own rights.)

If you’ll forgive a long-time married, nearly middle-aged man talking, the actual falling in love scene of these youngsters is very awkward, and feels forced. (Again — notice a trend here? — it would have benefited from more of a lead-up.) But hey, hopefully we’ve all had our instant head-over-heels moments, and the ensuing courtship is genuinely sweet. Certainly, after tolerating her virtual ghost of a character for an hour, I enjoyed her sudden transition back to a human, and looked forward to seeing how their relationship would develop.

*Major spoilers follow*

One Million Yen Girl 6(Source)

You can imagine my disappointment then, when we rapidly see less and less of their time together, and more of her at work getting increasingly jealous of a new attractive coworker that joins his department, then suspicious of the time he spends with said coworker outside of work. Once he starts borrowing money from Suzuko for that, then the writing is on the wall, and the breakup is only shocking for them confessing their love to each other such a short time earlier. (But it wasn’t intentionally unconvincing, for reasons that will be clear in a moment.)

So, when she receives a letter — the first — from her brother in the very next scene, and breaks down as she learns of his being bullied, and his finally dealing with it, there’s nothing in her relationship with Nakajima to stop her likewise finally dealing with her own problems and promptly returning home, even though she’s just shy of her one million yen goal.

One Million Yen Girl 10But the final scene of her doing so? It’s at least twenty minutes too long, because — wait for it — Nakajima’s coworker, with whom he was never two-timing Sazuko, asks him why he didn’t admit he only borrowed money to delay her departure. While it does make for great will-he-won’t-he-catch-her-in-time drama to close the movie, his reticence makes no sense whatsoever. Not least, when she breaks up with him explicitly because of the money-borrowing.

Edit: With thanks to commenter Alice, I completely misunderstood that part of the ending, and now view it much more positively. See here for an explanation of what really happened there.

*Major spoilers end*

In assessing this movie, Niels Matthijs at Twitch wrote that:

The slow pacing of the film will turn some people off, as will the silent characters and stone-faced performances. Those more familiar with Japanese dramas will look past that and have no trouble deciphering the emotional impact of Suzuko’s adventures.

But I’d argue that this line of reasoning — dramas are slow-paced and silent, therefore drama-watchers will like this movie, therefore it’s okay — is flawed, disguising a certain laziness and/or lack of application on the part of director Yuki Tanada. For with just a few tweaks, most of the original story could have been kept intact, while appealing to far more people than Japanese drama fans.

Filiming of The One Million Yen Girl(Source)

In particular, the ending is as inexplicable as it is long and unnecessary, for reasons provided earlier; a more realistic one would free up a lot of viewing time. Also, with so little actually happening at the beach and the mountains, then more a few of those scenes of “silent characters and stone-faced performances” could be removed too. What’s more, the beach and mountains could possibly be even further reduced to add one or two vignettes of further locations and jobs, most viewers probably expecting much more of a road trip than the only three locations we ultimately get. Some would even argue the letter-readings to her brother could be removed entirely too, and I would the ‘Peach Girl’ drama.

Whatever the specifics, there is definitely a minimum of twenty minutes of footage that could have been done away with, and should have been replaced with at least three to five more minutes showing her acrimonious relationship with her flatmate develop; two to three minutes each at the beach and mountains showing her doing something other than arriving there, looking for work, working, crashing, and leaving; and especially ten more of her and Nakajima’s relationship developing, regardless of whether it ultimately succeeds or fails. Had something like this been done, had she been more of a fully-fledged character rather than a ghost, then the movie would have made for much more compelling viewing, with a much more universal appeal.

Without those changes, I can only give the movie 2.5 out of 5 stars. It’s a little frustrating, because the movie (and concept) had lots of potential.

One Million Yen Girl 12Some quick final notes:

  • Given that “[t]he title and promo material might have you believe that One Million Yen Girl is a quirky Japanese comedy, ” then a better translation of the original Japanese title would be One Million Yen and the Nigamushi (Sour Face) Girl, one which “suggests that the real question at the end of the film is whether or not her [sour-face] is replaced with a more cheerful expression.”
  • While I don’t give the movie high marks, and the two viewings for the sake of this review are more than enough for me, it is still a rare movie that my wife — a huge drama watcher — and I could have enjoyed together. With such different tastes, frankly this is a big concern for me us (it doesn’t bode well for a couple if they never watch TV or movies together!), and other readers likewise cursed afflicted blessed with (similar) Asian spouses and partners may appreciate the viewing suggestion!
  • Nine Muses CEOWhen I saw the scene in the image above, when an increasingly distracted Suzuko is berated by her boss for accidentally killing a plant, my immediate thought was that if it was a Korean movie, then he would be hitting and/or pressing down hard on her forehead. Is this just a stereotype of mine again? Either way, this casual violence is a big turn-off for me (it’s particularly gratuitous in Between Love and Hate {2006; 연애, 그 참을수없는 가벼움}), and, with the recent news that the CEO of girl-group Nine Muses was prepared to hit one member on camera, makes me wonder the extent Korean popular culture buttresses and/or reflects this in real life?

Korean(?!!) Movie Review #7: Air Doll (2009)

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Starring: Bae Doo-na (Nozomi),  Itsuji Itao (Hideo), and Arata Iura (Junichi). Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (original manga by Yoshiie Gōda). In Japanese with English subtitles. 126 minutes.

Less than four minutes into Air Doll, middle-aged owner Hideo has sex with the inflatable doll he’s named Nozomi, with all the crunching of flesh against plastic and washing of detachable vaginas that that implies. It’s as if director Hirokazu Koreeda was deliberately encouraging the squeamish to walk out of the theater.

It’s also ironic, as the very next scene reveals it to be a very erotic, albeit knowingly voyeuristic movie too, the camera luxuriating on Nozomi’s nude form as she magically comes to life (see the telling juxtaposition in the NSFW screenshot below; the subtitle actually refers to some dew she’s touching). She’ll proceed to spend a disproportionate amount of the next two hours topless, even for a movie about a sex-doll.

Yes, still an inflatable sex-doll, not a woman. For as she proceeds to leave Hideo’s apartment in a maid costume, and encounter a succession of sad, desperately lonely characters, her literal hollowness proves to be a poignant metaphor for all their lost, empty souls.

But she deliberately appears palpably, sensually human too, and you just can’t have it both ways. Especially in a movie that already so heavily relies on viewers’ suspensions of disbelief.

So, even if is nitpicking to wonder how she goes from learning speech and what clothes are in the morning, to getting a job at a DVD store in the evening, a scene in which a beautician covers her suddenly visible* seams with make-up is nothing but confusing and distracting. As is another when she pumps herself full of air one morning (naked, of course), yet somehow had a meal at a restaurant with co-worker Junichi the night before. And so on. Suffice to say, her new form is ambiguous, but much more human than not.

When she accidentally punctures her hand and rapidly deflates fifty minutes in then, it’s jarring, and it’s asking far too much of the viewer to pretend that she’s been nothing but a walking, talking balloon all that time.

*With the benefit of 4 viewings, the seams are visible earlier, but only in some scenes. Appearance-wise, the movie is rife with continuity errors.

Granted, Air Doll is fundamentally an allegory. But, rather than aiding it, here the confusing content simply gets in the way of the message. Koreeda, who borrowed only the initial concept from the original manga, really should have considered alternative methods of conveying it.

One possibility would be having Nozomi become fully human at the beginning of the movie and during the day, but often uncontrollably and reluctantly reverting a little, then changing back completely at night. Indeed, this is actually very similar to what happens in the first half of the movie, and then making her transformation progressively more unstable would suit the second half — and narrative as a whole — very well too.

Crucially, the nagging questions also distract the viewer from fully appreciating one of the movie’s great strengths, which is how Nozomi never really stops the innocent, childlike exploration of her new world, nor finding beauty in it. And her exquisite mimicry of its inhabitants is simply priceless.

Yet despite those, she also shows, as Tirdad Derakhshani of The Inquirer puts it, a sublime progression “from a childlike naif who plays with toddlers in a sandbox to a sophisticated woman who devours books, draws portraits, and philosophizes about life,” (my emphasis) and I’m not alone in thinking that Bae Doo-na is one of the few actresses that has the skill and versatility to pull the combination off (Tom Miles of Midnight Eye suggests Rinko Kikuchi or Hanae Kan, while Yuna at The Marmot’s Hole calls Aoi Yuu “a Bae Doo-na equivalent in Japan”).

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The practicalities of that process are that, despite everything, she soon establishes a routine of leaving for work at a DVD store once Hideo leaves, learning about the world through the strangers she meets on her breaks and/or days off, and especially by constantly asking questions of her unfazed, endlessly patient coworker Junichi, who soon starts taking her out to see the things she asks about. Finally, she has to rush home to lie passively for her “master” before he returns home, finding him increasingly repulsive, but using the time to ponder her discovery that she is/was a cheap “substitute for handling sexual desire;” to learn about love, mortality, and desire; and to determine why she found herself “with a heart [she] was not supposed to have.”

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(Minor Spoilers Begin)

But then, with the combination of a rare form of cunnilingus and strategically-placed tape, Junichi saves her from her puncture. An obvious turning point in their relationship, albeit more because Nozomi thinks she’s found a kindred spirit rather than because of their new intimacy per se (indeed, Junichi is so enigmatic that she initially thinks he is a sex doll too), unfortunately the movie, already convoluted, becomes very difficult to follow. And, crucially, not because of the depth of the message, but rather because Koreeda seems to be deliberately encouraging mistaken readings of the plot. In particular:

  • The morning after the puncture scene, the next 20 minutes show Nozomi symbolically throwing away Hideo’s pump for her, then leaving rejoicing in her freedom and liberation around the city. It very much seems as if she’s left Hideo forever…so again it’s jarring when you see her miserably by his side that evening, as per usual.
  • That last scene above is very brief, and it’s easy for it not to really register (although in fairness, it is technically there). So when you see Nozomi sneaking a look at Hideo bringing a new doll home, it appears that perhaps he’s doing so because she’s actually left him. Not, as, we’re supposed to think, that he’s put the (still fully inflated) Nozomi away in a cupboard.

And there’s many more confounding examples. Perhaps, certainly, the misreadings are just due to my own dull-wittedness, but I don’t think I’d be alone in needing two — actually three! — viewings of this movie just to figure out what the hell is going on. In contrast, Inception (2010), say, has many deep messages, but somehow I still understood the plot in that on the very first try (source, right).

In combination with obvious questions about her human or doll form then, and the problems of continuity with Nozomi’s image, this is a third red flag that points to laziness and/or arrogance on Kareeda’s part. Or alternatively, with a hat tip to Gomushin Girl’s comment in my review of Kim Ki-duk’s Samaria (2004), perhaps he simply got too caught up in his own message to think about how it might look to a less-informed audience member.

But he redeems himself with a powerful message just before the end of the movie, and one that I’m amazed that other reviewers (at least the 25+ I’ve read) didn’t pick up on

.(Major Spoilers Begin).

While, again, it’s delightful to watch Nozomi learning to be human, in the process noticing the hidden joys and beautifies of life that most of us have chosen to ignore, that’s increasingly tempered by her realization that her own purpose is nothing but to sate the sexual desires of the men around her, who do nothing to disabuse her of that notion. It’s vividly shown in the dead expression on her face when the DVD store-owner blackmails her into sex, threatening to tell Junichi about Hideo, and also partially explains why later, having finally left Hideo, she tells Junichi she’ll do absolutely anything for him.

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When he replies that he’d like to deflate and then breathe life into her again, she’s visibly shocked and — I’d say — disappointed that he’s ultimately no different from all the other men she’s met. But of course agrees, and appears to enjoy the ensuing “sex.”

Yet then, when he’s sleeping, she cuts an equivalent nozzle into his own navel, ultimately killing him from, presumably, loss of blood. But not before blowing into it herself, climbing on top of him, and unequivocally orgasming to the ensuing “conventional” sex (which, despite his tremendous pain, he’ll also do his best to actively participate in).

While it may sound minor in isolation, and I don’t want to be so glib as to take loudness, frequency, and duration of moans as a barometer for women’s sexual pleasure, it is the only moment in the entire movie she imposes her own will and/or sexuality on others, rather than being a mere, literal, receptacle for theirs. As such, It stands as a rare and very welcome final moment of defiance in the somewhat inevitable and predictable path to her coming suicide. (Update: on that last, see io9 for a curious case of life imitating art.)

(All Spoilers End)

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To the extent that it exists at all then, it is precisely here that a feminist reading of the movie could be further explored. In contrast, John Esther’s point at Jesther Entertainment that “Air Doll stands for, among other things, as a metaphor for women who are to look pretty, say nothing, stay home and wait for the patriarch to return home and breathe his breath into her lifeless a(i)rea” is true, but a bit of a dead end. As is Nick Davis’s comment at Nick’s Flicks Picks, which I thought was a misguided — and very forced — interpretation:

If you know anything about the Pacific fronts in World War II and a history of chauvinist disavowals by Japanese governments, the casting of a Korean actress as a Japanese man’s inert, unresisting erotic receptacle can’t help trigger distasteful connotations.

That aside, and in conclusion, while it’s a little harsh for Kelly Vance of East Bay Express to describe the movie as a “dreary, middlebrow allegory,” it is true that the movie is at least thirty minutes too long, many of those spent in vignettes showcasing the emptiness of the characters’ lives, while Nozomi drones on about — wait for it — how empty life is, all to the accompaniment of languid, sickly-sweet music in the background. Also, in a review at Antagony and Ecstasy that I highly recommend, Tim Brayton rightfully points out that the movie only provides observations and not actual insights, whereas plenty of Pinnochio-like movies have given both before, and with much more skill too.

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So, with the important qualification that you may need a lot of help with the plot before watching, Air Doll can a pleasant enough movie, albeit one lacking much of a vision, and inexpertly conveyed at that. Instead, think of it more as an invitation to form your own.

And, in the process, do take time to notice the superb cinematography too. For as Tom Miles at Midnight Eye Review explains, it’s set:

in one of Tokyo’s remaining shitamachi, an old neighbourhood of little independent houses, while ominous high-rises wait on the other side of the river for the aging abodes to crumble, impatient to take over the turf.

On that note, see above for my favorite location in the movie, which even someone as literal-minded as myself could appreciate!

Korean(?!!) Movie Review #6: Linda Linda Linda (2005)

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Starring (L-R): Aki Maeda (Kyoko), Yu Kashii (Kei), Shiori Sekine (Nozomi), and Bae Doo-na (Son). Written and directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita. In Japanese (and some Korean) with English subtitles. 115 minutes

As a (very) fledgling film reviewer, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to relying on other, more experienced reviewers for guidance sometimes. So, I’m really struggling with why they made so many glaring mistakes about Linda Linda Linda.

Add to that a number of pithy one-liners that there’s actually no evidence for, and especially the willful ignorance displayed in shoehorning coming-of-age narratives into the movie, then I’ll seriously be taking all “expert” movie reviews with a big grain of salt in the future.

Despite what you may read elsewhere then, the movie is about a high school girl band that has just lost its guitarist (Moe) and lead singer (Rinko) to a hand injury and argument respectively, and opens with remaining members Nozomi, Kyoko, and Kei having to decide if they will still perform at the end of the high school festival week in just three days. As you’ve already guessed, they do, choosing to sing the iconic 1987 punk-rock hit Linda Linda (and 2 other songs) by The Blue Hearts.

But keeping Nozomi on bass, Kyoko on drums, and moving Kei from keyboard to guitar, still leaves them short of a vocalist. On a whim, they invite Korean exchange student Son to fill Rinko’s place, despite her occasional difficulties with Japanese.

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Son gets asked 21 minutes into the movie, and the remaining 94 are about the band practicing (spoilers begin) over the next two days and nights, culminating in them performing on the day as planned, albeit much later and wetter than expected. Yes, that’s it. It’s not an underdog story, there’s no hint of fame and success once the performance is over, no big romances, nor are there any jealous rivals. There aren’t even any major dramas or even mild arguments between the four major characters either (spoilers end). Indeed, it’s probably the most minimalist plot you’ll ever encounter, no matter how much of a movie buff you are.

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While fans of director Nobuhiro Yamashita may appreciate this, his previous works likewise featuring “aimless youth with nothing better to do than walk or sit around”, it’s easy to appreciate why others might find it slow and ponderous. One reviewer understandably wrote it off as “incident-free pic [that] will induce sleep” for instance, while another quite plausibly claimed that there were points when he was watching the movie where he “would leave, prepare part of lunch, and return, to find that literally nothing had happened.”

What’s more, the English marketing for it was very misleading, Rob Humanick at Slant mentioning that the press notes for movie suggested “a foreign regurgitation of stale conventions from the American teenage flick,” and that it was “difficult to not expect something of a J-pop remake of Bring It On that substitute[d] an all-girl cover band for sexed-up cheerleaders.” Also, the US trailer suggested something much quicker and more comical than what audiences ultimately got:

In light of all that, I must concede that I’d probably be far less forgiving of the movie’s glacial pace if it was about high school boys rather than girls. But it takes much more than 18 year-old Japanese schoolgirls to get me to like a movie so much, and I’m sure other heterosexual male and lesbian reviewers likewise aren’t so shallow, let alone everyone else. Why, then, does the movie get almost universal praise?

One reason is Bae Doo-na. A long-time fan, I can’t be objective about her myself, so consider Tom Mes’s description of her performance at Midnight Eye instead, which is quite representative of the accolades she has received:

…[a] major factor to the film’s success is the casting of Korean actress Bae Du-Na in the role of Son. Several years older than her teenage co-stars [26 in 2005] and more accustomed to mature roles in the likes of Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Hyeon Nam-Seob’s Saving My Hubby, Bae easily outshines the rest of the cast.

Or, as G. Allen Johnson of the San Fransisco Chronicle put it:

Not conventionally beautiful, with gamin-like features and a seemingly permanent mope, Bae is the Christina Ricci of South Korea, with a similar ability to inform a simple character with many layers, most notably in the Korean gem Take Care of my Cat. That makes her a perfect fit for the minimalist milieu of director Nobuhiro Yamashita…

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I beg to differ on her not being “conventionally beautiful”: mirroring her acting abilities, a quick Google image search reveals she can be as feminine or as androgynous as her role requires, but let’s not go there. Rather, that “seemingly permanent mope” is a good way to describe Son’s social awkwardness as both an exchange student and — I suspect — a natural geek, and through conveying this so well she ironically makes a far more convincing teenager than her real-life teenage co-stars (although to be fair, their characters didn’t call for it).

With such a focus on her though, it’s surprising that Johnson would write that “Son can barely speak a word of Japanese, let alone sing it”. This is simply not true: while she does sometimes struggle with her words, or needs people to repeat themselves, she never has any real difficulties communicating. Nevertheless, Johnson’s assertion is echoed by virtually every other reviewer, which leaves me wondering if there were some mistakes in translations, and/or if there are other versions out there? Humanick at Slant, for example, mentions that the funniest scene in the movie is when Son attempts “to overcome her language difficulties in a restaurant where only paying customers are allowed to use the restrooms”, something which is strangely lacking in the file I downloaded (which, as always, I’ve watched twice).

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Another potential misunderstanding is that, unless you’re familiar with either Korean or Japanese, it’s not always clear which language Son is speaking (Korean was only indicated by brackets in the version I watched). This becomes relevant (spoilers begin, including image below) when she sings by herself in a karaoke room, revealing her to be much more confident in her native Korean, and especially in a later scene (see here for a video) when Son is approached by long-time secret admirer Yusaka (nickname Makki) to confess his love for her. When you realize that he does so in halting Korean (which even astute reviewers like Didion at Feminéma missed, and Johnson of the San Fransisco Chronicle mistook as poetry), then you can’t help but feel much sorrier for the guy when Son quickly rejects him, especially if you’ve ever had your weeks of unrequited love and wooing preparations dismissed in an instant yourself.

Because of that, I was much less sympathetic to the spin Alyx Veseyputs on Son’s reaction over at Feminist Music Geek:

The rest of the girls look through the window of an abandoned classroom, watching their lead singer choose the band, and her friends, over some guy who happens to like her but that she doesn’t know.

I don’t mean to single out Alyx, who otherwise writes an excellent review. It’s just that it points to the tendency of many other reviewers and commenters to overstress the female homosocial elements of this movie. In the New York Times for instance, Jeannette Catsoulis is so gushing about how “the film’s sweet, slow rhythms bind them together” that you can be forgiven for thinking that they don’t think about boys at all. Admittedly, Catsoulis is clearly pressed for space, but still: the reality is that not only is Son very inquisitive about Kei’s history with Yomoki, her ex, but Kyoko’s attention is just as much on her own crush Kazuya as on her band-mates. And indeed it’s precisely that which the four of them talk about — and bond over — during their last communal meal (spoilers end).

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But don’t get me wrong: I am definitely not saying that the boys in the movie should be given more attention, that it’s in any way about them, or that the movie’s main focus isn’t indeed about high-school girls bonding. After all, that last is the second reason the movie has received such high praise, especially from, naturally enough, women.

This presents an interesting question however, which I’d like to pose to female readers: just how genuine are the situations and the dialogue? I ask because following Jane Austen’s example, who never has two male characters talking alone to each other in any of her novels, I’d be very hesitant to ever do the same with female ones (something to consider with — but not apologize for — male-written and/or directed movies that fail the Bechdel Test). If they ring true though, then male director Yamashita, and crucially also writer, somehow has really hit the spot.

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A related question is raised by Burl Burlingame’s review at Honolulu Star Bulletin, which opens with:

I have a friend who used to play in an all-girls punk band. She said rehearsals took forever because they’d play one song, talk about their feelings for an hour, play one song, talk about their feelings for an hour … which pretty much describes Linda, Linda, Linda, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s slacker success story about girls who form a band for a high-school talent show.

Taken out of context, I would have condemned Burlingame for perpetuating gender stereotypes, but now I’m not so sure. What do any female musicians amongst you make of it?

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Either way, I can understand all the one-liners on grrrl-power bonding then, but can’t overlook the blinders some of the reviewers seemed to have on. Humanick at Slant, for instance, describes the movie as “an emotionally attuned look at adolescent life amid the invisible social structures of high school with an underlying emphasis on gender and cultural barriers to boot, all surprisingly free of manipulation”, but I’m at a complete loss as to what those barriers are myself. Likewise, Catsoulis asserts in the New York Times (yes — she’s an easy target) that “the irritations and tedium of high school life are staged with refreshing simplicity”, whereas in reality these are glaring for their absence, the unregimented nature of their school life greatly puzzling me until I realized that the movie began already well into the school’s festival week.

(Update — I forgot to mention that one minor flaw in the movie is that it would have been unlikely for Son to have bonded so well the other band members in just over two days; starting the movie a couple of weeks earlier, giving a more realistic time-frame for this, would surely have required only minimal plot and technical changes)

It also puzzled Alyx at Feminist Music Geek, who wrote:

I’m also not entirely clear about the nature of Japanese schools. I came through an underfunded, less-than-superlative Texas public school system. Thus, Paran Maum’s school seems like a tony liberal arts magnate where teenagers are given considerable support and resources for their artistic inclinations, thus implying that the students come from respectable middle- to upper-middle-class families. But I’m not sure if this high school is exceptional in Japan….while I initially feel the need to mention the classed dimensions of privilege that allow the girls the fine arts education and leisure time to form a band (instead of, say, take jobs or quit school to support their families), I don’t want to suggest that what I see as an American viewer is in accord with Japan’s classed realities.

Whether this surprising freedom the girls have is the norm or just for the duration of festival week however, that they behave more like they’re in university than high school is crucial for the movie’s last major source of appeal: the ability to project coming-of-age narratives onto it (spoilers begin).

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As I stated in the introduction, I actually think this is quite misguided: the girls (re)form a band, they practice, they perform, the end. Where’s the coming of age drama in that? But I can empathize (spoilers end). Given how free the girls are to do things under their own initiative, to set their own hours, and to come and go between activities as they please, things utterly denied to most Japanese (and Korean) teenagers, it’s difficult not to see them as near-adults. In particular, although Nozomi’s background is woefully underexplored (you know no more about her by the end of the movie than at the beginning), Kei above seems to to have had quite a history with — and lingering feelings for — much older ex Yomoki below, yet stoically accepts that he’ll be moving on to Tokyo (personally, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized life was like that).

Combine that with being the de facto leader of the group, and things like getting the band, sans permission from parents or teachers, halfway across town to get some extra practice at Yokomi’s studio, then in short she seems much more capable and assured than your average 18 year-old.

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Mention must also be made of ThrownMuse’s comment here (difficult to find on the site; look for the 6 June 2007 entry) that “the movie has a very subtle feminist and punk-rock aesthetic that I don’t think every viewer picks up on”. Which would include me, and, again, it’s annoying that it’s not elaborated on. But perhaps Alyx of Feminist Music Geek fills the gap:

I do find the girls’ fandom of The Blue Hearts, whose songs they cover, to be quite interesting. For one, girls identifying with a fast, hard-rocking all-male rock band, while at no time talking about how cute certain members are, seems to suggest a wider range of possibilities for who can influence a girl. The band even goes so far as to call themselves Paran Maum, which is “blue hearts” in Korean (an indication of Son’s importance to the band). There’s a lot of talk on this blog about the importance of women and girls influencing one another in popular music. However, we shouldn’t short shrift what it means for girls finding their sound and voice through boys and men or ignore the progressive and possibly queer potential in girls identifying with boys. Like Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, and Sleater-Kinney before them, these girls don’t plug in and rock out to be with the band — they are the band and want to thrash just as hard as the boys.

I find any queer potential here a little forced though, both because of the characters’ random choice of the band in the movie and the mundane reason Yamashita chose to use it, as he explained below in a Cinema Strikes Back interview. But I’d be happy to be persuaded otherwise:

CSB: Was Linda Linda Linda always the main song or were there other possibilities you considered?

Nobuhiro Yamashita: Linda Linda Linda is such an iconic song done by the Blue Hearts. Everybody knows it. When you hear the Blue Hearts, it’s the song that first comes to peoples’ minds. It was always the first choice for the main song we were going to use. (With respect to) other songs (in the film), we did have many choices we had to go through.

Finally, no matter how cliched, I’d be lying if didn’t admit that the music didn’t immediately remind of me of some scenes from Kill Bill Volume 1, most notably the 5.6.7.8′s in “The House of Blue Leaves” nightclub:

Even if — ahem — it turns that they don’t actually sing any Japanese songs in the movie, I’m definitely more curious about Japanese rock now (it helps that I’m also heavily into retro-themed Japanese artwork like this too {source}, but which I could obviously never put up on a Korea-related blog). And perhaps you too, for nobody watching can’t help but sing along to Linda Linda by the end of the movie.

And on that note, this music video isn’t from the movie, so don’t worry about spoilers. Sing away!^^

The original Blue Hearts song for comparison:

Korean Movie Review #5: Saving my Hubby (2002)

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Has there ever been an actor you’ve really liked, but couldn’t put your finger on why?

For me, that was Bae Doo-na (배두나), much on my mind since I heard she would be starring in Cloud Atlas. Later, I’d also stumble upon a…let’s say “eye-catching” movie poster of hers from 2003, which I remember constantly distracting me as I looked for jobs around my new home of Busan. And finally this week, when my family and I decided we’d go the 2012 FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix on Saturday, I suddenly remembered that she’d played a former volleyball star in Saving my Hubby (굳세어라 금순아) too.

It was time to investigate. Just what was it about her that I found so compelling?

To my surprise, I soon realized I hadn’t actually watched many of her movies, including The Host (2006) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) for which she is best known. I had watched Take Care of my Cat (2001) of course, twice, but in hindsight I probably missed a great deal without subtitles, no matter how good my Korean used to be.

That just left the coming of age movie Plum Blossom (2000) then, probably best known for its numerous sex scenes — not quite the answer I expected or wanted. Still, it is a very affecting movie, with Bae Doo-na’s performance more much memorable for her character’s spunkiness than her frequent nudity. That’d be the image of her I’d bring with me to Saving my Hubby.

And who can blame me with a poster like the opening one above, or trailers like this?

As Wikipedia describes the plot (slightly edited by me):

Former volleyball star Gum-soon (Bae Doo-na) is now a married housewife with a baby daughter. Her husband, Joon-tae (준태, played by Kim Tae-woo {김태우}),* is starting the first day of his new job, when Gum-soon receives word that her in-laws are going to visit the following morning. While she struggles to get their house ready, Joon-tae is taken out for a drink with his new colleagues. Later that evening, while preparing her home for a visit by her in-laws early the next morning, Gum-soon gets a phone call from a nightclub owner who is holding her husband hostage, claiming that he has run up a huge bill and doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Strapping her baby to her back, Gum-soon sets out to rescue her husband.

*Not the former g.o.d. member of the same name, despite what what Wikipedia says!

So you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when, just a couple of minutes into the movie, both Gum-soon and Joon-tae are having tantrums more befitting of preteens than young parents. But then they are young — Gum-soon the character and Bae Doo-na the actor are both clearly in their early-20s, only marrying because of her pregnancy, and this youth and unpreparedness for domestic life is a central theme of the movie (Joon-tae’s age is less clear, while Kim Tae-woo the actor is a youthful-looking 31). A parent at 30 myself, it took some effort not to project that more typical age onto the couple, and to judge them less harshly for their childishness. Especially as adult women constantly behaving like children is a pervasive, grating part of Korean popular culture.

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Ironically though, it’s also precisely some of those childish domestic scenes, which dominate the first 20 minutes, that are among the most endearing parts of the movie. Viewers with Korean partners are likely to find much about the couple’s interactions that warmly resonate with their own relationships (mine is at 18:10 when — squeee!— Gum-soon says “정말?!”).

But don’t get me wrong: this is no romantic comedy. Nor, despite Gum-soon’s heroine role, can it remotely be described as a grrrl-power flick. Rather, once Gum-soon receives that phone-call, it’s all slapstick from there, complete with the mandatory inept gangsters, chasing her for accidentally getting their boss’s suit dirty. All of which you can see for yourself via this alternative trailer, which gives a much more accurate impression of the movie:

For the next half hour or so, the ensuing antics are amusing enough. The movie also really captures Korean nightlife well. In particular, when she can’t find the nightclub her husband is in, her lost wanderings readily evoked my first few months in Korea: when smartphones didn’t exist, and all the bars, clubs, norae-bangs, and 24-hour haejang-gook restaurants of downtown Jinju seemed to blend into one vast neon blur…even though they were just a few blocks in reality.

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Indeed, ultimately it becomes too realistic, for about halfway through the movie the gags suddenly seem to dry up, and we’re left with Gum-soon literally running around in circles as she avoids the gangsters and looks for the nightclub — minus the gangsters, it’s like watching me trying to find my hotel in Insa-dong one drunken early morning last summer. When things do finally pick up again, unfortunately it’s so late in the movie that there’s no time to build up the momentum of laughs that would compensate for the long lull.

That said, it’s still worth seeing (you can watch it online here, with English subtitles) — it has its amusing moments, and others that will likely remind many readers of why they’re with their Korean partners, or at least of their Korean newbie days out on the town. But don’t be fooled by the promotional material into thinking that it’s anything more than that, and I’m certain that there’s much better movies with Bae Doo-na out there.

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Any recommendations? :)

Korean Movie Review #4: Paju (2009)

(Sources: left, right)

I’m not allowed to love this person?

Because you say I can’t, I want it all the more.

With posters like these, then you could be forgiven for thinking that Paju (파주) is about some forbidden, Lolita-like relationship between the 2 main characters. Indeed, add promotional photoshoots of Seo Woo (서우) and Lee Sun-gyun (이선균) necking, or Seo-woo perched expectantly on the side of a bed, then why wouldn’t anyone believe initial media reports that this is basically a tale of an “outrageous high-school student” who, with “a mix of innocent and provocative appeal”, falls in love with her older sister’s husband?

A deep and complex movie that actually features nothing of the sort, Paju (파주) is very much undermined by such prurient marketing, and leads the cynic in me to believe that was designed to counter its otherwise ponderous and depressing tone by titillating audiences. Add that Paju requires: numerous suspensions of disbelief; is often frustratingly vague; and ultimately doesn’t seem to go anywhere, then, despite its accolades, it’s not a movie I can easily recommend to anyone but the most dedicated Korean film buffs.

And yet despite myself, I still agree with reviewer Darcy Paquet that it is “without question, one of the best Korean films of 2009,″ for reasons I didn’t fully appreciate when I first saw it six months ago.

One of those reasons is that, with events unfolding in a sequence not unlike Pulp-Fiction (1994), Paju has a confusing patchwork of flashbacks and flash-forwards that defies recounting here. But while this was very frustrating at first however, the timeline of events does resolve itself in the end, and in the meantime it forces audiences to think for themselves for a change.

Also, although ostensibly about Joong-shik (Lee Sung-gyun), Paju is really about his relationships with three women: first, with Ja-young (played by Kim Bo-kyoung/김보경) eight years earlier, that ends with a harrowing incident involving her baby that sets the tone for the rest of the movie; next in his marriage to Eun-su (played by Shim Yi-young/심이영), whom we soon learn dies in a gas explosion in their shared home; and finally with his much younger sister-in-law Eun-mo (Seo-woo), the relationship which anchors the story. And in particular, these women’s roles (and the skill with which they are acted) are very much one of the strengths of the movie, and something that can be difficult to appreciate for those that aren’t very familiar with Korean cinema (like myself). For, as Elizabeth Kerr of The Hollywood Reporter explains, director Park Chan-ok (박찬옥):

…is able to do something many filmmakers can’t or won’t, and that’s draw a realistic picture of modern femininity that’s blessedly free of the stereotypes that make up movie women. There’s no shrieking or weeping from Eun-mo when she recalls the events that lead to her sister’s death; Eun-su’s reactions within her fragile marriage are empathetic; and Joong-shik’s first live-in lover Ja-young, doesn’t have any ulterior motives when she re-enters his life.

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Nevertheless, it is also these relationships – or, rather, Joong-shik’s role in them – that are ultimately the movie’s undoing too. Because, constantly running away from her problems aside, if Eun-mo did indeed both have the hidden strengths and be as mature beyond her years as the movie suggests, then, despite Joong-shik’s fears, (spoilers begin) she would likely have been able to recover from learning that she accidentally caused her sister’s death. But this is moot: in one of Paju’s biggest plot holes, Eun-mo wouldn’t have needed to be told any details beyond the fact that Eun-su died in a gas explosion in their home (only Joong-shik knew how it was caused), and indeed she soon learns that through her own clandestine investigations anyway. Yet by telling her that Eun-su died in a hit-and-run instead, then, rather than protecting her, all it serves to do is lead her to believe that he’s hiding something.

When he professes towards the end that he’s loved her all along then, in fact only marrying Eun-su to be close to her, his apparent deception is the main reason she doesn’t reciprocate (the other, presumably, being how he used Eun-su). And the audience can hardly blame her: not only does his confession seem somewhat forced and awkward, he never expressing anything but platonic love for her previously, but it suddenly diminishes his character, rendering what at one point seemed to be a genuine closeness developing developing between him and Eun-mo into something much more calculated on his part.

But it does at least present us with an interesting enigma: why does he permanently sabotage any chances of them becoming lovers by refusing to tell the truth?

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Granted, he doesn’t realize she already knows about the gas explosion. But still, he doesn’t actually ask why she rejects him, which is inexplicable considering how he feels about her. Why not?

One solution, I think, I discovered indirectly, by realizing what so bugged me about an unrelated observation by Darcy Paquet:

In part, it is the film’s willful obscurity that gives it its strength….Personally I liked that the story’s misunderstandings persist through to the end: this is not a film where all characters come around to accept the same interpretation of the events we have witnessed. Because each character carries a different understanding – and no character possesses complete knowledge of what happened – there is a layered complexity to the film’s emotions.

In short, I think this is a fundamental misreading of the obscurity’s purpose. Rather, it’s only really two characters that have different understandings of events, and, like I said, Joong-shik very much possesses enough knowledge to change Eun-mo’s. But he doesn’t because, soon in a jail cell falsely accused of Eun-su’s murder and/or insurance fraud, he readily acquiesces in his incarceration, seeing it as a sort of penance for either the accident with Ja-young’s baby and/or his (oft-stated) insincere social activism. And, in hindsight, this is something he’s been seeking ever since he arrived in the city of Paju, and this gives us a fresh perspective on other alternative motivations for his entering into a loveless marriage with Eun-su too.

Not only is he buoyed by the knowledge that he is protecting Eun-mo from anguish then (a noble sacrifice that reminded me of the ending to The Crying Game {1992}) (spoliers end), but, if you watch the following beautiful scene from Strange Days (1995), which I was very surprised and lucky to find on YouTube, then suddenly what he’s doing really does begin to make sense. Please indulge me for 96 seconds, taking special note of  what Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) says at 1:24:

Unlike Strange Days however, which showed Lenny Nero the ultimate futility of atonement, Paju suggests that therein lies Joong-shik’s salvation. And in that sense, Paju is so much closer to Crime and Punishment (1866) than it is Lolita (1955), and cinema goers in 2009 would have appreciated the movie all the more if its marketing had reflected that.

(For more Korean Movie Reviews, see here)

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(NSFW) Korean Movie Review #3: Samaritan Girl/Samaria (2004)

( Source: Naver Movies )

To my surprise, there can actually be some advantages to being a fledgling movie reviewer.

For instance, lacking the knowledge of experts, I can drop all pretense of objectivity. And indeed, my long-held preconceptions of this movie did have a profound effect on my ultimate enjoyment of it.

Also, only having seen one other of director Kim Ki-duk’s (김기덕) earlier works in passing – The Isle (2000) -  then I am in no position to analyze Samaritan Girl/Samaria (사마라아) in the context of his movies as a whole.

Well of course, I hear you say. But this is more important than it may at first appear.

This is because of the plethora of reviews already available, I have noticed that positive ones tend to include extensive references to Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) in particular, while negative ones are more likely to analyze the movie in isolation. Not exclusively of course, but the division is noticeable. Rather than implying a potential forest for the trees phenomenon here though, I mention it because I have also heard Kim’s movies are very hit and miss, and hence that your opinion of them can be heavily affected by which film you watch first.

And therein lies the problem, for much about Samartian Girl is vague, confused and/or simply incomprehensible, and not in the positive sense that this encourages you to engage more with the movie in order to fill in the blanks. And while I strongly suspect that watching his earlier movies would clarify a great deal, by itself this movie would not encourage most viewers to do so.

( Source: Naver Movies )

In fairness though, I did set myself up for being disappointed.

I first heard of it two years ago, via a newspaper article I translated about how 3 in 10 internet dating sites were being used to arrange teenage prostitution. While I haven’t really pursued the subject since, deferring to the excellent work done by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling on it instead, the post was picked up by Shinsano at the East Windup Chronicle (as well as by Matt himself), and the back and forth I had with him there gave me the impression that Kim was a much-needed Korean social critic, welcome overseas but ostracized at home because of his constant airing of Korea’s dirty laundry.

That image of him is by no means incorrect. But despite not having seen it, somehow it also inflated the quality of the movie in my mind over the next two years, especially as the blog came to acquire its present focus. Suffice to say that by the time I finally began to watch it last week, I fully expected a fierce and piercing critique of the teenage prostitution industry here.

But just the marketing of the movie itself should have given me pause.

Consider the two promotional posters above from 2004, featuring Kwak Ji-min (곽지민) and Han Yeo-reum (한려름) respectively. Never mind that Kwak is topless, and as a minor when the picture was taken, meant that it was technically illegal; as this case with a 14 year-old in January and this case with an 18 year-old earlier this month demonstrate, the Korean authorities still seem strangely reluctant to prosecute this sort of thing. Rather, the point is that far from discouraging one from having sex with minors, both posters seem to be positively encouraging it.

True, as author of this blog, I can hardly fault someone for using such images for the sake of popularity, even if they send mixed messages. Also, at risk of sounding hypocritical, I’m not going to feign outrage at topless photos of someone just a few months shy of the legal age to pose for them either. But I do have my limits:

( Source: Celebrity Movie Archive )

This is the second of two bathhouse scenes in the movie, at just 6 minutes and 16 minutes into it respectively. Neither is entirely pointless: the implied lesbian relationship is central to understanding why Kwak Ji-min, pimping for Han Yeo-reum as they save money for permanently escaping to Europe, clearly becomes distressed when Han shows signs of enjoying her work, in particular becoming attached to one of her clients, a music composer. Derek Elly at Variety also notes that:

Wisely, Kim has opted not to show the sex scenes [with clients], and there’s tenderness (with gently lyrical music) in those sequences sketching the girls’ friendship — playing in a park together, or bonding in a Korean-style bathhouse.

Apparently so much tenderness though, that it put blinders on this unnamed reviewer at Asian Film Reviews:

There is minimal nudity in this movie, which is surprising considering the subject matter. The lack of nudity preserves the girls’ innocence and reinforces the integrity of the movie. If Samaritan Girl featured explicit sex, it would seem trashy and the message would be lost in all of the excess. Instead, this movie is a tender, touching story about shattered dreams and lost innocence.

TR at TimeOut London puts it rather differently however:

The actual paedophile sex is kept offscreen, but Kim’s enraptured gaze at the two naked girls washing each other in a public bath is as prurient as they come.

And while both scenes were certainly compelling viewing at the time, I was left wondering if it was really necessary to see them naked to appreciate their bond?

( Source: Naver Movies )

Probably not, and this adds a certain poignancy to what Adam Hartzel writes about Ki Ki-duk at KoreanFilm.org:

In tag-lining his Silver Berlin Bear award-winning film Samaritan Girl with the biblical reference, “He who is without sin, throw the first stone,” director Kim Ki-duk has allowed himself cover from critics. Such a tagline deflects any negative criticism before the critic has even criticized. It argues that only the critic who is without criticism themselves should throw damning words at Kim’s film, otherwise, the critic should remain silent. And who among us is without “sin”, hypocrites that we all are? Such underscores the marketing acumen, if not directorial skill, of Kim, a man who has quickly risen, justified or not, to become one of the most recognizable Korean directors throughout the world…

In combination with the posters then, those scenes were arguably far more for commercial reasons rather than the artistic ones Kim Ki-duk is better known for. While that does not make Samaritan Girl a bad movie in itself though, it does point to an emphasis on style over substance that plagues the entire movie, and after just 6 minutes into it to boot.

To a certain extent, this criticism is just personal taste. Friends that recommended Peppermint Candy to me for instance, only to be dismayed by my scathing review of it later, have since pointed out my preference seems to be for movies where everything is explained to viewers. That’s a fair assessment, and indeed my incomprehension at Kwak’s bizarre decision to sleep with all of Han’s former clients after her death, returning their money as some form of atonement (hence the title), means that I would have been unlikely to have ever warmed to Samaritan Girl. And in hindsight, being aware of that element of the plot is what put me off from watching it for two years too.

But I can still acknowledge the benefits of such an approach, and indeed to have provided more detail would probably have detracted from the haunting, slight surreal tone of the film, with occasional combinations of long, drawn-out, but otherwise compelling scenes and stunning cinematography that reminded a newbie like me of, well, the Italian movie Il conformista (1970). There is also a lot of symbolism and references to Christianity, redemption, and – most notably in my book – there is the decision by Kwak and one client to have a liaison on the riverbank in front of the National Assembly Building. A metaphor for something deeper perhaps? A thinly-veiled political message?

( Source: Naver Movies )

Alas, probably not. While it would be unfair of me to criticize Samaritan Girl for completely lacking the piercing critique of teenage prostitution I had projected onto it (albeit not unreasonably given Kim’s reputation),  I certainly didn’t expect the movie to almost glamorize it instead. But this is no exaggeration: with the exception of the composer Han became attached to, all of Kim’s clients treat her with (paternalistic) respect and kindness for instance (one can understand Han’s affection for them), most liasons take place in immaculate hotel rooms, and some immediately see the error of their ways after Kim surprises them by giving money back to them afterward.

There is no violence, no refusals to wear condoms, no STDs, no pregnancies and abortions, and apparently no impacts whatsoever on Kim herself, who someone manages to sleep with dozens of men in the afternoons despite being an otherwise ordinary middle-school student.

Indeed, the only unwelcome element in this fantasy is the police, first in the form of the officers raiding the hotel, forcing Han to jump to her death from a hotel window in order to escape, and later in Kim’s detective father Lee Eol (이얼), who discovers what she is doing but who chooses to confront Kim’s clients – in increasingly violent episodes – rather than confronting her.

Of course, Samaritan Girl does have some redeeming qualities. Kwak in particular seems to mature as an actor literally over the course of movie, and the tension between her and Lee – an excellent casting choice – that is the focus of the last third of the movie is both palpable and compelling. But both positive and negative reviews of the movie mention that Kim never quite manages a balance between surrealism and providing a convincing story, and even for those that don’t like to be spoon-fed all the details of a story like myself(!), there are simply too many gaps to make the necessary leaps of faith.

( Source: Naver Movies )

Instead of Samaritan Girl then, I heartily recommend You Are My Sunshine (2005) for an examination of the unsavory reality of the Korean prostitution industry, albeit only in passing. But I would appreciate any other suggestions.

Next review: My Wife is a Gangster (조폭 마느라; 2001).

(For all my Korean Movie Reviews, see here)

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