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Another week, another festival. This time, we've got the Palm Springs film festival in our crosshairs. And a few wrongs to right. Starting with some uncooperative film projectors and ending with a villain that makes Hannibal Lector look downright classy.
One of the most telling moments for me at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival was when you and I had a casual conversation with mainland Chinese director Zhang Lu on our last night there. Zhang mentioned something that, for me, encapsulates Palm Springs as a festival and a town for cinephilia. Since his stirring debut Tang Poetry in 2003, Zhang has been making the international film festival rounds. His new film, Grain in Ear was showcased in a Cannes sidebar, was featured at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and won the New Currents Award at Pusan. He noticed that whichever festival he was at, he seemed to run into the same crowd of filmmakers, producers, and critics. The exception, however, has been Palm Springs.
What this indicates, in my opinion, is that Palm Springs is one of these insular festivals, made by and for a local audience with little contact or care for what's going on in the larger international film scene. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that; this sort of local flavor creates heterogeneity and gives each festival its own identity. Nevertheless, I could see why the big guns of international cinema would avoid visiting this desert town, especially given that the audience is comprised primarily of upper middle class retirees who have little interest (as evidenced by the dull Q&A's) in the aesthetics of cinema or identity politics. The festival just released their audience award rankings, and the results are telling, especially for Asian cinema. Palatable Indian films Heaven and Hell on Earth and The Rising Ballad of Mangal Pandey were ranked 6th and 12th respectively, whereas the very Bollywood Paheli didn't crack the top 50. Audiences reacted well to the crowd-pleasing but simple Welcome to Dongmakgol (8th), The Hidden Blade (21st), and The Promise (37th), but shunned completely new films by mavericks like Zhang, Park Chan-wook, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Eric Khoo, Peter Chan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Wisit Sasanatieng. It's also telling that the film which won the FIPRESCI (critic's) prize, and which we unfortunately failed to catch, was Minh Nguyen-Vo's Buffalo Boy, which didn't make the audience's top 50. A stunner though: Kim Ki-duk's The Bow managed to place 42nd on the list, although perhaps that says something about the relationship Kim has with the American audience. Asian and Asian-American-related documentaries fared better on the audience's 20 favorite docs list: the Canadian Five Days in September featuring Yo-Yo Ma topped the list, Jessica Sanders' acclaimed After Innocence placed 4th, a/k/a Tommy Chong was 7th, Mongolian director Byambasuren Davva's The Cave of the Yellow Dog was 12th, and the South Korean/Japanese co-production Annyong Sayonara was 18th.
I know that for several of us, this local disinterest in a cinema that challenges expectations rather than massaging them translated into annoyance. The screening of Hou's Three Times I attended was littered with vocal dissatisfaction during the silent section, although that didn't stop some old white men from praising actress Shu Qi's hotness. I thought maybe it was just us elitist urbanites who were annoyed, if not offended, but the fact that during the second week, ushers had to threaten the audience before each screening with disclaimers about talking during the film, says something about the extent to which this had become a problem. What seemed to exacerbate things, ironically, was that the quality of the film selection was so high. If it sounds counterintuitive that the festival would program higher than the audience's expectations, it makes sense given that Palm Springs has a built-in quota system: it invites every film submitted for the foreign language film nomination at the Oscars, which explains the appearance of such "difficult" films as The Wayward Cloud, Be With Me, and Buffalo Boy. The quota, I think, is a good one, not only because it satisfies the cravings of us out-of-towners, but it also makes fans out of an audience that normally wouldn't discover the South Korean submission Welcome to Dongmakgol or the Fiji submission The Land Has Eyes, which placed 27th on the audience award list.
Let's start our Palm Springs column with our personal disappointments and discoveries. My main disappointment with Palm Springs was the impatience of the audience to certain films. That gripe is followed by the incompetence of the projection staff of the Regal 9 Theatre, an otherwise very comfy venue if not for the chronic fuck-ups upstairs running the image backwards and flip-flopping or mangling up the soundtrack. In terms of the films, my disappointments were Citizen Dog and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Aside from personal faves Three Times and The Wayward Cloud which I'd first seen elsewhere, I was impressed by the Beat Takeshi vehicle Blood and Bones and Fruit Chan's musical Perhaps Love. I know you differ from me on several of these films, so let the debate begin.
Where to begin? I came into the Palm Springs festival with high hopes and left distressed by the ambivalence and at times downright befuddlement I experienced by and large. I share your enthusiasm for Hou's Three Times -- though perhaps a second viewing would allow me to understand better what you found so enthralling about the silent segment -- and disappointment over Citizen Dog, which was neither wacky nor wantonly excessive enough, especially considering Wisit Sasanatieng's previous delight, Tears of the Black Tiger. As for the rest of the selections, we stand divided, which is exactly how it should be with the potentially great ones. They're either can't-miss or can't-stand, and in certain cases, those are one and the same.
I shouldn't say that Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is great, but to me, it's certainly the most thematically layered in Park Chan-wook's much-kvetched-about Revenge trilogy. Oldboy is still the piece de resistance of the series -- there's something about its visceral makeup that suggests Shakespearean grandeur, and the labyrinth twists, whether believable or not, are so tightly welded into the film's psychological core that we forgive its slicker, more exploitative moments. With Lady Vengeance, however, Park plays it not only fast, but loose, moving from one contrivance to the next while milking every shot for style points, without giving us enough reason to care. Still, in Lee Young-Ae, Korea's reigning soap opera queen, Park has found the unlikeliest source of emotional complexity; I truly understood her wildly conflicted sense of morality to be truly that -- wildly conflicted. You might argue that this is Park unabashedly preying on the viewer's expectations of what's traditional femininity: someone who's not caught up in the throes of vigilantilism, but knows that's what it takes sometimes to protect your young. I should say traditional femininity as taught to us by Quentin Tarantino, whose The Bride clearly serves as Lee Yeong-Ae's Lee Geum-ja's predecessor.
What complicates this mother-badass binary is justice, most of all the personal -- and in the film's case, collective as well -- kind. Park still has a tendency to smother his moral canvas in thick, sloppy strokes, so that when he tries too hard to impress us with his Deep Thoughts, we merely scream at him to give us more severed limbs. But the victims' range of responses (minor spoiler alert: I'm talking about the kids' parents, not the unfortunate souls who got in Lee Geum-ja's way) hint at Park's overall ambivalence toward revenge and the emotional/psychological/physical/spiritual toll accrued as a result. Blindness is prevalent throughout; the blind faith that Lee Geum-ja turns to when wracked with despair; similarly, the blind justice that the wronged seek when they don't even know what they're looking for. I'll admit that Park turns even this into a bit of a sideshow act, but it might've spared us from Park's usual brand of justice, which is more like deliverance anyways. I wouldn't exactly go so far as to say that Lady Vengeance has its moments of levity, but there was a point late in the film where I sensed palpable relief among the audience, as if they realized that their worst fears were not to be confirmed. Unlike, say, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or even that painfully self-conscious segment that he did for the horror triptych, Three...Extremes.
Simply put, Lady Vengeance is more humane than the other Revenge installments, and I say that knowing full well that it sounds like a less-than-ringing endorsement of a filmmaker known for showing no mercy. Let's be fair though: Park's in a bind no matter what he decides to do. Make a film that jacks up the gore and you get critics like Rex Reed poking fun at your culture again; make a film that displays a more delicate touch and you risk alienating your core audience here in the states. Can't a sadomasochist catch a break these days?
Your notion of collective justice -- during the bravura parents' scene you mention -- was about the only scene in the film where I could identify any actual semblance of moral complexity. For the most part, I couldn't figure out what Park was trying to accomplish with his quirky titles and humorous death scenes. This is by far the funniest film in the trilogy and I don't think it'd be a stretch to argue that Park has resorted to mocking his own persona as developed in the public debate surrounding his last two features. To a degree, the self-consciousness works because it's got that energy Park is famous for, and also because it's unquestionably funny. That said, I'm not sure how his self-parody is intervening in the debates surrounding him as a "moral" filmmaker, and I'm sad to say that it seems that here, Park is simply diffusing serious issues with a grin and a shrug. Seeing this latest film helps me better appreciate Park's Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, a film that had me caught between an admiration for his masterfully cinematic rendering of cold-blooded emotion and the viscerally disgusting taste of bile built up during the film's many gut-renching scenes. But in contrast to Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the first film of Park's trilogy seemed actually about the source of the vengeance impulse, and the film's narrative structure anticipates the moment of revenge and constructs for us the way vengeance holds each character responsible for the fate of everyone else. Lady Vengeance, on the other hand, lacks that formal or moral core.
Sai Yoichi's Blood and Bones, a film I liked very much, provides an interesting contrast to Sympathy for Lady Vengeance on the issue of society, violence, and (dis)pleasure. Here's a film whose depiction of ultra-violence flirts with ridiculousness from start to finish, yet the violence remains repulsive and deadly serious throughout, adding to the dramatic focus. It's as if the violence, embodied by a never-better "Beat" Takeshi, becomes an incessant, irrational, psychotic reminder of the eternal displacement and oppression encountered by Koreans living in Japan before and after WWII. The patriarch played by Takeshi is less a character than a nightmarish symbol of a vanished cultural home, and his presence quite literally beats down any attempts to drift too far from the obedient immigrant businessman modelled after the father himself. (It's unfortunate though, that such a symbol has to rely so heavily on stereotypes of Korean men as abusive husbands.) The film's blatant moments of self-censorship (large black shapes blur our view of male and female genitalia) only seem to highlight how out-of-control the guy is -- for example, when he's raping his wife or when he beats up his son while naked in a bathhouse. I don't think it's possible to charge Sai with glamorizing violence the way we so easily can for Park. In fact, most of the time we're yearning for more violence on the part of everyone else just so it means Takeshi's character could be controlled, if not wiped out. The way he never really gets his comeuppance while everyone around him fades away into despair, death, or impoverishment is a surprising, tragic, and powerful way of depicting the gradual fade-out of cultural and political freedom in a world of oppression. There's nothing revolutionary about the film's style or approach, but the relentless execution was so heartfelt that I couldn't help but emerge emotionally blown-away, if also a tad traumatized.
Your dismissal of Lady Vengeance for being vacuous in its discussion of vengeance is not an entirely ungrounded one. And yet, I still don't buy the notion that the film lacks a moral core. A formal core, perhaps -- Park is clearly in love with his style, and that often translates into the kind of hopscotch sequencing that a filmmaker of his brio should've discarded long ago. The point in Lady, I think, is to flip the script on Mr. Vengeance, by suggesting that vengeance cannot be pursued collectively; if you sow what you reap, don't expect others to help assuage your guilt. Of course, this is precisely what Lee Geum-Ga ends up doing -- the transferral of responsibility, that is -- which -- its mawkish finale notwithstanding -- muddies up the idea that revenge is a one-way ticket to redemption.
When I referred earlier to my overall ambivalence and downright befuddlement, I was alluding mostly to Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud, but I might as well have been talking about Blood and Bones. Actually, befuddlement and disgust were mostly interchangeable at Palm Springs, and Blood and Bones did little to buck this trend. I really liked your analysis of B&B -- thoughtful, incisive, and all kinds of cultural context. However, I'm not sure if I totally agree that there's anything particularly surprising or powerful about the film. The tragic goes without saying -- I mean, not even Job went through as much hell as the household that Takeshi's character lords over -- but underneath all that hardcore nihilism is a rather dimestore mantra: that immigration fucks. You. Up. Of course, it's not as simple as that, and you've perhaps illustrated why, but the coarseness and brutal pacing of the film -- it's about an hour too long -- gives you no other choice but to yield to such extremities.
I might be going out on a limb here, but absolute soullessness is a good look for the not-so-ironically named "Beat" Takeshi. Suffice it to say that if that man and I ever crossed paths on the street -- even an enormously crowded one -- I'd whimper to myself, then let out the most mournful wail in hopes that the S.W.A.T. patrol is standing nearby. It's not merely that he beats and rapes whenever he pleases; it's that he does so with a demonic half-sneer splayed out across his face, as if he's daring the audience to root for him. Of course, we don't, but it's not easy to root for any of the other male characters either, who when they're not doing their own impersonation of Takeshi's character, are too busy concealing their passive-agressive streak, which leads, predictably to more blood and broken bones.
I'd like to say that the mood lightens considerably from here on out, but alas, we still have The Wayward Cloud to talk about. Until next time...
Date Posted: 1/26/2006