Dreams of Puerto Rico: Sharunas Bartas' The Corridor


corridor n. a long passage in a building from which doors lead into rooms.
--Oxford English Dictionary

Lithuanian filmmaker Sharunas Bartas' The Corridor opens with an exterior shot of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, with its ubiquitous smoke stacks and factories. Accompanying this rather bleak image is a demulcent male voice humming what sounds like a cross between a mournful threnody and a sweet lullaby. The titular corridor symbolizes the chamber of the collective unconscious of the Lithuanian people. It also represents the narrow passage of aesthetics Bartas negotiates in his second feature-length film—a balancing act of portraying the ingrained sense of melancholy etched on the wizened faces and burned into the lugubrious eyes of the characters and their quiet hopes for the future, hopes which they dare not curse by iterating them with words.

This film was made in 1994, in the immediate years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Lithuania’s independence. It is notable that Bela Tarr’s Satantango, with similar stylistic as well as thematic elements, was also made in the same year. Much as in the general milieu of Tarr’s film, sadness permeates the air of the said corridor of a run-down apartment building, as well as the hearts of its residents. The film critic Acquarello has referred to the state of Bartas’ characters as a “demoralized collective psyche foundering in the obsolescence of an elusive and crumbled ideology.” This isn’t simply a case of the understated show of emotions pioneered by Robert Bresson and imitated in countless arthouse films of varying qualities. The characters are afflicted with a metaphorical case of contagious aphasia and catatonia.

But even amidst this doom and gloom, we witness small moments of mirth. In what may be the most action-filled scene that reverberates with flashbacks to the hypnotic dance scene from Satantango, we see the building residents dance to songs—romantic Latin songs like “Puerto Rico” by Vaya con Dios and “Escucha Me” by the Gypsy Kings. In the hearts and minds of these people burdened by the weight of their quotidian lives and oppressive gray chilly skies are souls that yearn for warmth and exoticism.

Bartas, as have many other great political filmmakers before him, has made a great political film without making explicit references to politics. The Corridor hits that bittersweet spot between Bela Tarr’s Satantango, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, somewhere between collective experiences and personal recollections. And it is far more than merely mimetic, because Bartas manages to frame the personal experiences of the residents of a building within the greater sociological implications.

Sharunas Bartas, Kim Ki-young, and Glauber Rocha


No, there isn't much common among these three filmmakers, except that they all either had or have intensely personal visions of what cinema should be. And because I am partial to those iconoclastic filmmakers who strive to perfect the idiosyncratic, I will be managing the aforementioned three in the MUBI Directors' Cup.

I have selected The Corridor, Io Island, and The Age of the Earth respectively for their first round matches. And they will compete against Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's Home?, Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, and Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord. Obviously, my directors are the lesser-known underdogs in all three matches, but I relish the opportunity to showcase the works of these underappreciated masters. Check back for further analysis and results.

The Corridor

Io Island

The Age of the Earth

MUBI Directors' Cup


In those bygone halcyon days of last year when the newly renamed MUBI was still known by the infinitely superior moniker The Auteurs, a few of us organized a competitive cinematic event called The Auteurs World Cup 2009. To the consternation of others involved, I jokingly and affectionately referred to the event as Dorkapalooza, but in all honesty, the event was a film geek's wet-dream-come-true. It was conceived by a user named Kenji, and he and another user named Apursansar were the chief organizers, with me and a few others pitching in to make hard-to-find films available for online viewing.

The conceit was a simple one--to follow the format of the real football World Cup and to form 8 brackets composed of 4 national/regional teams, whose managers would select 3 films to pit against 3 films selected by the opposing managers. It attracted what could be called a moderately successful interest from The Auteurs community, but it did catch the eyes of some power players in the cinephile community, namely CNN's cinema blog, They Shoot Films, Don't They?, and Martin Scorsese himself (or at least the guy or gal who manages his account at MUBI).

While it was indeed a tournament with some friendly trash talk involved--you ain't never heard such whack trash talk as can be found among film geeks--the format was in reality a conceit that would help the contestants and voters discover new films and to rediscover and reassess canonized classics. And when the smoke cleared, the final four teams were--to the surprise of many--Japan, China, India, and Africa. China and India defeated Japan and Africa respectively in close semifinal matches, and China triumphed in the championship match, in the process exposing The Auteurs community to Wang Bing's epic sculpting-in-time documentary Tie Xu Qu: West of the Tracks among others.

Now some 6 months later, the nerd brigade--scratch that, dedicated cinephiles--have struck again to stage what I affectionately refer to as Dorkapalooza Redux. New twists have been added to the competition, this time pitting 128 filmmakers from around the world in a one-film-versus-one-film, single elimination tournament. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you the Directors' Cup.

And Dr.Strangefilm, yours truly, is proud to announce that he will be the unofficial blogger for this event. Follow along, cheer, and jeer. Discover hidden gems, and revisit familiar classic. Watch these films and follow this blog for results featuring salient and entertaining commentary from the participants. Remember Dr.Strangefilm's credo: "Watch these films, and e-mail me in the morning." Cinema does you good.

Looking at Life Through

Green-tinted Bottles of Soju:

Cinema of Hong Sang-soo


Blogger's note: Soju refers to the vodka-like Korean liquor ubiquitous in Hong's films which, no matter the brand, is always marketed in green glass bottles.

1960 turned out to be a pivotal year for South Korean cinema. At the peak of what is now referred to as the industry’s Golden Age, the year saw the release of fine films like The Housemaid by Kim Ki-young. However, it was also notable for another significant reason. It gave birth to two current acclaimed Korean filmmakers Kim Ki-duk (no relation to Kim Ki-young) and Hong Sang-soo, who would both grow up to make films that infuse a Gallic influence with homegrown sensibilities. But beyond the superficial similarities, the two filmmakers share little in common when it comes to cinematic vision. And even though Kim has won the meatier awards like the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival, in most critics’ eyes, Hong has claimed the role of the most substantive auteur in contemporary Korean cinema. While Kim’s films explore the grotesque in otherworldly settings, Hong’s films uncover the tawdry in quotidian settings, and in the process, test the very tensility of cinema as an art form in terms of both structure and content.

Hong was born and raised in Seoul and initially studied filmmaking at Chungang University before going to the US to earn a BFA from the California College of Arts and then an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. Then he headed to Paris to study at the Cinematheque Francaise, but came back to Korea after just a few months to work in television. In 1996, he released his award-winning debut feature The Day a Pig Fell into a Well, garnering much critical acclaim and establishing himself as a leading filmmaker.

The Day a Pig Fell into a Well gets its peculiar title from a John Cheever short story. But as with many elements in Hong’s cinematic world, the oblique moniker is left unexplained, and neither a pig nor a well appears in the film. But the work does document, through a four-part examination of each of its principal characters, the incipient stages of a new social epidemic--a literal dis-ease--that inflicts contemporary Korean society as a result of the rise of the petite bourgeoisie and the accompanying disintegration of traditional Confucian values. Noted critic Acquarello has astutely observed that Hong’s debut recalls “disenchanted and acutely tragicomic bohemianism epitomized by Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore". Indeed. But this film is not a direct descendant of Eustache‘s masterpiece. If any Korean film can claim a direct lineage to The Mother and the Whore, it would be the 1991 film Road to the Racetrack by the maverick director Jang Sun-woo. Made during the years of South Korea’s rise to prominence following the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Jang’s film provided a sobering antidote to the euphoric zeitgeist. It was a scathing critique of the new petite bourgeoisie whose members found themselves both indulgent and inert, caught between a new sexual freedom and the residual constraints of a puritanical Confucian society.

Hong Sang-soo himself has observed that he found himself amazed to see that “such movies were being made in Korea” upon his return from studying abroad. Jang Sun-woo, ever the peripatetic provocateur, has moved on to explore other themes in eclectic films, leaving Hong to assume the mantle of South Korea’s preeminent cinematic chronicler of the proliferation of this venal dis-ease. But whereas Jang’s film criticizes Korean society in a most overt polemical fashion, resulting in an exasperation that is explicitly expressed by the characters within the diegesis as well as felt by most viewers, Hong’s films prefer to mock its characters gently yet incisively, provoking viewers to uncomfortably chuckle along while engaged in self-reflection. For Hong, the most crippling malaise of modern Korean society is the aforementioned dis-ease--the inability of its men and women to form meaningful relationships. In fact, every one of Hong’s films could be synopsized as depicting “the uneventful misadventures of immature men with a sense of entitlement and the foolish women with a sense of desperation who put up with them.”

The Day a Pig Fell into a Well

Hong’s debut feature centers around a struggling narcissistic writer named Hyo-sub who, even though intensely disliked by his colleagues, somehow manages to have two lovers--a married woman and a young proofreader. The film is divided into four sections, one for each of these three characters and the married woman’s husband. In less deft hands, the film would end in a clichéd denouement that would bring the four together in some contrived fashion. What distinguishes this and all the other films in Hong’s oeuvre is his determination to preclude the seemingly familiar filmic elements from degenerating into clichés. This tendency often confounds uninitiated viewers, because it so steadfastly goes against the grain of the conventions of not just commercial but most art cinema as well. Like a vigilant physician tending to a patient, Hong stands alert, ready at a moment’s notice to inject therapeutic doses of reality whenever a carcinogenic cliché threatens to spread its malignant growth.

In a particularly telling scene, Hyo-sub lets his antisocial tendencies get the better of him after a waitress spills some food on him at a get-together. Instead of handling the minor event in a reasonable fashion, he tries to inflame it into a full-fledged brawl. To make a dramatic display, he breaks a beer bottle to wield it as a weapon, but only after a couple of pathetic, abortive, and ultimately comic attempts. And all of this inaction is presented in what the critic Sky Hirschkron has observed as “a strictly embryonic” visual sense. The camera is almost always static, and this stasis reflects the stunted emotional status of its characters. And throughout his career, Hong has tended to use conspicuously tall male actors, thereby highlighting their contrasting emotional dwarfism. Think of little Oskar from Volker Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum, adapted from the eponymous Gunter Grass novel. Hong’s male characters may have grown physically, but they rarely mature emotionally.

But if there is a true literary equivalent to Hong’s films, strangely as it sounds, it would be Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the eighteenth century English novel which employs a rambling anticlimactic plot told by an unreliable narrator whose uncle suffers from impotence. Towards the end of Pig, Dong-woo, the married woman’s husband, initiates sex with his estranged wife after wrongly concluding that he has not been cuckolded. Thus, the sex in the film is not a source of joy or passion or pleasure but a mere act of assurance which soothes the ego. It is not the actual sexual act that restores Dong-woo’s masculinity in his mind but what the act symbolizes. For Hong’s hapless characters, sex is not a necessary aspect of a healthy well-rounded lifestyle. As one of the male characters states in Hong’s Woman Is the Future of Man, “Korean men are too much into sex, because we have nothing, no culture.” The sex scenes in Hong’s films are neither fulfilling for the characters nor climactic for the narrative. They often feel more like awkward, obligatory, and unsatisfactory intercourse that does not culminate in a spectacular money shot. Like both the flat narrative and the uncooperative penis featured in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the plots of Hong’s films limp along, but in this process, divulge more about human nature than films that work towards more predictable and prescribed climaxes.

The one notable element in Hong’s debut which would disappear from his later works is the violence. It concludes with bloodshed perpetrated by the young female character’s jealous male coworker. This has been Hong’s lone dalliance with graphic violence, a welcome reprieve from the blood-drenched oeuvre of his colleagues like Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk. But other facets of The Pig--the focus on relationships, the difficulty of communicating, the unconventional structure--resurface in his other films. Jean Renoir once famously stated that “a director makes only one movie in his life, then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” Hong has certainly taken these words to heart, as he has literally and repeatedly deconstructed the same fundamental themes in his films, only to synthesize them, but always in varying and novel fashion.

The Power of Kangwon Province, Hong’s sophomore effort, employs for the first time what has become a trademark diptych narrative structure, in which the essential story is told twice. And then with his third film, Hong would make what many consider as his simultaneously most Gallic, iconic, and formally experimental film. Hong gave it the English title, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, a variation on the title of the famous Marcel Duchamp diptych painting, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. But for its Korean title, Hong went with the deceptively simple Oh, Soo-jung. However, Hong betrays his wry sense of humor as “Soo-jung” is not only a popular female Korean name that means “crystal”, but also a word that means “fertilization”.

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

Much of this film openly flaunts its French influence--the title, the tableau format, the intertitles, and the black-and-white cinematography. The film’s oblique narrative--based on what seem like faulty memories--is very much reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais. In “Alain Resnais or the Theme of Time”, John Ward notes that “Marienbad is a difficult film because of its plot which follows the highly subjective re-creation of the past in the mind of X.” If that is the case, Virgin Stripped bare by Her Bachelors is almost an impossible film because it employs two disparate yet similar halves which seem to follow two subjective re-creations. Furthermore, it is unclear as to whose memories are being jogged.

But what Hong has had to say on the other aspects of the film can give us a clue as to how to approach it. On his choice to use black-and-white cinematography, he has said that “color gives viewers more information than they need. A screen simplified in black and white, on the other hand, lets the audience concentrate on the characters and discern emotional changes without being disturbed by peripheral objects and environment.” From this, we can surmise that perhaps Hong wants to give us as little information as possible about the narrative as well. The one clear and overriding fact of both halves is that Jae-hoon, the wealthy but socially awkward thirty-something male protagonist, desperately employs all of his resources in a maddeningly fumbling effort to deflower Soo-jung, the twenty-something female protagonist whose crystalline nature is reflected not only in her name but also her virginal status. And again, the sexual pleasure itself is not the goal of the male protagonist. His goal is to attain the sense of power derived from taking Soo-jung‘s virginity. In the film’s second half, Jae-hoon makes a big ritual of washing the blood-stained sheets after he has deflowered her. This is not merely an act of cleaning the unsightly sheets, but a rather sad demonstration of his conquest.

Some have interpreted the first half of the film as Jae-hoon’s point of view, and the second half as Soo-jung’s, but this is still problematic because the second half ends on a wryly happy note as Jae-hoon and Soo-jung mate. The first half features more ambivalence on the part of Soo-jung and ends only with the insinuation that intercourse may have taken place. An alternative interpretation might be that the first half represents the actual course of events whereas the second half represents Jae-hoon‘s fanciful imagination. We can even go so far as to interpret these two narrative threads as representing merely two of infinite parallel realities--two possible manifestations of what can happen given the particular circumstances.

Employing a vibrant color palette and a camera that actually moves more than just a few times, Hong’s fourth effort, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, marks a return to the more naturalistic style of his first three films. In fact, the film represents a literal turning gate of sorts for the filmmaker, as it relates to the viewer without any ambiguity exactly what happens while still retaining Hong’s favored bifurcated structure. However, this does not mean that the film itself contains no ambiguities. Hong simply shifts them from the film’s narrative into the interior thought processes of the film’s characters. And this shift allows him to revisit his usual themes and preoccupations, but in a fresh way.

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate

If Virgin is Hong’s most iconic film, then Turning Gate may represent his most fully realized and expressive film. It follows Kyung-soo, a little-known actor in his thirties, and the two women he meets while visiting a male friend. Myung-sook, whom he meets and has sex with in the first half, desperately latches onto him, displaying a suffocating sense of neediness inevitably coupled with psychotic tendencies. This naturally drives him away, eventually into the arms of Sun-young, a self-professed fan who nevertheless initially keeps him at bay. They, too, eventually consummate their affair, and Sun-young’s unavailability as a married woman stokes in Kyung-soo a desire to pursue her more.

And with this film based on a mundane premise of two affairs with an eager yet psychotic girl and a desirable yet unavailable girl, Hong emerges as that most rare and mature filmmaker who has mastered the nearly impossible art of differentiating between the banal and the cliché. “I start with a very ordinary, banal situation, and this situation usually has something in it that makes me feel strongly. It’s a stereotypical feeling, but very strong. I have a desire to look at it…” Because Hong chooses to build up from the particulars, his films feel more organic and intimate, resulting in more relevancy, familiarity, and immediacy. Hong is really a synthesizer, who gathers disparate pieces of banality and weaves them into a three-dimensional painting that gives the patient viewer an insight into reality. With his powers of observation and storytelling, he elevates the inane and the mundane details into something transcendent. Inventing grand and contrived schemes is not what provides insight into human nature and behavior. Hong realizes that we can discover that insight from tilling the deceptively fecund soils of our collective quotidian. So he retells the same story, often from different perspectives. And in the end, we the fortunate viewers end up with films that stay faithful to Aristotle’s insistence that in a work of drama characters must stay true to human nature.

And in Turning Gate, Hong moves the camera more than ever to reflect the interior mood swings of the main character. After Kyung-soo meets Sun-young--whom unlike Myung-sook, he finds dynamic and compelling--the film which had theretofore been so visually restrained, suddenly comes alive, utilizing strategic camera pans and movements. The dialogues and the situations also achieve a nearly perfect naturalistic expression in this film. What was stylized before--the characters moved and sounded much like Bresson’s self-consciously dejected models in Virgin--is no more. Hong alternates between his usual medium shots of characters sitting and talking over drinks with the aforementioned camera movements. And more than ever, every detail of the mise-en-scene that may seem accidental has been placed by Hong with the deliberate surefootedness of a somnambulist.

As befitting a film so naturalistic in its storytelling, alcohol-induced conversations play a bigger role than ever. Even though Hong’s characters have always imbibed copious shots of soju--often as the only antidote to the dis-ease of incommunicability--Turning Gate is the film in which Hong seems to fully buy into the old adage of in vino veritas. Alcohol has become more than a mere social lubricant. It is, in fact, an usquebaugh--an ancient Irish Gaelic word meaning “water of life“ that eventually became the word whiskey. Some see life through a looking glass, others through rose-tinted glasses, and still others through half-empty glasses. Hong’s characters look at life through green-tinted bottles of soju. Perhaps the blurring of the reality is the only way in which the hopelessly immature self-centered men and the haplessly desperate self-victimizing women can deal with their plights.

Woman on the Beach

Woman Is the Future of Man and Tale of Cinema followed in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The former flirts with temporal shifts in narrative as two men pursue the affections of one woman, and the latter is Hong’s most self-reflexive work as it presents a two-fold narrative comprised of a film-within-a-film and a meditation on that very film. Then later in 2006, Hong made Woman on the Beach, a work that easily qualifies as his most optimistic and humorous. The subject is a familiar one broached by filmmakers--Jung-rae, a director struggling with a writer’s block, goes on a scenic trip with Chang-wook, a younger male friend, and Mun-sook, Chang-wook’s friend and love interest. While on this getaway, Jung-rae parlays his status to bed Mun-sook and then another woman named Sun-hee. The two short-lived affairs manage to cure the director of his inertia, but not before providing pitch-perfect laugh-out-loud scenes that illustrate the foolishness of men and women in contemporary Korean society.

In what must be the single most hilarious scene in Hong’s entire filmography, Jung-rae pettily grills Mun-sook on whether or not she dated foreign men while she studied in Germany. Not content to let Jung-rae wallow in the pettiness alone, Chang-wook gets upset, warning Mun-sook not to answer. But when she answers that she did indeed date a few foreign men, the conversation quickly devolves into something simultaneously cringe-worthy, riotously funny, and--most importantly--brutally insightful. Jung-rae launches into a pathetic verbal tirade: “Oh, they sure love Asian girls. They go crazy, even for the ugly ones.” Even after Mun-sook gives him a graceful way out with a gentle disagreement, he goes on indignantly, “It’s so damn unfair because the ugly ones go there and become popular!” As Mun-sook stares in disbelief and pity, he unwittingly embarrasses himself (and pointedly, the male Korean viewers) further by adding, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because as a Korean man, I have a complex about the size down there…” But even though the women in Hong’s films fare slightly better than the men, they, too, are not immune to stupidity. Even after this ridiculous display on Jung-rae’s part, Mun-sook sleeps with him.

Although this film initially centers around Jung-rae and his writer’s block, it eventually shifts its focus to Mun-sook and her emotional growth. Much like The Green Ray by Eric Rohmer--to whom many have compared Hong--Woman on the Beach ends on an optimistic note, with its female protagonist getting out of her rut. Jung-rae completes his screenplay and goes back to Seoul. When he calls Mun-sook, she answers, “I think I really liked you more as a director… And I don’t want to repeat anything.” As Mun-sook, too, leaves the scenic coastal town, her car gets caught in the muddy sand. Two young men come to her rescue, literally helping Mun-sook find traction so she can go on with her life. She insists on paying them, but they steadfastly refuse. Perhaps, males--at least those of the younger generation--are not an altogether lost cause after all.

With both Night and Day--which still has not had a DVD release--and Like You Know It All, Hong has kept his diptych narrative structure while still not ditching his fundamentally cynical outlook on relationships. His upcoming film, titled Ha Ha Ha, features Moon So-ri, the gifted actress who won the best actress award at the Venice International Film Festival in 2002 for her performance in Lee Chang-dong‘s Oasis. It also reunites Hong with Kim Sang-kyoung, the charismatic lead from Turning Gate and A Tale of Cinema. Both the star power and the lighthearted title have cinephiles in giddy anticipation.

It is not death, genocide, war, birth, marriage, divorce, or any other life-changing event that gives meaning to Hong’s films. This, of course, leads some viewers to mistakenly conclude that his films are meaningless and boring. What they fail to realize is that an artful depiction of the ennui that is life itself…is not ennui. Hong simply finds his inspiration from the countless minutiae from the backgrounds of our collective memory. If his films lack in terms of an excitement quotient, they make up for it in a quotidian quotient. And within that high quotidian quotient are instances of epiphany. Truth--even brief glimpses of truth, for that matter--can be nearly impossible to attain, as the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs eloquently reminds us in The Theory of the Novel: “At very rare, great moments--generally they are moments of death--a reality reveals itself to man in which he suddenly glimpses and grasps the essence that rules over him and works within him, the meaning of his life.” But if the films of Jonas Mekas tell us that we can witness brief glimpses of beauty as we move ahead, the films of Hong Sang-soo tell us that we can experience brief moments of truth as we stumble along after a few bottles of soju.

My All-Time Top Ten Films...?


The film website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? has just recently complied and published a new list of 1,000 greatest films as voted on by 2,041 critics, filmmakers, reviewers, scholars and other likely film types. I was asked to participate this past December, and the following is the list of the 10 films that I considered to be the best among the too few I've seen. The numbers beside the films indicate their rank on the TSPDT's list of 1,000. Of course, my list of favorite films changes all the time, but these 10 films happened to be on it at that particular time.

Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica) 14

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer) 20

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi) 47

The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky) 68

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker) 201

Charulata (Satyajit Ray) 319

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Sergei Parajanov) 492

Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami) 545

The Age of the Earth (Glauber Rocha) n/a

Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (Bae Yong-kyun) n/a

"I Don't Want to Be Killed

by an Abstraction":

Nagisa Oshima's Death by Hanging


Most cinephiles are at least superficially familiar with Nagisa Oshima’s work, as his sexually explicit but intellectually inert In the Realm of the Senses is, for obvious reasons, easily one of the most watched and well-known Japanese language films outside of Japan. But I believe that ultimately Oshima's greatest cinematic legacy will be his avant-garde polemical film Death by Hanging.

Death by Hanging is one of the great masterpieces of Brechtian cinema and ranks as perhaps the best dark comedy I have ever seen. Kubrick’s Dr.Strangelove is about the only thing that I can think of which comes even close to it in terms of sheer biting satire. But the avant-garde Brechtian techniques that Oshima incorporates into the film just send it soaring into a unique and esteemed place in world cinema.

The film is actually based on a real-life ethnic Korean who in 1958 murdered two Japanese schoolgirls. It was a pretty sensational case, as this young man not only confessed to the crimes, but became a sort of an anti-hero among Japanese youths by writing a best-selling book about his crimes. I imagine a lot of young people identified this R (as he is simply referred to in the film) with the character of Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the sort of narcissist who professes to have killed as an intellectual act of transcending norms and mores and who mistakenly believes that such act will propel him to the heights of Nietzschean ubermensch status.

Oshima neither romanticizes nor celebrates the character of R. And of course, he shouldn’t. After all, as brilliant or sensitive a youth as the real-life R apparently was by all accounts, he was a murderer. R’s culpability is never an issue in the film, as he had confessed to his crimes. What Oshima is concerned with here are the societal conditions that propagate such heinous behavior and the societal reactions to that behavior. He examines Japan’s horrific treatment of its Korean ethnic minority and the idea that the death penalty might just perpetuate the cycle of violence rather than ending it. This kind of examination is a tough pill to swallow for many people, especially in the States, who tend to be legalistic and conservative. But the fact is, there will always be profoundly damaged individuals who commit heinous crimes. The only things we can do as a society are to try to ameliorate the conditions which give rise to such psychosis and to react as sensibly as we can when that psychosis manifests itself in tangible misdeeds.

And one brilliant exchange towards the end of this film particularly caught my attention and led me to venture on one of my rather wild tangential intellectual brainstorms. One of R’s executioners tells him, “It’s the nation that does not permit you to live.” And R replies, as he is facing death by hanging, “I don’t accept that. What is a nation? Show me one! I don’t want to be killed by an abstraction.”

To be killed by an abstraction… It really does not seem like anyone should be killed by an abstraction. But that is where we are at this particular juncture in human civilization. We no longer have to bonk each other over the head with a club due to scarcity of food or resources. That kind of violence, while not pretty, was once upon a time an inevitable part of the inexorable drive for survival and propagation. But we have made enough scientific and cultural advances that no human being on this earth has to go hungry, yet millions die from hunger every year. We no longer have to kill each other over shelter, food, or reproductive partners, so we kill each other over abstractions like ideas of nationhood and religion.

Is there any moral difference between the Muslim Saudi 9-11 hijackers who drove those planes into the World Trade Center while yelling “Allahu Akbar”, killing thousands of innocent people and the Christian American soldiers who dropped bombs on Baghdad while humming “God Bless America”, killing thousands of innocent people? How is it that both sides in such a conflict see individual human lives only as “collateral damage” ? It is because we assign abstractions like nationhood to ourselves and others, creating what the filmmaker Jean Renoir referred to as a Grand Illusion of differences and boundaries. “You belong to the other. You are the other. Therefore I can deny you your reality and your humanity and your essence and your existence. I can kill you, rape you, degrade you. And people from my tribe will celebrate me as a hero and a patriot.”

No one should be killed by an abstraction. But abstraction kills.

So Does the World Really Need Another Film Blog?


The short answer is no.

But I hope to do something a little different with my film blog. As the name of the blog indicates, I firmly believe that cinema can be therapeutic. Psychologically, that is. Richard Wagner referred to the opera as gesamtkunstwerk, or a "complete work of art". Cinema has emerged as the most complete art form, and this blog will attempt to treat it as such, but not without a healthy dose of irony, sarcasm, and humor.

This film blog, unlike most others, will strive to be as subjective and idiosyncratic as possible. My primary interest lies not in providing some mainstream safe-for-workplace-and-deadened-imagination critique of well-known films. Rather, I will write on films and directors--for whatever reason--whose considerable artistic merits have gone unnoticed.

So watch the films I write about. If you have already seen them, please engage me and others in spirited discussions. Your mental and intellectual health will be that much better.