Labyrinth of Dreams

This selection of films includes highlights from Tony Rayns’ programming for BIFF from 1991-1996. The notes below comprise both his original programme notes and new annotations. Films include: .And the Moon Dances (1995), The Blue Kite (1993), The Days (1993), Labyrinth of Dreams (1996), The Puppetmaster (1993), Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Red Rose, White Rose (1994), Temptation of a Monk (1993), and To You, From Me (1994).

For more details, visit: the BIFF website

These notes are from the 10th Brisbane International Film Festival 2001 catalogue and have been published here with the kind permission of the Festival’s artistic director.

* * *

Whatever the difficulties of running a festival, they pale into insignificance when compared with the birth pains of a new festival as many of us who attended the birth of BIFF can testify. The labour was mercifully reduced through the unstinting support of two very experienced practitioners-David Stratton and Tony Rayns.

David, who continues to attend the Festival each year, needs little introduction. BIFF was fortunate to be able to secure the services of Tony-a widely recognised authority on East Asian cinema-to program for us. Tony actively seeks out new films and filmmakers in the countries of origin rather than waiting for video copies to come across his desk. He programmed East Asian films for our first six festivals, entertaining and challenging us with films that generally could not be seen elsewhere. Thanks to Tony’s expertise the Brisbane International Film Festival has established something of a profile for itself with its Asia Pacific focus.

In those early years Asian cinema was becoming a stronger presence in Western art houses and on the international festival circuit. Yet Asian films were rarely seen on Brisbane’s cinema screens. The first Brisbane Festival contained a rather heady mix-a small retrospective of four films from Seijun Suzuki and, among the current titles of the day, Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild, Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo 2. That first Festival included Mama-the first independent film made in China since 1949, which dealt with China’s social problems; and Man from Island West, about Taiwan’s aboriginal people and the first independent film ever made in Taiwan. Experimental work from Japan and the Philippines was also shown.

When he attended BIFF, Tony appreciated the audiences and their responses but, being used to programming for London, Rotterdam and Vancouver film festivals, always complained that the audiences were too small. We’ve reached ten now-and for a growing number of Festival patrons it’s the East Asian films that are the Festival highlights. In fact, the audience attendance for the Asian component is the largest growing area of the Festival. And, for the first time in Australia’s film-going history, over the course of the past 12 months, well over a million Australians have seen at least one Asian film on the cinema screen. To celebrate both trends we’re bringing back a few high points from the Asian programs of those first few years.

Anne DĂ©my-Geroe
Artistic Director, BIFF

***

.And the Moon Dances (Bulan Tertusuk Ilanal, Indonesia, 1995, 35mm, Colour, 127mins)

Director: Garin Nugroho Producer: Garin Nugroho Script: Garin Nugroho DOP: Nur Hidayat Editor: Arturo G Pradjawisastra Score: Ki Sutarman Production co: Film Workshop Ltd Print source: S.E.T Film Workshop

Cast: Ki Soetrarman Paquita, Norman Wibowo, Wiwik Handawiyah, Sri Rahayu

Notes from 1995

Garin Nugroho has represented a one-man ‘new wave’ in Indonesian cinema ever since he made his first feature in 1991, but his previous work has tended to get a bit lost in the space between Indonesian social realities and Western-style approaches to film-form. In that respect, .And the Moon Dances marks a quantum leap forward: it tackles a profoundly Indonesian subject in an Indonesian modernist way which owes nothing to influences from other countries and films. The result is probably the most mysterious and certainly the most beautiful film to come out of South-East Asia in the past year.

There’s no obvious storyline, even the action’s time frame is ambiguous. What’s clear is that two young people, both with troubled backgrounds, come to Surakarta to become students of Waluyo, a master of traditional Javanese arts. The boy, Ilalang, wants to write music but seems trapped in memories of childhood traumas: the girl, Bulan (Moon), is simply trying to find herself. The suppressed violence which haunts their lives-and which, the film implies, is endemic in Indonesian culture and society-finally surfaces when their master dies in an accidental fire.

The minimal narrative mostly occurs between scenes leaving Nugroho free to construct chiaroscuro images founded on poetic contrasts and oppositions: male versus female, young versus old, music versus natural sound, rebellion versus submission. We are guided to the concealed emotional truths by the richest sound-design heard in any Asian movie since Chen Kaige’s King of the Children.

Notes from 2001

.And the Moon Dances

Of all the many directors who have come to filmmaking from backgrounds in advertising, none is more singular than Garin Nugroho. As the once mighty Indonesian film industry has crumbled around him, he has almost single-handedly kept Indonesian cinema alive-not only by lobbying for government support of the arts and by teaching and training a new generation of filmmakers, but also by making a succession of extraordinary, ground-breaking films himself. He is also one of the few directors anywhere who has a horror of repeating himself; each film is radically different in form and theme from others. Since the superbly poetic and allusive .And the Moon Dances he has made a brutally unsentimental docu-drama about Yogyakarta street kids and a brilliantly stylised recreation of the anti-communist repression carried out by Suharto in Aceh in the mid-1970s. The beauty and sophistication of his work takes him far beyond the stereotype of the ‘Third World film director’.

* * *

The Blue Kite (Lan Fengzheng, China, 1993, 35mm, Colour, 138mins)

Director: Tian ZhuangZhuang Producer: Luo Guiping Cheng Qongping Script: Xiao Mao DOP: Hou Yon Editor: Qian Lengleng Score: Otomo Yoshiihide Production co: Longwick Productions Print source: Ronin Films

Cast: Lu Liping, Yi Tian, Zhang Wenyao, Chen Xiaoman, Pu Quanxin, Li Xuejian, Guo Baochang,

Notes from 1993

The Blue Kite, Tian ZhuangZhuang’s finest film since Horse Thief, has proved too much to take for the authorities in China. Financed from Hong Kong but shot entirely in and around Beijing, the film was scheduled for post-production in Tokyo. But the authorities, after viewing the final cut, forbade Tian to go to Tokyo and left the film in limbo. It was finally completed (according to Tian’s detailed instructions) in Tokyo last spring (1993), and it premiered as the ‘surprise film’ in the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ section of the Cannes Film Festival-where it was a major critical and commercial success. The Chinese authorities are now investigating how the film came to be completed against their wishes.

The story is told from the perspective of Tietou, the only son in a Beijing family, who was born soon after the Communists took power in 1949 and grew up in the political turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s. In this period, Tietou’s mother Chen Shujan marries three times. Her first husband, Tietou’s father, is branded a ‘rightist’ and sent to a labour camp, where he dies in an accident. Her second is the family friend who unwittingly denounced the first; he dies in the famine following Mao’s ruinous ‘Great Leap Forward’ campaign. And the third is a Party official. The film offers the clearest picture yet of what it meant to live under the communist government in its chaotic formative years, but it’s not only a film of daring political candour. The Blue Kite is also a deeply humane and acutely felt account of passions and struggles at the grass-roots level: how could ordinary people hold their personal lives together when the state redefined ‘personal’ matters in ‘political’ terms? And since Tian ZhuangZhuang himself was born around the same time as his protagonist Tietou, it’s safe to assume that he has invested the film with a lot of personal memories.

Notes from 2001

When I wrote the above notes I was participating in a conspiracy to hide the fact that Tian did manage to go to Tokyo to edit and post-produce The Blue Kite himself. But our conspiratorial strategy didn’t work; the Chinese authorities blacklisted Tian anyway, and he hasn’t directed a film since. He managed to get himself taken off the black list fairly quickly, and founded a quasi-independent production company within Beijing Film Studio to produce films by young directors. But his first two productions ran into censorship trouble, and he soon lost heart. He said at the time that the only film he was interested in directing himself was the sequel to The Blue Kite (the script exists, entitled The Year My Finger Broke), but the project remains blocked by the Film Bureau. Tian’s silence testifies rather eloquently to the frustrations and obstacles confronting all directors trying to work in China’s film industry. Let’s hope that he returns to active service before too much longer.

* * *

The Days (Dong-Chun de Rizi, Wang Xiaoshuai, China, 1993, 35mm, B&W, 80mins)

Director: Wang Xiaoshuai Producer: Liu Jie Zhang Hongtao Wang Yao Script: Wang Xiaoshuai DOP: Wu Di Jiu Jie Editor: Wang Xiaoshuai Score: Liang Heping Production co: Inage Studio Print source: Fortissimo Film Sales

Cast: Liu Xiaodong, Yu Hong, Lou Ye

Notes from 1993

‘This is a black-and-white, low-budget film produced by independent producers with private funds. The filmmakers are 1989 graduates from Beijing Film Academy. With their new perspectives and fresh ideas, they have presented a different look at society and at their own lives.’

That’s what it says in the press notes, and there’s not much to add about the actual production-except perhaps that writer-director Wang Xiaoshuai was the outstanding talent of his generation in the Film Academy’s directing course, and that he brought this 35mm feature in for just US$7,000 after failing to find any opening for himself in the state film industry.

The Days is a curiously cheering account of the kind of ‘everyday madness’ that affects many of those brave Chinese who choose to live outside the ‘system’. It chronicles a failing relationship: freelance painter Dong learns that his girlfriend Chun is thinking of emigrating and suggests a trip to his home town to try to patch things up between them. But the trip has the opposite effect. Right, it sounds depressing, but the director’s own sardonic voice-over lifts it out of the realm of easy angst and up to that rare level of filmmaking that has the power to just blow you away. This is a clear-sighted and very courageous movie, and it gives you an insight into life in China in the 1990s like nothing you’ve ever dreamed.

Notes from 2001

That remarkable voice-over in The Days turned out to be a Wang Xiaoshuai trademark. It reappeared in his second independent feature Frozen (released under the pseudonym Wu Ming) and turned into a first-person narration in his first ‘legal’ feature So Close to Paradise, always used with gentle irony to add an extra dimension to the on-screen action. But the device is not used in his most recent film Beijing Bicycle (a co-production with France and Taiwan). Wang’s shift from edgy, low-budget Indie filmmaking outside the system to an only slightly awkward accommodation, with orthodox financing and Film Bureau censorship, reflects two things. First, the frustrations of independent filmmaking in China: the impossibility of getting domestic distribution, the difficulty of raising finance, the constant need to stay one step ahead of the hostile authorities. Second, the frustrations of legal filmmaking in China: the need to compromise with the demands of producers and censors, and the obligation to avoid contentious political, social and psychological issues. Ten years on, The Days looks like a touchstone for a certain moment in Beijing social history-and a marker for a key moment in Chinese film history.

* * *

Labyrinth of Dreams (Yume No Ginga, Japan, 1996, 35mm, B&W, 90mins)

Director: Sogo Ishii Producer: Yasuhiro Ito Script: Sogo Ishii DOP: Norimichi Kasamatsu Editor: Kan Suzuki Score: Hiroyuki Onodera Production co: KSS Films Print source: KSS Films

Cast: Rena Komine, Asano Tadanobu, Kotomi Kiyono, Kirika Mano, Tomoka Kurotani, Reiko Matuo

Notes from 1996

Ishii’s latest thriller, no less ‘psychedelic’ and disturbing than Angel Dust and August in the Water were, updates a story by the writer Yumeno Kyusaku to rural Japan in the monochrome 1950s. Like Ishii himself, Yumeno (1889-1936) was born in Fukuoka; never accepted by the establishment as a ‘great novelist’, he enjoys a special reputation in more independent-minded circles for his attempts to get to grips with mental illness.

The virginal Tomiko (Komine Rena, also seen in August in the Water), a bus conductor in a small country town, grows convinced that the handsome new driver of her bus Niitaka (Asano Tadanobu, currently Japan’s hottest young actor [in 1996]) is the man who romanced and then murdered her best friend Tsuyako in another town. She steels herself to work with this man, testing him at every opportunity. And then she falls in love.

Ishii makes this Labyrinth a Freudian fable of the night, filled with moons, rain, dark tunnels and imminent collisions. As Tomiko matures from repressed adolescence into womanhood, the key question is not so much whether or not Niitaka is a murderer but whether it’s possible for a man to murder with sincerity.

Notes from 2001

Ishii has devoted the years since Labyrinth of Dreams to two ambitious and costly projects, both involving CGI work and digital effects. One is his first historical drama, the epic-scale Gojoe, which re-imagines the Genji-Heike clan battles of the 12th century as an all-out spirit war. Decked out with ghosts and rumours of ghosts, cosmic portents and faster-than-light swordplay, it succeeds in blurring the line between the physical and the metaphysical and offers some magnificent spectacle. Sadly, though, it hasn’t found large audiences at home or abroad. His latest release (made in tandem with Gojoe) is Electric Dragon 80,000v, a live-action cartoon about the cataclysmic clash between two human lightning conductors. Although it has a deafening noise/guitar soundtrack, it paradoxically takes its form from silent cinema: it’s in monochrome and relegates all dialogue to punky intertitles. In other words, Ishii is still very much into neo-psychedelics-and into stretching the parameters of film form and language.

* * *

 

The Puppetmaster (Ximeng Rensheng, Taiwan, 1993, 35mm, Colour, 142mins)

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien Producer: Chiu Fu-sheng Zhang Huakun Script: Wu Nianzhen Chu Tienwen from Li Tian-lu’s memoirs DOP: Lee Pin-bing Editor: Liao Ching-sung Score: Chen Ming-chang Production co: Era International, City Films Print source: ERA Taiwan

Cast: Li Tian Lu, Lim Giong, Cheng Kuei-chung, Cho Ju-wei, Hung Liu, Bai Ming-hua

Notes from 1993

Li Tian-lu, born in 1909, was designated a living national treasure by the Taiwan government in 1989. They were recognising his exceptional skills as leader of a traditional puppet-theatre troupe-a folk art that he kept alive almost single-handedly and at the same time raised to a new level of perfection. Film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien treasured Li Tian-lu when he met him in 1986, and immediately asked him to act in his film Dust in the Wind. Since then, this unique and utterly idiosyncratic old man has appeared in every film that Hou has directed or produced. And this, at last, is Hou’s tribute to the man: his life-story from birth to the end of the Pacific War, years in which Japan occupied Taiwan.

The Puppetmaster is less an epic-scale account of Taiwanese history than an intimate and domestic film, tightly focused on familial matters. It juxtaposes four episodes from Li’s life with sequences from his puppet plays, using the latter as keys to otherwise elusive aspects of Chinese philosophy and folk culture. Hou shoots much of the film in extended takes from fixed camera angles, allowing the eye to explore the images and the mind to explore the weight and meaning of events as they’re revealed through minutiae of dialogue, gesture and movement. It’s a completely non-assertive style of filmmaking, but magisterial in its precision and its sense of life’s natural ebbs and flows. Li characterises his life as ‘a drama and a dream’. The same description goes for Hou’s sublime film.

Notes from 2001

I recall that not many people turned out for the Australian premiere of The Puppetmaster at BIFF; maybe this was a small portent of the difficulty Hou would have in pulling large audiences for his subsequent films. (1998’s Flowers of Shanghai was a big hit in France, but Hou’s work is now minority taste in most countries.) At the same time, though, his critical standing has gone off the scale. Most credible polls of critics and enough film professionals endorse him as one of the world’s key directors. It’s easy to see why the general public finds his later films ‘difficult’; he keeps storytelling as such to a minimum, and he films in sequence-shots and expects viewers to explore the images to discover themes and make connections for themselves. Sadly, most audiences don’t expect to put so much work into films they see. But those who are happy to participate in the voyages of discovery that Hou proposes are often rewarded with experiences thrilling in ways that Hollywood never imagines.

* * *

Rebels of the Neon God (Qing Shaonian Nezha, Taiwan, 1992, 35mm, Colour, 106mins)

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang Producer: Hsu Li-Kung Script: Tsai Ming-Liang DOP: Liao Pen-Jung Editor: Wang Chi-Yang Production co: Central Motion Picture Corporation, Golden Harvest Print source: Central Motion Picture Corporation

Cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Chao-Jun, Wang Yu-Wen, Jen Chang-Bin, Miao Tien, Lu Hsaio-Lin

Notes from 1992

The Chinese title means ‘Teenage Nezha’; it is a reference (explained in the film) to an ‘unruly boy’ in Chinese mythology, noted for defying his father. The film’s ‘Nezha’ is Hsiao Kang, the only son of a cab driver and his superstitious wife. Sure enough, Hsiao Kang defies his parents (he even drops out of night school, where he’s supposed to be cramming for exams, and pockets the refunded school fees), but the core of the film is not a father-son conflict. Footloose, Hsiao Kang transfers his attention to a slightly older petty criminal named Ah Tze, viewing him with a confused mixture of hero-worship and aggression. It’s a measure of his confusion that he tries to befriend Ah Tze by vandalising his motorcycle and daubing it with the letters ‘AIDS’.

Of all the hundreds of movies that have tried to get inside the unguided missile minds of lonely young men in crumbling inner cities, Rebels of the Neon God strikes me as the truest and most tender. Using an absolute minimum of dialogue, director-writer Tsai Ming-Liang goes to the very heart of youthful joys, fears and insecurities. He finds pellucid, haunting images to express everything that cannot be put into words: the blocked drain that keeps flooding Ah Tze’s apartment, the elevator that stops, unbidden, at the fourth floor every time, the unmade bed, the vandalised bike, the cloudy skies. Tsai’s film was possibly the finest single achievement in a remarkable year of Chinese cinema. To me, it looks very much like a masterpiece.

Notes from 2001

Since Rebels, Tsai has emerged as one of the leading Chinese filmmakers of his generation, winning major festival prizes and attracting international co-production finance. His work, from Vive l’amour and The River to The Hole to this year’s What Time Is It There?, has shown an ever-greater refinement and sophistication. The blend of gallows humour, minimalist action, near-silent protagonists and bizarre obsessions and manias makes him look more and more like the cinema’s answer to Samuel Beckett. And yet Rebels (still the only one of his films to use background music) has an ingenuousness missing from his later, more-considered films. In showing a young man gripped by what he fails to understand is a real sexual attraction to another boy, Tsai not only articulates a common-enough teenage syndrome but also cuts a swathe through an entire stratum of Taipei society. His later films are more innovative and daring in form and more tightly focused on existential isolation; what has been lost since Rebels is the plausible social dimension-and that’s what makes his debut feature an irreplaceable classic.

* * *

Red Rose, White Rose (Hong Meigui, Bai Meigui, Hong Kong, 1994, 35mm, Colour, 126mins)

Director: Stanley Kwan Producer: Hoi Wong Script: Edward Lam DOP: Christopher Doyle Editor: Brian Schwegmann Score: Johnny Chen Production co: Golden Flare Films Co. Ltd. Print source: First Distributors (HK) Limited

Cast: Joan Chen, Veronica Yip, Winston Chao

Notes from 1994

Was Zhenbao (Winston Chao from The Wedding Banquet) screwed up by his experience with a prostitute in France? When he returned to Shanghai from Europe, he put up minimal resistance when he was seduced by his best friend’s wife (Joan Chen), but he ran away as soon as she talked about divorce and remarriage. Instead he married a passive and submissive girl (Veronica Yip)-seemingly the model Chinese wife-and proceeded to turn her into a neurotic wreck. Women, the story says, have rich and colourful hopes. And men, the story says, dash them.

Stanley Kwan has followed his magnificent Actress with an adaptation of Eileen Chang’s short story, doubtless the most famous Chinese anatomy of the war between men and women. His film constantly refers back to his literary source (there are both captions and voice-overs quoted directly from Eileen Chang), but only because Chang’s tone of irony is essential to the story. Like Fassbinder’s Effi Briest and Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence, the film is carefully formalised in a way that emphasises the codes these people were supposed to live by. Kwan and his actors deliver work of the highest standard; Joan Chen’s ‘Red Rose’ is a career-best performance. But the real star of the show is cinematographer Chris Doyle, who would be considered Australia’s greatest ever cameraman if he’d ever shot anything other than Chinese movies.

Notes from 2001

He’d never made any real secret of his sexual orientation, and so most people weren’t surprised when Stanley Kwan formally came out as gay in his documentaries Still Love You After All and Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema. What did surprise many, though, was the change of emphasis in his subsequent films. Red Rose, White Rose marked the end of a period in which he experimented with visual style and tight formal control. Since then, in Hold You Tight, the not very successful The Island Tales and this year’s wonderful Lan Yu (screening at BIFF this year), he has developed a more fluid visual style and freer narrative structures in keeping with a more questioning approach to the complexities of human character and relationships. But he continues to build one of the most impressive bodies of work in Chinese cinema. Chris Doyle, on the other hand, learned the hard way that he was not (and never would be) a director; he seems to have cut most of his ties with Chinese cinema and turned into the Australian cinematographer he always might have been.

* * *

Temptation of a Monk (You Seng, China, 1993, 35mm, Colour, 118mins)

Director: Clara Law Producer: Teddy Robin Script: Eddie Fong Lilian Lee DOP: Andrew Lesnie Editor: Jill Bilcock Score: Tats Lau Production co: Tedpoly Films Print source: REP Film Distribution

Cast: Wu Hsi-kuo, Zhang Gengyi, Joan Chen, Michael Lee, Lisa Lu

Notes from 1993

Clara Law, now dividing her time between Hong Kong and Melbourne, is one of the very few Chinese directors who manages to stretch herself every time she makes a movie. Temptation of a Monk is so unlike other recent movies that it almost defies description. Is it an erotic period drama? A philosophical comedy? An elegiac action movie? However you try to pin it down, as an experience it’s superbly rich, strange and satisfying. It’s also, thanks to Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, one of the best-looking movies of the year (1993).

We are in Tang Dynasty China, around a thousand years ago. General Shi (played by Peking Opera actor Wu Xingguo) tires of military rivalries and palace intrigues surrounding the imperial succession, and disappears from the court. He first becomes an ascetic, and then disciple, to the abbot of a dilapidated temple, practising a kind of Buddhism with Taoist accents. But he cannot escape his past. Temptation comes in the form of Joan Chen, who goes through the motions of becoming a nun before trying to kill him. And his old enemy General Huo (Zhang Fengyi, from Farewell My Concubine) turns up to confront him.

Law and screenwriter Fong Ling-Ching explode the very notion of ‘realism’ and go instead for a full-bodied stylisation of dialogue, performances and images. Their approach yields handsome dividends, not least in the character of the abbot, a great comic creation.

Notes from 2001

Clara Law is now well established as the most successful Chinese director in Australia, finding ever more interesting and inventive ways of reconciling an Asian identity with the exploration of her adopted home. Drifting Life blended sociological, psychological and formalist concerns, while her most recent film, The Goddess of 1967 (soon to release in Brisbane), blends psychodrama and culture-clash with playful ideas about fetishism, reptiles and semiotics. As Temptation of a Monk suggested, Law was never that comfortable working in the environment of the Hong Kong film industry, which always thrived on formulaic repetition of proven successes and resisted innovation. Now the Hong Kong film business is at its lowest ebb financially since the 1940s, and Law’s decision to relocate looks wise and prescient. Her recent work avoids both the clichĂ©s of Asian exoticism and the dead-end of a denial of her roots. Her career consequently offers a model for other Asian directors looking to expand their field of operations and flex their creative muscles.

* * *

To You, From Me (Neo-Ege Narull Bonenda, Korea, 1994, 35mm, Colour, 108mins)

Director: Jang Sun-Woo Producer: Yon In-taek Script: Jang Sun-woo Ku Sung-yu DOP: Yu Young-kil Editor: Kim Hyun Score: Lee Young-kil Kim Wan-young Production co: Keywick Shide Pictures Print source: Korean Film Commission

Cast: Moon Sung-keun, Chung Sun-kyung, Yeo Kyun-dong

Notes from 1994

Jang Sun-Woo consolidates his position as the undisputed leader of Korea’s New Cinema with this scabrous social satire, designed to outrage every notion of decorum and political correctness and to challenge every taboo of censorship. It has three central characters. One is a failed writer, blocked since he was caught out plagiarising a foreign novel, who earns a crust knocking out porno fiction. Another is his only friend, a sexually dysfunctional bank clerk with a very active fantasy life. The third is the extraordinary young woman who barges into their lives: a working class girl with a great butt who believes in the writer’s talent and moves in with him to encourage him to write the Great Korean Novel.

All three of these people end up somewhere very different from where they started. Their story skips the narrow lines between creativity and impotence, between celebrity and insignificance, between activism and hypocrisy, between physical sex and mental violence. Nothing like it has been made before, least of all in South Korea. When the producers asked me to come up with a line about it that would tell audiences what to expect from it, I said I thought it was the first film I’d seen that could truly be said to have its finger up the bum of the 1990s.

Notes from 2001

Jang came to this committedly vulgar satire from a social-realist drama (Lovers in Woomuk-Baemi), a psychological-realist movie (Road to the Racetrack) and a neo-Buddhist allegory (Hwa-om-kyung). The need to renew himself and his cinema by taking a radically new approach each time he turned to a new project has stayed with him. Each of his subsequent films (from A Petal to Lies and his current film-in-progress Resurrection of the Little Match Girl-a cyber-kung-fu movie) has marked another fresh creative start. This compulsion to take new roads seems to reflect both a fear of boredom (Jang has a horror of repeating himself) and a sense that the universal Korean problems he’s getting at remain somehow elusive; he has not yet found the right way to pin them down and exorcise them. Of course, the viewer is the final judge of the impact and relevance of Jang’s work but, whether you love it or hate it, it’s undeniable that he rocks the boat more energetically and successfully than any other director now working. That makes him not only the most important director in Korea, but one of the most important in the world.

© Tony Rayns, 1992-2001