Robert Bolano, “Nazi Literature in the Americas” (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews), Picador, ISBN 978-0-330-51388-3 (2010)
You might have feared that an alarmingly titled work such as this would run to a 20-volume encyclopedia set but in English translation it’s of modest dimentsions at 259 pages. All the biographies of the writers mentioned within are entirely fictional though I’m sure many details and the general thrust, for want of a better term, of most accounts here are based on fact. After the shock of the book’s title fades, you realise it’s meant to be a playful and sly joke that relies on you knowing something of the tragic history of much of the 20th century, not just in Germany and Austria but also in parts of North and South America where many Nazi war criminals and their followers and sympathisers fled and managed to keep their heads low, though not so low that while they escaped the intense scrutiny of Israel’s Mossad they couldn’t offer advice to various politicians, military folk, captains of industry, crime organisations, police and academia among others.
Naturally, knowing that the book’s title is a joke, you expect writer Bolano to work it for all it’s worth or as far as taste permits (and then some). Visions come to mind of a bored clerk sitting low in the public bureaucracy, by day stamping forms that will send innocent university students, tutors and lecturers to a makeshift torture chamber in a soccer stadium in an Argentine city, and by night writing his first novel of a boy suffering from spurned puppy love, loneliness and bullying at school, discovering his true origins as an alien baby sent from the far reaches of the galaxy and crash-landing on a farm in remote Patagonia, realising his true super-powers will come to him when puberty hits … or imagine a rancher, descended from no-nonsense Scottish-Irish immigrants, on his remote farm in Idaho nursing his collection of assault rifles and shot-guns and printing his utopian manifesto of a nation returned to God, old-time religion, the right to bear arms and African-Americans returned to Africa with US$2 billion to set up shopping malls so they can feel right at home … think of a witty and suave academic in a prestigious North American university surveying various psychology studies to write a tome on why non-white people may be clever at copying technology but will never innovate on their own … or a retired Chilean politician writing his memoirs of flying fighter jets in the air force, “reluctantly” participating in the 1973 putsch, disposing of the country’s enemies and helping Pinochet to ensure law and order. By way of postscript, bookshops and libraries in Santiago and elsewhere consign all copies of the memoirs to the fantasy part of the fiction section. My favourite vision is of a cocaine lord in his remote Amazon jungle realm, fancying himself a successor to UK authors Enid Blyton and Ian Fleming, and so penning a series of children’s action thriller pot-boilers and foisting them on his agent and publisher. The two worthies, noting the stories’ numerous outrages against spelling, grammar and plot structure, and mindful of their client’s fearsome reputation, advise him to keep on writing while using the manuscripts as props for staff PC screens. One employee, idly flicking through a manuscript while waiting for his computer to reboot, falls off his chair laughing at one plot highlight in which a lone girl, mumbling with her teeth still in braces, shoots 20 corrupt police officers clean through the head with one round of bullets from her Kalashnikov, though all the men are head-and-shoulders taller than she is and all are standing in a narrow street alley where everyone travels in single file.
Alas my imagination ran more rampant here than did Bolano’s. The book’s attraction dulls quickly after the first several biographical entries and most of these emphasise biographical trivia, the subjects’ personal peccadilloes, a rundown of the subjects’ usually mediocre works and maybe an appraisal of some or most of what they wrote. Bolano’s style of writing ranges from factual and neutral to subjective (even slightly mocking) and descriptive; and then, in the entry on Carlos Ramirez Hoffman near the end, to personal with Bolano writing in first-person narrative as himself. Nothing about any really significant people, events or other influences in the subjects’ lives that set them on the straight and narrow right-hand (wing?) path appears in any of the entries apart from one where a woman is held as a baby by Adolf Hitler. Many entries don’t strike me as particularly National Socialist: the entries on the Schiaffino brother poets reveal them as little more than thuggish populists and ultra-nationalists. In a parallel universe somewhere, someone has written a book called “Stalinist Literature of the Americas” and the Schiaffino brother poets have entries here that, mutatis mutandis, are the same. Given what’s in the public domain about right-wing forces and institutions in the Western Hemisphere, it strikes me that none of the fictional subjects ever belonged to or formed militias, a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations or similar organisation, secret ultra-conservative Roman Catholic or other sinister religious cults, or had contacts with the Nueva Germania colony set up in Paraguay by Elizabeth Nietzsche (the sister of the famous philosopher) and her husband in the late 19th century. One point the book makes is that the kinds of people who would write extreme fascist literary works often have a sinister relation to power or to extremist groups that readily use violence or unethical means to seize power and impose ideologies and structures that benefit such organisations and their followers, create hardship and misery for others, and destroy those who oppose them or offer alternatives: these groups often have myriad origins, some often setting out with humanitarian, even socialistic ideals, in diverse settings and I wonder that Bolano didn’t try to explore how certain organisations (fictitious, of course) could have evolved from humble and harmless settings into ferocious beasts in some of his fictional biographies.
As I figured, the book is also an opportunity for Bolano to satirise the literary scene in Chile and other countries where many writers depend on government grants to survive yet are convinced of their worth and importance to society at large without having to prove their value. In certain periods, such writers also willingly swallowed whatever personal integrity they possessed and collaborated with the regime to produce literary propaganda that glorified it or its achievements. Speaking of satire, one of the fictional biographies could have been something of a mise-en-abyme, a satire within a satire, in which a so-called fascist turns out to be anything and everything but fascist. Now that would have been really satirical!
In short, I had expected more and better from Bolano in fewer and more varied literary biographies with detail that justifies them as Nazi as opposed to specifically fascist. I suppose though “Extreme Fascist Literature in the Americas” doesn’t have the same thrill and creepiness factor as “Nazi Literature …” in a world reliant on hair-raising headlines. As is, the book is best taken in small doses: the long entries on Carlos Ramirez Hoffman and Argentino Schiaffino and some of the short entries on speculative and science fiction writers are recommended to get an idea of how nutty and eccentric the book can be.
Andre Techine, “La fille du RER (The Girl on the Train)”, Strand Releasing (2009)
Not a bad drama but I couldn’t quite see the point of making a film based on a real-life incident in 2004 in which a young woman falsely claimed to have been attacked by a group of Muslim youths who’d mistaken her for a Jew, without exploring the incident and some of its aspects in some detail. You’d expect the director and scriptwriter to look at the woman’s motives and psychological background, see if there’s anything unusual or “out of the ordinary” like a history of mental illness or childhood sexual abuse that would indicate a need for attention, a cry for help, an attempt to connect with others. Instead Techine delivers a combination of a soap opera and a coming-of-age story about two families who have a past secret connection. The theme underlying the plot is connection: how people make their way in life through connecting to others through love, travel, media and even incidents that throw particular people together. The acting ranges from competent to good but some fine actors have little more than walk-on parts that don’t require their particular presence or talents.
The movie divides roughly in two parts. In the first part, Jeanne Fabre (Emilie Dequenne) lives a carefree life at home with mum Louise (Catherine Deneuve), rollerblading along the streets and trying to apply for secretarial jobs: one such job is at the law firm of Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a former friend of Louise’s husband and possibly her secret lover. Jeanne flubs her interview and application for that job so she goes home; on her way back, she meets a young man, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who gets her email address. Over time a relationship develops between them and she eventually moves in with him into an apartment over a shop he looks after. One day an incident at the shop lands Franck in hospital and Jeanne in trouble with the police who tell her that the shop was a front for a drug-running operation. Jeanne is cleared of wrong-doing but when she sees Franck in hospital, he tells her he knew she lied to him about having a job when she didn’t and rejects her. Dejected and upset, Jeanne goes home, mutilates herself and then goes out into the night.
The second part of the movie focusses more on Samuel Bleistein’s quarrelling son (Mathieu Demy) and daughter-in-law (Ronit Elkabetz) as they prepare for their son Nathan’s upcoming bar mitzvah. In the meantime, Jeanne reports her faked anti-Jewish attack to the police and the supposed incident makes news headlines. Louise hears of the attack on the news and confronts her daughter who reacts with apathy. Louise contacts Samuel for advice and he invites her and Jeanne to stay with his family at their weekend home. Here Jeanne meets Nathan who convinces her to tell the truth while both are sheltering in a little shack during a night-time storm. Jeanne owns up to Bleistein who directs her to write an apology. When Jeanne and Louise return home, Jeanne turns herself in to police and spends 48 hours in a jail cell. Later she is required to attend psychiatric therapy and when we last see her, she is rollerblading in the countryside and thinking about a recent letter from Nathan, who has just celebrated his bar mitzvah with both his parents, grandfather Bleistein and relatives and friends. In the letter, Nathan professes a growing affection for Jeanne and wishes to see her again when they are older.
Fair enough, the “actual” faked attack is a very minor part of the movie so there’s no need to actually see Jeanne report it to police – it’s explained in voice-over. The film doesn’t go into much detail on the consequences of the faked attack and the effect it has on Louise and Samuel Bleistein and whether they will see each other again after the events covered in the movie are over. We learn nothing of what Nathan’s parents think of Jeanne and how their opinion affects Nathan’s burgeoning feelings for Jeanne. Why he feels the way he does towards her is rather strange: he sees through her lies so he seems a good judge of character for one so young, yet he’s falling in love with her? The film’s treatment of Jews’ place in French society and the tensions between and among different groups within a multicultural, multireligious society still governed by traditional French social and political hierarchical structures (and what these say about broader social connections), is superficial to the point of non-existent. I start to wonder what the film is really trying to say.
The acting is fine: Dequenne has a difficult role to play, a shallow immature young woman who has little appreciation of the impact her lies have on people and who probably learns nothing from the experience, but she’s credible in the part and that’s all that can be expected; and Blanc and Deneuve are good in their supporting roles. Deneuve’s acting can be subtle, particularly in a scene where she nervously waits for Blanc’s character and then decides not to meet him directly, and it seems a shame Techine doesn’t focus more on their characters’ secret history and relationship and where that might go. But this isn’t their movie after all. Demy and Elkabetz’s characters provide some light relief as an estranged warring couple who reconcile, temporarily anyway, for their son’s sake but I feel that any particular set of actors whether good or bad could have played their roles. My impression of Elkabetz from seeing her in the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” is that she is a very good lead actress and could have played a bigger part here other than just being a mother, wife and law firm employee.
For those viewers wondering if there’ll be a sequel where Louise and Samuel Bleistein meet again and decide to make their relationship less secret or more permanent, real life has provided a postscript to prod Techine if he runs out of ideas for films: in Marseilles in April 2007, nearly three years after the hoax incident that inspired the movie, a young woman really was set upon by two men of Middle Eastern appearance who noticed her Jewish chai necklace and cut her hair, slashed her T-shirt and drew swastikas on her bare chest, in a way similar to the hoax incident. Life keeps on imitating art deliberately, it seems.
Luis Buñuel, “Belle de Jour” (1967)
It’s got a trashy premise – a rich doctor’s wife “plays” at being a prostitute for a few hours each day – but Buñuel turns the soap opera plot into a blackly humorous and tragic satire about the upper classes and their uneasy relationship with sex, power and control. Lead actor Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, recently married to Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel) who works as a hospital specialist and who often brings much of his paperwork home, a situation that suits his young wife as she is sexually frigid with a secret history of childhood sexual abuse. We see her early on in the film with little to do at home (a maid does the housework) so she goes shopping a lot, walking around her neighbourhood a lot and having frequent migraines so she goes to bed early a lot. When asleep Severine has strange dreams about being sexually humiliated and beaten by her husband and various working-class ruffians.
Pierre and Severine have a mutual friend Husson (Michel Piccoli) who is attracted to Severine and who one day mentions to her the address of a discreet high-class brothel where a middle-class housewife Severine knows as a casual acquaintance happens to work. Initially Severine is repelled by the idea but, curious as to whether working as a prostitute might remedy her sexual frigidity and perhaps make her a “normal” sexually functioning woman, she approaches the brothel madame, Anais (Genevieve Page), who agrees to take her on as a part-time prostitute under the pseudonym Belle de Jour.
After a couple of hesitant starts, Severine starts to enjoy her work and quickly becomes a favourite with Madame Anais and the various wealthy clients who exhibit all kinds of sexual fetishes, including whipping, incest and necrophilia. Severine’s weird sexual dreams gradually cease and she starts to become more loving and intimate with her workaholic husband who soon becomes the one looking for excuses for avoiding sex. However one day two gangsters turn up at Madame Anais’s brothel and the younger of the two, Marcel (Pierre Clementi), quickly becomes obsessed with Severine. Severine herself is attracted to Marcel as he fulfills her fantasies of being abused by disreputable or lower-class men but is forced to leave the brothel when Husson turns up and sees her there. Nevertheless Marcel uncovers her identity and where she lives and Severine is unable to prevent and avoid the clash of her separate identities and existences as Belle de Jour and Severine Serizy and their devastating consequences.
For a movie with a threadbare and unrealistic soap opera plot, “Belle de Jour” can be moving due to its rich detail and the various issues and themes that lurk in the background. Identity and control are major themes: Severine already is adept at hiding her sexual fears and fantasy life from hubby Pierre who thinks she is just shy and child-like and treats her accordingly, so it’s not hard for her to hide her other identity as Belle de Jour from him. However she has no control over Husson and Marcel who uncover her double life. Severine’s reaction to control and being controlled is complicated: the movie hints at a past history of sexual violence; she allows her husband to treat her like a pet; she is submissive to Marcel’s sexual violence; and her sexual fantasies, initially at least, suggest guilt feelings about being rebellious or being of a privileged background. At the same time she controls Pierre and Marcel’s access to her body by playing victim and while Pierre is happy to go along with this, Marcel refuses to play along and his refusal leads to tragedy.
Severine’s clients also have issues dealing with identity and control: there is the respected gynaecologist, used to commanding respect, who gets exasperated at Severine’s inability to spank him and walk all over him (literally); there is the businessman who imagines himself a ladies’ man but is actually crude and there’s a hint that he rapes Severine as he can’t have her any other way. On a bigger scale, Bunuel plays with audience expectations of how a movie narrative should proceed: there are flashbacks here and there to Severine’s childhood; her daydreams and fantasies intrude into the film without warning (save for cats’ meows and tinkling bells near the end) and exit just as abruptly; and Bunuel and Deneuve herself, who in the 1960’s had a reputation as an blonde ice-queen siren, revel in turning that reputation inside-out. Even the entire film itself is a dreamworld where Bunuel takes pot-shots at religion and class differences, and inverts social and gender control mechanisms. The prostitutes control men’s access to their bodies and the men are controlled by their lusts and desires. Marriage as an institution locks two people who can’t communicate with each other or relate as equals into an endless barren prison.
The details of the film are so layered that each repeated viewing reveals something new. The focus on Severine’s legs and shoes at times not only suggests a fetishistic obsession on Bunuel’s part but reveals Severine’s psychological state and her social status. Her dreams are full of masochistic religious symbols and imagery: in one dream, dragged from a horse-drawn landau that’s just gone through a long tree-lined grove (hint, hint), Severine is then stripped, tied to a tree and lashed; in another, after a herd of bulls with names like Remorse and Expiation charges through a field, Severine is shown tied to a post in a crucifixion pose and pelted with mud and ordure. The apartment where the Serizys live is luxuriously furnished and Severine nearly always looks the stereotypical high-maintenance trophy wife with carefully coiffed hair and porcelain looks. Deneuve’s flat minimal acting and blank expressions actually reveal more of Severine’s state of mind and moods than a more emotional style would; her interaction with Madame Anais in particular, discreet though it is, suggests a mutual lesbian attraction
I suppose one day I’ll watch this film yet again and find it outdated, twee and quaint but that day seems a long way off.
Rodrigo Cortes, “Buried” (2010)
For a one-trick pony in which the trick is one man stuck in a wooden box buried 2 metres underground, this is quite suspenseful and entertaining. I only wonder for how long the novelty of a plot of one-man / one-set lasting 95 minutes will outlast the movie itself long after it has left the cinemas. At least Ryan Reynolds, playing the burial victim, does a good job of being nearly constantly in motion – even if at times that motion consists of perspiring heavily, gulping for air and trying to calm himself down so as not to waste his oxygen – throughout the film. Hardly much scenery to chew up, that’s true, but to keep the audience’s attention riveted on himself and not over-act or under-act must have been a hard job for Reynolds.
Fortunately modern technology in the form of a mobile phone – ah, now this film would never have been possible without mobile phone and GPS technology to make it all credible! – provides our protagonist with the opportunity to chat to various unseen actors locally and across the globe so we learn how and why he ended up literally boxed in. He’s Paul Conroy, an American truck driver working for a large company CRT that has sent him to Iraq to drive supplies from one town to another. One day his convoy is ambushed by local people, he gets clobbered and passes out while the other drivers in the convoy are killed. When he comes to, he finds himself in the coffin with nothing to keep him company save the mobile phone and a cigarette lighter. Frantically he dials everyone he knows – his family, the US State Department, an emergency operator in Ohio, his employer who puts him in contact with a hostage rescue unit in Baghdad – to get help before he suffocates from lack of oxygen. The conversations he has range from heart-breaking to cruel and callous and say a great deal about how people, in particular government and corporate bureaucrats, treat unseen others deemed significant or insignificant cyphers according to their usefulness in achieving certain political and economic goals and results.
We never see any of the people Conroy speaks to and this deliberate ploy to keep the action concentrated on Conroy in the coffin heightens the alienation and isolation he feels, particularly after his employer fires him so as to disown all responsibility for his fate and to his family, as well as the tension. From time to time Conroy’s kidnappers, represented by a lone accented voice, contact him to demand he film a video of himself and transmit it to Youtube or to cut off his finger on a second video. This provides for one of a number of moments of black humour, in which Conroy is told by his would-be rescuers that his first video received 47,000 hits on Youtube which have no effect on the urgency of the rescue effort; other moments include his conversation with a woman who may be an ex-girlfriend. One conversation he has which may strike audiences as cruel, blackly funny or pathetic is with his mother who has dementia.
The limitations of this one-man / one-set movie quickly become obvious: Conroy, representing an average Joe in a political context he barely understands, can only be obsessed with rescue and the people he converses with quickly exhaust the scriptwriter’s options of reactions from non-responsive and helpless to tragically incompetent and ruthlessly uncaring. The kidnappers themselves are knowledgeable about Iraq’s recent politics and history but it’d be stretching credibility and audience attention levels for them and Conroy to start arguing politics. I guess too when a person is stuck in a coffin for two hours with a mobile phone and limited oxygen, the last thing s/he’d be thinking of is philosophical questions about life, death, the universe and “Why did the kidnappers kill the other truck drivers but bury ME alive instead?”
The temptation for the scriptwriter to throw in sub-plot diversions like visiting creepy-crawlies and a sand leak into the box becomes strong and so Conroy must contend with a snake and a nearby bomb explosion that causes the sand leak; certainly these increase the suspense but the introduction of the snake and the way it’s done (sneaking into Conroy’s trousers while he dozes off) have the feel of a cheap gimmick.
At least director Cortes has the good sense to cut the film at 95 minutes, giving a result that is lean and fairly credible. Even at this length, the concept is stretching thin and the director and scriptwriter have thrown every idea they can into it: Conroy gets filmed from nearly every angle possible, he has one hallucinatory episode of being rescued, he contemplates suicide, the camera does numerous close-ups and pans away at least twice to give the impression of Conroy in a tube-like box (increasing his sense and the audience’s sense of total isolation), and there is a “so close yet so far away” moment in the film. This is the kind of film you watch at least once, to see how a particular concept should be treated in a commercial film context and how directors and scriptwriters can milk the concept for all it’s worth. Beyond that, we’re probably getting into the realm of Samuel Beckett who in his play “Happy Days” did so much more with the idea of one-person-buried-alive but we’re not talking commercial films any more.
Kenzo Mizoguchi, “The Life of Oharu”, Shintoho (1952)
This is an excellent film about a depressing subject: I only wish colour film had been available to director Kenzo Mizoguchi when he made this film so that he could have used it as an element in portraying the downfall of main character Oharu. The story could have been any other fictional historical sappy soap opera about a woman who through a series of incidents and plain bad luck is condemned to a life of ruin. Mizoguchi instead gracefully invests the film with pointed social commentary about the way women, even women of nobility, were treated in mediaeval Japan, drawing attention in particular to their lack of autonomy over their lives and their bodies.
It starts with Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) as a teenage daughter of a family on the brink of entering into the nobility, doing whatever young women of her class were supposed to do to make themselves attractive potential brides to the feudal lords; a page (Toshiro Mifune in an early role) of a lower social class is attracted to her and sneaks into her quarters but their affair is discovered by officials. The page is executed and Oharu and her family are banished into exile. Depressed, Oharu attempts suicide but, perhaps ironically given that she lives in a society that condoned self-murder in certain circumstances, this option is taken away from her. Instead she’s packed off as concubine to Lord Matsudaira to bear him and his infertile wife a son. Oharu does so but Lady Matsudaira, jealous of the lord’s attention to the young mother, dumps her back on her father with small compensation. In the meantime, Dad has racked up a sizeable debt in anticipation of great favours from the Matsudairas and Oharu is forced to work as a courtesan at a high-class brothel.
An incident in which a client is exposed as a fraud leads to her being thrown out and Oharu then goes to work for a couple. A series of incidents that revolve around the wife’s baldness and Oharu’s past leads to Oharu being dismissed from service. Then for once, Fate smiles on Oharu in the form of a fan-maker who agrees to marry her. Unfortunately Oharu’s husband is murdered by robbers while on a business trip. Needless to say, Oharu’s not entitled to any of the fan-maker’s estate so she attempts to join a nunnery. While training as a novice, Oharu’s past catches up with her again, resulting in her expulsion from the temple. All known options now exhausted, Oharu becomes a prostitute but not a successful one at that, descending lower and lower on the social scale of prostitutes as she ages and her beauty fades.
Next thing you know, salvation from a life of hardship and humiliation beckons but at a price: Lord Matsudaira has died and the new lord – Oharu’s son – offers sanctuary and an old age spent in comfort if she will agree to live under his restrictive conditions. Oharu is taken to his residence under heavy guard but, keen to see him, manages to evade all the soldiers and gets lost. As a result, sanctuary is withdrawn and Oharu becomes an itinerant beggar.
Mizoguchi presents Oharu’s life in a way that forces the audience to decide how much of Oharu’s ill luck is due to her fault or the fault of others who through foolishness, jealousy, lack of empathy or contempt close off her options and leave her with nowhere to go but down. There are occasions when Oharu is able to hit back hard at her oppressors, often to humorous effect, but while revenge can be sweet, her actions backfire on her and result in yet more degradation. Sometimes she’s very wilful and proud, and other times she is passive, too passive: the suggestion is that she defends herself when she shouldn’t and gives in when she should be assertive. You want to take her by the shoulders and shake her for some of the things she does and the scrapes she gets into: wouldn’t it be better, after all she has suffered, to take up her son’s offer, resign herself to his scolding and live in comfortable exile? Yet somehow I feel that by becoming a beggar, Oharu at last achieves something she never would have had if she had accepted the new lord’s sanctuary, remained a Buddhist nun or replaced Lady Matsudaira: the freedom to move around the country, to experience the changing face of nature, and to be her own person.
The elegant and understated way in which the film is made, with the use of long tracking shots that frame the individual at a distance from the camera, imbues it with a sense of the individual’s helplessness vis-a-vis an oppressive and unforgiving society that judges and punishes people harshly for even minor social blunders. Tanaka as Oharu moves gracefully as though in a Noh play, emphasising the character’s ability to cope with her misfortune and put up with the money-grubbing, status-obsessed people around her. We see the honest, natural beauty of her soul which contrasts strongly with the corrupted and rigid patriarchal society in which she has to live and suffer. It’s all the more gut-wrenching then to see how people, men and women alike, and secular and religious as well, use their social status, even when it is declining, to heap opprobrium and indignity on this woman. At the same time, one can’t help but think that her soul becomes more refined and unearthly the more the dirt is dished out on her; in her very early scenes with the page, Oharu treats him with disdain due to his lower social position so it’s obvious if her life had turned out differently, she would have been a coarser person.
It could have been a much better film with the use of colour but Mizoguchi was working on a small budget at the time he made the movie. I can imagine Mizoguchi using different shades of various colours to emphasise Oharu’s downfall so bright clean colours might have been used early on and paler or dirtier colours used later in the film. The settings and backgrounds could then have become more important as indicators of mood or to indicate a critical moment in the film. As the film’s pace is steady and unhurried throughout, some viewers are likely to find it slow and a bit boring, and the use of colour would have allowed those viewers to take in more of film’s backgrounds and take less notice of the pacing.
Anyone who thinks that life in Japan was better than it is now for most people should be directed to see this film – in its unassuming way, “The Life of Oharu” effectively demonstrates how very brutal and inhuman society was to women and other vulnerable people who through no fault of their own found themselves destitute and at the mercy of others.
Bong Joon-ho, “Mother” (2008)
There aren’t many good movies these days where the central character is a middle-aged woman. Of course she’s a mother – most women her age are mothers after all – but never was there a mother like the unnamed Mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) whose protective instincts for her son Do-joon (Won Bin) and sense of justice combine to make her an unstoppable force of nature, resulting in her finding out things she really doesn’t want or need to know, getting into dangerous situations and behaving in ways she’ll later regret. Right from the start, you know Mother is no ordinary woman: the film’s opening scenes set her standing or walking alone in a vast sea of wild greenery, looking as if she’s communing with the spirits of the trees, the earth and the sky; later we see her in her herbal shop, cutting up some strange dried roots and an inspector comes by to chide her for practising acupuncture without a licence. The suggestion that Mother is a throwback to Korea’s shamanic tradition, usually passed down from mother to daughter, is strong. We see Mother going about her business and learn that she has an adult son who might be mentally retarded and is easily led astray by his friend Jin-tae (Jin Gu). An early scene hints that Mother and Do-joon may have an incestuous relationship though perhaps the simplest explanation is that Mother has always had Do-joon in her bed since the day he was born.
Do-joon is accused of beating a teenage schoolgirl to death and is forced to sign a confession by the police. Mother simply cannot believe her son is capable of murder so she enlists the help of police and a lawyer to help clear his name, only to be frustrated at their apathy or incompetence so she resorts to playing detective herself. This investigation leads her into a near-confrontation with gang violence and some seedy information about the teenage victim among other things.
One thing about this movie is that it never settles into one thing or one stereotype about people. Is the film a crime film, a social commentary or a character study thriller? It’s a bit of everything: “Mother” sweeps from one genre to another as Mother impulsively dives into one perilous situation and then another, oblivious to her own safety until actually threatened, at which point she may scuttle somewhere, hide or just lash out instinctively without thought for the consequences. You kind of sense that director Bong himself lost control of the plot at times and allowed his star Kim to drag him and the film crew into wild rural locations which, though beautiful on the screen, were also uncomfortable: in later scenes, Mother treks through mud and marsh just to reach a lone eccentric in his shack and the film crew has to follow. Kim Hye-ja gives everything she has to her role as Mother and holds the whole film together despite her unassuming manner.
In the end (OK, spoiler alert here), the police find the culprit but in a way that suggests that, nasty enough fellow though he is, he has also been tortured into making a confession. By this time, Mother herself has become a changed woman. Her investigations have come to naught but has she learnt something about herself and the people around her? Will Mother be more conforming, more considerate of others, more thoughtful about her actions and their impact on others? Will she be a less attractive character as a result?
As for the other characters, Won as Do-joon gives a good impression as the son who can be amazingly lucid at times yet is clearly immature and needs the kind of guidance that Mother and Jin-tae aren’t able to give. Something about him hints that he may indeed be capable of murder. In short, like Mother he just can’t be pinned down to a good-guy or bad-guy stereotype. Everyone else serves as a means of highlighting the system that victimises Mother and Do-joon as outsiders and leads Mother to commit desperate acts; so folks may appear to be one thing in one situation and then something else again in another. Generally what we see here through “Mother” is Bong’s exploration of a society that is rigid, self-controlled and self-censoring, treating people as things to push around when it wants and demanding much out of them. To survive in such a society, people end up being two-faced: the lawyer is initially officious and demands a hefty fee, then becomes a drunken womaniser; the police are lazy yet quick to punish; teenagers may be good kids at school and at home and still get involved in trading sexual favours.
No wonder that Mother is only really at peace when she is in contact with Nature which becomes an essential character in the movie: there are many scenes with rural or semi-rural backgrounds, all lovingly filmed in a lingering way, so beautiful and so appealing to the eye. If movies could be travelogues for countries, then “Mother” could be one for provincial South Korea, just for the countryside and the picturesque houses alone; as for the people who populate the place, I’m not so sure … Even so, Nature is a pretty hard partner to manage and Mother’s own nature, operating on emotion and intuition, leads her into situations and actions that can be horrific.
There are some really very powerful issues within this movie about the nature of Korean society and the oppression that people like Mother and Do-joon suffer under it, and how it affects the way they think and act and must cope with the consequences of their behaviour.
Im Sang-soo “The Housemaid” (2010)
How do you remake an old film regarded as a classic and made by a director who’s not only influenced you but also most of your fellow directors? That must surely have been the question hanging over Im Sang-soo when he took on Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film “The Housemaid”. I’ve never seen the original movie but from what I’ve been able to read about it, it must have been pretty mind-blowing at the time. A woman employed by a family rising on the social mobility escalator has an affair with her employer but is forced to abort her baby so she swears vengeance on the family and the resulting murder-suicide is not a pretty sight to behold. Doesn’t sound like much but the real attraction of the film was in its melodramatic and expressionistic direction, the way in which characters’ demented actions reflected something of their dire circumstances and the crazy society they lived in. I guess the answer to the question is to turn the original film’s premise on its head while otherwise being faithful to the plot and some of its themes, superficially at least: whereas in the original, the maid tormented the family, in the remake it’s now the family’s turn to torment the maid and in that, reflect something of the circumstances and the current crazy society in which the protagonist and antagonists live.
Im ends up delivering a glossy film that probably has little of the thrill of the original movie. A young woman Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) is employed as housemaid and nanny by a wealthy couple in their palatial mansion. From the outset, the odds are stacked against the housemaid: the housekeeper Mrs Cho (Yoon Yeo-jeong) blows hot and cold in her loyalty to the family, let alone in her attitude towards the maid; the lady of the house Hae-ra (Seo Woo) is a heavily pregnant self-centred spoilt trophy wife; and her husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) is a self-assured princeling of an unnamed powerful business dynasty who’s used to taking what he wants. Only little daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun) shows Eun-yi any affection and sympathy for the work she does. Even the house itself is a formidable character: much of it is huge empty space and its surfaces are polished marble, reflecting the emptiness of the family’s emotional life together and the gloss they wear figuratively as well as literally in their clothes and accessories. The family follows a hyper-Western lifestyle, collecting abstract art, playing and listening to classical music, employing personal trainers and requiring their domestic staff to wear starched Western uniforms and prepare Western meals of the nouvelle cuisine kind.
Perhaps Hoon watches a lot of sexy Western arthouse movies too for he quickly warms to Eun-yi and before you know it, they’re bonking away like rabbits, Eun-yi blissfully happy at the attention Hoon pays to her (and probably blissfully unaware that he might have done the same thing to the last housemaid). The inevitable happens and Mrs Cho passes the news to Hae-ra’s mother Mi-hee (Park Ji-young) who goes straight into bitch-mother mode, causing Eun-yi to have an accident that lands her in hospital where the staff confirm the pregnancy. When Hae-ra is convinced of her husband’s infidelity, she and Mi-hee plot to force Eun-yi into having a miscarriage and then an abortion – the film suggests both – and Eun-yi, learning from Mrs Cho what the two women have done, plans her revenge.
The movie moves just too fast for the seduction scene and Eun-yi’s apparent joy at being seduced to be credible; it’s as if Im assumes everyone watching the film already knows the original movie so he’ll just cut straight to the chase and show how bitchy rich women can be when a poor woman threatens to usurp their position by getting pregnant to the master. Nearly everyone in the film lapses into a character stereotype: Eun-yi as poor, put-upon housemaid who’s a bit thick in the head; Hoon as the smarmy rich chauvinist ruling the roost; Hae-ra as the high-maintenance wife and Mi-hee as Supreme Bitch Queen. The only really interesting character is housekeeper Mrs Cho, taken for granted by the family: starting off as a bitter slave, jealous and contemptuous enough of Eun-yi that she tittle-tattles on her to Mi-hee, setting off the tragic train of events, Mrs Cho becomes Eun-yi’s potential saviour, offering the younger woman freedom at various points in the movie and summoning the bravery to quit her job and walk out. In-between the more momentous parts, Mrs Cho provides light comic relief by parodying her employers’ actions when no-one’s looking: scoffing meal leftovers, getting tipsy from the hooch and lounging on the furniture.
On the whole the movie’s too busy speeding towards the showdown between Eun-yi and the family to pay attention to character development. If Im intended this movie as an allegory on the nature of class relationships in modern South Korean society, he’s done a good job here: poor people can protest as much as they want at the injustices pissed on them by the rich but their actions end up backfiring on themselves. The rich may be shocked and apologetic but this state is temporary. The nature of Eun-yi’s revenge and the coda that follows suggest as much: Eun-yi creates havoc which makes for incredible melodrama but it ends up consuming her. One has no real sense of the depth of her suffering and the revenge comes across as selfish and futile, not as a cry for justice. The family continues on without Eun-yi and Mrs Cho. Apart from the social-political message, the film isn’t more than a tarted-up soap opera with stock characters and a grotesque conclusion.
Let’s be fair to Im though: how many other directors in South Korea and elsewhere, given the opportunity to remake Kim Ki-young’s movie, could have done it justice? There is a reason he and the original “The Housemaid” are so famous: Kim must have been one of a kind, willing to investigate conditions in Korean society in 1960 at the time, how they affected people and women in particular, and interpret them in a way that resonated with the public and captured its imagination.