The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996)

19 01 2008

Hong Sang-soo is one of the best contemporary Asian directors. In all of his films he displays a great understanding of human relationships and the psychology around them. His debut film, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, is no exception but the film doesn’t hold up much on it’s own. It’s interesting to see the themes and motifs that Hong would later explore in their original and flawed form. Sort of acting like a preview for the rest of his filmography.

The film revolves around four characters. The first one we are introduced to is Hyo-sub, a struggling writer who gets in fights a lot. He’s sexually involved with Min-jae and Po-kyong. He seems irritated by the former and only a bit more appreciative of the latter. Po-kyong is married to Dong-woo who reminds me a little of Vive L’Amour-era Hsiao-kong. His marriage with Po-kyong breeds no sex.

At least up to this point, I think you can divide Hong’s career into two sections: his first two films (this and the excellent Power of Kangwon Providence) and everything else. Visually, his first features seem a bit more stylized where his more recent films try to strip down saturated street lights and such. This stuff is present in Day a Pig… but it doesn’t quite work as well. It’s as Hong has the right idea, the right composition, the right “vision” so to speak but the film just looks ugly. This is the same sort of problem that Jon Jost ran into with All the Vermeers in New York.

The subtitles muddy the waters up more than they needed to. I’ve seen a lot of fanmade auto-translated subs that read better. This is a very good film indeed, but the condition of the copy I watched is just as apparent as the cinematic strengths. It’s quite possible that Hong wanted his film to look this way but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Until a better copy is available I’ll just say that visually, Hong can do much better and thematically, this is a suitable introduction.

The Affair (1967)

19 01 2008

My personal relationship with the Japanese New Wave has always been a bit unpredictable. Perhaps it’s fitting considering the fact that the movement’s key figure, Nagisa Oshima has similar ups (The Sun’s Burial, Shonen) and downs (Death By Hanging, The Man Who Left His Will on Film) as well as no particular stylistic choice. Many of the films that make up the new wave can be considered immature in just how earnest they are to revolutionize Japanese cinema. Judging from this film alone, Yoshishige Yoshida is quite bit different. Where his peers focused on making their films as spontaneous and documentary-like, Yoshida is closer to the contemplative side of cinema and go beyond superficiality. Again, I’m judging this only on The Affair (Joen) but that’s just my way of saying it’s that good.

Oriko (Mariko Okada) is married and unhappy. Her husband is having an affair and seldom comes home. At a poetry party (?) Oriko sees Mitsuharu, a sculptor and one-time lover of Oriko’s now deceased mother. At some other point in time, Oriko witnesses her sister being raped, well sort of. Soon after, she makes love to this man in a fashion similar to her own sister’s rape.

A meticulously composed elliptical love story, The Affair sits better along side Michelangelo Antonioni’s filmography instead of any Japanese New Wave film. The fragmented style will throw-off many but it’s a testament to Yoshida’s mastery that the film is so easy to comprehend. It’s also worth noting that this predates the start of Nicolas Roeg’s directing career by four years. Roeg’s most complex (and in my opinion, best) film, Bad Timing, wouldn’t come out for another thirteen years after this was made and yet, Yoshida seems to be on the same page.

The fragmented narrative is supported by some of the best black and white scope cinematography I’ve ever seen. The sequence where Oriko makes love to her sister’s rapist is an amazing achievement. Aesthetically, this is more on the detached and rigorous side of things but it also has a Woman in the Dunes-esque sensory visual style. These two approaches tend to be separated from each other. Both have their own merits but Yoshida is able to find the perfect mix. Never does the film feel like a director trying out multiple styles. The visual style that Yoshida created is his very own and cannot be described accurately.

There are some problems, though. The score is a very out-of-place Twilight Zone piece. Sometimes it works simply because it is so out of place that it creates a jarring effect. Most of the time, it’s just annoying and intrusive. I can’t say that Yoshida had a good ear for dialogue, either. It seems like he tried to make every line as poetic as possible. There’s even a few instances when characters just stare at one another while their voice overs chat. This isn’t close to being a talkative film so the tiny problems don’t really taint this beautiful picture. It’s a masterpiece, with sound or without.