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On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

Video

Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics Oct.2018

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema

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Archive for October 2018

On the Criterion Channel: Jeff Smith on SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER

DB here:

Last Friday TCM/ATT/WarnerMedia announced the decision to cease streaming FilmStruck on 29 November. Soon after, the Criterion Channel posted another entry in our “Observations on Film Art” series. This one is from Jeff Smith, who analyzes Truffaut’s widescreen shot design. It’s a fine discussion, and we hope that if you’re a subscriber, you’ll have a look in the waning days of the service.

By good luck, the Channel has also posted an interview with Damien Chazelle on Pialat’s A Nos amours. Damien filmed the interview during his visit to Madison last February.

As you probably know, the reaction to the closing of FilmStruck has been swift and intense. You can read ATT’s official rationale here, along with Variety‘s speculation about the strategic plan behind it. The Criterion people have provided a statement:

We have some sad news to share: earlier this morning, Turner and Warner Bros. Digital Networks announced plans to shut down FilmStruck, the streaming service that has been our happy home for the last two years. Like many of you, we are disappointed by this decision. When we launched the Criterion Channel in 2016, we had two goals: to ensure that our entire streaming library remained available, and to address our audience in our own voice. We’re proud of the work we’ve done, bringing curated programming and the full range of supplemental features to the streaming space, championing a diverse array of filmmakers from beyond our collection and creating original content that invites you into exciting conversations about cinema culture.

All this is very new, and we’ll be sure to keep you updated as we learn more details. But rest assured that we are still committed to restoring and preserving the best of world cinema and bringing it to you in any medium we can. In the weeks ahead, we’ll keep you informed about the great programming you can watch on the Channel before it shuts down on November 29, and we’ll be trying to find ways we can bring our library and original content back to the digital space as soon as possible. Thanks to everyone who enjoyed FilmStruck, and we hope you’ll join us as we look forward to what the future brings.

Kristin, Jeff, and I have posted twenty-four entries in our series and have very much enjoyed preparing them. We have four more in the can, one of which may go live in November. We have no insider information, but of course we hope we can continue with the series on whatever new platform Criterion might find.

Meanwhile, better binge-watch all those classics while you can. And thanks to the many people who have written us over the years and in recent days. We appreciate their support–and that of the Criterion staff, who care deeply about cinema.


Thanks to Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, Peter Becker, and the whole Criterion team for their superb work. A complete list of our FilmStruck installments is here.

Two aca-fans being aca, and a little fannish

You probably know Henry Jenkins’ vast website “Confessions of an Aca-Fan.” It hosts blog entries, essays, interviews, and a podcast. As both a media scholar (the aca part) and a connoisseur (the fan), Henry has wide-ranging interests. He analyzes/enjoys/celebrates/criticizes film, TV, comics, music, and videogames (he testified about them to Congress). He’s also a big advocate for the role of media in education and political change.

Henry was a student of ours here at Madison, and I directed his dissertation. That became the book What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. Currently celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, it’s still very much worth reading as an original and entertaining cultural study of movie comedy. While doing his dissertation, Henry was also writing his trailblazing study of fan culture, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. (It now has an updated, twentieth-anniversary edition.)

Soon enough he followed that with another influential book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The idea of “transmedia storytelling” that Henry set forth here became a byword for the media industry as well as for scholars; his prophecy that we’d see a lot more of it has come true with a vengeance. We had a nifty dialogue about the idea online some years back (here and here).

And these are just three of his seventeen books! Henry is an epic multitasker, so he has found the energy to be an inspiring teacher as well. All of us at Wisconsin are thoroughly proud of him.

Naturally, when Henry asked me to participate in an email interview around my two 1940s books, The Rhapsodes and Reinventing Hollywood, I felt honored. Now he has run our conversation in four installments on his site, starting here.

I hope the answers I provide will shed light on my research projects. (As for the fan part: Yes, The Greatest Showman and Game Night are mentioned.) At the least I think people will learn a lot from Henry’s questions. Thanks to him for reigniting the spark of conversations we’ve had over the years.

 

 

Vancouver 2018: A final few films

Kristin here:

As I write, David and I have been at home after the Vancouver International Film Festival for one week. Between Venice and Vancouver, I saw about 40 films, some of them likely awards competitors for the year and some more modest works that need to be sought out at festivals and big-city art-houses. (Today, in a cyclical gesture, we’re going back to the very first film we saw at Venice, First Man, this time in IMAX.)

During any festival there’s never time enough to write up comments on all the films we see. This is our last report on the 2018 Vancouver event, this time dealing with Middle Eastern films and one from South America.

 

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi, 2018)

3 Faces begins startlingly, with a vertical cell-phone image of a girl in a rocky area, dictating a suicide note as she walks. She identifies herself as Marziyah, a peasant girl who aspires to be study acting but whose conservative family (along with their entire village) have blocked her from doing so. She has written repeatedly to a famous TV actress, Behnaz Jafari (played by herself) for help, but receiving no response, she has decided to kill herself. The recording ends as  the girl apparently hangs herself and the camera falls.

The image opens to fullscreen as Jafari, riding in a car with Panahi, watches the recording, distraught at the possibility that she has failed to help the girl. She also wonders whether Marziyah has really killed herself. Was the film edited to create that impression? Panahi thinks it looks authentic, and he drives Jafari out to the girl’s village to find out.

3 Faces is the fourth feature Panahi has made since his trial in 2010 and the resulting sentence banning him from filmmaking for twenty years. We had been following his career before that, most notably with The Circle and Offside. In happier days, David met Panahi briefly at the Hong Kong Film Festival, when they sat next to each other at an award ceremony. David posted an account of Panahi’s charges and sentencing in 2010. We have also written about films that Panahi has made since then: This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain. Somehow, though we saw Taxi, we didn’t blog about it. Today Panahi remains unable to leave Iran to attend the festivals where his films are honored (3 Faces won the best-screenplay award at Cannes), and he has no access to studio facilities.

With 3 Faces, Panahi has moved on from making films about his plight and looks at the repression suffered by women and girls in the rural areas of Iran.

This time he follows the classic quest pattern of many of the golden age of Iranian cinema from the 1980s to the early 2000s. 3 Faces is perhaps most reminiscent of Kiarastami’s And Life Goes On, another director’s journey to the countryside to check on a child who may have died. It’s gratifying to see the fruitful quest pattern revived, and Panahi creates a work that is at once familiar and uniquely imaginative. The settings, mostly in Panahi’s car and the countryside of Iran near the Turkish border.

As in other such films, 3 Faces is as much about the unexpected encounters with strangers along the way: a wedding group celebrating on a steep mountain road, a woman testing out her own grave to make sure it’s comfortable, an old man who introduces Panahi to the patterns of honks locals use when approaching each other on the narrow roads. Upon reaching the village and encountering Marziyah’s family, it becomes apparent that they are baffled and annoyed by the girl’s ambitions to devote herself to a frivolous career rather than marry and settle down.

Jahari also encounters a retired actress from before the 1979 revolution, Shahrazade, now a recluse living in a tiny house near the village (see top). The “3 Faces” title apparently refers to the three generations of actresses, Shahrazade, Jafari, and Marziyah. This explanation is not apparent from the film, especially since Shahrazade is glimpsed only in extreme long shot from the back as she paints in a field.

Panahi has made a more acerbic film than those of Kiarostami, poking fun at the villages and especially emphasizing the way the men are obsessed with virility and controlling their womenfolk. Receding into the background despite his major role, Panahi takes p the feminism he displayed in Offside and reveals the more serious lack of freedom women and girls experience in rural areas. He does so without abandoning the humor that underlies many of the quest films.

Kino Lorber will distribute the film in the US, with a release planned for March, 2019.

 

Dressage (Pooya Badkoobeh, 2018)

Another trend in recent Iranian cinema might be termed the Farhadi effect. Asghar Farhadi has become the most prominent of the current group of Iranian directors, winning best foreign-language Oscars for both A Separation and The Salesman. His films tend to center around a serious mistake or a crime committed early on, with the varying reactions of the characters forming the bulk of the drama. In some cases sudden twists reveal motivations that tend to make the situation more ambiguous morally, and the rights and wrongs of the situation do not resolve clearly.

Dressage, Badkoobeh’s first feature, fits this pattern to some degree. A group of middle-class and upper-middle-class students are in the habit of robbing shops for thrills. As the film opens, they have robbed a small grocery store. When a clerk who lives in the store unexpectedly interrupts them, their leader knocks him out. Having fled, the group discovers that they have neglected to take the incriminating surveillance tape with them. The protagonist, sixteen-year-old Golsa, is sent back for it. Having retrieved it, she hides it in a bin at the stables where she helps take care of expensive dressage horses (above).

Golsa refuses to turn over the tape, either to the group or to her parents, all of whom wish to destroy the evidence. What Golsa plans to do with the tape is unclear, but she is subjected to more and more pressure to give it up. Along the way, her stubbornness begins to harm the very working-class people, such as the store clerk, whom she hopes to help.

The rather simple story is given some depth by Golsa’s love for one of the dressage horses. It’s made clear that such horses are valuable and must be exercised without letting them run free, which would risk damage to their legs, but at one point she takes her favorite into a field to frolic about.

Ultimately the film has less of the complexity and ambiguity of a Farhadi film, but it shows promise for a younger generation of Iranian filmmakers.

As far as I can determine, Dressage does not have a North American distributor.

 

Caphernaüm, aka Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, 2018)

I remember that during the Cannes festival, Kore-eda’s Shoplifters and Labaki’s Capernaum were among the films most often predicted to win the Palme d’Or. In the event, Shoplifters took the top prize, and justifiably so, and Capernaum received the Jury Prize, the second highest honor. Both films center around families living in poverty, though Shoplifters moves among the members of its family and emphasizes their mutual support. Capernaum, on the other hand stays resolutely with Zain, the 12-year-old boy who is so miserable that he takes his parents to court to sue them for having brought him into a wretched existence in the Beirut slums.

Labaki, determined to expose the reasons for the sufferings of children in the poorer areas of Beirut, spent three years researching the subject. She cast actual slum-raised children rather than actors and coaxed remarkable performances from them. It seems absurd to speak of a performance from the one-year-old girl who plays Yonas, the little boy whom Zain struggles to care for when the toddler’s Ethiopian-emigré mother is arrested for lack of proper papers; still, the child seems always to be doing exactly what is natural and appropriate for the situation. The result of working with non-professionals and children was 500 hours of footage to be edited down into a two-hour film. (The production information is from an interview with Labaki in The Hollywood Reporter.)

It seems churlish to find fault with Capernaum, which certainly must be given credit for exposing a side of life that most viewers will never witness. It mixes humor and pathos with a deft hand and is undoubtedly entertaining and thought-provoking. Yet there are moments when the film’s effort to tug at our heartstrings seems a bit too obvious and overdone. Some critics have been unqualifiedly moved by the film, while others find it a bit too manipulative. I suspect that most audiences who see it in art-houses in the US will share the reaction of the Cannes audience, who gave it a 15-minute standing ovation.

The meaning of the film’s title is intriguing, and some clarification might be helpful. I have given both its original Lebanese title, Capharnaüm, and the one used in English-speaking countries, Capernaum. They are variant spellings of the same word, but with different meanings. “Capharnaüm” is French and means “a confused jumble” or “a place marked by a disorderly accumulation of objects” (Merriam-Webster). It derives from the Aramaic spelling of the Hebrew name Capernaum, the village on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is said in the Bible to have been based during most of his ministry.

The “confused jumble” derives from the large crowds that flocked around Jesus, as in Mark: 1-2:

And again he entered into Capernaum after some days, and it was noised that he was in the house.

And straightaway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door; and he preached the word unto them.

Labaki, being a Catholic (belonging to the Lebanese Maronite Church and having been educated at St. Joseph University in Beirut), would surely have been aware of both these meanings when she made her film. The notion of a crowded jumble applies well to the environments in which the children in the film live. Certainly the children belong to the downtrodden classes to whom Jesus ministered. Possibly the reference to Jesus’ miracles, several of were reportedly performed in Capernaum, helps to justify the implausibly upbeat ending of the film.

Capernaum will be released in the US by Sony Pictures Classics on December 14.

 

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, 2018)

Birds of Passage is the first film directed by Ciro Guerra since his excellent Embrace of the Serpent, which was the first Colombian film nominated for a foreign-language Oscar. This time he co-directs with his wife and producer, Cristina Gallego.

Birds of Passage is a very different film from Embrace of the Serpent. The latter is set in the Colombian Amazon region, focuses on the decimation of indigenous peoples by the rubber trade, is shot in black and white, and cuts between two time periods decades apart involving two explorers guided by the same indigenous guide. Birds of Passages is set in a desert region of northern Colombia, deals with the early effects of drug-trafficking among the Wayuu people of the area, is shot in color, and follows a single extended family chronologically through five periods between the 1960s and 1980s, each announced by a dated title.

The result is a plot that is much easier to follow than that of Embrace of the Serpent. While the earlier film was based around the evocative, mysterious hunt through the jungle for a fictional sacred plant, Birds of Passage is very much anchored in the history of the early marijuana trade that the central family becomes involved in, growing very rich in the process.

In the film, the first American customers who draw the ambitious hero, Raphayet, to obtain a small amount of marijuana for them are some Peace Corps volunteers. Soon criminal traffickers become customers for Raphayet’s wares, and the roughly two decades of drug-running that follow balloon into a business that ends with a war within the family (see bottom).

The title refers to a motif that is introduced in the opening scene, when teenage Zaida, of the foremost family among the Wayuu, finishes her official transition to womanhood with a ritual dance based on bird mating rituals. Raphayet offers to dance with her (above), and the task of meeting her mother’s high dowry price includes him making his first small drug deal. The motif of real birds continues, but migrating “birds of passage” is also a local term for the American traffickers who fly in and out in small planes, bringing money in such large bundles that have to be weighed rather than counted.

As a film, Birds of Passage is not as challenging or evocative as Embrace of the Serpent. Its fascinating story, however, deals with the little-known history of the origins of the South American drug trade, the growing problem that has caused such upheaval in the region and is very much still with us.

The Orchard has the US rights, with no announced release date.

 

Returning for a moment to the Venice International Film Festival, three publications generated by the 2018 festival are now available for sale.

Two of these publications result from the festival’s 75th anniversary this year. Peter Cowie’s Happy 75º: A Brief Introduction to the History of the International Film Festival offers a succinct, chronological account of the festival’s facilities, organizers, guests, and winners year by year. Reading it enlivened the time spent in line before films for both David and me.

The festival also presented a large exhibition of photographs, again presented year by year, celebrating the films shown and the stars attending. This exhibition was mounted in the legendary Hotel des Bains, closed in recent years but formerly housing many of the festival’s glamorous guests. It is mainly connected in the minds of most moviegoers with Visconti’s Death in Venice, which was filmed there. There are plans to renovate and re-open it. A large catalog containing what appear to be all the photographs from the exhibition has also been published.

Finally, this year’s program, with extensive notes on the films, is available.

All of these can be ordered from amazon.it. The program can also be downloaded.


Thanks as ever to the tireless staff of the Vancouver International Film Festival, above all Alan Franey, PoChu AuYeung, Shelly Kraicer, Maggie Lee, and Jenny Lee Craig for their help during our visit.

Snapshots of festival activities are on our Instagram page.

Birds of Passage

Vancouver 2018: Crime waves

Burning (2018).

DB:

It’s striking how many stories depend on crimes. Genre movies do, of course, but so do art films (The Conformist, Blow-Up) and many of those in between (Run Lola Run, Memento, Nocturnal Animals). The crime might be in the future (as in heist films ), the ongoing present (many thrillers), or the distant past (dramas revealing buried family secrets).

Crime yields narrative dividends. It permits storytellers to probe unusual psychological states and complex moral choices (as in novels like Crime and Punishment, The Stranger). You can build curiosity about past transgressions, suspense about whether a crime will be revealed, and surprise when bad deeds surface. Crime has an affinity with another appeal: mystery. Not all mysteries involve crimes (e.g., perhaps The Turn of the Screw), and not all crime stories depend on mystery (e.g., many gangster movies). Still, crime laced with mystery creates a powerful brew, as Dickens, Wilkie Collins, John le Carré, and detective writers have shown.

We ought, then, to expect that a film festival will offer a panorama of criminal activity. Venice did last year and this, and so did the latest edition of the  Vancouver International Film Festival. Some movies were straightforward thrillers, some introduced crime obliquely. In one the question of whether a crime was committed at all led–yes–to a full-fledged murder.

 

Smells like teen spirit

Diary of My Mind.

Start with the package of four Swiss TV episodes from the series Shock Wave. Produced by Lionel Baier, these dramas were based on real cases–some fairly distant, others more recent, all involving teenagers. The episodes offer an anthology of options on how to trace the progress of a crime.

In Sirius a rural cult prepares for a mass suicide in expectation they’ll be resurrected on an extraterrestrial realm. The film focuses largely on Hugo, a teenager turned over to the cult by his parents. Director Frédéric Mermoud gives the group’s suicide preparations a solemnity that contrasts sharply with the food-fight that they indulge in the night before. Similarly, The Valley presents a tense account of a young car thief pursued by the police. Locking us to his consciousness and a linear time scheme, director Jean-Stéphane Bron summons up a good deal of suspense around the boy’s prospects of survival in increasingly unfriendly mountain terrain.

Sirius and The Valley give us straightforward chronology, but First Name Mathieu, Baier’s directorial contribution, offers something else. A serial killer is raping and murdering young men, but one of his victims, Mathieu, manages to escape. The film’s narration is split. Mathieu struggles to readjust to life at home and at school, while the police try to coax a firm identification from him. This action is punctuated by flashback glimpses of the traumatic crime. The result explores the parents’ uncertainty about how restore the routines of normal life, the police inspector’s unwillingness to press Mathieu too hard, and the boy’s self-consciousness and guilt as the target of the town’s morbid curiosity.

This insistence on the aftereffects of a crime dominates Diary of My Mind, Ursula Meier’s contribution to the series. This too uses flashbacks, mostly to the moments right after a high-school boy kills his mother and father. But there’s no whodunit factor; we know that Ben is guilty. The question is why. Ben’s diary seems to offer a decisive clue (“I must kill them”), but just as important, the magistrate thinks, is his creative writing under the tutelage of Madame Fontanel, played by the axiomatic Fanny Ardent. Because she encouraged her students to expose their authentic feelings, Ben’s hatred of his father had surfaced in his classroom work. Perfectly normal for a young man, she assures the magistrate. No, he asserts: a warning you ignored. The shock waves that engulf onlookers after a crime, the suggestion that art can be both therapeutic and dangerous, the question of a teacher’s duty to both her pupils and the society outside the classroom–Diary of My Mind raises these and other themes in a compact, engaging tale.

 

Last hurrah of (movie) chivalry

Chinese director Jia Zhangke is no stranger to criminal matters. His films have dwelt on street hustles, botched bank robberies, and hoodlums at many ranks. Ash Is Purest White is  a gangster saga, tracing how a tough woman, Qiao, survives across the years 2001-2018. Initially the mistress of boss Bin, Qiao rescues him from a violent beatdown using his pistol. She takes the blame for owning a firearm. Getting out of prison, Qiao tracks down the now-weakened Bin, who has taken up with another woman.

Ash Is Purest White tackles a familiar schema, the fall of a gang leader, from the unusual perspective of the woman beside him, who turns out to be stronger than he is. Most of the film is filtered through her experience, and along with her we learn of Bin’s decline and betrayal, along with his integration into the corrupt and bureaucratic capitalism of twenty-first century China. The second half of the film shows Qiao forced to survive outside the gang’s milieu. A funny scene plays out one of her scams: picking a prosperous man at random, she announces that her sister, implicitly his mistress, is pregnant.  Just as important, Qiao’s adventures allow Jia to survey current mainland fads and follies, including belief in UFO visits.

Among those follies, Bin suggests, is a trust in mass-media images.  As Ozu’s crime films (Walk Cheerfully, Dragnet Girl) suggested that 1930s Japanese street punks imitated Warner Bros. gangsters, so Jia’s mainland hoods model themselves on the romantic heroes of Hong Kong cinema. They raptly watch videos of Tragic Hero (1987) and cavort to the sound of Sally Yeh’s mournful theme from The Killer (1989). They derive their sense of the jianghu--that landscape of mountains and rivers that was the backdrop of ancient chivalry–not from lore or even martial-arts novels but from the violent underworld shown on TV screens.

Bin’s decline is portrayed as abandoning those ideals of righteousness and self-sacrifice flamboyantly dramatized in the movies. But Qiao clings to the imaginary jianghu to the end. She explains to him that everything she did was for their old code, but as for him: “You’re no longer in the jianghu. You wouldn’t understand.” You can respect his pragmatism and admire her tenacity, but he’s still a feeble figure, and she’s left running a seedy mahjongg joint–one much less glamorous than the club she swanned through at the film’s start. Appropriately for someone who got her idea of heroism from videos, we last see her as a speckled figure on a CCTV monitor.

 

From dailiness to darkness

Burning.

Often the crime in question is presented explicitly, but two films leave it to us to imagine what shadowy doings could have led to what we see. In Manta Ray, by Phuttiphong “Pom” Aroonpheng, we get the familiar motif of swapped identity. A Thai fisherman finds a wounded man in the forest and nurses him back to health. The victim is a mute Rohinga whom the fisherman names Thongchai. They share a home and the occasional dance and swim, even a DIY disco.

But who attacked Thongchai in the forest, and why? And what is the connection to the unearthly gunman who paces through the forest, bedecked in pulsating Christmas bulbs? And what makes the foliage teem with gems glowing in the murk? Somewhere, there has been a crime.

Manta Ray accumulates its impact gradually, with the scenes of the men’s routines giving way to mystery when the fisherman vanishes and Thongchai (named by the fisherman for a Thai pop singer) is trailed by a ninja-like figure clad in a red cagoule. A disappearance and a reappearance (of the fisherman’s wife) punctuate moody scenes of trees and sea. The opacity of the action makes a political point: offscreen, Thais brutally hunt down the refugee Rohingas. But the critique of anti-immigrant brutality is intensified by the lustrous cinematography (Aroonpheng was a top DP). You can feel the texture of the planks in the cabin and the sharp edges of the gems that fingers root out of the forest floor. This is probably the most tactile movie I saw at VIFF.

Then there was Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. Lee started his career strong and has stayed that way. The slowly paced, Kitanoesque gangster story Green Fish (1997) and Peppermint Candy (1999), with its reverse-order chronology, both achieved local popularity and established him as a fixture on the festival circuit. Oasis (2002), a daring romance of a disabled couple, won a special prize at Venice. Secret Sunshine (2007) brought Lee even more widespread fame. Like the episodes of Shock Waves, it dealt with the aftereffects of a horrific crime. Virtually everyone I know who saw the film remembers most vividly a particular scene: the heroine, having converted to Christianity and at last ready to forgive the perpetrator, visits him in prison. It’s one of the most nakedly blasphemous scenes I’ve ever seen, carried off with a shocking calm. Crime–this time, a gang rape–is also at the center of Poetry (2010), with another mother facing familial tragedy.

Most of these plots, particularly Poetry, are rather busy, but Burning is more stripped down (though not short). Lee Dong-su maintains the shabby family farm while his father is in jail awaiting trial. In town Dong-su meets Haemi, a former classmate now running sidewalk giveaways.

She lures him into her life by asking him to feed her cat while she’s in Africa, but before she leaves they start an affair. But he seldom breaks into a smile, favoring a puckered-lip passivity. After their coupling, we get his POV on a blank wall.

This turns out to be the first of many disquieting passages. Between bouts of tending livestock, feeding Haemi’s cat, and masturbating to her picture, Dong-su gets mysterious phone calls with no one on the line. He meets Haemi at the airport only to discover that she’s formed a friendship (or more?) with the suave Ben, whose gentle courtesy makes Dong-su feel an even bigger bumpkin. Soon the three are hanging out together, but at parties Dong-su can only stare at Ben’s yuppie friends. Dong-su, who wants to be a writer, is a fan of Faulkner, but Ben compares himself to the Great Gatsby.

After a long night of relaxing at the farm, with the men watching Haemi dance topless, she disappears. A black frame, a dream of a burning greenhouse, and Dong-su is left alone halfway through the movie. What happened to Haemi? And why does Ben say he enjoys torching greenhouses? Dong-su turns detective,

Lee is a master of pacing, and the deliberateness of the film delicately turns a romantic drama into a critique of entitled lifestyles and then into a psychological thriller. We are locked to Dong-su’s consciousness except for a couple of telltale shots of Ben calmly studying his rival from afar. We get Vertigo-like sequences of Dong-su trailing Ben and probing for clues and perhaps having more dreams. At the same time, Dong-su starts writing, as if Haemi’s disappearance has inspired him, but he finds more violent ways to release his simmering bewilderment.

After only one viewing, I didn’t find Burning as devastating a film as Secret Sunshine or Poetry, but I’d gladly watch it again and probably I’d see more in it. Lee manages to sustain over two and a half hours a plot centering on three, then two principal characters. He has earned the right to soberly take us into the mundane rhythm of a loner’s life and then shatter that through an encounter with two enigmatic figures who may be playing mind games. As with Manta Ray, we have to infer some of the action behind the scenes, but that just shows that in cinema, classic or modern, crime can pay.


Thanks as ever to the tireless staff of the Vancouver International Film Festival, above all Alan Franey, PoChu AuYeung, Shelly Kraicer, Maggie Lee, and Jenny Lee Craig for their help in our visit.

Snapshots of festival activities are on our Instagram page.

Japadog, a Vancouver landmark.

David Bordwell
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