Kaiju Shakedown: Lee Myung-Se
Lee Myung-Se taught me how to watch movies. It was 1999 and I was capable of shooting off my opinion gun, dashing out lines about how “this movie sucked” or “that movie is an embarrassment.” I thought it was my job to spot what was wrong with a film and tell a director how to fix it. I figured that I’d seen a lot of movies and therefore I was the guy who could separate the wheat from the chaff. I was the audience advocate. I was, in other words, an asshole.
Then I met Lee Myung-Se.
To say Lee Myung-Se is polarizing is a gross understatement. His first film, Gagman (89), was trounced by critics but later hailed as an essential work of the Korean New Wave. His next movie, My Love, My Bride (90), was a huge hit and is currently being remade with Jo Jung-Suk and Shin Min-Ah. Then came First Love (93), a straightforward love story that bombed at the box office yet today, even more than Gagman, people consider it a masterpiece. Lee followed it up with his most divisive movie yet, Bitter and Sweet (aka Affliction of Man, 95), depicting a week in the life of a middle management corporate drone that felt like a Frank Tashlin musical.
Their Last Love Affair
After that came Their Last Love Affair (96), a movie charting the start, and end, of a brief affair between a married professor and a journalist; it too was roundly rejected. But his Nowhere to Hide (99) became an international hit and pushed Lee back to the top of the heap—only to be followed by a four-year period spent wandering in the desert. Wanting to make American films, he moved to Queens and tried to get a Hollywood project together. But his insistence on final cut scared away producers, and so he spent those years taking endless meetings and watching thousands of hours of movies at Film Forum, rediscovering Buster Keaton and Akira Kurosawa.
In 2005, he returned to Korea and made Duelist, his take on the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon swordplay films popular at the time. With as much disregard for genre convention as every other Lee Myung-Se movie, audiences had a tough time with it, and it didn’t do well at the box office. M (07), his ghost story, was another box office misfire. He was briefly attached to the spy comedy Mister K (12) but was fired from the film early in the shoot for acting like one would expect Lee Myung-Se to act when put at the helm of a big-budget spy comedy: rewriting the script on the fly and shooting scenes in a manner not becoming an action film. That was two years ago. Since then, silence.
Korean film critic Kang Han-Seop wrote an essay about his career-long relationship with Lee and his movies for a book published by KOFIC, and he delights in making fun of Lee, calling him arrogant and pretentious, while defending his movies as truly great. But the pivotal story tells how after he saw Lee's second film (My Love, My Bride) he sat with him and accused him of selling out, of being an empty stylist, and of betraying his potential. Lee responds with one devasting line: “I’m not the kind of director you think I am.”
How many times have I felt like I knew a director? How many times have I pretended to understand their motivations, their goals, and their aspirations based on nothing more than a gut feeling after conducting an interview or reading their press? How often have I imagined some relationship between myself and a director, claiming that they’ve “betrayed” me, or “disappointed” me, or even that they’ve “lived up to their potential?” It wasn’t until I actually spent a lot of time with one director that I learned how wrong I was.
Lee divides audiences and disappoints some viewers not because his movies are bad, or he’s somehow incompetent. Lee makes exactly the movies he wants to make. The problem comes because he’s not the kind of director we think he is. On the surface, his movies look like action films, horror movies, romances, and knockabout comedies, but they don’t offer any of the traditional satisfactions of those genres. Lee uses genre to give audiences ground to stand on, but he’s not interested in delivering genre beats. He’s interested in film as film, not as a sub-branch of the other arts but as its own entity, divorced from the conventions of painting, literature, and music. So much of the language of film is handed down secondhand from other forms—story, rhythm, texture—that the true language of film remains elusive.
Nowhere to Hide was Lee’s attempt not to thrill audiences but to depict the rush of movement onscreen. Plot, dialogue, character—none of these are as important to him as the feeling a scene creates in the viewer, and with Nowhere to Hide Lee wanted to get the audience drunk on adrenaline, high on the thrill of the chase. When it’s all over, he doesn’t deliver narrative closure, but gives the weary viewer a brief scene of the lead detective coming alive again as he embarks on yet another hunt, futiley chasing after an ever-diminishing buzz. These cops aren’t cool badasses, they’re action junkies who need to stay in motion or risk confronting the emptiness of their own lives.
Nowhere to Hide
Duelist veers even further from expectations, M downright destroys them, and the know-it-all I was in 1999 would write these movies off as “style over substance” or “noble failures” or “20 minutes too long” or some other bullshit that made me sound smart. But when Lee Myung-Se moved to Queens, I wound up spending a lot of time with him and one day I shot my mouth off and his producer took me aside and, in so many words, told me to shut my piehole. And I did. And I actually learned something. I stopped polishing my own opinions about movies and started listening to what a director had to say about them. I stopped taking the easy way out and merely complaining when a film deviated from my expectations, and instead accepted that Lee’s choices were on purpose, that he was making the movies he wanted to make, and my job was to follow his train of thought.
Before I met Lee Myung-Se I grouped movies into successes or failures, but Lee says none of his movies are failures. Each are exactly what he wants them to be. We can dismiss them, but maybe we’re missing something in the process. Talking about the reception to his once-reviled movie First Love, he says: “In 1993, people saw it and thought it was childish and embarrassing. We sometimes judge things saying it wasn’t good at the time, so it’s not good. In some cases we need to withhold our judgment. Momentary judgment can be overturned at any time.”
Coming to Duelist from this angle, it was not the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon clone that it was marketed as. It wasn’t even really an action movie. It was a romance with Namsoon (Ha Ji-Won) playing a young cop in the Joseon Dynasty who runs into the sexy Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-Won) when she starts to unravel a counterfeiting case. Early summertime scenes of slapstick humor, Keystone Kops kollisions, and Namsoon striding around with a sneer on her face and her sleeves rolled up are all buried like a corpse beneath a layer of snow as the movie turns serious. These two kids fall for each other, but the movie’s bitter bite comes from the assertion that both young lovers have been betrayed by the older generation. Namsoon's mentor, Ahn, has taught her how to fight, but that's it. Sad Eyes was trained by his surrogate father to be nothing more than a killing machine. They’ve both been given nothing but hammers, so to them the world looks like an endless series of nails. Their romance is doomed because they never developed the emotional equipment to give and receive love.
The story ends in tragedy but Lee Myung-se uses his directorial prerogative to wrest a happy ending out of the jaws of defeat and allow his characters a final, spectral pas de deux, and it's one of the kindest moments in movies, a touch of mercy from a director who thinks that Korean cinema is obsessed with violence and brutality.
Lee is obsessed with memories and dreams. Gagman was born when he saw the title written on a chalkboard in one dream and before he wrote First Love he saw the line, “First love is the door to the secret of time,” written on another dream chalkboard. M began 10 years before he shot a single frame, when Alfred Hitchcock appeared in a dream and wrote the letter “M” on yet another chalkboard. When he writes a script he sometimes enters a fugue state and bangs it out fast. Other times it takes him months, with each scene taking weeks to develop. While shooting, Lee doesn’t drink, and every night he meditates, sometimes all night long, emerging in the morning with the images he wants to capture the next day. The only American director I know of who works this way is David Lynch.
A high percentage of the running time in Lee’s movies consists of scenes that aren’t real. Duelist starts with the telling of a folktale and the movie is stuffed with ghostly appearances, fables, and alternate courses of action all presented onscreen as if they’re real. A stake-out in Nowhere to Hide shows time passing like a hallucination. For Lee, filmmaking is a ritual that eliminates the difference between reality and fantasy, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his ghost story, M, a movie about how the world of the living looks from the point of view of the dead, and a movie I didn’t particularly like when I first saw it.
Using reflections, shadows, doubles, and a disorienting visual plan, M blurs the line between memories, dreams, reality, and ghosts to create something close to an actual onscreen apparition. Don’t Look Now plays the same game, and so do movies like Last Year at Marienbad, but Lee makes it even more explicit: what is a ghost but a memory that won’t leave you alone, what is a phantom but a dream in broad daylight? This point-of-view is closer to the actual experience of seeing a ghost than a movie like The Ring with its unquiet, long-haired spooks crawling out of TV screens to kill their victims, but The Ring satisfies the requirements of genre, while M is a more perplexing object. In film critic talk, this would make it a failure.
Recently a friend of mine died. A few months later I was walking home one night when I saw him coming up the street towards me. “I wonder what Dan’s doing in this part of town?” I thought to myself. It was a completely matter-of-fact moment. Three seconds later, I remembered that Dan was dead and the guy coming up the street merely looked like him. I felt simultaneously comforted and unsettled for the rest of the night, and even now I feel a weird moment of frission as I type it out. These are the ghosts Lee Myung-Se is describing in M, ghosts of memory that become real for a moment, hitting us harder than any uneasy spirit from beyond the grave, then slipping back into mundane reality. It took me seven years to stop having an opinion about M, and to listen to the movie. Seven years after it came out, I realize that M wasn’t a failure after all.</p>
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… Johnnie To is currently shooting a musical about office politics starring Chow Yun-fat and Sylvia Chang. It’s based on Chang’s smash hit stage musical, Design for Living, and until now I hadn’t even noticed that there’s an online trailer for her musical. And here’s one of the first photos I’ve seen from the set of Johnnie To’s film!
… Speaking of musicals, China has decided it’s time to start getting serious about them. Now that the Chinese film industry is expanding like wildfire, the state feels that it’s time more Chinese people got into musicals, especially since lots of major urban areas either have, or are building, giant performance arts centers and they don’t have enough Chinese productions to fill them. So now, a one-million-square-foot center is being built outside Beijing that will develop Mandarin-language musicals that can tour the country. The cost is about $320 million. First up, a Mandarin version of Sondheim’s Into the Woods that’ll play for at least 100 performances in Beijing when it debuts in November, before embarking on a national tour.
… You know that talking raccoon who was raking it in at the box office? He’s got nothing on Choi Min-Shik. With a role as the bad guy in Luc Besson’s Lucy, which just set records in the United States, and a lead role in the new Korean box office smash, Roaring Currents, a period naval action film that had the highest opening day ticket sales of the year and took in $25.8 million on its opening weekend, Choi is having a huge mid-career revival. Also, Choi is made of flesh and blood and does not root through garbage cans for his food. Suck it, raccoon.
Ruroni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno
… In Japan, Rurouni Kenshin, the live-action adapatation of the popular samurai manga broke box-office records when it came out back in 2012. Now, part one of its two-part sequel, Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno, has broken the first movie’s opening weekend gross by about $3 million. Its haul of $8.03 million makes it the biggest live action opener of the year in Japan. Audiences are staying tuned for more record slashing and smashing as part two of the sequel, Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, opens on September 13.
… One hundred Koreans, including directors Ryoo Seung-Wan (The Berlin File) and Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy) have signed a letter submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the South Korean Ministry of Foreign and Trade in Seoul that calls for the South Korean government to halt all arms sales to Israel (last year they sold about $22 million in arms to the country) in order to protest what the letter calls the “civilian massacre” in Gaza. This probably won’t end well.
… It looks like Stephen Chow is not following up his hit film Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons with a sequel. Instead, he’s casting the lead role in his contemporary fantasy flick The Mermaid, hoping that he’ll find a fresh faced actress for the part. Rumors have it that he’s also looking for a co-director and is shooting for a Spring 2016 release.
… Kinema Club is making available a free ebook edited by Mark Nornes called The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts. A collection of essays about that strangest of Japanese film genres, the pink film, this is a pretty breathtaking achievement with essays by everyone from Donald Richie to Sharon Hayashi. A $25 hard copy is also available.
…The first trailer is up for the latest installment in Hong Kong’s unstoppable, beloved animated series, Mcdull: Me and My Mum. Like every McDull movie, this one will probably make you laugh, then break your heart.