A posting about the recent cinema.

*It’s not often a new comics store opens within a decent driving distance of my home. But not only is that very thing slated to happen soon, but the owner is blogging up a storm about his experience in starting up a shiny new piece of the Direct Market. The place is called RIOT Comics + Culture, and it opens on new comics day, August 10th. I’ll have to stop by that day, but even if you don’t live anywhere near Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, the site is a good read for anyone interested in the minutiae of starting up a retail location in this crazy biz.

*I haven’t been to a lot of movies recently; haven’t had much time what with work and everything. But I had to make sure I took time out to catch 3-Iron (original title: Bin-jip), the newest film from Korean fan-favorite writer/producer/director/editor Kim Ki-duk to be released in the US, though he’s already got a new one out in Europe, Hwal. His last US release, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, was my favorite theater-going experience of 2004, though I fear the bloom may be off the rose for that one among connoisseurs. I’ve been seeing complaints around about the latter film’s solemn use of faux-Buddhist rituals, drubbing the enterprise as ‘pop Buddhism’ for easy foreign consumption. Such complaints entirely miss the point; Ki-duk is actually a Catholic, in case you didn’t know, and I took the mannered non-rituals of the film as both an added layer of unknowing to the fable-like atmosphere, as well as indicative of a genuine desire to express universal spiritual themes through a distancing lens of secular mass in fundamentalist masquerade. Oh sure, looking back on the film a fair amount of it was heavy-handed. The gender politics were troubling, to say the least (I do believe that two of the film’s three female characters die quite horribly, and while violence toward women is obviously seen as ‘wrong,’ it’s employed as a motif entirely to provide the male characters with things to do penance for on their path to ultimate enlightenment). But the sheer personal drive behind it was overpowering; it’s one of the most purely intimate films I’ve seen in theaters in a long time.

Maybe I think this way because I don’t carry the baggage of a longtime fan, who’d have followed Ki-duk through his early exploitation-sounding epics like The Isle; even enthusiastic fans of that one tend to play up the scenes of animal abuse and simulated violence toward sensitive parts of the human anatomy, putting me in the mind of Cannibal Ferox (and why do people always use terms like ‘art house exploitation’ to describe these things instead of simply ‘exploitation’ - I hope it’s not just because the film’s well-shot, because I thought Jungle Holocaust was pretty nicely photographed too and that was just plain vanilla exploitation). So I don’t really know how this one-time ‘bad boy’ of Korean cinema has grown from first-hand experience, and maybe that frees me of certain biases, while leaving me uninformed in other areas. I just don’t know.

I liked 3-Iron quite a lot. I might have to concede that it’s best to go into this film completely blind, without knowing anything, but I really want to talk about some of the stuff in here, so keep on reading if you don’t mind my going through a lot of the film’s material.

It doesn’t start out very well, speaking of heavy-handedness - the opening shot is simply awful, an atrociously obvious visual metaphor, with harshly driven golf balls slamming against a net, a beautiful statue just out of damaging strike distance. “Oh god, here we go…” I thought. Frankly, the closing shot isn’t much better, but by that time my reaction was more “Ha ha, aw Kim, you card,” because it has the benefit of flowing out of Ki-duk’s phenomenal skill, the power of the continuous presentation carrying you right past the more thudding bits, just like in his earlier silver screen fable. Not to mention the humor; this film’s got some good comedy, kicking off right at the beginning, with our nameless protagonist (at least I don’t recall him having a name) languidly wandering down a street in a quiet still shot, lovely and haunting music playing in the background, until everything stops when our hero realizes he’s blocked someone into their driveway with his motorcycle, and he has to scurry back to move it. It’s a pleasant puncturing of mood, and makes up for that nasty opening shot quite sufficiently.

A plot soon develops, with our hero breaking into empty homes and living there while the owners are away, making sure to do good things like fixing appliances and washing clothes before he leaves; the old campsite rule, always leave it nicer than how you found it. Eventually he wanders into a particularly plush house, with a frail, battered model, wife to an abusive husband, also hiding around. She silently follows our hero, and the sequence soon seems ridiculous. How the hell doesn’t he see her? But Ki-duk keeps stretching it on and on, farther and farther, until you’re simply forced to accept it, even appreciate it. And then he has the sheer brass to turn this stuff into a literal plot point later in the film, though I’m getting ahead of myself.

You see, people seem to have trouble with the final third of the film, which delves into some very fantastical material. I don’t understand this reaction; the film is entirely fantastic and unrealistic right from the beginning. Like the fact that the male and female leads never talk (well actually… oh, you’ll see), with Ki-duk humorously building scenes around the audience never having to hear them speak, even when other characters are talking to them. And thusly the performances become slightly exaggerated, a Silent Era brand of expression acting and physical comedy poking through, low-key but present. And then there’s the title: 3-Iron. A golf club. That titular club gets used as a weapon, several times. You’d expect to see characters cracking each other in the heads with the thing, using it as a club, right? Well, that’s what rational, realistic people would do. But the characters here hurt each other by driving golf balls; they carry around small supplies of golf balls and drive them off the ground to injure others, occasionally pulling off some nice bank shots in the process. I assure you, it’s just as absurd in practice as it sounds here, but it works. I have to theorize that Ki-duk is doing this as another distancing technique, stripping the visceral impact of on-screen violence with copious absurdity to force us to consider the acts on a metaphoric level. There’s almost nothing resembling proper realism here; in one scene, a major character apparently kills someone by accident, but life just goes on. And naturally, along the way, our pair of lovers (I did mention the drifter and the battered wife fall in love, right?) help one another out, healing their mutual injuries, living transient lives in the houses of others, like happy and unconcerned ghosts, nothing outrageous or loud. There’s some really sensual scenes consisting of one foot touching another, then a kiss, then a tasteful fade to black. Helpful Ki-duk even uses the healing of the female lead’s bruises as a visual metaphor; it’s the healing of her spirit, folks.

But problems arise, and trouble pops in. We get a hyper-clichéd police interrogation sequence, and a cruel reunion with the wicked husband (who I have to say is quite brilliantly characterized, with just the right mix of self-delusion and pathetic lashing). But the young wife has learned much, and won’t be controlled, and her new strength is matched by the arrival into the plot of what I suppose some would call ‘magical realism,’ although nothing in the film has been particularly realistic thus far, and there’s already been bits of magic. Suffice to say, our hero basically develops A Power which just might prove to be the key toward unlocking the solution to everything. And in the end, we’re all weightless.

It can be puzzling trying to suss out what it all means; there’s a lot of layered themes, relating to materialism and objectification and the ephemeral state of mortality and stoicism and the need for mutual cross-bearing in relationships. The sound design is also richly layered, with some great use of audio effects (listen closely to the soundtrack when our hero feigns playing golf). It’s a handsome film, and a worthy expenditure of an hour and a half, so long as you can take some heroic doses of unexplained unreality in your cinema.

*In other movie news - what the hell?! The film adaptation of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion has now apparently recruited P.T. Anderson of Magnolia fame as emergency back-up director for Robert Altman?! Cripes, I hope Keillor gets a decent Guy Noir sketch out of this situation...

*And, Golgo 13 Pt. 2 is go for tomorrow.