Monday, February 25, 2013

Two Asian Films

The Taste of Money (Donui Mat) (Im Song-soo, South Korea) 115 minutes

You get the sense that Im Song-soo, in his seventh feature, knows exactly what he is doing, even if it might leave many who watch it flummoxed. Im bemoaned the critical panning The Taste of Money received at Cannes last year by suggesting foreigners could not understand the intricacies of its satire on Korean business and privilege. That may be so but he is pulling his work further into the realm of highly-polished shlock, after his quixotic 2010 remake of Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid. (That reworking of the film considered South Korean cinema’s landmark work was comparable to, say, David O. Russell having a crack at a new Citizen Kane.)  

The Taste of Money continues, in a loose way, the story of The Housemaid, with the children from the family grown up (this is referred to in one scene and Im himself has confirmed this). The central character is Joo, the young private secretary to Yoon, head of the powerful Baek business family. He organises hookers for visiting businessmen and accompanies Yoon on money-laundering missions, on which his boss openly encourages him to grab wads of cash for himself - ‘everyone else does’. The Baek household is a den of iniquity of Caligulan proportions. Yoon is bedding the Filipina maid, his wife Geum-ok (played by the brilliant Yeon Yeo-jeong - a regular for Im Song-soo as she was for Kim Ki-young before him) seduces the much younger Joo, later admitting it was ‘practically rape’. Meanwhile their divorced daughter, Nami, is herself preying on the secretary. Her brother, Chul, is in and out of prison, carrying the can for the family’s transgressions of the law.

What the film lacks in narrative sophistication, it makes up for in its visual palette. It is a rich, if at times sickly, confection, with a superbly designed set captured in an array of masterly deep focus shots and Dutch Angles. Im is a deft stylist and at his best can produce some irresistible cinema, such as in The President’s Last Bang, which dramatised the 1979 assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee (father of current president-elect Park Geun-hye) quite audaciously, as a black comedy. It had all the verve of early Scorsese and de Palma combined. But where that film was focused and, its socio-historical resonance, even for a non-Korean, quite easy to decipher, The Taste of Money is an heaving opaque mass that yields little to the uninitiated. It is strange that Im Song-soo’s invocations of Korean history (also seen in his 2006 adaptation of Hwang Sok-yong’s novel The Old Garden) travel better than his forays into broader satire. Like ‘Gangnam Style’, there is enough in The Taste of Money to amuse an international audience but to get anything out of it, you sense that knowing a bit more about Korean society would help.


Mundane History (Jao nok krajok) (Anocha Suwichakornpong - Thailand) 82 minutes

There is much in Mundane History, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s debut feature that reminds you of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The Thai director’s film came first though, winning the Tiger award at the 2009 Rotterdam Film Festival and, shockingly, failing to get a European release until now. The mundane history of the title tells of the relationship of a bourgeois student from Bangkok, being cared for at his parents’ home by his male nurse from the provinces, after being seriously injured in a car accident.

 The film’s central story is filmed with great sensitivity, the camera lingering on its elegantly framed subjects as if to embalm them in their own loneliness and frustration. But it knows its limits (the title is itself an admission of this) and the story is not going anywhere your common-or-garden buddy movie hasn’t gone before, or, indeed, the more recent French convalescent/minder two-hander Intouchables. So Anocha opts to recast her narrative through some simple formal inventiveness. Aided by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular film editor Lee Chatametikool, she shuffles the scenes disconcertingly, having Pun, the nurse, chat familiarly, to the staff of the house, before later being introduced to them. Somjai, the young cripple, also regains the use of his legs at one point but we cannot tell if it is a scene from the future or a flashback to before the accident. The ploy could have been confusing but instead it summons intrigue, interrogating the viewer about what it is they expect from such a, well, mundane narrative.

If a recourse to non-linearity gives Anocha some wriggle-room with her very ordinary subject matter, she doubles the formal breaches with scenes that look like a very lo-fi version of the cosmic sequences in Malick’s later, overblown, Palme d’Or winner. While Malick overreaches grossly with a biological history that is far more mundane that the domestic drama at the heart of his film, Anocha is more cautious, and more coy. Her abstract scenes are explained by their being filmed on a trip by Pun and Somjai to a planetarium, even though she does allow herself more formal flourishes in the film’s closing moments. These, depending on your point of view, appear either tacked on or a shrewd underpinning of the workaday tale we have just witnessed. One thing you can say though is that, Mundane History, while being a relatively conventional arthouse film, is experimental in the truest sense of the word in that its director takes risks with her narrative. If it works, well and good; if it doesn’t, the rest of the film is sufficiently strong not to suffer by the experimentation. And Mundane History is, in many ways, a fine film, by a director who surely has many more ahead of her.