Pictures in Pusan By Helmut Merker
The topos of voyage in the movies is as old as film history itself — you need only remember the very first scene, the arrival of a train. Remarkably often in the movies of the 11th Pusan International Film Festival you see a visitor from the countryside arriving in the city — or the other way round — and finally returning to where he came from. A clear scheme — with dozens of variations in detail. Two marking points and in between a lot of adventures, victories and defeats, a lot of crimes, heroic minutes and boring days. The direction of the route points out the two genres, the “city movie” and the “countryside movie.” This refers especially to the Korean and Chinese films, which deal with quite real and down-to-earth problems of everyday life, thus pointing out the distance between the poor rural regions and the overcrowded urban areas. With those topics they form a clear contrast to the attitude in so many European and American movies in which life may only be a dream; there is no possibility to divide between reality and illusion, which can be performed in a style that may be light and easy (Rivette), mysterious and dark (Lynch), bourgeois and criminal (Chabrol) or spooky (Petzold).
Arrival and Exit — often these two points are illustrated with almost identical takes at the beginning and the end. Obviously this is a favorite symbolic device of Asian directors: this way a circle is closed, a story is rounded up. But in every single case it is the perspective that matters. The take may be the same, the picture has changed.
A river, a boat, a guy embarking to cross over to the other side, where the silhouette of the big city greets and lures as the promised land and at the same time rejects and threatens as a strange world — so begins Distance (Wei Tie, China, 2006); the river, the boat, the guy embarking to cross over to the other side, while the silhouette of the big city slowly disappears — so ends the film. Young Zhu Ming has tried to find a job and now lost all hopes to succeed. In a nearly documentary way we learn to know many details of China’s reality: how naive migrants are rejected by urban dwellers, how they get ripped off by bureaucrats and entrepreneurs and their tricks with forms and fees; how one look at the living and working conditions offered is enough to provoke immediate horror.
Another confrontation with city life mainly takes place in the underground: the camera takes the point of view of a subway train driver through tunnels, stations, fluorescent lights, as if on a top-speed trip to hell. This is the beginning and end of The Railroad (Park Heung-sik, Korea, 2006). The protagonists: Man-soo, the conductor, and Hanna, a German-language lecturer. Man-soo is still in shock because a woman committed suicide by jumping on the tracks under his train. The turning point occurs when Man-soo and Hanna fall asleep as passengers in a train whose trajectory ends in dark night and heavy snowfall just before the ominous frontier between North and South Korea. The romantic idea that the solution of all problems of the Megalopolis is only possible in unspoilt nature leads to rather a lyric and absurd situation. Nowhere else than near one of the most dangerous crisis areas of the world our two heroes — exhausted, desperate, tired, freezing — get to know each other, wander around through the winter night and experience their melodramatic love story in a scene without love. When they talk about their private problems with unhappy liaisons and assure each other that everything will end well, the dark forest naturally turns into a delightful place. The virgin snow causes no harm to their elegant clothes, no red coloring to their smooth skin, no angry traces to their happy faces. Not much is missing, and one could almost wait for a new version of Singin’ in the Rain.
A quiet lake, behind an enchanting garden that gives the impression of a mixture between jungle and paradise. This is the location of The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters (Dai Sijie, China/France/Canada, 2005). This peaceful and untouched place is situated at the beginning and the end of the film; in its 105 minutes the inhabitants and the director do their disastrous work. A beautiful young girl rows over the lake; she is a student and was selected to learn at the renowned professor’s botanic garden. At the end of the film she leaves in an entirely altered way: her ashes are spread across the water. She has become guilty of a deadly sin and was sentenced to death because of her lesbian love for the daughter of the authoritarian governor/professor of the island. As in his previous film Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the director combines glossy, French-style, aesthetical camerawork with a subject officially taboo in Chinese society and exaggeratedly heavy sentimental music. Highlights for eye and ear, of course, include the love scenes of the two girls in tasteful images accompanied by sobbing strains of violins.
An interesting combination of “city movie” and “countryside movie” — and the surprising film of this year’s Festival — is Ad Lib Night (Lee Yoonki, Korea, 2006). It is about the city girl Bo-kyung and her voyage to the countryside. Parallel to this trip and more important than this external movement becomes her voyage into the status and structures of family lives, of her own and of a strange one. It begins and ends in a big city, it could be anywhere, and it is an anonymous place in Seoul. Bo-kyung is waiting, maybe for a call, for an encounter, or for something else. Accidentally three guys meet her, who search for quite a different girl; at first they mistake her for somebody else, then they ask her the unusual favor to play the role of the other girl. For this part she should come with them to the countryside to an old dying man who misses his runaway daughter, thus fulfilling his last wish to see her again.
From this point of departure Lee develops a rich texture of touching moments, capturing tensions, moving constellations between the characters by a minimum of dramatic events. First her hesitation towards this difficult task, then the curiosity and helpfulness, the fascination with the distress of the boys. The doubts and considerations towards the moral implications of such a maneuver in front of a dying human being, later the discussion about design and strategy — what to do and how to act when confronting death. The subtlety of framing and acting, of dialogue and gesture, of attracting and rejecting continues when the girl meets friends and relatives and, finally, the “father” himself and outlines a whole panorama of family bonds and how they have become fragile and empty. Finally it seems as if the young girl is the only person respecting and honoring the dead man without any selfish interests.
After her “adventure” in the countryside Bo-kyung returns to town and waits again — maybe for a talk with her mother. But when she finally succeeds in calling her, it is obvious that her mother is not very interested in her daughter. Not only children leave their parents, also the older generation loses its attachment to the younger. As main benefit of this voyage through one night for Bo-kyung is that she misses a somehow obscure blind date in Seoul. The title “Ad Lib Night” could refer to a liberation from an advertisement … the main sense, however, is improvisation: she improvised some friendly words at the deathbed.
Ad Lib Night is the third movie of director Lee Yoonki; therefore, it could not be in the competition section “New Currents,” which is open only to a first or second film. Furthermore, Lee Yoonki won the New Currents Award 2004 with his debut This Charming Girl. This year’s competition ended with the FIPRESCI award going to Love Conquers All. The festival in Pusan began in a week when the country was in the headlines of the world press, with the nuclear test in North Korea and the nomination of South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs as UN Secretary General. After the successful festival the question, remains why the world is not organized according to the motto: “Cinema Conquers the World.”