Violence vs. Violence

in 38th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Susanna Harutyunyan

The last day of the 38th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was marked by hot disputes over the juries’ decisions on the winning films. Everybody wondered why the Italian film Facing Window by Ferzan Ozpetek was disregarded by the FIPRESCI jury and loved by the grand jury. On the other hand our colleagues from the grand jury ignored The Coast Guard by Kim Ki-duk, which was awarded the main prize of FIPRESCI. Though I don’t have the right to make any assumptions on the motives influence the decision of the grand jury, I would like to explain why our jury considered the film worthy of the award although the previous films of this director were more impressing.

Let me say a few words about the big rival of The Coast Guard: the French-Japanese co-production Fear and Trembling by Alain Corneau. This film shows a perfect point of the style characteristic of French films and the outstanding performance of its amazing actress (Sylvie Testud). It became the favorite of both the critics and the audience. However, at the last moment our jury decided to give the main prize to The Coast Guard mainly because it shows the most serious problem of our times. The difference between civilizations (east and west) is presented very abruptly on the level of an anecdote, played of course brilliantly within the closed space of the office in a big Japanese company. On the other hand the Korean film looks down into the depths. It reveals the problem of natural violence between people on the verge of contiguity as a combination of mechanisms and dictating models of behavior to each person. Therefore, the person itself represents those models.

The key to approach the jury’s decision lies in the formulation “for the strong and innovative depiction of the illusion of power which destroyed humanity from both sides of the fence”. To some extent this formulation indirectly opposes those who think that there is too much violence in the film and that it’s time to stop bringing up and elevating the cult of violence on the screen. However, in my opinion these reproaches are wrongfully addressed. In the Korean film there is surely no violence for violence, the one that overwhelms in any action film. On the contrary, the ethical pathos is directed against violence. The director (also the scriptwriter) shows the conditions inside the society as a whole and the individual. He points the roots of violence out to us mentioning how dangerous the permanent illusion of power can be in peaceful times when there is no formal justification of violence and murder. This drama is about a militant individual freeing itself from his commanders’ control. The film follows a series of allegories the director has shot about the roots of evil and the manifestations of violence.

The protagonist who has become a killing machine through army training shoots at a young civilian who stepped into the prohibited area to make love with his girlfriend. While the female witness of this absurd slaughter is losing her mind, Kang Han-chol is awarded R & R (rest and recreation) for the exemplary performance of duty. Although the contact with the civilians sets his conscience going, he presents an insoluble problem for his colleagues and superiors. After more violent incidents he is discharged from the army, a decision he refuses to respect…

Returning to the problem of violence on the screen many different aspects of violence were presented in the films of the competition proving the relevance of the subject to the current situation. The problem of mutual correction of ethical and ethnic norms seems even more up-to-date in this particular context. To what extent violence can be shown on the screen and how will it be justified from the artistic point of view? It is difficult even impossible to find a universal formulation of the balance. For example in the Irish film Song for a Raggy Boy by Aisling Walsh in the competition program, the extremely shocking scenes of the disciplinary execution of pupils don’t seem necessary although the plot justifies their presence. Meanwhile the documentary scenes of hunting and shooting at homeless dogs in the Armenian film Documentalist (directed by Harutyun Khachatryan, the jury’s special mention in the documentary competition section) are justified — this is a strong metaphor, a desperate cry, the culmination. In this point the presence of these scenes is justified. I’m even sure the main point in this case is not the personal taste but the message of the film.