In recent years, NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS has opened up to Asian pop cinema, although they haven't always made the wisest choices. A very broad comedy that could easily inspire a Hollywood remake, THE FOUL KING isn't the kind of film that usually plays festivals. Starting out as a satire of office life, it depicts bedraggled wage slave Daeho (Song Kang-ho) struggling to find a new career in the wrestling ring. Shedding his suit, he takes on the mantle of "the Foul King," a wrestler who makes his name by incessant cheating. Kim's digs at the absurdity of office life are quite funny, but they seem pretty tame name to his compatriot Jang Sun-woo's THE AGE OF SUCCESS. (Nevertheless, the actor who plays Daeho's bully of a boss - the press notes don't mention his name - is excellent.) THE FOUL KING never quite establishes a consistent tone. Does it want to be a comedy about white-collar hell or a parody of ROCKY-style transcendence through sports? It might have some emotional pull if it took Daeho's dreams more seriously, but it plays them for pretty over-the-top laughs. Kim comes up with plenty of funny bits - particularly Daeho's vision of himself in the arena as an Elvis impersonator - but even some of them wear out their welcome too quickly. In the end, THE FOUL KING has the hit-to-miss ratio of a better-than-average SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE episode.
Although made a year before MEMENTO, PEPPERMINT CANDY is receiving its New York premiere shortly after the opening of Christopher Nolanís film. Since the two share a similar backwards chronology, MEMENTO may have stolen its thunder, although the two films feel quite different. Organized into 7 sections spanning 20 years, PEPPERMINT CANDY begins with the suicide of 40-year-old Yongho (Soi Kyung-Gu) at a 20-year reunion of factory workers. From there, it explores how the young Yonghoís first experiences of love got dashed, leaving him permanently scarred, through a traumatic experience in the army that leads to a spiral of state-sponsored thuggery (PEPPERMINT CANDYís realistic, disturbing treatment of Korean police brutality and torture is a welcome corrective to NOWHERE TO HIDE) and a failed marriage and business. Lee carries an agenda thatís more political (connecting Yonghoís burn-out to the 1980 massacre of student protesters) than existential. Although he isnít as clever a storyteller as Nolan, confusion seems to be part of his plan, as he sets up images and motifs whose meaning becomes clear only in retrospect and with repetition. While some of the details may be fuzzy, the mood of despairing reverie is affecting, building towards an epiphany explaining where Yonghoís life went wrong.
A 37-minute collection of 12 brief sketches from the Japanese TV show VERMILLION PLEASURE NIGHT, THE FUCCON FAMILY is an eccentric sitcom. Perhaps inspired by Todd Haynesí use of Barbie dolls in SUPERSTAR, Ishibashi cast mannequins as an American family living in Japan. Mocking TV conventions, it reveals their artificiality by replaying them in a context where demonic possession is a crisis as likely as adultery. (The dialogue is full of hilariously stilted platitudes, although much of this may stem from bad subtitles.) The sound of canned laughter, booming over wildly inappropriate situations, quickly becomes as creepy as a Charles Ray sculpture. THE FUCCON FAMILY is wonderful TV, but it doesnít feel like a real film: imagine Robert Smigel editing the Anipals segments from TV FUNHOUSE together and calling it a feature. Thanks to the awkward structure (including recycling most of its images with different dialogue) , it adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
Even so, it makes ROLANDíS PASS look all the more bland. Set on a hiking trip on the border between France and Spain, its metaphors for family trouble - in which children turn out to be more mature than their parents - are slight and forced. The directors are adept at filming landscapes, but not so hot with people. Thereís nothing horribly wrong with this film, but itís terribly prosaic.
Although dedicated to Anton Chekhov, CLOUDS OF MAY could win the ďI canít believe itís not Iranian!Ē sweepstakes. Unlike the Russian playwright, Abbas Kiarostami doesnít get a shout-out in the closing credits, but his influence is at least as apparent: in the very premise (an Istanbul-based director returns to his rural home town to make his latest film), cast of non-professional actors (starring Ceylanís parents as those of his alter ego) and use of extreme long shots of landscapes as punctuation. While Ceylanís vision may not be original, he shows a real sensitivity to his pastoral setting, building the filmís rhythm around the lazy feel of a Sunday in the countryside. His gradual development of characters and subplots - Muzaffer (Muzaffer Ozdemir), the filmmaker; his father Emin (M. Emin Ceylan), who wants to prevent the government from cutting down trees on land he owns; his friend Saffet (M. Emin Toprak), who wants Muzaffer to give him a job and help him move to Istanbul - feels spontaneous and casual, yet the stories interlock in genuinely surprising ways. Unfortunately, this air of realism extends to plenty of longueurs, as Ceylanís pace is a bit too relaxed and his 130-minute running time unnecessarily bloated. Nevertheless, CLOUDS OF MAY keeps springing back to life with enough lovely images to suggest that Ceylan has real promise.
The durian is a huge, spiky fruit that reportedly smells awful but tastes delicious. It figures in the plot of DURIAN DURIAN, but its presence in the filmís title also signals its double nature. Starting off with the intersecting stories of Yan (Qin Hailu), a prostitute from the north of mainland China, and a family from the same region, its first half offers an unglamorous view of Hong Kong, unlike any other recent film from the region Iíve seen. Chan shows nothing but cramped rooms, dangerous alleys and fast-food restaurants where cell phones beep every 15 seconds, adopting a style to fit the cityís frantic pace: a handheld camera in shallow focus, bobbing about in close proximity to his characters. Were DURIAN DURIAN to stop here, it would be a first-rate slice-of-life, but it becomes more elusive when, in its second half, it follows Yan back to her hometown. Chanís style relaxes, adjusting to the slower rhythms of the mainland. Still, life is in flux there too - albeit in a less obvious way than in Hong Kong - and as in Jia Zhang Keís films, life seems to be happening just around the corner. By juxtaposing these two segments of Yanís experience, DURIAN DURIANís portrait of Chinese wanderlust gains in complexity. (The second half is almost a reversal of the numerous HK films about the Chinese diaspora.) The first of Fruit Chanís four films to be shown in New York, I hope its screening leads to some exposure for the others.