Sunday, December 9, 2012

#16 - 2NE1's "I Love You" MV (2012) and the films of Josef von Sternberg

Late at night, trying out different Korean music videos on cable OnDemand, I noticed something. It is not influence I'm suggesting or exemplary work I'm praising. There are simply some similarities I wanted to compare.

Solitary scenes of longing are standard fare in music videos, but the concentration of those scenes in this video reminded me of aspects of the work of director Josef von Sternberg.

The four young women that comprise the pop group 2NE1 are kept separate for much of the song; lounging, searching. Their gaze is constantly angled, examining themselves or reaching elsewhere. If they face the camera, it is rarely sustained. These looks at the camera are often partly in shadow, at a diagonal, fleeting in motion, supported by shots of other members of the group, or through a mirror; sparsely distributed through the video until they climax in raid brighter-colored montage.

Outward excess is shown through a gaze both poetic and voyeuristic. One member's dance faces an empty armchair, while another is turned inward, a personal movement. There is an audience in mind, if not present. The group's usual hypersaturated palette, and extreme assemblage of high fashion would not be out of place in the casino of The Shanghai Gesture

Josef von Sternberg was shameless in exploiting "foreign" stereotypes to create his idealized, often depraved, settings for desire. "I Love You" is from an Korean group and presumably filmed by an Asian director whose name I could not find. It uses many locations and objects exotic in design if not in use: the lighthouse shown below looks like a prop from a silent film, and one sensual gesture of brushing past hallway doors is quiet but memorable. 

Many of the videos of 2NE1 are designed to create glamorous, bizarre yet fun worlds for school-age through pop-loving-adult fans. Both bodies of work strive to conjure escape in flickers, to embrace opulence and ridiculousness in impermanent forms.

As stated near the beginning, the slower songs of 2NE1 and other musical acts usually feature one or more people staring, in frames easy to mold towards whatever lyrics are being sung at the moment. What struck me about this video was how it indulged in languor.

Females in von Sternberg's films often slink and recline, and even in the relatively more realist silent The Docks of New York, key moments feature the heroine lying in bed. "I Love You" has been discussed as a typical song about obsession, another trait common to characters in von Sternberg's films. The women of 2NE1 and von Sternberg's heroines are presented lingering within their emotions, unsettled even in their dream worlds, restless but held back until the right moment for the direct gaze.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#15: Korean Interiors: I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK (2006) and The Housemaid (1960)

Characters in Park Chan-wook’s I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK and Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (Hanyo) are confined to stylized spaces that illustrate states of mind. The comedic color film I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK has possibilities expand through the characters’ breaks with reality, while those in the melodramatic black-and-white The Housemaid are further trapped by their extreme emotions. Both films have one moment where the reality of the situation intrudes, a critique of over-sentimentalizing mental illness (Cyborg) or acting as a voyeur (Housemaid). Cyborg or Housemaid, the lead female characters’ minds are especially powerful and, especially for the male characters in the films, impenetrable.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

#14: The Socio-Economic Network: Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004) and Gommora (2008)

Investigations into economic exploitation are adapted for semi-fictional drama in Lu Chuan’s Kekexili (Mountain Patrol) and Matteo Garrone’s Gommora.

Kekexili, which depicts events in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of Tibet, has drawn criticism for portraying the Chinese government as a benign authority. (See here and here for more information.) The director attracted similar comments of fulfilling Chinese propaganda aims with his masterful movie about the Rape of Nanking, City of Life and Death.

Roberto Saviano, the author of the vital muckraking work upon which Gommora is based, is still under police protection since publication of the book, which exposes the worldwide reach of the Camorra mafia and the stranglehold it maintains in and around Naples.

Though events in the plot may be as unforgiving as the mountainous landscape, Kekexili makes gritty heroes out of the Tibetans who give up their time and lives in order to save the Tibetan antelope from poachers. There is much less Hollywood-esque heroism in Gomorra, where the compromises and hypocrisies reach further into even the most well-intentioned person’s actions. The apartment structure at the center of the intertwining stories looms as an ominous structure of community decay.

Some have found Gomorra too bleak and overpopulated with characters to maintain interest, while one romantic subplot in Kekexili halts that film’s otherwise expert control of pace. Chuan also admitted that he could not find a satisfying answer amongst research notes and interviewees for why the protagonists are so committed to their task.

Kekexili’s cinematography brings forth all the color and majesty of the Tibetan highlands, pulling in tighter for character moments and very polished in its overall style. Gommora’s visuals tend towards desaturation in its more intimate and immediate look. The many accounts of Saviano’s book are distilled into several storylines connected by neighborhood and Camorra entanglement. A Chinese connection even appears with one clothes factory plot. “These Chinese know how to cook,” says one surprised Italian character, whose attitude towards the foreigners grows more amicable after food and work. Mealtime also establishes a deeper connection between the Chinese reporter and the Tibetan protagonists of Kekexili, but this a universal trope that can be found in films from any country.

What these films share most in common is a potent and damning critique of how increased worldwide demand for goods is met through pervasive exploitation- of Tibetans as well as the endangered antelope species in Kekexili and the people of an entire region in Gomorra. None of the characters in these films ever have the chance to witness escape from these situations, though hope may be given to the audience through post-movie research or concluding on-screen text.

Friday, January 27, 2012

#13: Expatriate Noir: The Third Man (1949) and Night and the City (1950)

"‘Your national mind,’ said he, ‘has no eyelids. It requires a broad glare and a beaten road. It prefers shadows which you can cut out with a knife.’"
- a British diplomat's view of the United States in Henry Adams’ Democracy: An American Novel

Opportunity amidst the ruins of postwar London and Vienna. Old World ideals and cowboy novel idealism are either defeated or tossed as a joke. All focus on the profiteering American. Both films lurk in cynicism, shadow, and extreme angles; up through a final chase.

Picture via.