Sunday, July 1, 2012

Channeling Mad Sentiment toward Choi Min-Sik: New York Asian Film Festival 2012 day 2

My 2nd day of moviegoing at the 12th New York Asian Film Festival began and ended with hypnosis.

The first film I would attend was OLDBOY, something not at all new to me, but one of my most anticipated screenings of the festival because it would be the first time to see it on a very larger screen with a very capable sound system and it would be the first time to see Choi Min Sik, in person, as participated in a Q & A for afterwards, this being the first of 4 films he is scheduled to do that for.

Previously, I’d seen the film in it’s first theater run at the Angelika Film Center, meaning a much smaller screen and their infamous background subway car rumbles, that at least back then, would roar right over the delicate sounds of many a film. And of course there have been many at-home viewings with the obvious shortcomings - the film maintains its grit when shown in 35 mm. This, I believe, is the movie’s 1st retrospective screening and it was wonderful seeing the film in this setting. The score, a combination of mournful trumpet solos and sweeping symphonic pieces, soared. Shots that, when frozen as a single frame, are filled with a palpable tension -- the three figures standing in the elevator, Oh Dae-su’s emergence from the building of his confinement, Min-woo awkwardly flexing the toy wings -- were all given justice here.

Aside from the intricately woven plot, other aspects of the film stood out. The always interesting way that director Chan-Wook Park chooses to express a certain feeling or idea, for instance. Min Woo’s passing of an early adulthood filled with loneliness is captured as she discusses visions of ants with Oh Dae-su and we see a vision of her riding an empty car of a subway with a human-sized insect shuffling towards an empty seat further down the car. Already familiar with the story’s plot and its vicious twists, My attention was held more towards the film’s offering of the possibility that one might be able to wipe a slate clean, to experience horrible things and bury them with the help of something like hypnotic suggestion, or even the passing of time. The final scene where a hypnotist, yielding to Dae-su’s written appeal, uses hypnotic suggestion to wipe away his knowledge of antagonist Woo-jin’s trap, takes place in a snow filled expanse. It is a beautiful blanket of calm to behold after the nerve wracking tale that comes before.

After the movie, Choi Min-Sik spoke freely to some of the more pressing questions around the film. He explained that the open-ended nature of the script, with the possibility that Oh Dae-su’s mind may or may not have been truly wiped clean, is what attracted him to the role. He also spoke on the infamous live octopus-eating scene. It required three takes, one of the problems being that the first octopus used was too close to death and needed to be manipulated with chopsticks to create the illusion of a struggle. Another enlightening topic of discussion was the level of improvisation that comes into his films. In OLDBOY, the scene where Oh Dae-su pleads with Woo-jin to spare Min Woo the knowledge of their true relationship, the chanting of their high school’s alma matter and barking like a dog were ideas that Min-sik conceived of during a take.

After a much needed break, I returned to the theater for a historic screening of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (THE KING BOXER) directed in 1972 by Chung Chang-Wha, a Korean director working for the Shaw Brothers Hong Kong studio. The appreciative director was presented with an achievement award and painting in his honor. The film gives a look at classic action, filled with nervy characters, all jaws jutting out and smirks worn proudly on faces. Action scenes have fast grounded movements and some exciting early innovations: characters crashing through walls and leaping from up high to strike down on opponents led to enthusiastic responses. This is set to a blistering score, assembled from other 70’s movies of the time, and referenced widely throughout Tarantino’s Kill Bill franchise. During the Q & A, the director spoke politely and succinctly about the film’s place in action cinema’s history and the challenges of being an outsider working in a Chinese studio system (Db elaborates more fully here and pictures galore, provided by Mr. C and Chocko are right here).

Another very brief break followed before it was time to get in place for the festival’s first screening of NAMELESS GANGSTER. This would be Choi Min-sik’s second appearance of the day, but it being for a new movie and in the evening, attracted a much larger crowd. It is a highly accomplished film that I need a second viewing of, as it has its fair share of culture-specific complexities. It calls to mind strong crime-related movies that put plot within the frame of political and societal goings ons of a particular time of place. At its center is a family man who, rather than being the archetype of reluctant gangster, is overanxious to play the part. Enter another groundbreaking and powerful performance by Choi Min-Sik. His character's ascent (or descent) into the lifestyle occurs as a result of a relationship that is particular to Korean culture, called daebu, which he has with an established crook of the same ancestral clan. As Choi (the character was purposely given the same name as the highly regarded actor who he is portrayed by) is the younger gangster’s father's “brother” in terms of age and family name, he is owed respect by the more formidable criminal. An intriguing and tense back and forth ensues between the two. The final encounter between them is electric. The younger gangster is played by Jung-woo Ha, an actor whose performances only get better, perhaps known most in these parts for his roles as reluctant assassin and inscrutable serial killer in Ha Hong-jin’s THE YELLOW SEA and THE CHASER respectively. It becomes another instance of Min-sik bringing the best out of his fellow actor and creating a dynamic performance together.

It’s been documented in earlier posts, by Db in writing and Mr. C with several photos, how generous Choi Min-Sik has been with his time and attention to greeting and signing things for fans. This extended into the late hours of the night (The NAMELESS GANGSTER screening and Q & A kept on until within a few minutes of the midnight movie’s start time. During the Q & A too, he presented himself with graciousness and good will, expressing gratitude for being at the festival and his feeling that acting gives him a chance to make friends and connections with others around the world. A finer example of humbleness and positivity in a celebrity would be hard to identify.

I stayed for the midnight movie from Japan, GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL. It was less mind melting than BOXER’S OMEN shown the night before, but few things can match that. With a Twilight Zone-ish premise and atmosphere, it served as a near precursor to LOST, hurling the passengers and crew of a flight into stranded territory to survive, argue, and form hesitant alliances as they are bombarded by suicidal crows, rock slides, and a parasitic entity that oozes forth from one’s skull in a slick silver metallic color. The passengers consist of a deliciously loaded deck of volatile characters: a politician along with his righthand man, a psychologist (important because at some point he will try to hypnotize a traumatized stewardess into finding out the whereabouts of a violent, possessed crew member), an American widow of a deceased soldier, and a guy who may or may not be carrying a bomb because life is boring. Then there is a creepy evil guy whose intentions are unclear, but definitely pulls off a sinister look, before he becomes the first to be possessed by evil forces. The ruptured, bleeding forehead that marks his transformation is like a very early Cronenberg exercise in body horror. Meanwhile some tripped out light effects again score a point for old school ingenuity in our age of overwrought but soulless special effects.

Today was a day of rest. Tomorrow’s agenda reads like Choi Min Sik plus one. First up is a drama from Taiwan, MAKE UP, followed by FAILAN with Choi Min-Sik on hand to discuss it. Then, after a break, I will be back in the theater to see Choi Min-Sik’s boxing film CRYING FIST, where he will again be on hand for a Q & A.

Me on Twitter = @mondocurry

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