in honor of the late Korean American comedian Johnny Yune, I made a “drunk history” video (an homage to Derek Waters’ Drunk History).
in honor of the late Korean American comedian Johnny Yune, I made a “drunk history” video (an homage to Derek Waters’ Drunk History).
All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.
The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.
But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.
The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).
Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.
Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?
Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.
But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.
Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods.
And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”
Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.
In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.
Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.”
I wrote a piece on Nymphomaniac (2014, Director’s Cut, Vol. I and II) and on what it means to be “A Radical, Vulnerable and Agentic Body.”
check out my film review of Gook (2017) featured on nü house. opens tomorrow August 18th!
Na Hong-jin’s Definition of Evil: The Inexplicable
The Wailing (2016) aka 곡성 is Na Hong-jin’s third feature film starring the excellent Kwak Do-won, who Na has collaborated with in The Yellow Sea (2010). Na is probably most well-known for his feature debut The Chaser (2008) with Ha Jung-woo playing the terrifying serial killer, and Kim Yoon-seok playing the corrupt detective-turned-pimp trying to solve these unexplainable crimes.
With The Wailing, Na continues his theme of inexplicable evils committed by a being that appears to be fully human but from up close contains no sympathetic soul. In The Chaser, Ha Jung-woo’s character is just plainly a murderer without any rhyme or reason; in The Yellow Sea, Ha Jung-woo’s character is put on an assassination mission without knowing the reasons for why he must commit this crime, and when he finally learns the reason, he is left completely speechless by the superficiality of the incitement, thus portraying–again–evil actions without a justifiable cause. Na brings this concept into the realm of the superego by putting the face and body of the Devil himself onto our screen with The Wailing.
Freud (1919) defines the uncanny as something that is preferably concealed but is later revealed to our reaction of horror, fright, terror, disgust, etc.; the uncanny refers to what is familiar to us therefore familial; for instance, a daughter, who is completely knowable to the parents who produced and gave birth to her, love and care for her, belongs in the realm of uncanny because she is familiar (heimlich); the flipside to heimlich is unheimlich which is the stranger or the ugliness that is preferably concealed; this is when the daughter we know and love suddenly changes because she is possessed by the unknowable. The uncanny may also refer to a the “happy genius,” otherwise known as the guardian spirit of a dwelling–the possessor. Traces of heimlich and unheimlich which make up the constitution of the uncanny is found in Gokseong–the small village in Jeolla Province where the film is set (also the title of the film in hangeul).
At the crack of dawn on a rainy day, officer Jeon Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) gets a phone call from the station alerting him of a murder case. When he arrives at the scene of the crime, he finds that a family’s been stabbed to death by a young man who sits on the edge of the maroo, skin covered in boils and the blood of his victims, with eyes glazed over as though in a trance.
Boils on the skin, mental derangement and subsequent serial killings of those around him/her are symptoms found among several murderers (victims) throughout the village. The noticeable pattern along with the rumors going about town that the suspect who is spreading this disease (or possession) is a strange Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who lives deep in the mountains, eats deer carcass raw, rapes women and curses people. These rumors start to pile up inside officer Jeon’s imaginary.
One day when Jeon and his partner break into the fisherman’s house, they find a small dwelling densely packed with photographs of the victims, candles, shaman ritual rope, and personal belongings of the villagers such as shoes and clothes. The last straw for Jeon is when he sees symptoms appear in his young daughter Hyo-jin–played by the very impressive Kim Hwan-hee–who appears to be about 10 or 11 years old. It begins with her erratic behavior; the young girl who was once so sweet to her old man suddenly throws fits; she screams and curses at her father leaving her entire family aghast but frozen in fear at the sight indicating everyone’s helplessness. Doctors have no answers. The police are useless. A spiritual intervention is the only answer for them.
In part two of the film, the child’s grandmother invites a well-known shaman named Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min, The Unjust (2010), Veteran (2015)) who is apparently quite expensive but rumored to be the best there is from Seoul. Jeon tells Il-gwang of the situation. Jeon explains all of this to his trusty Korean shaman who assures him that he will take care of the matter–put it to rest. Il-gwang tells Jeon that what’s plaguing the town is not a person but a ghost. Jeon asks how a person he’s seen in the flesh and blood can be a ghost, and this is the difficult question he struggles with for the rest of the film, along with the more obvious questions, “Why me? Why my daughter? Why my hometown?”
Freud’s uncanny is a duality–a yin and yang, for instance, which may coexist. Yin and yang are prevalent themes in throughout the film. For instance, during his rituals, Il-gwang offers up white chickens and goats to the spirits whereas the Japanese stranger kills black chickens and goats to cast his curse.
Another spiritual force haunts the town, representing yang, and it is played by the wonderful Chun Woo-hee ((Sunny (2011) and Han Gongju (2014)) who is referred to by the film’s credits simply as “mu-myeong,” which translates into “no name.” Mu-myeong is the first witness that officer Jeon encounters at the second murder scene where a deranged woman killed her entire family then burned the house down before hanging herself. At the crime scene, Mu-myeong tells officer Jeon that the old Japanese man is a ghost who is possessing these people and driving them to commit these murders.
What’s interesting to note is how in these scenarios one person gets possessed then murders their own family members. The killings aren’t random. They are specifically towards their own flesh and blood or clan members. What does that say about the ghost’s intentions? What does that say about the ghost himself who is a spirit but in flesh and blood?
This ghost also appears to have a hobby for photography. He takes photographs of his victims in 35mm with a Minolta camera, which he seems to develop on his own at his creepy house. It nudges against the superstition that existed or still exists in tribal countries that photographs steal a person’s soul. The haunting theme that emanates from the Japanese stranger is that he is not a living person but a ghost–a dead man walking.
At Jeon’s question as to how a ghost could possibly have a body, Il-gwang tells him that when a ghost captures enough bodies for his own, he can eventually become a person albeit not a living one. This image of a strange man staring who appears to be dead or a strange man trying to enter haunts at least several people’s dreams.
Horror Genre Mashup
The epidemic throughout the town is most certainly an homage to the zombie genre. With that said, the film is not a zombie film necessarily. In fact, at one point in the movie, when a team of men who are out to hunt down and kill the Japanese man-ghost, they encounter a zombie, who was evidently brought back to life although he was initially dead just like the other victims, covered in boils and rotting away like a victim of leprosy.
At the scene of the zombie attack, the film reaches a point of satiric comedy. The men who’ve never seen a zombie before don’t know how to react to it, nor how to treat it. At first they try to help him and speak to him as if he’s a regular person, but when the zombie starts to attack the party by biting them, the men go around taking turns both beating the zombie and getting attacked himself. At least two men can’t bear the sight of another man whacking this apparently ill person with a stick and tries to stop the attack. Big mistake. The zombie then attacks the good Samaritan. It’s a likely metaphor for Korea’s clumsiness at the introduction to any Western concept. The zombie isn’t found in Korean folklore. (The closest to a zombie that Koreans might know from Chinese legends is the Jiangshi or gangshi in Korean which has its own set of cultural rules/references.)
In a way, there is perhaps almost every element of a horror film ever made in this movie; Edgar Allan Poe-inspired cats and crows, rabid black dogs, dead deer carcasses; the possession of a little girl has strong connotations of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973); institutions are critiqued for their inability to make sense or get control of the situation such as the police and the church.
The film, of course, contains a twist in the third act, but it’s a twist on a twist that baffles not only Jeon but also the audience. The manhunt for the strange Japanese man ends when he gets thrown off a mountain hitting Jeon’s windshield. Jeon and his friends toss him on the side of the road assuming he is dead. Jeon later finds his daughter at the hospital who appears to be fine; the symptoms seem to be gone and her normal state appears to have returned.
We come to understand that Mu-myeong is perhaps a spirit if not a shaman herself when we see Il-gwang lose a vast amount of blood from his nose and vomit uncontrollably when he encounters her. Mu-myeong drives him out of the village. Il-gwang, whose hex ritual went interrupted by Jeon who could no longer bear the sight of his daughter’s suffering, tells Jeon that it wasn’t the Japanese man who is the evil spirit; it is a young woman clad in white–Mu-myeong. Jeon’s faith in people’s stories gets tested here when Mu-myeong tells him to trust in her and Il-gwang tells him not to trust her but in his words.
Jeon ultimately doesn’t listen to Mu-myeong and enters the house thus breaking whatever spell she’d cast on the house to save his family. Jeon, of course, finds that his daughter did what he’d feared this whole time and slaughtered his wife and mother to death.
Mu-myeong had warned Jeon that Il-gwang and the Japanese stranger have been plotting together (they share the same loin cloth and similar rituals). This is confirmed when a case full of photographs from the Japanese stranger’s walls are found in his possession. Given Korea’s long history of religious scammers taking advantage of the nation’s superstitious/fatalist tendencies, Il-gwang’s appearance here is the yin within his overall film presence as the yang.
Biblical themes are prominent throughout. There’s the bilingual theologian working his way towards becoming a priest working as a liaison between Jeon and the Japanese stranger. There’s the Father of the church who appears useless at the face of the epidemic and demon that is haunting the town–another indication of institutional incompetence. There’s an attack of moths on a car’s windshield that brings to mind the plague of locusts in the Old Testament. The opening shot of the film begins with a verse from the book of Luke when Jesus reappears before his disciples and asks them why they are afraid of the sight of his body, and challenging their doubtful minds. When Mu-myeong tells Jeon to wait for the rooster’s crow three times before entering his house in order to save his family, it is a clear reference to Christ’s warning to Peter that he will deny knowing Christ three times before the rooster’s crow. When Jeon finally realizes that the Mu-myeong is always clad in the victims’ clothes, he loses faith in her words and goes into the house.
Time is always unfriendly to Jeon in this film. He is temperamental and impatient when patience is of utmost necessity, and frozen stiff, speechless or bumblingly incompetent at times when his actions are completely called for. The film satirizes Jeon’s lack of faith and impatience. Doubt and faith are like yin and yang throughout the film, and they are the forces that maintain the momentum of the film.
The film ultimately confronts the audience with the same question that Jeon is faced with: which story are you going to believe? Depending on who is talking to you–a shaman, a priest, a ghost, the devil, or your daughter–your faith will be tested against the story you’ve lived your life believing in. Religion, according to Na’s film, is no different from a folk tale, a spooky town rumor, or the horror movies you grew up knowing and loving. When what occurs externally doesn’t match with what exists internally, that moment becomes the precarious point between doubt and faith. Na’s film plays with genre, religion and spirituality freely throughout but without ever letting us bring down our guard.
The first act has strong notes of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003)–everything from the misty, rain-filled blue hues, the frightening image of nature, and the slapsticky black comedy–a new quality to Na’s filmmaking which are not present in his earlier two films. The film was shot by Bong’s frequent collaborator–cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (although he did not film Memories). The music is perhaps the film’s strongest quality, scored by Jang Young-gyu.
Reception so far has been decent. Trade reviews remark that Na’s film lacks logic. This may be true but I say that such an assessment is a cop out (we’ve all seen Magnolia). The Wailing is certainly packed with a whole lot to deconstruct but it is not inscrutable. There are plenty of signals and clues. It’s just a matter of interpreting the narrative, and it takes awhile, and that interpretation is likely to evolve. The film’s positioned to be a cult hit that’ll produce a great deal of wholesome dialogue among cinephiles but only among those who’ll bother to take the time to do it.
I needed another fix of Yoo Ah-in starring in yet another dramatic period piece, and this time by filmmaker Yi Joon-ik with Sado (2015). It stars Song Kang-ho who plays King Yeongjo, a father with mountain high expectations of his second son, Jang-jo (posthumously named Crown Prince Sado) who history writes as an insane and troubled soul that went around raping and killing people randomly throughout the palace due to his mental illness largely attributed to the deep anxiety caused by his strict father. Yeongjo’s constant disapproval and disdain for his son’s actions drove Jang-jo mad with rage.
One day, after an attempted murder of the King, Sado is captured and forced into a wooden rice crate and left inside of it for eight days straight until he dies of dehydration and starvation. It’s a dramatic epic, and pretty awesome one at that. Just listen to this music. Beautifully crafted imagery, and truly idiosyncratic performance given by Song Kang-ho. I’ve never seen an actor play a period epic blending cool and casual wit with cruelty, sorrow and passion in such balanced synchrony.
The film is ultimately a family drama. The women in the film, again, don’t have it easy. There’s tension between concubines, and among the queens, although in general, the women seem to look after one another a little better than in the Hui Bin drama…
Yoo Ah-in, in Sado, plays the grandson of King Sukjong, which he himself played in Jang Ok-Jung (2013). Yoo’s performance is excellent as well albeit I feel like I’ve seen his range already in Jang Ok-Jung. Also, great cameo appearance by heartthrob So Ji-sub.
For more info on the film, please refer to this great review on The Hollywood Reporter.
I wrote this back in late November for a classroom blog post. I am reposting it here now because some of the thoughts are relevant to my current situation. More on that later.
I was glad that we got to see Enlightened in class today. It’s one of my favorite shows, and I was bummed to learn that it wouldn’t get a third season, especially because season two ended on such a huge cliffhanger.
When I first watched the show, I’d already listened to interviews given by Laura Dern and Mike White—on separate occasions—on what the show is and how difficult it was to make it, and then watch it get canceled, so I’d already begun my viewing experience with some information (either at the forefront or lingering in the back) in my head. In any case, in my first viewing, I watched Amy with a lot of tension in my shoulders because she was such a train wreck with almost little to no self-awareness. It was stressful. I had to keep watching, though, because I dug the show (I’m also a fan of Mike White), and I genuinely wanted to believe in her optimism as much as she seemed to. But if you continue on with the season, and finish season two, you’ll see that she’s always the same in each episode—an idealist who is wired to be incapable of improvement—and she’s always going to make things worse for herself and those around her no matter how much she believes in her heart of hearts that there is hope for a better future and greater change.
In my second viewing of the pilot, I tried to see it differently. I tried to see it as if Amy is the normal one and everyone else is the crazy one. This made the show a lot easier to watch, and a lot more heartbreaking. She genuinely believes in a better future, change and improvement. Nobody else in her life does. Everybody thinks she’s crazy. But if I watch her as the normal one, everyone else seems completely out of line. Why doesn’t Diane Ladd’s character just let Amy read the letter? Why doesn’t Charles Esten’s character just meet with Amy in person to reconcile? Why doesn’t the company just give Amy her job back and take her up on her suggestions on fixing up the company’s reputation by making environmentally sound choices? All of these things have something to do with time and boundaries. Amy is someone who doesn’t believe in the restrictions of time and boundaries among individuals. She’s someone who wouldn’t function well in a society that holds those two things close to heart. This is what makes her the show’s heroine, and it’s what makes her constantly run into problems in her society. It’s also what causes her to be exploited later on in season 2 (no spoilers), which breaks my heart even more.
Amy is the protagonist of the show whether we like her or not. She is the one that’s given to us and we have to accept this, or we can continue to watch just hating her (lots of people have commented on how much they hate this character that Dern plays, which eventually led to the show’s demise, although Dern herself says she loves this character). I kind of love this character, too. I’m a big fan of this show because it’s a female antihero who is dressed not as a cynical, unfaithful, sex-addicted, alcoholic man (Sopranos, MadMen) but an idealist who had a lot of letdowns in her life (again, no spoilers, but she’s had it rough, hence her borderline personality) but continues to strive for optimism and hope in a world that continues to let her down and conflict with her.
With that said, reading Caldwell’s “Industrial Auteur Theory” bummed me out a lot. It’s heavy stuff. Especially the paragraph on the writer’s room culture that basically leads to symptoms of PTSD among employees, who later get told by the production company!—to go and get therapy. I can empathize to some mild degree. Working in production where pressure and stress run high (because there’s never enough time, and time so equals money here) does lead to a lot of scarring, emotional trauma, mental duress, conflicts, etc. Without therapy, there’s no way that people could survive. Makes sense why so many industry people are into Eastern religion, yoga, meditation and all that (basically all of the things Amy turned to after her breakdown). Every single actor/director friend of mine claims to be Buddhist, and they all read some new kind of self-help book, which they go around recommending me any chance that they get.
The idea of producers who take advantage of younger below-the-line crew members’ broken minds and bodies + eagerness to still make it in the industry and exploit that emotional vulnerability because they know that the young and eager will still be grateful for the opportunity to work alone is also a monstrous/ugly thing that is rampant in the industry. In a lot of ways it is rampant precisely because so many people are fighting their way to get in, and so many people are willing to make that kind of sacrifice as a form of “paying one’s dues.” Personally, I am very against this concept. I wish it didn’t have to be this way.
In the few indies I’ve produced, nearly all of the crew members did the work for no pay—just meals—because people enjoyed the filmmaking process. If it wasn’t for that then no one would’ve participated. It came from a place of passion and the desire to work with one another. We all genuinely liked being on set. After a production wraps, a lot of the times the cast and crew stay in touch for years—unless somebody really didn’t get along with another person, which also happens. These people will almost never speak to one another for years. After going through something as intense as shooting a film, it’s impossible to not become close. So there is some pay off to the agony, but making a film is an agonizing process. As it is with TV. I’m sure many people have seen that documentary 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (2011) by Arthur Bradford. I think it’s a good film to complement what Caldwell discusses.
Speaking of desperation, I can see some parallels between the desperate, rock-bottom state that Amy is in which drives her full-force into the arms of the spiritual, incense waving, hippy-dippy world + random sea turtle spotting, which she applies epic meaning/significance to) and the desperate, zero experience unpaid interns/PAs who willingly—very passionately—run towards film/TV sets for little to nothing and get screamed at all day by the department heads and the above-the-line crew members simply because they believe in the magic of show biz. Yikes! This is super depressing to think about. Probably because it is too real, and very true of our industry.
Anyway, I still like to believe that there is light at the end of that tunnel.
The whispery voiceovers from pieces of an intimate conversation over epically swooping camera movements that capture the sun directly, the wind blowing through hair and fabric, trees, the glistening snow, and forests are all very Malickian. We’ve seen these kinds of openings in Days of Heaven (1978), The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011). Whereas Malick’s films search for meaning or God inside the tension between man and nature, Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a Jobian wonderment at nature’s power as man goes head to head with it, bringing to viewers Iñárritu’s awe of human tenacity for survival.
The film itself seems to have gone through a turmoil just to be made; the original source is a historical novel by Michael Punke which was published in 2002, based on the life of a Pennsylvanian frontiersman Hugh Glass who survived a real bear mauling and was left to die by his men but crawled his way back to a settlement. The film was optioned for a screenplay around the same time of the book’s publication, and initially had John Hillcoat to direct with Christian Bale for the lead, but was later handed to Korean director Park Chan-wook with Samuel L. Jackson in the lead role. After Park abandoned the project as well, the project was handed over to Iñárritu in 2011, who decided to make Birdman.
According to sources, the film was shot in some of the coldest locations in Calgary and Tierra del Fuego of Argentina. It was shot over nine months. I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone suffered from frostbite (Iñárritu claims that no one on set was harmed). As beautiful as the images were, I was distracted by wondering throughout how on earth the crew had made their way into such wild terrains deep in the winter’s snow.
Aside from the epic visuals, the music made a large impression on me. Iñárritu teamed up with previous collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed Babel (2006), as well as German electronica musician Alva Noto. (Bryce David Dessner is also credited for composition.) The electronica sounds mixed into the voice of Glass’ dead Pawnee wife juxtaposed against the images of a cold winter covered forest creates an alluring and ironic effect.
The violent scenes between the natives and the whites from America and France are gory and brutal. Iñárritu is not immune to problematic representation of Native Americans in the film; the audience is manipulated to root for the white team despite Glass’ partial adoption of the Pawnee lifestyle.
For all the epic effects that the film contains, there are majorly apparent dubbing and sound sync issues which are distractingly noticeable on the big screen. And for all the epic-ness that the film builds up, the content is ultimately quite shallow.
Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film Youth (2015) has at least one or two too many characters and scenes.
This may be my own personal bias because I don’t think I’ve ever liked Paul Dano as an actor, but his character and all of his scenes could have been omitted from this film. That would’ve actually made the film stronger.
I don’t think this vain/vapid/disgruntled actor played by a very actor-like actor is all that substantial. His presence adds nothing to the picture. His character’s thoughts and commentary do nothing for the movie. I was never once moved, amused or pleased by Dano’s character, Jimmy Tree. But this is almost always the case with Dano in movies for me.
When I first saw Dano in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), I was mostly confused; I didn’t know whether I liked him or was impressed by him, but turns out, it was neither; my initial instinct was correct: I was merely confused by him.
His acting is very confusing to me because he acts so hard; Dano works so hard in the pictures but it’s precisely that which displeases me; he tries too hard to act, and this effort is all too apparent to me as the viewer; his acting is the type that I see in plays. Perhaps Dano belongs to the live theater. For the screen, it is too exhausting to witness. In fact, it’s humiliating. Discomforting. The excess is discomforting. Like seeing a stranger cry in front of me, or witnessing an orgasm when I shouldn’t be. That kind of discomfort.
Aside from Dano, I don’t understand why there is a Tibetan monk there–a nameless monk (played by Dorji Wangchuk, who, according to IMDb, is also a documentary filmmaker) who doesn’t impress Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine). I don’t get his role or his presence in this movie. It seems completely unnecessary. Seeing yet again another dimensionless Asian in a movie is simply distracting.
Another problem is the character Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea); Sorrentino’s fetishization of a voluptuous woman’s body in this picture might simply be his way of stating what Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) the filmmaker claims: how he is a great “woman’s director.” The only women in this film who have interesting qualities that make them memorable are Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz) and the young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic). They have a presence that do not submit to the male gaze or the male patronization, which is refreshing and comforting. Giving Miss Universe a minor moment of triumph to call Jimmy Tree out on his presumptuousness doesn’t justify having her parade around half naked in the opening act and completely naked in the later act. It’s just unappealing. This sort of female body exploitation is just hackneyed at this point, and distasteful.
Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) is yet another stereotype of an aged actress playing an aged actress (rings a Sunset Boulevard (1950) bell). Fonda’s monologue feels awkward. I’m not sure if it’s the delivery or the writing. (I might have to go with delivery since Lena’s monologue in the mud pack scene with her father is spectacular. It is so long but Weisz is completely marvelous in her delivery and is utterly moving.) But Fonda makes up for it by bringing in a great sliver of a moment when she breaks down on the airplane which I can only wish to have seen more of.
There is a beautifully picturesque moment when Mick stands before a hill and sees all the actresses he’s ever worked with doing their scene and their lines–repeating the same lines over and over–all at once. The colors, the set and the view are very Kurosawan and reminiscent of the opening scene of Dreams (1990), which Kurosawa made late in his career. Mick’s surreal vision in this particular scene is a telling of his impending death but also of all the dreams he had as a filmmaker–the visions he had for each actor and character were in themselves little dreams. Witnessing this before him all at once is like having his life flash before his eyes. This, again, alludes to his oncoming death. I could hear people protest to this interpretation stating that a suicide doesn’t count but I say death is death. Suicide counts. Directors are control freaks; perhaps Mick knew that he had prostate cancer and decided to take his life with his own hands, much like the late Tony Scott.
There are three elements that make this film worth the 2 hours of sitting (it felt like 3 hours because there were so many scenes, and every scene ends on some note of massive profundity that makes it seem as if it’s the last scene of the movie, except that the movie keeps going!–this made the film feel infinitely longer for me):
First is Luca Bigazzi, who also lensed Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) and This Must Be The Place (2011), as well as Abbas Kiarostami’s underwhelming Certified Copy (2010). He ensures that every frame of this film is a poetic jewel for the eye. The film is for the most part set in one resort which could’ve easily become a stale atmosphere but Bigazzi brings warmth, glitz and emotion to geometry like I’ve never seen before. The film is a delight to view from beginning to end because of his artful cinematography.
Second: The composition by David Lang whose music acts as the heart of the film fills the screen with nostalgia and elegance; “Simple Songs” sung by Korean soprano singer Sumi Jo, is cripplingly beautiful. Lang also composed for The Great Beauty and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000).
Finally, Michael Caine’s performance is flawless. With every other character and actor, I sensed at least one moment of disingenuousness, but not at all with Caine, which is a testament to his mastery. He plays maestro, father, friend, mentor, composer, and husband Ballinger with all the sensitivity one could bring to a screen.