I saw a Facebook post the other day pleading with people to stop posting about Wong Kar Wai. A post which was quickly followed by comments agreeing with that premise and adding that comments about PARASITE had also tended to overrun other conversations about Asian films.
I am part of this problem. Not in the Facebook group. But here on Shadows Writer.
I have written several posts on Wong Kar Wai. There was even one exclusively on the new Criterion set honoring him. I’ve also written a lot about PARASITE, including highly recommending that everyone see the BLACK AND WHITE VERSION because it is actually a better film.
It’s hard not to want to talk about these directors and their movies. They are so good. So unique. Such forces in the world of film.
But it’s time to give it a rest.
For those of you that recognize some particular paragraphs below from previous posts, I thank you. It means you have been a loyal reader for a long time. I will openly admit to plagiarizing from my own, earlier work. I hope it doesn’t detract you from this post’s content and main point.
The filmmakers I’m about to write about are not nearly as familiar as Wong Kar Wai and Bong Joon Ho. But they should be. They are not “lesser” filmmakers, by any stretch.
They are two of the greatest directors working today. Not just in Asia. But in the entire world.
Their names are Lee Chang Dong and Jia Zhangke
Lee Chang Dong
Lee Chang Dong is the South Korean writer/director of BURNING, SECRET SUNSHINE, OASIS, POETRY and several other brilliant movies over the last few decades. He has competed at Cannes and even won several lifetime achievement awards but has remained relatively unknown to most Western film fans.
That needs to be fixed.
2018’s BURNING is far and away the most accessible of Lee Chang Dong’s films. That is not to say it’s a typical, standard Western-style film. It’s not.
However, its pacing, thriller elements, and style make BURNING the perfect gateway into Lee Chang Dong’s body of work.
BURNING is about two men and a woman and the strange relationship between the three of them. It is very loosely based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami.
The first half of BURNING successfully captures Murakami’s mixture of melancholy, yearning and everyday magic tinged by an underlying sadness in a way that no other Murakami film adaptation has ever accomplished before.
Then it takes a very disturbing turn of direction about midway through the film.
The next couple paragraphs contain spoilers. So, I shall leave it to you if you choose to continue or skip down the the next section. The female character disappears. Not only does she disappear, there are ever-increasing hints that one of the two main male characters killed her.
The remainder of the film is reminiscent of THE VANISHING, the Dutch film made in 1988 by George Sluizer. It is as much about the main character’s obsession about finding out what happened as a more traditional mystery/crime thriller about tracking down the bad guy.
Its all very suspenseful and creepy. And far more complex than it might first appear. BURNING is a worthy and unforgettable introduction to the films of Lee Chang Dong, if ever there was.
My personal favorite of Lee Chang Dong’s films is the one he made eight years before BURNING, POETRY. It was made in 2010 and won the award for Best Screenplay at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The story revolves around a grandmother struggling financially and with the onset of dementia as she tries to raise her teenage grandson. But it’s no “slice of life film.” Nor is it some sweet and sentimental family film.
POETRY will hit you in ways you had no idea were coming. You may find yourself thinking about it for days. Still trying to grasp everything you have seen.
This paragraph will give away a major plot point. However, it is key to discussing the film. POETRY is not just a film about an old woman struggling with Alzheimer’s as some of the online movie summaries would suggest. Something truly terrible happens in the film.
A teenage girl commits suicide. And the reason she did it was that the Grandmother’s grandson, along with a number of other boys, repeatedly bullied and raped her.
POETRY a much more slowly paced, oblique film compared to BURNING. It is a film that invites you into the full world of its main character.
And it feels painfully real.
The grandmother is played by Yoon Jeaong-hee after a sixteen year absence from the screen. There are many shots of her just doing her daily activities. Those small moments transform into a very cohesive and devastating whole.
POETRY’S ending is both subtle and overwhelmingly powerful.
Oddly, Bong Joon Ho, released a film with a very similar plot in 2009, called MOTHER. These two films, could not be more different. Whereas MOTHER is a skilled combination of drama, thriller, horror and even comedy, POETRY remains deeply grounded in reality.
It’s a great film which rewards the patient and attentive viewer in spades.
Like POETRY, 2007’s SECRET SUNSHINE also deals with a horrific crime, loss and grief. However, it treats these issue slightly differently.
The plot of SECRET SUNSHINE is about a woman who moves to a small, rural town with her young son after her husband dies in a car accident.
The town is where her husband grew up in and they had always discussed returning to live there, someday, as a family. The woman knows no one and her new lifestyle is vastly different from her previous one in bustling Seoul.
There is then a moment fairly early in the film which changes everything. Her son is abducted and soon found dead.
The shock of the tragedy sends her reeling.
It is while in this state of misery and shock, that she finds comfort in the Evangelical church which dominates her small town. She is soon “born again” and acts as if life is fine.
Eventually, she sees the hypocrisy of the teachings of her church.
She is fully enveloped by loss and tragedy. Daily life becomes a battle. She somehow survives and keeps going, even without the hollow words of the church. That’s it. That is how the film ends.
A woman just surviving through another day.
SECRET SUNSHINE is not as slick as BURNING. It’s also not as complex in the way its story is revealed as POETRY. Yet, it’s an extremely powerful film that is well worth seeking out.
Then again, most films by Lee Chang Dong are.
Jia Zhangke is routinely referred to as a “master filmmaker.” A director widely regarded by critics to be one of the best film directors of his time.
So, why is it that so many people never seem to have heard of him?
Here’s a list of some of his films: ASH IS PUREST WHITE, MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART, A TOUCH OF SIN, 24 CITY, STILL LIFE, THE WORLD, UNKNOWN PLEASURES, PLATFORM and XIAO WU. And that doesn’t include his dozens of documentaries or short films.
These are amazing films.
The characters in a Jia Zhangke film are unusually complex and “real.” They are neither perfect nor monsters. They are not just “flawed” in the Hollywood sense of the term. They embrace all the contradictions within people, often switching from heroic and caring to completely self-serving in the blink of an eye.
They are, in all its beauty and ugliness, incredibly human.
It helps that Jia has some actors that are extremely skilled at portraying these subtleties and contradictions. One is worthy of special mention, his favorite lead actress, Zhao Tao. She has appeared in most of his fiction features and is a truly mesmerizing performer.
Jia Zhangke’s films capture China’s breathtaking transformation from rural-based economy to capitalist powerhouse over the last fifty years.
Workers in a state-owned factory are suddenly without jobs, coal mines are shut down because they are unprofitable, entire towns are wiped off the map as massive waster projects are built which submerge them.
In ASH IS PUREST WHITE, Zhao Toa played a woman who became stronger and stronger as her gangster lover became increasingly weak. This relationship was set against a span of many years as China changes both culturally and physically.
24 CITY was centered around a specific location which went from important state-owned weapons factory, to privately owned refrigerator factory, to condos through the course of the movie.
Jia Zhangke often uses a certain type of slow moving, majestic wide-shot to emphasize these changes. These shots don’t just capture “the setting.” They capture China, the nation, as it twists, turns and convulses from one sort of place into another.
His characters are constantly caught in these tsunamis of change. Trying to ride the wave. Trying not to drown.
Jia Zhangke’s film’s are a mess of contradictions that somehow work in the end.
They are intimate personal dramas set within a vast, sweeping method of telling a story. The results are truly unique and somewhat astounding.
There is a reason that NPR praised him the way they did.
Jia Zhangke “perhaps the most important filmmaker working in the world today.”
If you haven’t seen any of his films, I recommend starting with ASH IS PUREST WHITE because its gangster story line makes it a little more accessible. However, this list from the British Film Institute , written before the release of that film, also has some solid recommendations.
Jia Zhangke films are all damn good. Just pick one, start watching and you’ll be on your way.
See, I’ve already made you forget Wong What’s His Face and that other guy…And that’s not a bad thing at all.