2019년 8월 4일 일요일

K-Pop Rising: (Re) introducing the K-pop Music Video Reviews for Koreanfilm.org

In conjunction with the revitalization of K-pop (it is sometimes spelled "k-pop" but, like Germans, I prefer capitalization for country and regional names, so I will stick by K-pop) music video reviews for Koreanfilm.org, I am uploading a brief piece of (re)introduction, mostly catching up with the (for the fans and industry folks) super-exciting development of the last three years or so. It is not meant to be an academic history of the K-pop in the last half-decade, but a rambling thought piece, from a very subjective viewpoint of a "386 generation" Korean academic teaching Japanese and Korean history and culture in a California public university.

          As most of you reading this would know very well by now, K-pop has had its moments of unprecedented global recognition, especially in the US, long considered to be the toughest market to infiltrate, in the last two years or so. For many years, it was the girl groups-- Wonder Girls, Girl's Generation and most notably 2NE1-- who had their turns in trying to penetrate the mainstream US market.  Even though Wonder Girl's "Nobody" did show up in Billboard Hot 100 at the 76 rank in 2009, and 2NE1, managed by the California-based Live Nation, did pull off a well-attended and well-reviewed world tour, stopping over at key American cities in 2012, they did not quite succeed in fulfilling their goals.  Sadly, 2NE1, who many critics agreed were the most likely candidate for breaking into the US market, was crippled by its host company YG's mishandling of an alleged scandal for one of its members, Park Bom, and the subsequent defection of another member, Gong Minzy, leading to its disbandment in 2015. It must be said that YG's Big Bang and 2NE1 were, among the so-called second generation K-pop idols, key recognition figures for a large number of non-Asian fans.  You can read many testimonies in the internet about how these two groups-- and their iconoclastic music videos such as BB's "Fantastic Baby" and 2NE1's "I am the Best"-- constituted their first serious exposure to the K-pop as we understand it today. 

          Of course, we should not forget Psy and his "Gangnam Style," which in retrospect was a one-shot wonder more like "Macarena" than a meaningful exposure to the Korean style of pop music, but its prodigious popularity did contribute to the possibility of a Korean musical artist hawking his wares to the world without having to significantly alter his identity. Psy's song was mostly in Korean, and his in-jokes about the "South of River (Gangnam)" region of Seoul were difficult to fully understand unless you were a Korean. But in the case of "Gangnam Style's" gargantuan popularity, these factors really did not seem to matter.

          The Gangnam Style phenomenon also pointed to the rising power of YouTube and viral communication in the internet. The K-pop fandom continued to grow, and despite lack of representation in the American mainstream news media, including radio and TV, the fans continued to support K-pop artists through clicking on the YouTube MV play and "like" buttons, circulating and sharing information on social media, and downloading and streaming their music in the then-non-traditional and up-and-coming venues such as iTunes and Spotify.  As is well documented by scholars and industry analysts, the current rulers of K-pop, Bangtan Sonyeondan (Bulletproof Boys) or BTS, turned out to be the premier beneficiary of this new global trend in music consumption. 

-- A happy crowd gathered at the 2019 K-Con, Prudential Center, New York City. This massive convention of K-pop, this year held again in LA, is ironically (actually not ironical at all) sponsored by Toyota. 

          Of course, this is not to say the boys had it easy: far from it.  Originally considered a second-tier boy group from a small production company Big Hit (overshadowed by the three giants, YG, JYP and SM), BTS has persisted since their debut in 2013, interweaving their adolescent anger against the hypocrisies of the adult Korean society, and later their own self-doubt and anxiety as a flock of fledgling idols, into their music and videos, keeping their social media presence (including their V-live video logs of their daily lives) afloat, diligently and warmly reaching out to their fandom, called ARMY, whenever possible, and, perhaps most importantly, remaining independent artists in spirit and practice, refusing to bow down to the prospective committee decisions about their future direction, such as, for example, how to appeal to the English-speaking viewers. Although RM, a.k.a. Kim Nam-joon, the leader of BTS, has an extremely impressive command of English (as witnessed by his stirringly poetic yet beautifully streamlined English-language speech delivered at the United Nations in September 2018, as a part of UNICEF's Generation Unlimited initiative), the group has not really consciously "adapted" themselves to the US "standards," whatever they might be. 

          All this, again as many of you already know, culminated in the BTS's three consecutively released albums, Love Yourself: Tear, Love Yourself: Answer and Map of the Soul: Persona topping the Billboard 200 chart in less than eleven months-- a feat previously achieved by none other than, and no one other than, the Beatles. At this point, one is compelled to acknowledge either that BTS is as "mainstream" among Americans as Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, or that ARMY's power is simply unparalleled in the history of popular entertainment known to the mankind. Either way, it is an unprecedented situation for the Korean culture in the entirety of the nation's history.  

          Already we are passing through the halfway point of 2019, and quite a few K-pop groups-- Blackpink from YG, NCT from SM, TWICE from JYP, all one might be able to call "upgraded versions" of their previous popular groups, not to mention notable crews and bands such as Monsta X, K.A.R.D. and GOT7 are at this moment eagerly sprinting on the paths blazed by BTS (and, before them, by Wonder Girls, 2NE1 and others) and poised to make their names known to the ever-expanding global audiences/viewers, now including super-enthusiastic already-converted-fans of the United States, thinking nothing of scream-chanting entire Korean-language songs of the group they "stan" from memory.  As someone who has lived the last three decades in the US listening to American sports writers spouting borderline racist bullcrap about how "soccer" (meaning football, right?) is really not a game for full-bloodied American boys, and film industry wags writing that Steven Segal movies always play well in Asia because they "don't have to read the subtitles to know what's going on," I would say this is a huge improvement for American cultural literacy.

          Of course, as the K-pop industry becomes more and more successful and globalized, the shady side of its business-- human rights abuses of its young artists, sexual or otherwise, financial scams, drug problems-- is increasingly coming into the world's spotlight as well.  One of the three corporate giants, YG Entertainment, for instance, was hard hit by a drug-induced-rape and prostitution scandal involving one of its more successful artists, Big Bang's Seungri. Successively hit by other exposures regarding the company's mishandling and whitewashing of the problems of its artists, YG's head Yang Hyun-suk had to step down, although it is unclear whether the prosecution would be serious about getting to the bottom of the muck. Whenever these types of scandals blow up in East Asian societies, it tends to be the hapless artists and performers who get thrown under the bus by the powers-that-be and the politically well-connected. I wish I could be proven as overly cynical, but I am not holding my breath.  

          Another question that remains fascinating but potentially anxiety-inducing for the industry is the K-pop's ambivalent relationship with Japan.  It is no secret that a large portion of the (especially initial phases of) Korean Wave has been sustained by the Japanese consumers. Most K-pop artists still release Japanese-language albums and songs as a matter of course: it would be foolish not to, given that Japan's music market is about six times larger than that of Korea. Yet the K-pop's popularity in Japan has always been negatively affected by the downturns in political winds, often instigated by the leaders of both nations who clearly benefit from stoking hostilities of this kind (as witnessed by, for instance, the Asahi TV's sudden cancelation of BTS's scheduled appearance in November 2018 following the discovery that a member once wore a T-shirt seemingly equating the "liberation" of Korea with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: I might discuss this episode separately in a later installment, as this provides in my view an excellent teachable moment).  However, browsing the Japanese-language cultural news aside from those emanating from the mainstream media such as Sankei shinbun or NHK, one gets a strong impression that K-pop's popularity in Japan has not really declined as the latter media outlets claim.  In fact, many young Japanese girls and boys are actively familiarizing themselves with the Korean consumer/popular culture, learning Korean language not because they want to use it for career advancement but because it is "cool" (of course, the world in which any meaningful difference between these two-- "good for your career" and "cool"-- becomes non-existent is right there at the doorstep, or maybe even be already here).  Some even enroll in Korea-based training centers, dreaming one day to become internationally renowned K-pop singers (and indeed they have more than a few glamorous role models, most famously the beautiful and talented trio Myoi Mina, Minatozaki Sana and Hirai Momo of TWICE). 

-- TWICE members pose for their Japanese single "Breakthrough" PR shot. 

I was stunned to learn that, following the celebrated formation of the Japan-Korean hybrid girl group IZ*ONE, two members of the Japan's most popular "idol" group, AKB48, Takahashi Juri and Takeuchi Miyu, who had not won the televised competition for selecting members of  IZ*ONE, left Japan to start their careers anew as K-pop singers/idols.  In both cases, they had been the members of AKB48 for eight to ten years, frankly most of their teenage lives: they were willing to depart from such long-standing commitments to pursue their dreams.  Will this "reverse flow" of the talent eventually fade away, proving itself a temporary trend?  Only time will tell, but as an interested observer (in the sense that I am, unlike the majority of Korean men of my age group, an active listener of K-pop) I advise those in both sides of the Pacific not to underestimate the resilience and adaptability of K-pop.  K-pop or Korean cinema is not Republic of Korea: in fact, it has always been bigger than a mere nation-state, but now more so than ever (And kindly do not start mansplaining to me about the allegedly inherently exploitative nature of K-pop or Japanese idol industry. I am well aware of sexism, racism, ageism and other issues pertinent to the cultural sector. Why don't you try to help your female colleague/friend being caught in a MeToo situation and to fight homophobia, racism and discrimination against transgendered persons in your sector, whether it is academia, a corporation, a hospital, or a law school? Frankly, there is so much stuck-up hypocrisy in the way Koreans-- East Asians in general, perhaps-- look down on the enter industry).

All right then, let me unfurl more of my observations and opinions through concrete reviews of select K-pop music videos, some popular, others not-so-popular. Let us begin with NCT 127's Simon Says and Stray Kids's Chronosaurus.

2019년 4월 27일 토요일

Solidarity in Facing the Future- Interview with Ms. Hong Hyewon, a Korean Volunteer in Malawi, on THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND

Helping us appreciate The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a special guest, Ms. Hong Hyewon, with a unique experience of having worked in Malawi as a young South Korean volunteer. Ms. Hong is an undergraduate student at Sogang University, majoring in French Culture and Political Science. A Korean native, she has studied French, English, Japanese, Arabic languages and learned the basic command of Chichewa to work for the Africa Future Foundation in Malawi in 2017. Since January 2019, she has been volunteering at a Korean shelter service for international refugees, many of whom Africans, called Refuge pNan.

The interview was conducted via Skype between Seoul, Korea, and Berkeley, USA, in April 19, 2019 [Pacific US time]. It has been edited for length and clarity. The copyright for the interview content belongs to Ms. Hong Hyewon and anyone who wants to quote from the interview below should contact  Ms. Hong for an explicit permission. The letter “Q” indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, the interviewer, and “H” indicates Ms. Hong.

Q: My first question relates to the issue I have raised in the review, that William Kamkwamba's initial accomplishment, amazing as it was, was, in real life, not directly tied to the dramatic alleviation of drought as illustrated in the film. Perhaps this level of dramatization was necessary to get the project off the ground.  What do you think about this issue?
H: Right, as you have indicated in the review, this is a question of representation versus reality. I have read Kamkwamba's book [the source for the film], and he does state that the primary motivation for building the windmill generator was to get electricity for his home.
Q: I should state that the need for electricity and illumination, so that one could study at home in the nighttime, does not strike me in any way as less “important” or “desperate” than running a water pump, in the real-life context wherein someone like Kamkwamba found himself.
H: I absolutely agree. I think the irrigation pump was a dramatic device, in a way, to make Kamkwamba's “eccentric” behavior ultimately meaningful for those around him, to show that his accomplishments could benefit the community he belonged to.
Q: I see. So, he had to demonstrate to the community that his projects were not just for himself.
H: Right. And also to show those outside the local community that this type of engineering feat could be done with the meagre resources available within. I think the compressed narrative and dramatization strategy Ejiofor employs was necessary, generally speaking. Otherwise, his messages might not have been conveyed with the kind of urgency and strength seen in the film.
Q: It is worth noting that his peers and friends were the most sympathetic members within his community.
H: Yes, not only in the movie, but also in the Kamkwamba's book on which the film is based, William's cousin Jeffrey and Gilbert, the Chief of Wimbe's son, were early and important supporters of his endeavors. 

Q: What aspects of the Malawi culture and life that you had experienced and observed that you feel were not captured in the film? Or, this is perhaps a related question, what aspects of the Malawi culture you had observed that would have come across as different from what we usually expect from a film of this type?
H: Are we assuming the perspective of a typical Korean viewer?
Q: Well, you don't have to, but that is fine. We are both Koreans, after all [Laughter]. I suppose I could also take on the viewpoint of an American viewer, typical or whatnot.

H: Yes, well, I definitely am not an expert on the Malawi culture, so I hope the readers do not take my comments in that way. Having said that, to give an example, the scene in which the villagers gather together at Chief Wimbe's residence is a lot less like an American town hall meeting in real life than it perhaps appears in the film. The Chief's authority is complexly localized, and there are many types of protocols to follow.  I don't think we could simply assume that the locals would obey the chief's authority and decide what they would with the lands, either. The movie sort of collapses these forms of traditional authority into a series of symbolic depictions, and tends to focus on the individuals who already are "modernized" or being transformed into those in that mold, who could sell their lands essentially without the consent of their community.  So a village meeting is, for better or worse, not as simple as just a show of hands and then moving forward with everyone speaking their frank minds.   
Q: Before that the village meeting scene, I was not aware that Gilbert was Chief's son. William wants to attend the meeting too but he gets kicked out of it by his father [Laughter].
H: Yes, Gilbert is a designated heir to the village's leadership so he is given the privilege to attend the meeting. I thought it was clever for the film to point to the boy's privileged identity through that scene.

Q: Can we touch on a bit more personal dimension, in terms of resonances between Kamkwamba's experiences and your own?
H: Yes, well, I feel that William Kamkwamba had an orientation toward scientific inquiry and Western modes of thinking to start with, and possessed both an ability and a drive to look for opportunities and colleagues who could help him navigate through the complex processes of negotiating with his own society and culture.  At Malawi I did observe some startling cases of the old traditions and these scientific, modern orientations co-existing-- some folks resisting blood tests because they believed that the samples might be used for occult purposes, for instance. Having said that, his father's contradictory behavior in the film-- wanting his son to go to school and “succeed,” and yet stick to traditional values of-- in the film, at least-- a farmer, deeply resonated with my own ambivalent feelings. 
Q: As I have mentioned in my review, Chiwetel Ejiofor could have portrayed Trywell as his son's only or one of the few “supporters,” but I think he goes an extra mile to reject that kind of triumphalist characterization. Instead, he attempts to illustrate the difficulty, on the part of Trywell or someone like him, of adapting to a new world. In a conventional narrative, the obtuse and the unenlightened are either proven completely wrong at the end, or they get “enlightened” by the protagonists at the drop of their hats. This is not what happens in the film.
H: No, it's never that simple. I think colonial and postcolonial modernization of Malawi, mediated through the educational system of the British empire, has not really closed the gap between the “traditional” and the “modern” components of the nation. This is a bigger issue than merely a difference in wealth between upper and lower classes.

Q: I do not believe this type of dilemma was that different from the one that faced South Koreans, as late as in '80s. I believe many among democratic activists of my generation-- so-called the “386” generation, a term that I dislike but keep using, I plead guilty to that-- sometimes inadequately dealt with the gap between what they intellectually understood as “enlightenment” and “social revolution” as members of the elite classes and what the rural population actually wanted, during the former's encounters with the latter during a phase of agrarian activism (so-called nonghwal).  For the farmers, “enlightenmentdid not necessarily mean learning how a world capitalist system worked, but learning such "mundane" stuff as how to keep the book properly, how to get loans without being cheated, or even how to get better transportation, sometime as simple as learning to ride a bicycle better.
H: Oh, what you just said reminds me of the case studies in Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo's Poor Economics. During my sojourn there, one of the strategies for inducing Malawi children to go to schools was to hand out soaps to them.
Q: Tell me about that.
H: We did a brainstorm session with the local project assistants to figure out the reasons for the children dropping out from schools and expressing reluctance to attend them. I eventually learned that the reasons were quite diverse: sometimes they had to skip school because they were too poor, but at other times they were ostracized for being dirty, or not clothed well.  Giving them bars of soap, change for buying clothes or sandals, or bags of salt or corn powder produced positive results in enhancing their “motivation.”

Q: I also feel that the kind of pat criticism directed to movies such as The Boy, to the tune of “Okay, so William Kamkwamba did make it, what about other children who had not have the kind of access to the knowledge he had?” really misses the point.  
H: I think I understand where such criticisms come from, but yes, I do agree that there is no shortage of the "motivated" people, once the kind of hurdles and obstacles more specific to the lived experiences are addressed.

Q: Can you talk a bit about Gule Wamkulu? Have you watched them perform?  
H: Yes, I did.
Q: Wow, tell me about that experience! [Laughter]
H: Well, not at a funeral. I watched them perform at the Kuti Wildlife Reserve in Salima, Malawi. They were introduced as Gypsy-like itinerant dancers.  Looking at their interaction with the tourists, I was reminded of the Korean masked dance troupe, who uses humor and satire to entertain the audience. And they were awesome: until watching them perform, I had never realized a human body could be shaken with so much energy and vigor.  And when they stamped their feet in rhythm, it was like an earthquake. But they demand money for their work, and from what I have observed, pretty on the nose, too.
Q: Well, why should it be otherwise?
H: Of course! [Laughter] In contrast to my first-hand experience, the Gule Wamkulu dancers in the film seem to function in similar ways to shamans and represent the tradition and community solidarity of Malawi.  In the early part of the film, they disrupt the Christian funeral rites led by a pastor, and the attendees cannot help but turn their gaze toward them, despite their professed beliefs in the new religion of the missionaries. They also seem to symbolize the natural world being displaced by the introduction of Western civilization and industrialism, as hinted in the scene where a lone dancer with a baby doll mask mysteriously gazes at William. William Kamkwamba's autobiography refers to the Gule Wamkulu several times: he actually sponsored their dance at a community gathering raising awareness for HIV/AIDS at one point.

Q: Anything else about the film that you have noticed you want to share?
H: I have visited Malawi during a wet season, so I have never experienced the wind the way it was depicted in the film. I felt that the wind was almost like a character in the film: the filmmakers did an excellent job of keeping it present throughout the feature, seguing into the climax where it is finally brought under control by Kamkwamba.  In addition, the struggle between Annie and Agnes I strongly sympathized with, in the sense that even very loving and intimate relationships could be affected by material needs in such a circumstance they faced together as a family. One element that struck me as somewhat--- I don't want to say unrealistic, but perhaps overly idealistic-- is Trywell speechifying his political discontent and hitching a truck ride to another town for the explicit purpose of helping an opposition party candidate. I heard sometimes that the locals describe themselves as complaisant, compared to their neighbors in Mozambique and Tanzania. The flip side of it is that perhaps what looks to some outsiders as indifference to democratic agitation might be, for Malawians, an ingredient of political stability. Given the horrible political struggles taking place in another African nation such as Democratic Republic of Congo, maybe we should not be so quick to judge them for "not being politicized enough."
Q: The industrialized sector is represented by tobacco companies in the film. Near the end of the film, Trywell talks ruefully about how he could have been a tobacco farmer, producing tobacco that “looks like milk chocolate.”
H: Based on what I have seen, the critical positions in the tobacco companies were largely occupied by foreigners such as South Africans. Similar to the case of peanuts cultivated in Senegal, tobacco is a commercial crop that needs to be sold in the market in order to be exchanged for other necessities, including foodstuffs. There is always a concern whether the downturns in the international market for commercial crops such as peanut, coffee and tobacco would become burdens on the shoulders of African farmers. Actually, while I was staying there, I had a chance to meet the former President of the Koreans in Malawi Association, married to a tobacco company VIP.
Q: Wow!
H: There were about 200 Koreans living in Malawi at that time. The oldest generation among Korean residents included those who had settled there during '70s working for the national highway construction projects.
Q: What an amazing level of global reach. The '60s-'70s "national" history of Korea must be rewritten.
H: And the former President was very well-off.  Her husband was indeed a South African, with their children going to colleges in Cape Town.  

Q: Let's return our talk to William Kamkwamba, or more precisely, the resonance between his life and yours. I know there is no one correct answer to a question like this, but if we determine that, even if you are a beneficiary of Euro-American higher education, it is important that you still maintain a form of local connection, how would you reconcile the desire to help those who remain in your local areas to the yearning to reach out to the larger world?  I know this question could be taken as a very personal one [Laughter].
H: Yes, well, it sounds very clichéd but I think solidarity and fighting together is the answer. [Laughter] Solidarity, as I interpret it, starts from finding, organizing and joining in with the like-minded people. But these days I also think a lot about self-preservation, trying not to push myself to the point that, if I happen to buckle from the outside pressure, I would then lose sight of my ideals. I think those who have gained new knowledge and insights should take care to communicate these things in the ways that make sense to those around them.
Q: Do you think William Kamkwamba has managed to resolve this dilemma?
H: Not necessarily. I think he still has many obstacles in the future to face, many hurdles to overcome. As he matures as a social person and a community leader, the issues that he will have to tackle will become bigger and more complex. How would, for instance, ESCOM, the dominant electricity company in Malawi, legally and politically respond to his initiative for self-producing electricity?  In other words, we should be careful not to simply stop at the level of recognizing, wow, there is this very smart young person in Africa doing some great engineering work, and recognize that there are always more things to be done, more problems to be solved.   

Q: Any final comment?
H: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a very inspiring and well-made film. I just wish that those who watch it, wherever they are, and whatever their backgrounds are, do not subscribe to the fantasy that the problems and the issues facing Kamkwamba, his community, Malawi and Africa were even partially resolved, when the movie ended. That is simply not true, as we have discussed above.  William's story is far from finished yet.  I sympathize with him, a brave and talented inventor-community-activist, but also see how tough his life could be from this point on.
Q: It will be a continued struggle with many issues, as your life is likely to be. So there is a feeling of solidarity in that sense between you two as well.
H: Yes!
Q: Thank you so much Hyewon, it was amazingly inspiring to talk to you.
H: Thank you, Professor Kim, for providing this wonderful opportunity to reflect on my experience in Malawi!  

2019년 4월 26일 금요일

"God is the Wind, Which Touches Everything"-THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND (2019)- Film Review

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. UK-Malawi, 2019. A BBC Films/BFI Film Fund/Blue Sky Films Production Services Malawi/Head Gear Films/Lipsync Post/Metrol Technology/Econet/Participant Media/Cornerstone Films/Potboiler Productions Co-Production, distributed by Netflix. 1 hour 53 minutes. Aspect Ratio 2.35:1. Screenwriter & Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor. Based on a book of the same name by William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer. Cinematography: Dick Pope. Costume Design: Bia Salgado. Production Design: Tulé Peake. Music: Antonio Pinto.  

CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Trywell Kamkwamba), Maxwell Simba (William Kamkwamba), Alïssa Maïga (Agenes Kamkwamba), Lily Banda (Annie Kamkwamba), Lemogant Tsipa (Mike), Joseph Marcell (Chief Wimbe), Phibert Falakeza (Gilbert), Robert Agengo (Jeremiah).

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a directorial debut and labor of love for the Nigerian (Igbo tribe)-British star Chiwetel Ejiofor, who had worked with such luminaries as Stephen Spielberg, Woody Allen, and Alfonso Cuaron, among others, and nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (2013). Oh right, he plays Baron Mordo in Dr. Strange, too. For his debut project, Ejiofor was probably thinking like a theater director who happens to be a movie star, locking on to the kind of universally inspiring human-interest story that, nonetheless, has some substantive dramatic conflicts at its core, all the while depicting a section of Africa that has hitherto had little chance to be seen throughout the world in an accessible popular cultural form. 

I will come back to this issue of dramatization vs. real life shortly, but Ejiofor's first right step was to create an entirely believable look for the film, miles apart from either the exoticized glamour of "nature documentaries," or the aesthetized grunginess of a high-end Hollywood production, usually cluttered with hundreds of extras and colorful details framing perfectly made-up and coiffed stars. Although the substantial part of the dialogue is in English (the rest of the conversation is conducted in Chichewa, one of the languages spoken in Malawi, which Ejiofor, Alïssa Maïga, a Senegalese-Malian-French, and some other cast members had to learn afresh), Ejiofor seeks to maintain a careful balance between a believable ethnographic representation and an involving fictional narrative, both of which come with certain expectations and conventions.

Divided into five chapters, four of them titled after an agricultural cycle, Sowing (Kufesa), Growing (Kukula), Harvest (Kukolola), Hunger (Njala), and the climactic chapter named Wind (Mphepo), The Boy starts off with a surrealistic and foreboding vision of masked dancers called Gule Wamkulu, covered in colorful rags, some walking on stilts. They are professional mourners who visit the sites of death, but for young William a source of mystery and fear. The veteran British cinematographer Dick Pope (The Illusionist [2006], Mr. Turner [2014]) utilizes the scope width of his canvas to capture not only the aridity and vastness of planes but also the vibrancy and warmth of Malawian communities. As the family members of William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba, a Kenyan young actor, admirably restrained in what amounts to be his first professional performance) are introduced to the viewers, Ejiofor also unhurriedly unfurls his layered narratives, which not only involves William's effort to educate himself in the basics of engineering at a school where he has to sneak into its library, due to his inability to pay tuition, but also his father Trywell's (Ejiofor) resistance to being exploited by the government and farming corporations (specifically tobacco companies), making him a valuable ally to the justice-seeking Chief of Wimbe (Joseph Marcell, from the '80 sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). A harrowing middle section shows Kamkwamba's family, with the mother Agnes (graceful yet sturdy Maïga) and daughter Annie (Lily Banda, a Malawian actress) left by themselves to face thieves and potential rapists coming after their painfully harvested grains (barely enough for the family's survival for the fallow season as they are), while William and Trywell run around desperately to purchase food from the government stations.

Ultimately, however, Ejiofor refuses to frame this film as a story of heroic patriarchal struggle. His  acting prowess at full throttle, Ejiofor instead lays bare all the contradictory aspects of Trywell's personality, including his failure as a father-protector, his stubborn will unmistakably tinted by a measure of self-righteousness. He structures the narrative in such a way that William's construction of the wind-powered electronic generator is not merely a personal triumph for him, but serves as a representation of-- at the same time a clarion call for-- a new generation of Africans to respectfully learn from but also surmount their fathers, with their dependable authority but close-mindedness toward new types of solutions.

The harrowing episodes showing the consequences of a poor harvest, with their graphic yet non-exploitative depictions of despair, rage and resilience, are certainly powerful, greatly aided by, again, restrained and finely honed performances from the principals. Nonetheless, I do believe that there are some grounds for questioning Ejiofor's choice to tie William's invention to revitalization of a water pump, thus making his windmill power-generator essential for the survival of his community. Would William's achievement have been considered less "moving" by the viewers, had it not been responsible for alleviating the hunger of his village? Maybe. However, we can defend Ejiofor's narrative stratagem, too, for allowing the viewers to access the greater truths distilled out of the compressed or modified facts. Kamkwamba's windmill generators did contribute to increasing agricultural output, after all, just not so dramatically as the film version's events would indicate. And William and his family did experience a famine, one of the main reasons that he could not pay tuition to his school.

Make no mistake, The Boy is somber and earnest. Yet, neither is it a lugubrious production reeking of self-importance. The filmmakers do not forget to show us simple pleasures of life threaded by casual, affectionate conversations, with strikingly authentic locations (mostly filmed in Malawi, near the real-life lived environments of the characters) showing a junkyard full of the detritus of the mechanical civilization, a schoolyard gathering with students dressed in primary colored uniforms, instantly swallowed up by an explosive shower of rain, and other vistas that bring forth complex affective responses in the viewers, no matter what their cultural backgrounds are (For me, it is difficult not to be reminded of my glimpses of the '70s and even '80s Korean countryside). Production designer Tulé Peake and Costume designer Bia Salgado, the Brazilians who had worked on City of God (2002), do a great job of mixing natural and man-made environments, neither over-selling hardship and harshness nor prettifying the simple accoutrements of rural Southeastern African lives.  Antonio Pinto (The Host [2013], Self/Less [2015]), another Brazilian, provides a light-on-the-feet, non-pushy yet suitably emotional score. 

Ejiofor, a superb and committed actor, probably tries a bit too hard with his own portrayal of the Kamkwamba paterfamilias, set up to be the story's final obstacle that William needs to overcome (one of the core themes of Black Panther --yes, that Marvel superhero movie-- as well), but it is difficult to question his sincerity and, in the end, directorial acumen in putting this project together. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind may be an unassuming little film, but it succeeds in reminding us that these seemingly "small" endeavors, such as the construction of William Kamkwamba's first jerry-rigged generator, partially from a wheel and sawed-off chassis of an old bicycle, are ultimately the ones that will change the world for the better.

2019년 4월 12일 금요일

Il Cento notti di orore PART 3- THE HOLE IN THE GROUND (2019), GERALD'S GAME (2017) & THE WIND (2018)

Here comes the No. 3 in the Il Cento notti di orrore or The One Hundred Nights of Horror series. Two major horror outputs in the intervening months that probably require separate write-ups are (Item No. 6) Jordan Peele's Us, not surprisingly making a killing at the worldwide box office, and (Item No. 7) AMC's The Terror, a miniseries adaptation of Dan Simmon's fictionalized account of the disappearances of the British warships Terror and Erebus attempting to discover the "Northwest Passage" that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans below the Artic continent. They are both terrific, although not without flaws naturally, and also intriguingly not quite what they appear to be at the outset. You can accuse me of cheating but I have added these titles to the counts. So we shall begin with No. 8 in this installment.  The rating system as usual: a white star ☆ counts for twenty points, a black star ★ for five points.    

8. The Hole in the Ground (Ireland, 2019). A Savage Productions/Bankside Films/Head Gear Films/Metrol Technology/Wrong Men North Co-Production, distributed by A24 and DirecTV. 1 hour 30 minutes.  Widescreen 2.35:1, Filmed with Arri Alexa Mini. Directed by Lee Cronin. Screenplay by Lee Cronin & Stephen Shields. Cinematography by Tom Comerford.  Music by Stephen McKeon. Production Design by Conor Dennison.  Rented: Amazon Prime Video, February 2019.  Having debuted to generally positive reviews at Sundance Film Festival and picked up by A24 for the US distribution, The Hole in the Ground is an Irish horror film that may be succinctly described as a hybrid between Luis Berdejo's The New Daughter (2009) and Jennifer Kent's Babadook (2014). Like the former, it deals with the inexplicable and terrifying changes taking place on one's child (with sinister ties to malevolent underground presences, here more explicitly shown to originate from a large sinkhole in the forest) and like the latter, the film is essentially an exploration of the psychological terrors visited on an anxiety-ridden mother, here Sarah O'Neill (Seána Kerslake) who, with a preschool-age son Chris (James Quinn Markey), moves into a rather desolate town next to a gigantic expanse of forest, presumably running from an abusive husband and/or a failed marriage.  

Recent Irish horror films are often terrific in terms of building the atmosphere of dread and paranoia, and The Hole is no exception.  The debuting writer-director Lee Cronin, obviously a huge fan of the horror genre (the film pays tribute to some classic shock scenes, including the multiple-fracture arm-wrestling bout from David Cronenberg's The Fly), expertly plays with the viewer expectation and sympathy, making full use out of Kerslake's wide-eyed, on-the-edge-of-hysteria emotional outbursts.  Markey is also excellent as young Chris, whose explosive and seemingly irrational sways of emotion and behavioral norms at first seems to be a direct response to the familial trauma as well as his mother's neurosis.  Kati Outinen, a wonderful Finnish actress and a regular in Aki Kaurismäki's films, provides a key supporting role as a neighboring old woman, absolutely terrifying in early scenes, who first warns Sarah that Chris might not be what he seems. 

It is somewhat disappointing, then, that, for the final third leg, The Hole, unlike Babadook, embraces more conventional narrative solutions.  I am glad that Cronin eschews a self-consciously "ambiguous" or "downbeat" denouement (the kind that mars The New Daughter, which nonetheless has some impressive monstrous beings as Kevin Costner's opponents) but I also wish that the film really went for broke, ambitiously detailing the nature and purpose of the Hole Dwellers.  As it stands, The Hole does not quite become a modern horror masterwork that it could have been, yet fans of the genre will find much to enjoy and admire in this film. ☆☆☆★

9. Gerald's Game (US, 2017). An Intrepid Pictures Production, distributed by Netflix. 1 hour 43 minutes, Widescreen 2:35:1, Arri Alexa 65. Directed & edited by Mike Flanagan. Written by Jeff Howard & Mike Flanagan, based on a novel by Stephen King. Cinematography: Michael Fimognari. Music: The Newton Brothers. Special Effects Makeup: Robert Kurtzman.  Streamed: January, Netflix.  Over the last decade, Mike Flanagan has proven himself a talented and smart explorer of domestic terror, with a noted penchant for classically-informed ghost stories. The film that made me turn my head and notice him was 2014's Oculus, which wittily commented on its Gothic setting yet took its spooky thrills refreshingly seriously.  Subsequently, he went into a greatly profitable partnership with Netflix, filming an ambitiously expanded adaptation of Shirley Jackson's classic The Haunting of the Hill House, an apex of his filmmaking career in terms of his stature in the horror field.  However, for my money, his best work so far is this astoundingly faithful adaptation of Stephen King's short novel-- which, given its extremely self-reflexive, interior orientation, many had regarded unfilmable-- that rivals David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone, John Carpenter's Christine and Frank Darabont's The Mist as one of the best cinematic incarnations of the ever-popular Maine writer's opuses. 

Given that Gerald's Game is an outlier of sorts for a King novel, at its heart a deeply felt psychological examination of Jessie (Carla Gugino, definitely delivering the best performance of her career up to now), an attractive but demure middle-aged woman and something of a trophy wife to a successful lawyer, entrapped in a dangerous yet deeply humiliating situation-- a bedroom sex game gone horribly wrong, as the husband, the eponymous Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, Captain Pike from Star Trek Into Darkness, equal parts menacing and funny), drops dead from a heart attack, leaving her handcuffed to their bed. This emotional core of the novel is then somewhat awkwardly dressed with more familiar horror-novel conventions, reining in the readers with intensifying thrills as a very hungry stray dog as well as what may or may not be a supernatural bogeyman begin to intrude into her bedroom, where she lies supine, dehydrated and starving, painfully cuffed to a bedpost.  

Flanagan, operating with a supreme level of care and finesse, dismantles and reconstructs the building blocks of King's narrative.  By introducing Gerald as a spectral interlocutor for Jessie, he stages a terrific Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  dynamic to unfold between Gugino and Greenwood, without sacrificing any suspense for the viewers rooting for Jessie to escape her predicament.  Equally impressively, the flashback to Jessie's childhood is handled with good taste and intelligence. Indeed, Gerald's Game is one of those extremely rare American movies in which child sexual abuse is shown to be causing such lasting damages, not because it is about sex per se, but because it "trusses" the victim with its intimations of harm and suppression of truths, ultimately robbing her of the capacity to trust others and to forge meaningful relationships. The cruelest scene in the film, in that sense, is one in which Jessie's father (Henry Thomas), his voice dripping with sincerity, seals her lips, not to tell anyone about "their secret."   

Moreover, Flanagan deftly handles what some might consider the novel's major weak point, i.e. the Moonlight Man (called Space Cowboy in the original), the bogeyman character that comes across in the original either slightly redundant, as if he wandered into the story from another segment of the King universe, or overtly literary-symbolic, endowing him with a credible and scary physical presence yet making sure to have him serve the larger theme of Jessie retrieving her control over her life from her "men," finally escaping from the shackles of secrecy and deception that had imprisoned her twelve-year-old self all these years.  

Make no mistake, Gerald's Game is not an "art-house" film and does not stint at all on the suspense or gore department.  Those who carry traumas or fears about paper cuts or having your fingers or toes caught in doors and such are well advised to pace yourself during agonizing scenes of Jessie struggling to escape the cuffs.  Nonetheless, Flanagan here manages to present a superior case study of how to adroitly adapt a difficult literary source, while remaining strikingly faithful to King's characterizations and themes. ☆☆☆★★★

10. The Wind (US, 2018). A Soapbox Films/Divide/Conquer/Mind Hive Films Co-Production, distributed by IFC Midnight.  1 hour 26 minutes. Aspect ratio 2:39:1. Directed by Emma Tammi. Screenplay by Teresa Sutherland. Cinematography by Lyn Moncrief. Production Designers: Courtney Andujar, Hilary Andujar. Special Makeup Effects: Jennifer M. Quinteros. Rented: April, Vudu. First showcased at Toronto International Film Festival, The Wind is the kind of genre crossover that I wish were produced with greater frequency-- a Western-horror hybrid (ok, please don't bring up Bone Tomahawk: I am aware of that movie, I don't like it and I don't consider it a prime example of such a hybrid). Starkly yet beautifully filmed by Lyn Moncrief (Midnight Son [2011], Orion [2015], among others) in the extra-wide scope ratio that emphasizes vast expanses of nothingness, The Wind has an ambitiously complex narrative structure, first showing a failed bloody Caesarian section on a woman half of whose head is missing from a gunshot wound, and going back in time to introduce principals and their relationships. 

Written and directed by women, the film is ultimate about the profound isolation and alienation of its protagonist, Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard, Insidious: The Last Key [2018]), tending to household chores and the needs of her husband Isaac (Ashley Zuckerman, the TV series Childhood's End [2015]).  She also plays a generous host to their only neighbors, the less experienced (and perhaps less mature) Harpers, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee), yet there is an undercurrent of unarticulated tensions among their relationship, especially when Emma, very pregnant, claims to have seen the "demons of the prairie." 

At first, I thought the movie would be about Wendigo (as it turns out, Wendigo, a being from the Algonquin-speaking tribal myths, might be geographically misplaced as far as this film is concerned. It does get a mention in the new Pet Sematary, which is culturally appropriate given that it is set in Northern Maine, I suppose) and indeed it does feature a few competently done scenes of (seeming) demonic possession and Poltergeist-like incidents in the middle section.  However, the movie is really not interested in the precise nature of these "demons:" they could easily have been Biblical ones, and the Sutherland-Tammi team make it clear that these supernatural beings are more like spiritual resources rather than actual entities, that a lonely and depressed heart-and-mind grasps in desperation, like spoiled food that might satiate hunger for a short while, but would bring on worse problems later.

Director Tammi, for whom The Wind is the debuting feature, only missteps a few times in wrangling the various strands of timeline, in which Lizzy's own background of pregnancy and loss of a son is revealed, and the Reverend (Miles Anderson) is shown to be a thoroughly ineffectual spiritual counsel, even a bringer of a cure-worse-than-the-disease. More importantly, by patiently illustrating the everyday routines of the pioneer couples in their toilsome details, Tammi convincingly puts the viewers in the minds of these young women, completely unaided by their taciturn and uselessly "rational" husbands, daring us to judge them for gradually losing their grounds to the creeping madness born out of inhuman desolation.  Caitlin Gerard gives a restrained but powerful performance as Lizzy, a strong "pioneer woman," always appropriately attired for the occasion and capable of expertly handling firearms, yet at a loss to address the unnamable emotions and anxieties building up inside her.  It is a measure of the filmmaker's good judgment that we never lose sympathy for either Lizzy or Emma, despite the awful things done to and by them progressively revealed, as the narrative threads twine themselves to a resolution.

The Wind is not an easy film to enjoy or like, but I would definitely recommend it as a compellingly told, successful Western horror, seditiously driving a sharp knife into the liver of a triumphant American narrative of the pioneer hard work paying off in familial bliss in the settlement communities.  It does not really need a Native American bogeyman to show the horrors of human heart-and-mind dying with scream, driven mad by the blowing dust of the vast plains.☆☆☆★★