Treading on East Asian Cinema


An Interview with Tony Rayns
Volume 11, Issue 1 (January 31, 2007)
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Offscreen: Okay, to move to South Korea now. South Korea has experienced a film renaissance recently, and from what I understand, part of the reason for that is the screen time quotas, the rule that forty percent of the screen time in local cinemas has to be dedicated to Korean films. Now I’ve read that the Korean government has capitulated to American interests and reduced these quotas; the percentage now is twenty. Is this true, and what effect do you think this will have on Korean film?

Tony Rayns: Okay, I can’t corroborate the numbers, but you’re right, there has recently been a reduction in the quota. It’s a capitulation to the WTO and specific pressure from the MPAA, the American film producers association which Jack Valenti used to front. He’s just stepped down from it, I’m not sure who heads it now, but anyway, there’s been relentless pressure from him over the years to allow free access to the Korean market for American cinema. I am very sympathetic to all struggles against American cinema dominance. I like Hollywood movies as much as the next person –or some Hollywood movies, anyway– but I’m strongly against American cinema, which has a position of unparalleled strength and economic power, dominating anything else, everything else. And I strongly believe in leaving spaces for other cultures to exist and indeed to prosper. Korea is a very special case. It had this protectionist measure, the quota system –and it was frankly a protectionist measure– that was instituted in the days when Korea still had military government and when there was a lot of protectionism. It wasn’t just movies, there were many, many imports that were prohibited or regulated, and what happened inside Korea was also heavily regulated. It was a time of very strong state control. What’s happened since Korea moved to civilian government is that it’s had administrations led by people who’d been in the old opposition to the government, the military. Things have turned around very dramatically: the country’s economy has surged, the culture has changed beyond recognition, society has changed also in many ways beyond recognition, and Korean cinema has become incredibly successful with the home audience. I don’t think this has been due to the quota, I think it’s been due to the films. This year, for example, Korean cinema is going to end up probably with about seventy percent of the domestic box office, leaving thirty percent for the rest of the world, including Hollywood. And it’s largely because two films, both of which are playing in the Vancouver festival this year, The King and the Clown (Lee Jun-Ik, 2005) and The Host (Bong Joon-Ho, 2006) were unbelievably big hits. Something like a quarter of the entire country saw both of them. There’ve been other hits as well, not on that scale, but there’ve been quite a number of films that have done extremely well. In fact, some of the films we’re showing at the festival, such as My Scary Girl (Sohn Jae-Gon, 2006) and No Mercy for the Rude (Park Chul-Hee, 2006) have also been hits in Korea. So the main reason that Korean cinema is doing so well in Korea is that people want to see the films. It’s not because there’s protectionism that mandates that these cinemas must show these films, it’s because people actually want to go and see them. The most obvious thing you can point out, I suppose, is that you can force people to show films, but you can’t force people to go and see them. They will do that only if they want to. The fact is that the success of Korean cinema is not down to the quota system, it’s down to the appeal of Korean films. Korean film culture has been on a roll, there’s no question –really dynamic things have been happening. What Korea has become in the last ten years or so, is, I would say, the most cinephilic country in the world. People are really crazy about film. Everybody is interested. New film magazines, quite serious film magazines, were launched in Korea at a time when they were closing down everywhere else in the world. New ones are still springing up. They have quite a sophisticated level of talk, and one of them, the first one that launched, Cine 21, became in effect the leading cultural publication of any kind in Korea. Anybody who was remotely interested in Korean culture had to read this magazine, because it was the cutting edge thing. All the most innovative stuff was in it.

Offscreen: I’m aware that the success of South Korean film has to do with the diversity of stuff that is being filmed –thrillers, romances, horror films, as well as more personal art cinema. But without wanting to ignore that diversity, I have noticed a certain trend in a lot of the South Korean films that I have seen. This is a trend of emphasis on sadism and cruelty, particularly as it relates to power dynamics and positions of authority. I’m thinking of, for example, Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, 2003), the films of Kim Ki-Duk, Save the Green Planet (Joon-Hwan Jang, 2003), and Faceless Things (Kim Kyong-Mook, 2005), which screened at the festival this year. Would you agree that this is a trend worth noting, and what are some of the reasons you think may be behind it?

Tony Rayns: Quite a big question, and I don’t think I can properly answer it, really, at least not briefly. Even if we had all the time in the world I don’t think I could answer it very well. The fact is that for forty years, starting from the Korean War in the early fifties, the country was under military juntas, after a succession of coups. The government was constantly being toppled and constantly being run by new and ever more authoritarian military figures. It was a nation that became, sadly, used to extreme brutality. There had also been extreme brutality before, under the Japanese, who, particularly from the thirties onwards, had been notably vicious in their treatment of the Koreans they were colonizing. And when the Pacific war began in earnest in the late thirties, things got worse. Any Korean seen as not fanatically loyal to Japan was locked up and beaten and tortured, and there are many, many sad histories of people who died in that period in Japanese prisons in Korea, let alone during the warfare and everything that sprang from that. Then you have the Korean War, when Koreans fight Koreans, in the early fifties, which was also famously brutal and very, very destructive, and left not only a divided country, but also countless divided families and endless years of recrimination and bitterness and persecution. For example, families in the South who had a member who had gone to the North and had gone Communist found themselves discriminated against, persecuted, and hounded out of jobs and out of houses. There was an endless unpleasant backlash from the war. And then you have a succession of military juntas taking power in coups and ruling under martial law, with again long histories of students being arrested and tortured and beaten up in the basements of police stations and so on. That’s what Memories of Murder is talking about in many ways. Memories of Murder is set in the 1980s and it’s somehow…Bong Joon-Ho said that when he started out making the film that wasn’t his explicit intention, but he realized what he was making, that in fact the film was a rather close reflection of a general mood that had gripped the country at the time. It doesn’t mean all Koreans were permanently cowering, and the film doesn’t show that anyway –it shows people living more or less ordinary lives much of the time. But it also shows the way the police behaved, that police torture was routine, that interrogating someone was a matter of beating them up more often than not. It shows that there was a climate of fear and persecution. There’s a lot of paranoia in the film. A lot of people were scared of one thing or another; the fact that there are these murders taking place makes it worse, but they were scared anyway. The murders are simply intensifying it, they’re not creating it. So it’s a film that I think became, intentionally or not, a rather sophisticated reflection on what it was like at the time in Korea. I suspect that the kind of macho action violence that you get in a lot of modern Korean films is partly rooted in this history of brutality. I think it’s partly rooted in enthusiasm for John Woo and the like from Hong Kong. Hong Kong doesn’t have a history like Korea’s; it’s a very different history in Hong Kong, but Hong Kong produced some of the most violent films in cinema history, and they did that in the name of entertainment. It was seen as a logical escalation of what they were doing already. They just upped the ante. Someone like Sam Peckinpah did that in Hollywood as well, but he did it with a rather clear moral purpose. He wanted to show…well, I mean, it varies from film to film, but certainly The Wild Bunch (1969), which set a new benchmark, I think, for the realistic depiction of violent death, was clearly tragic in tone, and moralistic in intent…I mean, that’s maybe debatable, but broadly speaking that’s true, and I don’t think Peckinpah would have been able to get away with it if it hadn’t been like that, actually. In Hong Kong screen violence was never subject to such constraints. The Hong Kong film industry, which is largely uncensored, was free to do what it liked, and there was a measurable escalation in the depiction of violence and the realism of it and the bloodiness of it and the extremeness of it. And I think that had a knock-on effect on other film industries. Hong Kong films were among the few things seen in South Korea in the bad old days. The films imported to Korea were only films from Hollywood and Hong Kong; it was hard to see anything else at all. So that would certainly have left some trace on Korean film. Anyway, I think that when Park Chan-Wook or somebody is making some ultra-violent revenge thriller, what he has in mind is partly those Hong Kong movies he grew up with –the type of stuff that probably found its purest expression in John Woo’s films– and more recently Quentin Tarantino, and other American filmmakers who plow those particular genre furrows.

Offscreen: Since you mention Quentin Tarantino, I can’t resist asking, as someone who’s an expert on East Asian cinema, what do you make of his blatant appropriations of East Asian genre tropes?

Tony Rayns: Historically the fact is that the way North America began to consume East Asian films, initially Hong Kong films, was via video stores rather than mainstream distribution, and via…cult-y audiences. Nerds who became specialists. There is a guy in Toronto named John Chow who has a website on Hong Kong cinema and who claims to have seen every Hong Kong film ever made and who reports on it on his website and publishes books of documentation about this stuff…There is a kind of geek mentality towards this material. As far as I can see it’s largely uncritical. It almost never defines any kind of aesthetic criteria or moral criteria; it has no sense of why something might be better than something else –it’s just it works better or it doesn’t work better. There are no other judgments that ever seem to be made. I look on this with some amusement and bemusement, actually. A mixture of the two. Anyway, that’s where Quentin Tarantino comes from –all those years of slogging through his video store days before he became a director was spent consuming this stuff. But it wasn’t just East Asian action films, it was blaxploitation films and all kinds of other things too, things closer to home. I think he responded to Hong Kong cinema in kind of the same way that someone like David Bordwell did– responding to the fact that by comparison with most Hollywood filmmaking, Hong Kong genre cinema at its best, back in the Seventies and Eighties, was dynamic, inventive, extraordinary, exciting, all the things that Hollywood films on the whole were not. I think if you were open to the idea of being interested, you became interested. There was just a lot to get enthusiastic about. It was true for me, too. I became interested in Hong Kong cinema because I was very bored with American and European movies. For me, discovering Hong Kong movies was almost like rediscovering why I got interested in cinema in the first place. There was also the element of discovering a new culture, which was obviously quite exciting and added an extra dimension to it, but part of it was purely cinematic.

Offscreen: The last time I interviewed you, you talked a bit about the collapse of the Hong Kong film industry. I’m wondering if things have improved at all since then.

Tony Rayns: Nope (laughs)! That’s my shortest answer. There’s not much else to say, I mean, what’s happened in Hong Kong has been a hundred and eighty degree turn towards China. China is now seen as the salvation of the Hong Kong film business. So most Hong Kong filmmakers, at all levels from the most ambitious to the least ambitious, are working in China and are aiming at Chinese distribution, because that’s where they think the audience is. Hong Kong audiences basically stopped going to the movies; it’s like Taiwan. So the glory days of mass audience appeal in Hong Kong seem to be over, and I don’t think they’re going to come back quickly. So Hong Kong filmmakers, or people who are trying to revive the film industry in Hong Kong, or keep on going anyway, like Johnnie To for example, have no choice really but to aim at China, where there are 1.2 billion people, quite a large percentage of whom are open to the idea of paying money to see movies at their local shiny new multiplex, just built. So that’s potentially the way forward. Insofar as there’s been any revival in Hong Kong, it’s because of the new attitude to China and the Chinese market. A lot of Hong Kong filmmakers are looking to Chinese investors for financing and are looking to Chinese distribution for profits. Very often they’re not finding them. It’s proved to be quite difficult, quite risky, but sometimes they’ve done well.

Offscreen: I haven’t been able to see the new Tsai Ming-Liang film, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Taiwan, 2006). I’m seeing it later in the week, but I note that it takes place in his home country of Malaysia, and I find that interesting. Is this a return to the homeland for him, or a brief foray?

Tony Rayns: No, it’s not a return to the homeland or anything like that. It’s not where he grew up –the film’s set in Kuala Lumpur; he grew up in Kuching, which is a relatively small country town in Sarawak, so it’s a totally different environment. Tsai Ming-Liang first went to Kuala Lumpur as an adult in 1999, I think he said. This happened to be the time when Mahathir the…I think it’s fair to say fascistic Prime Minister, who’s been in power for such a long time, had suddenly turned on his anointed successor, Anwar Ibrahim. He accused Ibrahim of various things, including corruption and sodomy, and had him placed in jail. Tsai arrived in the middle of all this and was rather fascinated by the salaciousness of the scandal, the sordid details about mattresses that were dragged into court to demonstrate that fucking had taken place with the chauffeur… it was surreal, actually, and at the same time you couldn’t help noticing that there was a kind of economic collapse going on. 1999 was actually the tail end of the economic collapse, but from 1997 on various Asian currencies plummeted; the bubble had burst, basically. It was triggered by currency exchange speculation. Thailand was in trouble, Indonesia was in trouble, Malaysia was in trouble, Korea was in trouble –right across East Asia the economies were in difficulty because of this. And so a lot of people suddenly were out of work, and a lot of buildings that were being put up, rather like here in Vancouver, were suddenly abandoned, and some of them are still standing there now. So, he had the idea, seeing all of this going on, that there was a film here, that he should try and make it. But he failed to make it at the time. He started a script, was unable to raise the money for it, and carried on making movies in Taiwan with his usual French or Japanese financing and continued the path that he’d already started mapping out. The idea came up again because he was approached by the Mozart festival in Vienna. This is Mozart’s 250th Anniversary.

Offscreen: This is the New Crowned Hope program?

Tony Rayns: Exactly it. The New Crowned Hope was designed to mark Mozart’s 250th birthday and the city of Vienna, which is of course where Mozart died, commissioned the American opera and stage director Peter Sellars to be the director of the festival. Sellars is the one who came up with New Crowned Hope and commissioned work across different media to constitute the festival. All this work is supposed to be screened, performed, or shown in Vienna in November-December of this year, and Sellars’ commissions included six films. Various filmmakers, all from so-called developing countries, were commissioned to make them. Taiwan is not a developing country, so they stretched the point a bit with Tsai, but Tsai said he would make it in Malaysia, which is a developing country. He saw this, when the possibility was floated with him, as a chance for reactivating his Malaysian ideas. So he dug up his old script, which had changed enormously in the intervening five-six years, and he made the film with seed money from Vienna. He had to raise other money from his usual people, both in Taiwan and in France, to complete the financing of the film, but he was able to make it because of these rather special production circumstances. So I don’t think it represents anything particular in his career, but the film is interestingly different in some ways from his other work. It has a tone that is quite a lot different from his other films. It’s distinctly more upbeat. Although it presents a pretty gloomy picture of society and human fate, as one has come to expect from Tsai, it’s also funnier than most of his other films, more touching, and has a sort of –how can I put this– a more human warmth about it. There is a more positive depiction of human emotional ties in this movie than there is in most of his other work.

Offscreen: Many people have noticed certain aesthetic trends in art cinema in general but East Asian art cinema in particular, a style consisting of things like minimal soundtrack, long takes, spare or slow camera movement, fixed camera positions….

Tony Rayns: You’re talking about Hou Hsiao-Hsien…

Offscreen: Well, I’m talking about Hou Hsiao-Hsien, I’m talking about Tsai Ming-Liang definitely, I’m talking about quite a few of the films I’ve seen in this year’s program –Betelnut is definitely one of them. Where do you see this trend emerging from and do you worry at all that there’s a risk of uniformity?

Tony Rayns: Well, I don’t worry, because it’s not my worry, I’m simply a consumer of these things. I commentate on them sometimes, but…if people stop making interesting films, or the films become so formulary or locked into some very rigid aesthetic which is not flexible or ceases to be interesting very quickly, then everybody will lose interest, and the films will just die, and nobody will see them. I’m old enough to remember that happening in earlier periods of cinema. There was a movement in the Seventies in Britain and Europe, and to some degree in the States, called Structural film, which promoted what was described at the time as a materialist aesthetic of cinema, and… my god, where is it now? There were books published, there were hundreds of films made, and not one I think is remotely remembered with affection, and the films have long since vanished, and nobody shows them, they’re not on DVD. It was a moment that passed, it was a moment of fashion, essentially, and it had no lasting impact on anything. I don’t think there’s much risk of that happening with East Asian cinema, especially with the more formal kind. But to answer your question properly, one would have to go into, again, a long, long thing, and it’s not possible to do that now. But Hou Hsiao-Hsien is an interesting case because he’s sort of a pioneer in this area. He’s a very good example of someone who was…a very average kid, I think, a borderline delinquent in his teenage years, as he’s been very frank to discuss –I mean he’s showed it in some of his films, they’re autobiographical films, that have shown that he was in knife fights and god knows what. He came into the industry as a writer and then as an assistant director and then as a director. His first two or three films were vehicles for pop stars and were pretty unambitious aesthetically. And then he was invited to make something artier. There was a conscious attempt to renew Taiwanese cinema by the leading production company, which was government owned, and he was one of the directors that they hired to contribute to an omnibus project that was specifically supposed to be arty. He was encouraged for the first time to do something that was considered more artistically ambitious, and he made a film that he now repudiates and says is dreadful –and I sort of see what he means, because it’s very sentimental and full of rather crude emotional manipulation of the audience. The film is called The Sandwich Man (1983); his episode is called “Sun’s Big Doll.” This is not his best work, but it marked a crucial turning point in his career because it forced him for the first time to think more seriously about what he was doing and to actually consider some aesthetic questions, which I think he’d probably rather taken for granted in the earlier work. From that point on he started to make independent films. He formed the first of several of his own companies and went on to make The Boys From Fengkuei (1983) and then Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) and then A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985), all of which you can see as evidence of a developing interest in aesthetic questions. So, Boys From Fengkuei already has a preponderance of long shots in it, very few close-ups, shots held markedly longer than in average films. And that’s very striking. You’re some distance away from the characters. You’re looking at the characters in long shot, and the shot is held and held and held. And you see them doing something, but you see it from a considerable distance. And when he was asked why he did that, Hou said that he found it was quite interesting, because there was a certain tension in the body language and the movements, there were things he could do with the composition as well that somehow helped to express something of the meaning of the scene, and it worked better if you held things in a long shot like that than if you tried to hammer it home in emotionally loaded close-ups or with all kinds of conventional editing tricks, or that kind of thing. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a very good example of someone who kind of invented his own film language, progressively did away with the things he’d been taught in the industry and decided to go off on his own doing something different. When Chen Kaige made Yellow Earth (1984) in China a few years later, he and Zhang Yimou rationalized what they were doing in specifically Chinese terms. They said: We wanted to create a Chinese aesthetic, we wanted it to be noticeably different from the movies we saw being imported, we wanted it to be not Hollywood, in other words. I don’t think Hou Hsiao-Hsien ever said that, but he nonetheless did invent, in a more pure way than Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, a very different approach to film form, film structure, and the way the film related to the audience. Basically he stopped being manipulative. He became observational. He provided the audience with everything they needed, all the information they needed, but very minimally. He would cut back, cut back, cut back, until he thought he had the minimum necessary to communicate the essential points. And he would present a film which required a quality of attention that people perhaps were not used to. You don’t have to give the same quality of attention to a Hollywood film, because a Hollywood film tells you every minute what you’re supposed to be thinking and feeling –“Laugh here,” “Cry here,” “Get excited here.” Almost all Hollywood cinema is fundamentally emotionally manipulative. It’s pre-programmed; it tells you how you’re supposed to react, and it doesn’t leave much margin for ambiguity. Hou is all ambiguity. He never tells you anything about how you’re supposed to react, he just provides you with information, and leaves it to you to figure out how you want to react and what to make of it. And most audiences aren’t used to that, and quite a few of them aren’t happy with it, actually. They find it boring, or disturbing in some way which is hard to express, to be confronted with that kind of work. So I think that what you identify as a trend in East Asian cinema –and obviously you’re right that there has been quite a bit of this kind of filmmaking– I think it comes primarily from Hou. I think he was sort of the godfather of all of this, but there have of course been a number of other people like Tsai, like Jia Zhangke, who have veered in the same direction. Their films are nothing particularly like Hou’s, but they also have a preference for longer takes, sometimes static takes, less close-ups, more long shots –some of the characteristics of Hou’s cinema find their way into other filmmakers’ work. And I think you’re right, it obviously does have an influence on younger people and on people generally in the film business. This kind of filmmaking, on the whole, has never been very popular. It hasn’t succeeded in attracting large audiences. And I think that there’s something in the nature of the filmmaking, i.e. the fact that it’s not manipulative emotionally, that actually makes it not very audience-friendly. Some would argue, conversely, that it’s highly audience-friendly, because it trusts the audience more. But in naked commercial terms, it’s not like that. Audiences want to be told what to think most of the time, because that’s what they’re used to. They’ve had it all their life. Anybody who goes against that particular grain is limiting themselves to a minority audience, basically, and I think Hou knows that, Tsai knows that, Jia knows that. They’re quite serious in what they do, and they’re not lusting after big commercial success. They all want their films to be seen by the largest possible audience, and all of them have made efforts, especially in recent years, to broaden their audience. But they remain fundamentally very committed to the kind of work they’ve been doing. And they’re not going to change it, not fundamentally. They’re not going to drastically alter their aesthetic. Some have. There are examples of people who completely turn around and make something radically different from what they’ve done before. There’s a young Chinese filmmaker called Ning Hau, for example, whose films I’ve shown here. His first film was called Incense (2003), his second film was called Mongolian Ping-Pong (2005), both of which were…I suppose the school of Jia Zhangke, at least in the way they were made, the way they were shot, the way they were structured. His film this year, which I chose not to show, is called Crazy Stone (2006). It’s an extremely slick jewel robbery movie, with like five different groups all after the same jewel, double crossing each other, treading on each other’s toes. It’s extremely fast-paced; the whole thing looks like a commercial for hair gel or something. It couldn’t be a more zappy, commercial piece of work. I didn’t invite it to Vancouver because I didn’t like it all that much, although it is quite slick in and of its type, but also because I’d already invited a film called Karmic Mahjong (2006, Wang Guangli), which is kind of like that also, and I thought one of those is enough. But Ning is a very good example of someone who’s come from the kind of aesthetic you’re talking about, and has completely turned around and made an outright commercial movie that’s designed to be a big crowd-pleaser. And it’s worked; the film has been a big hit in China this year.


Author Bio:

Mike Archibald is currently finishing his bachelor of fine arts at Concordia University. His areas of interest include East Asian cinema and Film Noir.


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