Sunday, March 21, 2010

Program Notes You'll Never Read at Severance Hall

From this weekend's concert of the Eureka Symphony, a subscription series concert entitled "A Guy You Love, A Guy You Don't Love & A Guy You Never Heard Of":

My program notes for this concert -- found on page 18 in the playbill -- describe Alexander Taneyev, whose second symphony we were intending to play. I wrote, "Alexander Sergeievich Taneyev is not to be confused with Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, a distant cousin." In fact, they were confused. Our music supplier was asked for A. Taneyev's second symphony, but sent that of S. Taneyev. So now you need to know a bit about Sergei Taneyev.

The notes, by Dick LaForge, go on to describe how S. Taneyev's second symphony was both unfinished and unpublished in his lifetime, and how Sergei himself was considered "hopelessly conservative" by his more accomplished colleagues. It is somewhat surprising that the supplier had this music at his fingertips.

And yet, it was something of a happy surprise. Despite the members of the symphony, and its music director, being utterly unfamiliar with the work, it actually played to the strengths of the ensemble, showcasing the richness of the strings and lyrical beauty of the reeds without overexposing the brasses. The composition itself was fairly dull, but not inordinately so; certainly no duller than your average orchestral work by Tchaikovsky, Taneyev's teacher (and, presumably, the "guy you love," as the program also contained works by Tchaikovsky and Bartok). Although I can't begin to guess whether it worked out better than the intended performance of A. Taneyev's second symphony, I'd say the only disappointment was that they didn't change the title to "A Guy You Love, A Guy You Don't Love & A Guy WE Never Heard Of."

Sunday, February 28, 2010

New Best Friends?

At left is Boots, a very sweet cat who has been on this property almost his whole life. He moved here as a young'un with a couple who rented my house some number of years ago. They later moved to Eureka, into an apartment where cats were not welcome (such places should be razed, if you ask me), so Boots stayed behind as a mostly-outdoor pet for my landlord. Then around the first of this year, they moved down to the Bay Area and couldn't take their assemblage of cats, all of whom are now under my care. The others all have their own "homes" (three in the barn, a fourth in a little doghouse on the back porch of the main house), but poor Boots was shut out of his usual accommodation on the laundry porch of the main house, and became homeless. Since I was feeding him (on my back porch), he started more or less living around my house. He and Reggie (pictured at rear) have never gotten along very well, but Boots was just so pathetic and such a lover that I couldn't keep him out any longer. So I started to let him inside when he wanted in, deciding to just hope for the best.

Pictured above is "the best." So far, it looks like Reggie has decided that he can share his comforts with his less fortunate (and considerably elder) brother. Please welcome Boots into our little family.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

When You're a Cat... is just a bed of clover.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Best of 2000s

Here's my Top 50 Films of the 2000s, as submitted as part of an omnibus project on another website. You may note the absence of any 2009 films; you may also note that my tastes don't run to the commercial. Consequently, I have to wait for a film to reach DVD before I see it, and that rules out a lot of newer releases. Please add a comment telling us a) how many of these films you have seen, and b) how crazy, obstinate, and/or wrong-headed you think I am.

1. Treeless Mountain 2008 Kim So-yong
2. Still Walking 2008 Kore-eda Hirokazu
3. This Charming Girl 2004 Lee Yoon-ki
4. Yi Yi 2000 Edward Yang
5. Take Care of my Cat 2001 Jeong Jae-eun
6. Café Lumière 2003 Hou Hsiao-hsien
7. In the Mood for Love 2000 Wong Kar-wai
8. Eureka 2000 Aoyama Shinji
9. Vertical Ray of the Sun, the 2000 Tran Anh Hung
10. Vibrator 2003 Hiroki Ryuichi
11. Return, the 2003 Andrei Zvyagintsev
12. Oasis 2002 Lee Chang-dong
13. On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate 2002 Hong Sang-soo
14. Long Weekend in Pest & Buda, a 2003 Makk Karoly
15. One Fine Spring Day 2001 Hur Jin-ho
16. Man Who Wasn't There, the 2001 Coen Bros.
17. What Time is it There? 2001 Tsai Ming-liang
18. My Dear Enemy 2008 Lee Yoon-ki
19. Kabei (Our Mother) 2008 Yamada Yoji
20. Nobody Knows 2004 Kore-eda Hirokazu
21. Good Lawyer's Wife, a 2003 Im Sang-soo
22. Chunhyang 2000 Im Kwon-taek
23. Railroad, the 2007 Park Heung-shik*
24. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring 2003 Kim Ki-duk
25. Singles 2003 Kwon Chil-in (not to be confused with the Cameron Crowe 1992 film of the same name)
26. Lilya 4-Ever 2002 Lukas Moodysson
27. Still Life 2006 Jia Zhang ke
28. Maria Full of Grace 2004 Joshua Marston
29. Between Love and Hate 2006 Kim Hae-gon
30. Twilight Samurai, the 2002 Yamada Yoji
31. Into Great Silence 2005 Philip Gröning
32. Royal Tenenbaums, the 2001 Wes Anderson
33. Woman is the Future of Man 2004 Hong Sang-soo
34. Spirited Away 2001 Miyazaki Hayao
35. This is England 2006 Shane Meadows
36. Saving My Hubby 2002 Hyun Nam-seob (aka Be Strong, Geum-soon!, but not to be confused with the Korean TV series of this same name)
37. Clean 2004 Olivier Assayas
38. Saddest Music in the World, the 2004 Guy Maddin
39. Barking Dogs Never Bite 2000 Bong Joon-ho
40. Memories of Murder 2003 Bong Joon-ho
41. Time Out 2001 Laurent Cantet
42. Monday Morning 2002 Otar Iosseliani
43. Woman on the Beach 2006 Hong Sang-soo
44. Last Life in the Universe 2003 Pen-ek Ratanaruang
45. Circle, the 2000 Jafar Panahi
46. Ad-Lib Night 2006 Lee Yoon-ki
47. Secret Sunshine 2007 Lee Chang-dong
48. Tokyo Trash Baby 2000 Hiroki Ryuichi
49. Incredibles, the 2004 Brad Bird
50. Enfant, L' 2005 Dardenne Bros.

*Note to #23: There are two active Korean directors with this name, but imdb conflates them into one. This one is the director of The Railroad and The Twins. The other, more famous one directed (among others) My Sweet Seoul, My Mother the Mermaid, I Wish I Had a Wife Too, and Bravo My Life (aka Mommie Dearest). If you care.

Friday, January 29, 2010

No Comment

I must say, getting no comments at all on the preceding seven DVD reviews is not what I was hoping for. Especially since I've posted links to them in three different places, trying to attract people who I thought might have an interest in the subject.

If you have any comments or feedback, positive or negative, please don't be shy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Rosy Life

The final installment of the Korean Movie Classic Collection is 1994's My Rosy Life (or La Vie en Rose, 장미빛 인생), directed by Kim Hong-joon. It is set in Garabong, a suburb of Seoul, amid the student riots and general chaos of 1987 as the government prepared to host the 1988 Olympic Games. The story centers on a comic book shop which the proprietress (Choi Myeong-gil) uses as an illicit no-questions-asked shelter at night. Her shop is populated by a wide variety of down-and-outs, petty thieves, and others with no place to go who, for a small fee, can stretch out on the chairs, enjoy a bowl of noodles, and watch a late-night porno on the closed-circuit. In particular, three men are attracted to the shop and its "Madam:" Dong-pal (Choi Jae-sung), a small-time hood on the run from two or three different gangs; Yu-jin (Lee Ji-hyeong), a baby-faced writer whose latest work has made him an unwitting enemy of the state; and Ki-young (Cha Kwang-su), who harbors a secret that will upend all of their lives.

I really wanted to like this film. These are fairly well-thought-out characters thrown together at a very interesting place and time in modern Korean history. Unfortunately, there are just too many problems for the film to overcome.

The main problem is that the film revolves around the least interesting, most generic character, Dong-pal. Dong-pal is just a hood, like any other hood from any other Korean gangster film set in any time or place. Time spent with this character and his romance of the Madam (I'm not spoiling anything; that's Dong-pal and the Madam on the cover, shown above) is basically time wasted, when one considers the potentially much more interesting stories shunted aside to make room for him. In particular, the moment that Yu-jin reveals his secret, for all practical purposes his story ends, in favor of a "Yu-jin Becomes a Man" story which is utterly without interest.

A second problem, even more damning in my eyes, is that the first act of this central romance is Dong-pal's brutal rape of the Madam. I confess that I have very little tolerance for these "love-my-abuser" stories. At first, the Madam takes no action, the point being to demonstrate to us that she's a tough cookie; and anyway, she really can't turn him in to the police as she herself is running an illegal business. Besides, this is 1987 Seoul; you don't turn to the police for help, especially from their side of the tracks. Okay; fine. But Dong-pal immediately falls in love and (for lack of a better word) begins to stalk her, and this of course wears down her resistance over time. Spare me.

There are other issues, such as several laughably out-of-place martial arts fights (with sound effects straight out of the old Batman TV series; I kept expecting to see "OOF!" or "KA-WHAM!" spiral up from someone's kicked stomach), and the combined effect of them is to sink what had been a very promising premise.

Once again, we have an anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation that is crisp and clean, and a good 2.0 soundtrack in the original Korean. Subtitles are fine; much improved over the middle five titles from this boxset. Extras here include both a director's commentary track (unsubbed) and a 15-minute curiosity entitled "My Korean Cinema, Episode 8: Garabong, again." This 2006 item is nothing more than brief scenes from the film, in chronological order, presented wordlessly with a simple music track. Each brief scene is prefaced by a title card, on which the only things I could decipher were dates--evidently shooting dates, as each are from 1994. They're not outtakes or alternate scenes; each is from the film itself. I don't know how much sense it would make if one were to watch it without having seen the film; but maybe those title cards explain it all. There's also the usual trailer/poster/photo gallery.

The Avatamska Sutra

Not being a Buddhist, I am going to find it quite difficult to describe the next film in the series, variously titled The Avatamska Sutra, Passage to Buddha, or its Anglicized Korean title, Hwaomkyung (화엄경). I imagine that a better grounding in Buddhist philosophy than I possess would enrich the viewer's experience, but even lacking that it's still an intriguing and beautiful film.

As it happens, I am currently reading a book in which the Dalai Lama explains some basic Buddhist concepts, and one of them seems quite pertinent to this film. "There can be two visions of the same thing," says His Holiness to the author Thomas Laird, "one of people who have a pure insight developed through spiritual practice and one that is purely conventional." He goes on to explain that both viewpoints can be true at the same time, even if the "uncommon viewpoint" is not verifiable by western standards.(*) All throughout this film are examples of things (mostly people) which are both as they seem and not as they seem.

On the surface, the story is about Sun Jae (Oh Tae-kyung), an 11-year old boy who, upon the death of his father, sets out to find his mother. Along the way he encounters a number of colorful characters, each of whom give him guidance in his quest. However, while Sun Jae is a young boy, at another level he is not. He seeks his mother, but who--or what--is his mother? The people, and even the cows, that he encounters are also, in the uncommon view, sattvas, placed in his path to assist him in his quest.

At the "common viewpoint" level, Sun Jae's travels illustrate director Jang Sun-woo's concern about the deteriorating state of postmodern Korean society. Sun Jae moves from construction sites to shanty towns to quarries to fishing piers, and nearly everyone he meets is poor or even entirely without possessions and living in at least some degree of squalor. Even the weather is uncomforting: wind and rain pelt him throughout the movie. Bustling modern Korea can often be seen on the horizon, but he knows, and we know, that Sun Jae will not find his "mother" there.

If this sounds like a gray, depressing, and difficult movie, it is not. (I told you it would be hard to describe!) It is beautifully photographed by You Yeong-gil, one of Korea's foremost cinematographers with a 70+ film career spanning from the late 1960s to Hur Jin-ho's Christmas in August, You's last feature before his untimely death. Even if the story (or stories) leave you befuddled, the film is worth viewing just for the images. The performances are strong throughout, most especially by young Oh Tae-kyung, who is onscreen virtually throughout the film and must cross some physically (and emotionally) difficult territory. There are a few of scenes that some viewers might find disturbing, one involving the slaughter of animals, the others involving the sexual awakening of the young boy-who-is-not-a-young-boy, so be forewarned. (This subject is covered with a little more depth in Adam Hartzell's review at, if you wish to know more.)

As with most of the other DVDs in this box, the picture is enhanced for widescreen TV from its 1.85:1 OAR, and looks lovely. The sound is a bit hissy, but that's not always out of place in a film where so many storms rage. The optional English subtitles, however, leave a lot to be desired. They're really no worse than the others in this series (Yeong-ja excepted), but in this film, the dialogue is much more crucial, and you're already expected to understand each line at two distinct levels, the "common" and "uncommon." Thus, when one encounters a subtitle like the one shown at right (click the screengrab to enlarge it), it can really throw you off your stride.

Even with the distracting subtitles, and the dense and multi-layered storyline, 90% of which I'm probably not getting, I still can recommend this DVD as one that will provide an interesting viewing experience.

(*)Thomas Laird, The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama (Grove Press, New York, 2006, p. 5). Please excuse any formatting errors in this footnote; I lost my Strunk & White about 30 years ago!