Rightwing Film Geek

If I’m gonna dis Peter …

I’d better give him a hat tip for this New York Times article by Dennis Lim about SECRET SUNSHINE, based on an interview with Lee Chang-dong. When J. Robert Parks and I discussed the movie, we agreed that Lee wasn’t interested in the sort of easy caricature that comes as second nature to Hollywood and Sundance. Several other Christian critics besides myself have noted this film’s interest (thanks Jeffrey and Peter). But it wasn’t obvious what Lee’s personal religiosity was. Here’s the answer (though the Lim article does note this realism):

Asked about his own religious beliefs, Mr. Lee quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein — “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” — and added, “That’s my position on God and faith.”
“Secret Sunshine” ends on a note at once ambiguous and hopeful. Its limpid, humble approach to suffering and grace suggests something like “Breaking the Waves” stripped of mysticism, or a rationalist version of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
“Shin-ae is always looking up and never at the ground,” Mr. Lee said, pointing out a recurring motif. The film opens with a wide shot of the sky and concludes with the camera trained on a patch of earth. “I wanted to show that the meaning of life is not far from where we are,” he said. “It’s not up there. It’s here, in our actual life.”

I think what Robert and I were responding to, and this probably says something about the damage the Kulturkampf in the West has done to artists, was seeing a Korean skeptic/humanist able to suspend his disbelief, as it were, and produce a judicious, if critical, movie that Christians could engage with. I even said in my initial review that there is no way SECRET SUNSHINE can be compared to the Samstopher Dawkinses. But an environment where any manner of silliness, as long as it’s anti-Christian, can pass for deep thinking¹ is the cultural air that Western Christians must breathe. Where adolescent Christophobia is normal, films like SECRET SUNSHINE really really REALLY profit by comparison.

But to respond to something to a point Peter raised in that thread at Arts & Faith above (SPOILER warning henceforth):

How one reacts to the film — and its portrayal of Christians in particular — may depend to a great degree on a particular scene between a man and a woman, roughly halfway through the film (I think). … But what did you make of the fact that the “forgiven” man shows pretty much zero remorse or zero felt need to be reconciled with the woman? I really like that scene and the direction in which it spins the plot, on a number of levels, but there was something about that part of the scene that didn’t feel quite “right”, quite “real”, to me. It is scenes like this that people probably have in mind when they (or should I say, we) point to the “superficiality” of the film’s depiction of evangelical faith (or should I say, the evangelical faith depicted in this film).

I don’t agree that the child-killer shows little remorse or felt need to be reconciled. He’s calm and not playing up the sackcloth and self-flagellation angle, sure. I don’t recall his precise dialogue, beyond thanking her and welcoming her into the “Christian fold” and thanking the Holy Spirit for bringing them together, etc. For me at least, the entire energy of the scene was on her reaction, her shock. She (and I, quite frankly) expected some snarling brute and we didn’t get it; she can’t quite process that, so she takes out her disappointment on God. We have an easier time processing that surprise, and thus “judging her” … because … well, it wasn’t our child, so it’s easier for us to see the principle at stake beyond the personal (aside: this is why I oppose victim-impact statements during criminal sentencings).

That said, I’ve already noted that I see her subsequent reaction is evidence of a certain spiritual immaturity — not in her failure (she was doing something that would try the greatest saints) but in her very attempting it and being encouraged in that by her congregation (“fighting for the title right out of the Golden Gloves”). It is a true test of sainthood: can we be happy for the forgiveness received by those who have wronged us? To take it to the logical end: do we *want* Hitler to be in Hell. It’s hard to say “no” to that, but Christians must. The breadth and depth of God’s forgiveness is not a particularly interesting theological question; the answer is cut-and-dried obvious: “we must be happy for the killer” (and must not want Hitler in Hell). But it’s much more interesting as an existential dilemma: “can we be,” or “can she be.” In fact, the existential questions make for far more interesting drama, though it always has to dance at the edge of orthodoxy, precisely because the acting-out of something is neither the same thing as nor so easy as the affirmation of something (one reason I had no interest in people who dismissed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN based on the sinfulness of homosexual sex). And this is a far broader and deeper point than the particular extremes of dealing with a child-murderer or of sodomy — in fact, it’s the one that all of us sinners face every day.
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¹ At the E Street Theater in downtown Washington at the weekend, I saw a “Coming Soon” poster for FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO, which looks like a veritable Summa of this sort of stuff. The film (which Peter has apparently seen) is playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, which describes the film thusly: “The hermeneutics of hate are given a precise translation in director Daniel Karslake’s look at how a literal reading of the bible has been the justification for centuries of persecution, violence and hatred.” I’m almost tempted to see the film just to have the privilege of slamming it.

October 2, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF Capsules — Day 8

DR. PLONK, Rolf de Heer, Australia — 6
The titular 1907 scientist discovers that the world will end a hundred years hence and so develops a time machine to get the proof and/or warn the then-present. Since it’s done in the style of a silent comedy, or more specifically a not-quite-so-frenetic Mack Sennett, this silent-film fanboy was ready to adore DR. PLONK. And there IS a lot of stuff to like here: a charming dog with a ball fetish to end all ball fetishes, the deaf assistant, Dr. Plonk’s chalkboard with not-quite-brilliant scrawls (“c² = e/m”), and my favorite gag was the way Dr. Plonk handles the TV salesman. But I quickly realized I wasn’t laughing as much as I should have been, and it’s because writer-director deHeer does little “shading” or “building” the gags. Let me give one example: whenever he gets a good idea, Dr. Plonk pulls out of his pocket and displays to the camera a glowing lightbulb, not attached to any socket or other visible power source. In the course of the film, he does this maybe six times or so. But that’s only funny the first or second time. If Chaplin or Lloyd were to have done this, they would have had something unexpected happen during or because of the gesture, rather than just rinse-and-repeat. And not much is really made of the 1907-2007 contrasts, other than a funny bit about trying to visit the Australian prime minister. DR. PLONK is more an great stunt done passably than a great movie.

RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN, Hans Weingartner, Germany — 0
I should have reclaimed mine by walking out of this vile bag of stupid, self-satisfied, self-righteous, audience-fellating garbage. Weingartner said in his intro at the festival that the “TV rating system does not reflect intelligent people like us,” which got my back up right away. “Us”? And then, the very first dramatic scene is so over-the top — imagine this PJ O’Rourke essay as adapted by someone who didn’t realize O’Rourke is a humorist — that the only question really left was how much I would hate RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN. Quite a lot. A supposed satire about the dumbing effect of television and a plot by a ragtag group to electronically rig the ratings and turn Germany in a few months into a nation full of “intelligent people like us,” it really increased my admiration for movies like SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS and IDIOCRACY, which handle some of the same subject matter, but without the smarmy adolescent superiority. This is the sort of movie where two guerrillas try to steal a ratings box and “turn” the security guard chasing after them by sheer dint of persuasion. This is the sort of movie where PERSONA and ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL are put forth as ideal programming, but which has several happy, sappy montages of the New Intelligent Liberated Germany scored to happy, sappy pop music that I don’t recall Bergman or Fassbinder having a jones for. This is the sort of movie that thinks capitalist advertising causes people to consume willy-nilly for the sake of consumption (what caused Roman vomitoriums or “Madame Deficit” then???). It is even the sort of movie where at one point a character notes that “we don’t want to change the ratings too quickly, it’ll attract suspicion” but then later, the characters will huddle around a computer to watch the hacked “real-time ratings” for one network drop by three-fourths in 15 seconds.

DAYS OF DARKNESS, Denys Arcand, Canada — 8
According to Mike, nobody liked this movie at Cannes (and nobody in my circle at Toronto even as much as saw it). I will freely admit that DARKNESS profited enormously from both my seeing it immediately after that piece of scheisse and also from comparison with Arcand’s BARBARIAN INVASIONS, which I rather disliked. DARKNESS shares some thematic similarities with both films and even a narrowly topical resemblance to INVASIONS. But the difference is in the perspective — instead of INVASION’s insufferably smug circle of intellectuals, DARKNESS follows a single protagonist who works in the bowels of that kafkaesque P.C. behemoth that Quebec calls a government. He’s a nobody in his family (his wife is even a Realtor, shades of AMERICAN BEAUTY), he’s bullied at work, where he cannot do anything to help the people who come to him with serious woes. And, like Walter Mitty and Billy Liar, he escapes into fantastical dreams that Arcand presents as black-out comedy sketches. That never quite avoid sex. Arcand presents Quebec as choking on a suburban hyper-modern bureaucratic impersonalism that has arrogated everything and its meaning unto itself. There is a “real-life” scene involving a tribunal over the hero’s use of the word “Negro” that is funny enough but probably is far wittier in French. A lengthy sequence involves a weekend among medieval impersonators (Society for Creative Anachronism types) which the hero says is about “people who just want order and faith.” But, eventually, the only thing left to the hero is to withdraw. TS Eliot said he’d show us fear in a handful of dust (and the Waste Land’s dust is choking the city at the start of the movie) and Arcand shows us the meaning of life in an apple. In other words, this is the right-Romantic “Gemeinschaft” critique of capitalism and modernity (which is incompatible with anything smacking of Marxism or anything leftist): “Crunchy” Rod … see this movie.

SECRET SUNSHINE, Lee Chang-dong, South Korea — 8
I wish I could have just worn a mike and recorded the beer-sodden (on my end) conversation I had with J. Robert Parks on Friday night, so I could post that here as a Podcast. I admired SECRET SUNSHINE much more than Robert does, though the film’s virtues are fairly self-evident: a bravura central performance by Jeon Do-yeon as Shin-ae a newly-widowed mother hit by tragedy as she moves into her late husband’s hometown, and an understatedly-comic turn by Song Kang-ho as Mr. Kim (something needed in a movie where the central character is so BIG and goes through such wild emotional swings). We agreed on all that, where we disagreed and what we mostly discussed was the presentation of Christianity in SECRET SUNSHINE.

After a tragedy, Shin-ae finds her way into a church, an evangelical Protestant group with a strong charismatic bent. At the healing service she wanders into half-unawares, the minister lays his hands on her (the rest of him is offscreen … the perfect framing) and it’s as if 16 tons of coal are off her shoulders. This scene is presented straight and without irony. She joins the church and seems content and at peace. But then tries something heroic, which I won’t spoil, but which turns her against the church and into the remoter edges of sanity. I wouldn’t agree with Darren Hughes that SECRET SUNSHINE is “the truest depiction of evangelical Christianity I’ve seen on film” (I’ve seen THE APOSTLE, and even, in a movie that has more in common with SECRET SUNSHINE, TENDER MERCIES). But Lee does get a lot right, including the physical stuff like the songs (no “Dies Irae” in a low-church setting or “Ave Maria” among Protestants, say), the parking arrangements, and the ways that this church provides community and love to those who badly need it. And Mr. Kim, who joins the church simply to pursue Shin-ae, eventually becomes a reasonably contented member.

Even the warts Lee shows in the church, or rather in this church, are not things Christians (or even evangelicals like Robert) are blind to — starting with a certain spiritual immaturity that, while admirable because it grows from a boundless faith in the Holy Spirit, would encourage the spiritual equivalent of fighting for the world title after winning the Golden Gloves. (And as a Catholic, I have no difficulty with noting how the evangelical once-and-for-all soteriology encourages rashness even in non-salvific or more-secular things; indeed I count this as one of the film’s strengths in its depiction of Christianity.) Even if Robert is right … back me on this one bud … there can be no questioning Lee’s basic receptivity and seriousness, his sincere desire to explore a milieu or phenomenon in its fullness — a religion relatively new to Korea but rapidly-growing. We’re not talking Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, in other words.

One reservation: the film should have ended … I will be vague … as the heroine walks down the street, saying “help me.” Instead there’s a really dumb coda in which a certain action is used as a metaphor for “striking out on one’s own / thinking for oneself.” Except that the action used is one that there are very good natural reasons most people have others do it for them. Which undermines whatever point the coda would have to have to justify its existence.

A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE, Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan — 6

A half-dozen kids make up the entire elementary school in a small Japanese village but a boy comes from Tokyo to study in the top grade, joining the class with the girl who’s the leader of the pack but about to become a teenager. If I had to sum up GENTLE BREEZE in a single word, it would be “sweet.” There isn’t much plot tension exactly, but Yamashita creates a mood more than anything — one of easy happiness without saccharin uplift. The children form a group and love one another rather than the sort of cliquish wiseacres — going to the beach together and even inviting the new boy along lest he feel left out. When GENTLE BREEZE stays with the environment of the children, it is superb and filled with “just so” moments of recognition — I had memories tickled of being afraid to take “The Rock Way” home from St. Lawrence’s Primary when someone told me it was haunted. Even though I never believed in ghosts, exactly. There’s another moment when the youngest girl hugs the eldest, who is a bit of a mother hen to the group without being bossy, that is frog-in-the-throat territory. In his setup, Yamashita deliberately invokes Ozu-style framing to emphasize that this village hasn’t changed much since Ozu’s time. But high-school and the class trip to Tokyo beckon, where the heroine finds out some things about the new boy. GENTLE BREEZE has some very funny comic moments, my favorite being the discussion of the ethics of kisses and handshakes that is far removed from the world of Britney and Lindsey as imaginable. But good as the parts are, they never really come together and the film does drag, grooving on its sweet a bit much for my tastes — as a result, it sometimes feels as slight and inconsequential as … well … a gentle breeze in the village (sorry).

September 22, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments