Turning Oppressive Realing Into Great Art

In 1956, when I was 11 years old, I saw my first Japanese film or more accurately a parody of a Japanese film shown on the Sid Caesar show. Called “U-Bet-U”, it was obviously a take-off on “Ugetsu Monogatari”, a 1953 film that along with “Rashomon” helped introduce Japanese films to American audiences.

Three years later I saw the original at a special screening at my local high school one evening. My mother had heard that it was a masterpiece and brought me there to see an alternative to Martin and Lewis comedies and John Wayne westerns. I can’t say that I understood “Ugetsu” but it was my first inkling that a hipper world existed. The appearance of the SUNY New Paltz film professor who came there to introduce the film made more of an impression on me than the movie. With the suede patches on his tweed sports jacket and his closely cropped beard, he was the first bohemian I had ever laid eyes on.

Fast forward two years later and I am a freshman at Bard deeply immersed in some of the greatest films I have ever seen, including masterpieces made by Akira Kurosawa who was in his prime. Ever since those days, Japanese films have remained the gold standard for me, joined in later years by those made in China and Korea. I was never quite convinced that Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient” was correct in its projections that the East would become a global hegemon just as it was before Europe’s rise in the 15th century, but when it comes to film, I need no convincing—most often after I have seen some of the films offered at the annual New York Asian Film Festival whose latest installment runs from June 26th to July 11th (http://www.subwaycinema.com/nyaff15/). The four films under review below should persuade anybody in the greater New York area to check the schedule and buy some tickets. If the term “race to the bottom” is most often associated with factories moving to Asia, suffice it to say that it is just as applicable to the current morass in a bottom-line oriented Hollywood.

The Last Ree

Generally I shy away from any film made about the human disaster in Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule for the same reason I avoid any made about the Judeocide. They seem to lend themselves to formulas and often descend into a preaching mode that cuts across effective story-telling.

Directed by Kulikar Sotho, a female Cambodian, “The Last Reel” is a work that looks at the Khmer Rouge experience but refracted through the personal interactions of two generations, one that lived through the disaster and one that is making its way in a Cambodia that has discarded all remnants of the past—both good and bad.

In the opening scene we meet representatives of the new generation, a young woman named Souphon and her boyfriend Veasna who is the hoodlum leader of a motorcycle gang. If he was ever asked what he was rebelling against, he’d probably give the same answer Brando gave in “The Wild One”: “whaddaya got?” When Veasta and his home boys get into a brawl with a rival gang on Phnom Penh’s streets late one night, Souphon takes refuge in a nearby broken down movie theater. Wandering about the seemingly abandoned theater, she is shocked to see a movie poster for a film called “The Long Way Home” that starred her mother Srey who she only knows as a bed-ridden soul practically paralyzed by depression.

Moments after she is spotted gazing at the poster, the owner of the theater confronts her as an unwelcome guest and demands that she leave. When she reveals that she is the daughter of the movie star he once directed, he relents and permits her to see the only existing reel for the film, a historical costume drama of the sort that was popular in pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Her mother plays a peasant girl who is engaged to be married to a prince. Just before the marriage, she is kidnapped by the prince’s evil brother and spirited away to a distant land. Help arrives in the form of a masked peasant who rescues her. As the two head back to the prince’s realm, they begin to fall in love.

Since Souphon is wondering if her mother’s character ends up with the prince or the peasant, she is disappointed to learn that the last reel has gone missing, another casualty of Khmer Rouge rule. We learn that once its guerrillas entered Phnom Penh, they sacked the national film archives as a symbol of bourgeois decadence and forced filmmakers to work in the countryside—at least those who weren’t executed on the spot. Among those who were driven into work gangs were Souphon’s mother and the theater’s owner.

As a way to redeem her mother and lift the veil of depression that weighs so heavily on her, Souphon persuades the director to recreate the final reel of the film with her and her hoodlum boyfriend playing the role of peasant girl and rescuer. With a film crew she lines up from her local college and their DSLR cameras, they go off to Angkor Wat where the original film was made.

Within these structures, the characters work through the collective traumas of the 1970s struggling to transcend them, facing different obstacles along the way, including the marginal role of indigenous cinema in a Cambodia swamped by a globalized and impoverished culture. If the Khmer Rouge was largely unsuccessful in imposing its own draconian and anti-human cultural agenda on a gentle and life-affirming population through force, it is open to question whether Cambodia can survive a more peaceful but just as oppressive culture imposed through the market.

In an interview with the Southeast Asia Globe, the director described her film’s message:

There’s a big gap between the generations because of a lack of communication. The older generation are closed, conservative and pride themselves on their traditional beliefs. For the younger generation, their role model has been technology, they are more free-spirited, to the point they often forget about tradition, their culture and identity. They need guidance and support from their elders, they need to know what has gone before, both good and bad, in order to make sense of the present. They need to understand what has shaped their parents’ attitudes. Both have a responsibility to communicate with one another to bridge the gap.

In my view, she has delivered on that message perfectly.


In the opening moments of this South Korean film, we meet a clique of male college students who are hopelessly addicted to social media. They walk around with laptops, tablets, and smart phones trying to keep up with the latest thread on Twitter, Facebook or some blog. They also either belong to or manage discussion groups like the Marxism list I moderate but ones more devoted to gossip, featuring the sort of material that shows up on Buzzfeed or Gawker. As the film begins, we learn that the entire Korean Internet is consumed by the news that a soldier has committed suicide while on leave after being tormented by an infamous female troll named Becca.

The boys get the bright idea that they would punish Becca for her transgression and begin by urging their followers to harass her online, a campaign that soon goes viral. Punishing her in cyberspace is not sufficient. They decide to track her down in her apartment and attack her verbally. When the mob arrives at her building, they discover that her door is open. Entering the apartment, they are shocked to discover that she has hung herself—or at least this appears so. In examining the state of the apartment, they soon conclude that it was a homicide disguised to make it look like she took her own life. Since one of the boys is studying criminology and hopes to join the police force, he takes the lead in their amateur sleuthing.

Who did it?

As the plot unfolds, we learn that it could have been any number of people since Becca had made so many enemies online. (The film made me wonder if I should clean up my act.)

Operating both as a whodunit and as sharp examination of how social media has penetrated deeply into society—often with ill effects—“Socialphobia” is a skillful and provocative look at the here and now. As the characters dig deeper and deeper into the mystery of Becca’s death, they begin to discover that the ultimate culprit might be the culture they have become captives to.

The Whistleblower

In 2006 South Koreans were shocked to discover that Hwang Woo-suk, a veterinarian and researcher, had falsified lab results to make it appear that he had successfully cloned human stem cells, raising hopes that diseases such as ALS, Parkinsons, and even cancer could now be cured.

Working with a masterful script written by Chun-Hyeong Lee, director Soon-rye Yim has stuck fairly close to the facts of the case. That being said, this is no prosaic docudrama but instead is a deeply compelling drama that addresses the problem of corporate, media and political malfeasance in a manner that is equal to Akira Kurosawa at his best, evoking “The Bad Sleep Well”. With a feral energy and lightning-fast pacing, the film makes some of the more arcane matters such as the resemblance between cloned and uncloned cells more enthralling than any Hollywood car chase.

Indeed, the filmmakers wisely made the decision not to embellish the script with hit men out to silence the whistleblower who first approaches the hero of the movie, the producer of a Korean version of “Sixty Minutes”, with testimony about the falsified lab results. When the producer is in a parking garage, you half expect someone to attack him on his way to the car—the cliche found in so many corporate crime thrillers. In “Whistleblower”, the parking garage is just a place to get your car. Most of the drama in fact takes place over the phone as various participants in this human drama wrestle over the pending news show that will throw the country back on its heels.

If the film is focused on the case of Hwang Woo-suk, it implicitly speaks to the entire moral and political rot of South Korea, one that allowed an unsafe ferry boat to capsize and take the lives of nearly 500 young people. In one of the more telling scenes in the film, members of Korea’s corporate elite meet with the television station’s top executive to put pressure on him to cancel the program because when it comes to the national interest versus the truth, it is the national interest that must come first. That, in a nutshell, is the social drama incarnate of the 21st century, as long as we understand that the “national interest” and that of the ruling class is indistinguishable.

Pale Moon

This is a Japanese film directed by Daihachi Yoshida, a name unfamiliar to me but one that stands out in a crowd now unfortunately devoted to making films based on manga (comic books) geared to fan boys or pretentious art movies more interested in shock than character development.

Rika Umezawa (Rie Miyazawa) is a plain-looking (bordering on mousy) bank investment adviser in her late thirties who is married to a typical salaryman who cares about nothing except consumer goods, promotions and other blandishments of middle-class life. Rika goes along with his life-style but seems to get no pleasure out of it. In fact when we first meet her at work in the bank or at home, she seems almost affectless.

Set in 1995, the characters are worried about Japan’s battered economy but soldier along buying and partying as if nothing else matters. When Rika’s husband frowns on the inexpensive matching watches she bought for the two of them after getting a promotion, she reminds him that mortgages have become cheap in a deflationary environment and advises saving their money for a home purchase. When she goes out to meet her mostly elderly clients, she takes the same tack as a persuasive salesperson, knowing which bond or CD will pay the best return. In other words, she is a salarywoman in many ways the counterpart to her bland and materialistic husband.

All that changes when she runs into the grandson of one of her clients in a commuter train station. Kotu (Sosuke Ikematsu), a college student young enough to be her son, strikes up a conversation with her and betrays a sexual interest that is obvious to Rika. After another meeting in the station, the two rent a hotel room and make love.

Thus begins a torrid affair that becomes the one thing that makes Rika feel alive. When she learns that Kotu has huge college debts, she wastes no time in procuring the funds necessary to bail him out, even if they come from embezzled funds. After her husband takes a new job in Shanghai, she is free to turn their apartment into a counterfeit manufacturing laboratory where all sorts of illegal revenue-generating documents get created as if she were a master criminal.

Of course, they eventually catch up to her. In the final scenes of this drily comic masterpiece, Rika’s deepest motivations become clear. It is not money or consumer goods that drive her, even though that’s what her life becomes more and more about. Nor is it about the need to keep her young lover dependent on her. Suffice it to say that crime is a way for her to realize an existential freedom that is given scant opportunity to manifest itself in a Japan as captive to the market as any other Asian country. Fortunately for us, the filmmakers from the region have a sharply honed ability to transform that oppressive reality into great art.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.