Images from Joint Security Area

Setting the mood, with many refractions.

The refractions function to situate the film as an arthouse film.

The investigation motif: an after-the fact investigation seeks to arrive at the "truth"—which of course can never be known.

In the film's tragic climax...

... both the pacing and the imagery ...

... are reminiscent of Bertolucci's The Conformist.

Images from Oldboy

Oldboy's tounge-cutting scene: As with many graphic horror films, the buildup is almost worse than the actual violence. And there is a certain terror in the mere fact that Oh Dae-Su hits on this expedient action as a solution to his problem. The film develops psychological horror— a different type than the "bus strategy" used by classic directors such as Val Lewton.

Oh Dae-Sue in his most depressed state. The mise-en-scene has the same palette and pulled focus that we'll see later in The Machinist and Bad Boy Bubby, where the color scheme explicitly signifies existential angst.

Teeth extraction scene.

This animation scene has a comic book feel to it, and students often laugh at it when I show the film in class.

An ant sits in the back of the subway car, another surreal and comic book touch, which marks a shift in register in an otherwise essentially humanist film.




Culture wars:
some new trends in art horror

by Joan Hawkins

“When the Korean director Park Chan-Wook walked away with the second-most prestigious prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it did more than raise a few eyebrows and critical hackles. It signaled that this wasn’t your father’s hoity-toity snooze-fest; this was the new, improved Cannes, baby — fast and furious and genre-friendly. Mr. Park’s award-winning “Oldboy,” a blood-spattered revenge movie that features death by hammer and other such tasty sport, might have been an exploitation flick, but it was an arty exploitation flick.” — New York Times critic Manohla Dargis on a special screening of Park’s work at the BAMcinématek

Culture wars

In March 2005, BAMcinématek in New York mounted a retrospective honoring Korean director Park Chan-Wook. Park is perhaps best known in the United States for Joint Security Area (2000), a conventional but surprisingly moving thriller about the politically charged friendships that develop among North and South Korean border guards. Emblematic of a certain kind of U.S. arthouse fare, Joint Security Area stresses psychology and human emotion over brutal action. The violence — when it does come in the film’s inevitable climax — is played less for gore than for heartbreak; the fatal result of a tragic geopolitical standoff.

If Park’s subsequent films had followed the same generic pattern as Joint Security Area, the BAM retrospective would have opened, as so many do, with little fanfare. There would have been a respectful notice in the New York Times and some individual film reviews. Perhaps a lament that Korean cinema is not better known in the United States — not as well-distributed as Hong Kong action flicks or Japanese yakuza movies. But Park’s subsequent films have not followed the same generic pattern. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) is a violent thriller about organ-theft and kidnapping; Oldboy (2003) is a chilling horror-revenge movie that ends with a man cutting off his own tongue. Although Oldboy won a Grand Prix Second Prize at Cannes and solidified Park’s reputation as an international auteur, the graphic elements and general creepiness in this film, as well as in the rest of Park’s recent work, has also made him a favorite among cult and horror aficionados. And it is this — his dual status as international arthouse auteur and as cult/horror auteur — which troubled the opening of his BAMcinématek retrospective.

Writing for the New York Times, film critic Dargis used the Park retrospective as an occasion to write a scathing review not only of Park’s art-horror films, but also of recent trends in U.S. international arthouse fare.[1][open endnotes in new window] Dargis writes in a passage worth quoting at length,

“The ascendancy of Mr. Park in the last few years, is partly a testament to his talent. He knows where to put the camera, how to build tension inside the frame and through editing, and he has an eye for how striking fake blood can look pooling over the ground or blooming underwater. But the filmmaker’s success in the international arena, his integration into the upper tier of the festival circuit and his embrace by some cinephiles also reflect a dubious development in recent cinema: the mainstreaming of exploitation… Movies that were once relegated to midnight screenings at festivals — and, in an earlier age, grindhouses like those that once enlivened Times Square — are now part of the main event.”[2]

In many ways, Dargis’ lament is simply a new variation on an old theme. Historically, art horror has troubled critics. It challenges generic assumptions (which are always already under siege both by the rise of generic hybrids, and also, as Thomas Schatz convincingly argues, by the inevitable evolution of genres themselves) .[3] But more importantly, art horror challenges continuing cherished assumptions about culture and taste. What’s troubling to Dargis about Park’s work is not the violence or the exploitation elements per se. In fact, Dargis often gives favorable and perceptive reviews of “pure” horror films (those which are not received at Cannes). For example, she called George Romero’s Land of the Dead “an excellent freakout of a movie” and wrote one of the best pieces on the film that I have read .[4] Rather, what is at stake for Dargis in Park’s Cannes reception, is the erosion of a certain idea about art cinema. This idea elevates art cinema as something culturally superior to and clearly distinct from exploitation. It is Oldboy’s “integration into the upper tier of the festival circuit” that bothers her, and the erosion of art/trash distinctions that such an integration implies.

Time seems slowed down, even as action itself and the shots seem precipitous.

As I have argued elsewhere, the lines between arthouse (high culture) cinema and trash (exploitation, horror, soft porn etc) have never been as clear-cut in the United States as taste critics would like to maintain.[5] The midnight screenings and “grindhouses… that once enlivened Times Square” — mentioned in Dargis’s review — were historically the site where high art and trash cinema commingled in the United States. During the period of the Hays Code, all films that did not receive the Breen Office seal of approval were shown outside mainstream theatrical release. In practical terms, this meant that Times Square theaters showing a film by Godard one week frequently showed a biker or J.D. (juvenile delinquent exploitation) flick the following week. Often they showed these films to the same audiences. Further, European art cinema was frequently advertised in ways that called attention to its “scandalous” and exploitation elements: It was sexier than U.S. cinema and the ads for the films generally featured provocatively posed, lingerie-clad women. A number of U.S. and European films — especially but not solely art-horror movies — routinely migrated between taste categories depending on the titles and distribution they received.[6] And given art cinema’s willingness to transgress the boundaries of good taste (e.g., Buñuel's films, to cite just one example), the lines dividing high art cinema from low horror have not always been that easy to see.

The final shoot out in Joint Security Area is a beautiful scene to watch, not at all like the gore in Park's subsequent films. For the critic Dargis, the later departure from the style shown in this film marks a kind of arthouse crisis.

The blurring of the boundaries between art cinema and body genres, what Dargis calls “the mainstreaming of exploitation,” is not really then “a development in recent cinema.” It is part and parcel of the history of art cinema in the United States (and even to a degree in Great Britain).[7] More recently, that blurring has continued in the “guilty pleasures” programs offered at art theaters and in the inventories maintained by the catalogue companies and websites catering to paracinema and art cinema fans.[8] DVD companies have capitalized on the longstanding high/low dialectic with new releases of cult favorites. Criterion, for example, which continues to publicize its dedication “to gathering the greatest films from around the world” has recently added to its lineup the paracinema classics Fiend without a Face (Arthur Crabtree, 1958), The Blob (Irwin S. Yearnworth, 1958), and Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962).[9] Facets Multimedia of Chicago — a rental and sales outlet specializing in arthouse, experimental and avant-garde cinema — has long maintained an extensive “guilty pleasures” and trash cinema list, which includes cult classics by Russ Meyer, Roger Corman, John Waters and Ed Wood Jr. as well as Elvis Presley flicks, blaxploitation, grade B sci-fi, and trailers and commercials.

In fact, if there is a contemporary trend toward the “mainstreaming of exploitation,” it is not happening at the high end of the culture spectrum (arthouses and film festivals), where taste-cultures have always been eclectic. Rather it is happening at the level of DVD sales and stock, and in shopping mall bookstore/DVD chain outlets, such as Borders Books and Music. Films that used to be available in the United States only on low-resolution video tape transfers from European laser discs are now frequently available as high quality DVDs, complete with all the extras DVDs traditionally offer .[10] Anchor Bay has released an extensive list of titles by European horror favorites Dario Argento, Jess Franco, and Lucio Fulci. BlueUnderground has released Rolf De Heer’s cult favorite Bad Boy Bubby (1993) as well as a series of drive-in classics. And because the films have been released on commercial DVDs, collectors no longer need to go to specialty companies to find them.

This commercial mainstreaming of exploitation and euroshocker titles has not, however, completely mitigated the need for specialty houses. Sadly, there are still many films —such as the arthouse horrors Alucarda (Juan López Moctezuma, 1978) and Death Walks at Midnight (Luciano Ercoli, 1973) — which have not been commercially released for the U.S. home market. Nicheflix, a relatively new DVD rental company, caters to people who own multistandard DVD players precisely because they cannot find everything they want in an U.S. format.[11] Luminous Film and Video Wurks, one of the best and longest running collector companies, has added international region formats to its inventory and its website has links for the “best code free/region free DVD player,” the Malata DVP-558 (www.lfvw.com/news.html). Facets Multimedia similarly offers a limited number of imported DVDs to its customers. These include previously unreleased (in the U.S.), unsubtitled films by Henri-Georges Clouzot (La Prisonnière, 1968) as well as some cult favorites. And the web is full of collector sites that cater to fans of Asian horror cinema (eday.com, for example).

Oh Dae-Su uses this mode of persuasion to get one of his tormentors to reveal information. As in Quentin Tarantino's famous ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992), the violence actually takes place off-screen. Viewers still have the impression, however, that they've seen the actual removal of teeth.

In addition, there is still a thriving alternative market, where consumers can find many of the art and exploitation films that have not yet been commercially released for home viewing. DVDs burned from the kinds of video products described in my book Cutting Edge ossify and fix (literally “burn in”) analog trash aesthetic elements (the “cool” effects of many collector videos: grainy pictures, washed-out and wandering colors, de-magnetized sound).[12] But the digital process also adds what one of my students has called “new paracinema effects” peculiar to the medium: pixellation, flashing, and other markers of digital reproduction (these are there, of course, whether the DVD was burned from a video transfer or from another source). That is, just as collector videos announce their status as “rare” objects through markers of home recording, so too rare collector DVDs bear all the signs of being burned on a home system. Discs often come in little white DVD-R sleeves, with the names of the films handwritten in magic marker on the DVD itself.[13] Catalogues are less prevalent now, increasingly replaced with websites and listserv postings. But the catalogue aesthetic has remained dominant, as collector websites maintain the no-frills functional format of the now outmoded print publications. There is frequently (although not always) a digital image from the film and a brief description of the movie. Sites selling commercial DVDs include a list of specs (aspect ratio, languages, etc.) and of any extras (interviews, author commentary, etc.) included in the package. Sometimes there are reviews and customer comments, but these are rare. Collector commentary is generally reserved for listserv communiqués, blogs, chat rooms, and individual websites.

I have written at length about collecting and home viewing because for those of us who cannot afford to go to the prestigious film festivals and who do not live in urban centers, art horror has simply not become mainstream enough. Most of the titles cited in this article received limited theatrical release in the United States. I saw all of them for the first time on a home DVD player. Many of them I have never been able to see projected (either on celluloid or digitally) in a commercial theater. Home viewing is not only increasingly the preferred mode of viewing for many U.S. spectators. In many instances it remains the only way the films that Dargis describes in her review can be seen.[14]

Tatoo sequence: The marking of flesh also gives Oldboy a very tactile quality. It draws the viewer's attention to minute detail that otherwise might go unnoticed. It not only reveals the protagonist's psychology but teaches us how to read his world through his eyes.

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