I enjoy movies. I watch them when I can, especially on rainy days, which make the best days for movie hopping. But don’t tell my mother.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen a movie with my busy schedule and whatnot. I believe the last movie I watched was Avatar, which was dope, but pathetic seeing that so many great movies have come and gone since then. New Moon and Sex and the City 2 come to mind.
So when I had the opportunity to go check out the LA Film Festival, something I’ve always wanted to do, of course I was down. Movies galore.
Sunday was my only availability for the week, so I made my way down with my sister and best friend to watch the premiere of South Korean film critic Jung Sung-il’s debut of Café Noir. It sounded promising based on the synopsis, despite the somewhat unfamiliar references to Dostoevsky’s White Nights and Johann Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. It sounded like an epic Korean drama. And besides, I had read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in high school and Goethe’s play Faust. I trusted my theatre and English double major to take care of the rest.
Wrong wrong wrong.
The movie took on the bold task of being a double adaptation of both White Nights and The Sorrows of Young Werther, which resulted in my not being able to fully appreciate the struggle of Young-Soo, the music teacher protagonist, in his search for love and a place for himself. Much of the significance of the movie’s beautiful scenes were lost on me as I wrestled through a duration of three hours to understand why the opening shot was of a girl methodically devouring her cheeseburger as she cried, or how Young-Soo had jumped off a ferry only to stand before an aquarium to have a conversation with a mermaid in a wedding dress who only spoke sign language. And what was going on with the constant repetition of “You can’t go on like this?” Why did the movie cut to black and white for the second half, and why did that girl have a 10-minute monologue?
Needless to say, my sister and friend were bored out of their mind. At least I had my theatre and English background that had equipped me with some analytical tools and I had seen enough abstract theatrical performances to try to impose some meaning on the movie. For them — they’d come along to watch the movie for sheer pleasure — the movie was dull, long and unnecessary.
For those who are simply moviegoers, I think this sentiment is viable. Young-Soo never truly accomplishes anything. His mistress unceremoniously dumps him, he fails to kill his mistress’ husband, and a potential lover dashes his hopes to the ground when she finds herself back in the arms of her old lover. Young-Soo sucks as a protagonist.
Fortunately, I got a little more out of it than just anxiety and a headache. Although the meaning, the story and the philosophical questions it posed were hard for me to grasp, I was able to appreciate the slow scenic shots that, for whatever reason, Jung had taken. I knew I wasn’t completely getting the point, but I could tell that the shots were carefully chosen, and it was a breath of fresh air from the typical million shots a minute I usually see in an action-packed film.
The acting in the film was also interesting because it wasn’t necessarily naturalistic as you would normally see in a movie about a young man searching for love. There was a deliberate quality to it that made it natural because it wasn’t trying to be everyday, it was everyday. It reminded me of a Chekhov play, and at the closing credits, it listed Anton Chekhov and Bertolt Brecht and some others for something that skipped by too quickly.
Although some of the spoken words were long, most of the dialogue was short and simple. Though few, I found them very poetic and discovered that what wasn’t said actually held the most significance. It was in the way the character faced each other, or looked away, or turned as the words that were said and weren’t said that depicted the most meaning, that revealed the underlying emotions and tensions of the situation or the relationship.
I also thought that whatever the story was, Jung had done an excellent job in causing the audience to feel something throughout the movie, genuine feeling. Throughout the movie, I felt myself anticipating action. I was waiting for something to happen. From the get go, Jung creates an uneasy suspense: something is about to happen, going to happen, must happen. This feeling is largely unfulfilled, which was frustrating. At various points in the movie, he would take his time with shots, allowing the camera to take in the landscape, and I would feel agitated, waiting for the shot to end. Young-Soo feels a sense of helplessness as the women he gets involved with him leaves him without any qualms, and he loses them without any say. The viewers go with him on this ride of helplessness as we are made to watch the scenery go by.
There were multiple times when Jung would film Young-Soo, or a girl, or both walking next to a wall or a river. Sometimes these shots would go on and on and on. And after the first minute or so, it would get uncomfortable, especially when these shots were in black and white. Nothing was really happening. But this was deliberate. None of Jung’s shots had been arbitrary although they seemed like it. They were too choice and particular to have it be random. The characters were usually walking right along the wall, nearly pressed up against it, or the river would be looming largely in the background. Most of the characters were seen in profile or squarely facing the audience, both strong images. Jung was intentionally pressing the wall and the characters onto the viewers, demanding that they look and listen. Even if we didn’t want to.
And we did. We did look. Watch. Sigh out loud. And even laugh at poignant moments.
It wasn’t the movie I had anticipated walking into the theatre. But it definitely made me think about the way in which film can be created to lift its 2-D self off the flat projection screen and press itself into my brain.
Check out the trailer and let us know what you think: