Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

The world seen through the eyes of a spook is a dark and lonely place, and so is the world of crime. This is something John le Carré knows all too well; before joining the rank of one of the most respected living authors, the Briton served MI6 during the height of the Cold War, and thus his work offers unequivocal insights into the heart and mind of spooks: through the stories of the people who are involved or implicated in a deadly complication by chance or design, he quietly, yet sternly, reminds us of the damning consequences of the ‘game’ from which we are unable to extricate ourselves. As late Philip Seymour Hoffman powerfully epitomised in the closing scene of A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 2014), in the world of espionage, every action has far-reaching, often unforeseeable, consequences, and a seemingly benign and commonplace problem such as workplace disharmony could destroy many lives and denies the very objective ‘everyone’ sacrificed so much to achieve. From the Cold War era masterpieces such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963, Victor Gollancz & Pan) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974, Hodder & Stoughton) to the contemporary classics such as The Constant Gardener (2001, Hodder & Stoughton) and A Most Wanted Man (2008, Hodder & Stoughton), his darkly fascinating work warns us in no uncertain terms: in the merciless world of greed and domination, every pursuit, however invaluable, comes with a tremendous human cost. Whilst many have become familar with the dangerous state of world through the master novelist, the film adaptation of one of his newest work, Our Kind of Traitor, genuinely surprises us. Despite the current status of human dignity experiencing a free fall into the abyss, the movie reveals a surprisingly empathetic attitude toward the main characters and their struggles against the meight of blood-money complex without allowing sentimental heroism and ridiculous bravados. Masterfully directed by Susanna White and written by the trusted hand, Hossein Amini who wrote the scripts of Drive and The Two Faces of January, which he also directed, Our Kind of Traitor enjoys a positive distinction: this is the first le Carré film which emphasises ethical elements of the story than the world of espionage itself, thereby being morally satisfying without being foolishly ‘vindicating’ as in ‘Action-Thriller films’ of a Hollywood variety.

Our Kind of Traitor tells a story of a young couple whose bond is tested to its limit by unwittingly getting involved in a joint scheme carried out by a Russian criminal syndicate and its British accomplices: with the help from a certain high-ranking member of the British government, the Russian mafia wishes to set up a bank whose sole reason d’être is to evade international economic sanctions and conduct a large scale money laundering at the heart of The City. It all begins innocently enough: during the holiday trip in Morocco to salvage their troubled marriage, Perry (Ewan McGregor), an academic, and Gale (Naomie Harris), a successful lawyer, meet an extremely wealthy Russian, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). When Gale leaves Perry in a restaurant to take a business call, Dima insists on the sulky academic to join him for some drink. Perry’s initial hesitation is quickly overcome by Dima’s larger-than-life personality: the Russian is quite bombastic, yet there is this inexplicable human quality about him that proves irresistible. In the following day, Perry and Gale attend Dima’s daughter’s birthday celebration, and Gale and Natasha (Alicia von Rittberg), who has just turned eighteen, make an instant connection. In the meantime, Perry is confronted by Dima’s desperate plea: Perry is the only person who could help him save his family from the clutch of a Russian criminal syndicate. Dima has been a trusted hand for the organisation and controlled their international money laundering schemes, yet the change of guard at the top now poses an existential threat to him and his family. The ‘Prince’ (Grigoriy Dobrygin, who delivered an absorbing performance as Issa Karpov in A Most Wanted Man), who inherited the reign of a criminal brotherhood from his late father, has betrayed the 'code', which commands its memebers to resist state authority, and switched the allegiance to Kremlin. To assume the total control of money, Prince begins a systematic elimination of his late father’s confidants: Dima’s friend was recently murdered in cold blood along with his wife and his eldest daughter, and Dima knows that he and his family would be next. Dima entrusts Perry an USB drive containing the information of prominent British politicians, lawyers, bankers and officials who have been assisting Prince to set up a large-scale money laundering operation in London for hefty financial rewards, which range from five to twenty-million British Pounds. Following Dima’s instruction, Perry hands the flash-drive to MI6 and is questioned by an MI6 officer Luke (Khalid Abudalla) and a senior officer, Hector (Damian Lewis). A few days later, upon reviewing the drive, Hector makes a surprise visit to Perry during his lecture as Luke escorts Gale to an MI6 safe house. In an undisclosed location in London, Hector tells bewildered Perry and Gale that they need to go to Paris to help MI6 to strike a deal with Dima. Hector has set up a meeting with Dima in Paris to discuss the deal which involves his cooperation with MI6 to uncover the financial fraud and the British treason in return for Dima and his family's asylum to England, yet the Russian won’t meet them unless Perry and Gale are present. This is when Perry, a hapless university professor of poetics, realises that he is now responsible for the fate of Dima and his family.

On paper, the story presents nothing unusual as a le Carré film. The world represented here is just as sinister as in his classics from the Cold War period wherein the humanity came close to the total self-destruction on multiple occasions. Against the stark backdrop of international power-play, le Carré likes to make a point by introducing principled individuals who go a great length for the sake of restoring some semblance of moral decency. Despite the menace of existential threat, these individuals refuse to back down and demand human dignity for themselves and for those they love. Yet, as we have seen in A Most Wanted Man, such a struggle nearly always ends in a hallowing failure. This sobering view of the hidden world defines le Carré’s work and their film adaptations. Drawing from years of experience at MI6, the plots of his novels are always debilitatingly subtle and complex, and the author never shies away from offering a realistic picture of spooks and their creed: there is nothing glamorous about this business, and the differences are made by the accumulations of small advantages obtained by thorough and meticulous work of unsung agents who are not always able to see their tasks completed. Therefore le Carré movies are antithetical to Hollywood takes on the genre: spooks are not superheroes equipped with designer suits, futuristic gadgets and superhuman physical strength; like Smiley or Günter, they appear ‘breathtakingly ordinary’ and melt away into the background of a society wherein they silently toil and grind as they battle with persistent doubt over the effectiveness and the meaning of their assignments. And a happy ending is a rare bird: a conclusion, even a just one, is only the beginning of yet another intrigue wherein more lives would be destroyed. At this point the audience must face a crushing despair: a victory appears utterly pointless in view of the endless trail of global destruction. We realise that ultimately there could be no justification for the sacrifices made, and the lives lost. Plunging into the world of deadly secrets could thus result in a fatalistic Weltanschauung.

Our Kind of Traitor is quite remarkable in that, regardless the terrible context within which the narrative unfolds, it manages to be hopeful without becoming foolish. Whilst being famous for his ability to intelligently illustrate the world in degeneration through the eyes of shadowy figures, le Carré is never satisfied with simply telling us a cautionary tale. In fact, his story is also about ethics: the Briton is seriously invested in the characters' choices and their moral and political implications. His protagonists are deeply flawed and seriously damaged, yet they somehow manage to be just in critical moments of their lives. This is because the underlying motive for the Brit’s fiction is his ceaseless desire to see some justice despite the depth and scope of malaise plaguing our Geist. His story tells us: Whilst there is no justification for the lives destroyed and lost, there are genuine respect, although never publicly acknowledged, for the just actions taken by some upright individuals at critical junctures. The story tells us in no uncertain terms: the darkness would not be destroyed; it is only repelled on this occasion. Yet, like in the song, ‘Heroes’, we must recognise the only fact that matters in the end: it counts that justice could be done, even ‘for just one day’. To give a cinematic expression for such a nuanced attitude about ethics, that is, appreciating just actions as such regardless the overall scheme of things, we need a quality director and a cast to match the ambition of the project. Fortunately we are treated with the best possible solution in this regard: the main four characters, Dima, Perry, Gale and Hector, are perfectly cast. To begin with, Stellan Skarsgård is simply perfect as Dima: his natural reserve and sensitivity shine through in every cut, reinforcing our empathy toward this troubled character by aptly showing that he is not all what he appears: a ‘self-confessed criminal’, a high-ranking member of Vory, a criminal brotherhood known for its absolute opposition to the State. By murdering a KGB officer who made a vile habit of sexually and sadistically abusing his mother, Dima enters the world of organised crime at a tender age, eventually becomes the member of the criminal brotherhood who distinguishes itself by the strict observation of its unique code of conduct. Spending his entire life in the world of organised crime, Dima seeks to spare his family from its darkness to which he was condemned by circumstances. Hence this crisis is also the moment of redemption for Dima: he is ready to pay the price for his life as a criminal in exchange for the safety of his family. Being under siege by the Prince’s henchmen, he tries his luck with the timid Brit he encounters. Yet, it is when Dima’s deep smouldering rage against misogynist violence finds a kindred spirit in Perry, the Russian trusts everything to the clueless university professor: the Brit, who is benign to a fault, flips and fearlessly confronts misogynists, be they a Russian mafioso or the blue-eyed assassin (Paweł Szajda). The bond between the Russian and the Brit forms one of the key aspects of the story, and Ewan McGregor responds to Skarsgård’s performance with an equal measure of sensitivity. The Scott has been very successful by bringing childlike innocence and optimism to everything he does, yet this rare quality does not always sit well with the character he portrays. Fortunately, on this occasion the story allows him to deliver a far more nuanced performance, thereby utilising this actor’s unique quality quite effectively in regard to the character development. Perry is a deeply flawed character, a ‘lost soul’ who cannot find a meaning in his existence and the world around him, and McGregor delivers one of the most complete portrayal of a character in his long career: he appears dry, weary and aged, reflecting a persisting melancholia that plagues him whilst maintaining a childlike openness, an ember surviving in the ashes if you will, that distinguishes his presence on screen. This point is critical: just as Skarsgård convinces us of Dima’s human quality, McGregor makes us understood why this timid mess of a human being is capable of confronting evil when the circumstances prove most challenging; he is in a position to simply walk away from it, yet, despite nearly doing so, he follows his conscience to the bitter end because of his deep empathy to another. In short, one of the threads of this complex story is about how Perry responds to the call for his redemption; he is presented with a chance to define who he is. And, most importantly, he does rise to the occasion with complete disregard to himself. Without McGregor’s unique quality as an actor, Perry and his actions would not make sense at all.

Equally impressively, Gale (Naomie Harris) represents another thread of redemption. Whilst she was obviously wronged by Perry, she does have her fair share of shortcomings. Professionally successful and financially comfortable, Gale has dedicated herself to her profession so completely that she appears to have forgotten her own human need for meaning, that is, a necessary self-interrogation about some of the most essential questions: who she thinks she is and why she does what she does. Intellectually sharp and pragmatic to a fault, Gale has long forgotten her appreciation of human decency: as a lawyer, she would do everything in her power to defend her clients whether they are innocent or not. Her life is completely professionalised in that she has turned herself into a sort of supremely capable android; she has compartmentalised and outlined every aspect of life and executes every task with staggering accuracy and efficiency. She appears to have lost touch with herself in its entirety until Perry’s illicit affair with one of his students came to a fore. It is a brilliant directorial choice by Susanna White: we meet Gale as someone who is at her most vulnerable state. She is deeply shaken by Perry’s betrayal of her trust in that she has to halt their lovemaking, leaving the bed in tears. Yet, soon, she retains her hardened exterior: sharp, intelligent and composed, she could sense problems in advance and handle all, whether it is a Russian mafioso or a MI6 agent. Her world is so fortified to the point where she appears absolutely insufferable on more than one occasion: she would go so far as to argue with Hector, a senior MI6 agent, that they have no obligation whatsoever to Dima and his family even if it means their imminent and violent death. Remarkably, she continues to hold her position after she made a connection to Natasha and saw the pictures showing how the family of the twins she befriended was butchered. Her trepidation for getting involved with a high-stakes international espionage against a ruthless Russian criminal syndicate and equally deadly British conspirators is absolutely understandable, and her reaction to Perry’s naïvité is equally valid: he may be intellectually gifted, yet his timidity and gullybility makes him an easy pray. Her argument is rational and logically sound at a glance as she always presents her case in court. Yet she is confronted by a grave moral decision as Hector forces her to acknowledge the fact that the inaction is not an option, for turning blind eyes in the face of evil is to become its accomplice, however small and indirect one’s role may be. She is also forced to question her way of smartly navigating the world by Perry’s persistent adherence to his conscience: some things are simply and absolutely wrong in that one has no choice but to stand up against them. Gale’s nagging doubt over her involvement finally ends when Perry passionately confronts the blue-eyed assassin over his violent abuse of a woman: the seemingly benign academic suddenly goes after a member of professional criminals at their den without a moment of hesitation. It is Perry’s such quality that brings everyone together in this unlikely band of flawed individuals in a quest to defend human decency. It is Perry's confrontation with a rapist that made Dima believe in his character unconditionally. It is Perry’s determination to help his friend that pushes Hector further than he would professionally go to protect Dima’s family. Yet, it is Harris’ sensitive rendition of Gale that really brings forth the complexity of the story; she reminds us that this is also a story of a marriage as well as a personal redemption for every major character. The way Harris represents the subtle shifts in Gale's outlook of her husband, herself and the world at large reminds us: the story is not just about the struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ played out at the global scale wherein every individual represents mere means; it is also about our individual struggle for restoring moral decency and possible redemption from our individual flaws. We are most likely flawed individuals, yet, by acting just at the critical moments, we could meet our possible redemptions.

This redemptive aspect of the story applies to the senior MI6 agent, Hector, in the most heightened sense. For Hector, the redemption in this particular context means many things and encompasses every aspect of his existence. Given that the chief architect of British collusion with a Russian criminal syndicate turned out to be his nemesis, Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam), a former MI6 chief turned an MP, his operation to expose British traitors becomes intensely personal; Hector sees Longrigg as someone who betrayed the agency and the country for which they both serve. The feud between them appears to be a long-lasting one, and Longrigg eventually scores a victory by making police arrest Hector’s son for a minor drug offence, thereby diminishing the thorny subordinate. Therefore, bringing full justice to the corrupt British subjects offers a chance of redemption for Hector as a committed agent of MI6 as well as a father: Dima can prove that his nemesis is also the criminal mastermind of the British collusion with a Russian criminal syndicate with direct connection with Kremlin. If he manages to expose the criminal offences committed by Longrigg and his high-ranking associates, not only it brings a full-justice to the case but also a justification for the sacrifices made by Hector and his agents, and perhaps more importantly, the suffering of his son (It appears that Hector is estranged from his family; hence one should think that he was a distant figure to his son). Yet this is only a half the story; Hector’s redemption also comes as he involves himself with the fate of Dima and his family far deeper than he is normally willing. At the beginning, Hector is only interested in securing the deal with Dima and exposes the British traitors for the collusion with a Russian money laundering scheme on the British soil. Yet, seeing Perry and Gale’s commitment to save the lives of Dima and his family, and facing the protest from Luke about the promise to save Dima's family without sure means, Hector discards his tunnel vision and decides to go beyond what is merely professionally permitted. Whilst he is always ready to violate rules and protocols for the sake of justice and the service, after confronting with Gale, Luke and Perry, he commits himself to what he thinks is right: saving Dima’s family from the certain violent death by the hand of ruthless criminals and their British accomplices. And all of this subtle transformation for Hector culminates in one explosive confrontation with the committee at Treasury Office headed by the Secretary of Cabinet: he powerfully denounces their willingness to abandon moral duties and accept Britain's diminished status as to the point where they are willing to accommodate the wishes of whoever promises financial rewards. He accuses what has become as the ‘norms’ of the New World Order: the blatant acceptance of blood money on the high street. No one questions the origin of money so long as it comes in billions. Whether sources are heroins from Afghanistan, arms deals in Sudan or female trafficking, so long as it comes in quantity, we accept money without asking questions. In this intense outburst, Hector describes the world as he sees it: the eighth of the world economy is swelling with blood money. We have decided that it is acceptable to live with this knowledge so long as no one speaks the truth. Whilst Hector and his agents cannot change this damning state of affairs by doing right by Dima, that is not the point. Hector challenges the high-ranking officials of the British government by asking: Here is a rare opportunity to do it right; Are you going to grab it with both hands and take a stand for the sake of human decency for a change? Damian Lewis’s portrayal of Hector is measured and delicately authentic, yet at this high point of the drama, Lewis absolutely owns this character: Lewis/Hector’s delivery is nothing short of electrifying.

Whilst we are fortunate to have such a talented cast, we must not forget that all of this is made possible by Susanna White’s outstanding directorial vision. Our Kind of Traitor stands out amongst the extensive list of quality films based on le Carré novels, each of which offers distinct flavours. Whilst The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965) is as dark and existential as it gets, The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meilleres, 2005) adopts a far more sympathetic attitude toward idealism represented by Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz), an Amnesty International activist. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Thomas Alfredson, 2011) is a classic le Carré with bewilderingly intricate plot and sobering insights anchored by Alfredson’s keen understanding of cold isolation that defines the modern human condition. Whilst A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 2014) masterfully navigates the complexity of the post-Cold War intelligence that exposes the ineffectiveness of War on Terror and the resulting human const, the changing landscape brought little difference in tone: le Carré’s world is stark. It is a desolate place wherein every good intention is betrayed, every innocence is brutally murdered, and every survivor finds no solace in extending his/their/her existence. Yet White has produced a minor miracle: she managed to film a poignantly hopeful movie based on Amini’s script, which is more faithful to le Carré’s moral indignation on the state of affairs than the plot by the Brit, and she makes it work. Although the casting plays a large part of this project’s success, there must be no doubt: it is White’s keen interest in the contemporary human condition and our desperate, and nearly always misguided, quest for meaning made this movie a singular achievement. White’s focus on character development transforms this purportedly ‘Hitchcockean thriller’ into a story of redemption. To our delight, the redemption is sought at many levels in this beautifully understated film. It is a story of redemption for a lifelong member of Russian criminal syndicate by standing up for his principle and doing everything he can to save his family. It is a story of a jaded academic who lost sight of meaning of his existence. It is a story of a professional who lost in touch with her humanity. It is a story of a couple who lost sight of one another. It is a story of a headstrong intelligence officer who desperately seeks to restore some sense of justice. It is a story of an estranged father who seeks to avenge his son’s predicament. It is also a story of a partial redemption of a nation who has lost its way and has become a hub for international ‘blood money’ laundering schemes. The way in which White weaves these stories of redemption into a coherent whole is quite marvellous. Each thread compliments another flawlessly, and the way it culminates in the explosive confrontation of Hector with the government officials is deeply satisfying. It is clear that White’s keen sense of drama steers clear of the common pitfall, that is, the complete lack of flow and coherence. A typical movie involving international espionage and conspiracies frantically rushes through scenic landmarks for no good reason, and the mosaic of fragmented points of views represented by respective characters is clumsily glued together by a woefully artificial climax. Whilst Amini’s adaptation is impressive, it would have been impossible to achieve such a powerful dramatic coherence and affective impact without White’s vision. In short, White manages to create an emotionally engaging movie based on the heady and complex story involving the dark underbelly of international criminal schemes. It is perhaps the only espionage movie that speaks to the heart of the audience. White achieves this by stressing the temporal nature of redemption: the darkness is only repelled, not vanquished. This realisation, subtly represented by the last scene, greatly amplifies our appreciation for the sacrifices made by the main protagonists. The film is powerfully affirming in that any resemblance of human decency is only occasionally, and temporarily, restored, yet there are some who sacrifices their own safety to seek it. Given the stark odds, such individuals actions should be understood as rebellions in a proper sense of the word: Camus argues that when one faces injustice that defies human comprehension, one has no choice but to rebel. Camus’ notion of rebellion thus function as a categorical imperative in that one must simply act without consideration of one’s stake or possible consequences. And Our Kind of Traitor is a movie about how these individuals come to a shared commitment to stand against the Absurd. White’s keen psychological understanding aided by superb acting illuminates the dilemma each character faces, and we are deeply affected as much by their frailty as their strength.

There is another quality that separates this movie from other espionage films: poetic beauty. White infuses every cut with a understated, yet breathtaking, aesthetics which adds subtle yet profound meaning to it. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is keen yet atmospheric, expressing the mood of each scene rather than explaining it. White makes use of Mantle's skill for the benefit of her remarkably controlled and focused direction; every character, even small roles, are sharply sculpted without relying on outward elements such as costumes and speech. Through Mantle’s lens, White is able to present the existential quality of each character with clarity and completeness. And all of these elements are composed with a poetics of melancholy. This is precisely where White’s genius lies: in Our Kind of Traitor she gives a definitive expression of the sickness unto death, the crippling angst and melancholia, the underplayed Leitmotiv of our Zeitgeist. It is the same elegy that plagues the spirit of cinematic greats such as Bergman and Tarkovsky, that is, the stark recognition of our Fall. Yet, fitting to the story, White choses to face this damning predicament with a certain grace. In her hand, even a gruesome murder assumes a classical beauty. This is paramount in the character development of the blue-eyed assassin played by Paweł Szajda: he is at once menacing and elegant, like a sleek predator who stalks its pray in the wild. This characterisation works because neither White nor Szajda overplays it. As a result his character assumes a mythical quality and becomes an angel of death rather than a weapon of choice belonging to a ruthless mafioso. This juxtaposition of fairytale and the criminality of contemporary Realpolitik heightens the poignancy of the story. Yet, unlike The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Our Kind of Traitor refuses to become bitter; it rather forces us to find courage and strength to seek certain redemption, if only for just one day, by rising for an occasion at a critical juncture of our finite lives. It is precisely in this quality that Susanna White’s second feature film becomes one of the most under-appreciated films of our time. The importance of this film reaches beyond the appreciation of cinematic art. Whilst there is absolutely no guarantee that one can follow the footsteps of these brave souls, one must take heart from what we can learn from this tale: the sober understanding of the cruel reality and the resolve to resist it in any way. I hope by all means that none of us should find ourselves in such a precarious predicament, heeding the warning of this story would do us good, for, at the present moment, the future prospect of humanity appears quite dire.

The Seagull (2018)

The Seagull is the latest cinematic adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s first major play. Whilst transposing a literary classic into silver screen is a risky business, this version, adopted by Stephen Karam and directed by Michael Mayer, appears infallible on paper due to the (mostly) capable ensemble cast, which is a necessary component of any successful production of Chekhov’s work. Led by Annette Benning as Irina, the involvement of talented actors such as Elisabeth Moss (Masha) and Saoirse Ronan (Nina) should be enough to appease the scepticism concerning the production quality. Yet, The Seagull fails to deliver in a rather spectacular manner. Whilst it is certainly passable as an entertainment piece to savour the (mostly) brilliant ensemble cast, the film must be deemed a catastrophic failure as an adaptation of a Chekhov’s play. Whilst it is perhaps acceptable to simply set this film aside as a pleasing oddity, I am willing to flesh out what caused such a critically significant failing.

What does make a movie with such talented actors go so wrong? Firstly, we can all agree that the film in question fails the original play. Judging by the responses both on and off-line, the director committed numerous major missteps to undermine the great play performed by the (mostly) ideally cast ensemble. Critics have suggested the lack of ‘Russian’ sensibility, clumsy cinematography and the unambitious mise-en-scène as the cause. Some suggest that the mostly Anglophone character of the film is to blame: it was filmed in upstate New York and features mostly American actors speaking ‘American’, an unusual linguistic guest for a period drama from non-English speaking world. Another complains the hasty pace and terrible cinematography: it is too rushed for us to savour the intricacy of dramas simultaneously happening amongst interesting characters. The New York Times’s A. O. Scott denounces the distracting cinematography and demonstrates an incredible critical diligence by noting that, during a scene wherein Irina and Konstantine (Billy Howle) confront, cameras switch 30 times between them, thereby destroying any dramatic effect the actors might have hoped to create on screen. Whilst none is willing to deem the film as an unqualified disaster by virtue of arresting performance by Benning, Ronan, Moss and Stoll, the accumulation of each flaw, taken as a whole, certainly paints an unflattering picture. In fact, The Seagull presents a perfect case for diagnosing a film as a Gestalt, not as an aggregation of its virtues and flaws. This is an unfamiliar mode of evaluation for film critics: they tend to focus on a few stand-out characteristics of a given film, and deliver the final verdict based on what has a lasting impression on them. Whilst such a custom might work for entertainment movies with little substance, it proves problematic in obtaining a proper grasp of any serious work of art. By focusing on a few aspects of the film, both its positives and negatives, critics fail to evaluate The Seagull as what it is: a catastrophic failure. The result is a lukewarm response rather than a serious critical analysis it deserves.

The problem lies in the way in which most critics evaluate a movie; they analyse any given film as an aggregation of technical elements. By treating a cinema as an aggregation of elements rather than a Gestalt, one fails to ask: What could be the cause of all the shortcomings? By not addressing a film as a complex whole, one comes to an evaluation based on a systematically enforced dissonance. Seeing the positives and negatives of a film cancelling out each other, one finds oneself at odds with oneself; quite often one must force oneself to accept the movie one dislikes as being ’good enough'. And, more importantly, this evaluation method prevents one from critically analysing non-technical aspect of cinema; it limits our attention to the formal aspect of art, not the thought embedded in it or the meaning of such a thought, thereby severely limiting the definition and the scope of what cinematic art could be. Bing satisfied by judging further theoretical scrutiny unnecessary, one feeds a prevailing attitude toward cinema: both the director and the audience expect nothing but a showcase of acting talents in a movie. This is problematic since it is the director’s job to give talented actors a framework, or a vision, if you will, to rise to the occasion. Without such a vision from the director, cinema becomes ‘trite’ reproduction of clichés. Therefore, to understand why Mayer’s The Seagull is a catastrophic failure, one cannot be satisfied by resorting to a routine technical evaluation. If you think that a better cinematography, an all-Russian cast in Russia, or a more accurate script would fix the movie, you are terribly mistaken. A catastrophe does not happen because of the accumulation of failures: rather, failures become catastrophic due to our incomprehension. Then the question regarding Mayer’s The Seagull is: What would have caused the failure of this magnitude? The answer to this question hinges on the understanding of one concept, that is; the famous Chekhovian notion of ‘comedy’. One can explain all the failings in this film as the result of Mayer’s misconstruction of the concept that gives Chokhovian dramas their distinction.

Before examining this concept, it is important to understand how Chekhovian ‘comedy’ is construed and presented by Mayer. Judging from what we see, it is clear that Mayer sees and presents The Seagull as a comedy in a conventional sense. And this in turn explains Mayer’s directorial decisions: the light-heartedness emphasised with the breathless pace, the restless cinematography, the giddy music, and some casting choices. Whilst Mayer’s misdirection is evident in all aspects of cinema, in order to grasp his idea of Chekhovian drama, there is no better place to begin than Corey Stoll’s brilliant performance, for Stoll’s Boris represents the essence of Mayer’s idea of Chekhovian drama: a comedy made profound by the famous Chekhovian 'pathos'. And thus, despite the rendition of Konstantin being far more problematic in its own way, I shall focus now on the casting and the performance of this talented American actor. To begin with, Stoll’s version is too likeable and too solid: his Boris lacks neuroticism which strongly hints the sinister aspect of this character. His delivery and presence is so fittingly benign for the present production that one struggles to comprehend the story about his callous cruelties toward Nina: at first we refuse to believe Boris committed such actions, then we begin to make excuses on his behalf. They say: he may have been a ‘bad boy’ but he cannot be blamed for the naïveté of a country girl with no adequate education and guidance. Boris, despite his flaws, is a ‘good man’, and Stoll has a perfect look for such a characterisation. In Stoll, Boris is a man whose failings are taken as the proof of his great character: he is too sensitive to avoid moral complications, and thus falls for nearly every pitfall of life (meaning: his numerous admirers of opposite sex). He is a celebrated artist after all.

Whilst none seems to mind such a rendition of Boris, if one removes oneself from a traditional view of Chekhov and engage with the text itself, it becomes clear that Stoll is too healthy and agreeable as Chekhov’s Trigorin who secretly suffers from the sickness unto death, that is, a serious neurosis arising from the lack of meaning to his earthly existence. This terrible internal abyss silently ravages every character of this play, yet Mayer choses to underplay it for one reason: the sense of existential alienation so eloquently stated by Marsha is not a subject fit for a comedy, notwithstanding the fact that he has let the cinema plunge into the bottomless abyss at the end, instead of respecting the ambiguity of the original play. Despite this final faux-pas, the overall tone of the movie is light and entertaining. Stoll’s Boris fits perfectly with Mayer's vision of the movie, and Stoll cannot be blamed for it. He is young, healthy, charismatic and absolutely charming despite his character’s degeneration. It is nearly impossible to hate Stoll's Boris, and this is a major problem in this adaptation, for Stoll’s Boris sets the tone for the entire movie as the nexus of all major characters in this production. Through the various contacts Boris makes, he constructs meaningful interactions with all three major female characters: Irina as his possessive lover; Nina as the means of escaping from his predicament; and Masha as his comrade in misery whose name is Konstantin. Hence it is no exaggeration to say that Stoll’s rendition of Boris has a determining effect on how his respective counterpart plays her role. The trouble is: Chekhov’s Boris is anything but Stoll’s. Despite appearances, Boris is someone who has lost the battle with his demons before it even began. He is poised and well composed, yet this outwardly charming character is far more corrupted than Stoll makes us believe. If Mayer has properly appreciated this aspect of Boris, then the director would have chosen a different actor for this role: Stoll is too robust and solid in his earthly existence. Yet, his excellent performance does fit Mayer's vision of The Seagull as a comedy with some depth. Whilst this characterisation of Chekhov’s work is well-respected, the latest film adaptation has left us wondering why a seemingly infallible formula has failed to move us. According to the accepted convention of Chekhov adaptation, a production with such a great cast simply cannot miss the mark. The problem is: despite appearance, there is nothing conventional about Chekhov’s play. To fully appreciate Chekhov’s contribution to modern theatre, one must distance ourselves from the popular myth about this great Russian and probe what he exactly meant by the notion of ‘comedy’. And this is precisely where Mayer and Karam find themselves at fault.

To be fair, the Chekhov myth is not a mere misconstruction originated from the Anglophone literary world: if you ask a Russian about her/their/his favourite author, the answer is most likely: Anton Chekhov. The author of The Seagull is someone who has been highly regarded not only for his literary output but also for his character, and for good reasons. His report on a Russian penal colony in Sakhalin region and his contribution as a landowner and a doctor in the estate of Melikhovo justify his reputation as a great humanitarian. As a doctor, he came across all walks of life and his experience as a volunteering doctor in his estate considerably deepened his understanding of human suffering. Whilst the admiration toward him as a great humanitarian author is justified, that is not to say that his work is compromised with sentimentalism. His observation of humanity is cooly objective, as we can see in his notebook entry on human condition: ‘Aristocrats? The same ugly bodies and physical uncleanliness, the same toothless old age and disgusting death, as with market-women.’ ([Notebook]) Whilst his humanitarian service as a country doctor made him a sort of folk-hero of modern Russian literature in Russia, he was not a forgiving apostle. When Chekhov confronted his brother’s tyrannical treatment of his wife, his objection was not only persuasive: it was personal and furious. As one can see in his objective yet condemning description of the appalling degeneration of Sakhalin, his indignation against the source of unnecessary miseries, be it state-sanctioned or personal, was sharp. And his humanitarian impulse, unlike many of his contemporaries such as Tolstoy, was not religiously inspired; he spent last years of his life as an atheist. Hence it must be clear by now: Chekhov never allowed himself to fall for the complacency of sentimentalism, which is sometimes conflated as Chekhovian 'pathos': whilst he may be less condemning of human follies, he is not going to give us absolution out of all-embracing 'brotherly love'. And this blind adherence to the myth of Chekhov the man proves to be a major disservice to the author and his audience. One of many problems with Mayer’s directorial decision is the character development of two male characters, that is, Dr. Dorn and Boris. The way they are presented in this film is undoubtedly influenced by the myth of Chekhov the man: they are flawed yet ‘good’ humans just as Chekhov is imagined to be. Yet, in Chekhov's play, each of these male characters enjoys distinct traits of his own. Dr. Dorn is not a warm and charming humanist as Mayer represents: Chekhov observes his superiority complex quite clearly in his play. Boris is neither as likeable or sensitive as Stoll makes us believe: whilst he is not an outright villain, his neuroticism is quietly toxic. Hence it is important to note the distinction between Chekhov ‘the man’ and Chekhov the author. Whilst Chekhov is indeed a great humanitarian, his engagement with the human condition is objective. It is clear that Chekhov’s grasp of each character’s psychology is clinically accurate without condemning them. This unaffected clear-sightedness is one of the traits which distinguishes Chekhovian drama from great pre-modern theatre represented by the likes of Shakespeare. Like the dead bird in the play, Chekhovian characters do not soar to the celebrated height of drama and poetry: instead we are presented with realistic humans who are neither heroes nor villains. His plays and stories present miniatures of lives with sober precision as if they are reported by a man without qualities (It is interesting to note that Chekhov was a practitioner of medical science whilst Musil was trained as an engineer). This is precisely why Chekhov’s plays are unconventional: they are ‘anti-drama’ according to the convention of his days. Notwithstanding the understated nature of his voice, Chekhov was far ahead of his time, and, in some respect, he still is.

Then, the question is: What did Chekhov mean by ‘comedy’? Whilst the author himself was never willing to explain the reasons for this definition, by reading The Seagull, one realises that there are two reasons for Chekhov’s insistence. Firstly, there is a negative definition of ‘comedy’, that is, the lack of 'tragedy'. It is well documented that The Seagull consists of ample references to Hamlet, one of the quintessential cannons of tragedy. In this respect The Seagull’s characters could be understood as the shadows of Shakespeare’s: Konstantin as Hamlet, Irina as Gertrude, Nina and Masha as Ophelia, and Boris as Claudius. It is interesting to note that Hamlet does not qualify as a proper tragedy according to Hegel. For the philosopher, a tragedy is about the unnecessary conflict between equally noble causes. The clash of honours is unnecessary because a ‘hero’ is acting on a false notion that the correctness of her/their/his respectable position is absolute, and thus rejecting the possibility that her/their/his counterpart’s position may be just as ‘honourable’. By espousing this falsity, protagonists of tragedy stand their own ground, and the world irreversibly moves toward the violent end. Whilst Prince Hamlet appears to fit this definition perfectly, he lacks proper counterparts: since Claudius is a treacherous murderer, he has no honourable cause. Laertes, who is determined to avenge his sister’s death, would qualify as a proper counterpart in a tragedy, yet his part is too small to alter the evaluation of the play. In The Seagull, Chekhov’s genius lies in the fact that there is no clash of ‘just causes’. Whilst afflictions enacted by these characters are very real and human, there is no 'nobility' in them. Chekhov’s drama consists of an uncoordinated dance of commonplace human follies originating from each character’s unremarkable flaws. There are no gods, heroes or monsters in his play; just ordinary humans making each other suffer because of their respective defects. Each character is completely oblivious of the consequences of their actions/inactions upon others, and the stage, just like in life, is dictated by a great dissonance. Despite the seriousness of sufferings observed, Chekhov’s characters and their grievances are too foolish to become tragic. In addition, one must note the lack of catharsis in Chekhov’s drama: there is no climactic conclusion in his plays. Whilst The Seagull ends with a ‘bang’, it is not clear that Konstantin will survive his second suicide attempt. It could well be that Konstantin finally succeeds in ending his misery; or he survives again and life simply goes on. And it seems that, even if he succeeds, his death will have little impact. Irina and Boris would be relieved to rid of the source of their miseries. Nina would go on to perform in small productions. Masha will continue to love him yet carry on with her miserable marriage. And Sorin, who is closest to Konstantin, would soon die. Unlike Hamlet, Konstantin is unable to take the world down with him. He would be a small footnote to other’s lives, just as he always has been. Hence one can conclude: Chekhovian drama cannot be tragic due to the complete lack of traditionally accepted theatrical norms: there is no clash of ‘nobilities’, no catharsis, no climactic development, and no clear conclusion.

Secondly, there is a positive reason why Chekhov considered his play a comedy despite the darkness lurking beneath the surface. Every personal squabble, trouble and grievance occurs in The Seagull is based on the falsity of each character. Irina mistakenly believes that she can outrun her age by ‘putting a show’. Boris falsely and wrongfully draws Nina in to his mid-life crisis by falsely believing that the ‘love’ of a 19-year-old girl would give his hollow existence a meaning. Nina thinks that fame would make her happy, and Konstantin believes in his ‘new form’ of art. And Masha hopes to kill her love for Konstantin by entering loveless union with the man she despises. Whilst the display of such human follies is not tragic, it is a profoundly sad state of affairs. That being acknowledged, we must also note: there is a sense of a certain detachment to the description of each and every character in this play. One would not focus on one or two characters of The Seagull in the way one does in a traditional play such as Hamlet. As realistic as they are, Chekhovian protagonists do not have the absorbing quality of their great predecessors. A part of the reasons for it is the complexity of each character construed by Chekhov: observing each and every character’s respective descent to destruction does not make us simply laugh, smile or anguish. The actor who exemplifies this in the movie is Elisabeth Moss. Whilst she creates memorable moments with her deadpan comedy, she does so by also conveying the excruciating pain and despair suffered by her character, Masha. Her Weltschmerz is so damning and Moss’ expression so acute that one cannot possibly find her suffering amusing or entertaining. And yet, one observes her candid admission of the damning alienation, the existential angst of the first order, without being affected. Whilst Chekhov’s method is unlike Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt in that the alienation of the audience from the play in question is not explicit, the affective distance created by the Russian author between his drama and the audience is just as effective. When we attend Chekhov’s play, we are here to observe a comedy of errors committed by various characters not because of blinding passions or conflicting wills; it is because of ordinary human fallibility. In The Seagull, this affective distance is enforced by the ambiguity which are most explicitly pronounced at the end of play: firstly it is not altogether clear whether Konstantin manages to kill himself this time; and secondly it is not clear how should we feel about the possible outcomes. Whilst we certainly do not wish his death, we also find it unbearable to see him so undignified by surviving yet another clumsy suicide attempt. And this ambiguity applies to all major characters. For example, Nina is so selfishly foolish in that we feel a sort of Schadenfreude upon hearing her struggles. Yet, we are also genuinely sorry to witness her misery which seemingly has destabilised her mind: her final ‘conversation’ with Konstantin is so strange that one cannot help but suspecting her insanity. This ambiguity also applies to lesser characters such as Dr Dorn and Medvedenko. The doctor is certainly charming, yet, unlike in Mayer’s version, he has some sharp edge to his character in the original play. He is arrogant and incompetent, yet he can be understanding, and even caring on occasions. Medvedenko is someone we at once pity and despise. By feeling conflicting affections to each and every character, the audience is constantly made aware of their respective affective state, thereby unable to lose oneself in the events unfolding in front of them. Yet such an affective alienation is not to induce cynicism in the audience. The effect of Chekhovian dramaturge is arguably pedagogical: by cooly observing comedy of errors without praising or condemning any particular characters, we attain a detached perspective of human condition not dissimilar with that of Spinoza who attempted to observe human nature as if an astronomer studying the heavenly bodies. The difference between the Russian writer and the Dutch philosopher is that Chekhov did not try to explain away human follies: he preferred to let the comedy of errors play itself out in front of the audience. Whilst his tone is not as sharp as some of his contemporaries, and certainly not as feverish as Dostoevsky’s, what he presents to us is nonetheless quite dark. Yet, in choosing to tell the stories of these lives, he does offer us an opportunity to reflect upon our own follies and false consciousness. Thus, if Chekhov manages to induce a smile or two to the audience, such a moment of amusement comes with a profound wariness: we smile because we recognise ourselves in this ‘comedy’ in one way or another. Yet this recognition also comes with a profound wariness regarding human condition.

By failing to appreciate the above points, Mayer and Karam turn this enduring masterpiece into a badly composed costume drama reminiscent of Marchant-Ivory production films. In this specific regard, the catastrophic nature of their vision is most evident in the cast and the mise-en-scène of Konstantin. Played by Billy Howle in earnest, the British actor’s effort wildly misfires due to the misconstruction of this character by Mayer and Karam. In happiness, Howle's expression of euphoria is so self-indulging that one can hardly watch without being deeply embarrassed: he is as ludicrous as George Emerson (Julian Sands) from A Room with a View (1985). In misery, he is as wooden as a marionette. In a few critical moments when Konstantin confronts Irina or Nina, Howle’s Konstantin is so one-dimensional that it is very hard to sympathise with his afflictions. To be fair, Howle cannot be entirely at fault; he is delivering what is written in the script and what the director wants to see. Whilst we do not know how the casting influenced the script and the mise-en-scène, it is clear that Karam and Mayer’s construction of Konstantin is completely off the mark. Rather than conveying Konstantin's spleen, Mayer, Karam and Howle have chosen to ‘emasculate’ this character, thereby turning him into an indignant brat who is oblivious to the miseries he continues to inflict upon himself and his unwilling company. Howle’s Konstantin is just as self-absorbed as his narcissist mother, thereby rendering his antagonism toward the diva and her famous lover petty. As we can see now, Mayer and Karam’s version fails not because of some technical missteps: it is because of their fundamental misunderstanding of what Chekhov intended with his play. If the director and the writer properly appreciated the nature of Chekhovian ‘comedy’ and the play, they could not have set forth such a memorable disaster.

Then, is this movie worth watching at all? The answer is strongly positive, for three reasons. Firstly, we must appreciate the fact that some failures are critically important. A catastrophic failure like Mayer’s The Seagull must prompt critical reevaluation of Chekhov the author as well as his concept of play. Secondly, despite the misconstruction of male characters, female counterparts are brilliantly performed. Benning is impressive as Irina, and Moss deftly delivers moments of dark comedy to ‘brighten’ the scenes. Ronan is flawless as a gullible country girl throughout the movie, yet she saves her best performance to the last: she provides one of the most haunting performances of her career as a destitute and desperate young woman who practically lost everything in a blink. It is a crying shame that her last encounter with Konstantin is not performed with a better actor, not to mention how rushed the entire sequence is. And this brings us to the third reason why you should critically engage with this movie: imagining the way to recast and redirect the cinematic adaptation of this great play. Firstly, if you please indulge me, I would love to see Cillian Murphy as Konstantin. He would have brought a perfect mixture of melancholy, sensitivity, intellect and the sense of displacement in this world. The tender and vulnerable side of Konstantin, so blatantly dismissed in the present film, would be gloriously restored by this great Irish. Konstantin is one of the key roles of the play, and, as far as yours truly is concerned, there is no better actor than Murphy to express the dire affliction Konstantin suffers without making his character self-indulgent. Murphy has the right temperament and look for this role, and given his acting calibre, it is unthinkable that nobody in the production considered his service seriously. Boris should have been played by Jude Law: he would portray this character as a neurotic man in mid-life crisis. Law can be subtly sinister and steely, and he regularly excels in performing hopelessly conflicted and flawed character. And more importantly, Law would have injected much needed magnetism and intensity to this character. Seeing Konstantin and Boris enacted by the actors of similar age adds another dimension to the play: it greatly justifies Konstantin’s disapproval of Boris as his mother’s lover by: 1) highlighting Irina’s indifference toward her son; 2) rendering the lover’s relation altogether Freudian; 3) accentuating the age difference between Boris and Nina, thereby signifying the exploitative nature of Boris’ interest in Nina; and 4) sharpening the contrasting social standings of Boris and Konstantin. And Dr Dorn could have been perfect if Gabriel Byrne would accept the offer: he could portray some nasty edge of this character without becoming insufferable.

Still, after all is said and done, The Seagull goes down to history as one of the missed opportunities, albeit a very interesting one in the manner of its failure. Whilst Walter Benjamin is right to appreciate the importance of failed projects, it is hard not to contemplate alternative outcomes before beginning to feel the effect of the Weltschmerz of our own.

The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden (아가씨, or Agassi, which literally means ‘Lady’) is the tenth feature film by one of the most acclaimed South Korean directors, Park Chan-wook (박찬욱), who is famous for his brand of highly sophisticated aesthetic representation of hyper-violence, darkly complex human psychology and deviant sexuality. Whilst yours truly is not well-versed in the history and the development of South Korean cinema, it is clear that Park Chan-wook has significantly contributed to the international standing of South Korean cinema. His ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, which is spearheaded by his career making breakout hit, Joint Security Area (공동경비구역, 2000), followed by Oldboy (올드보이, 2003) and Lady Vengence (친절한 금자씨, 2005), brought international attention to a group of young South Korean directors, resulting in the critical recognition of what one might now call South Korean New Wave cinema. Quentin Tarantino is an avowed admirer of Park, and famously pushed Oldboy for the Palm d’Or in 2004. Despite missing the coveted prize, Park became the runner-up with the Grand Prix, and has since collected many prestigious accolades such as Alfred Bauer Prize (2007 Berlin International Film Festival) and Golden Bear for Short Film (2011 Berlin International Film Festival) to name a few.

Whilst Park has made a career for himself with his aesthetics of hyper-violence, which might superficially put him in comparison with Takeshi Kitano, or even Nicolas Winding Refn whose philosophy of Gewalt is rarely discussed, the South Korean auteur has made a significant creative shift in recent years: he now counts the dark complexity of human psychology as the main subject of his cinema. This aesthetic maturity was first announced with his powerfully unsettling ‘vampire’ film, Thirst (박쥐, 2009), and continued to develop with his first English language film, Stoker (2013). Yet, his latest effort has seen him boldly moving into yet another territory. It is an interesting new development for Park: he has never called upon his deviant aesthetic philosophy as a means to advance his critical contention. Whilst Park’s knack for elegantly representing dark sensuality and the opacity of human psyche still graces the screen, yet, in The Handmaiden, his aesthetics is there to serve a clear purpose: every detail of lavish cinematography is directed to advance a singular critical point. Naturally it is too early to tell whether this marks the beginning of a sustainable new development or otherwise. Nonetheless, by virtue of hypnotising performances by Kim Min-hee (김민희, Lady Hideko), Kim Tae-ri (김태리, Sook-hee) and Moon So-ri (문소리, Lady Hideko’s aunt), The Handmaiden unexpectedly emerges as an anti-patriarchal cinema of exceptional quality.

The Handmaiden is based on a British crime novel, Fingersmith (2002), by a Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Park took a considerable creative liberty in the process of adaptation: in addition to some significant changes to the plot, Park has transferred the background of the story from the Victorian England of the original novel to the 20th century Korea under Japanese occupation (This change of setting has provided Park an opportunity to break from the orthodox representation of modern Korean-Japanese relation in South Korean culture and media. I wish to elaborate more on this subject later). The story is told from multiple perspectives in a three-part narrative as in the original novel with some notable plot changes in order to bring a focus on the singularly most important aspect of the tale, that is, the unbreakable bond between two female protagonists, Lady Hideko and her chambermaid, Sook-hee. The Handmaiden begins its storytelling in the Part I from the perspective of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a skilled pickpocket raised in a ‘den of thieves’. She is sent to the estate of a Japanese magnate, Kouzuki, to assist a shady scheme concocted by a Korean confidence artist (Ha Jung-woo). According to the plan, the con-man presents himself as a Japanese noble, approaches the 'hapless Japanese heiress of great fortune', Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), seduces her, elopes with her to Japan, marries her only to commit her to a secure mental institution, sells off her inheritance and enriches himself. In return for her service Sook-hee would be given her share of profit. To this end, the con-artist presents himself as a Japanese noble, Count Fujiwara, and, after ridding of Lady Hideko’s chambermaid, he promptly recommends Sook-hee as the replacement and successfully infiltrate his target’s inner most circle: Sook-hee, called by her Japanese name ‘Tamako’, would aid the con-artist’s scheme as Lady Hideko’s entrusted companion. Yet, Sook-hee soon realises that things are going to be far more complicated than she initially assumed: she is flummoxed by Lady Hideko’s beauty at the first sight. The closer she becomes to Hideko, the harder it becomes for Sook-hee to suppress her smouldering passion toward her innocent ‘victim’.

Park demonstrates a highly sophisticated handling of a complex plot with many unexpected twists and turns. If one struggles to keep up with the Part I, which offers an absolute shocker as it closes, one must brace oneself for further delights. Park’s navigation of a complex narrative is always at ease, smoothing over any strains one might feel by following dramatic twists and turns as they unfold. Whilst being both structurally and psychologically quite intricate, The Handmaiden never present a moment of incomprehension: Park’s command of mise-en-scnène is such that one would gleefully follow him into every dark corner wherein macabre secrets would take one by surprise despite one’s anticipations. Upon seeing this film, it makes sense that Park was considered as one of the potential directors of the feature film adaptation of a le Carré classic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, although I consider Tomas Alfredson the ideal choice for the project due to the Swede’s exceptional grasp of existential isolation, the ability to extract the affective undercurrent of any given story and his courage to commit to it at all cost. Still, Park is second to none when it comes to the sophisticated dramatisation of obscure human psyche. Although the South Korean, with his brand of smouldering sensuality and aestheticism, would be a difficult fit for George Smiley’s world, this acknowledgement is not a rebuke to Park’s talent and skill.

True to his form, Park makes it look easy by skilfully negotiating the layers and nuances of the three-part narrative. This impression serves as the evidence of Park’s directorial accomplishment: Park strikes a perfect balance between embracing the complexity without losing sight of its main critical contention, and being singularly focused on the Leitmotiv without becoming reductive. This is clearly shown in the manner in which Park handles some of the most sticky elements of the story. Take the historical backdrop of the movie: modern Korean-Japanese relation has been fraught with tension due to diabolical Japanese occupation of Korean Peninsula and Japan’s subsequent lack of sincerity in acknowledging its guilt. Yet, surprisingly, Park’s narrative moves through this period of great suffering rather light-footedly. Whilst the presence of frightening evil is unmistakably evident, the malice only lurks behind the scenes as metaphors instead of dictating them. The drama unfolds within a confinement of Lady Hideko’s uncle's enormous estate, and the war and the criminal activities of Japanese occupational force are not even mentioned. The narrative demonstrates a kind of lightness exemplified by a number of American heist movies such as Ocean’s Eleven, and, as a result, the audience is completely insulated from the great sufferings that traumatised Korean Geist. This is a shocking break from a convention which still dictates the terms in which Korea-Japanese relation is represented in Park’s native South Korea: given the 35 long years of brutal colonisation of Korean Peninsula suffered by the hands of Japanese, Park’s move should have been the surest way to commit a career suicide.

Yet, this is perhaps the tamest element of Park’s directorial decision: Park's adaptation of Waters' story renders no one as an innocent victim. In The Handmaiden, the majority of scheming ‘crooks’ are of Korean origin. Lady Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woon), is an ambitious Korean native who was formerly an interpreter for the Japanese occupation force. He bribes his way into the inner circle of the occupation army, helps the annexation of Korean Peninsula to Japan and is financially awarded for his 'duty'. He becomes a naturalised Japanese citizen, marries an impoverished Japanese noble woman, sends her off to a secure mental institution and settles into the vast estate in the country he has betrayed. He becomes one of the richest men in Korea, collects rare books and hosts auctions of choice titles at his estate. Park shocks us by his treatment of war-time moral corruption in Korea: Kouzuki is not alone in regard to the brutally pragmatic acceptance of Japanese occupation. The con-artist shows no shame in masquerading as a Japanese nobleman, and none of his collaborators, including Sook-hee, questions such a tactic. Korean maids at Kouzuki’s estate are swooned by the presence of a young and handsome ‘Japanese’ and gleefully allow him to pick ‘law-hanging’ fruits as he pleases. One might struggle to come to terms with all the corruptions, still there is yet another, and far greater, upset: Sook-hee’s family has been trafficking Korean orphans to Japan for profit. Whilst the collusions enacted in The Handmaiden are disturbing in themselves, the manner in which they are dramatised is most unsettling: they are documented as if such betrayals are 'business as usual' under the colonial rule. Such a representation of Korean collusion with Japanese must be intensely controversial. Yet, as far as I can see, The Handmaiden has been well received in South Korea, garnering numerous prestigious awards. Whilst I am in no position to explain the reasons for the lack of backlash in Park’s native South Korea, it is clear that, despite the fact that The Handmaiden is a fiction, hence not a representative case of Korean attitude toward Japanese occupation, Park’s atypical representation of the complex Korea-Japan relation during the occupation breaks the mould. It certainly helps the audience to focus on the drama between the Lady, the crook and the accomplice. Furthermore, by finding the darkness within his fellow Koreans, Park presents the opaqueness and the complexity of human psyche significantly better than the conventional narrative which unilaterally serves the authoritarian South Korean media policies (To have a quick overview of the tension between cinema and politics in South Korea, please read an excellent article by Matt Kim [link]). In this light, perhaps Park’s treatment of the period is not at all about the relation between South Korea and Japan: it must be all about his reaction to the intricacy of South Korean culture and politics.

This is not to say that Park is easy on Japanese. Whilst the evil of Japanese occupation is hardly present on the screen, Park has found a way to treat ‘Japanese’ as a fatally corrupting influence. To this end, Park choses Japanese language, rather than Japanese people, as the host of corrupting disease: Better the command of Japanese, more corrupted one becomes. Whilst this is a rather subtle way of representing diabolical nature of Japanese rule, its dramatic effect is unmistakable. For instance, one of the most striking directorial decisions made by Park for The Handmaiden is the manner of Lady Hideko’s speech: she hardly speaks Japanese. Despite the fact that every servant speaks Japanese fluently, Lady Hideko communicates her wishes with flawless Korean. Inquired by Sook-hee of her preference, she simply states that she is wary of Japanese due to her demanding daily reading session in Japanese under the strict supervision of her bibliophile uncle. It turns out that her ‘reading session’ has been nothing but a practice of perversion. Kouzuki forces Hideko to practice a dramatic reading of pornographic writings in order for him to stage Hideko’s ‘reading’ in front of the prospective buyers of his prized title on auction. On such occasions, Hideko is dressed in a beautiful Japanese kimono to intensify the pervert male gaze set upon her during the dramatic presentation of explicit materials. It is a decadent theatrical staged by a Korean collaborator for the amusement of the corrupt Japanese ruling class for whom the bloodsheds on the battle fields and the streets are remote events occurring in some possible world. Kouzuki forces his niece with no sexual experience to dramatise a sexual act of the most deviant kind in letters in front of ‘gentlemen’ to serve his ultimate purpose: selling off his ‘rare’ books with prohibitive prices. If the above description defies our comprehension, there is one more piece to complete this extraordinary abomination: Kouzuki has no intention of parting with his collection; he instead produces and sells the forgeries of his rare titles. By the time we learn the exact nature of the darkness residing in the house of Kouzuki, we will no longer question the reasons why Hideko detests Japanese language: it is the representation of an incredibly sadistic and corrupt Form of Life. Japanese speaking in The Handmaiden is thus a plague: it corrupts anyone who learns to speak it.

This attitude toward Japanese language is very much in line with the official South Korean policy: Japanese is a forbidden language, and the broadcasting of Japanese media such as music and cinema is legally prohibited. In The Handmaiden, it is clear that, better a character’s command of Japanese, worse her/their/his moral corruption. Just as Kouzuki’s status as a wealthy ‘Japanese’ magnate signifies his fall, the con-man boasts an excellent Japanese both in speech and in writing. If this is all there is, Park’s treatment of the historical context in which the story unfolds is correct if not uncharacteristically conventional for this Korean maverick. Fortunately Park has seen further than the most. Japanese speech is not only the language of Imperial Japan; it is the language of patriarchy for which there is only one mode of existence: seeking to quench an insatiable thirst for domination. In this light, Park’s decision to present two arch villains as Koreans makes sense: regardless their respective origins, they are themselves patriarchies who seek to establish, extend and safeguard their domination over the Other by force and/or deceit. They single-mindedly seek to gain greater access to power despite the fact that they have no use of power except extending its reach. The gender specific function of the speech in this film is further represented by Sook-hee’s linguistic underdevelopment: despite speaking good Japanese, ‘Tamako’ is illiterate. Not only is she unable to read the letter of recommendation written for her in Japanese by ‘Count Fujiwara’, she cannot even read or write her own name in the Hangul. Yet, her alienation from 'respectable' Forms of Life paradoxically turns out to be the sign of human decency: Sook-hee eventually establishes a true companionship with Hideko, and two women jointly turn the schemes of male sadists to their heads. It is important to note the gender line drawn between Japanese and Korean: in The Handmaiden Japanese is the language of patriarchies and Korean is mostly spoken by our female protagonists, Hideko and Sook-hee. Hence, in Park’s hand, the tension between two respective languages, that is, Korean and Japanese, is not only functioning as a reminder of a grave historical/political point of contention: it also functions as a theoretical device to probe gender inequality at a metaphorical level. This is where Park finds himself in a company of two English: Alex Garland and Virginia Woolf. As in The Three Guineas, Park makes a strong and clear political statement with his treatment of languages in The Handmaiden: the destructive force we all suffer has a gender, that is, male gender, hence its language of choice must be Japanese in The Handmaiden. As in Ex Machina, two women stage the fall of patriarchy thorough their secret communications. Whilst the rebellion in Ex Machina results in Ava’s liberation and Kyōko’s destruction, hence only half successful, in The Handmaiden both women establish their agency for the first time and forge an unbreakable bond. Like in Orlando, there is a clear embracement of gender fluidity in The Handmaiden: at one point, Hideko takes over the con-man's identity and presents herself as a handsome 'Japanese' nobleman. And, importantly, the language they speak is Korean, the language of the oppressed in this specific context.

Hence The Handmaiden emerges quite unexpectedly as an anti-patriarchal cinema (I have already written about the reasons why someone who has never been discriminated as a woman cannot be a feminist yet still be able to identify oneself as an anti-patriarchal critic in my article on Ex Machina: [see]), and it is an excellent one at that. Kim Min-hee (Lady Hideko) and Kim Tae-ri (Sook-hee/Tamako) deliver spellbinding performance throughout the duration of the film. Kim Tae-ri’s acting in the Part I is absolutely mesmerising in the moments of her infatuation with Lady Hideko. When Sook-hee bursts out and tells grieving Hideko, whose mother died of giving her birth, that no child should be blamed for the death of the mother, Kim Tae-ri creates one of the most emotionally satisfying moment of the film. In the Second Part, it is Kim Min-hee’s turn to hypnotise the audience. Kim Min-hee commands the screen so absolutely that the audience should be left with no doubt whatsoever who would come on top of this multi-layered drama of deceits and betrayals. Kim Min-hee’s performance in a scene wherein Hideko confronts Sook-hee and demands to tell her true feeling about Hideko's impending marriage to the Japanese noble undoubtedly produces the most emotionally absorbing moment of the entire cinema. This scene also prepares the moment of revelation about the nature of The Handmaiden: Park methodically maintains a certain affective distance from the unfolding dramas throughout the duration of the cinema. This is most clearly pronounced in the scene immediately following the aforementioned confrontation between Hideko and Sook-hee. Having ‘discovered’ that Sook-hee does not love her enough to plead her not to marry a man, Hideko, in her desperation, hangs herself from a tree. Sook-hee comes to a rescue, supports Hideko by legs and confesses her role in the crook's nefarious scheme, violently sobbing in shame. In return, still hanging from a tree with the noose tight around her neck, Hideko reveals that it is in fact Sook-hee who is tricked by the scheme designed by Hideko and the con-man. What follows this deeply emotional exchange is a comedy of absurd quality: in rage against the con-man, Sook-hee momentarily let go of Hideko and the Lady nearly dies. It is an interesting way of putting Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (most commonly known as ‘alienation effect’ in the English speaking world) into practice without betraying the spirit of Brecht’s theory. Whilst Park’s reason for creating this effect is not the same with Brecht’s (the South Korean director is not a dialectical materialist), they both succeed in creating a ‘space of reasons’ between the drama and the audience. By preventing the affective absorption of the audience to the drama, they direct the viewers toward critical reflection of the stage or the cinema in question. Unlike Brecht, Park relies on supposedly improper comedic representation of the scenes, yet these comedic moments do produce a proper Verfremdungseffekt: despite initial impressions, it breaks affective connection between the audience to the characters. Then one must ask: What would be Park’s purpose of consistently employing Verfremdungseffekt in The Handmaiden? The answer is: Park has a point to make. His polemic is: a male director cannot speak for women; he can only express his stand against patriarchy. This is precisely the point Park shares with Alex Garland: the director of Ex Machina has been respectfully observing this distinction, as I have discussed in my analysis of his debut feature. Whilst it is hardly possible not to sympathise with female protagonists’ horrifying predicaments and cheer for their defiance, resilience and eventual liberation, Park’s timely comedic intervention keeps a certain affective distance between himself, the audience and the drama.

Whilst both The Handmaiden and Ex Machina may represent the best anti-patriarchal cinema of the early 21st century, they are nonetheless very different films. Ex Machina is a painstakingly constructed slow-burner with suffocatingly oppressive quality: it does not allow a surge of strong emotion in the audience. The only emotion that creeps into our psyche is an icy dread. Garland’s control over the audience’s affection is so complete that not even the eventual liberation of the protagonist, Ava (Alicia Vikander), does not make us feel liberated. Given such an absolute affective alienation, Ex Machina may be considered a master-class of Verfremdungseffekt. The problem with Ex Machina is that Garland follows his method to the detriment of what could have been a masterpiece: Ex Machina eventually and inevitably squeezes life out of cinematic experience despite its exceptional intellectual merit. Garland’s debut feature, notwithstanding the plot, is an ultimate anti-drama in a proper Shakespearian sense of the word. As the great Bard demonstrated, the abjection needs not result in the death of affective reactions. Every moment of Shakespeare’s tragedies stirs our emotion with great urgencies which only a great drama can muster. And this point is duly demonstrated by contemporary cinema. Take Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which is perhaps one of the bleakest movies of the early 21st century. Ryan Gosling’s android protagonist, K, hardly expresses any emotions, yet the dramatic effect of his affective muteness is profound. Consider also Ridley Scott’s arguably the best directorial work to this day, Alien: Covenant. It is one of the darkest films both in terms of mood and philosophy. Yet it even manages to create a moment of an ironically emphatic finale: having successfully deceived the crews, David 8 (Michael Fassbender) reveals his true form, leaves Daniels (Katherine Waterson) in despair and takes control of the ship full of hosts who can be reserved as raw materials for his ‘creation’. With Wagner’s finale from Das Rheingold ascending in the background, David’s triumphal march into a 'new dawn' is at once strangely elating and quite understandably despairing. These movies again prove a point: the affectively oppressive story needs not be anti-dramatic. Unfortunately Alex Garland has not yet mastered this aspect of film making. Ex Machina is theoretically flawless and profoundly thoughtful, yet it fails to produce a single drama in a proper sense throughout the duration of the film.

Despite the light tone with numerous self-consciously awkward comedic moments, Park avoids this pitfall mostly by virtue of the performance of two main casts, that is, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri. In The Handmaiden, we see an act of love and solidarity between two persons despite Park’s consistent reliance on Verfremdungseffekt by means of one of the most quintessentially South Korean quality: awkwardly self-conscious comedic moments. Furthermore, knowing that a male director has no way of representing a sexual act between two women without committing an injustice, Park resorts to yet another method of achieving Verfremdungseffekt: adopting every worn-out cliché of lesbian pornography filmed to satisfy hereto-male sexuality. He does so in a tongue-in-cheek manner that these scenes become self-conscious parodies of lesbian pornography. Yet, on the strength of two protagonists’ performance, these scenes occasionally induce a positive affective state in the audience: personally I have never seen a pure joy of human connection in sexual action on screen as performed by these two extraordinary actors. As Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Je Tu Il Elle (1974), culminates by capturing the uninhibited lust between two women, these moments of joy in The Handmaiden reminds us that the scenes enacting physical intimacy can be dramatic in a proper sense of the word. In fact, The Handmaiden is full of such dramas: Hideko’s smouldering fury against her male counterparts is as dark and intense as their crookedness, while Sook-hee’s moment of explosive anger against Kouzuki provides one of the most electrifying moments of the film. This improbable balance between the conscious awkwardness and a dramatic dynamism makes The Handmaiden a master-class. The Handmaiden exemplifies what Park Chan-wook has achieved for South Korean cinema: by carefully cultivating the elements of South Korean cinema, he has nonetheless produced a universally representative masterpiece. Hence The Handmaiden should be considered both the landmark of South Korean cinema and of anti-patriarchy film of our time. It is an exercise in cinematic excellence: Park decisively demonstrates that theoretical complexity and philosophical profundity are not mutually exclusive with dramatic dynamism. For this insight, we are all indebted to Park, his cast and team for giving life to such an outstanding project.

Mary and the Witch's Flower (2018)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first feature film from a young production company, Studio Ponoc. If this lush and wondrous animated film reminds you of Hayao Miyazaki, you are not mistaken: Studio Ponoc is arguably the sole rightful successor of Studio Ghibli at this point in time. Ponoc’s claim for this long-contested title rests on two points: the genealogy of the company and the strength of their first feature film. Hence I shall begin this article with a quick overview of its origin.

Studio Ponoc is founded by a young producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura, who is credited for the successful production of two Academy nominated feature films which mark the final splendour of Studio Ghibli, the fabled animation studio founded by two legendary directors of contrasting styles, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and the producer, Toshio Suzuki, in 1985. Nishimura helped late Takahata in his first assignment as a feature film producer and successfully released what would become the maestro’s Academy nominated swan song, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013), which must be recognised as a major cinematic achievement in the most general sense of the word. He then went on to oversee an intensely cathartic story of loss, grief and enduring love, When Marnie Was There (2014), which earned him the second successive Academy nomination. Yet, shortly after the release of Marnie, Suzuki, in his capacity as the general manager of Ghibli, announced the studio’s indefinite hiatus from feature filmmaking: it was effectively the end of Ghibli as an animated feature film production company. In the wake of this seismic event which shocked everyone including Miyazaki, Nishimura left Ghibli and launched his own film production company. Unsurprisingly several former Ghibli employees joined Nishimura to support his statement of intent: regardless of Ghibli’s fate, they were not going gently. They simply refused to quit what they had learned to love through many personal trials to meet the prohibitively lofty standard set by Miyazaki and Takahata during their respective tenures at Ghibli. Amongst who empathically responded to Nishimura’s calls for a fresh start was Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a young director who had already worked with him on one occasion at Ghibli as the director of When Marnie Was There. Having successfully directed two critically acclaimed features, that is, Arietty (2010) and When Marnie Was There (2014), Yonebayashi was the most critical piece of the puzzle for Nishimura. Without Yonebayashi’s talent and experience, the new venture could not have been what it is. Given the immense experience and skills they accumulated through their career at Ghibli, it comes as no surprise that their first feature is as much a continuation as a new beginning. For all intent and purposes, Ponoc is an evolution of the legacy of Studio Ghibli, not a break from the past. Whilst this fact in and of itself is a welcome development and does not diminish their feature debut in any way, it is the most significant criterion for the final evaluation of the film. Then the question is: How does it fare against Ghibli classics?

Mary and the Witch’s Flower tells a story of a young English girl, Mary Smith, who moves to her great-aunt’s country estate ahead of her professional parents whom she appears to see infrequently. Whilst undoubtedly privileged, Mary is ultimately a typical adolescent: bored, lonely and unsure of herself. She finds great-aunt Charlotte kind yet distant, and struggles to settle in the routine of idly English country life: she simply cannot find her bearing in this steady, comfortable, yet somewhat uninspiring new home. In addition, Mary is saddled with typical adolescent angst: she feels unloved and inadequate, and she dislikes in particular her unruly flaming red hair. Naturally all of this changes without warning. One day, by following her neighbour’s cats, Gib and Tib, Mary comes across a botanical species of unsettling beauty: locals call these wild flowers ‘Fly-By-Night’, which is allegedly sought by witches for its hidden supernatural power. Mary thinks nothing of the local legend and delightedly accentuates her bedroom with it. Yet, unbeknownst to her, a strange plot is unfolding in this sleepy village, and ‘Fly-By-Night’ will soon place Mary at the eye of the storm. When Tib goes missing the next day, Gib leads Mary into the forest. She unwittingly unlocks the power of ‘Fly-By-Night’ and is transposed to a magical realm by an old broomstick with a mysterious inscription. It flies Mary and Gib to the school of sorcery, wherein she is declared a chosen one in short order by the school master, Madame Mumblechook, and the school’s chief research scientist, Dr. Dee. However, when Madame Mumblechook realises that Mary’s exceptional power originates not from her innate ability but from ‘Fly-By-Night’, they seek to take possession of the flower and harvest its immense power by which the duo aim to achieve their ultimate ambition: establishing the supreme synthesis of magic and science. When they press Mary to reveal the location of ‘Fly-By-Night’, Mary lies in panic and tells them that her neighbour, a young boy named Peter, took the possession of the flower. Mary promises to return the next day, hurriedly flies home and keeps the flower for herself. Yet, soon afterwards, Mary realises that her seemingly innocent lie has seriously implicated Peter and his life is now in grave danger. She now faces a stark decision: What is she going to do with the power she was temporarily endowed by the ‘Witch’s Flower’?

If all of this sounds familiar, such a feeling is quite justified. Mary and the Witch’s Flower vividly demonstrates all the attributes the audience comes to expect from Studio Ghibli: outstanding animation that transposes the viewers to a soaring world of fantasy, a classic coming-of-age story and the characters that appeal to diverse age groups, an element of Bildung with strong messages which are at once timeless and relevant at the time of release, and a nuanced critique of industrially materialistic world-view. Furthermore, there are specific instances in this movie that remind us of numerous Ghibli classics. As in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a coming-of-age story about a young ‘witch’. Like Chihiro, Mary is ‘spirited away’ against her will and must overcome a powerful sorceress to save the ones whom she cares. Whilst Mary bears some resemblance to May from My Neighbour Totoro, Peter could easily pass as a young Howl (Howl’s Moving Castle). As in Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Ponoc’s debut feature is about discovering what makes life wholesome, and being reflective about the implications of our activities not merely in terms of their impacts on humankind, but also on the earth’s ecosystem as a whole. And, like Howl, Mary resists the temptation of ‘sorcery’ and rediscovers her inner strength in order to meet life’s sometimes insurmountable challenges. Given the genealogy of Studio Ponoc, none of this should come as a surprise. After all, Yonebayashi served as the key animator for every feature directed by Miyazaki since he first assumed this position for Spirited Away. In this light, there is no one better than Yonebayashi to keep the legacy of Studio Ghibli alive today: not only is he talented, he literally knows what makes the cinema of Miyazaki uniquely important. For this very reason, Miyazaki hand-picked him to direct Arietty and When Marnie Was There to prepare Ghibli for his retirement: he had long sought a talented director from younger generations to carry the torch, and he concluded that Ghibli’s future must be trusted in the hands of Yonebayashi (There can be no successor for Takahata, for he is truly one of a kind). Whilst Miyazaki’s grand scheme was usurped by Suzuki’s decision not to continue without Miyazaki, Yonebayashi did well at his new home to justify Miyazaki’s faith in him: Mary and the Witch’s Flower is enchanting, philosophical, and technically accomplished movie. However, Yonebayashi is not merely following ‘Miyazaki’s direction’ to the letter: whilst his new film is not a clean break from Miyazaki’s legacy, there are enough of unique characteristics in this movie to make it his own. Thus it is important for us to examine what makes Mary and the Witch’s Flower different from the films Miyazaki directed, as well as from the ones Yonebayashi filmed for Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli.

There are two major reasons which separate Mary and the Witch’s Flower from its spiritual predecessors. The first is the character design of the main protagonist, Mary. The design of the main protagonist is of utmost importance for animated films: the stories are told through her/their/his perspective, and the temperament of the protagonist literally determines the tone and the palette of an entire film. Whereas a live action film could be open to a dialectic of conflicting and paradoxical elements which are often represented by contrasting characteristics brought on by actors, an animated film offers far fewer frictions in realising the director’s vision; she/they/he does not face challenges from the presence of actors who, for better or worse, could alter the movie with the personal qualities of their own. In an animated film, every element of the film is dictated by the director’s vision (Loving Vincent, see, is a notable exception to this rule by virtue of its unique directorial method). And thus, in an animated film, it is not enough to say that the movie tells a story about her/them/him: instead one must recognise that the main character is the story. Hence the character design of our main protagonist, Mary, can tell us a lot about the reasons why we find her story different from comparable movies by Miyazaki. As we have noted, Mary reminds us of May, a younger sibling from My Neighbour Totoro. Whilst May is much younger (e.g., at the age of four) than Mary, they share traits that are at once affirming and uplifting: they both possess uncomplicated outlook and straightforward manners, and express innocent curiosity and exuberant love of life. Whilst Mary does suffer some teenage angst, she remains remarkably honest with herself. She may dislike how she is, yet she does not allow herself to be tormented as her teenage counterparts from Ghibli films do. For instance, Kiki gets caught up with her insecurity, almost entirely loses sight of who she is and severely compromises her ability to fly as a result. On the other hand, Anna (When Marnie Was There) feels so unworthy that she breaks down both physically and psychologically: she is afflicted by violent asthma attacks and severe depression that makes her only a step away from being suicidal. Mary may feel unloved by her parents, yet she has no fear of actual severance from them in a way Satsuki (My Neighbour Totoro) and Chihiro (Spirited Away) do. In many ways, Mary remains quite innocent despite her age: she may experience ups and downs, yet none of them would come close to push her over the edge. Whilst this fact is neither good nor bad in and of itself, in the case of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, telling a story through an innocent and uncomplicated protagonist without an older sibling with more serious outlook on life has a decisive effect on the tone and the mood of the movie: the childlikeness of the main protagonist takes some stakes away from the plot. Consequently Mary and the Witch’s Flower, despite being such a delight to watch, does not inspire the awe and wonder of Miyazaki classics. It also fails to induce the same level of affective reaction which Yonebayashi achieved with his previous efforts for Studio Ghibli. Notwithstanding the dangers Mary faces, her trials do not feel as grave as that of Nausicaä or Ashitaka (Princess Mononoke), and her emotional life does not have the same level of intensity expressed by Anna and Arietty. Whilst Yonebayashi achieves a sublime catharsis with each of his previous features, his latest effort feels comparably flat. The overall impression of the film is in fact close to that of Ponyo, which is a charming tale about the bond between much younger protagonists who are about the age of four or five. Given the age of Mary, her childlikeness and uncomplicated nature simply do not come across as a realistic picture of someone from this particular age group, and this impression in turn undermines the otherwise strong message of the film.

There is another reason why Mary and the Witch’s Flower prevents itself from becoming a proper epic movie: the absence of the stern shadow of death. This is due to the ways in which two generations of Japanese have experienced modernisation of their country, which also explains why Mary was presented as an incredibly naïve person as a teenager. Though no fault of their own, Nishimura and Yonebayashi do not know death as intimately as Miyazaki and Takahata do. The latter’s experience of suffering and surviving the war as helpless children lends a profound sense of finality to their respective works. There is little doubt that Takahata’s personal experience of surviving American firebombing and the starvation that followed gives authenticity to the arguably one of the most important and heartbreaking movies on children of war, Grave of the Fireflies, wherein we witness two orphans of war dying of starvation in the wake of an American firebombing campaign. Whilst Takahata soon shifts his focus toward current social problems in his subsequent works, he does return to face death with his last epic, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, in which he passionately argues for what he sees as the essence of wholesome and meaningful life on earth. Although known as a social-realist, Takahata’s political engagement cannot be reduced to any particular ideology: his resistance to liberal capitalism was informed by his poetics rather than his politics. Throughout his career, Takahata consistently rejects liberal capitalism, yet this position of his did not make him a socialist or a Marxist. Having encountered death as a child, Takahata wanted the audience to question what makes our lives wholesome and worthwhile. He clearly understood that the rat race enforced by liberal capitalism is not the answer. Since the domination of liberal capitalism was not a given for this generation of Japanese, he did not see it as the ‘end of history’. In short, his resistance to modernity was existential, not ideological. The same seriousness is also found in Miyazaki’s works. Well-known for his wizardry with visuals and storytelling, Miyazaki’s lush world of fantasy is always framed sharply by the shadow of death. Although he did not come as close to death as his illustrious colleague did, the sense of finality nonetheless underlies every film he has directed. And it is this contrast between life and death that lends remarkable strength and profound sadness to every protagonist he has created. Whilst Miyazaki has been always fond of uncomplicated characters such as May and Ponyo, the vast majority of his protagonist bears a profound sense of loss. Life, for Miyazaki and Takahata, burns brightly against the dark shadow of death, and this existential finality makes their protagonists’ trials deeply affective.

Unfortunately, Mary and the Witch’s Flower fails to produce the soaring emotional experience in the vein of Studio Ghibli's best works. This is a curious phenomenon given Yonebayashi’s past success as a director of two feature films at the fabled studio as the de facto successor of Hayao Miyazaki. Whilst Yonebayashi was capable of expressing that profound sense of finality and loss during his tenure at Ghibli, in directing his first movie of his own, he failed for once to capture and express the preciousness of life against the pervasive shadow of death. And his first failure at the new studio is significant not only because it makes us question how the legacy of Ghibli fares in the future; it also makes us wonder how Japanese attitude about war, life and humanity might transform in coming years. This is not a mere question of aesthetic choices such as the character design: it is the historic perspective, or its lack thereof, which determined how Yonebayashi designed his main protagonist in the first place. With the passing of every generation, we lose unique historic perspective which each generation had to earn through their experience. With Takahata already gone and Miyazaki once again preparing his retirement from feature film making, we are about to lose a unique outlook and understanding of Japan’s experience of modernity. And the change of attitude toward some of the most troubling aspects of modern Japanese history has been evident for quite some time. For instance, there has been a serious controversy over the revision of Japan’s so-called ‘pacifist constitution’. Whilst Miyazaki and Takahata’s generation has been the staunch defender of Article 9 of Japanese constitution which originally prohibits Japan from sending troops abroad and categorically limits its military capability to self-defence in the most strict sense, younger generations of Japanese have become more vocal in their frustration over the ‘pacifist constitution’ which is drafted and enforced by Americans in the aftermath of the WWII. As a result, despite protests, the problematic ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9, which enables Japanese to support its allies militarily outside Japan, was pushed by the PM Shinzō Abe, and approved by the parliament in 2014. This shift in attitude amongst younger generations is due to the lack of historical perspective; it is as if younger Japanese are discussing the political future of their nation as a hypothetical subject with no careful consideration for possible implications. As Japanese Geist currently attempts to reconstruct itself in a vacuum, the danger in this abstract exercise is all-too-plain to see. Interestingly this desire to unlearn the lessons from the most destructive chapter of history comes despite the omnipresence of death in the post-WWII Japanese society. Youth suicide in Japan is just as serious a problem as gun violence in America. Bombs have stopped from falling upon them, yet death has been just as pervasive in ‘peace’. Since Isao Takahata directly addressed the prevailing nihilism in Japanese Geist in his splendid final act, one is obliged to ask: Can younger generation of artists at Studio Ponoc follow their predecessors’ great acts and find their own way to fight this sickness unto death? To meet this challenge, Studio Ponoc must relearn Takahata’s lesson: animated films are not mere entertainment, and it is the duty of creators to make serious films about important subjects in life. To fulfil their promise, they must fully appreciate this insight. If they do, given their talent and skills, the rest will surely follow.

Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird is a deceptively ‘little’ cinematic gem which magically defies contemporary standard definitions of what makes a film ‘great’. There is no flashy CGI. There is no messianic drama involving an evil destructive force that poses an existential threat to ‘all life’. There is no grave historical reference (e.g., war heroes or a certain British Prime Minister who has been inspiring generations of desperate wannabes). There is no obligatory explosion, no dare-devil stunt, no car chase that showcases how daft one can be in the cockpit of a ludicrously expensive automobile when someone else is picking the tab and cleaning up the wreckage. What is more, it is completely devoid of what is normally considered ‘glamorous’: it represents no graphic sexuality, no physical objectification and no headline catching attire. It was filmed in what the protagonist calls the ‘Mid-West of California’, the allegedly ‘uninspiring’ state capital wherein she belongs to the ‘wrong side’ of the train track. On the streets of Sacramento, CA, there is no sign of menace that arouses our morbid fascination with which David Lynch built a career. And, finally, the story features no ‘chosen one’: the premise of Lady Bird, as we shall see, is as ordinary as a film can be. And yet, it is far better than the most.

The cinema in question is the directorial debut feature of Greta Gerwig, who made a name for herself as a screen writer as well as an actor (Frances Ha and Mistress America, for which Gerwig contributed as an actor as well as a co-writer for the writer/director Noah Baumbach). Both in her acting and writing, Gerwig is known for her what can be only described as ‘sophisticated’, ‘unique’, ‘smart’ or ‘exceptional’ sense of humour rooted in her own experience of having grown up in Northern California with white-middle class background at the tail end of the 20th century and having become an adult in the NYC in the early 21st century. Hence it is no surprise that Lady Bird is somewhat autobiographical: it follows a rite of passage of a teenage girl from her own hometown. Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior from a local Catholic high-school. Set in 2002, Christine’s family is economically struggling. Her strong-willed mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), works a double shift as a nurse, and her loving father, Larry (Tracy Letts), has been hunting for a job without success. On top of this, her brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), despite his degree from UC Berkeley, has been unemployed and recently moved back to his parents’ house with his girlfriend. In short, there is a lot of bleakness in the backdrop of this story, and naturally Christine does everything in her power to escape from the ‘banality’ imposed upon her. She demands everyone to address her as ‘Lady Bird’. She dyes her hair in a strange shade of red. And, most importantly, she is hell-bent on applying to the universities in the East Coast, and clashes with her mother who tirelessly reminds her that the family simply cannot afford to support such an ‘aspiration’.

Lady Bird is not only a welcome break from the cinematic conventions of our day; it is a truly fascinating work whose virtue is strangely elusive. Despite being accessible and enjoyable, it is hard to determine the reasons why Lady Bird is different from virtually all the coming-of-age stories we have come to know. It goes without saying that Lady Bird enjoys an outstanding cast and the direction. Although many of the actors are relatively unknown, each fits the respective role naturally, so that one becomes curious as to which roles he/she has played previously. A special mention must be made for two actors: Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts offer solid performance to the point where one begins to wonder how these respective characters’ lives have been, and what lies ahead for them. Once again, Saoirse Ronan demonstrates just how gifted she is; since her impressive appearance in Atonement, she has been captivating the audience and critics with every role she has played. As she impressively led the cast in Brooklynlink, however, we have anticipated the Irish star to take on more mature roles, the expectation which is verified by the list of forthcoming features (She will appear as Florence in On Chisel Beach, Nina in The Seagull, and the main protagonist in Mary, The Queen of Scott). Then, suddenly, she surprises us as a spirited teenager from Northern California who is facing the first crossroad of her life. Of course, this is the age of which Ronan has a good grasp from her experience in life and acting. We have seen Ronan being a saving grace in the movies that do not match her calibre for so many years, and she played teenage girls in the vast majority of them. She was just as captivating as an eternally adolescent vampire (Byzantium), a genetically modified killing machine (Hanna), a sulky urbane teen who is thrown into the midst of a military crisis (How I Live Now), and Peter Jackson’s lamentably over-directed and miscast (Mark Wahlberg?!) Lovely Bones as the spirit of a rape/homicide victim. Of course, Ronan is fantastic as ever in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River (link), which provides a regrettably rare occasion wherein the project really benefits from Ronan’s excellence. Fortunately Lady Bird falls in this category, and what she showcased in Lady Bird is truly remarkable: for the first time in her career, she was able to apply her exceptional talent to play an ordinary teenage girl in a commonplace situation. She was absolutely committed to the role in that she appeared little or no make-up in order to show how the skin of a teenage girl looks like. With such a thoughtfulness combined with her extraordinary ability, there should be no surprise at all: Ronan convinces us that a typical teenager can make a lasting impression. It is a powerful testimonial to the extent of this young actor’s artistry.

Incidentally the way Ronan excels in this movie reveals something about Gerwig’s quality as a film director and the secret of Lady Bird’s magic. Whilst Gerwig needed all the gift and craft that Ronan provides, it is Gerwig who created the opportunity for the Irish actor. And, despite the impression one might have upon seeing the movie, Gerwig’s approach is not an easy one, for there is a distinct risk in telling a commonplace story without referring to some historically or politically significant development as a backdrop to anchor the narrative: a chance of being overlooked. It would have been indeed easy for Gerwig to exploit significant events such as 9/11, Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, or War on Terror, to contextualise her debut feature. Producers and script doctors would love to throw in some ‘juicy’ elements to broaden the appeal of the movie, yet Gerwig painstakingly eschews from every one of them. The story is situated not in the NYC or Detroit, but in Sacramento. Whilst the protagonist is a student of a Catholic school, Gerwig is not interested in politicising the situation. The result is a delightfully anti-theoretical work that simply, and sincerely, tells a story of a young girl and her family. Whilst it is all too easy to describe this rare cinematic feat with adjectives such as ‘unique’ and ‘sophisticated’, it is important to ponder: What does make this deceptively ‘little’ cinematic wonder so important? Is it the authenticity as seen in Ronan’s incredible lack of vanity in her portrayal of our protagonist? Is it Gerwig’s sensibility about human stories which must have been cultivated by her experience in the NYC, a vibrant city that inspired and nurtured the likes of Jarmusch and Hartley? If that is the case, what does make Gerwig’s work so distinct from her predecessors’? The key to understand Gerwig’s quality could be found in one of the scenes in the movie: when Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) comments on the quality of Christine’s essay on her hometown, she tells our protagonist that she was moved by her profound love for it. Christine, who only wants to escape from Sacramento, is naturally surprised and questions the reasons for her interpretation. Then Sister replies: a caring gaze for something/someone amounts to love. The advisor turned out to be correct: Christine has outgrown her hometown and is impatiently getting herself ready to explore what might lie beyond the confine of the only world she has ever known, yet a single essay betrays the true feeling toward it. This loving gaze toward what is commonly considered ‘unremarkable’ makes Gerwig a unique voice in the contemporary world of cinema. In this, Gerwig is comparable to the likes of Wim Wenders who once professed the act of seeing as the act of love (Faraway, So Close!, 1993). In the world dominated by a dogmatism that solely judges the value of stories by the pace and twist of a plot and ‘character development’, the story such as Lady Bird is becoming increasingly rare. Now that Wenders is mostly concerned himself with documentaries, one can only hope for Gerwig’s continuing success.

Before the closure, I wish to invite you to ask one more question: Why should a cinema as magical as Lady Bird considered ‘little’? This is a question as important as the other problems regarding the movie industry, such as the lack of gender equality. Female artists are grotesquely under-represented and under-rewarded, and the opportunity to direct or lead so-called a ‘Blockbuster’ is almost non-existent. These are indeed serious problems. Hence it is an imperative for us to demand the fairness: there should be indeed more female artists directing epic tales featuring female characters. Yet I consider it equally important to question: Why must a personal story of an ordinary character such as Christine be considered less than a ‘Big Movie’? To answer this question properly, I suggest you to sit and spend two hours savouring this delightful feature, then ponder seriously what makes a cinema a worthy artistic achievement. Only then, Lady Bird will offer you a realisation that is truly liberating: There is no story that is too small.