// What are the best asian movies of 2012? We’ve invited special guests to share their insights with you. Well, our final guest is Jason Gray, a filmmaker, journalist and translator based in Tokyo. See Loaded Films.
Warning: Text contains massive spoilers!
I’ve previously stated my belief that the ratio of good films to bad per annum doesn’t actually fluctuate as much as we perceive. Sturgeon’s Law that “90% of everything is crap” is a favourite nugget, with Japanese cinema being no exception. Contributing to the remaining 10% of goodness released in 2012 were the likes of Sono Sion’s Himizu, Yang Yonghi’s Our Homeland, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Penance, Tanada Yuki’s The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky, Nishikawa Miwa’s Dreams for Sale, Toyoda Toshiaki’s I’M FLASH! and Tsuchiya Yutaka’s GFP Bunny (Tokyo fest). Toyoda’s wholly original world of darkness and sunlight (shot on 35mm!) in particular stayed with me. There have arguably been “worse” years over the past decade. In fact I’m certain there have been.
And yet, there’s an undeniable malaise about Japanese cinema. I can’t recall asking myself “Why can’t they make films like this in Japan?” quite as often. Kim Ki-duk’s powerful, pitiless Pieta did little to keep that question at bay.
Set in an oily industrial patch of Seoul that will soon vanish, Pieta tells the story of ruthless debt collector Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) who’s suddenly confronted by middle-aged Min-sun (Cho Min-soo), claiming to be the mother who abandoned him at birth. It’s a simple setup that spawns emotional complexity and acting fireworks. With a first-half that is often hard to watch in its ugliness, the fiercely anti-capitalist stance cuts like one of the film’s many backstreet workshop buzz saws throughout.
At a certain point it’s revealed that Min-sun is in fact the mother of one of Kang-do’s victims — a young man crippled both physically and spiritually who offs himself in despair at the outset of the film. Min-sun’s revenge is to awaken Kang-do’s long dormant heart the way only a mother’s love can. And then proceed to eviscerate it.
Just as the newfound mother-son relationship is in full bloom, Min-sun pretends to have been kidnapped by one of Kang-do’s victims, bringing us to Pieta’s climactic scene. Set at a half-demolished building visited early on in the film, a tearful Min-sun appears several floors up under threat of being shoved off the edge. It’s all a ploy but the drama is painfully real.
We have Kang-do down on the ground below, pleading with all his soul for his “mother” not to be harmed, willing to give his own life in her place. Up above, Min-sun cries not only for her dead child, but for her surrogate son as well. The very pity of the title. Simultaneously, the devastated elderly mother of a Kang-do casualty creeps up behind Min-sun, hoping to exact some vengeance of her own. At the last second, Min-sun shocks the woman by jumping off voluntarily. Min-sun hits the ground and dies instantly, leaving Kang-do alone in the world once again.
But it’s not over. As Kang-do buries his mother under the forest floor he uncovers the corpse of her real son, and the truth with it. Yet he still loves this woman. In one of the film’s enduring images Kang-do nestles alongside the pair in a shallow grave. Add to this the small prop of a knit sweater Kang-do thought was to be his birthday present and it’s almost too much to bear.
I sat there in stunned amazement at the economy of the scene in contrast to its potency. Megawatt emotions and storytelling powered by the budgetary equivalent of a household battery. Any filmmaker anywhere could shoot a climax like this. Technically, that is.
While the sort of films mentioned above (especially Himizu) illustrate the opposite, is there not a dearth of writers and directors investing their protagonists with full-fledged feelings? The word kando (“being moved”) is constantly bandied about in Japan, but it’s becoming rarer to feel you’ve truly been transported. Much of what I see comes across as “Will this do?”
The gap between have and have not films is rapidly increasing in Japan, with budgets on the lower end approaching those pinku eiga production price tags we used to marvel at. When all you’re left with is writing, acting, and a few locations and props you actually have an embarrassment of riches, but only if you know how to spend it.
It was without an ounce of surprise that Pieta won the audience award at this year’s TOKYO FILMeX (Kim also won last year for Arirang, but I won’t get into that title here). I may be over-projecting, but I felt the same vibe when Yang Ik-june’s Breathless took the same prize in 2009. Korea and Japan obviously share quite a few similarities, so when a great film visits from across the strait, the feeling is not just “We like these films” but “We want films like this made here…”
Here’s to the hopeful revival of exciting Japanese cinema in 2013 and beyond!
— Jason Gray (@Jgtokyo / @LoadedFilms)