I grabbed Scott to see the Korean movie Marathon last last Sunday night as some inspiration for his upcoming attempt at an Ironman. The last several Korean movies I've seen have been excessively disturbing, with graphic violence and sex a magnitude of order higher than anything in American movies. Though I have nothing against such movies, I wasn't in the mood for that Sunday night. Marathon's description portrayed it as a feel good movie, and though I've been fooled by such for Korean movies in the past, thank goodness this one wasn't kidding.
Based on a true story, Marathon was the top-grossing movie in Korea this year. Cho Won is an autistic young boy. Like other autistic children, he has problems relating to other people, including his younger brother and parents. Fortunately for Cho Won, his mother (Mi-suk Kim) is strong and loving, with the type of patience only a mother could have. When we jump forward and see Cho Won at age twenty, his mother is still caring for him, though her husband lives elsewhere, perhaps driven away by his wife's all-consuming interest in her Cho Won, or perhaps just unable to summon the same patience and energy needed to raise such a child.
Cho Won's mother has found an outlet for him in running. He's good at it and places in 10K's in his special classification. She decides to find him coaching so that he can train to run a marathon. When a former Boston Marathon winner is assigned 200 hours of community service at a school for autistic children for a DUI, Cho Won's mother senses and opening and asks him to coach her son as a way to work off some of his community service obligation. The coach's best days are behind him, and he lives from one beer to the next in a slovenly apartment. I'm going to take a wild guess and say that Jung-wook translates as Morris Buttermaker.
Autistic children display a very limited range of emotions, and as such they serve in movies as mirrors through which we see the nature of the people around them, their problems and natures, as in Rain Man. Do people try and take advantage of them? Do they try and care for them? How do they handle the autistic child's inability to show gratitude or love? Autistic children interpret everything literally, and some comedy ensues in the failure of the coach to understand that about Cho Won.
Does Cho Won actually enjoy running? No one is certain. When asked if he likes running or not, Cho Won says he likes it. But phrase the question a different way and he'll say he doesn't. Can Cho Won even run a marathon safely if he doesn't learn how to pace himself? The story of Cho Won is mostly a story of his mother and how she struggles to best raise Cho Won. Does she want him to run a marathon because it's what she wants? Is he only a puppet for her own dreams? Whenever she lets her attention wander for just a moment, Cho Won seems to get himself into trouble, yet at other times she's accused of clinging to him too tightly or ordering him around simply to make her own life easy. It's a complex role, and Mi-Suk Kim plays it from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other with genuine heart.
The movie builds to somewhat of an expected ending, but the road there twists in surprising ways. The climax of the movie stays with Cho Won all through a race, the only sequence in the movie where its emotion seemed forced. Since Cho Won is autistic, it's not clear that all the flashbacks and thoughts shown on screen could actually be his, and we can't empathize with an autistic character the way we'd empathize with the other characters. It's one of the few times where I wanted more cutaways to the mother, brother, and coach during a climactic sports scene.
But it's a minor quibble with a touching story, one that resonated with me even more when the on screen epilogue noted that Cho Won's character was based on a real-life autistic Korean boy who ran a marathon in 2002. His time, just over 2:57, is still a record of some sort (the details elude me). As The Sports Guy often writes, it was mighty dusty in that theater.
Princess Raccoon (official Japanese site) is an operetta by Seijun Suzuki, whose Tokyo Drifter was a stylish post-modern gangster movie in which the lead character whistles his own theme song. Suzuki is nothing if not unique; when you see one of his movies, you knew who the hell directed it. That applies even more so to Princess Raccoon, so odd a merger of operetta, costume dramas, animation, film, and commercials that it's utterly incomprehensible. I'd summarize the plot but I'm sure I'd be doing the movie an injustice even if I happened by chance to be accurate. Still, for reference's sake: a vain king seeks to kill his son, the prince Amechiyo, when a prophet envisions that soon Amechiyo will surpass the King in beauty. Fortunately, Princess Raccoon (Zhang Ziyi) has eyes for the prince and protects him with some magic.
Some of the visual cuts and transitions are kind of brilliant, and the very mannered performances, much like those of singers in an opera, are so different from those in almost all other movies that they provide a type of cognitive dissonance that one hopes to find at a film festival. Much of the movie is a comedy of the absurd. On the other hand, the story is both too simple in its overall structure and too unintelligible in its detail to hold a viewer's interest for nearly two hours. I was glad I didn't bring someone with me to sit through the movie; this one should be rated D, for daring audiences only. Some plotless movies speak to the subconscous with their surreality; this one's simply a Tokyo drifter. At one point a golden magic frog appears on screen and starts speaking. If you can get your hands on one, I recommend trying to smoke it before watching Princess Raccoon.
Even if you don't smoke some golden frog, though, you'll feel like you did while watching Mind Game, a remarkable animated feature film from Japan (trailer). Recent Japanese animation has been a letdown. Appleseed had an insufferably banal plot while Steamboy offered one-dimensional characters, long a bane of anime.
Mind Game has a hero with a soul and a personality in Nishi, and the wide-ranging animation styles on display are not just for show; each style reinforces the character's feelings or the scene's mood in a synergistic way that reminded me of well-drawn manga. On average, though, the animation is less Ghost in the Shell and more The Triplets of Belleville on acid.
Nishi has been in love with his childhood friend Myon as long as he can remember. Since he met her when she was but a child, we can presume he loves her for more than the outrageously ample bosom she sprouts by the time we meet them in their early twenties. Nishi is shy and neurotic, though, so passive he can't express his true feelings for her, and now she's engaged to marry another guy. The three of them meet up with Myon's father in a diner to catch up over a meal when suddenly two members of the Japanese mafia drop by in search of the owner. The tension in the diner escalates, and one thing leads to another, culminating with Nishi in heaven, conversing with God. Nishi wants a second chance at life, a second chance to tell Myon how he feels. He feels so strongly he outraces divine creatures to return to the world and change his fate.
And then the movie really takes a turn for the bizarre. What seems like a straightforward story transforms into almost a religious or metaphysical fable in the second half, the plotline involving the gangsters discarded like a dream. If I sound vague it's only because I don't want to ruin the story; the unexpected turns are part of the movie's joy.
The New York Asian Film Festival feels like an underground movie festival. The bad:
- The Anthology Film Archives Theatre, where the first half of the festival screened, is a dump of a movie theatre. The projection is too dark, the seats are uncomfortable, and the air conditioning barely works.
- The popcorn at ImaginAsian Theater, where the second half of the festival screened, feels and tastes like salty packing peanuts.
- A Venn diagram of nerdy film geeks who attend the NY Asian Film Festival and people who don't shower daily would show two circles sharing a lot of area.
- Good movie selections, on a whole.
- The ImaginAsian Theatre serves Asian snacks and drinks like Pocky and Guava Juice. Mmmm, guava juice.
- They don't show the festival's promotional commercial before every movie.
- At each screening they raffle off a few prizes before the movie starts. I won lousy DVD and $2 of Jet Li postcards, but who am I to turn a cold shoulder on a gift horse?
- One of the festival's promoters introduces the movies with breathless enthusiasm, somewhat of a welcome change from the usual dull speech from some film festival promoter explaining exactly why you should enjoy the movie you're about to see.