Tale of Tales (2015) *Spoilers*

This is a glorified summary with some analysis… loads of spoilers… Turn back now if this is not your thing!

Tale of Tales is a 2015 film by Matteo Garrone whose previous claim to fame is the gritty crime drama Gomorrah (2008) that won the Grand Prix at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. The film is a dark tale of three tangentially connected narratives full of fairytale logic of impossible tasks and dark magic, princesses to be married off and obsessive queens.

Told in the same style as the bloody and pornographic rewrites of classic fairytales in Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber, this film is brutal and unforgiving in its treatment of female characters. It punishes them in bloody and extreme ways for failing to break out of the roles created for them by the patriarchy: Maiden/ Virgin Bride/ Princess/ Daughter/ Mother/ Queen.

Tale 1: Queen Mother

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Obsessed with motherhood, the Queen of Longtrellis will do anything to have a child. In typical fairytale fashion that elides the need for dick-measuring to prove virility, the king is sent to slay a sea monster. The overall maleness of the hunt – that is full of phallic imagery from the harpoon used by the King, who is himself representative of the patriarchy, to the long, white water dragon that eviscerates the king with its tail in the ensuing struggle – is concentrated in the heart of the beast that must now be cooked by a virgin and eaten by the Queen.

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But so potent is the symbolism concentrated in the heart that not one but two children are begotten from this impossible task – twin albino boys from two different mothers, one by the scullery maid who inhales the fumes from cooking the sea monster’s heart, and the other by the queen who eats the heart.

 Once she has her son, she guards him jealously, so much so that instead of reaching out to the other woman who has been affected by her quest for a child, the Queen threatens to kick her out of the kingdom when she sees the servant’s boy as a rival for her son’s affection. In the end, she is so defined by her role as mother to her son that she pays for it with her life in her final attempt to separate the boys.

Tale 2: Ancient Sister Dora and Imma

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In this tale, a pair of elderly sisters, Dora and Imma, attract the attention of a lustful but ruthless king who overhears Imma singing. Her dulcet tone belies her wizened flesh and fearful of being accused of deceiving the king  who expects to see a beautiful broad attached to that voice, allows her sister Dora to set up the familiar body swap premise seen in other tales such as Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Dora agrees to come to the king’s bed chambers under the cover of darkness and under the condition that there be no lighted candles in the room. But she oversleeps and when the king discovers her aged body next to his in the morning light he has her defenestrated. Fortunately, instead of falling to her death, she meets a witch who breast feeds her and turns her into a young woman again with the reminder that ‘this too shall pass.’

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Dora discovered by the King in this state when he is out on a hunt

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Imma, upon seeing Dora at her royal wedding to the king, desirous of her young flesh asks her how she came to be young again. Petty Dora, unwilling to share the secret of her sudden youth with her sister, replies cuttingly that she had herself flayed and her skin grew back younger. Imma, taking her sister’s word at face value, pays to have herself flayed. The film pulls no punches in this as we see her return to the castle with her blood soaking through her clothes, and her face a bloody mess.

The interesting treatment of flesh and skin this tale with the display of old flesh, the stretching and pulling of it to make it look younger, the breastfeeding of an old body cradled as one would a newborn brings to the fore the simple – and what should be obvious – understanding that young flesh gives way to old flesh and that when you marry the maiden you have also married the crone. These are not separate entities and because the sisters forget this and are consumed by their desire to recapture their youth, because they’re not comfortable in their own skin, they are punished for it – Imma voluntarily allows herself to be flayed and Dora begins to rapidly revert to her original age by the end of the film.

Tale 3: Princess Violet

Daughter to a king who has about as much interest in her as he would a flea, Violet allows herself to be married off to the first suitor who is able to solve her father’s impossible riddle. So arrogant and self-assured is the patriarch in the impossibility of his own riddle that he believes his daughter will either never be married off or only married off to the most intelligent of gentleman callers. Alas! When an ogre that sells furs for a living identifies the mysterious pelt correctly, both king and princess are forced to honor his proclamation (because the word of the patriarch is law).

This tale was the most compelling for me because the ogre doesn’t speak and vacillates between brutish behaviour and seeming kindness. He offers to carry the princess, who is emotionally and physically exhausted from her ordeal, on his back on their journey back to his cave. His awkward attempts to win her favor by clearing a space in his dwelling for her and offering her an uncooked leg of mystery animal is also oddly endearing but ultimately undercut when he forces her into their marital bed and rapes her.

The pacing in a later sequence in this tale also expertly plays with convention and viewer expectations. In this sequence, Violet manages to escape with the help of some carnival folk. She first attracts the attention of a woman on a neighbouring cliff who then promises to come back the next day, stating explicitly that she will get her sons to help rescue Violet. When a handsome, dark-haired youth shows up the next day to carry Violet across a tightrope strung up and connecting the two cliffs, we’re encouraged to think that Violet will finally be saved. Of course the ogre discovers she has gone missing and rushes out to see the youth halfway across the tightrope with his bride. He follows them in typical fairytale fashion by throwing himself onto the tightrope as well. As soon as the youth reaches the other side the father is ready with a knife to cut the rope and the ogre falls into the chasm between the two cliffs.

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The thing about this sequence is that it is satisfying in the way it seems to fulfill a kind of internal checklist that puts audiences at ease. The damsel in distress is saved, and the monster is slain, the ogre’s fall to his death even recalls other fairytales like Jack and the Beanstalk. The requisite struggle also adds to the scene by helping the hero to appear brave, skilled and therefore worthy of the princess’ future affections. A ‘Happily Ever After’ seems imminent and the tension in the audience starts to unwind.

So the audience is caught completely unprepared when the ogre bursts back onto the scene later on killing the entire family of carnival folk in record time – snapping necks and beating the sons into a bloody pulp. Violet runs, but when she realizes she can’t outrun her husband, she crouches down to cry. When the ogre finds her, they share long stares and what seems to be a tender moment before he offers her his back again so he can carry her back to their cave. But instead of bringing her hand up to anchor herself around his neck, she slices his neck open.

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I thought the sudden return of the monster was really effective because of how it upended narrative conventions and audience expectations. And to do it twice in such a short span of time was even more impressive because, perhaps it’s just me but because so much of the exchange between Violet and her husband was done without words, I had to make sense of the stares they were sharing and the meaning of the tender moment they had right before she kills him. And for a moment I actually caught myself thinking that, maybe he thought she had been kidnapped instead of having chosen to run away? Maybe that’s why he killed that whole family of carnival folk?

But when she sliced open his neck I was reminded that this is also the man who raped her and that I’d just been trying to rationalize his actions the way a woman caught in an abusive relationship suffering from Stockholm Syndrome might try to rationalize or romanticize her captor’s actions. Creepy. Creepy but effective.

It just made me realize how strong the pull and desire for a happy ending is that we’d take any man, even a monster, in order to reach that end.

I’m not entirely sure if this is the doing of the film or just my own, highly solipsistic reaction to what was happening on screen, but one thing was definitely clear about the character and about the film’s message – Violet wasn’t getting out of this abusive relationship by relying on anyone else other than herself. And the way to do that was not to fight the monster head on, or to live by someone else’s rules, but to use those rules to her advantage like when she plays the submissive wife to get the monster to turn his back so she could slit his throat.

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Her understanding of the need to straddle the roles given to women and to make these roles her own is probably why of the three tales, hers is the one that ends the best with her returning to her father’s kingdom and being crowned the next monarch. The balancing act she’ll have to do for the rest of her life is also probably why the film closes with the image of the tightrope walker.

Final Comments:

I was initially a little uncomfortable at the end of the film and I had to sit a while and wonder what I had just watched. Clearly, gender was a big part of it but what was the message in the film? Was it a feminist text? Why were so many women hurt, bloodied and bleeding throughout the course of the film? What was I supporting by watching this film and enjoying the beautiful effects, costumes, set designs, and cinematography? But slowly I came to the understanding that the unpleasure and the discomfort I felt watching the film is a good thing and that the flayed, bloodied and dying female bodies onscreen were a reminder of what not to be.

I suppose it’s good timing that I caught this film just after finishing my Film Theory Final Paper which is also on a similar topic so Angela Carter is still fresh in my mind and that really helped me to come to a sound reading of the film. (If you’re interested to find out more about the Film Theory Final Paper click the link ;))

And I’m glad that along with Martyrs (2008), I now have another example of a flayed woman in film! I’m glad it’s not taboo anymore to take our skin off in film whenever we need to to remind ourselves that beauty and value for a woman is more than skin deep.

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Alternative Theory: The Essay Not Written

The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

– Robert Frost

As anyone who spoke to me while I was struggling with this final paper will know, I struggled greatly with keeping my essay within the page count. So for this Alternative Theory assignment, I thought of all the possible incarnations this essay could have taken on, all the side streets and avenues it could have gone down, but didn’t, and decided to put this monster of a hyperlinked mess on my blog as a tribute to The Essay Not Written…

Because my mind is an associative map of fragmented thoughts and images, you will find also in the hyperlinks not just paragraphs foregone and similar theories not mentioned but sometimes videos to other films not mentioned in my essay and images, screenshots, videos, gifs (moving images!) I wished I could include in the print version of my paper to illustrate the points I tried to make in my essay.

The Negotiation of Female Sexuality in Were-Creature Feature Films

One of the main arguments in Teresa de Lauretis’ “Desire in Narrative” is how women are constantly “seduced into femininity” so they can be “remade again and again as woman” (588). By looking at the Oedipal myth, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Laura Mulvey’s theory of “the gaze” from her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and the filmic works of Alfred Hitchcock, de Lauretis offers a comprehensive cross-section across various discourses to suggest how women have been circumscribed in an all-encompassing Oedipal narrative that aims to shape them into fitting the mold of male desire. By taking a closer look at Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), this essay hopes to illustrate how a novel way out of this circumscribing Oedipal narrative can be achieved through a cinesthetic experience of the female body as it is portrayed in these particular were-creature films, particularly in terms of how visceral contact with flesh, skin and body parts becomes a way of bringing these female characters back into contact with a kind of lived reality.

In order to flesh out this idea of a cinesthetic experience, this essay will draw on the Vivian Sobchack paper on phenomenology and film that coined this neologism – “What My Fingers Knew.” In this paper, Sobchack privileges the lived body of the spectator as the primary site where we first make “literal sense” of films through our powers of perception, before we can make “[figurative] sense” or meaning of them through more cognitive frameworks (58-9). In order to make this argument Sobchack draws on the medical definition of synesthesia – “an involuntary experience in which the stimulation of one sense cause[s] a perception in another” (Richard Cytowic qtd. in Sobchack 67) – so as to establish how film, which is a primarily audio-visual medium, can stimulate the other senses available to us.

Furthermore, the value behind reading cinema as a synesthetic experience is that these bodily reactions happen “involuntarily” and therefore bypass the gatekeeping function of cultural and cognitive frameworks embedded in our conscious minds – while still being of it (Barthes qtd. in Sobchack 60) – thereby turning our bodily reactions “potentially subversive” (67). This element of subversiveness is most useful when deploying a lived body experience to combat the circumscribing Oedipal narrative that attempts to define the female experience.

However, instead of focusing solely on the lived bodies of the spectators, this essay would also examine onscreen bodies and the screen as body. The precedence for this is already heralded in the portmanteau term coined by Sobchack because inherent in the term ‘cinesthetic’ is the blurring of boundaries between offscreen spectatorial bodies, onscreen bodies of the characters, and the screen as body (67). Furthermore, when Sobchack tries to explain her lived body experience of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), she describes her skin as “both mine and not mine,” “’here’ and ‘there,’” and in both the subject and object position (66). This coincides with her later explanation of the “irreducible and dynamic relational structure of reversibility and reciprocity” that exists between one’s literal and lived body and the “figural objects of bodily provocation on the screen” (79). As a further shortening of the distance between onscreen bodies of characters and offscreen bodies of spectators, Sobchack borrows from Elena del Rio to suggest that “body and image no longer function as discrete units, but as surfaces in contact” (65), thereby providing a sense of the immediate exchange that occurs between onscreen and offscreen bodies such that together with their continuous influence on each other, they also seem to share the same metaphysical space of the screen.

Further reasons for downplaying the emphasis on the lived bodies of spectators and expanding this definition to include screen bodies and screen as body, include most importantly the desire to avoid presenting an overly solipsistic argument by overemphasizing the spectatorial experience. This is seconded by how Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener in their book chapter, “Cinema as Skin – Body and Touch,” acknowledge “all positions concentrating on skin, contact, and touch… [focus] more strongly on the receiving subject than on the filmic material: the aesthetic experience becomes more important than the aesthetic object” (130-1). And this kind of emphasis on the aesthetic experience of the spectator at the expense of the aesthetic object will grossly undermine the efforts the three films mentioned above took to incorporate a phenomenological approach to the suffering of onscreen bodies.

Having argued for this essay’s particular use of Sobchack’s theory of phenomenology, one further caveat needs to be made about the nature of the monstrous women to be discussed in this essay. Unlike in Barbara Creed’s essay, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” that deals mainly with the uncontrollable “generative mother seen only as the abyss, the monstrous vagina, the origin of all life threatening to re-absorb what it once birthed” (62), the female characters in the three films to be examined are all on the cusp of womanhood, and are therefore dealing with a different phase of a woman’s life cycle, separate from motherhood.

Instead these films are about female protagonists experiencing periods of great physical and emotional change hence the appropriateness in the use of the were-creature narrative, which is also about great and violent transformative moments. This is seen in how both Rosaleen in Company, and the eponymous Ginger are menarcheal women, and Irena is forced to grapple with her awakening female sexuality due to her romantic relations with and marriage to the male lead, Oliver, in Cat People. Thus what is at stake here is the refiguring of the innocence of a budding female sexuality into the body of a monstrous other used to terrorise women into fearing their own bodies. However, this essay will also suggest that these monstrous bodies on screen function as a kind of clarion call for the need for a change in the patriarchal narrative that aims to suppress and control female sexuality.

Teresa de Lauretis explains this patriarchal narrative by referencing the Oedipal myth and explaining how male-centred the myth is with Medusa and the Sphinx continuing to survive the test of time only as guests in the Oedipal narrative (579). By quoting Algirdas Julien Greimas, de Lauretis establishes that “the semantic structure of all narrative is the movement of an actant-subject toward an actant-object” (581), wherein the role of actant-object is invariably filled by woman who represents the “plot-space” of narrative completion (584). The problem arises when women become an obstacle to narrative closure by being “structurally insoluble” (589). De Lauretis explains this structural insolubility by referring to Freud’s writing on the “dark continent” of femininity, in which he describes femininity as a “riddle” and an “enigma” (580). Drawing a parallel between the “riddle of femininity” and the “riddle of the sphinx” (580-1), de Lauretis seems to suggest that if women remain an enigma they become narratively inassimilable in the Oedipal narrative and an obstacle to narrative closure. As such, the only way to circumvent this conundrum was to remove women from the equation altogether and refashion her through narrative strategies into an attainable object of desire, just as how “[Freud] first formulates – defines – the question and then answers it” (581).

The constructedness of woman is consistently represented across all three films. Oblique references to the societal machinery that aid in the narrativising of what it means to be woman are seen in the brief mention of Irena Dubrovna’s involvement in the fashion industry the first time we see her on screen watching and sketching the caged panther at the zoo looking for inspiration for her next collection in Cat People. Similar echoes of the insidiousness of this patriarchal machinery is seen in the mise en scene of Rosaleen’s room in Company which is full of the accoutrements of femininity like mirrors, make-up, dresses, magazines, dolls and doll houses. The manner in which these pieces of information are introduced – briefly and casually – and positioned such that they fade into the background of the films, allow them to form a kind of subconscious in the film text that resonates with the spectator in a way where it is both noticed and forgotten, lingering on the edge of consciousness such that this subtle foregrounding of the narrative machinery of the patriarchy turns the screen itself into a kind of cinesthetic body that does not just represent this aspect of lived reality but presents it in a kind of “ongoing present tense of sensory perception that, through technology, constitutes and enables the film for us and for itself” to be a lived reality (Sobchack, 74). The subversiveness in reproducing this lived reality comes from the knowing representation of it so it may be better deconstructed[1].

Ginger Snaps, on the other hand, offers more explicit critique of the way the patriarchal narrative molds women to fit male desire. For instance when Ginger delivers the line about how “girls can only be a slut, bitch, tease or the virgin next door,” it is directed not just at Brigitte but to the audience too. Furthermore, when the Fitzgerald sisters try and distract their mother from Ginger’s lycanthropy and the dead girl in the freezer by playing up feminine stereotypes like Ginger demanding not to be looked at because she feels “fat” and Brigitte asking their mother “what do guys want?” just as she opens the freezer to store some freshly purchased meat, degrees of interpellation amongst women start to emerge. The menarcheal maiden whose relevance to the patriarchy is only beginning to emerge is seen as not yet fully interpellated, and therefore in a position to buck against the descending constraints of the Oedipal narrative, versus the mother who has been fully inducted.

This is seen in the manner in which Pamela (Ginger’s and Brigitte’s mother) accepts these performances of femininity so unquestioningly. In Pamela, we see a woman who has become completely subsumed in the patriarchal narrative such that she appears out of touch with reality. There is a similar disconnect in the character of Rosaleen’s mother in Company who seems to have given up her power to tell stories and control her own narrative – and thereby control the image on screen – unlike Rosaleen, a menarcheal maiden, and her grandmother, the crone who has outlived her usefulness to the patriarchy, whose stories fill the runtime of Company with vividly interwoven narratives full of dramatic storytelling and visceral transformation sequences in an attempt to reclaim narratives for women.

Instead it is the direct confrontation with the lived body that brings these mother-figures back in touch with their lived reality. This is seen most clearly in Ginger Snaps, especially when Pamela’s lack of appropriate reaction to her daughters’ peculiar behaviours is juxtaposed against her husband’s, Henry’s, suspicion and horror. For instance, immediately after the sequence mentioned above where the girls seek Pamela’s advice on how to appeal to boys as a way of distracting her from finding Trina’s body that they have temporarily stored in the freezer, Pamela and Henry have the following exchange:

  • Henry: “I think they’re up to something.”
  • Pamela: “They’re just being normal teenage girls.”
  • Henry: “Then why are they suddenly so interested in what you have to say?”
  • Pamela: “Stay in your own little world, Henry. This one just confuses you.”

There are multiple shades of ‘normal’ that emerge from the above exchange. On one hand, what is considered ‘normal’ for Ginger and Brigitte is the staging of multiple, gorily made-up suicides[2] around their suburban house for a school project. On the other hand, for Pamela, “normal teenage girl” behavior is asking for advice on how to deal with boys. What is really abnormal is Pamela’s easy confusion between the two that demonstrates the high degree of anticipation Pamela feels towards fielding such questions – as if her daughters’ lives are unfolding according to a pre-existing schema. Most importantly, however, is the irony and mild-mannered tragedy of just how completely out of synch with reality Pamela is. The fact is, while a woman’s world would confuse Henry, Pamela is living a completely fictional existence written for her by the patriarchy that creates a barrier between her and her lived reality.

It is not until a later scene when Pamela and Henry discover Trina’s severed fingers in the garden that Pamela realizes what is going on. In this scene, again it is Henry who reacts immediately with a horrified exclamation when he sees the severed fingers while Pamela’s initial reaction is to wave the fingers off as props from “the girls’ death project” and chide him for being a “big baby.” However, the moment she picks up the fingers, the reaction shot of her face shows a dawning realisation that these fingers are indeed real, severed fingers. To link these two scenes back to de Lauretis’ theory about a circumscribing Oedipal narrative that aims to narrate a female experience, and Sobchack’s theory of a cinesthetic body as potentially subversive, it would seem that Pamela has been so enfolded in this Oedipal narrative that she has completely lost touch with her lived reality in comparison to Henry who has no problem interpreting the events around him because they live in a reality of patriarchal design; and it eventually comes down to visceral contact with these severed fingers to trigger a phenomenological response and realization that puts Pamela back in touch with reality, thereby snapping her out of this suffocating Oedipal narrative of suburbia and domesticity[3].

There are similar results for an array of characters across all three films where confronting monstrous bodies forces characters to engage and grapple with a lived reality that they seem to have forgotten about or been oblivious to. In Cat People, Irena is from a small Balkan village where the women turn into aggressive panther women when they experience heightened emotions or sexual arousal. Knowing this about herself, she avoids consummating her marriage to Oliver despite her love for him. However, instead of being met with patience and understanding, she is cheated on and forced to seek psychiatric help from a quack doctor whose best course of treatment for her supposed neurosis is to force himself on her in the final moments of the film, forcing her to kill him and flee to the zoo where she dies from a fatal wound she received from the doctor, and reverts to her panther form. It is only when Oliver and the other woman, Alice, see her carcass do they realize that her fear was real all along. Thus in Cat People we get a slight inflection on the idea of the Oedipal narrative because it is not just women who are circumscribed in this narrative about what it means to be woman, but men too have been fooled by this patriarchal narrative. Similarly in Company, when Rosaleen’s mother sees the silver crucifix hanging around the neck of the wolf near the end of the film, she is finally forced to acknowledge that the tales of werewolves grandmother and Rosaleen tell are not just old wives’ tales, and that that wolf before her was once her daughter.

The conflation of woman and beast in these three narratives also point towards the limited options the Oedipal narrative affords women. By having Ginger, Rosaleen and Irena be both the protagonists and antagonists of their respective narratives, these three women are forced to confront their dual and contradictory nature as “object of desire” and the “obstacle to be overcome” (de Lauretis). As such, we begin to see the Oedipal narrative start to collapse. Just as Ginger points out, women’s limited options boil down to playing the virgin or the vamp, resulting in the signs of female excesses that fail to fit into these roles being written on the body. As women who manifest masculine traits such as being sexually aggressive or having an active libido, they are given hirsute bodies, and in the case of Ginger, protuberances along her back and a false phallus in the form of a tail. As women with female excesses that defy the civilizing limits of the Oedipal narrative, they are made bestial and turned into panthers, wolves and in the case of Ginger, a pale sickly werewolf replete with extra teats along her torso.

Thus, the monstrous forms these characters take on can be considered a kind of catachresis – a “false and improper metaphor” that “forces us to confront and name a gap in language” (Sobchack 81), except that in this case it is a gap in cinematic representation. And just like de Lauretis points out, the true power of “monsters” lie in their nature as “beings awesome to behold, whose power to capture vision, to lure the gaze, is conveyed in the very etymon of the word ’monster’” (579). As such, the monstrous form of these female characters shifts the power of the gaze away from the beholder to that which is beheld. Audiences cannot help but stare, their vision “captured” against their will, thus forcing them to confront the catachresis represented by these monstrous forms. Furthermore, when we look at the etymology of the word “monster,” it goes back to the Latin forms monere and monstrum, both of which carry within them the meaning of “warning” and “portent.” Thus, the monstrous female form can be said to be subversive because it serves both to point out a gap in our representational structure when it comes to women and as a warning of the dangers of such a gap if it remains unaddressed.

The limits of the Oedipal narrative are further tested in the ends that these characters meet. When there is no other recourse but to kill off Irena and Ginger in order to achieve narrative closure, thereby turning them into tragic figures that failed to overcome their own natures, a disruption of the pleasure derived from what de Lauretis calls the “double identification” of “gaze” and “image” is created. De Lauretis debunks the false binary between “identification-with-the-look as masculine and identification-with-the-image as feminine” by pointing out “no image can be identified, or identified with, apart from the look that inscribes it as image, and vice versa” (586). As such, the female spectator must identify with both the “gaze” and the “image” – male protagonist and patriarchal conception of woman – in a “double identification” in order to derive pleasure at the movies (587), while at the same time imbibing the Oedipal narrative, assimilating it and being assimilated by it.

By reasserting women’s original status as obstacle to be overcome, which the Oedipal narrative tries to elide by turning women into objects of desire, a dissonance is created. The monstrous form that exceeds the roles set aside for women as object of desire in the patriarchal narrative, then produces a coenesthetic effect. Coenesthesia is defined as “the potential and perception of one’s whole sensorial being” and likened to the “general and open sensual condition of the child at birth” due to a “prelogical and nonhierarchical arrangement of the senses” (Sobchack 68-9). This would suggest that when audiences are confronted with a scene so drastically different from what they are accustomed to, a coenesthetic effect can be achieved because in seeing something they have never seen before, the scene would have a horizontalising effect on all the senses as the audience tries to make sense of what they are looking at.

For example, in Ginger’s final moments, her monstrous form is shrouded in chiaroscuro. The same thick strip of white light across her full breast and the site of penetration with a long carving knife also highlights the unusual choice of having a pale, mostly hairless and clearly gendered look for the beast. The coenesthetic effect of this serves to defamiliarise audience’s popular preconceptions of werewolves as physically imposing, dark-furred and male, hence forcing them to read the image and the werewolf narrative anew, as an extended metaphor for the biological transformations women have to face during puberty. Biological changes that are horrific enough in their own right but further exacerbated by an Oedipal narrative that puts women out of synch with their own bodies as seen in how Ginger’s growing monstrosity is closely marked by her refashioning of her public image to match the mold of male desire.

Similar coenesthetic effects are achieved in the transformation sequences in Company and while these transformation sequences happen to male werewolves in the film, they come to bear on the final image we have of Rosaleen as a fully transformed wolf if we read the image of the wolf with the silver crucifix as a narrative image. A “narrative image” is defined as a “the join[ing] of image and story, the interlocking of visual and narrative registers effected by the cinematic apparatus of the look” (de Lauretis 584). Thus, even though we are not shown the rending of flesh and the tearing of skin in Rosaleen’s transformation, we are conscious and aware of it because of the earlier scenes in the film. Perhaps the decision to omit an image of a skinless woman comes down to how “culturally taboo [it is] because, historically and artistically, the female is represented by her skin” (Esaesser and Hagener 137), so perhaps the filmmakers thought a skinless female character might be too anti-Oedipal, resulting in a narrative of unpleasure which would run counter to de Lauretis’ sensible call for a “women’s cinema [that] must embody the working through of desire: such an objective demands the use of the entertainment film” (577), if one aims to get one’s message about the need for change in the Oedipal narrative out into the world.

As a way of closing this essay while taking a long view of the future as to what these films can mean for women’s cinema, this essay would like to invoke Béla Balázs’ theory of physiognomy in his essay, “The Face of Man” while doing a close reading of the transformation sequences in Company. From “The Face of Man,” Balázs argues that when looking at a face we recognize “not a figure of flesh and bone, but an expression… emotions, moods, intentions and thoughts,” all of which are elements that exist outside of physical space (131), thereby turning the physiognomy of the human face into an abstract understood in a different “dimension” (131).

This understanding of the innate readability of the human face is problematized in Company when a major transformation sequence contains a transforming character tearing off his face piece by piece. Due to the clear graphic matches between shots of the transforming werewolf’s face and the intercutting with close-ups of the female face in the reaction shots, the spectator experiences the presence and absence of the human face simultaneously. However, by the end of the sequence, what is left in the absence of a human face on the denuded face of the werewolf, is the abstract dimension that Balázs talks about. Moreover, without a face as a focal point, there is a horizontalizing of the significance of face and body of the monster. Thus, instead of containing “expression” this dimension is suddenly emptied of meaning and becomes a space outside lived reality for the negotiation of possible new readings of the human face and body.

It is possible to extend this a little bit further by considering that this “other dimension” that Balázs talks about however, is not a free-floating dimension. Instead it bears a great resemblance to Sobchack’s lived body of the spectator because as mentioned at the start of this essay, the lived body of the spectator is both the site where “literal sense” of films is made through our powers of perception, and “[figurative] sense” or meaning of them is made too (58-9). As such, even as the screen on which these fantastic and horrific bodies are projected seems to provide the patriarchy with a kind of barrier behind which all the excesses of femaleness can take place without ever touching them, the lived body which is caught in a “chiasmatic relationship of perception and expression” with the screen (Sobchack 60), turns the screen into a permeable membrane, and carries within it the continuous negotiation of female sexuality posed by these monstrous onscreen bodies.

Works Cited

Balázs, Béla. “The Face of Man.” Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory & Criticism. 7th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 275-281.

Cat People. By Val Lewton and DeWitt Bodeen. Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Perf. Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph. 1942.

Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” Screen: Oxford Journals (1986): 44-70.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “Desire in Narrative.” Corrigan, Timothy, Meta Mazaj and White Patricia. Critical Visions in Film Theory. Boston; New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2011. 575-593.

Elsaesser, Thomas and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses. New York; London: Routledge, 2015.

Ginger Snaps. By Karen Walton and John Fawcett. Dir. John Fawcett. Perf. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle. 2000.

Sobchack, Vivian. “What My Fingers Knew.” Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2004. 53-84.

The Company of Wolves. By Angela Carter. Dir. Neil Jordan. Perf. Angela Lansbury, Sarah Patterson and Stephen Rea. 1984.

[1] This much can be said for Company at least given that the script was written by Angela Carter, author of The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, and a known feminist who wrote extensively about the need to reclaim narratives for women.

[2] Death by Suburbia: death by white picket fence, death by lawnmower, death by garage door, etc.

[3] There’s even this wonderful image of Pamela putting the severed fingers inside a Tupperware so she might bring them to school to confront her daughters with that becomes a succinct visual argument about the encircling narrative of domesticity that contains the horror of the body.

Miyavi

You know how when you wake up in the morning and those first few precious moments are when your mind is at its freshest and the world connects up in a way it only does in Limitless (2011) right after Bradley Cooper’s character pops those magical pills? Those are the exact moments I’m squandering right now on this post… argh.

I thought I’d wake up with some Miyavi from his 2014 self-titled album, namely the tracks “Guard You”:

 

And “The Others” because I needed to wake up and continue writing my final paper:

 

And there’s just something about the way the lyrics are arranged that give away the fact that they’ve been written by a non-English speaker. I don’t say this to knock his ability as a lyricist or anything. Just pointing out that the percussive use of language (so much like his guitar slapping style), might be part of a lack of awareness and comfort with vowel length in the language, probably in part because Japanese is also a language that lends itself really well to music with a greater focus on beat and rhythm (rap/hip-hop) what with the highly regular alternation of consonant and vowel sounds in the language.

But when it comes to English, some words just take more time to say and can’t fit within certain beats yet in Miyavi’s English song’s they’re sort of jammed packed and squeezed right in there? I think I was just struck by the fact that I could hear this unusual use of language in a slow number like “Guard You”.

Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:

Leave you lying in your bed/ Black rain is in my head”

And then as I was looking at the lyrics a little closer to look for examples to substantiate my claims I noticed something else… There are just certain arrangements of words people want to avoid because they’re hard to articulate within a fixed number of beats and in the song he gives himself too few beats to clear the following line and that has an impact on the clarity of his articulation:

“we can‘t stay to see this war”

The other thing I noticed is the use of the word ‘Sakura’ in the song? I mean I’ve always been of the opinion that Miyavi is an amazing guitarist, he writes really strong melodies and rifts for his songs and he’s really strong as a lyricist too, it’s just that his voice doesn’t really hold up? Just to plug some other artists I really love: Hyde’s amazing range and crystalline delivery from L’Arc en Ciel and Gackt’s amazing vibrato and timbre come to mind…

So anyway, what becomes more apparent to me now that he’s singing in English and has to contend with all the difficulties that come with a language crossover from  Japanese to English where they struggle with the ‘R’s and ‘L’s – so much so that I often get a little embarrassed about sharing Miyavi’s more recent songs because I’m afraid he’ll get judged for his mediocre voice and poor pronunciation (and by extension I will too) before people get a chance to appreciate that he’s really a pretty solid musician…

Dammit, Sonia! Stop digressing with these asides and run-on sentences! But, back to what I was saying, that’s when I was struck by how we always judge these Asians or foreigners for mispronouncing English words but what about these westerners who mispronounce Japanese words and other borrowed terms in the English language? The criticism ought to go both ways. So I just wanted to point out that there’s a rolling naturalness to the way Myv says ‘Sakura’ in the song that just stands out because it’s pronounced the way it’s meant to be pronounced… and the one stanza in Japanese was all the more effective because he sounds like he is in his element.

Which leads me to my final point on poiesis and poetics. The imagery in the lyrics is very vivid, a little lost because of his struggle with pronunciation, but phrases like ‘black rain in my head’ and ‘sakura is falling down’ have a distinctly haiku quality to them with the strong visual imagery that functions as metaphor for abstract ideas like loss and rendering a specific texture to that loss.

Although…  another realization that struck me was how some of these phrases could come across as cheesy and kinda mediocre if like a former student of mine wrote something like that for a creative writing assignment but here it seems oddly effective because in my mind, what comes to bear apart from the words, is the entire history of the person – Miyavi being Japanese and an accomplished musician.

Omg… so biased. Now I just feel bad for all the students I critiqued for submitting similar things in their creative writing assignments -_-“

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Time-Image

So, Time-image, described as an image “imbued with duration: a component of time that is neither successive nor chronological. Seen less as matter than felt as pure duration”(286). These images are described as tending “not to favor narrative” and can be seen as a spatialising of time (286), which means it is NOT a flashback and NOT derived from cuts/montage made in a film.

More conventional examples of the time-image in film come from films like Alain Renais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) where shots of the city itself become an example of the time-image because the trauma of the atomic bomb creates a fissure in time such that it is felt like a physical presence informing every scene despite being an event of the past.

More recent examples of the time-image that stood out to me include one of the closing scenes in Jauja (2015) a recent Lisandro Alonso film, a scenic period piece set in Argentina’s Patagonia region.

In this closing sequence, Viggo Mortensen’s character who has been traveling for days in search for his daughter who has run off and eloped with a soldier, comes upon a cave in which he meets an old lady.

This sparse, barren, yonic space, with this tiny lit central area surrounded by an encroaching dark that gives you very little information about when or where this is, seems like a place that exists outside the flow of time. To add to this sense of the cave being a place outside of time, at one point we see the same compass Mortensen’s onscreen 15 year old daughter took before she left cradled in the old woman’s hand. And in the exchange between Mortensen’s character and the old woman you get this strange confusion of pronouns:

  • VM: I’m looking for my daughter.
  • OL: What did she look like?
  • VM: Blond… very young, 14. No, 15 years old.
  • OL: What did my mother look like?
  • VM: Your mother?
  • OL: I mean the girl’s mother.
  • VM: why?
  • OL: I’ve always wanted to know.
  • VM:… (provides a description)… She left us right after you were born.

Then he looks at her like he didn’t mean to say that, like the pronouns slipped out unconsciously, like the place they’re in is making him speak those words.

  • VM: I’m looking for my daughter.
  • OL: If you’d like to come back some time for a longer visit, I’ll always be here.

With Jauja and Hiroshima Mon Amour there’s a clear spatialization of time and there’s also a representation of multiple, non-successive, non-chronological time streams in the same scene. The Old woman, old before her time, who less than 2hrs before in terms of runtime, and less than a week ago in terms of diegetic time, was a girl of 15; now, stands next to her father, suddenly equal in terms of age.

With both of these films, there is a spatialization of time but there is also a sense of time crawling forward in terms of the long takes used in these films. This drag of time moving slow as molasses is an extra-diegetic effect not quite part of the definition of Deleuze’s  time-image but an effect that always seemed to accompany it.

That is until I saw X-men: Days of Future Past (2014). It didn’t occur to me at the time when I watched it but that one scene – you know what scene I’m talking about – is a really great example of time-image. There’s just something magical about this scene that makes me grin from ear to ear. It’s that feeling one gets when all the stars align and all the moving bits of cinema just fall into place. This scene alone was worth the price of entry, and luckily too because frankly speaking, I wasn’t too charmed with the rest of the film.

Quicksilver Scene Breakdown

This whole scene is spectacle. And like all spectacle, it is non-narrative. It exists somewhat outside of the flow of narrative time. This scene is also clearly time-image driven given the multiple representations of time that co-exist in the scene and for once, it is NOT a scene that unfolds at a snail’s pace in long-takes and deep focus shots. Its concentration on the portrayal of speed also really highlights the ironic way in which cinema consistently represents the greatest of speeds in the most novel uses of slow-motion. And here I’m thinking about things like slow-motion in martial arts fight sequences, bullet-time in The Matrix (1999) and of course Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

So I thought, just for fun, let’s count the types and the ways in which time has been spatially represented in this scene:

  1. Quicksilver’s time: represented by the regular speed he moves at juxtaposed against the entire mise en scene that’s still moving, but in incredibly slow-motion
  2. Diegetic time: which has slowed to a crawl from Quicksilver’s perspective
  3. Collision of the two different movements in time: represented by the scientifically realistic impact sites along the wall where Quicksilver’s foot makes contact with the tiled walls
  4. Extra-diegetic time/ Camera-time(?): spectator’s view of time marked by the especially slow tempo of the song on the soundtrack
  5. And missing time-image of Quicksilver moving in real time although its presence is certainly implied in the rest of the scene

That was fun. Do comment, add on, correct me if I missed anything or got anything wrong. Till the next post!

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The Hyperreal of Digital Cinema

I went spelunking through my notes from my National University of Singapore days when I wrote an essay on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and the point about the hyperreal and the mechanical robin at the end of the film came from this citation in case anyone’s interested or is using the film for a final paper or something:

Rhombes, Nicholas. “Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetics.” The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions. Eds. Erica Sheen & Annette Davison. London: Wallflower Press, 2005. 61-76.

In addition to the point made in class though, I wanted to just share that I really liked this idea of the “change from inside out” when it comes to digital cinema that Lev Manovich proposes and Elsaesser and Hagener reference because of this idea of the unbroken skin of digital cinema that parallels the way in which virtual reality is discussed as a truth onto itself because of its all encompassing nature that doesn’t even put it in competition with “realism” in cinema.

I liked the idea of the “inside out change” that cinema is undergoing because it helps me understand and rationalize how when it comes to the change and improvement in computer generated images over the years, we’ve evolved so much more and so much further beyond the ‘morph’ (that theorists seem to have become hung up over as if it’s some film technique to be fetishised and theorized over ad nauseum) to the point where it’s sometimes hard to tell if the image is CGI or not.

However, as much as I like the idea, I can’t say that I agree that virtual reality is not in direct competition with realism in cinema. Instead, I find that the concept of the hyperreal is a more apt way of describing the relationship or the progression between realist cinematic modes and the virtual realities created using the skin of digital cinema.

According to Jean Baudrillard in his publication Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and please correct me if I’m wrong, but the hyperreal is something we arrive at at the end of a 3-stage progression. There is the Real, there is the simulation of the Real in models or Simulacra, and there is the Hyperreal, defined as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (Baudrillard). My personal take on this concept is that even though there is no reality to the Hyperreal, there seems to be a lineage of realism embedded within it given its reliance on models of the Real, once removed; and the nomenclature that continues to make reference to a’real’ even if it is a missing one.

This lineage of realism is clearly seen in the nature and functions of the (other less discussed) computer imaging softwares used in film today. For instance, algorithms that deal with ray-tracing and caustics, otherwise known as the movement of light across smooth and curved surfaces, and through refracting material, all contribute to the realism of a generated image.

Or how about the study and use of Subsurface Scattering software in the generation of computer images, particularly that of skin that gives it its translucent, life-like quality rather than the absolute plasticky fail that we saw in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).

Or how about Forward Kinetics and Inverse Kinetics software that move joints on models of monsters and creatures, unreal as they are, based on the parent-child relationship joints on an actual skeletal structure will have.

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Or how about just how all the great special effects people emphasizing the need to have a solid understanding of anatomy and musculature in order to make good, believable looking monsters? Here, I’m talking about the advice Willis O’Brien, who created and animated through stop-motion the eponymous ape from King Kong (1933), gave to Ray Harryhausen who went on to give us such fantasy classics as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Clash of the Titans (1981).

I guess at the end of the day I’m trying to say two things:

  1. there’s a tonne of interesting software used in CGI and they deserve some attention and people should stop focusing on the morph like it’s the holy grail of CGI software
  2. while all questions of realism are at the end of the day period specific, there is a lineage of realism that impacts the kinds of images we create in digital cinema and we shouldn’t just jettison the whole debate over realism in cinema and virtual reality just because virtual reality “is no longer understood as index, trace, and reference of an elsewhere, but as a total environment” onto itself (Elsaesser and Hagener 199). I get the impression that if we take a more “apparatus” centred approach in our examination of the software of CGI, we’ll find many more traces of the real than we thought we would.

The Skin I Live In and the Rape-Revenge Narrative

Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 horror film The Skin I Live In is a strangely muted experience that leaves audiences a little dumbstruck if not a little confused because of its treatment of the conventions of the Rape-Revenge narrative.

From the inciting incident in the garden at a wedding party to the multiple events of rape that occur throughout the narrative, the film has a disquieting, desensitizing effect on the idea of rape.

What is rape? Is what happened in the garden enough to constitute rape? Does it matter that the girl, unsocialized and excluded from society as she had been, was accidentally (mis)leading the guy on? Or what about the fact that he was high as a kite? What if he pulled out the moment he realized there was a miscommunication or showed remorse later on? Can these be considered ameliorating circumstances? If so, does the punishment fit the crime?

In a typical rape-revenge narrative there are the excruciatingly drawn out moments of sexual violence enacted on a helpless (female) individual followed by a sequence where the violated individual recovers after her ordeal and plans her revenge before going all-out on her attackers bringing the narrative to a bloody conclusion.

Almodóvar’s film problematizes this by softening the inciting incident by suggesting multiple ameliorating factors, having the avenging figure be a male character, and creating an elaborate revenge plot, that some would argue is much too severe for the crime in question, that simultaneously allows the turning of rape itself into the revenge, particularly the rape enacted on yet another female body. I suppose on one level it makes you wonder why rape-revenge is even a genre that exists and when we watch films that are part of this genre what are we watching them for? For the rape or the revenge?

I wanted to say something about the shared dream sequence too but it doesn’t seem to quite go with the rest of this post about rape-revenge narratives so I’ll save it for another time.

 

Heartless City (2013) Review (Final)

Character

According to Williams, characters in a melodrama seem to be psychically based on, and anthropomorphic embodiments of the Manichaean split between good and evil (77). If it is not clear by now that this is not true of Heartless City, let me just drive the point home by looking at some of the main characters in the series before looking at the presentation of the victim-hero’s perspective in Heartless City.

The first line of complication comes from how, as a whole, the series seems to create more compelling ‘bad guys’ than ‘good guys.’ From the Madame Jin-sook, to the mid-level drug cartel enforcer Safari Moon, to Baksa Aduel’s loyal and decidedly amoral right-hand man, Hyun-soo – these are characters who are given more air time on the show and whose motivations are clearly delineated. They are given flashback sequences and developed as rounded characters. Conversely, we hardly know anything about Hyeong-min’s past nor any of the police officers in the Special Branch taskforce. Thus the diegesis of the film and the formal structure seems to encourage audiences to identify with the ‘bad guys’ more than the ‘good guys.’

Even main antagonists like Chairman Cho, Commissioner Min, the corrupt Senator and Head of Prosecutors remind Baksa Aduel that even if he removes them, it doesn’t remove the seat in the criminal organization they occupy and that ultimately, everyone’s replaceable. I suppose that’s why the series is called Heartless/Cruel City, it’s because the source of evil is not the individual person but something larger, something systemic, and this runs contrary to Manichaean characterization of characters. Yet, at the same time fulfills the function of Manichaean characters, which is to portray virtuous suffering so that virtue may be recognized and acknowledged (66).

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I guess the most compelling reason why the use of Manichaean characterization is not a major feature in Heartless City is due to the main character himself – Baksa Aduel (Doctor’s Son) a.k.a. Jung Shi-hyun. When it comes to the treatment of the victim-hero, Williams says that emphasis is given to the character’s point of view so that we may better empathise with the virtue of the suffering victim-hero (66). This, however, is atypical of Heartless City. Instead, the character appears opaque and we are seldom shown what he is really thinking. This is especially true of the first part of the series and instead of alienating the audience, the lack of information and screen time given to Baksa Aduel draws audiences further in.

Just to share a little bit about my own reaction to this k-drama, the first episode was fast losing my attention and interest until this scene about 30 minutes into the episode where Baksa Aduel has to explain to Scale why he still hasn’t handed over the drug money. Scale greets him by throwing a whiskey glass at him, which he dodges effortlessly. Scale dares him to dodge again and breaks a second glass over his head as he stands there unflinchingly with a trickle of blood rolling down the side of his face.

I wish I could show you a clip of this because my description of the scene really doesn’t do it justice.

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Perhaps it’s the way the energy in the scene goes from 0 to 100 in just a couple of seconds. The stillness in the dining room is almost tableau-like in a pulled out establishing shot, the tense atmosphere set by the ominous soundtrack, Baksa’s slow traversing of the large room captured in a tracking shot, then suddenly a quick cut to Scale flinging of the glass and another cut to Baksa stepping out of the way as the glass shatters against the wall.

Suddenly, I was paying attention again. And when he took the abuse from Scale so coolly, I wanted to know more about what made this character tick.

It’s almost as if the character’s tight, almost absurd control of his own emotions becomes the form of excess one comes to expect in a melodrama. And it’s seen again in this next scene where after having to watch a childhood friend get shot right in front of him, he can’t even visit her grave because she was a cop and to the rest of the world, he is a crime boss.

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Audience desire to know more about the character aside, you never really get any direct information about who this character is or what his motivations are and the narrative seems to sidestep this by giving you snippets of his past not through his eyes but through Safari’s, Kyung-mil’s, and Commissioner Min’s flashbacks of their shared past.

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It’s not until much later in the series where another kind of excess in the character of Baksa Aduel begins to come to the fore. The excess of identity. Being both ‘good’ guy as undercover cop and ‘bad’ guy as crime boss and friend to both Jin-sook and Hyun-soo, this excess of identity becomes a flip on the Manichaean characterisation of characters found within melodramas. In the intense scene above, we see the character losing hold of who he is as his handler calls him Shi-hyn and, in a burst of action, he turns around and grabs him by his coat lapels and insists he be called Baksa Aduel instead.

To have both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ embodied in the character by way of this secret identity as undercover cop who has been undercover in excess of 4 years, only serves to make his character motivations even more ambiguous because you start to wonder, as he grows more and more disillusioned with the extent of the corruption (his own handler is one of the key villains), whether he is still acting as an undercover cop first and crime boss, and friend to Jin-sook and Hyun-soo, second.

As a parting shot about this character of ambiguous moral stance, let me leave you with this picture of Baksa Aduel and Hyun-soo looking out over the city as Baksa delivers this classic Übermensch line:

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“Soo ah… See those streets? Let’s swallow them.”

 

Heartless City (2013) Review Cont’d

Time and Excess

Manipulation of time within the melodrama in terms of the constant negotiation between being ‘too late’ and arriving ‘in the nick of time’ creates the tension between whether the character experiences a paroxysm of pathos or the exhilaration of action (69). And because of this negotiation, moments of high dramatic tension often take on a dual nature wherein the shortness of diegetic time gets prolonged by the formalistic elements of the scene (73), such that seconds within the diegetic world could be presented as minutes in terms of screen time.

Time in Heartless City, however, moves differently. Instead of embodying the immediacy of successful action or failed inaction as suggested by Williams’ choice of phrases “too late” and “in the nick of time,” the dramatic pleasure in the first half of the series comes from the exhilaration of action derived from Baksa Aduel being consistently and comfortably “one step ahead” such that the character appears almost omniscient, while the intense, almost hysterical, paroxysms of pathos in episode 14 & 15 comes from his impotence at being able to affect positive change in a key series of events entrenched in the distant past.

To illustrate what I mean by the character’s omniscience and mastery over potentially disastrous situations I will refer you to 3 dramatic fight sequences in the series that consistently involve Baksa Aduel’s early, unseen and unexpected arrival on scene, resulting in an element of surprise, which he then uses to triumph over his opponents single-handedly.

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In this instance in the first episode, the mid-rank drug dealers, Scale, ‘Meth’ Kim and Halibut, are meeting to discuss a replacement for Baksa Aduel’s position because he had made known his ambition to ascend the ranks within the drug cartel at the start of the episode. Baksa Aduel is the first gangster to arrive on scene putting him in a position to spring a successful ambush on ‘Meth’ Kim, and be the only character to leave the scene unscathed, leaving Hyeong-min’s Special Branch task force in the dust.

In this instance, both the audience and the characters don’t even realize Baksa Aduel is on scene until he reveals himself. This fight is the first time we get a sense of his dualistic nature. As rising crime boss, his goal is to stop the influx of drugs from a competing supplier, and as undercover police officer, his goal is just to stop the inflow of any drugs. There is also a growing sense that this character’s competence and single-handed successes arise not out of proficiency or superiority, but out of necessity because of the isolation that surrounds him due to his dualistic role.

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As we move further and further along into the series, the buffer zone that allows Baksa Aduel to be comfortably “one step ahead” begins to shorten. As it is, this fight is a reaction to an attempt on his romantic-interest’s life and actually forces him to form a partnership with Hyeong-min in order to secure a positive outcome.

This shortening of the temporal buffer zone that attributed a kind of comfort and ease, control and mastery of situation to the character has a direct relation to the second half of the drama where there is a collapse of time whereby the past intrudes on the present and throws the character into a paroxysm of pathos over his own impotence to change past events.

One of the lines of narrative in the series is Baksa Aduel’s deep-seated hatred of the drug trade because he own mother died of an overdose. This is coupled with a side quest to find out who killed his mother. Unfortunately, in episode 14-15, he finds out that he has been misled by his handler into believing that Safari Moon, a father figure of sorts to him, was responsible. Worse still, Safari informs him of his own culpability in his mother’s death by naively ferrying drugs between his mother and Safari for distribution in the neighbourhood in exchange for “errand money.”

The fissure in Baksa Aduel’s composure is built beautifully throughout the 2 episodes in a series of shots reminiscent of women’s dramas from the 50s and 60s that show the character out of sync with himself (the effeminizing of the male body through suffering represented through formalistic elements often associated with a female dominated genre):

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Before finally culminating in an explosive paroxysm of pathos where inner torment finds outward expression when he smashes his own hand with a rock.

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This is an interesting use of action in a melodrama because it is non-productive and brings the character no closer to reclaiming his lost innocence. Instead we see an excess of inner turmoil that can only result in futile and impotent outward action.

However, because of the excess of emotion, the (female?) audience is encouraged to step out of his/her identification with the character such that where we might previously have taken pleasure in identifying with the character’s unflappable nature and mastery of situation, we can now sadistically take pleasure in his pain. Which is why I look like this:

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…when things like that happen. Hence why I continue to repeatedly come back to j/k-drama which spends so much time focused on the male body and encourages audiences to objectify it on several levels:

As sex objects

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As suffering and effeminized male bodies due to physical trauma

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And psychological trauma

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To be a little bit less perverse, let me just tie this back to Williams. All these suffering male bodies seems to also hark back to what Williams says at the start of her essay in defense of melodrama, oftentimes it is not the physical that affects us so and to concentrate on the linear and the logical is a limiting and reductive misrepresentation of human reality that ought to come together with the search for a “fullness of signification.” It’s just that to me, this “fullness of signification” is a different kind of pleasure that one can find in and get from the melodrama in j/k-dramas that keeps me coming back despite their oftentimes, glaring lack of realism.

Sub-point on Romantic Excess or Lack Thereof

On a slightly softer but related note on romance in the series, Heartless City chooses to disengage almost completely from the tension between “too late” and “in the nick of time” which largely characterizes the romance plot in other K-dramas I’ve watched and termed the “will-they-won’t-they,” or in more Singaporean terms, the ai-mai-ai-mai plot line.

The negotiation of whether romantic leads will get together or not coupled with scenes of near-misses and the final consummation of the romantic (sub)plot is completely disregarded and refashioned in Heartless City.

The first time the two characters meet, happens purely by chance. As if to emphasize how passing the encounter is, there isn’t even a meeting of the eyes. Just this fleeting brushing of two lives against each other in the bustling city that is both brief and ephemeral, with all evidence of contact between the two characters quickly dissipating into the ether before either character and the audience even realize how interlinked their lives are.

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This is of course juxtaposed in their extremely melodramatic second encounter where he saves her from an attempted stick-up despite having been all but gutted in a previous altercation only to almost accidentally slit her throat when she tries to help him up. Despite the melodrama though, the brevity of their encounter and the chance-nature of their meetings remain and continue to characterize the overall development of their relationship.

These accidental encounters seem, to me, more intense and more charged with meaning precisely because of their serendipitous nature that constantly leaves the audience wanting more. The absence of the contiguous progression of time to mark the development of their relationship serves to imbue each encounter with an excess of meaning whether it be romantic feeling or carnal desire because there is always the lingering sense that the transient nature of their relationship will take over and dissolve all ties between them. And this, to me, helps to keep audiences more engaged than in the typical K-drama where the characters practically share the same time/space continuum as the drama progresses because they almost invariably end up living together.

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Lastly, the almost non-existent nature of their love affair and empty fuck near the start of the series belies their intimate connection in the dramatic plot over Baksa Aduel’s supposed involvement in the assassination of Soo-min’s big sister, Kyung-mil. This bait-and-switch tactic that exchanges the romance subplot for the actual dramatic plot opens up the narrative by giving the female lead far more to do in terms of interaction with the other characters, particularly Jin-sook, and creates a more rounded characterization for all the characters involved.

On that note, finally, on to character and characterization.

Heartless City (2013) Review Cont’d

Space of Innocence

The space of innocence is clearly rendered as part of the landscape of the past. Foregrounded in sepia-toned flashbacks of how the main character gets his moniker, Baksa Aduel, and his makeshift foster family made out of small-time drug pusher, Safari Moon, and the neighbourhood’s most popular prostitute, Jin-sook, engaging in fairly normal family-oriented activities like playing in the rain and eating ice-cream together, we see these characters as family first, and criminals second. The only hint we have of their criminal connections comes from the intrusion of present troubles on these memories of the past.

As part of the plot, the shades of innocence here are two-fold. On one level, it is the wholeness of this makeshift family unit that has since disintegrated, and on another level it is about the innocence of being lower down the rungs in a crime-ridden world where one doesn’t need to deal with its politics or questions of how deep and how far reaching its corruption goes.

Thus as Baksa Aduel makes his way up the crime ladder uncovering just how deep the corruption goes, he is both moving further and closer to the restoration of a space of innocence. Closer because of his dual nature as rising crime boss but also as undercover police officer on a mission to find the root of the corruption so he can choke it off before it gives succor to another generation of crime bosses; and further because we watch him grow more and more disillusioned as he realizes just how deep the corruption goes.

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It seems almost apt that by the end of the series, we see the narrative come full circle with Soo-min graduating from the police academy in Kyung-mi’s place and Baksa Aduel disappearing into the crowd yet again. But this time instead of starting on his undercover mission, it is to cement the success of his mission as the surviving piece of the criminal organization he spent the whole series dismantling so that even if he cannot return to a space of innocence, the characters who survive him can.

This sort of semi-tragic, and decidedly bittersweet ending in place of a full on happy ending where Soo-min and Shi-hyun (Baksa Aduel’s real name) get to live happily ever after, is the realist concession that Williams calls the 3rd tenet of melodrama.

One thing that I’m not too sure of, because I don’t know S.Korean politics, is that Williams says that “a melodramatic mode [struggles] to ‘solve’ the overwhelming moral burden of having been the “bad guys”… [wherein] The greater the historical burden of guilt, the more pathetically and the more actively the melodrama works to recognize and regain lost innocence” (emphasis mine, 61). So, as an AWOL/”KIA” ex-cop with no hope of a happy ending for himself, Baksa Aduel seems to have successfully stemmed the tide of corruption within the police force by bringing down the corrupt Commissioner Min. But even at the series’ end, there’s an atmosphere of this success being only temporary given the survival of the corrupt senator and Hyeong-min’s (the other male lead who heads a Special Branch looking into corruption within the police force) father, the Head of Prosecutors. And this is where the unreality of melodrama kicks in. The Head of Prosecution has a sudden change of heart after a heart-to-heart talk with Baksa Aduel about fathers and sons and decides to confess his corrupt ways becoming the lynchpin in Hyeong-min’s case.

So it sounds like the melodramatic mode seems to have gone into overdrive by the series’ end and according to Williams this only happens when there’s a great burden of guilt that needs to be resolved or explained away which she calls melodrama’s “compulsion to reconcile the irreconcilable” (75). But again, I don’t know S. Korean politics, and this is just a drama and Williams is just a film critic.

K-Drama Review: Heartless City (2013)

Direct continuation from Previous Post…

Williams goes on to argue that the methods of representation of the ineffable in melodrama come down, almost exclusively, to the excesses in representation of the key figure in the narrative in his or her struggle against time to regain a lost innocence. The protagonist’s journey will take one of two routes – s/he will either become an effeminised body that suffers a paroxysm of pathos or can channel this paroxysm into more virile and action-centred variants of rescue, chase and fight (58). Williams does suggest however, that instead of a fork in the road between virtuous sufferer and active hero, there can be instead a hero-victim and she provides Rambo as an example of such a figure.

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It is in this same vein that I want to approach Heartless City (2013) in my analysis of its main character, the mysterious and extremely charismatic Baksa Aduel (Doctor’s Son), a.k.a. Jung Shi-hyun, to suggest that this series is an atypical melodrama in that it fulfills the overarching demands of a melodramatic mode of story-telling while defying most of the specific 5 tenet structure of the melodrama laid out by Linda Williams in her essay.

However, before I go into that, I want to reshuffle Williams’ 5 tenets of melodrama into 3 key elements. Firstly, here is a brief summary of Williams’ 5 tenets of melodrama:

  1. Melodrama begins, and wants to end in a space of innocence.
  2. Melodrama focuses on victim-heroes and the recognition of their virtue largely by concentrating on the point of view of the victim.
  3. Melodrama appears modern by borrowing from realism, but realism serves the melodramatic passion and action.
  4. Melodrama involves a dialectic of pathos and action – a give and take of ‘too late’ and ‘in the nick of time’ wherein being ‘too late’ results in a paroxysm of pathos and being ‘in the nick of time’ results in the exhilaration of action
  5. Melodrama presents characters who embody primary psychic roles organized in Manichaean conflicts between good and evil.

From these 5 tenets, I would like to regroup them into the following 3 headings. Firstly, “Space of Innocence”; secondly, “Time and Excess”; and Thirdly, “Character” (under which I will discuss Manichaean characters and the victim-hero). I have decided to place less emphasis on realism as a support for modern melodrama because I see this more as a formalist concern that was included to stave off the belittling of this filmic mode of storytelling rather than a true element of melodrama itself. However, that being said, I will touch on this under “Space of Innocence.”

Furthermore, of these 3, I would like to posit that the first tenet regarding the struggle to regain a space of innocence should be privileged above all other elements of a melodrama because the other elements seem to consistently feedback into this attempt to recoup a lost innocence. This is seen in the tension between being ‘too late’ or being ‘in the nick of time’ resulting in either pathos or action which impacts the victim-hero figure whose suffering (pathos) marks him as a moral character and therefore closer to innocence, and whose actions will consistently try to move him closer toward the recuperation of lost innocence. Moreover, Williams’ own opening of her essay posits the “retrieval and staging of innocence” as the ultimate concern of melodramatic narrative trajectory (42).