These are troubled times we live in. Times of isolation, helplessness, frustration. Overwhelmed by divisive social and economic structures, compartmentalized into techno-bureaucratic structures, helpless facing systematized corruption and the specter of environmental collapse, what is the individual to do? Many of the films of this year’s Busan International Film Festival reflect a global malaise of the overwhelmed individual. From Korea to China to the Philippines, prospects seem bleak for the average person, but perhaps, as suggested by Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s most recent film, if we could only rid ourselves of some faulty conceptions, we might just find a way forward.
Shin Su-won’s Glass Garden opened this year’s Busan International Film Festival and follows the trajectories of two characters solitary by nature: Bio-technician Jae-yeon (Moon Geun-young) and novelist Jihun (Kim Taehun). The frail, handicapped researcher, aiming to revolutionize the way humans live by creating green blood cells which would allow us to photosynthesize oxygen, comes into contact with the author entrenched into solitude after his last novel was plagiarized by a more famous writer.
Chance has the two solitaries living across from each other, and when Jihun moves into Jae-yeon’s abandoned apartment, he discovers a strange painting on the wall of an embryonic girl born from a tree. This image injects a seed into his imagination, breaking his writer’s block and inspires him to write a sensationalized fictionalization of Jae-yeon, who in the meantime has gone through a double betrayal. Her far prettier classmate appropriates her research to pitch to a gaggle of investors a more marketable and short-term (are they not one and the same?) anti-aging use for the same green blood cells before sleeping with their professor, Jae-youn’s secret crush, that very night.
Cut off from the world through the dashing of her sentimental and career hopes, the biologist withdraws from it like a monk fleeing into a hermitage, escaping into the verdant comforts her glass garden of the title. And the author follows, because he has a book to write.
Both Jae-youn and Jihun see themselves as resilient isolated units of purity in a contaminated world. Yet, as Jae-youn admits, it is always the purest things which get contaminated most easily. Slighted, betrayed, in the hubris of their self-righteousness, the contamination spreads quickly through their beings: the biologist by the green blood cells she injects into her own body, and author by the story he has voyeuristically stolen.
Rather than unifying into solidarity, or re-generating a newly possible love, the two characters become sealed into solitude and into egoism. Crushed under economic forces beyond their control (the lab must be funded, the book must be sold), they attempt the incredulous and naïve—to hold on to their ideals.
Deprived of agency, both Jae-youn and Jihun wallow in melancholy, a melancholy reflecting the helplessness facing a collapse in the relational and the environmental. To withdraw. To become plantlike. To become pure again…
But this drawn-out analogy of vegetal metamorphosis as a withdrawal into innocence comes across as an over-easy metaphor for retreating from a failed relationship. This silent, introspective emo-despair wears upon the film, as does a romanticized and unconvincing dichotomy between ‘good’ nature and ‘evil’ human.
In truth, there is no separation. Nature is human, and human is nature. It is the economic pressures and the consumptive lifestyle which has isolated them, not just as a social byproduct but as a planned tactic. Divide and conquer. Isolate and crush. And Jae-youn and Jihun, like many others, are the naïve and unwitting victims of these forces.
These selfsame economic forces are at play in Ko Hyun-seok’s How to Breathe Underwater, shot in the festival’s home city of Busan in a grey-blue palette of concrete, steel and realism. How to Breathe Underwater weaves a Magnolia-like tapestry of the intersecting lives of two families over a single day, working its way towards slowly towards an evident and inevitable tragic denouement.
A middle-office manager is tasked by a cantankerous and uncaring boss with passing on management’s orders for “assassination firings.” Before the day ends, he must dole out a series of managerial directive to factory supervisors, placing them in a discomforting quandary: fire an employee, or quit themselves.
The young ambitious office-worker, under pressure to succeed and provide for his own family, does what he must. Yet his actions can only go against the factory supervisor’s own needs—to provide for his working-class family and his own child struggling with dyslexia and isolation.
None of the characters’ issues ever has the slightest chance of resolution, for there is never any communication. Although the class divide is clear, each character is lost in his or her own self-interest, economic or otherwise, and all suffer equally from systemic isolation. There is hierarchy, obedience, and shame, but no discussion, forum, or compassion. And without the scaffold of a communal interest which would buttress them socially, each person becomes isolated, unaware of choices that they might have.
None is guilty as such, but their isolation leads to brutal double tragedy. A tragedy all the more heartbreaking as it was avoidable at each step along the way, had they only been able to commune. Yet who can blame them? They, who are subject to such vast forces beyond their control, forces designed to weaken them. The waves crush each individual, send them under, and the title turns out to have been tongue-in-cheek: One doesn't breathe underwater, one drowns.
Those same economic forces which isolate the two families in How to Breathe Underwater are at play in Li Xiaofeng’s Ash, although here, the culprit is more readily identified. In Ash it is no longer a common tragedy of being trodden by a faceless system, but rather a single, wealthy ambitious individual as a symbol for how wealth and position erodes one’s moral compass.
Ash begins with a dead body, an older man whose throat is slashed, sprawled across the floor of a movie theater in a pool of blood. A detective is called in to investigate and settles on a prime suspect in the man’s step-son, a young iron worker Xu Feng (Xin Peng) who the stepfather had repeatedly abused. Yet with a rock-solid alibi he is let go, and the mystery goes unsolved.
During the same period, a second murder is committed: A charming local gangster found with his head crushed on a lakeshore, who had been dating the object of affection of Wang Dong (Luo Jin), a star medical student.
No murderers are found for either killing. No motives can link potential suspects to the sites. And for good reason. For what if the murderers had swapped victims? Without the causal logic of motive, they would be remain undetectable, and in liberty. Wang Dong, the ambitious medical student, proposes this solution to Xu Feng and both get away with their murders. But freedom from prison, as Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare already taught, does not equal freedom from guilt.
Ten years later, the worlds of Wang Dong and Xu Feng come together again, by chance and when they meet the link between the two murders once again emerges from the past.
As the truth unfurls, panic begins to set in. The young surgeon will go to any expense to hide the crime upon which his life is built, but for Xu Feng guilt has grown like a flower in the heart. He knows he cannot escape his past. The young ironworker, who has committed an impulsive murder of rage, retains his instinct of horror towards the crime he has committed, a guilt not shared by the forward-looking surgeon, blinded to all but his own ambition. Ethics are dispensable, as long as power is taken. And the young doctor is repetitive of a power-hungry class of nouveau-riche in China in which the ambition and greed of the elite is the cornerstone of evil doings.
As it also is in Raya Martin’s Filipino crime thriller Smaller and Smaller Circles (based on the bestseller by F. H. Batacan),where Jesuit forensic expert Father Gusis assisted by a somber Father Jerome to delve into a crime mystery of evil doings, taking upon themselves to uncover a serial killer of poor children in a Manila slum.
Father Gus, blessed with an iron stomach and stoic demeanor, moonlights as a local forensic expert when he is not tending his flock. A troublemaker and whistle-blower, blessed with the unbending ethics of a believer in God’s justice on Earth, the Jesuit has already called out his bishop for a cover-up of a pedophiliac priest. He takes his young disciple around him in the somber cluttered streets of Manila, reeling from poverty to uncover a serial killer no one wishes to believe in.
As Fathers Gus and Jerome conduct their investigation into the smaller and smaller circles of power, the corruption which is the petri dish of this violence reveals itself fully: The police are only interested in closing cases; the church in preserving its power; the criminals in preserving their honor. As always, these brutal acts are swept under the carpet in an attempt to hide the crimes which corruption enables, blind to the victims it willfully creates. The powers that be have with no goal but to retain their power, and wash their hands of all sin, like Pontius Pilate or Lady Macbeth.
The priest’s piety gives Smaller and Smaller Circlesa theological bent in which we become witness to a battle between good and evil. Not the schmaltzy, aestheticized good and evil of the moralist, but good as strict adherence to an ethical line versus evil as a manifestation of willful self-serving corruption. Father Gus is as much an old-school humanist as much as he is an old-school believer—he casts a benevolent regard upon the sinners, and holds to blame those who betray the power of their position. Smaller and Smaller Circlescomes to the conclusion that evil, is not so much a state of nature, as something created by the machinations of power.
With all this isolation, corruption, and abuse of power what is there to do? Before We Vanish, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s new alien-invasion film, provides a lighthearted slant to these seemingly insurmountable problems.
The film opens with a J-Horror trope: a uniform-clad schoolgirl walking down the middle of a busy highway, her blue and white uniform soaked in the blood of her victims.
Things are not what they seem, however, and this sardonic opener is as gruesome as the film gets. In fact, the young girl hadn’t killed her family, but is one of three alien parasites who make up a pre-invasion recon unit. They have descended upon earth and colonized random bodies in in order to gather intelligence recruiting an anarchist journalist to be their guide.
In preparation for the invasion these three “aliens” steal concepts from Earthlings in order to know their enemy. This pilfering of concepts (they point their fingers at the victim’s head after making them think of a concept) is a cute trick to allow Kurosawa to postulate: What if all the ruinous concepts we have built in ourselves were taken away, how free would we be? Work? Self? Property? Family?
And indeed as the aliens collect their concepts, they liberate inhabitants from their frustrations: When they steal the concept of property from a shut-in, suddenly, released from the fear of losing his possessions, he is not only able to leave his house, but becomes a spokesman for a liberal lifestyle. Or when the cantankerous workaholic boss of a design firm is deprived of the notion of work, he rediscovers the joys of play, and transforms his office, much to the surprise of his employees, from dour workspace into playroom.
With Before We Vanish we are reminded that change requires nothing more than an idea. If the concept of property, of self, of work, is at the root of the problem, then maybe, if we could change our conceptions, we could break through the cul-de-sac.
Ultimately, the aliens only half succeed in their invasion, because when one of them tries to steal the concept of love from his host’s wife, he starts to think that maybe Earth is not as worthless as he once thought. The ending is a bit predictable, but at least does try to create an upbeat outlook about an otherwise gloomy future.