Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Address Unknown

I know what you're thinking, Movies at Random has sold out. Films people have heard of? In English? From major studios? Where's all the obscure Korean movies? Well, here's Address Unknown, just in case you were going through Korea withdrawal.

I've made no secret of my special distaste for the pity movie. The films with a huge ensemble cast where all the characters are needlessly miserable, and then punished time and time again for being characters in the movie. Address Unknown is very much a pity movie, revolving around dog butchers - no dogs were ACTUALLY butchered, something the film makes special effort to remind people of - disgruntled widows, one eyed girls and horny teenagers. One even works in a hilariously named store called Homeboy Shop which sells, among other things, a painting of a white tiger in velvet. Oh, and it's implied that everything is the fault of America, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so.

The problem with these things is that there's no happiness and no levity, it's just all depression all the time. There is no happiness because happiness is forbidden in this universe. If someone finds it, they are punished. If someone exists who isn't there to, on some level, make someone else miserable, they are punished doubly. Ink is spilled calling this stuff bracing, and "real", but it's not real, is it?

There's also the matter of human kindness and empathy always being immediately punished. The only reason ever seems to be that the overall downtrodden crap needs to be maintained from beginning to end. This is not helped by my other big issue with pity pictures is that they are always filmed in a very dull manner. Kim Ki-Duk is normally a pretty good director, with a great eye, but here it's just workmanlike and deliberately uninteresting. The events on screen are so serious and dour that they can't be filmed with a modicum of panache. It's telling when a world is so bereft of anything good that even the strippers just shuffle around uncomfortably, like 7th graders at a school dance.

In an interview with the director, he said he wanted to both raise awareness about the relationship between Korea and America - symbolized by beating a dog, of all things - yet show some sympathy for American soldiers who aren't in a particularly good situation. That has the effect of making the worst character of the lot, one American soldier whose name and actor are not on the internet - the actor's Mitch something. It's a thankless role, because he's got to alternate wildly between genuinely sympathetic, kind person and a monster rapist girlfriend abuser, sometimes within a line. The actor does an interesting job with it - he's better at the sympathetic than the villainous - but why not just have a sympathetic character and a villain? There's an entire army base, if you need both a monster and a kind person in a situation they don't want to be in to illustrate your point, make two characters. Of course, he winds up shot in the balls after attempting to tattoo his name on his girlfriend, because that's the kind of thing that happens in a pity picture. So long, sympathy.

I have enjoyed plenty of depressing movies, and my best movie of all time is about people who are screwed from birth due to the situation they find themselves in. But there, and anywhere else that gets being downtrodden right, they balance the good and the bad. Characters aren't pushed down every time they try to better themselves, they aren't punished simply for caring, and they aren't there solely to be kicked around. They're people, and like all people, their lives have joy mixed in with the sadness. Take Kids Return, recently featured here. It had characters whose lives collapsed around them, but it also gave them time to have success. We feel more for a character when we can see them in their best light, not simply having life abusing them at every turn. The fall of the characters in Kids Return hurt all the more because they had potential, and because we saw a glimpse of the success that was possible. When it's all sad, all the time, it stops being real, and just becomes an unfortunate, unwatchable dirge.

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