By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Green Chair,” ImaginAsian Pictures, 2006]
I could go on all week about the Korean “new wave” movies that deserved theatrical release in this country but didn’t get them, just starting with Hong Sang-soo’s “The Power of Kangwon Province” and “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,” Hur Jin-ho’s “Christmas in August” and “One Fine Spring Day,” Lee Seong-kang’s “My Beautiful Girl Mari,” Lee Chang-dong’s “Peppermint Candy,” Kwak Jae-young’s “My Sassy Girl,” Yim Soon-rye’s “Waikiki Brothers,” the sublime portmanteau collection “If You Were Me,” the “Whispering Corridors” trilogy, and so on. Some of these have seen life as DVDs here, more weight thrown toward the argument that an official video release is the legit B-movie-slash-“specialty” distribution stream of our time, and therefore such films should be eligible for awards and critics’ lists. (Last year saw only maybe two theatrical films, maybe, that could be said to beat out the overdue 2006 DVD’ization of “The Power of Kangwon Province.”) Park Cheol-su’s “Green Chair” (2005) is another gemstone on the overladen scale: a tempestuous, achingly lovely, slightly batty and overwhelmingly horny romance that makes intimacy palpable in ways no American film has ever tried.
The setup is news-story familiar: a thirtysomething woman caught having a sexual relationship with an underage teen. But the upshot is much more complex the two energetic, vrooming lovers fit together like ragged puzzle pieces; they have fun, and gamble everything that society holds dear to be together, to test each other, to yank the most out of whatever time they can steal in each other’s naked company. Provocatively, we meet them as she, Mun-hee (Suh Jung, the infamous succubus from Kim Ki-duk’s “The Isle”), gets released from her prison stint, greeted in the jail parking lot by a scandal-mongering news crew and by Seo-hyun (Shim Ji-ho), now a strapping 17+ and heroically going public with his feelings, ready to whisk her away and pick up where they left off. It takes but one wary moment for Mun-hee to embrace him in full view of the cameras we’re expecting the steamroller of law and propriety to once again roll over them as the film progresses, but something else magical happens. The couple do in fact vanish from the public eye and plunge into their mutual addiction for each other, flopping in the apartment of an artist friend and generally having more spirited, moving, realistic sex than I think I’ve ever seen in a movie before. This isn’t movie sex, nor is Park’s film “about” mere sexual obsession Mun-hee and Seo-hyun talk in the middle of coitus, disappoint each other, get sidetracked, pause to eat, try to thrill each other with risk and sometimes fail. But the passion and generosity that lures them is always there, and always tangible to us, and so it never, ever gets boring.
Their romance is a sincere but rocky road, ending up in a semi-surreal, semi-theatrical dinner party in which everyone they know, including their families, philosophically argues out the couple’s moral situation and potential future. “Green Chair” dazzles because it is almost entirely unpredictable the two protagonists leap into your lap, defiantly behaving in inexplicable ways and because the conviction of the actors is unwavering. Shim is utterly convincing and lovable as the self-assured soon-to-be-18-year-old, but Suh is the movie’s motor; her default position in her lover’s presence is astonished, doubtful, heartbreaking joy, and the character’s honesty and desire makes most other romance heroines look like brainless fakers.
If great Asian imports have to rely on DVD to be “released” in the U.S., the world’s notable short films remain almost unseeable. A new and ambitious corrective is Cinema16’s European Short Films set, a beautifully designed collection of 16 of the continent’s greatest and most famous festival-award winners, reaching back as far as Ridley Scott’s 1958 art-school film “Boy and Bicycle,” and including several 2005 films, including Bálint Kenyeres’ breathtaking “Before Dawn.” Set entirely in a Hungarian field in the pre-sunrise moments and shot entirely in one stupefying, 35mm 13-minute take, Kenyeres’ film is a portrait of social conflicts and secrets human traffickers, refugees, police, who knows what else? that conveys such a thoroughgoing three-dimensional sense of the world beyond the frame, beyond our capacity for seeing, that it feels like a feature.
Anders Thomas Jensen’s pre-Dogme “Election Night”(1998), Matthieu Kassovitz’s “Pierrot le Pou” (1990) and Christopher Nolan’s “Doodlebug” (1997) are historically interesting, if revelatory of those filmmakers’ weaknesses, and the inclusion of Jan Švankmajer’s “Jabberwocky” (1971) is a boon to Švankmajer completists, since it hasn’t yet been included on any of the Kino collections. But the real prizes include Juan Solanas’ “The Man without a Head” (2003), a lavishly fabulistic French daydream that suggests that Solanas, son of Fernando, inherited the mantle of Caro/Jeunet and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”; Roy Andersson’s “World of Glory” (1991), a Kafkaesque study that begins with one of the most chilling three-minute shots in the history of movies; Lynne Ramsay’s “Gasman” (1997), the dour, low-class Glasgow short that led to the phenomenon of “Ratcatcher”; Lars von Trier’s moody, impressionistic student film “Nocturne” (1980); and Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-winning “Six Shooter” (2004), an all-Irish worst-day scenario starring Brendan Gleeson as a bruised widower that is as richly and sardonically written as any short film I’ve ever seen.
“Green Chair” (ImaginAsian) and “Cinema16: European Short Films” (Warp Films) are now available on DVD.