Men, Women and Hand-Scythes: Urbanoia and Gender in Yang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled

Getting even; Yeong-hie Seo and Seong-won Ji in Bedevilled (2010)

This post comes as part of the 2011 Korean Cinema Blogathon over at New Korean Cinema.

Yang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled (2010) features many of the tropes associated with the ‘urbanoia’ revenge film, the sub-genre of horror defined by Carol J. Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws in which a city dweller travels to a rural setting where what they take as the usual accepted rules of civilization are shown not to apply in their new, unfamiliar locale. The characters within such a narrative become metonyms for a wider conflict, and this pitting of the urban against the rural comes to carry associated economic, social and very often gender-based antagonisms. Whilst the themes in Bedevilled bear a similarity with those explored in the likes of The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) (1978), what is significant is how, by dint of its two-protagonist structure, it is able to develop a more sophisticated city-country axis than its exploitation content might suggest.

The film’s initial focus is Hae-won, a clerk at a bank who we first encounter snapping at an elderly woman desperately pleading for a loan to pay for her house. Hae-won has earlier witnessed a violent assault, but at the police identification parade she refuses to finger the perpetrators for fear of reprisals. Returning to work, she coldly reproaches a colleague after she learns she has been more sympathetic to the woman seeking the loan, and then turns nastier when she makes a case of mistaken identity, after which she is told to take a forced vacation from work. She elects to take up an offer to visit old childhood friend Bok-nam on the remote island of Moo-do.

Bok-nam lives on the island with her young daughter Yeon-hee, husband Man-jong, brother-in-law and a small group of elders, mostly women. The initial excitement at visiting the exotic surrounds quickly disappears as Hae-won observes the daily cycle of abuse and oppression experienced by her childhood friend; beaten into submission, forced into gruelling manual labour by the elders, humiliated by her husband’s shameless and blatant philandering with prostitutes shipped in from the mainland, and nocturnally having to be the reluctant outlet for her primitive brother-in-law’s apparently insatiable sexual appetite.

The urbanoia film functions primarily by setting up an axis which exaggerates the differences between the city and the country, and to a certain extent Bedevilled is no different in this regard. In terms of the setting, the island of Moo-do is very obviously far removed from the neon-lit bustle of Seoul witnessed in the opening scene, an exoticism underlined by Hae-won’s inauguration by Bok-nam into both open-air laundry drying and alfresco bathing, underlining Hae-Won’s very evident status as the metaphorical fish out of water. The city is noisy, overcrowded but impersonal. The country folk, by contrast, have a sense of interdependence with each other, but also a concomitant paranoia fuelled by the self-interest of the group: the elders are shown to be willing to turn a blind eye to Man-jong’s crimes as long as they perpetuate their own interests, namely keeping on the island Bok-nam and Yeon-hee, who represent both their present and future enslaved workforce. Thus a kind of pre-industrial patriarchy is perpetuated on the island, one which appears to condone even incest and paedophilia, a familial dysfunction which is a familiar urbanoia convention. If the police are powerless in the city, then in the countryside it is their very absence which arouses fear in the urbanite.

The contrast between city and country is also highlighted by the two women and their outward signifiers: Hae-won’s fussily urbane image of pale skin, sophisticated hair and makeup, white dress and high heeled shoes are in plain contrast to Bok-nam’s earthly look of heavily-tanned skin, tousled hair and general sartorial scruffiness. If the images of the two women are shown to be hugely disparate, then so too are their physical and emotional characteristics. Thusfar, Hae-won has by-and-large been an aloof, insular character, emotionally cold and largely isolated from those around her; in comparison, Bok-nam is characterized as being friendly and warm-hearted. Hae-won carries herself in a stilted poise, while Bok-nam is flat-footed, sometimes animalistic in posture (in one scene her husband even chastises her for literally eating “like a pig”). This in part reflects her natural physical practicality, in contrast to Hae-won’s technical ineptitude as evidenced in her earlier débâcle when trying to escape after being trapped in the toilet cubicle; instead, she is shown engaging in the practised, schooled form of physical exertion of yoga which the more clumsy, unsophisticated Bok-nam comically fails to imitate, an echo of an earlier flashback which illustrated the young Hae-won’s superiority of the learned skill of playing the recorder.

This divide between the characters is also a typical configuration of the urbanoia film. The city-dweller, whether male or female, is symbolically gendered ‘female’ since their sedentary urban existence, removed from the more ‘manly’ tasks of farming and hunter-gathering, has effeminized them; by extension then the rural characters are symbolically gendered ‘male’, in this case the female Bok-nam (her later use of a bladed weapon to stab her oppressors with can be seen to take on an obvious Freudian connotation). Indeed, while Hae-won may be associated with outward signs of feminity – handbags, coiffured hair, high heels – she is shown to lead a largely asexual existence. Early on, she reprimands her work colleague for what she sees as her flirtatious behaviour with her seniors, significantly an event which occurs shortly after she is sexually humiliated by a group of thugs outside the police station. A flashback makes a suggestion of a childhood ‘crush’ on Bok-nam, though later on when Bok-nam attempts belatedly to reciprocate this in the present timeframe, Hae-won withdraws. If the city is then rendered ‘female’, so too is it a neutered femininity.

In spite of sharing many of its conventions, this dual protagonist setup provides the key differentiation between Bedevilled and the traditional urbanoia storyline. Instead of unquestioningly aligning our spectatorial viewpoint with the city-dweller, as in the majority of this type of film from Deliverance (1972) onwards, our sympathies here are divided. While Hae-won’s outward signifiers speak of familiarity which we are perhaps more likely to identify with, her coldness makes us emotionally aligned with the more responsive, emotive Bok-nam. Indeed, although Hae-won’s city lifestyle is ostensibly the more familiar to us, it speaks more of urban alienation than any positive view of urban life: her moodiness suggests she is liable to fall out with what friends she has, and given time off work she is shown spending it alone, whether a solitary figure at a restaurant or back at her apartment guzzling on cans of beer. She is reprimanded for routinely ignoring the letters for her stacking up in her mailbox, and apparently has no contact with her immediate family. If one compares the opening city sequences of Bedevilled with those of I Spit on Your Grave, in which we witness Jennifer Hills’ comfort with her urban existence, then we can see that here the view of city life is more ambivalent.

If life in the city is not entirely eulogised, then neither is the country entirely demonised. In the countryside there is at least some notion of family and community, even if arising from a sense of self-interested dependency; the elders are at least treated with a sense of due respect by their juniors, in marked contrast to Hae-won’s summary dismissal of the elderly woman she has to deal with at the bank office who seems to be little more than a pest in her eyes. Additionally, while the usual city-country dynamic traditionally divides quite clearly into a master-slave dynamic of economic domination and exploitation, there is little sense of it here; there is not the sense that modernity is encroaching on the island, save for the oddly modern juxtaposition of a mobile phone mast on the island, and indeed the fact Man-jong is able to afford to ship in prostitutes from the mainland (paying over the odds too) suggests an affluence.

In fact, as opposed to showing the disparity between the two women’s lives, what the setup encourages is the paralleling of their experiences as a whole. Whether in the country or the city, women are assaulted by men and the authorities appear helpless either to prevent it or to dispense punitive justice to the perpetrators. While Man-jong and his brother are evidence of rural cruelty and sexual dysfunction, they are little different to the thugs who carry out the film’s initial assault in Seoul and intimidate and sexually humiliate Hae-won afterwards (the visual coding is similar in both cases, Man-jong’s brother’s battered tracksuit equivalent to the city thugs’ sportswear). Women, whether economically independent like Hae-Won or physically independent like Bok-nam, are still forced to be emotionally isolated resigned victims in both societies.

Another consequence of the parallel alignment of spectatorial identification is that the film’s ‘revenge’  segment takes on a greater level of complexity than the traditional generic formula. When Bok-nam enacts her bloody revenge on her oppressors there is a sense of moral justice to her actions, yet when she turns her attentions to Hae-won, the viewer is left divided; Hae-Won, after all, is a co-protagonist with whom the spectator is partially aligned with, yet her acquiescence to the  conspiracy of silence on the island effectively renders her as guilty as the islanders, so is she therefore not as deserving of comeuppance? This section of the film, now relocated to the mainland, punctures the prior triumphalism of Bok-nam’s vengeance by inserting an ambiguity to the moral framework which had previously seemed justifiable. Rather than the didacticism of the ‘good’ city pitted against the ‘bad’ country, what Bedevilled has drawn up is a morality founded more purely on victimhood rather than geography or class.

These questions may add complexity to the traditional urbanoia revenge plot, but on a symbolic level it remains conventional. Bok-nam’s story illustrates that a country-on-country axis of violence is acceptable, indeed perhaps even the the only effective solution to her problems, her ‘masculinization’ on the island permitting her to slay her fellow ‘masculine’ countryfolk (most of whom, significantly, are female – the one survivor is male). However, her subsequent attack on the ‘effeminized’ Hae-won, effectively a double-axis of country-on-city, male-on-female violence is considered too much of a transgression. Hae-won’s use of her recorder as a weapon, in turn suggests a conventional regendering of her character as ‘male’ victim-turned-hero.

Bedevilled, then, is a blend of complexity and conventionality with regard to the urbanoia sub-genre.  While providing the viewer with many of the traditional outward signifiers of an antagonistic  city-country axis, the two-protagonist setup develop a drama which instead parallels the experiences of women as victims within both types of social environment, and which replaces the straightforward revenge formula with a more morally ambiguous equation, even if there is a striking conventionality to it in symbolic gender terms.

Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu [Warm Water Under a Red Bridge] (Imamura Shōhei, 2001, Japan | France)

This post comes as part of David CairnsThe Late Show blogathon over at Shadowplay.

Making its début as part of the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 2001, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge proved to be Imamura Shōhei’s final film, save for a short segment in the portmanteau 11’9”01 September 11 (2002) of the following year, and came in the then-veteran director’s fiftieth year in the filmmaking business. His varied career saw him begin as assistant Ozu Yasujirō, become a key member of the Nuberu bagu (Japanese New Wave), ‘retiring’ into making documentaries after a high-profile box-office flop, before eventually returning to critical acclaim and a record-equalling two Palme d’Or wins.

In such a long working life, a number of distinct phases emerge from the whole, the final of which seems to begin after the eight-year hiatus following Kuroi ame [Black Rain] (1989) with Unagi [The Eel] (1997), the Cannes winner with which Warm Water… shares many similarities. Like that earlier film, it takes as its protagonist a man who relocates to a small town to start a new life, though the focus here seems to be on a mischievous sense of mystery rather the murderous melodrama with which The Eel begins. Yosuke (Yakusho Kōji) is an unemployed former salaryman with apparently few prospects for finding a job, much to the chagrin of his unforgiving, nagging wife. When his elderly friend Taro dies, he remembers that he informed him about a valuable gold Buddha he has deposited in a small fishing town many years before, and urges his friend to follow his directions to find it and sell for his own profit.

Once there, Yosuke quickly locates the key geographical clue – the red bridge which stands over the river running through the town – and follows the occupant of the house adjacent to it to the supermarket where he is shocked to witnesses two things: firstly, that the woman, Saeko, is depositing items from the cheese aisle into her handbag without paying for them and, more disturbingly, she is somehow leaking liquid onto the floor beneath her. Disturbed, he follows her back to her house where he soon discovers her strange biological quirk, best not described in too much detail here but what comes to be known in the film as ‘venting’, which she may only achieve by either shoplifting or by sexual stimulation.

The fast descent into the surreal confirms the film to be what it self-describes as an ‘impossible tale’, and slides into obviously metaphorical whimsy. There follows a rash of Freudian symbolism (signposted by the ‘water’ and ‘red bridge’ of the title) including a strange hallucinatory dream incorporating Yosuke’s entry into to a womb-like state composed of stars (which augments the theme of fertility raised by Saeko’s exaggerated medical condition), repeated flashbacks to Taro’s inane quasi-philosophical ramblings about erectile dysfunction, and another younger character’s obsession with his own ‘precious life essence’. The plotting, after its initial coherence, becomes increasingly scattershot, haphazardly throwing in a visit to a state-of-the-art neutrino observatory, an odd flashback to Saeko’s mother’s water-bound death, more venting, more clumsy flashbacks and some occasional documentary-like shots aboard a fishing vessel.

When considering Imamura’s later films, it is perhaps too easy to focus on the negative and what he had lost in terms of his filmcraft by this time. Gone are the obviously strong, central female characters of his 1960s films which, rightly or wrongly, had him labelled as a director of feminisuto (feminist) films, and his famously ‘anthropological’ portrayal of the lower classes of Japan scarcely seen in the respectable canons of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse. Mostly absent too is the strongly observational style, which at their best disintegrated the borderline between documentary and fiction (see the superb Ningen Johatsu (1967)), or showed glimpses of social order in pre-industrial Japanese cultures (Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (1968), Narayama Bushiko (1983)). The late-period films seem whimsical and inconsequential in comparison.

This insistence on looking back on former glories does the films of Imamura’s late phase a disservice. What is notably different about them is that they feel so much more laidback, less motivated by a reactionary anger, and more upbeat, allowing the comedic side honed by the influence of his mentor Kawashima Yūzō to be shown more fully. Perhaps too, he was calmed by the influence of working with his eldest son Tengan Daisuke, screenwriter here and on The Eel and latterly a collaborator with Miike Takashi (himself a graduate of Imamura’s own Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film).

While lacking the bite of his best work then, what gives Warm Water… its strange charm is this newly-found air of relaxation in the director’s work, the film’s assembly of a small-town world and its population with a host of curious characters – the grandmother who obsessively writes clairvoyant fortune messages all day, the African college student running around the town being tailed by his bicycle-riding, baseball-bat-wielding trainer barking orders at him through a megaphone, the old fishermen of the town, their young rival and his over-exuberant girlfriend – and a host of other minor details and offbeat asides.

Perhaps this is not enough for fans of his more ‘important’ films, but Warm Water… does offer a modified version of the director’s eye for the anthropological; Saeko’s ‘venting’ drains out into the river, which sends the local fish and seabirds into a kind-of frenzy and in turn ensures a bumper haul for the local fishermen. If Imamura’s earlier films more directly showed human behaviours to be analogous to those of animals such as snakes, insects and pigs, then what these later films show is a more serene vision, of man as an essential part of the balance of nature. The film’s final shot, though primarily a terrifically funny visual gag, also serves this vision: a superimposed rainbow, apparently caused by a particularly large ‘vent’ by Saeko; an oddly contrived moment of transcendence which closed this great director’s career.

Madeo [Mother] (Bong Joon-ho, 2009, South Korea)

Kim Hye-ja in Bong Joon-ho's "Mother"

The exploration of the sometimes mysterious bond between a mother and her child is the kind of theme one might well expect to be best suited to straightforward melodrama but, ever the meddler with genre, Bong Joon-ho has crafted an engrossing detective-story thriller around the subject, a film which constantly defies the viewer’s expectations and offers both a moving portrayal of the power of the familial bond and a dark portrait of this link when pushed to its extremes. As well as being a play with familiar generic tropes, so too is his film a meditation on the importance of memory, set against the backdrop of a wider critique of male domination and female peripheralization in Korean society.

What characterized Bong’s previous two films, Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), was an obviously withering contempt for the patriarchal authorities contemporary to the periods in which they were set. In the former film, based on a real-life series of incidents in the late 1980s, a bungling police investigative team fail to catch a serial killer, while in the latter, the present-day residents of Seoul find themselves at the mercy of both their own paranoid government and the decidedly more gung-ho US authorities in the wake of an attack on the city by a gargantuan monster. In both films, it is the ordinary people who are made to suffer because of, or be scapegoats for, their public officials’ inadequacies.

Mother apparently continues this thematic concern by focusing on an unnamed mother’s struggle to clear her son Do-joon’s name after he is, she firmly believes, wrongly incarcerated and made an easy scapegoat for the brutal murder of a young schoolgirl. In trying to prove his innocence we see her comes up against over-worked detectives, violent police interrogators and – worst of all – her well-paid lawyer who turns out to be more concerned with scoffing buffets and drunkenly cavorting with escorts rather than helping her champion her son’s case.

The film is almost exclusively viewed from the point of view of Do-joon’s mother, and we are quickly inclined to feel sympathy for her when, in film’s first scene after the opening titles, we witness her cutting her finger with a large slicing machine while she is paying more attention to her son’s safety than her own. When Do-joon is hit by a passing car, the aggressive Jin-tae leads him to seek revenge on the driver at the local golf course, where we learn that Do-joon is mentally slow, forgetful and easily led by his more impulsive friend. Indeed, we see that while Jin-tae is capable of sporadic acts of violence, his meek friend is unable even to kick a car’s wing mirror without coming off the worst in the act.

Do-joon’s mother is, as any parent would be, concerned that her good-natured son continues to keep company with this ‘bad seed’, but their maternal relationship also seems at best off-kilter, and at worst positively unhealthy: though he is 27 years old, she still over-dotes on him as if he were an infant, and the virginal son still sleeps in his mother’s bed at night. In one tragi-comic scene she even feeds him ‘medicine’ while he stands in the street relieving himself against a wall; after he rushes off she tries to tidy up after him, scraping the urine away with her foot, and covering the spot with a nearby piece of metal.

The odd dynamic between mother and son seems strange but at this stage somewhat benign and as if it is being played for laughs, and when the harmless but distinctly un-savvy Do-joon gets hauled in by the police and roughed up by their interrogator in order to sign a confession, we naturally side with the mother in protesting his innocence, as well as suspecting Jin-Tae’s possible guilt. It is here that Mother shifts into a familiar detective-story mode, with the titular protagonist seeking clues to uncover the identity of the real killer, motivated both by her love (however strange) for her son and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the official channels of law enforcement to look beyond the circumstantial evidence of the case.

This is how the story appears to want to unfold as it settles down, and there is a sense of a return to his previous films’ concerns with the powerless oppressed struggling in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy. Our identification with the mother and her struggle has been uncomplicated, resting on easily identifiable premises: a vulnerable, elderly woman struggling against uncaring authorities to prove her mild-mannered son innocent and to turn suspicion towards his violent friend. Yet almost as soon as her own investigation begins she appears to come up against a dead end, one which turns at least one of these assumptions on its head. In classic detective-thriller tradition, and with more than a little hint of Twin Peaks, her sleuthing leads her to make some startling discoveries about her small town and she becomes embroiled in a much more sinister and potentially dangerous situation than she first had anticipated.

Mother‘s convoluted narrative about-turns not only maintain an admirable air of suspense for its 130 minute running time, but serve to undermine many of the assumptions and prejudices the viewer holds about the story and its characters. If Memories of Murder played on the tropes of the police procedural genre and The Host similarly toyed with the familiar mores of the family-drama-amidst-monster-attack movie, the film uses the setup of a detective-story to expose how the viewer becomes emotionally complicit with the depths of its main character’s moral elasticity without even realizing it – until, that is, it is too late. The beating heart of Bong’s film is a dark, twisted one which, as well as showing how familial bonds can be an empowering, all-conquering force for good, they are the same ones which can drive people to go too far. Nevertheless, lead actress Kim Hye-ja, familiar to Korean audiences for playing more placid matriarchs, conjures up a mesmerizing central performance as a quiet, subservient elderly mother steeled by her resolve to free her son, and it is hard not to be swept along by this woman’s sheer determination.

The film’s feminine title underlines the fact that there is a large focus on the cultural and social divide between the genders, and though the subject of female subjugation is not broached explicitly, it is one which is ever-present in the background. If men are not alternately portrayed as bullying, incompetent, pathetic, money-grabbing, self-serving, violent, whimsical or sexually rapacious creatures then, as in the case of the fathers of both Do-joon and murdered schoolgirl Moon Ah-jung, they are absent entirely. The question of Do-joon’s father is never raised, and at one stage his mother even suggests to one of her acupuncture clients that it was ‘medicine’ which made her pregnant with her son. By contrast, women are the efficient workers, the gossips who know what is happening in the community, the victims of bullying, taken advantage of sexually, or at the extremes are driven to drink or attempted suicide. The mourners at Moon Ah-jung’s wake are almost exclusively female.

Do-joon’s memory – or lack thereof – serves not merely as a device to initiate and maintain the central mystery plot, but also as a metaphor for his essential unknowability to his mother, regardless of how close their relationship is; to what extent his amnesia is selective by choice or otherwise is never made explicit, which leaves us as much in the dark as she is. One dramatic revelation about their past, however, offers some clue as to its cause, as well as suggesting that one thing he may not be able to remember is something that she chooses advantageously not to remind him of. It also serves to cast in darker hues both her character and her apparently unselfish servitude to him. By the end, we are left to guess the extent to which Do-joon is able to piece together what his mother has done; she, however, makes sure she takes steps never to remember, and the film’s memorable final shot serves as a poignant recapitulation of its equally striking first.

The film’s emotional zenith comes when the mother is called upon to visit JT, an adolescent with Downs’ Syndrome who has been captured after escaping from the sanitorium. She simply asks him if he has any parents, a mother? His negative reply causes her to break down – but is it entirely out of pity for him? Her relationship with her son may have empowered her to go to extraordinary, almost unthinkable lengths to save him, but as much as this moment comes as catharsis it also serves to remind her of the horrors she has witnessed too. All in the journey of a mother, though, one in which the ability to forget may well be as important as that to remember.

Mother is released on DVD on 20 September by Optimum Releasing.

Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, 2008, USA / Republic of Korea)

For all of the wealth of films produced by middle-aged directors which focus on the coming-of-age of female adolescents – a subject which can take in as great and diverse films as Gigi (1958), Mouchette (1967) and Spirited Away (2001) – the lives of protagonists of a younger age are proportionally under-represented in film. Why should this be? As characters are they are more difficult to delineate convincingly, their personalities emerging but yet to form fully? Is imposing a narrative onto characters who are yet to be able to perceive such a concept is too great an artifice? Maybe it is simply that their lives are viewed as being simply not interesting enough.

Filling this void is Asian-American director So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain which places the world of young children at its very centre, observing the rhythms and small triumphs of their lives with a quiet patience. Like her strongly autobiographical début feature In Between Days (2006), her second film takes elements of her own childhood as the inspiration for its storyline, but while it may be looking further back into her own life story, it represents a for her a large career step forward; in asking the viewer not to judge or moralise, her strongly observational style serves to portray elegantly the world as viewed through a child’s eyes.

The story introduces us to six-year old Jin, making her way home from school and picking up her younger sister Bin, who is being looked after in their neighbours’ flat. Their busy working mother is a notable absentee, and who on eventually arriving is evidently too harried to pay her children their due care and attention. On a following day we see her take them on a long bus ride out of the city where she announces that she is going to go away in search of their estranged father, and in the meantime they are to stay in this strange new town with their Big Aunt, whom they are introduced to for the first time. She gives the girls a large piggy bank, promising to return as soon as they manage to fill it with coins.

Life with their Big Aunt in this strange new town proves to be troublesome – far from being a caring foster-parent she pays them scant attention, leaves them undernourished and proves quite happy to use them as a means to blackmail money from another child’s mother in order to fund her alcoholism. The girls learn to take refuge with a generous and kindly neighbour, and discover that if they catch and cook grasshoppers they can make money with which to fill their piggy bank which they continue to believe, heartbreakingly, will guarantee the speedy return of their mother.

These relatively bare bones are as much as the film offers in terms of plotting, and aside from the initial drama of the children’s abandonment, there is little concession to providing narrative impetus – only the sub-narrative of the girls’ quest to fill up their piggy bank offers any sense of direction – and this noticeable absence suggests that the children, whose eyes we are undeniably witnessing events through, are yet either to form or to expect narrative coherence as an overlay to life. This lack of event makes it is possible to come away with an impression that the film is a touch slight, but while there are certainly passages of the film which play slowly, start to peel away at its layers and what begins to emerge is a work of remarkable complexity beneath its seemingly simple surface.

Firstly, it is revealing what director So Yong Kim chooses not to do as much as what she does do with such material. Tonally, we are not in the realms of the lyrically elegiac (The Spirit of the Beehive (1975)), the polemical (The 400 Blows (1959)) or the harshly poetic (Forbidden Games (1952)) but rather strictly observational: the vérité filming style and the hugely naturalistic acting from the two very young leads gives the film an authentic, documentary-like feel, and the regular use of close-ups gives a heightened sense of intimacy with the main characters. Through what we are selectively shown, the film sees the child’s viewpoint not as an essentially simplistic one awash with incomprehension and fear, but instead one with a combined sense of wonder and curiosity. As such, its closest forebear may be Koreeda Hirokazu’s similar Nobody Knows (2004).

If Treeless Mountain shares a kinship with any broader genre then it is mostly Italian neorealism, both in terms of its non-studio location shooting and eye for everyday detail, as well as extensive use of non-professional actors. Though lacking the movement’s tendency for out-and-out melodrama, there is curiously the very De Sica-like subtle background use of fairytale archetypes: the absent parent and quest to ensure her return, the wicked stepmother charged with their keep, and the two princesses exiled in a strange land – the latter point highlighted by the young Bin’s wearing of a princess-like dress in many scenes.

What often goes unnoticed about the classic De Sica films is that they take place over a very carefully-defined period of time, in Treeless Mountain it seems the opposite is true: there are no visual or verbal signposts within the diegesis to indicate whether hours, days or months are passing, events happen episodically but the only indicator of timescale is the girl’s piggy bank gradually filling up – though this too proves no measure as they later discover how to go about filling up quicker. Relocated to a strange new location and no longer subject to the everyday rhythms of their previous lives, time for the girls within the film seems to have stopped.

It is in this stasis that the girls are left to discover this new world on their own terms, and the real drama of the film emerges from the focus on the girls’ interactions with each other: their slow realization of the reality of their situation, their overcoming of certain naiveties, and ultimately their acceptance of their new lives, achieving a kind of Bressonian transcendence. It is this which prevents the tone from being overly morose, and viewing the girls’ lives as somehow quietly triumphant lies in contradiction to the view of the lives of adults as riddled with problems and alienation.

There are other questions which reside in the background, outside of the children’s perception, questions which another film might have sought to answer: what happened to the father? Why is the sister-in-law unmarried? As the film transfers from the city to the town and then on to the countryside, how much of the social dislocation we see can be placed on increasing urbanization in Korea? However, it is only as adult observers that we have been taught to pick up on such matters; for the girls in Treeless Mountain, whose eyes have not yet learned how to perceive them, they have yet to take on any importance. As such, it may be one of the most accurate cinematic accounts of the experience of childhood yet.

Aruitemo aruitemo [Still Walking] (Koreeda Hirokazu, 2008, Japan)

The shomin-geki, a particular type of Japanese family drama, is a long-established genre dating back to the early 1920s, but it is one which is perenially associated with, indeed practically synonymous with, the director Ozu Yasujiro, whose work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the BFI. There is perhaps no better context within which to view this film by Koreeda Hirokazu, a director who has long been spoken of as his natural heir, given that his films share similar themes and concerns with those of his predecessor. Still Walking sees the parallels between them stronger than ever, and if one were to imagine the ghost of the great director watching with us, he would surely be nodding in silent approval.

A prologue introduces us to Kyohei and his wife Toshiko, an elderly middle-class couple living in a quiet coastal town. We see the old man doggedly struggle up some steps before exchanging kind greetings with a lady, from which exchange we learn that he is the area’s retired former doctor, and later that his house is his former surgery, still full of now disused medical paraphernalia. In contrast to this character, we are then swiftly introduced to his son Ryota who is travelling by bus with his new wife and stepson to visit his parents. In these early exchanges he seems uncaring towards his father and mother, expressing his wish to stay with them for as little time possible; in the meantime his own concerns have blinded him to the nervousness of his new bride at the prospect of meeting her in-laws for the first time.

Such a setup inevitably recalls Tokyo Story (1953), and the expectation is that the story will be about an uncaring son who is woefully neglecting his kindly parents, yet as soon as he arrives this is turned on its head. In truth, it is the father who is the transgressor, and greets his son with cold inhospitability; he holds lingering resentment that Ryota decided not to follow in the family tradition and become a doctor, and shows disdain for his chosen career as an art restorer. Toshiko is little kinder to her son, and confesses to daughter Chinami her disdain for his marrying a widow: after all, at least a divorcee might have chosen to leave her husband.

The film takes its time to reveal important pieces of information, and it is largely relayed through offhand remarks rather than expositionary dialogue. Slowly, we piece together that the family have gathered to mark the anniversary of the death of eldest son Junpei, the apple of his father’s eye who drowned many years ago in saving another man’s life. Kyohei clearly believes that Junpei would have become a doctor himself and carried on his work, and his resentment towards Ryota is based in a belief that the ‘wrong’ son died that day. The mother, too, is unable to let her son go. Later on, the man whom Junpei saved comes to pay his respects, a sweaty, obese, unkempt man who is both embarrassed and ashamed to be present in front of the family; Toshiko confesses that she insists that he return every year in order for him to suffer as she continues to her son’s death

Much of the subject matter makes the film sound depressing, and one suspects in the hands of a Western director such material would make for more of a melodrama, yet Still Walking, in the tradition of Ozu, is anything but morose. For long passages, the tone is light and playful, brightened by lively, colourful cinematography – the camera keen to linger on seemingly insignificant domestic details – a lilting acoustic guitar score, and the dialogue filled with the pleasantries and idioms with which the characters generally interact. Food is the major topic of conversation, and even the cold father softens and is lured out of his den when he smells frying tempura in the kitchen. Most of all, it is through the presence of the younger generation’s children of their own: while the adult dramas are playing out onscreen, there is frequently the accompanying sound of offscreen children at play, their lives so far mostly untouched by these frivolous grown-up concerns

Where Koreeda’s script and direction excel, though, is in how skilfully he manages to weave the tangled web of characters and their inter-relationships so that frequently within the same frame we can see a whole variety of emotions being experienced simultaneously by different characters, usually along generational lines. As well as dramatically underlining the gap between their attitudes, it also lends a huge sense of authenticity to this familial portrait: after all, how many family gatherings see all participants synchronised emotionally? More often the blinkers are on for the duration.

The shooting style – mostly carefully composed medium shots – might suggest observational distance rather than emotional intimacy, and yet film proves to be a bridge between the two; like Ozu’s films we feel like another visiting guest in the household, and when narrative resolution is achieved and the film closes there is a sense of emptiness in having to leave the world we have been living in for the previous two hours. The other director whose work springs to mind as a comparison piece is the late, great Edward Yang, another master of deep, subtle humanism. Koreeda’s beautiful, delicate film deserves such illustrious company.