A Chat with the Academy’s Bernardo Rondeau

Despite its reputation as home for the entertainment industry, Los Angeles has a thriving alt/repertory film scene, one of the realities I hoped to reflect when I started this blog eleven years ago.  One of the city’s best programmers, Bernardo Rondeau, has maintained the beleaguered LACMA weekend film screenings in the five years since they were initially threatened, and has brought such rare gems to Los Angeles as Aleksei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, and several series built around the museum’s excellent Stanley Kubrick and Gabriel Figueroa exhibits.

Happily, Rondeau has recently been hired to program a regular weekend film series for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in LACMA’s 600-seat Bing Theater, great news for cinephiles desperate for a mid-city, centralized venue for regular retrospectives, revivals and highlights from the festival circuit. (Presumably, it also helps set the stage for the Academy/LACMA plan to build the city’s first major movie museum by 2017.)

La Perla, 1945

Doug Cummings: I was curious about the Gabriel Figueroa film series you programmed at LACMA; is that traveling anywhere?  I’m sure it was difficult finding the prints.

Bernardo Rondeau: Yes, it was quite a formidable project.  We had the support and backing of Fundación Televisa, who had access to a lot of the films, so they were extremely helpful in that regard. Mexico does have a rather robust government support for film.  But generally speaking, there is still a tremendous amount of prints that do not have English subtitles, and there is still restoration work to be done.  I did get a fair number of emails from programmers asking where I found some of the prints. Maybe some of the films will turn up somewhere down the line; I hope they do, because there are a lot of fascinating films that deserve to be better known; just absolute landmarks in Mexican cinema of such stature that it’s important for American filmgoers to at least be aware of them.

DC: Mexican films still haven’t gained wide cinephile appreciation here in the States, they still seem to be missing from many of the established art house DVD catalogues.

BR: Absolutely.  I’ve been trying to make the impression upon people that these are really important films to be rediscovered, or discovered, period.  We’ll see what the long term impact of that is, but I do hope that some of titles begin to surface here.

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DC:  Can you tell us about your new Academy @ LACMA series?

BR: The Academy is doing screenings at LACMA on Fridays and Saturdays. I only joined the Academy in early December, and things didn’t really get rolling until after the Oscars, but we’ve already offered an introduction series to Jim Jarmusch, which included prints that the Academy Archive itself had newly struck (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Mystery Train) and then we did a screening of his latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, with Tilda Swinton in conversation with Henry Rollins. So that was the first event in this program.

This month, we’ve done the complete Decline of Western Civilization trilogy. We’ve had a soft launch with these events, and then in May, we’re going to begin longer series; we’ll have two series running, one every Friday and one every Saturday. As much as possible, we’re going to have extra components, such as special guests, which I really didn’t have the resources for when I was on my own at LACMA.

Welles directing Too Much Johnson (1938).

DC: I’m excited to hear about your Orson Welles retrospective in May.

BR: We’re mainly taking a look at many of Welles’ more or less “completed” works, although we are starting with Too Much Johnson, which is the Mercury Theatre film he directed but never finished. It was created as a series of interstitial pieces for a stage production in 1938 – so it was a few years before Citizen Kane (1941) – in the hopes of incorporating film into a theatrical setting.  It was recently rediscovered, of all places, just outside the Italian town of Pordenone, where they now have a major silent film festival, and the National Film Preservation Foundation has managed to reassemble it with the help of George Eastman House, so it will be really wonderful to show that; it has only been shown in a couple places so far.

From there, we’ll show pretty much all the feature films he directed from Citizen Kane to F for Fake (1973). In addition to our series, the Cinefamily will be showing Othello (1952). And LACMA’s Tuesday matinees will support the Saturday series, with other titles Welles either directed and/or starred in.

DC: It has been a long time coming to Los Angeles.  In the last dozen or so years that I’ve lived here, the American Cinematheque has offered one or two Welles spotlights, but they never include the elusive Chimes at Midnight (1965), which a lot of critics (myself included) consider one of his best films, so I’m delighted you’re showing it.

BR: We’ll also be showing some new DCPs, both The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil (1958) are new DCPs; Mr. Arkadin (1955) is a relatively new print made by the Munich Film Museum. So this will be the first Welles series of this stature in L.A. in the past decade.  We’re coming up on his centenary in 2015.  He was one of the earliest filmmakers that I saw that I connected with on a deep level, whose work taught me a tremendous amount about filmmaking and film viewing.  Your attention was drawn to the style of the film as much as the content – the camera placement, movement and editing – his signature was the mechanism, not so much the types of films that he made. Even with a scarcity of resources, he would still apply his inexhaustible curiosity and work at a very high level of sophistication with his framing and sound design and everything else.

Night Train (1959)

DC: Also in May, I understand you’re showing Martin Scorsese’s program of Polish cinema?  What have been some of your personal discoveries in that series?

BR: We’re getting 17 or 18 of the 21 titles available.  A fair amount of it was educational for me. We’ll be doing those on Fridays in May, and actually fold them into Tuesday matinees in June to fit them in, and we’ll be partnering with Cinefamily on some titles as well.

We’re kicking off with two films by Krzysztof Zanussi (Camouflage and The Constant Factor), who makes these really cerebral films that explore issues with a kind of intellect you don’t often find in American movies.  Films will often use characters such as scientists or doctors in a strategic or dramatic sense, but for Zanussi they’re people who live in a world of weights and measurements that becomes a kind of metaphor for their lives. A lot of these films take place within specific time frames; many of them look at the trials and tribulations and sacrifices that span over lifetimes.  They also feature music by great Polish composers, with lots of atonal, highly modernist scores.

Night Train (1959) by Jerzy Kawalerowicz takes place over the course of a single night as a train moves through the countryside, and it’s a great black-and-white noir, so I definitely recommend that.

Innocent Sorcerers (1960) by Andrej Wajda is a Polish cinema all-star movie: Skolimowski’s in it, Polanski’s in it, Krzysztof Komeda is the composer.  It’s a really great, shambling, New Waveish film that, again, takes place over the course of a single night.

Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) is a film you’ve got to imagine Béla Tarr saw because of its muddiness – non-mystical muddiness, because there’s mystical muddiness and non-mystical muddiness! – and great compositions in every shot.

Jonathan Glazer: Finding the Form ‘Under the Skin’

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

Under the Skin is the third narrative feature by the London-born Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). This new work is a radical reworking of the 2001 novel by the Dutch-born Michael Faber (although Glazer admitted his writing partner, Walter Campbell, never even read the book). The story follows Laura, a beautiful alien seductress who falls to Earth and takes the shape of a carnal loner who navigates the streets of Glasgow in a white van.

She seduces a series of men who come to a rather unsavory fate, yet one that is spellbinding to watch. The men are led into an inky-black pool of silt, with Laura hanging above them, as if suspended in air. The movie has some truly knockout images: a motorcycle cutting like a blade through the nocturnal landscapes, the coastal cliffs of the Highlands, or most frightening, the transmogrification of those avid, ready men seduced by the mysterious central character.

The movie has generated a very polarizing response since its debut on the festival circuit last fall. The movie opened in Los Angeles and New York last Friday to very promising commercial returns, and it now expands around the rest of the country.

Under the Skin is a meditation on the form and erotic wonder of Scarlett Johansson, who plays the seductress. The movie’s second half is much more abstractly beguiling and disturbing as the alien’s pas a deux with a virginal, severely deformed man fundamentally alters her and deepens her own humanity and vulnerability.

In this interview, Glazer talked about art and matter and how the long-gestating project came to being.

Patrick McGavin: The idea of subterfuge is central not only to the story but the making of the film. As you’ve mentioned, the pickup scenes were shot clandestinely, with hidden cameras and the performers had no idea it was Scarlett Johansson.

Jonathan Glazer: That hidden camera idea came over a period of thinking about the story; you’re just looking for it and you don’t know yet what it is until you find it, you’re not sure what it is. I didn’t feel sated yet. I knew there was a big method, a methodology we hadn’t yet discovered.They don’t just come out of nowhere. They come out of being immersed in the problems and the issues and you continue to turn them over until things coalesce and you just understand how to do it.

I’d been testing lots of multiple camera angles. I shot something once in Toronto with a woman running down the street and I had 57 hidden cameras, because I wanted to keep the street completely open and have the woman run through, having people coming into and out of shops, going onto buses and seeing her negotiate her own life. I guess that was a sketch. Alongside that, I was trying to find a way of being able to cast this film with a familiar actress.

I felt disquiet about how to shoot this film with somebody who was really familiar to us. We needed somebody to be alien, and this was a way of achieving that. The idea of surveillance, the idea of shooting the world as it is, felt so critical because if the film is about her observing human beings and what we are and how we behave, in order for us to have some kind of value to her, than it has to be real. Everything has to serve that.

PM: Had you watched any Abbas Kiarostami films, in your preproduction or preparation?

JG: I haven’t seen any Kiarostami movies, I know about Ten (2002). I will get to him. I’ve been watching some Jafar Panahi films, and I think he’s wonderful. There’s nothing new about actors driving. To me this whole thing was not a stylistic idea, it was a fundamental narrative idea. It became the pillar that held everything up. It felt like a critical method.

PM: The movie’s couched in the mood and style of science fiction. The plot obfuscates a great deal, and the deeper we get into the film, the more it becomes a kind of inquiry into what it means to be human.

JG: I hope so. Those are the things we were interested in. Also the fact that there’s no way into it, there’s no salvation or redemption, there’s no completion. It’s evolving as we are. People go into the cinema and they want to come out with answers. The more this film would have made sense, the less it would have worked. It needed to be in charge of its ambiguities.

I think Scarlett’s character is  fabulously complex and inscrutable. I find that all very human. Charting that drift from a very clear objective to this confusion and delusion that she has was a very difficult arc to create; it was constructed not just on the page, but in the editing and the music, and just finding the right curve. It was never about one event is going to be happen, and she’s going to turn left now or right. That was difficult to chart and calibrate.


PM: How did you shoot the film, and how, in a wider sense, has your work been impacted by the radical changes wrought by technology and digital?

JG: We invented cameras to shoot this film. Once we decided we’re going to shoot her in disguise and the world as it is, we started to ask, How can we do that?  How can we achieve that? Testing the cameras that are out there didn’t give us the result that we needed. So we had to build on our own. We built these cameras because we needed a tool that wasn’t out there. We used a German camera that was used to shoot the inside of industrial machinery, if they want to see the inner workings of the mechanics of an engine. Film is the censor in the camera, we developed it and shot most of the film.

I love the aesthetic of  [the camera]. It had the quality not of film, or even digital, the blacks bled and the colors rolled and it was beautiful. The aesthetic comes from the need of that tool. I think the idea of images and wanting your film to look a certain way, I’m less interested in that now. I think it’s about what suits the story you’re trying to tell.

PM: All of your films possess this quality, but this is probably the most extreme example of that dialectic, that is a conflict between your need to innovate though also make something that conforms to the idea of commercial cinema.

JG: I think you’re right. I do find plot tyrannical. I want plot to be light-footed. I want it to follow emotional truths. What’s interesting is that sometimes when you shoot, what you write is emotional truth and what you shoot, what you think is the emotional truth, is not in the scene. You then look for the truth again when you look at the rushes. When you look at the rushes, you’re looking at the things that feel most truthful and you begin to assemble that. You have to tell the plot in an unexpected way. You’re still aware that you have to tell the story, but you’re doing it less predictably. It’s about understanding the life and the footage you shot.

I’m still making my way through that. I feel like I’m moving further away from narrative. I appreciate a story, I love a great story, but I’m always looking for an idea that I could wrap around the back of a cigarette package and then investigate the form of that. I’m not the best person to go and shoot a story. I don’t think it would challenge me in the way I want to challenge myself. I’m fascinated and preoccupied with the form. When you see those moments that transcend, they become something else, they take off and it’s very hard to go back from that, to identify that and not want more of it. Perhaps some of the music videos I’ve done has gotten me into that habit.

PM: You become more liberated in the process.

JG: Film’s gone now, but I think you have to look at that as an opportunity. I mourn the loss of film, but I’m not preoccupied by that. These aren’t the tools anymore. It’s not immersive. We invented a camera that ended up having an aesthetic that satisfied that; you could fall into the image. It was alchemy to the image somehow, which you never get from a digital camera. I like the way an iPhone camera image looks, but at the same time I can see an Eadweard Muybridge print of how San Francisco looks and be rocked backwards.

I think it’s important to look for the idea and what’s important for that.

Videotheque in South Pasadena

Some of the cinephile loot at Videotheque, and its owner, Mark Wright.

I’ve long wanted do an interview with Mark Wright, who established a remarkable DVD store named Videotheque in South Pasadena a few years ago. Los Angeles has a few stores renowned for their ambitious classic Hollywood and world cinema selections (Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, Cinefile, Vidiots) but none in the San Gabriel Valley. I first heard about the newly-opened Videotheque on a film discussion board in 2003, and soon became a loyal customer attracted to its great selection (including many imports) organized by country or director, genuinely friendly staff, and fun, cinephile vibe with laminated magazine clippings, film reference books, and colorful collection of Godard posters.

In this day of mail-order rentals and streaming video (not to mention the Great Recession), it’s nice to see an independent brick-and-mortar store thrive–Videotheque recently moved across the street into an expanded space that makes it bigger and better than ever. And it’s still conveniently next to the Mission Station on the Metro Gold Line. Even though I no longer live in Pasadena, I still make regular excursions to the store because there’s no online substitute for browsing its aisles; I always come across titles I didn’t even know were available on DVD. And little touches make a big difference, like the fact that the store rents DVDs with the sleeves/liner notes included. (Thursday nights the farmer’s market across the street doubles the pleasure.) –Doug

Q. When did you first become interested in movies, and when did you decide you wanted to enter the video business?

Mark Wright: There’s an amazing art deco styled cinema called The Tower Theater in Fresno where I grew up that would show occasional kids matinee repertory programs on Saturdays like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I also remember seeing current release movies at the UA or Mann like Time Bandits and War Games and being scared to death! Those freaky cages suspended in the black mid-air and the kid nearly abandoned in the house fire in the former, and Matthew Broderick and sexy Ally Sheedy almost setting off nuclear holocaust via Commodore 64 in the latter, were tough on the gentle sensibilities of this pre-teen. Madame Medusa, the “Cruella De Ville” of Disney’s The Rescuers also gave me fright on its re-issue in the early 80’s.

My parents watched foreign films and sometimes I joined them at the Tower for kid-friendly ones like the hilarious mismatched buddy movie La Chèvre, with Gérard Depardieu and Pierre Richard. When we got our first VCR, I would record stuff like The Sting, Mary Poppins and Bugsy Malone off of TV and memorize all the lines. I loved The Empire Strikes Back, Superman II, and Raiders of the Lost Ark like every one else on the block– but near high school seemed to find my way towards the foreign fare that was making the rounds at the time like A Room With a View, Au Revoir les Enfants, Manon of the Spring, and The Double Life of Véronique.

In college, I was a French major and got to live a year and a half in Paris (’93/’94). It’s such a movie lover’s paradise, with endless retrospectives and so many different little (and grand) cinemas. In addition to films by Nikita Mikhalkov, Zhang Yimou, or Almodóvar, I discovered English language filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Atom Egoyan, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, David Cronenberg, and Jane Campion. Pulp Fiction had just won at Cannes ’94, so it was a big deal seeing it in a packed Paris house, prior to its US release.

Auspiciously, Clerks also played to nice acclaim at Cannes that year and I saw it as well; I would be clerking myself a couple years later after graduation, at a new arthouse video store. I worked at Video Paradiso in Claremont for six years, managing the last four, and picked up invaluable retail training. I thought I could give it a go on my own, and found a great stretch of shops on Mission Street, South Pasadena, where I opened Videotheque in March of 2003.

Q. Videotheque is unique, not just in South Pasadena, but in the whole San Gabriel Valley, for specializing in foreign, classic, and rare DVDs. Did you ever worry about finding or building an audience for world cinema in the suburbs?

A. In addition to the chains (Tower Records, The Wherehouse), I used to rent films from a small indie shop in Fresno called The Movies. They carried an eclectic selection and would break out the titles into categories of directors, genres, and interesting subsections. Although modest in size, they had a nice coterie of customers; it seemed if done right, this type of shop could flourish in most moderately cultivated places.

I noticed the same success at Video Paradiso; it didn’t hurt that it was right next to Rhino Records– a great music store and interesting-people magnet–and located in the heart of the Claremont Village, a charming college town with an independent vibe. I got the same feeling while taking in art films and midnight movies at the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena, and later when I discovered the Mission West neighborhood’s beautiful trees, craftsman homes, mom and pop shops, coffee houses, and attractive old buildings, it felt like a perfect fit.

Even out in the suburbs, we get the occasional star drop-in. Two favorites who were charming and friendly: Vincent Malle, brother and occasional producer of Louis, once special ordered a couple Hedy Lamarr movies, and the son of Paul Gégauff (French New Wave screenwriter/actor) picked up one of the films his father made with Chabrol, Pleasure Party.

Q. In this day of rent-by-mail, pay-per-view, and streaming video, a lot of people assume a brick-and-mortar store is a losing proposition, but Videotheque always seems robust and lively, and you recently moved into a larger space. How does your store fit into today’s video market? What do you attribute to your success?

A. Thanks! We’ve been so lucky. Our great customers deserve all the credit. We’ve tried to lay out the store in an interesting and attractive way, to keep the collection fresh with new releases of every stripe–big Hollywood hits, documentaries, international titles, classic reissues, cult items, TV, music, kids–while maintaining a bedrock back catalog of the same, and supplementing with hard-to-find rareties & imports, plus a revolving for-sale section of DVD, Blu-ray, screen-printed cinema t-shirts, posters, CDs, vinyl and most recently, several dozen rare Japanese chirashi (promotional lobby cards) of classic and foreign releases.

I’m fortunate to have an amazing, creative, people-friendly and movie-knowledgeable staff who add to the shop’s inviting atmosphere. I know we have customers who use Netflix, order movies on demand, or procure by other means, but so far we’ve managed to remain appealing and valuable, among a host of home entertainment options. We also have the advantage of being a destination away from the couch or computer; hopefully the desire to leave the house and engage in a pleasing retail environment will continue to persist. We aspire to offer the same satisfying experience that I’ve found as a customer at great indie establishments like Powell’s Books in Portland, The New Beverly Cinema or Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, Vroman’s across town, or Nicole’s Foods across the road.

Q. Videotheque has organized public screenings at various venues in the past. Is this something you’re still interested in doing?

A. They were a lot of fun, and a lot of work. Much organizing and promoting went in, plus set-up and breakdown of projector, screen, sound, folding chairs, etc. Sometimes for a crowd of six people! Regarding future screenings, I wouldn’t rule them out but as the Magic 8 Ball might say: “Outlook not so good.”

Q. You’ve always displayed good taste with your acquisitions; do you still find time to watch a lot of movies? How do you keep up with the interesting titles?

A. I don’t seem to watch as much at home as I used to, but still try to make time to get to the big screen. I’m a big fan of all the great programming around town at all the usual suspects like LACMA, the American Cinematheque, the Hammer, the Cinefamily, the New Bev, the Nuart, etc. I read things like Film Comment and Cineaction, and enjoy listening to the crtitics’ round-ups on KPCC’s FilmWeek, or catching At The Movies when I’m at home. For comprehensive listings of everything going on movie-wise in L.A., Karie Bible’s filmradar.com is invaluable, and you can sign-up for her helpful newsletter bulletins, too.

Q. What do you enjoy most about running the store?

A. Turning people on to treasures, from Alphaville to Zelig.

A Conversation with Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho, courtesy of the author

By Hye Jean Chung

The synopsis of Mother, the latest film from award-winning Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, whose filmography includes the critically acclaimed and widely popular films, The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003), is deceptively simple: The titular character is a devoted single parent (Kim Hye-ja) who lives with her twenty-seven-year-old, mentally-challenged son, Do-joon (Won Bin), and takes care of him with a passion that tinges on obsession. When he is arrested by the local police and charged with murdering a teenage girl, her maternal instincts attain a primal intensity as she begins her desperate mission to prove his innocence by finding the real killer. She faces obstacles in the guise of an indifferent police force that bullies a confession out of Do-joon, and a pompous lawyer with a bloated sense of self-importance.

The film shares similarities with Bong’s previous films, which often reveal the dark side of Korean society through satire and irony, such as the inefficient and ineffective nature of government institutions and local bodies of power. In terms of genre, Mother is most closely related to Memories of Murder; both are murder mysteries where the narrative is propelled forward by the quest to find the identity of the killer. Mother is also reminiscent of The Host in its depiction of a dysfunctional family and its focus on a portrait of monstrosity found in the context of contemporary Korea. Although the monster in Mother is less visible and more difficult to identity than that of The Host, its presence is no less palpable. In fact, it is the banality of monstrosity in Mother that frightens, leaving behind a lingering aftertaste of malaise long after the empty-eyed faces of Do-joon and his mother fade from view.

Chung: My favorite scenes in the film are the first and last sequences, both showing Kim Hye-ja [a famous and well-respected Korean actress who plays the main protagonist] and other women dancing. It’s visually striking and humorously quirky, especially considering the dark intensity of what happens throughout the rest of the film. Could you tell us a bit about how you directed Kim Hye-ja for those scenes, and what you asked her to do or portray?

Bong: The opening sequence is quite unexpected because Kim Hye-ja suddenly starts dancing in an open field, without any context. I wanted to make the audience a bit bewildered in the beginning, to make them think, “this film is a bit strange,” and also to realize that this woman is slightly crazy, or to anticipate that they will see her slowly losing her sanity throughout the film. And the audience won’t realize the significance of the setting until much later in the film. When you see Kim’s expression in the scene, you can tell that she is not dancing out of feelings of joy. When we were shooting that scene, rather than her dance moves, our focus was on how to portray the sensation of losing one’s sanity, and the experience of feeling dazed and stupefied through Kim’s facial expression. We didn’t really choreograph her dance moves; they were improvised.

The last sequence is quite different because it was shot in an enclosed space filled with a crowd of women. And I wanted to shoot the scene in a silhouette, and to show the women as one shadowy mass, so you wouldn’t be able to pick out Kim Hye-ja amongst the crowd, and to get the sense that all those women each have a story to tell. The situation is also very “Korean,” because there aren’t a lot of countries in the world where older women dance on buses in a group like that. A Turkish-American journalist came up to me once during a film festival in New York and told me that women in Turkey do the same thing. Before that I thought this happened only in Korea. When I was younger, I would watch those dancing women and think, if I ever make a film about a mother, I would include a scene showing older women dancing on a bus like them. I used to think it was an unsightly scene when I was young, but now I’m older and have a child of my own, I can understand the complicated mix of emotions that makes them want to do that.

Kim Hye-Ja in Mother.

Chung: There must have been a lot of pressure after the incredible success of The Host for your next film. What drew you to the story of Mother, especially at this stage in your career?

Bong: The success of The Host was rather unexpected, so there was a bit of pressure, but actually I prepared the story of Mother long before The Host. After Memories of Murder, in 2003, when journalists asked me which actor I wanted to work with, I answered that I wanted to work with Kim Hye-ja. She saw the newspaper articles and contacted me in person. In 2004, I already had started writing the script for Mother, and continued working on it while making The Host. So Mother had nothing to do with the success of The Host, because I had always planned to make this film afterward. I didn’t want to direct two large-scale films in a row, and preferred to make a smaller, more concentrated film.

Won Bin in Mother.

Chung: I loved the film, but (and this might be a very subjective reaction) I felt an overwhelming sense of despair after watching it.

Bong: It is a dark film. [laughs]

Chung: I actually like dark films! But I was quite struck by the detachment I felt from the two main characters. They aren’t characters that necessarily elicit sympathy or empathy. For instance, you can find similarities between Gang-du in The Host and Do-joon in Mother because they are both mentally challenged, but Gang-du is a much more sympathetic figure. To be honest, Do-joon is rather creepy, with an almost ominous air. In fact, Do-joon reminds me more of the monster than Gang-du in The Host.

Bong: Do-joon does leave you with a strange, queasy feeling. [laughs] I think in The Host, there’s a clear distinction between the good and the bad. The family members in The Host are powerless and seem foolish and clueless at times, but they are good, honest people who are all quite lovable. So they elicit feelings of sympathy and make you want to root for them and stand by their side. Meanwhile, the monster and the monstrous entities of power that persecute them elicit feelings of animosity.

But there’s no clear dichotomy in Mother. The mother character is quite extreme, and goes beyond what most people want to know or see about motherhood. But for me, that was the allure of this film. I wanted to go to extremes, to go as far as I could beyond the precipice, and to not be afraid. There was no hesitation for me. But I don’t want to make films like this all the time, or I’d fear for my mental health. [laughs] Just like actors, directors also immerse themselves in the story and the emotions of the film, so it was difficult for me as well toward the end.

In The Host, the characters try to help one another, despite their own weakness. I didn’t recognize this until much later, while I was actually making the film, but in Mother, I realized that the story is about weak people hurting one another, such as the mentally challenged Do-jun and the dead girl, Ah-jung. So the darkness that you mentioned is inherent in the structures of society, but I think that’s also part of reality. So I wanted to portray that in at least one of my films.

Chung: You said once in a previous interview that you’ve always been fascinated with “the concept of chaos” from a philosophical perspective.

Bong: Did I say that? [laughs]

Chung: Well, that’s what I read. In The Host, you at least gave the audience the possibility of a happy ending and a sense of restored order, however precarious and illusory. But in Mother, it seems that there never was an order to be restored in the first place, that reason and logic fail, that chaos is inevitable.

Bong: Yes, The Host ends with the main character having dinner with his adopted son. But Mother is rife with misunderstandings and miscommunication. There’s also an eating sequence in Mother toward the end, but it’s not a scene of domestic happiness: it’s almost a living hell that you cannot escape.

Chung: You mentioned the “Korean” quality of the dance sequence earlier. But your films appeal to both local and international audiences, and you’re one of the few Korean filmmakers whose films are theatrically released overseas. Do you have a certain target audience in mind when you make your films?

Bong: To be honest, I make films to please and satisfy myself. [laughs] While making films, I don’t think in terms of whether this would appeal to a Korean audience, or whether that would be funny to an international audience, since I’m too busy trying to tell a story that I want to tell. But there is this. For instance, I mentioned the dancing sequence on the bus earlier. People who are not familiar with that in their own national context might read it as a surreal experience or an illusion. But that does not faze me. Even if you haven’t been to New York, when you watch a Woody Allen film, you can imagine what it’s like to be on Fifth Avenue or Central Park, or understand the neurotic personality of New Yorkers as depicted in the film. Since 2000 or so, people who are interested in Korean films have become more familiar with elements of Korean society than we think. So even when translating subtitles, I encourage literal translations that retain the “strangeness” of the Korean language. Although mainstream audiences outside of Korea might still be unfamiliar with Korean cinema, there are also many fans in the film festival crowd who see a lot of Korean films, by filmmakers such as Kim Ki-duk, Hong Sang-soo, Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, and Kim Ji-woon, so I don’t think Koreans should worry that international audiences will not understand Korean culture as portrayed in films.

Chung: I heard that your next project is based on a French science fiction graphic novel [Jean-Marc Rochette and Jacques Loeb’s Le Transperceneige]. Could you tell us a bit about it? Is it called Snow Piercer in English?

Bong: Yes, the English working title is Snow Piercer. It’s a science fiction action film that is set on a train, which is kind of similar to Noah’s Ark, because the film is set in a post-apocalyptic world that is completely frozen over. So the train is filled with survivors, and the dramatic tension arises from the struggles and fights among them.

Chung: I heard there will a mixed cast–with actors from various countries.

Bong: The train will be filled with people from all around the world, so there will be a wide variety of ethnicities and nationalities. It’s highly probable that I’ll be casting actors from Korea, Japan, France and the U.S., and I anticipate about half of the film will be in English.

Chung: I was curious where the film will be set, since it’s a train that hurtles through a post-apocalyptic world.

Bong: The train will travel through a large number of countries. Since it’s a science fiction film, it could be set anywhere. It could even travel across oceans through underwater tunnels. (laughs)

Chung: Where are you planning to shoot your film?

Bong: I haven’t finished writing the script, so the details of the production haven’t been decided. A lot of the scenes on the train will be filmed on a set. As for the external scenes, the location managers are considering several possibilities–places that are cold and snowy around five to six months out of the year.

Chung: Did your experience of working in Japan to shoot the segment that was included in Tokyo! (2008) increase your desire to make more films abroad?

Bong: Shaking Tokyo was a short film that lasted only 30 minutes, but it was the first time that I shot a film overseas. I intentionally went to Japan by myself, without any Korean crew or cast members, and I purposefully created an environment where everyone I was working with were Japanese, because I was curious what it’d be like. But really, maybe because it was Japan, I didn’t find the experience of working with a Japanese crew or working on location that different from Korea. I didn’t face many obstacles or difficulties, and I had a good time.

Honestly I was most curious about working with Japanese actors, because I don’t speak Japanese. All the lines were in Japanese, so I didn’t know what to expect while working with Japanese actors and a script entirely in Japanese. Even if they made a mistake, I wouldn’t know. When I work with Korean actors, I discuss with them in minute detail the subtleties of each word and its connotations, and we try out different ways of saying the same line. So I was a bit nervous what it would be like to work in a language I didn’t understand. But I felt that it was ultimately the same, because we’re dealing with the same range of human emotions. Once we bonded over that commonality, it was quite easy working with the Japanese actors. Later on, even though I still didn’t understand Japanese, I was able to catch the mistakes. If I think about it now, I’m not sure how I was able to do that then. Maybe it was because I was concentrating so intently at the time, but at times I didn’t even have to wait for the translator to explain. That made me realize that it wasn’t that different to make films in a foreign context, with foreign actors, as long as you can relate to them on the level of emotions.

Hye Jean Chung is a doctoral candidate in film studies at UC Santa Barbara. She is currently working on a dissertation project that focuses on location shooting and digitally manipulated visual effects in transnational filmmaking. She has also worked as a translator and a journalist in South Korea. She can be contacted here.

Interview with the Dardennes

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The latest issue of Paste magazine is in print, so look for it on newsstands. It contains a shortened version of my interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, which I’m posting in full here. –Doug

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The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne received their second best picture award at the Cannes Film Festival last year for writing and directing The Child (L’Enfant), a repeat honor bestowed upon only a handful of filmmakers. But their lean and focused works have barely graced US screens.

For the last fifteen years the Dardennes have captivated international audiences with dramas highlighting the ethical conundrums of working class life: La Promesse (1996) details the troubled relationship between an adolescent and his father who traffics undocumented workers; Rosetta (1999) conveys the obsessive lengths to which a teenaged girl demands a job, a home, and a normal life; The Son (2002) suggests the way a carpenter’s enigmatic thoughts revolve around the devastating act of a young apprentice. These films are available on video, even if the filmmakers’ early documentaries and features are not, inspiring career retrospectives of their work in London, Toronto, and other cities this year.

The Dardennes’ rigorously handheld camerawork and selective framing merge with physically intense acting to evoke a cinematic tradition of realism infused with philosophical and spiritual depth; they’ve cited Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) as their model film, and critics have compared The Child to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959).

Despite being at the forefront of world cinema, the Dardennes are disarmingly soft-spoken and relaxed in person. I’m chatting with them at the Toronto International Film Festival about The Child and their creative process.

“Every morning that we shoot,” Jean-Pierre says, “we rehearse on location with the actors. We don’t rehearse the dialogue, only the movements and rhythm. And we decide where we’re going to place the camera; often it’s dependent on how the actors have moved and where they’ve stopped. We need to see this happening in front of us in order to plan it.”

Their quasi-documentary style also recalls Denmark’s Dogme 95 movement, but the Dardennes’ approach predates it: Long discussion with Jean-Pierre about the way we will continue to make films, reads an entry from 1992 in Luc’s recently published diary. One thing is certain: small budget and simplicity everywhere (story, décor, costumes, lighting, crew, actors).

The premise of The Child fits the mold. Like most Dardenne films, itís set in their industrial hometown of Seraing. A 20-year-old hoodlum named Bruno (Jérémie Renier) attempts to live with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François), and their newborn child, Jimmy. But Bruno is emotionally ill-equipped to be a father and attempts to sell his child on the black market; the film details the havoc that ensues.

“We like filming actors’ bodies,” Luc observes, emphasizing the way people walk and move and conduct their trades rather than deliver dramatic soliloquies. Bruno and Sonia physically wrestle with one another, expressing myriad emotions: love, playfulness, anger, defensiveness. François shines in her performance, at times projecting warmth and compassion but fluidly switching to ferocity.

The Dardennes appreciate the value of mystery in art and conversation, and seem more comfortable elucidating their methods than their meanings. I ask them about the repeated imagery of the Meuse river in The Child–perhaps it reflects Bruno’s desire for movement or transformation? “That’s something you might see in it,” Luc answers, “but that’s not how we worked. If I remember correctly, the reason we chose to work with the Meuse was because of a scene when the stroller would be washed, which we ultimately cut.” Yet after describing their pragmatic series of decisions, he tentatively concedes, “You could see the river as being life or birth.”

It’s not that the Dardennes dismiss interpretation; they simply know that less explanation can be more meaningful to viewers who will engage and absorb on their own. It’s an approach with artistic precedent–let the work speak for itself–but also one closely linked to the writings of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), a major inspiration to the filmmakers. (Luc studied philosophy; Jean-Pierre studied drama.) Levinas stressed face-to-face encounters; at first unknowable and autonomous–even threatening–the Other compels response.

In The Child, Bruno comes face-to-face with his son, someone he initially regards as a potential source of income. The Dardennes convey the father/son disharmony in the way Bruno physically interacts with his child. “In the very first scene, when Sonia comes with the child to introduce him, Bruno doesn’t even pick up the child, but answers the phone,” Jean-Pierre says. “Later,” Luc continues, “he holds the baby against his chest so he doesn’t have to look at him. During one of our takes, when Jérémie looked at the child, there was an emotional build-up, and we decided no, it can’t be.”

Since the Dardennes are co-directors, they’ve also developed a method one might call ‘face-to-face’ production. “One of us stays on the set with the actors and technicians and the other brother goes behind the video monitor,” Jean-Pierre explains. “Once we’ve done the first take, we both review the monitor because there might need to be changes based on what we’ve seen, and then maybe one or two scenes later we’ll switch roles. Because our takes are quite long, and there is a lot of movement within each scene, the guy behind the monitor may see the rhythm better than the guy on the set–but maybe not the acting.”

This accounts for the astonishing immediacy of a Dardenne film. The visible tension of the filmmaker in close proximity to the actor is recorded directly by the camera. Luc elaborates, “If it is possible, one of us has to stay on the set, because it adds tension. It’s important for the actors. They know that you’re there watching. They work under your gaze. If there’s a strong trust with the actors, then it’s very important for them to have you physically there.”

Active cinephiles themselves, the Dardennes cite F.W. Murnau’s classic Sunrise (1927) as an inspiration for The Child. “It’s the story of a man who wants to murder his wife, so they go off on a boat together, but he decides not to kill her and spares her. And we thought that it was indeed possible, based on that movie, to have a long segment in the film that deals with Sonia and Bruno coming back together.”

Indeed, while The Child shares many elements of the Dardenne universe–work as an expression of life, personal disconnection, ethical dilemmas–its characters seem warmer. “The film is more tender,” Jean-Pierre notes, “maybe like water moving. It has quite supple or mobile characters, more like membranes, unlike Rosetta or The Son, which had characters with armor. We wanted the characters in The Child to ‘vibrate’ more. Maybe because we shot so many scenes close to the water it helped. Bruno is a bit like an insect darting here and there. He lives very much in the present without thinking of the future. And yet the child requires a lot: responsibility, protecting, caring for another human being.”

Fortunately, The Child will be distributed in US theaters in March, offering moviegoers the chance to encounter the Dardennes’ unique and profoundly moving methods for themselves.