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Can Western people be individuals? - click opera
February 2010
 
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Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 11:57 am
Can Western people be individuals?

Berlin's big event right now is the Berlinale, the annual film festival famous for its golden bear awards. I'm not the world's biggest cinephile, but there have been a few things I've been keen to see. Photographer Mika Ninagawa is showing her first full-length feature, Sakuran (her first short, Cheap Trip, featured the original Momus demo for "Journey to the Centre of Me"). Sakuran features Funky Forest star Anna Tsuchiya as a Yoshiwara oiran, a high class prostitute. Alas, I wasn't able to get tickets (though I'm sure, with the music connection, I could have blagged some if I'd really tried).



Another Asian film that looks interesting is Korean movie I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay, in which director Park Chan-wook teams up the beautiful, fringed Lim Soo Jung with K-pop star Rain. They basically play charming lunatics -- one uses her grandmother's dentures to communicate with lights and vending machines, the other dons a mask in order to transfer emotional energy between the other inmates of the asylum he's incarcerated in. It's tempting to see this quirkfest (and, again, I wasn't able to get tickets) as a light meditation on conformity versus individuality -- the first trailer begins in a factory straight out of Lang's Metropolis or Wells's The Trial:



And the second delves more into the bizarre sanatorium hijinks of the protagonists, as they discover their (paradoxically robotic) individuality amongst the freaks on the far margins of society:



Watching these trailers, I had two thoughts. First, this Cyborg movie just seems way fresher than anything coming out of the West, and presents characters who are much more interesting and individualistic (just as Ishii's Funky Forest does). Now, cinema is a mirror of society in the sense that it replicates but also reverses it, so it may be that this individuality is precisely what's lacking from Korean society right now. The film does imply that it can only exist amongst the mad and the marginal. But it's also worth thinking about whether we in the West aren't just a teensy bit complacent about our fully-developed individuality. Hollywood films present a much more cookie-cutter view of human personality than these Asian romantic comedies do.

Which leads to the other thought I had. Funky Forest and I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay are mainstream products that also manage to be intelligent, stylish and quirky. And I can't help thinking that this might only be possible in societies where the majority of film consumers are bright and well-educated. And, as this BBC article covering an OECD league table of educational attainment explains, South Korea has "leapfrogged" many Western countries in the past twenty years. "Young people in South Korea's workforce are more likely to have achieved an upper secondary education than anywhere else in the developed world. They are also among the most likely to have university degrees." Surely, in this context, it should be no surprise that mainstream cultural products -- at least those directed at the young -- would be slightly more intelligent than those from nations lower down the league table?

My native Scotland was long ago overtaken, educationally, by Asian countries. One film I will see this Berlinale is David Mackenzie's Hallam Foe. Set in my hometown of Edinburgh, and employing the off-kilter graphics and cartoons of David Shrigley (yet more apotheosis for the successful scribbler), this is the tale of a boy who's "frankly, a little odd". The trailer does all it can to establish Hallam as a crank before bursting into a song that goes "I am a lone horse rider". Quirky individualism, it seems, is not yet dead. Even in the West.

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sm255
sm255
sm255
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 12:10 pm (UTC)
off topic!

Hi, this has nothing to do with today's post, I'm just sending on a link to an article that I thought you would find interesting, and I would then find your response interesting. http://harpers.org/TheEcstasyOfInfluence.html
-Stephanie


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 12:47 pm (UTC)
Re: off topic!

Great piece, completely destroying the argument that Marxy, for instance, advances over "pakuri".

"Appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production."

I'm down with that message. Or, as Dizzy Gillespie put it, "You can't steal a gift". And speaking of gift culture, Laurie Taylor examines the phenomenon here.


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Re: off topic! - (Anonymous) Expand


Re: off topic! - (Anonymous) Expand


(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 12:10 pm (UTC)
an interesting theory

and though i am always happy remark upon the sinking intelligence quotient of my native land, i suspect there must be something more at work here. perhaps differing cultural notions of storytelling and personality. that being said i am looking forward to seeing Dasepo Sonyeo \ Dasepo Naughty Girls this weekend, another korean film here with the berlinale. "Fun, sex and lunacy. All hell's been let loose at No Use High School!" with an intro like that who could resist....

William Thirteen


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Feb. 16th, 2007 03:49 pm (UTC)
Re: an interesting theory

Dasepo Naughty Girls was one of my very favorite films last year - and I watched over 300.
Then, if you (like me) can't get enough of the Dasepo stuff, there is a TV series as well, available on 4 DVDs with around 13 hours of material. I'm halfway through those now, and it's the the funniest thing I've seen for years.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 01:21 pm (UTC)

Yes, and I believe at the root of the problem (at least for the United States) is a lack of education spending. We are constantly being told that this is the case by the teacher's unions, and I am inclined to agree with them.

We should be willing to devote the same % of our GDP on education as South Korea and Japan. If only we could do that, the problem would be solved.

Oh...wait a minute, the US spends 5% and those other two countries only spend 3.5%. Hm.. but... er...


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 01:31 pm (UTC)

"Quirky individualism, it seems, is not yet dead. Even in the West."

Well, I´m working hard enough for it, ffs. Though I think being quirky is perhaps too conformist...


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC)

Are you quirkyalone (just like all the millions of others I hope will buy my book of the same title)?


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC)
re: cyborg and i'm not ok

... i'm in between berlinale screenings, but i'd have to disabuse you about park's cyborg flick. it was messy, disjointed and certainly not gonna make it mainstream in east asia if not for big pop star Rain. speaking as one of what seemed to be the token asians in the first berlin audience, cyborg had lot of good bits and, erm, a korean sense o'humour ... but nowhere near as original as his previous 'old boy'


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charleshatcher
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 02:04 pm (UTC)

I think there's often too much emphasis on freshness and individuality in your critiques -- all relativism; to do with context. Content should come first surely?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 02:21 pm (UTC)

Ah, content -- you're a beef-and-potatoes man! A rosbif! But what is content, if it isn't context? Didn't we learn from McLuhan that the medium is the message? Oh, wait, McLuhan, like Cage, "bores your tits off". Because you're a rosbif! Context really is content!


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btw - (Anonymous) Expand


Re: btw - (Anonymous) Expand

alisgray
alisgray
spoonful of sugar, pinch of salt
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 02:40 pm (UTC)

Korea has been exploding in film for at least ten years. And longer ago even than that the West's secret recipe for getting fast turn around on fantastic animation tweening was to ship it to Korea -- they did it with the original Aeon Flux shorts, and Mike Mignola did it with The Amazing Screw-On Head.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 03:45 pm (UTC)

PS: I´m a cyborg and I´m ok, I sleep all night and I work all day...


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 04:36 pm (UTC)
Fish and beer the alternative!

Koreans are pumping there culture into every boy, girl soap dish flix for awhile, in the most enjoyable delicasies for the western tongue.
OUI!

Ringo Shiina did the sound tracks for Sakuran and she kicks.Bigtime.

Nick you need to get tickets!


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dayofthelocust
dayofthelocust
dayofthelocust
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 05:02 pm (UTC)

I'm on the fence about "individualism" but America and Europe have been lacking genuinely romantic films for years. At this point I think we are content to wait for the occassional Wong Kar-Wai offering.

That, or invite him over to make a movie in America, a la My Blueberry Nights.

More than individualism, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the lack of romance in American cinema and pop culture right now.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 05:21 pm (UTC)

I don't think anyone's really doing films like Pierrot Le Fou or Two For The Road now in Europe. I see so little mainstream US cinema that I really wouldn't know. But I suspect I'd see a lot of anxiety, a lot of misgivings, a lot of darkness in mainstream US cinema if I really sat down and plowed through a bunch of randomly-selected DVDs.

It's all tied up with sociology, and with a general feelgood factor that comes with economic boomtime combined with the rapid social change brought by increasing consumerism, and the escape from the straitjacket of traditional society. We had that, in the West, in the 60s. It's now happening in Asia. Hence this playful, Godardian tone that many of these films have. (Godard without the critique, perhaps.)


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)

I just have to show Jim Ether's

20 minute trailer for his DVD "ALERT!".


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 09:52 pm (UTC)

Been catching up on your blog after a week in Prague (what a strangely inorganic, disparate, tourist bauble the old city has become in this last decade).
Particularly enjoyed your post on post-materialism and Berlin.
Belated birthday congrats.
Thomas S.


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maybeimdead
maybeimdead
Maybe I'm Dead
Thu, Feb. 15th, 2007 11:18 pm (UTC)

"Young people in South Korea's workforce are more likely to have achieved an upper secondary education than anywhere else in the developed world. They are also among the most likely to have university degrees." Surely, in this context, it should be no surprise that mainstream cultural products -- at least those directed at the young -- would be slightly more intelligent than those from nations lower down the league table?

I'd say this puts one ball in the economic growth bucket.


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altesse
altesse
discrete random variable
Fri, Feb. 16th, 2007 07:37 am (UTC)

I would have thought that doing well in an exam benchmark doesn't exactly point to bursting creativity and individuality - just a willingness to suck it up and work hard. And your quirky Asians in general do best at the subjects you proudly proclaim ignorance of and look down on: the maths and sciences. In any case, East Asian mainstream pop culture is just as conformist and derivative as anything that comes out of Hollywood.

Besides, Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD countries. What's the spurious correlation to be drawn from that, eh?


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Fri, Feb. 16th, 2007 08:34 am (UTC)

I read in one of the TEFL journals that plastic surgery is so big in Korea that some TEFL teachers are getting surgery just because the pressure to be good-looking is so strong they are afraid they will lose students if they don't look young and sexy enough.

So, that's my recently memorised bit of disturbing trivia about Korea.

And here's just what we've come to expect about Britain:

http://uk.news.yahoo.com/14022007/140/uk-worst-place-child-welfare.html


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butterflyrobert
RND
Fri, Feb. 16th, 2007 10:38 am (UTC)

For over a decade, that miniscule minority of "Americans with taste" have had to look elsewhere for quality films, music, art, design etc. "Elsewhere" has basically included "foreign" output and the better parts of the past. This phenomenon has been engulfing all of the west, quite particularly England, but not quite so severely as the US.

But as for originality or experimentalism, I haven't seen or heard anything (film-wise or music-wise) done in my lifetime that isn't basically based on - or a copy of - (even if unintentionally) something done before my birth. It would be safe to wager that "true" experimentalism simply hasn't existed since the mid-20th century in those mediums. There's nothing wrong with that per se, as long as quality (and the aesthetics involved, really) doesn't flag - and it definitely has.

And quirkiness can be a lot of fun.


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