February 15th, 2007


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.