Secret Sunshine (Milyang) [2007] • South Korea

This film stars two of the best, and two of my favorite, Korean actors: Do-yeon Jeon and Kang-ho Song, and is written and directed by Chang-dong Lee, of Oasis fame.

The plot in a nutshell: Jeon's character moves with her son Jun to Miryang, the town where her recently killed husband was born. As she tries to start her new life another tragic event turns her world upside down. She looks for comfort in god and religiousness, and then turns a critical eye towards it.

The scene where Jeon's character goes to the prison to forgive the man who committed the most heinous of crimes against her is one of the strongest and smartest statements on religious belief I've seen.

It's a long, slow paced film, but the performances are extraordinary. Do-yeon Jeon won best actress at Cannes for her performance.


La Belle (Mi in) [2000] • South Korea

You have to like films about crazy, beautiful, young, lovable, destructive women and the men who become poetically addicted to them and you have to see this film as surrealism or it doesn't work. Or, you have to enjoy watching a couple of very attractive people get naked, make love, fight, kiss and make up. Either way.

This is not a typical soft-core flick. It's a fleshy art movie with nice production values and good lighting. Tinkling piano too. All in good taste. Although there is a lot of flesh, there's a lot of story too and it's not just inserted as filler. The film is based on the director's own novel, Body, and it explores the addiction of flesh, how to feed and conquer it, and what may come after it. Since it's an art film, as well as a fine piece of erotica, it ends tragically instead of happily but that keeps it in line with all that precedes it.


Snakes and Earrings (Hebi ni piasu) [2008] • Japan

For those who've seen Noriko's Dinner Table and wondered what happened to the younger sister played by Yuriko Yoshitaka ('just a nameless girl, walking toward the center of the city'), it may come as no surprise to see her show up drunk, naked, and tattooed in this tale of middle-class urban ennui in the underground. From one dreamworld to another.

Yoshitaka doesn't have the sexual maturity to make the S&M stuff in this film remotely erotic and the two guys she bounces between, two tattooed punks, while giving us a multi-layered view of their world, are little more than posers. Their poses do reach beyond stereotype and the film tries to be cool towards them, demonstrating a reasonable awareness of the subject matter, but it comes up short in execution.

I like Yoshitaka a lot, think she is a promising young actress, but don't think she is suited for this role. She seems to take little pleasure in any of it—giving the film an uncomfortably exploitative hum.

Snakes and Earrings is far more modern and realistic/relatable than a CAT III film, probably because its story comes from a teen-aged girl's prize winning novel rather than the sexist fantasies of old men, but while the film has a contemporary world view it doesn't have the story punch necessary to elevate it beyond voyeurism. For those just interested in seeing Yoshitaka naked, there's plenty of that (thankfully rather tame) but it's not enough to make this film more than a flavorless attempt at revealing her world.


Summer Palace (Yihe yuan) [2006] • China • Lou Ye

"Because it is only when we make love that you understand that I'm gentle."

That's all the character development I need. This is an ambitious film about the stalled maturation of an idealistic but troubled young woman flanked by the Tiananmen Square protests, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China. The film spans a decade and a half from 1987 to 2003 so the misery of Three Gorges Dam didn't make the cut. The direction is a little chaotic at times but it reflects the nature of the film and doesn't come off as too much of a liability. The soundtrack is impeccably chosen and the film is ultimately very sad. I was glued to this 140 minute masterpiece. Politics aside, and they are on the side, this is a remarkable film in its honest portrayal of failure, not of personal character necessarily, but of circumstance.

This is another film that got its director and producer banned for five years from making films in China. Maybe it's the full-frontal nudity or the sheer quantity of sex scenes but I don't see the need for hubbub. The film is about a woman's self-reflection on why she finds comfort in the arms of different men. We see her naked inside and out. She is afraid to love out of fear, fear of something she hasn't yet experienced, which is the scariest kind of fear.

There are a number of things wrong with the film, perhaps, but very little could be done to improve it. Great films succeed in spite of their weaknesses. I'm not a fan of off camera narration but it works for me here. It seems additional rather than necessary. There is a maturity to the woman's voice as she narrates with entries from her diary that compliments, does not seem at odds with, the can't quite grow up activities of the woman on screen. In order to get from the Berlin Wall to the Hong Kong Handover, 1989 to 1997, we're treated to narrative onscreen text to fill us in on what's happening to the characters. Ordinarily that would be a deal breaker for me, in theory at least, but again, it works. Finally, as if this were a real story about real people, after the final denouement occurs we're given updates on what happened or didn't happen to the principle characters. Frankly, as gut-wrenchingly sad but true as the final scene is I wish it would have just faded to black. But I think it's a tribute to the strength of the characters that I found myself intrigued by the postscript.

Having said that, one could argue from a strictly script perspective that a little more fleshing out of character was in order ... and I don't mean full-frontal. But I would argue against a need to dish out explanations for why people act inexplicably. I think it comes down to this: if you've ever known passionate, poetic, misguided imperfect people, you know these people right away. They're part beautiful and part brutal, there's no talking them out of it. It's part of their charm. This film doesn't set out to explain, diagnose, or change its characters. It just wants to show them to us in all their painful glory; and I think it does a very good job of it. Then again, maybe it's just a case of been there, done that.