Imps of the Perverse


I read someplace (it might even have been last week’s Village Voice) that Korean food was the cuisine du jour. If so, it’s appropriate that Jang Sun Woo’s Lies—nothing less than the hottest movie in South Korean history—opens Friday at the Screening Room, Tribeca’s fashionable movie house cum restaurant.

Lay on that five-alarm kimchi: Lies tells the tale of the virginal schoolgirl “Y” and the 38-year-old sculptor “J,” who embark on an obsessive affair that, beginning with a graphic three-orifice defloration in a cramped hotel room, escalates into full-blown amour fou, complete with consensual s&m slugfest. Some things were meant to be. By the second passionate tryst, J is asking Y if he can beat her; afterward, she happily shows her friend the welts. (Not long after, she starts setting the erotic agenda.) Variety estimates that 90 percent of Lies is devoted to sex scenes. There’s an abundance of action—kinky and otherwise—which, voyeuristically shot by a roving camera and characterized by a naturalistic struggling out of clothes, doesn’t entirely seem to be faked.

Does the camera not lie? Jang, who maintains that both performers confided in him that “they could enjoy the whippings and beatings” and that this “probably lent [their scenes] a certain credibility,” is the arch transgressor of South Korea’s increasingly daring filmmakers. (His previous feature, a quasi-documentary on Seoul street kids, had the flavorsome title Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie.) Lies was made to shock, as well as to challenge local censorship—based, as it was, on a notorious Korean novel that was published in 1996 and immediately banned and pulped as pornographic. The author Jang Jung Il (no relation to Jang Sun Woo) was sentenced to six months in prison.

Intermittently, Lies complicates its truth with self-reflection. J provides a voice-over, even at one point referring to the novel in which he is a character. There’s a scene that’s broken up by the director and an introduction in which the principals, Lee Sang Hyun (a real-life sculptor) and Kim Tae Yeon (a fashion model), neither of whom had ever acted in a movie before, are interviewed as to their feelings about appearing, mainly nude, in so explicit a drama. Y’s avid, bemused personality—or is it Kim’s?—complements J’s dogged single-mindedness. So does the film. Jang ignores the interlude in which J leaves for three months in Paris, picking up the narrative only with the sculptor’s return to Korea, where J goes straight from the airport to the college campus where Y is studying statistics.

Appropriate to its celebration of antisocial individualism, Lies is shot in a loose, semi-vérité style; it has a jagged construction and a fresh, jazzy look. Jang is fond of using a wide-angle lens in narrow spaces or shooting a scene from the perspective of an elevator surveillance camera. The music pulsates; the sex scenes are sometimes pixelated to enhance their mania. The movie is not without perverse humor. Nor is it entirely devoid of tenderness—even when the beatings, now administered by Y, get a bit more extreme. After Y’s jealous brother burns down J’s house, the couple—who often suggest a pair of sulky babies—begin a voyage from motel to motel, living on sex, fladge, and J’s maxed-out credit card.

At once distanced and heedless, Lies manages to be lighter and less pretentious than any description suggests. The movie’s playful aspect can’t be denied. There’s a priceless scene wherein J and Y are rummaging around a construction site, oblivious to the workaday world in their search for a suitable thwacker. Not for nothing has Jang described the couple’s total self-absorption as a failed utopia, the “dream of living, eating, and fucking without having to work.”

Lies is a movie that, in its humor, sadism, and deliberate provocations, evokes the more discreet outrages perpetrated by Luis Buñuel. “We all feel the urge to prescribe her a whipping so that we can give her a sweet afterwards,” the young Buñuel wrote of Maria Falconetti in a contemporary appreciation of The Passion of Joan of Arc. “To take away her dessert from her, to punish her childlike integrity, her transparent obstinacy.”

The current subject of a full retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Buñuel (1900-83) enjoyed one of the great careers in movie history. Beginning as an enfant terrible, he reinvented himself as an underground auteur and wound up a celebrated old master. For both longevity and productivity, Buñuel’s only peers are Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, but the onetime surrealist had a far more philosophical bent—as well as a greater intimacy with 20th-century war, exile, and political upheaval.

Before he was 30, Buñuel teamed with his homeboy Salvador Dalí to astonish Paris with Un Chien Andalou and the most notorious opening sequence in movie history. An expressionless actress sits facing the camera; Buñuel himself enters the frame and appears to slice her eye with a razor. Tight closeup of socket, wound, and viscous fluid plopping out. That slit eye, as any first-year film student can tell you, belongs to a dead sheep. Still, Un Chien Andalou was the original movie that sought to assault, rather than please, the spectator—and thus remains the founding gesture of cine-transgression.

Buñuel was a youthful fan of American slapstick, and wherever this prankish Spaniard went and whatever he did, he never ceased to thumb his nose at bourgeois convention. His oeuvre is an ongoing private joke: “I’m an atheist . . . Thank God!” Hitchcock delighted in manipulating the audience; Buñuel was satisfied with amusing himself. Even his weakest movies are a trove of casual blasphemies, perverse details, and irrational asides. (Thanks to these trademarks, there may be no auteur more recognizable or dearer to the adolescent cinephile.)

The retro’s first week includes movies that the young Buñuel admired or worked on as an assistant director. Un Chien Andalou is paired with its even more outrageous follow-up, L’Age d’Or. There’s also Regarding Buñuel, a fond documentary portrait that shows the artist as weirdly staid, convivial yet compulsive, with a ritualistic fondness for martinis and mischief. The second week showcases what might be termed Buñuel’s Communist period. These films include the incendiary documentary Las Hurdes, produced in Spain’s most backward region, the little-seen Spanish Civil War agitprop España, and the four almost unknown features he supervised in Republican Spain. Buñuel (who was most likely a member of the French CP from 1929 to 1938) always dismissed this work, although in Regarding Buñuel, it is recalled that he referred to this period as the “happiest” of his life.

An antifascist refugee in the U.S., Buñuel failed to catch on in Hollywood, although he did spend three years working for MOMA’s film department, where, among other things, he reedited the short version of Triumph of the Will, which the museum distributes to this day. Resigning before he could be outed as a red, Buñuel reestablished himself in the relative obscurity of the Mexican movie industry, grinding out hilariously subversive potboilers throughout the 1950s before his triumphant return to European art cinema. These Mexican features will be showing through Christmas, and in some respects they seem like Buñuel’s greatest work. As his longtime collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière puts it in Regarding Buñuel: “He wanted his films to have the power of strangeness without themselves being strange.”

Given its Satanic premise, Little Nicky—the latest and most elaborate vehicle for reigning box-office monster Adam Sandler—is a relatively painless pop culture eyesore. Indeed, in some respects, this special-effects comedy (really a live-action cartoon), in which Sandler plays the spawn of the devil on the loose in contemporary Manhattan, may be the most sensible Hollywood attempt to cash in on millennial jitters. The gags are plenty vulgar but not too degrading; the requisite racial vaudeville and gay-baiting never get grossly out of hand.

Rigorous in its arrested development, Sandler’s own performance is fairly self-effacing. The star has recruited a sizable Saturday Night Live posse plus Quentin Tarantino in various cameo roles, as well as such classy performers as Harvey Keitel and Reese Witherspoon. (I don’t know how much longer she can go on playing high school seniors, but though she’s no Kim Tae Yeon, she’s without question the best actor in that role—not to mention the funniest in the movie.) Little Nicky is certainly Sandler’s most ambitious work. It’s not just a bid for respectability but a genuine allegory—as I elaborate on elsewhere in this issue.