What happened to the Korean New Wave? Suitably, one could say, for a culture of Konglish and PSY and the Mickey-Dee’s Bulgogi Burger, it quickly became over-commercialized and absorbed into the Hollywoodized pop mainstream, which is close to where it always lurked anyway. Once, it threatened to redefine ironic-pulp heartbreak, beginning in earnest with Hong Sang-soo’s The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), Hur Jin-ho’s Christmas in August (1998), Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (1999), and Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (2000).
Only the latter was ever given any kind of American release (and that five years late, due to the success of Oldboy), and the others (among reams of startling films to follow) have been scarcely available here, if at all. Any of them can fold you in half, but it might be Lee’s epic social autopsy Peppermint Candy, available on Hulu Plus a propos of what I have no idea, that dares the most, dramatizing over 20 years of an entire nation’s psychosocial turmoil by way of the story of one man, an optimistic teen turned by fate and state thuggery into a brutal, callous, self-hating and ultimately suicidal proto-Korean.
The movie travels backward, a la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, so we’re confronted with Yongho (Sol Kyung-gu) drunk and lost and manic, stumbling onto the riverside reunion party of his erstwhile schoolmates, who embrace him and then reject his howling self-pity, only to watch as he climbs onto a nearby railroad trestle and runs headlong at a train. We then trip back, seeing the fallout of his ruined life before we see what ruins it: a miserable marriage, business failure, his soul-crushing time as a suspect-torturing cop and finally as a soldier during the Kwangju Massacre in 1980, an incident that scarred Korean culture just as it begins Yongho’s descent into nihilism. What’s at stake here is Sunim (Lee fave Moon So-ri), the girl he loved in school and could never return to. Korean directors of this generation knew how to bring the pain — how to soak emotional situations with propane so they burn almost too hot to watch. Lee is a master of no-prisoners relationship intercourse, as any fan of his Oasis (2002) or Poetry (2010) knows. Peppermint Candy might look from on high like a scathing critique of an entire generation of Korean men, as well as of the country’s institutional default settings as it transformed itself into a democracy. But on the ground it’s the film’s ineluctable shape and pounding melancholy that you can’t forget.
A more-trafficked study of macho loneliness in a remorseless world, Nicholas Ray’s classic The Lusty Men (1952), out on DVD for the first time from Warner Archive, drops down into the all-American rodeo circuit, taking on the subculture with a wise and gentle gimlet eye for the first time in Hollywood movies. (There’s no underestimating how WWII forced culture everywhere, even here, to grow the fuck up about nearly everything, including the way people lived in the flyover netherlands.) Alongside John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963), but bulldozing over each of them with a lyrical tenderness that was Ray through and through, the film probes a mythified West lumbering uneasily into the modern day.
Robert Mitchum is the lost boy here, an erstwhile rodeo star aging out and finding himself with no life or home (he’s even compelled to return to his dilapidated family shack, still with toys hidden in the crawlspace, only to find it owned and inhabited). Unheroically, he latches onto childless couple Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward, who know they’ll never get ahead on a ranch-hand salary and use Mitchum as a guide to the supposedly easy money of the bronco circuit.
The troika is never less than tense – Mitchum’s good ole boy tries to avoid the humiliation of his semi-retired consultant role, Kennedy’s go-getter eventually learns to resent the hanger-on, and Hayward’s tough and disapproving wife – her best role and most convincing performance by a country mile – gets fed up with men entirely, even as she waits for her husband to break his neck in the ring. Around them, Ray limns a busy, modern, multi-shaded milieu, full of internecine relationships, sexual history, rueful fondness, and lots of scars. Ray and his cast take the landscape seriously; Mitchum and Kennedy handle the doggies and bulls like pros. It’s the first authentic-feeling film about rodeo, but the sense of the sport being a pathetic and pointless reenactment of obsolete American life is already there, in every one of Ray’s iconic images and moments of adult ambivalence.
Nobody did this kind of thing like Ray. Though not much talked about today, he was, almost unarguably, the greatest of midcentury Hollywood’s home-grown auteurs, the very axis of the idea of auteurism. For hyperbole, though, it’s tough to best Godard’s famous pronouncement, that “if the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of re-inventing it, and what is more, of wanting to.” He was the paradigmatic oppositionist, the anti-establishmentarian who, instead of being exiled to the outskirts like a petulant Beatnik or avant-gardist, managed to cut a swath through the Hollywood barley while infusing studio storytelling with realistic ambivalence.” You could almost say Ray invented, if not cinema itself, then maybe snot-nosed rebellion and even rock ‘n roll.
He was the first American artist to understand the passionate tragedy of youth in the postwar era – They Live by Night (1948) preceded the earliest rock record by several years. Ray also defied every basic tenet of the Dream Factory’s manufacturing methodology, built mostly from dramatic problems solved by happy endings, gender roles left uninterrogated, ideas of the American family and community conceived as wholesome and poisonless, protagonists cast as reliable guides through the story. The scary troubles at the heart of In a Lonely Place (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), The Lusty Men (1952), Rebel without a Cause (1955), and Bigger than Life (1956) – not to mention King of Kings (1961) – are not going away after the endings’ efforts at tidy resolution. Just like life.
The hero of Manuel Martin Cuenca’s Cannibal (2013), on DVD from Film Movement, is an extreme outskirter – an introverted and intense tailor in Granada, Spain, who has no social connections whatsoever and who just happens to stalk, kill and eat young women. It’s a serene, aestheticized movie, deliberating avoiding the grue or the irony of its own premise, as the watchful loner (Antonio de la Torre), with his protein-packed icebox, has his tiny sphere invaded by two Romanian sisters (both Olimpia Melinte, one after the other), whose problems threaten to upend his secret-rich equilibrium. In the end, the film is so careful and uninflected you’re not sure if Cuenca has a larger idea in mind. You can if you want try to take the character’s cannibalism as a metaphor for social outcast life – he’s a silent insurgent, defying the world’s cheap consumerist conventions at every step, even to the point of eating no-carb. But wouldn’t cannibalism, a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre, be more aptly applied as a parable on rampaging consumer capitalism? If we eat each other, aren’t we just following the rules?