Thanks to the NYAFF, I’ve been bingeing on Asian films, and am again reminded how Director Lee Myung-Se is greatly underappreciated.
One reason is because you can’t really find his films in the states. To be honest, I’ve only seen two of his films, but he blew me away. The first film I saw was Duelist. I went to see it almost exactly a year ago with MWS. The premise seemed interesting. Korean historical martial arts detective vs. assassin film. I can dig that. 111 mins later, MWS and I walked out the theater in a complete daze.
After a long discussion, MWS and I figured this is what happened: 3 days into Duelist’s shoot, aliens planning on destroying earth by screwing with people’s minds steal every single copy of the script. The cast and crew had to choose between continue to film, or be publicly beheaded with swords made by the tears of their children and shame of their ancestors. So everyone went into improv over-drive. Occasionally, someone would shout, “Wait! I...I think I remember a scene from the script!” and they’d shoot that. And so a movie filled with “wait, what??” scenes was born.
And yet the first thing I said coming out of the movie was “I got to own that fucking thing”. It is by far the most beautiful martial art movie I’ve seen, easily topping Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, Hero, etc. Of the protagonists, one comes off a bit nuts and the other autistic. But when they fight, they are beautiful together. It’s as if a veil has been lifted, and they can fully express themselves clearly. They’re completely in love with each other, and they want to kill one another. At one point, a character describe seeing a battle: “Don’t know whether I was possessed by the moonlight or the snow.... a man and a woman were fighting like crazy with some sharp swords. But they also looked like they were dancing. It was like they were making love under the moonlight as well.” When a writer writes lines like that, he can only pray that that scene look kinda sorta that good. But the fight in Duelist looked exactly like that. So rarely is a movie simultaneously serious, cheesy, beautiful, heartbreaking, funny, and incredibly sexy. It made so little sense, but you can’t look away.
M, despite not having its script taken by extraterrestrials, is a psychedelic movie that a NYAFF rep described as an acid trip. It’s about 3 characters: A novelist battling writer’s block finds himself haunted by nightmares, unable to recall parts of his days and feeling someone is following him. A girl follows her favorite novelist around with both a sweet first-crush shyness and a creepy stalkerish undertone, but soon she finds herself being chased by a shadow in the dark herself. A rich businessman’s daughter finds her boyfriend drifting away from her, but is what’s come between them another woman, his mysterious new novel, madness, or a ghost?
While Duelist has great color and light/shadow play, in M there is all that and smoke and glass and mirrors, ghosts and insanity, dripping water and phones that don’t stop ringing. So rarely does a director take so much care in every shot. Each scene drifts into one other. Not only can you not tell if you’re looking at a dream or memory or reality, sometimes you don’t even know whose is it. The next moment has equal chance being sweet or creepy, and it kept my attention the whole film.
(This is a music video, but I find it depicts the movie better than the trailers I've found.)
There are a lot of criticism against both movies, and I can see exactly why. But even with those flaws, I am personally extremely impressed by Lee Myung-Se’s craftsmanship, and wish that more people can see his movies.