Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project - Part 2
The three titles rounding out The Criterion Collection set showcasing six films preserved and newly remastered through Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project are markedly different, not only from each other, but from the three features covered last week in this column. Dry Summer, Trances, and The Housemaid maintain a strong sense of cultural identification and examination, but opposed to the previous three films, which exist somewhere between “docu-fiction” and a slightly indefinite art house categorization, these movies fall more in line with standard generic conventions. That is not to say, however, that they are in any way conventional. Within the recognizable forms of, roughly, the melodrama, the musical documentary, and the thriller, these titles peer into their respective cultures via a comparably subtle observation that is in some ways cloaked by a familiar surface style and structure.
Take Dry Summer to start. This Turkish film from 1964 initially pits farming brothers Osman (Erol Taş) and Hasan (Ulvi Doğan, who personally financed the film) against their neighbors, decent farmers themselves, but ones who are reliant on the brothers’ water. Water is scarce and immensely valuable in this rural community, so Osman decides to construct a dam cutting off the flow down to the neighboring fields. In the meantime, Hasan marries Bahar (Hülya Koçyiğit), a beautiful girl from the village who quickly arouses the attention of Osman. While things are relatively stable for a time, Hasan, the more decent of the brothers, sees only trouble arising from the provocative dam. Sure enough, fights ensue between the siblings and the neighbors and during one such melee, Osman shoots and kills a man. Reasoning that Hasan is younger and would serve less time, he convinces his brother to take the blame, which he does. With Hasan locked up, tensions rise between the aggressive Osman and the neighbors, and even more destructively, Osman’s unwanted advances toward Bahar become increasingly frequent and forceful. Osman goes on to cut off communication with his jailed brother, who is now in the dark about his wife and the farming dispute. Director Metin Erksan, with a constantly darting camera and kinetic editing, keeps the film continuously alive with motion and fraught with tension. The selfish, barbarous Osman seems capable of anything — violence against his neighbors, or sexual deviance toward his sister-in-law.
As a bonus feature, filmmaker Fatih Akin helpfully explains the movie’s societal implications; for example, the combative issue of the privatization of property. Erksan, also in a new interview on the disc, sums up his film as “a movie about water ownership.” Dry Summer was also, as Bilge Ebiri points out in the accompanying essay, the second in what became an “unofficial trilogy” for Erksan: the earlier Revenge of the Snakes focused on land as property and, later, The Well was about “the treatment of women as property.” Albeit emotionally heightened, in this middle feature, we do get a rather realistic portrayal of a Turkish farming lifestyle, where the demanding toil involved is notable, the importance of maintaining good land quite evident, but the cultural examination becomes partly concealed by the personal drama between the three characters. With this passionate and volatile love triangle as the main narrative focus, the depiction of the farmers, the splendor of the environment, and the representation of gender and familial roles are rather subdued by comparison. Nevertheless, Dry Summer, winner of the Golden Bear for best film at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival, fits in nicely with the aims of the World Cinema Project. This is a fascinating film, one rife with localized complexities and dilemmas, but with individual concerns that span any cultural divide. The cinematic skill with which this is all executed also gives the film a remarkable visual appeal.
The first film restored by the World Cinema Foundation (personally suggested by Scorsese) was Trances, the next inclusion in this set. Ahmed El Maânouni’s documentary about acoustic Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane, the “singing soul of their country,” according to Scorsese, similarly takes a roundabout approach to its sociocultural exploration and presentation. Through music, a key feature of nearly every culture’s identity, this film shows the creative process of this hugely popular group, and presents their motivations, which are largely derived from regional traditions and ideology. In her essay on the film, Sally Shafto provides illuminating information about the political and national context for the lyrical content. Simultaneously poets, troubadours, and storytellers, these musicians connect with the Moroccan people through performances charged with social, economic, political, and religious significance. The music is the message, and it’s the message that informs the music.
Trances is an apt title for this documentary. As per what is a common Moroccan musical form, the songs here are hypnotic in their repetitive rhythms. Concert footage shows people in the throngs of zealous revelry as the band plays. And while the film does hone in on the cultural meanings and influences of the compositions, Trances is as much about a pop band as it is about their heritage. It’s lighthearted at times, the four members sitting around smoking, surrounded by speakers and recording equipment, ruminating about their chosen art form. There’s goofiness as they joke and touch on issues still common in today’s Western music business. (On piracy, one performer remarks, “I’m just an artist. Do I have to be a lawyer as well?”) Despite the seriousness of their lyrics, make no mistake, these guys are rock stars. Scorsese points to the “electricity” and “power” of their concerts, where crowds get unruly and have to be contained. It’s not quite the Stones at Altamont, but the popularity of Nass El Ghiwane and what their music does to their audience is revealing. Their mass appeal is an interesting comparison to America’s 1981 music scene, for instance. One wonders to what extent musical groups are admired for the cultural substance of their songs in this country, then or now. The sole pure documentary in this set, Trances is an intriguing look at the music that defines and affects a people and what it takes to create such poignant art.
(Interesting for Scorsese fans, in discussing his love for the film, he acknowledges Nass El Ghiwane’s influence on the soundtrack design for The Last Temptation of Christ.)
Returning to narrative cinema, The Housemaid is a stunningly sensational film; sensational as in quality and sheer audacity. Scorsese declares the film “unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in movies, and a world away from the rest of Korean cinema.” Among its features, the “perversity and everyday madness,” he says, is “unnerving.” Quite true. This South Korean feature directed by Kim Ki-young is a claustrophobic thriller that, particularly in the latter sections, resembles a Polanski-like tale of paranoia, anxiety, and manipulation. Bong Joon-ho, who discusses the film on the disc, and knows a thing or two about unnerving films, compares the picture to those by Imamura or Bunuel. Marked by high-contrast lighting and charged with an occasionally shocking sense of terrifying possibility, this 1960 film is remarkable. A music teacher (Kim Jin-kyu) and his wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) decide that with work and two children to take care of, they cannot keep up with maintaining their home. A piano student recommends a housemaid (Lee Eun-shim). It doesn’t take long before this maid proves to be more than this stuffy and complacent family can handle. The father, who is something of a ladies’ man with his students, falls victims to her mysterious ways and everyone in the home is at risk of succumbing to the maid’s occasionally inexplicable evil wiles. Particularly toward the father (one of several helplessly weak males in Kim Ki-young’s work, according to Bong), she is “the most sexually driven female character in the history of Korean cinema.”
Against this taut set-up, where the unsound and dubious motivations of nearly every character are potentially explosive, The Housemaid keenly comments on the make-up of a seemingly secure middle-class house. Morality is questioned and normative domestic and social behavior is subverted as the characters struggle with this volatile, yet strangely alluring, intruder. She essentially holds them, as well as their way of life, hostage, exposing their dormant brutality, dishonesty, and malevolence. Kim obviously found further areas to explore within this basic framework; Kyung Hyun Kim points out in his supplementary essay that the director would remake the picture twice, with Fire Woman in 1971 and Fire Woman ’82 from 1982.
Like all six films in this set, the audio/visual quality for The Housemaid is exceptional. There are times, however, when the images falter more than in the other five, with evident scratches, pixelization, and skips. Strangely enough, it also seems like this is an intentional stylistic device. While the original source print may have been that poor to begin with (two reels were originally thought to be lost), at times, it comes across like the film simply can’t contain the manic behavior of the characters and their extremely unpredictable actions.
This Criterion set, hopefully the first in a continuing series of films attained in conjunction with the World Cinema Project, in some ways takes on more significance than an ordinary home video collection. The films might not be as “great” as the customary classics Criterion and other companies regularly release, but their fairly unique status and their relative scarcity place them as emblematic of why motion pictures need to be saved and treasured. Aside from the artistic merits these films possess – and with each there are many – they are cultural artifacts and historical markers that deserve attention. Save for the efforts of preservationist organizations throughout the world, these are works that might have disappeared into extinction. But now, thankfully, they are available for all to see, and they are all well worth a look.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT