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The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Poster Designer Unknown to me.

The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Poster Designer Unknown to me.

Koreyoshi Kurahara established himself as an essential filmmaker from the end of the 1950’s to his final film, 1995’s Hiroshima. His early films are often categorized along with his French filmmaker contemporaries and La Nouvelle Vague — sometimes referred to as The Japanese New Wave.

Not only is this categorization overly-simplistic, it is not sensical. Post-WWII Japan youth culture experience was an entirely different situation than being a youth in France as the world entered the 1960’s. If one must apply his early films to a genre, The Seishun Eiga genre makes more sense. Japan entered the modern arena quickly and as Western influence started to merge with East, the youth of the time found themselves in a world that was paradoxical. Freedom and fun were changing in meaning and access while the culture remained rooted in a problematic elitist class structure that both attempted to oppress and repress. The atmosphere was ripe for rebellion.

High on Rebellion and howling at the sun! Eiji Gô and Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

High on Rebellion and howling at the sun!
Eiji Gô and Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Kurahara’s The Warped Ones opens with some truly ingeniously frantic camerawork. The viewer hears what sounds something like American Jazz and is then shown several key American Jazz artists. As if looking a vinyl record starting to spin on a turntable – the view begins to open up. The spinning increases, the music’s jazzy sway begins to verge into something similar to what we would now call Acid Jazz. As Toshiba Mayuzumi’s music slips into a sort of fevered pitch, Yoshio Mamiya’s cinematography spins faster. Within a matter of seconds the action on the screen starts with a failed con attempt by a young woman and young male friend who turns a Western tourist’s attention away so that the male friend can successfully pick the man’s pocket. As the two gleefully prepare to leave with their “earnings,” their grift is called out by a male journalist in a pressed suit.

Yuko Chishiro, Noriko Matsumoto and Tamio Kawachi.  The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Yuko Chishiro, Noriko Matsumoto and Tamio Kawachi.
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Our two leading protagonists, Akira and Yuki, have been caught. Kashiwagi and his fiancee, Rumiko, watch as the two are led off to jail. Before the audience even has a chance to catch it’s breath, Kurahara drops us into a mail prison where where we see Akira sweat, scream, scowl, fight, brawl, party and create chaos during his frenzied stay in jail. As the music stays in pace with the cinematography and action, credits are presented in a stylistic way. Everything we see in the jail is brutally primal — yet Akira seems to be somehow enjoying everything we see.

Once the credits finish, Tamio Kawachi’s Akira is being released. He appears to have made a new best pal, Eiji Gô’s Masaru. These two boys are from the same coin, but Masaru might be from a different side. A rebellious criminal, it is immediately clear that he is a bit more stable than Akira. As these two steal a car and race ahead it, Akira’s behavior is more than just bit disturbing. Kawachi’s performance is a true work of film acting art. Almost constantly in motion and distorting his face to match what we can only imagine what must be churning in his psychopathic mind. Akira’s movements, actions and manner of speech are less human and more animalistic. His brutality shines through even in brief acts of passive “kindness.” It is an unforgettable acting turn.

More animal than human... Tamio Kawachi  The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

More animal than human…
Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Masaru is not nearly so unhinged, but he is most certainly operating within a very skewed moral compass. It doesn’t take Akira long to find his partner in crime, Yuki. Yuko Chishiro’s performance as Yuki seems like it could be the prototype for The Hyper Japanese Girl that we now see so often represented in Japanese Film and Anime. Ever bouncing and seemingly positive in energy and almost manic-like gleeful high-pitched laughter, she is almost a walking stereotype. There are a few things that set her apart from this stereotypical idea: she is a scheming, rage-filled street prostitute grifter who would also appear to be more than a bit of a sociopath. Her bouncy energy and high-pitched laughter are a disguise to the sour intentions waiting to happen If Akira represents The Id, Yuki represents a feminized version of cruel menace.

The Id & His Pretty Partner... Tamio Kawachi and Yuko Chishiro The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

The Id & His Pretty Partner…
Tamio Kawachi and Yuko Chishiro
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

When these three walking vessels of aggression bond in an elaborate plan of vengeance on the journalist who put two of them in jail, a sort of Satanic Trinity is formed. Charles Manson would have run in fear of these three.

Koreyoshi Kurahara’s classic tale of human cruelty and vengeance still packs a strange punch to the gut. This might be the main reason I cringe when I read or hear this movie referred to as part of The Japanese New Wave or that Wave that was going down in Japan. There is nothing of cinematic reference to be found in The Warped Ones. In fact, every single thing we see and hear on the screen feels not only new and fresh — 50 years on, this movie still feels disorientingly current. The Warped Ones is also startling because it manages to be vibrantly alive and simultaneously one of the most nihilistic movies I’ve ever seen. This being stated, Kurahara’s mean little movie represents a major shift in Japanese filmmaking.

Even Charles Manson would run for his life if this unholy trinity approached...

Even Charles Manson would run for his life if this unholy trinity approached… Eiji Gô, Yuko Chishiro, and Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Aside from being a deeply weird, this film operates from several different perspectives that alternate between the obvious and the ambiguous. On the one hand , Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones is a perverse cautionary tale of Western influence and youth run amok. Akira, Yuki and Masaru are not grooving to rebellious rock music. No, they seemed to be steeped in American Jazz. The young couple whom they view as their enemies are fairly innocuous but easily tempted toward sexual influence. Akira holds them and their classical music tastes in disdain. When he breaks one of their classical record albums it is clearly an act of anger against the sound of elitism as much as it is against their desired style of living.

Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

At the same time the film can be perceived to function as both societal and cultural commentary. These lost kids aren’t grooving to rock, but to the music of classic American Jazz. These hoodlums are most certainly rebelling against their world, but are attempting to act out against their established institutions. The police and the prison systems are little more than jokes. It is in jail that Akira seems to have a great deal of fun and meets a new friend. Once released from their shared cells, they have “learned” nothing and feel no need to “repent” for their “crimes“. They simply seem to have been given the opportunity to get a bit of a rest and are fully re-energized. Once they hit the streets they are literally high on rebellion. They know that what they do is wrong. They simply do not care.

Eiji Gô & Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Eiji Gô & Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Yuki has been released sooner and has returned to selling her sex without any seeming issue, problem or regret. She is equally eager to return to conning and grifting her clients as soon as she meets up with Akira and his new friend. She is also more than eager to tease Masaru with her sexuality. Faking anger and cloyingly demanding that he look away as she changes outfits, she clearly enjoys his noticing. She quickly falls into a relationship with Masaru. Akira has no interest in relationships or bonding. He is interested in sex and satisfying his sexual urges, but beyond an orgasm he has no interest.

Yuki seems to hold no erotic interest for Akira Yuko Chishiro & Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Yuki seems to hold no erotic interest for Akira Yuko Chishiro & Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

I generally dismiss the idea of this film as “cautionary.” I am not even certain if Kurahara was trying to teach his audience anything. This perversely entertaining movie is concerned with plot. Not any sort of lofty intention. The Warped Ones is, however, very much concerned with realism and artistry. Even on a limited budget and shooting on location, the filmmaker pushes his cinematographer, cast and post-production musical composer and Akira Suzuki (his superb Film Editor) to push toward only the highest level of creativity and skill. Even though the action and movements are fast, chaotic and frenzied — all is presented with style and off-kilter beauty. It would be unfair to deny this film’s sensuality.

Violently tossed down... The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Violently tossed down…
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

It is clear that Akira rapes Fumiko. She is violently kidnapped, thrown into what appears to be a dry beach sandbar with such strength that she loses consciousness. As Yuki and Masaru romp off to make out and have some fun at the beach, Akira is left alone with the innocent and beautiful young victim. While we know this is rape, the scene is filmed in a shockingly sensual manner. Both the rapist and his victims’ bodies are captured to accentuate their mutual youthful beauty. The horror of what has happened it only clear after the act is over.

Noriko Matsumoto & Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Noriko Matsumoto & Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

This is a unique and twisted tale of human cruelty in which the idea of vengeance is taken to a whole new level. The pursuit of this vengeance is truly psychopathic, psychosexual, disturbing, realistic and unapologetically perverse. But it is Yoshio Mamiya’s hyper and artistically disorienting cinematography that really seals the deal. The opening shot of this movie is jaw-dropping. The whole film is prone to make the jaw drop. It is all the more fascinating to note that this movie was shot in 1959.

Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

It has an oddly current feel. It is also important to note that this film features one of the more memorable cinematic endings. The ending almost presses into circular logic. The camera sprints up, spins and sends us into the human void. From beginning to unforgettable end, The Warped Ones is a twisted ride of a movie. Dark, angry and lusting for blood, this movie is a strange and brilliant cinematic experience.

Koreyoshi Kurahara was a varied filmmaker. He never stuck to one style or core idea. But in 1967 he adapted Yukio Mishima’s third novel. Mishima’s brilliance as a writer is well noted, but film versions of his work usually fall painfully short of capturing anything close to what his words created. However, Kurahara came very close with his re-working of Thirst for Love. Koreyoshi Kurahara adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s novel is a bit dated, but brilliantly conceived. Brilliantly edited, lit and featuring valid use of sound design, it is once again Yoshio Mamiya’s cinematography that takes a crucial role in making this film work.

Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

The other major asset for the film is the performance given by the great Ruriko Asaoka. The success of Kurahara’s adaptation wisely depends on her acting skills. It is tragic how uninformed most of Western Culture is to the Eastern Film Art. Ruriko Asaoka, like her director, never seems to gain the recognition deserved outside of hardcore cinephiles. Aside from being ethereally beautiful, oozing eroticism with little effort, born with expressive eyes and gifted with an uniquely effective manner of acting — Asaoka was and remains an actor with charisma and true screen presence.

Ruriko Asaoka Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

She worked for Kurahara more than a couple of times, but it is in Thirst for Love that she is given full reign.

Unlike most who have attempted to adapt Mishima’s work, Kurahara does not aim to exploit the transgressive or exploit the often perverse sexuality. Instead he employs Mamiya’s camera skills to show us just enough for us to know what is going on. The editing and sound design also play strong roles in conveying tone.

Ruriko Asaoka Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

It is here that the film sometimes has a “dated” quality. However this “datedness” is a result of far too many late ’60’s/’70’s lesser filmmaker over-use of similar stylistic choices that have caused us to feel this way. In Thirst for Love these quick edits, zooms and flashbacks via still photography are all put to exquisite use. Filmed in a lush and sensuous monochrome gone black and white, the movie lulls us into visual beauty as the characters’ individual and shared transgressions / perversities are presented and/or explored. But once these aspects have been revealed Kurahara uses jolting fast scenes of color. The color used is blood red and it further saturates the tone off the screen and into our brains.

Ruriko Asaoka Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Another major key in this adaptation is that Kurahara manages to largely avoid any alterations of Mishima’s novel. Please correct me if I’m wrong as I am writing strictly from my memory — but the only major change made in this film adaptation is that our female protagonist’s backstory involving her deceased husband has been made for us to suspect that the widow’s relationship with her husband was far more tainted. I do believe that all we are told in the book is that she was widowed as a result of her husband fatal battle with Typhoid. In the film version, his treatment of Asaoka’s “Etsuko” was bad. So bad that Etsuko may or may not have done something about it. The rest of the film seems to come directly from the great novel.

Shaving "Father" Ruriko Asaoka & Nobuo Nakamura Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Shaving “Father”
Ruriko Asaoka & Nobuo Nakamura
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

The plot revolves around a deeply dysfunctional wealthy family in which the elderly patriarch has not only taken his son’s widow, Etsuko, into his home — he has placed her in his bedroom. His daughter-in-law is now his mistress. The elderly man also provides home to another widowed sister-in-law and children as well as his lay-about buffoon of a son and his admittedly odd wife. This is a sick home. And all living within it fully accept the situation. Soon Etsuko develops a sexual attraction to the family’s gardner.

Younger and from a lower class strata Etsuko views her desire as inappropriate. This is of particular interest as she is clearly not bothered by her brother-in-law and sister-in-law constantly hinting that a three-way relationship would be more than welcome. Not to mention that it seems to be normal conversation that Etsuko should bear their father’s child and have the only living son raise the child as his own. But to desire sex with the hired help is inappropriate.

The Gardner & The Widow Tetsuo Ishidate & Ruriko Asaoka  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

The Gardner & The Widow
Tetsuo Ishidate & Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka’s performance is interestingly minimal. For the first half of the film, all emotion is limited to her expressive eyes. As we “non-see” the elderly man she calls “Father” bring her to orgasm, it only takes a shot of her eyes or face for us to know that she is both repulsed and becoming numb the further she drifts into her place within the family.

Her desire for the young man grows to obsession. Obsession pushes her toward full cruelty and insanity. Nothing is hidden from us, but all is conveyed via careful lighting, truly unique camera work and Asaoka’s brilliant performance. This is Mishima. None of this is going to take us to a good place. As he leads us to the story’s disturbing resolution, Kurahara establishes a strange world in which Etsuko roams.

Trying to leave a trace or a scar... Ruriko Asaoka  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Trying to leave a trace or a scar…
Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Sprawling but interesting claustrophobic, she walks about the home and grounds often in a state of drifting despair. She eroticizes and mentally imagines objects to self-destruct. When she does leave the home and it’s decaying grounds, she walks down a long road. A walk down this road is like being overshadowed by prison walls. The surroundings outside the grounds of the family home seem to almost be more threatening than the home itself. Isolated, sad and doomed — it is unclear if these massive walls are there to keep the family in or the rest of Japan out.

A serious talk outside the compound against that wall... Ruriko Asaoka  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

A serious talk outside the compound against that wall…
Ruriko Asaoka & Tetsuo Ishidate Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

By the time Etsuko finally fulfills her true desires her choices and actions are shocking. The filming of violence throughout the film is all the more dire due to the monochrome black and white lack of color. Had this film utilized color for scenes of violence (both passive and horrific) it would have looked cheap and exploitive.

Thirst for Love is an uncomfortably beautiful cinematic experience captured by mixing the vile, the visceral, the sensual and darkest corners of human desires merged with the despaired. Is it melodrama? Art Horror? Experimental? Art House? Cinematic Provocation? …Yes. It is. And it is fucking brilliant.

Ruriko Asaoka Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Both of these films have been decently restored by The Criterion Collection and have been issued via their Eclipse Collection Series. Another bone I’ve been picking with Criterion for some time. While I understand that Western Audience is more familiar with films like Pale Flower, Tokyo Drifter, Vengeance Is Mine and the infamous In the Realm of the Senses — that doesn’t mean that films like these two need be pushed out with only limited restorations and no extra focus.

Tetsuo Ishidate  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Tetsuo Ishidate
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Please do not misunderstand me, I adore all of the above mentioned films and the work Criterion has done for each. But if you’ve not seen these two Koreyoshi Kurahara films, you are missing two amazing cinematic experiences. And I do feel both The Warped Ones and Thirst for Love are superior to these other full-fledged members of The Criterion Collection.

Ruriko Asaoka  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

“Just let matters slide. How much better to accept each sweet drop of the honey that was Time, than to stoop to the vulgarity latent in every decision. However grave the matter at hand might be, if one neglected it for long enough, the act of neglect itself would begin to affect the situation…”  — Yukio Mishima, 1968

Ruriko Asaoka & Tetsuo Ishidate  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka & Tetsuo Ishidate
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Matty Stanfield, 11.12.15

 

 

 

 

Cinematic Motivation is never more clear than when a film artist decides to create a personal adaptation of another’s work. Often the source material serves as a clearly stated guidebook for the film it inspires.

"Come on! Let's go." Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

“Come on! Let’s go.”
Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography |
Bernard Zitzermann

However, when one is dealing with an articulate and strong-willed film artist, an adaptation will serve as a point from which the filmmaker can jump into aspects of the source that is either hidden with the corners of plot or that is sometimes simply not there. This is most definitely true of two films based on well-established and respected source materials.

In 1996, Claude Chabrol opted to translate a highly respected crime novel for the Big Screen. Fourteen years later a younger South Korean filmmaker, Sang-soo Im, who had studied to become a Sociologist, would decide to “remake” a classic 1960 Korean horror film.

Domestic Horror Taken to a Whole New Level. This is a key classic Korean film. A warped horror film that remains shocking 55 years later. Kim Jin-kyu / Lee Eun-shim The Housemaid / Hanyeo Kim Ki-young, 1960 Cinematography | Kim Deok-jin

Domestic Horror Taken to a Whole New Level. This is a key classic Korean film. A warped horror film that remains shocking 55 years later.
Kim Jin-kyu / Lee Eun-shim
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Kim Ki-young, 1960
Cinematography | Kim Deok-jin

Both of these filmmakers chose particularly well-known works. While it is clear that they both respected the works from which they would create two important modern films — neither had a problem with subverting core ideas to their respective cinematic intentions.

The Iconic co-founder of La Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol was not a sociologist but he was an astutely politically aware artist. Chabrol refused to label his work as “political” but it was. A self-proclaimed Communist, he did not live the life of a Communist, but he was often concerned with the plight of the struggling classes within French society. As the economic gap between the wealthy and the impoverished, one can see his societal frustration emerge in most of his films.

Friends or Conspirators? Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Friends or Conspirators?
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Chabrol was far less interested in plot as he was in the characters and their often odd choices and actions within the plot. This is not to say that plot was not important to Claude Chabrol. It was. But his plots are often pushed to the side of the screen so that the audience focuses on the ideas and the actions of the characters. Chabrol seemed to see very little use in explaining the nature of humanity. The actions and choices of his characters carry consequences and often push or pull the plots in various directions and shapes.

Sang-soo Im didn’t not pursue a life as a Sociologist, but he fully understands sociology and the rigid restrictions that exist between and among the ever-mounting class struggle of South Korea. Like Chabrol, he is normally focused on the way elitist concerns are forcing the working classes and impoverished further down the Korean societal ladder.

A the South Korean Economic Gap Between Wealth and Poverty Grows, a woman plunges to her death. The opening sequence of The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

A the South Korean Economic Gap Between Wealth and Poverty Grows, a woman plunges to her death. The opening sequence of
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

His films serve as often controversial commentary regarding his country’s leadership and the power that money play out in removing access to control personal choices and opportunities. Plot is more important to Im, but his characters’ motivations are often more required than chosen. For many of Sang-soo Im’s characters, there are no choices — only actions.

Ruth Rendell’s British crime novel, A Judgement in Stone, was published to great acclaim and success in 1977. This novel is best known for delivering the following blunt statement as it’s first sentence:

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

Wham! And Rendell’s novel begins. Chabrol loved the novel, but he was not willing to limit the main character’s motivation strictly to illiteracy. It most certainly seems to factor into her choice, but it never feels like the chief motivation. This should not surprise anyone familiar with Chabrol. Chabrol has never been interested in motivation of his characters. They are human. When it comes down to it, can we really ever fully understand why someone does something?

Pushed down by their class or pulled down by personal struggles that have been ignored? La Ceremonie Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Pushed down by their class or pulled down by personal struggles that have been ignored?
La Ceremonie
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

A character he renamed, “Sophie Bonhomme” is played expertly by Sandrine Bonnaire. Unlike Rendell’s classic novel, we do not know that Sophie is illiterate immediately. We are also not ever completely sure why she is unable to read or write. We do pick up that she comes from a lower class background and that she spent a good deal of her young life caring for her ailing father. Perhaps education was not an option. Or, maybe, Sophie simply has learning limitations with which assistance was not available. Not being able to read or write is clearly a source of great anxiety and frustration, it never feels as if it is the most challenging aspect of her situation. There seems to be something far more worrying at Sophie’s core

Reflection of doubt, self-loathing, frustration or a sociopathic rage? Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Reflection of doubt, self-loathing, frustration or a sociopathic rage?
Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

In Kim Ki-young 1960’s The Housemaid, we follow the story of a composer and his pregnant wife who decide that they need to hire a maid to assist with the running of the household. What makes this old film so potent is it’s unhinged approach to horror. The newly hired housemaid is trouble. The film is surprisingly graphic and strange for it’s era. The Housemaid systematically engulfs the entire family into a state of domestic horror. Clearly insane, this maid spys, enjoys subversive behavior and prefers to catch/kill rodents with her own hands rather than rely on poison or traps. She thinks nothing of seducing the husband. But when she becomes pregnant she panics. The composer’s wife begs her to abort the baby by self-harm. She does, but then the crazy-bat-shit really hits the fan. The housemaid becomes a full blown menace who has no problem with evil tricks, torture and murder. Even children are not spared her cruelty.

Sang-soo Im basically throws this entire plot out of the window. His 2010’s The Housemaid is not a horror film as much as it is an erotic thriller. However, “thriller” is not an altogether correct label for this “remake.” Sang-soo Im has created an entirely different film. Essentially, it only shares the same title.

Caring for their little girl and cleaning house are not the only "chores" which quickly become more and more degrading... Welcome to Sang-soo Im's "Erotic Thriller" The Housemaid / Hanyeo Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Caring for their little girl and cleaning house are not the only “chores” which quickly become more and more degrading… Welcome to Sang-soo Im’s “Erotic Thriller”
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

This is the story of the poor soul hired by a cruel wealthy family. This family uses “politeness” with their servants as a device rather than a courtesy and any level of respect is nonexistant. The hired help are far below them. They exist only to serve and have little to no human value. And, in Im’s film the housemaid, Eun-yi, is not alone. She has an additional key duty and boss. She has been hired as both an Au Pair to the young couple’s daughter and as an assistant maid. Besides the husband and pregnant wife, she also reports to Miss Cho. Do-yeon Jeon plays Eun-yi and the great Yuh-jung Youn plays Miss Cho. Both performances are effortlessly realistic. When these two women are on the screen you almost forget you’re watching a movie.

The Head Maid understands that to survive in the world of servant to a wealthy family one has to transform into a cold stone or face whatever added humiliation their masters plan to deliver. Youn Yuh-jung The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The Head Maid understands that to survive in the world of servant to a wealthy family one has to transform into a cold stone or face whatever added humiliation their masters plan to deliver.
Youn Yuh-jung
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Miss Cho knows the score, but is a strict boss. Nothing happens in this sleek minimalist home without her knowing. Constantly poking the newly hired Housemaid / Au Pair to do everything with perfection, it is hard for the audience to know if Miss Cho is friend or foe. It is not until the mid-point of the film, while she is attempting to relax in the servant’s bathtub she explains to Eun-yi why she is so hard on her:

You get up in the morning and think of what you have to endure. And, damn. It makes your gut hurt. But what can you do? Just breathe in deep and transform into a cold stone.

Daughter and Mother or Conspirators? The Mistresses of the house know no limit to their cruelty. Seo Woo / Park Ji-Young The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Daughter and Mother or Conspirators? The Mistresses of the house know no limit to their cruelty.
Seo Woo / Park Ji-Young
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

At this point we realize that Miss Cho has been trying to teach Eun-yi to be precise and hard so as not to become any more a victim of this family than she already has to be.

We already know what Sang-soo Im has in mind. He begins the film in the tourist area of Seoul where the lower classes sweat and struggle to serve and clean-up after the tourists and middle class Korean party animals. Eun-yi is one of the working slaves. She sees a young women recently tied to scandal and ruin toss herself from a building. The tourists are shocked, but this serves as more of a curiosity and nuisance to the workers. Eun-yi, however, is shaken to the core.

Cleaning to please and entice... Jeon Do-yeon The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Cleaning to please and entice…
Jeon Do-yeon
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Taking on a job as an Au Pair / Housemaid is a welcome change. She will be given her own room and will share her bathroom with only Miss Cho. At first it seems like a dream job. Her dream will quickly transform into a nightmare far harder than any cold stone.

Back in the lush but secluded mansion in Brittany, Sophie is struggling. While the family is polite and even kind, both the wife and husband seem to have an-ongoing debate whether or not they should “teach” the new maid how to do things exactly the way they like them done. The husband, Jean-Pierre Cassel, appears constantly unsatisfied about one thing or another. The wife, expertly played by Jacqueline Bissett, does not seem to disagree as much as she is hesitant to address what are most likely only minor issues that will work themselves out. Valentin Merlet plays their young teenage son who is seemingly amused by the situation. Their young adult daughter, Virginie Ledoyen, is the voice of concern for Sophie. She seems idealistic in her attitude toward the family’s “need” of a live-in maid, but there are numerous hints that this attitude is largely derived from a collegic life and is a passive-aggressive way to prod her father and step-mother.

Well-intentioned on the surface, but this wealthy family seems to struggle with their own level of self-entitlement. Their concerns and politeness seem to be more about "political correctness" than any ethical sense. Virginie Ledoyen / Valentin Merlet / Jacqueline Bisset / Jean-Pierre Cassel La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Well-intentioned on the surface, but this wealthy family seems to struggle with their own level of self-entitlement. Their concerns and politeness seem to be more about “political correctness” than any ethical sense.
Virginie Ledoyen / Valentin Merlet / Jacqueline Bisset / Jean-Pierre Cassel
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The truth is the Lelievre family appears to be fairly normal in their attitude toward their maid. There is a strong element of wealth-guilt within the wife’s interactions, the husband seems over-worked and uses humor to tinge his issues. The son and daughter are both normal children of upper-class privilege. No one in this family is cruel. And most certainly, there is no clear intent to be cruel. This, of course, is Chabrol’s clever way of making the audience squirm. It is hard not to like this family, but as the film moves forward — it becomes challenging to not be annoyed by their unintended treatment of Sophie as inferior and casual disregard for her personal time.

The wife begins to leave notes and lists of tasks she needs Sophie to perform. It is here we know that Sophie is unable to read or write. She clutches the note and runs to her small room where she keeps a child text on phonetics. She struggles to fit the letters and words to the codes in the book. Bernard Zitzermann’s cinematography gradually shifts into warped close-ups which add further distortion to the faces of the characters as they grimace, worry or think. It is an effectively disorienting effect that is not immediately noticed.

No educational assistance, illiterate, misfit or insane. Sophie's frustration is beginning to form into rage. Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

No educational assistance, illiterate, misfit or insane. Sophie’s frustration is beginning to form into rage.
Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

As Sophie becomes frustrated, the camera moves in just a bit closer. Finally as she reaches her limit of frustration she begins to find clever but increasingly challenging ways to have the notes read to her so that no one will notice she is unable to read.

Eventually she turns to the one person outside of the family who she has met, Jeanne. Enter Claude Chabrol’s longtime favorite muse, Isabelle Huppert. As with all of her roles, Huppert doesn’t merely play her character — she seems to slip into Jeanne’s skin. Jeanne initially appears to be an eccentric and harmless townie who enjoys gossip and flops about as if she were a child. Jeanne and Sophie start to bond after she assists with one of the notes. It isn’t clear if Jeanne understands that her new friend is illiterate. What is clear is that she wouldn’t care either way. She appears happy to have made a friend. She is even more excited to have made a friend that gains her access to the Lelievre family home. Jeanne appears to have more than a few problems with the Lelievre family. She holds them in disdain. From Jeanne’s perspective, this is a family of fraudulent snobs.

The Scandalous Postal Employee: Child Killer or Mentally-Challenged Misfit? Isabelle Huppert takes a puff La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The Scandalous Postal Employee: Child Killer or Mentally-Challenged Misfit?
Isabelle Huppert takes a puff
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

As a postal employee she enjoys peeping into other’s mail. A habit that rightly infuriated Mr. Lelievre. Much like we quickly come to understand about Mr. L he doesn’t care for dealing with issues in appropriate ways. He marches into the post office and accuses Jeanne. Playing innocent, Jeanne provokes his anger to higher level. She pushes every button she can find until Mr. L slaps her. Most likely a very bad choice of action. It isn’t long before The Lelievres decide to inform Sophie that they do not approve of her friendship. She is then advised that she is “free to be friends” with her (as if it is their choice) but she is “not allowed” to have Jeanne over for tea and watch TV in her private room — which seems like an antiquated sort of former servants’ room. This pronouncement seems to push Sophie to a whole new level of frustration. And yet, in a classic move by Chabrol, Sandrine Bonnaire holds back. We are never quite sure of what she thinks or feels.

A bit of fun or anarchy?Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

A bit of fun or anarchy? Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Later Zitzermann’s camera starts to move in to slowly distort Bisset’s face as she regains her composure to return to the small party the family is holding. This distortion serves as a sort of signal that Mrs. L is losing her patience with her maid.

Back in South Korea, the newly hired servant is having some issues of her own. On a short family “holiday” the family and Eun-yi Li take off for the summer cottage in the winter. While the husband, wife and daughter sit in the warm hot tub, the Au Pair/ Housemaid is left sitting just outside in the cold. When the cute little girl, Nami, decides she wants to jump into the cold pool — Eun-yi tosses off her towel and jumps into the cold pool with her. The child then returns to the warmth. Eun-yi remains wet and in the cold. Even still, she doesn’t seem to mind.

The family relaxes in the warmth while their housemaid sits patiently in the cold. Jeon Do-yeon as The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The family relaxes in the warmth while their housemaid sits patiently in the cold.
Jeon Do-yeon as
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Later than evening after a disappointing attempt at sex with his very pregnant wife, the husband decides to pay his new housemaid a visit. As she hears footsteps, Eun-yi quickly puts her sweat shirt on. Before she has a chance to gather her thoughts the husband is making his moves. He insist that she have a sip of wine. Then he quietly says, “Let me have a look.” — he pulls the cover off the housemaid and proceeds to touch her body in a sensual tease. Clearly uncomfortable and confused, it is hard to tell if Eun-yi is upset or aroused. It doesn’t really matter. It is clear the husband isn’t going to take no for an answer even if she chose to demand it.

Would you like to suck your master's wine bottle? Does she really have a choice? Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Would you like to suck your master’s wine bottle? Does she really have a choice?
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

She submits and seems to welcome his touch and sex. Sang-soo Im is not afraid of eroticism. The two actors encage in a highly erotic sex scene. Despite the eroticism, there is an ever-present uncomfortableness about the scene. This is not implied. It is there. Be it a good idea or a bad one, this servant is willing to indulge her master. As she kisses his nude body, the husband takes on the role of “Sex God.”

A Questionable Seduction as The Servant "services" The Master... Erotica pushed to the limits of an R-Rating Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

A Questionable Seduction as The Servant “services” The Master… Erotica pushed to the limits of an R-Rating
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Clearly, he is more turned on by the adoration than by the woman. He flexes his muscles, drinks his wine and proceeds to have his way with “the help.” Their affair continues. The housemaid begins to fall in love with this self-absorbed man.

Master lost in his own fantasy. Master and Servant Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-Deok

Master lost in his own fantasy. Master and Servant
Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-Deok

She also finds herself growing attached and devoted to the child, Nami.  Eun-yi reads a particularly disturbing fairy tale to Nami. Despite the gruesome story, the Au Pair expresses her feelings to the child:

“I love how you are such a good child. You’re not bad-tempered. You’re polite to me.”

Nami answers with the sort of honesty that only a child can provide, “Daddy taught me to be polite. It may seem like a sign of respect, but it’s really putting myself first.”

It is here we are once again reminded that Eun-yi’s experience of the world is limited. She does not think with duplicity, but there is a slight hesitation as she takes in the meaning of what this innocent child is telling her. Miss Cho understands this better than anyone: this family has no respect for anyone other than the people of wealth with whom they share the world’s glory.

Miss Cho continually attempts to both advise and warn Eun-yi that she is still young and desirable. She should leave this “Hell,” find a man and marry. Better to be poor with someone you love than to serve this “scary people.” In a moment of brutal honesty she informs the Au Pair/housemaid that “This job is R.U.N.S. Revolting, ugly, nauseating and shameless. I have wasted my whole life in this place.”

The servant hired to mother the wealthy child who offers politeness as a means of putting her own interests first. The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The servant hired to mother the wealthy child who offers politeness as a means of putting her own interests first.
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

Unlike Miss Cho, Eun-yi is unable to transform into a cold stone. Eventually this family pushes the young woman to the point of no return. She is meaningless to them. To the man she thought she loved, she is simply flesh with three holes for his pleasure. She is the object of bullying, intimidation and suffers a far greater indignity that seems to drain her of all hope.

“I am going to get revenge. However small, I have to do something.”

One gets the feeling that Miss Cho sees no way for this young woman to seek out vengeance on such a powerful family. This is prominent family who are firmly placed within the class structure of South Korea. And this family’s world is built on corruption and cruelty that seems to fit easily in a culture and society that is increasingly limited to the “have nots.” But Miss Cho does have some power. The young wife has had her twins. The family needs assistance like never before. Miss Cho quits and tosses part of her uniform on the metallic floor. Outraged, the husband demands, “What do you think you are doing?!?!” Miss Cho looks at him and almost trembling in rage answers, “What the hell are doing? You really like living like this?!?”

The quiet daughter, Nami, looks on with a concerned face.

The husband dismiss Miss Cho’s actions, “This is what these people are like. Just ignore her.”

The powerful feel safe in their cocoon. No one can hurt them. Most especially the common servants. He is wrong. Eun-yi gets her vengeance. It is twisted and horrifying. Sang-soo Im turns the tables on the vile family and on his audience. Nothing quite compares the viewer for what comes next.

Look what you made me do. Jeon Do-yeon The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Look what you made me do.
Jeon Do-yeon
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

Back in France, Sophie and Jeanne finally fully bond over a lunch of freshly picked wild mushrooms and stale wine. As they eat and chat, Chabrol finally allows us some insight into this marginalized women. It is almost shocking when Sophie casually informs Jeanne that she has heard something about her. Jeanne pauses and indicates that she has learned something good. With a slight smile on her face, Sophie tells her that she knows Jeanne killed her own daughter. The response is equally odd. Unbothered, Jeanne calmly states:

“It’s not true. It was her own fault. Anyway, they couldn’t prove it. Want to see a picture?”

Besties! La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Besties!
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Within a few minutes we discover that Sophie murdered her ailing father and then set fire to their home which had just been taken from them to develop luxury condos. Realizing that they are both murderers, they start to giggle like two school girls. What makes this scene so chilling is it’s simplicity. Sophie had grown weary of caring for her father and the one thing she had was taken to make way for luxury living quarters that she would never be able to afford. So she killed her father and burned their humble home to the ground. Jeanne was a single mother unable to support a child. Whether or not the murder was intended is not clear, but there is no remorse. Life is easier without another mouth to feed and the demands of motherhood.

The family dismisses Sophie. She pushes them into a corner. They have no choice. She should be fired. But the head of the house terminates her like a angry man scolding a dog. Essentially, he will allow her some shelter and food for a short while until she finds new employment. Sophie is left to stew in what is clearly a sociopathic mind. As the family gathers to watch the live televised airing of an opera, there is a brief conversation. The family is relieved that they have done the right thing by firing their maid. The problem is that they have told her she can stay on for two weeks until she finds a place to live. Mr. L is cruel in his dismissal. The cruelty is completely understandable, but he has not thought about the anger that is seething just beneath the surface of Sophie’s calm exterior. This is their home. They are safe. No one could ever hurt them. Most certainly not some illiterate common maid. Everyone calm and secure, they settle down to watch the opera.

No time to worry about the help, it's time to enjoy the televised opera. Jacqueline Bisset / Virginie Ledoyen / Jean-Pierre Cassel La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

No time to worry about the help, it’s time to enjoy the televised opera.
Jacqueline Bisset / Virginie Ledoyen / Jean-Pierre Cassel
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Sadly, the peasants are outraged and demented. Sophie has secretly let Jeanne into the Lelievre home. The two angry women joke about the vile “bastards” siting in the library with all their fancy books, antiques, television and watching some bourgeoisie opera. And then, Jeanne discovers something in a small room just off from the kitchen: The Lelievre shotgun collection.

Before long Sophie and Jeanne are playing around in the kitchen with the guns. The family hears something. The son suspects that the “weirdo from the postal office” is in the kitchen. Mr. L gets up to send them both out but for good. Only the wife is hesitant. Maybe it’s better to leave it alone. But all three disagree. Mr. L makes his way to the kitchen.

Revolt! La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Revolt!
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

 

 

 

Like The Housemaid, these two marginalized and angry women have come to a tipping point. Their “vengeance” is really more of a “judgement.” From the warped perspectives of two people who have been pushed or pulled down all of their lives, they only know a few ways to deal with their anger at a society that rejects them. Typical of the great Chabrol, the carnage that follows is delivered realistically and without any of the normal cinematic tropes the filmmakers often use when filming this sort of horror. Zitzermann’s camera follows. There are no editing tricks. There is no foreboding musical score. Even though we know what is coming, nothing quite prepares us for it.

As these two masterful, entertaining and disturbing films come to their close the viewer is left with several realizations. Perhaps the most important is the reminder that revolt or revolution is never an actual solution, but when one or two take place the impact is devastating and cruel. Neither Chabrol or Im are particularly clear at the close of their films.

In Chabrol’s universe, Sophie and Jeanne have committed horrible acts.

The Servants' Revolt Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The Servants’ Revolt
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography |
Bernard Zitzermann

However, one cannot help but wonder if this all could have been avoided. Why didn’t this community do more to assist this once desperate and struggling mother? Why hasn’t her minister and church attempted to offer her guidance? Instead a judge simply dismisses her and her action. Her church and minister find her crude and childish. They no longer want her help in their charity work or even want her at their church. Sophie is clearly struggling with the solitary life in Brittany, yet the family continually alternates between “hot” and “cold” in their interactions with the maid. They do offer assistance, but it all seems to come with pressure and sideways logic. This is a good family, but they prefer to stay within the confines of this cocoon reserved for the wealthy. They fully realize that they are lucky, but they never think beyond that point. It is as if they have developed a false sense of safety.

In Sang-soo Im’s universe the societal structure of South Korea has become so fractured between the wealthy and impoverished that there is almost a complete disconnect. As he brings this class struggle down to a contained plot of a newly hired maid, we see the plight of the workers being exploited by those to whom they serve. This family is evil. Only their young daughter seems to offer any hope for their redemption. Nami seems to see her world realistically. Her Au Pair has also given her a traumatic experience that will no doubt take form in some way. Which way is not entirely clear.

Unlike Chabrol, Im prefers to leave his audience with a strange and disturbing bit of Surrealism. The family is gathered outside of the mansion in the cold. It is Nami’s birthday. As her drunken parents wish her a happy day and tell her that the world is hers, Nami simply watches them and then walks slowly toward us in an ever increasing sort of fishbowl lens. The Housemaid had told her she was sorry and that she should never forget her. While it is unclear about the future of the world in the hands of Nami, one thing is certain. Nami will not forget The Housemaid. Neither will we.

 

The future is hers. How will she form or play within it? The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The future is hers. How will she form or play within it?
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

 I last I hope we don’t. As the economic gap shows no sign of diminishing, it is important we take the time to re-evaluate the way we interact with others. And as racism has not been this ugly in decades, we better take a long hard look at how we allow our politicians to move forward. We are living in extreme times. It is time to “re-think” motivations, intentions and the way we respond.

Matty Stanfield, 9.1.2015