Spectacle of Insignificance

by Wen Zhuang

published February 15, 2020

I work at the Harvard Film Archive twice a week, but calling it work would be unfair. It’s about 10% administrative and 90% catching snippets of screenings. HFA’s theater is located underground, and movies are $5 and open to the public. Some days, every seat next to me is filled; other times, none are. Either Bresson or Herzog (maybe both, maybe neither) said once that we go to the cinema to be alone. It is true, we watch movies for a few hours of sublime solitude. But we watch movies so the hours before and after them can be a little less lonely, so that we might travel when we can’t. I watched Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun when I was 15 to try and grow up alongside my parents. I sometimes dream of the Persian landscape, as if I’ve lived there, because of the films of Abbas Kiarostami.

The Oscars last Sunday awarded Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite Best Picture, the first foreign language film to win this category and the 13th to be nominated. It sparked dialogue around the act of reading a movie as opposed to watching it, and subsequent praise has been given to the Motion Picture Academy. Finally, they said, the merit of foreign language film is recognized.

I, alongside many who have grown up with films in other languages, our own languages, recognize that Parasite’s historic win is merely Hollywood catching up. That the absence of foreign language films from the gold-clad awards show isn’t a marker of their insignificance, but of Hollywood’s. Ultimately, the most notable moment of the night was the five seconds Bong spent onstage, gazing at his glistening statues.

In lieu of a still-dismal “International Feature” category, here are four films from different parts of the world that have escaped the embrace of the Academy, largely for the better.



[살인의 추억] Memories of Murder

Bong Joon Ho, 2003, South Korea


I went into Parasite largely a skeptic: the Palme d’Or (the Cannes Film Festival's highest honor which was awarded to the film last May) has often felt like more of a prize for lifetime achievement of the director than for the individual films themselves. Before Parasite, there was Bong’s Okja (2017) and Snowpiercer (2013): films that dealt with similar themes but fell short of actually presenting much, morally or aesthetically—maybe it was Tilda Swinton’s performance, reminiscent of her cameo in Joan Jonas’ 1989 absurdist short-film Volcano Saga, where she plays a forest nymph. Or maybe it was that the story centered on taking a pet from a child. Or maybe it was Jake Gyllenhall.

Yet, moments into the screening, I had joined the ranks of Bong-converts. My mind raced with posterior revelations—the film had made me an adrenaline junkie. I wanted to stroke every rock I passed, walk into the brownstones neighboring the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, and eat from their pantries. I wanted to watch it twice over, but instead committed to watching all of Bong’s previous films, pining for a similar, almost destructive overstimulation. Memories of Murder, Bong’s second feature, is a 2003 crime-drama starring a younger Song Kang-ho (who plays the father in Parasite) that is at times almost unrecognizable as part of the Bong corpus. It trades Parasite’s immaculate modern mansion for pedestrian backdrops: a run-down ramen shop, wilting grass on the sides of a train track, a municipal police office bathed in fluorescents, each site baleful in its neutrality. The horrors in Parasite don’t just sneak up, they are splattered across the screen. In Memories, the horror is at the core of the film, but perpetually out of reach. It is based on the true story of a slew of serial murders (the first in Korea's history) that shook the small town of Gyeonggi Province in the late ‘80s. It centers on the repeated shortcomings of a classic ill-fated detective duo with a Rush Hour dynamism. In the end, their investigation proves futile and the two separate, with Song becoming an electronics salesman. Memories is nowhere near lethal in its pacing, more background music than the symphony that is Parasite. The killer is said to only act on nights when there’s rain, so many scenes are cloaked in a murky color—it seems we are trudging through mud. However, where it does fall similar to Parasite ultimately spotlights a crucial aspect of what makes Bong, as critics have hailed, a “genre onto his own.” In both films, Bong does not invent new sensation but instead teases out the amusement and titillation of the quotidian—the jaded, often unremarkable realities of everyday life. In Parasite, it is not the lives of the rich and the poor that are the cause for thrill, but the satirical consequences of economic inequality. Just as Memories is not a biopic in which a teen heartthrob grows up to be Ted Bundy; it is a sardonic portrait of a provincial police team, who are themselves often unsure of the grave responsibility placed on them. In Memories, and then in Parasite, Bong believes there is never a need to imagine clowns or charlatans. His characters, though absurdly cruel and perpetually self-obsessed, could very much be me, or you.



[本命年] Black Snow

Xie Fei, 1990, China


This year, the lunar calendar falls on the rat, first of the repeating 12-year cycle of animals, and a sign of good fortune to those like myself, who have been branded by the primordial zodiac symbolizing determination, greed, and auspicious romance. It is said that your birth year, or běn mìng nián in Chinese, will grant you an array of riches . I thought I’d test these premonitions on the eve of the New Year by catching a $5 screening of a film of the same name Běn mìng nián (though its English title Black Snow, is the name of the novel by Liu Heng, which this film was adapted from).

I left the theater penniless, less in my pockets than in my psyche, or whatever faculty controls the feeling of hope, the certainty of desire—Black Snow rendered these sentiments utterly undesirable. In hindsight, I might have been greedy in anticipating fortune would simply find me in the coming year. But if the protagonist in the film, Li Huiquan, is a testament to anything, it is that even humility and kindness, in the face of political corruption, can strip you of all wealth.

Li is a semi-illiterate corpse getting along in society to the best of his ability. He is plagued by the terrors of his time in labor camp but determined to pave some path, however desolate. He is a kind, simple man; he often gives his day’s earnings to the first person to ask for help; he shies away from past vices; he refrains from advancing on a girl he falls in love with. We are aware of his humility, as well as the austerity of his days.

Black Snow was directed by “fourth-generation” filmmaker Xie Fei and premiered in 1990, a a little more than a decade after the social and political upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. This era was often depicted by Fei’s generation as bleak but nevertheless a symbol of hope and of continuance. He once assured an interviewer at the 40th Berlin International Film Festival that “…although society has a light and a dark, my characters still have hope to better their lives…to find love.” In Black Snow, however, the margin he leaves for this hope is so slim you almost have to imagine it. Ultimately, Xie subjects his protagonist to a devastating fate and we are left pondering if Li deserved it or, more ominously, that one’s reality might never reflect one’s merit. Xie asks: given these realities, how might you continue, virtuously?



[Ce magnifique gâteau!] This Magnificent Cake!

Emma De Swaef & Marc James Roels, 2018, Belgium, France, Netherlands


There is an exclamation point in the title of De Swaef and Roels’ animated short. And never has a work of art been more deserving, or more representative of this punctuation mark, a marker for strong feelings, emphasis, excess, or high volume. At 44 minutes, the film surpasses the standard time allotted for shorts, but there is a distinct severity to each minute that leaves us surprised, at the movie's conclusion, that we’ve sat for so long. This Magnificent Cake! relies on a decadence that’s never removed from a gnawing claustrophobia, as if we were suddenly presented with a 10-layer cake and ordered to finish it. There are five characters, each rendered in immaculate detail with felt, a humble material elevated to a Lynchian Eraserhead madness, its natural lint suspending each movement on the verge of evaporation or disappearance. Each character is undoubtedly captivating, not least for the sheer reach of their individual iconoclasm: a troubled king, a middle-aged Pygmy working in a luxury hotel, a failed businessman on an expedition, a lost porter, and a young army deserter. There’s also an astonishing depth of concept: the film’s title originally derived from King Leopold II of Belgium, who proclaimed, in the late 19th century, “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake.” Though it centers on the bitter milieu of Belgian-occupied Congo, it is not to be taken as a historical adaptation of any kind. This Magnificent Cake! is couched within something more profound, it does more to alert than to educate. Absurd sudden deaths and endless “trick rooms” aside, one can’t help but return incessantly to the duo’s choice to animate with felt over the clay conventionally used in stop motion. There is a distinct devastation to the material’s effect. It gives the illusion that each cascading tear, every gust of wind, is like lint, or dirt, moving across a squirming face. The faces themselves are perpetually tan and fibrous dust balls, collecting debris, even as they take the throne, or slams a cup.



[Ich war zuhause, aber…] I Was Home, But...

Angela Schanelec, 2020, Germany


Angela Schanelec’s newest project is less a film than a long, drawn-out sigh. There is a hesitance that is deafening, as if we are anticipating what might arrive after the ellipses in her title, only to realize that there is nothing there—only eternal longing.

Schanelec, once a theater actress, makes a movie as if conducting a dinner party—choreographed poetics. She uses her own friends, family, and personal spaces in her films, and it often seems she is either meticulously directing each movement or it is all improvised. I Was Home, But… has a similar feeling of familiarity, but presents itself almost as a a ghost story: people appear once, some disappear, families are presented, are strangers even to each other. It begins with the emergence of a thirteen-year-old boy, damp with soiled clothes, broken toe on one foot. He gives no information of his prior whereabouts, not even to his relatives. Nothing more is learned, with most of the movie focused on his young widowed mother, who has the gait of someone decades older. The film is punctuated with snippets of an elementary class, where different children are introduced each time, all performing scenes from Shakepeare’s Hamlet. The pacing of the film is austere and elliptical, but it’s almost never overtly cinematic, vying instead for that pristine and composed moment just before a photograph is captured.

I Was Home, But… is also uniquely spiritual, bookmarked by two long shots of animals. There is a wild dog chasing a rabbit, and a donkey in the background. By the end, the rabbit is caught and devoured; the dog and donkey are asleep; and the boy and his sister walk, piggy-backed, deeper into a lake. What ties each of these together we might never know—with Schanelec, conclusions are forever forthcoming. In I Was Home, But… Schanelec leaves this question open to the young children, all of whom she describes as “somewhere between being and becoming.” She tasks them with finding answers, even if those answers are only ever new questions.


“Poems are made by fools like me

/But only God can make a tree.”

Joyce Kilmer, Trees


[I Was At Home, But...has its New York City premiere this Friday, February 14th, with a Q&A with Angela Schanelec at Lincoln Center. The film will run through Februrary 16th.]