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Friday, Aug. 25, 2000


Sensationalism without a cause

Any film that dares to call itself "Bad Movie" is rendering itself immune to criticism. Say it sucks, and the filmmakers will reply "told you so"; praise it to high heaven, and they can laugh long and hard over the gullibility of critics.

Jang Sun-woo's "Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie" -- a mock-umentary about Seoul street kids -- is a bold, reckless and totally free piece of filmmaking; it is also rambling, poorly shot and disturbingly nonjudgmental. In short, it's an explosive mess of a movie, as likely to fascinate as repel. You'll either walk away convinced that this is an objectively hard-hitting look at the wasted youth of Seoul's meaner streets, or that you spent two hours having your buttons pushed to no good end.

If I were partial to soundbite reviews, I'd peg this one as "kids" meets "The Blair Witch Project" -- "kids" in its faux-realist attempt to document teens behaving badly, "Blair Witch" in its technique of turning the cameras over to the cast, and its resulting ultra-amateurish (and hence real-life) look.

Jang's project began with an idea to make a film about Seoul's street kids and homeless, a look at the forgotten souls of Korea's then-booming economy. After casting his kids, though -- mostly real runaways -- Jang decided to scrap the script, and let the kids take over the film and tell their own stories. Hence the film's title: bad kids filming bad stuff with bad technique.

Left to their own devices, Jang's kids took the same approach as did Harmony Korrine in the script for "kids" -- a bunch of deliberately provocative sequences involving petty theft, senseless violence, substance abuse, vandalism, humiliation and rape, the purpose of which seems to be to enrage the older generation. (Insert outraged geezer voice here: "What the hell's wrong with these kids today!")

The film does have a few light moments -- I never knew there were so many ways of dodging a subway turnstile -- and the kids' feral energy makes them compelling to watch. Some pop-neon titles and crude and crazy animation bracket the scenes, augmenting the feeling of "anything goes." Occasionally the camera will find a remarkable moment, as if by chance (a testament to the film's power of improvisation), like when a bosozoku wipes out his bike at the feet of a girl screaming for a ride as the cops swarm and everything goes crazy.

Yet while respecting Jang's irreverent approach, and his desire to confront people with the darker underside of a country often viewed as overwhelmingly strait-laced and Confucian (Jang has described his film as "a dream of living, eating and f***ing without having to work"), one can still question the intent of "Bad Movie." In a preface to the film, Jang has urged against judging his characters, saying "good and evil will lose all meaning." Perhaps, but only if one suffers from a lack of empathy as pathological as the kids on display in his film, who have no qualms about getting a girl drunk and gang raping her.

Jang himself would have a hard time defending his own remark. He has gone on the record (and on film, with "The Petal") as condemning the government's shooting of demonstrators in the infamous Kwangju massacre. Unfashionable though it may be in the cynical world of outsider cinema, Jang was clearly making a moral judgment in that movie. But obviously there's little distance between shooting unarmed demonstrators and raping an unconscious girl; the impulse is the same -- the abuse of power simply because one can. For Jang to vilify one and gloss over the other is disingenuous.

"Bad Movie's" problems stem from its refusal to dig deeper; for a film with such a cool objective viewpoint to succeed, there needs to be time and space to observe the characters and the context (this year's winner at Cannes, "Rosetta," is a perfect example). Jang's film merely moves from one incident to the next, thinner-sniffing to suicide by toilet paper, without a moment's pause for reflection. While Jang wants to communicate the freedom these kids embrace, it ends up being little more than a catalogue of misdeeds. Sensational? Yes. Thought provoking? No.

Nowhere is this more clear than the film's end, when one boy slaps and kicks the hell out of his girlfriend for daring to question his participation in the gang rape. If the conclusion we are to draw here is that this guy is a brutish, punk-ass jerk, then the film has succeeded. The viewer may well ask, though, what was the point. Film is free to reflect any reality, no matter how dirty, but as art -- not documentary -- it has a duty to bring perspective to it as well. Jang's film -- like the kids it portrays -- runs from its responsibility.

"Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie" is playing from Sept. 2 as the late show at the new Theater Image Forum in Shibuya, off Aoyama-dori.

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