Beyond Hollywood…Tuning In To International Cinema

My Melbourne mate Matt has strong opinions. His hates are many, his loves few, and both are fierce and uncompromising. There is nothing much in between these extremes.

I’m quite similar, except there is plenty in between for me. Way too much. Mediocrity is the signature of this time. It gets me down and tones me down, and absorbs me into its amorphous enervating mass. I should fight harder. But I struggle for courage and am too easily seduced by comfort.

Matt reminds me of Gully Jimson, the anti-hero artist in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Subversive by nature and stubbornly self-destructive, yet humorous in his angst. And highly principled. Always at war with “them” – the bastards who would neuter him if they could, who perpetuate a maddening status quo that is always, inevitably, a pinata for any artist worth their salt. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, elaboration is futile – you’ll never get it.

When Matt enthuses over something, I listen, because he doesn’t do it much, and he is not pompous in his declarations…and because he has a unique take on the world, and I want to understand.

His latest rave is Asian cinema – particularly Korean. This emerged abruptly out of an email he sent me a couple of months back. So taken was he with the movies he had been watching, he posted me three DVDs, fired by an almost evangelical zeal, it seemed.

I watched the first – acclaimed Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine – with expectations of something grainy, subterranean, edgy if not confrontationally violent. Matt had been asserting the superiority of Asian movies over Hollywood product, and I had assumed better meant more: more violence, more sex, more grit, more grim “realism”.

I was disconcerted to find that Secret Sunshine was slow-moving, sans sex or violence or, indeed, any action sequences. There is a murder, but you only hear about it. I watched on in mounting disbelief as the main character, a grieving mother, seeks solace in embracing a happy clappy brand of Christianity. Was Matt having me on?

Me of little faith! Out of the blue came a directorial killer punch – a dramatic moment so stunning it has been with me ever since.


Let me dispel any notion that might be forming that I am an exclusive consumer of mainstream Hollywood pap, unaware of indie and “world” cinema. I attended the Lumiere (Perth’s first art-house venue) two or three times weekly for a couple of years in the late 80s before happening on something vaguely resembling a life. I saw just about every film the Lumiere screened during that period. I have sampled plenty of international fare at local film festivals over the years, spend a fair proportion of my TV viewing time on SBS, studied film history at uni (granted, that doesn’t mean much), dutifully followed up Western critics’ raves over “breakthrough” Chinese movies like Raise the Red Lantern and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon…pant pant…have I made my case?

Plenty of good international stuff in there, but nothing to REALLY turn my head…nothing to push me past mild curiousity into the realm of the devotee. Maybe, despite a reasonable ‘education’ in cinema, I just don’t ‘see’ what I’m supposed to. True confessions: I find Bergmen tedious and pretentious, ditto Antonioni, ditto Wenders. I don’t think Almodovar is a genius. And I couldn’t stay awake through Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or (gulp) Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Around the time Matt sent me the Asian movie DVDs, I won a Gold Pass from Cinema Paradiso to their Russian Resurrection Film Festival. This was a very generous prize – free entry for two people to any or all of the Festival movies. I should have been thrilled, but to be honest, my winner’s joy was tempered by the anticipation of some slow, bleak viewing ahead.

Yes, I’m guilty of cultural stereotyping. I’ve dipped into Russian literature – Tolstoy, Turgenev, Solzenizen come to mind – not exactly fun-of-the-fair material. Then again, I love Checkov, Dostoyesvsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Gambler I found compelling, and Gogol’s brilliant The Nose and The Overcoat just leave the planet.

Whatever, Matt’s Korean movie raves and DVDs had opened me to the possibility of an enhanced appreciation of the Russian movies that were about to claim my partner and I, more or less day and night, for the duration of the festival: we determined to see every movie we could.

And so we did. Over the six days of the Russian Resurrection festival, we saw 14 movies. It was a unique and unforgettable experience, which will be the subject of my next post.

For now, though, I want to return to Asian cinema. I didn’t share Matt’s rapture for the second of his DVDs I watched, a Japanese movie called Rainbow Song. However, I was struck again by the pace of the narrative. It seemed slow, but something interesting was happening to me – a realisation that an adjustment was taking place. I was beginning to accept these movies on their own terms. They were not too slow – rather, I was too fast! Let me explain.

It goes without saying that Hollywood is cut-throat competitive. Movies vie for box office success – the only measure that really matters over there. Winning formulae are strictly adhered to. The pace is fast fast fast, all dials turned to 10. Anything to be noticed.

The same philosophy applies in contemporary music recording. CDs are recorded at maximum volume so the sound leaps out of the speakers at you like a ghostie at a House of Horrors. Why? Because sound engineers are competing in the lucrative MP3 market! They’re targeting a market with an Alzheimic attention span! Never mind that music recorded at constantly maxed out vol levels is fatiguing. Music is little more than background sonic wallpaper for the folk who walk around wired up for most of their waking hours. They’re not actively listening much of the time, so fatigue is not an issue.

Today’s sound engineers sacrifice dynamic range, light and shade, to serve a philistine brief: stand out! Ironically, the result is the opposite – so much of today’s music is samey. And of course, production values being the same, this is also true of movies.

Anglo movies, that is. Matt’s perspective on Asian movies and my immersion in the Russian Resurrection Film Festival have opened my eyes to the possibility of a cinematic artistic integrity that I believe Anglo moviemakers, either hostage to market-driven forces or conditioned by the pervasive influence of Hollywood, have all but lost.

You see, once I tuned into the Asian and Russian movies, I began to understand that the pace was not slow – it was right. Partly insulated by culture and language from the constraints that Hollywood and its overbearing profit motive imposes on Anglo cinema, the Asian and Russian moviemakers whose wares I have had the good fortune to sample these last few weeks have artistic license that Western filmmakers can only dream of. The result is a purity of form I am just starting to grasp and appreciate.

I watched the third of Matt’s DVDs a few days after the Russian Resurrection Film Festival had concluded. Although “slow”, the pace was no longer an issue. Perhaps my immersion in international cinema had deconditioned me. Perhaps the emotional power of this heart-rending film – Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows – was simply overpowering.

Matt declares you never go back to “the Hollywood dregs” once you have experienced the superior offerings of Asian cinema. I would not go that far. But I have to say, I have a new appreciation of non-Anglo film, and I’m not sure just where that’s leading. Wherever, it’s stimulating and refreshing to be jolted into a new way of seeing. Matt and Cinema Paradiso, thank you.

Other reviews and movie-related articles by Rolan Stein:

  • ‘Two Fists One Heart’ – Better Than OK, Not Quite A KO
  • The Secret Life Of Bees – Movie Review
  • Q: When Is A Dog Not A Dog? A: When It’s A Slumdog!
  • The Russian Resurrection Film Festival – A Brief Overview
  • Newcastle – Breaking Through the Surf Movie Genre (Movie Review)
  • Movie Review: “September”
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