Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: October 2005, 02

Sunday, October 2, 2005

06:00:39 pm , 758 words, 1638 views     Categories: Movie, Live-action

Texture of Skin

Q & A photosAs I was driving back home through the rain from seeing Lee Sung-Gang's film today, my iPod happened upon some music by Isang Yun, which seemed appropriate. Not just because they're both among the best Korean artists I'm familiar with, but because there seems to be a tangible spiritual kinship there, in their sensual romanticism that isn't Hollywood but uncompromisingly personal and modern in its idiom.

Lee's first live-action feature falls perfectly in line with his past work. Up until directing his animated feature debut, his early films were inward-turned explorations of individual anomie, of people with "something missing" looking for that other half - or losing it, as the case may be, as in one of his most recent and most accomplished early shorts, his 1998 Ashes in the Thicket. The latter now seems to directly forebode his feature directing debut, as the two have numerous obvious similarities - the loving focus on capturing the sensual beauty of naked skin in natural lighting conditions, stories of desperate love and loss shot in the half-light of dimly lit apartments. After having just seen the film I find that I had difficulty recalling whether Texture of Skin was shot in black and white or in color, which attests to how close the sensibility is to that of his earlier black and white animated short.

What's wonderful is that he was able to capture that same spirit in two completely different media, almost one after another. It doesn't feel like he's just jumping around doing things to make himself look like a renaissance man. It feels like he's got a personal vision, and each situation happens to require different expressive means. That's something I find lacking in most animation, even of the nominally artistic persuasion. It's good for a piece of animation to have been conceived specifically for the medium, but there almost seems to be too much of a focus on the animation at times, when the animation should be there to express something. Lee himself mentioned that this was precisely the case in the Q & A after the screening - he chooses whatever medium is necessary to express the idea at hand. He wasn't trained in animation or filmmaking but in psychology.

The dichotomy between his personal films and his commercial films is obviously striking, and it was aptly noted that the Lee present today was the Hyde to the Jekyll of Mari (though Hyde came first in this case!). But even comparing his personal films to Mari it's not impossible to identify the creator behind both. Both focus on the drab, ordinary lives of people living in a specific and culturally unmistakable place, whose lives are affected in some way when their dream-life begins to seep into their reality. One of his most telling comments was made in response to someone's question about how a person who made a film as innocent as Mari could have made a film like Texture of Skin. The translation of his response to the question was: "Generally people tend to think that there's a pure and innocent side in animation, but I think there's just as much pureness and innocence in Texture of Skin."

While watching the many love scenes in the film, I couldn't help but compare how the scenes were shot to the way such scenes are traditionally shot in Hollywood films. There every detail is precisely calculated and exposed and framed and lit to achieve the most sensuality possible, like a sexual version of food photography, coming across as completely artificial and sterile, whereas in Lee's film everything seemed natural, with normal lighting conditions and very spontaneous and unostentatious shooting. It felt like one of the film's central statements, and Lee specifically addressed this afterwards, saying that it was his way of trying to show the everyday beauty of sex, which is something that is literally mundane, something part of people's everyday lives. He was trying to bring it back down to earth from the plastic wonderland of pulp celluloid.

I was very excited about seeing this film, and I was happy to find that it was very close to what I was expecting, in the sense that it's back to the personal filmmaking of his early shorts. That he didn't consider those films an early aberration, something he'd outgrown, something of the past now that he had gone Big Time. It shows that he will continue to make the films that mean something to him, regardless of whether they're safe, saleable commodities. At least, I hope so.