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M for Noir

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In chiaroscuro, between shadows and light, an ambiguous figure comes out to greet us. Is that a smile, or the mask of a double-faced man who'd rather die than reveal what he's thinking? From the moment Orson Welles made his world-famous entrance in Carol Reed's masterpiece The Third Man, noir has been mysteriously shrouded in shades of black and white. The more famous quote about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock are still quintessential noir, of course, but they hardly stand up to the shadowplay's challenge. Visual and emotional ambiguity has always been noir's biggest charm, and this is what sets the stage for Korean filmmaker Lee Myung Se's latest film M.

When did noir start in the West? Is it Hollywood of the 40s and 50s? But then again Europe, especially France and Britain, were no stranger to the genre back then. And how about Asia, with Kurosawa's Stray Dog and Shaw Brothers' impressively prolific genre output? If human tragedy hadn't robbed us of most of Korea's pre-war cinematic legacy, then we might also have tried to find Korea's first film noir. It's hard to pinpoint if and when the noir genre really took shape in Korean cinema. In the Golden Age of 1960s, diversity was at an all-time high, at least on paper, but many of the almost 200 hundred films per year the industry was turning out had similar thematic undercurrents. The 70s and 80s increasingly focused on a handful of genres, and what one could find resembling a film noir in the 90s was mostly influenced by Hong Kong's heroic bloodshed genre, which Korean critics tend to mistakenly label as noir.

It's quite interesting then to note that, even without a very strong noir tradition, Chungmuro has started to favor this genre more and more, first by using some of its stylistic approaches, and then immersing in its mood and genre tropes, to finally find something we could call Korean noir. Rough and tough, melodramatic to the core, and oozing that quintessential machismo of Hong Kong's 80s classics, films like Jang Hyun Soo's 1994 Rules of the Game or the Choi Min Soo vehicle The Terrorist never had much of a voice of their own, quality aside. Those were familiar themes seen in countless other films, with a little kimchi thrown in the mix to ooze national flavor.

Paradoxically, the first few directors to project that noir aura were people who never really had much to do with noir itself. Lee Myung Se's Nowhere to Hide, Ryoo Seung Wan's Die Bad, and Yoon Jong Chan's Sorum are on the surface everything but noir. Nowhere to Hide is the usual mix of stripped-to-the-core cinematic madness from director Lee, mixing action with comedy and the kind of constantly flowing visual narrative that would make Keaton and Chaplin proud. Die Bad, with its blood drenched finale, is the debut of one of the most interesting young directors in Asia. Yoon's Sorum, a horror film on paper, thankfully realized you can create an eerie atmosphere even without Sadako's night gown concertos. All you needed was moral ambiguity, darkness in and out of characters, and that irresistible charm of the noir, darkly pessimistic but at the same time smiling from the shadows.

Another director who became famous for something very close to the noir canon is Park Chan Wook and his trilogy of vengeance. Starting from the masterful Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, continuing with the film that gave him fame (Oldboy) and the icing on the cake (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), Park added a lot of visual flavor, black humor, and thinly veiled social commentary, along with that incredible visual pathos every single one of his films displays. But this was an era when Chungmuro tended to avoid genre limitations. All those films fall within what we usually consider noir tropes, but often escape from them completely, only using what they need to drive the point home. This is when the idea that a Korean noir genre could work started forming, not so much as an answer to genre canon itself (few Korean films of the post-1996 boom can be tied down to Western cinema's idea of genre), but because of the need to distance themselves from it, while at the same time maintaining at least a core resemblance. Taking the basics of a genre and rearranging them has always been one of the biggest charms of Korean cinema's New Wave, something too many Korean films are losing sight of in recent years.

Maybe the first real sign was Kim Ji Woon's masterful A Bittersweet Life. It looked and sounded like a Melville, but the comedy was vintage Kim Ji Woon (especially the Busan accent cum Russian slang-drenched swear word battle leading to a hilarious shootout). The characters weren't just beardless ghosts of Chow Yun Fat's past, speaking Korean. It was noir, but it also felt new and vibrant. The film was the first sign Korean noir could find its own footing, and looking at the outcome, one can only hope this trend will continue in the future.

From the IMF Crisis-drenched Busan drug cartel and 70s funk-themed deliriously tasty excesses of Bloody Tie to the raw power of Running Wild, from Song Kang Ho going Tony Soprano in Han Jae Rim's fantastic The Show Must Go On to the cruel and relentless hardboiled historical drama Blood Rain, these films certainly seem like the beginning of a new genre. But then the question pops up. Is noir really a genre? Or is it just a mood, conveyed through shadow and light, cinematic language, and that riveting ambiguity? In that case, noir is most certainly what fits Lee Myung Se's latest outing M.

In many ways Lee's previous two films, Nowhere to Hide and Duelist, dealt a lot with noir themes and overall mood. There's the ambiguous pairing of Park Joong Hoon and Ahn Sung Ki in Nowhere to Hide, playing cat and dog and sharing the same kind of madness for the chase itself, and Ha Ji Won and Kang Dong Won dancing in the shadows in Duelist, like two lovers communicating through swordplay in what Lee called his "Chosun Noir".

Certainly pinpointing a genre for Lee's films to fall into would be like looking at a Rubik's cube and picking which color dominates it. From his madly creative 1988 debut Gagman, the only real overtone dominating Lee's works has always been that of stripping films of all the unnecessary, going back to what made those moving pictures exciting in the first place - movement, light, shadows, the harmony and flow generated by images, music, and editing. Some dismiss Lee's methods as music video sensibilities, stripping films of their storytelling quality, but it's the visual impact itself that tells the story in his films. In that sense, M continues his tradition of pushing conventional narrative out of the window, and focusing on mood.

If Nowhere to Hide was about the two people fighting through a cinematic chase, and Duelist two enemies turning confrontation into shadowplay lovemaking, M is about dream and reality, past and present, light and darkness. Though the connection to noir seems far-fetched in narrative terms, it works when you move to visuals and emotions, memory and sound. Han Min Woo (Kang Dong Won)'s search for the mysterious Mimi (Lee Yeon Hee), just as his life seems to be on the road to perfection, is both a voyage into his past (Mimi looks like his first love) and the projection of his inner thoughts, reminding that life is not what he believed it to be. We're certainly not dealing with any complicated narrative issues in M, as the plot is stripped to the bone just like in Lee's previous two films, and what dominates is the poetic, dream-like aura. Darkness and light, like black and white, caress the characters, moving along trying to find Min Woo's answer. Who is Mimi, what does she represent to him? Is it dream or reality, the memories of his first love, or just a muse showing the keys to a novelist's doubts?

What Lee called his shining darkness, M is for Mimi. M is for muse, moon, memory, mind, mysticism. And maybe, just maybe, as strange and mad as it sounds: M is for noir.

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Published February 18, 2008

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