“If the world is going to get better, it is not going to get much better. If it is going to get worse, it is going to get a lot worse.”
In a Q and A following the screening of his latest feature, Iri (which screened as part of On the Edge: New Independent Film from China, April 24-26 at the Walter Reade Theater), Zhang Lu uses this self-made axiom to explain the despair that supersaturates his films. His words hit me at an oblique angle – unlike everyone else in the audience, I have to wait for them to be translated into English. Lu’s sweetly demure manner of standing and speaking doesn’t help this thirty-second delay in comprehension. I won’t realize how much sense Lu’s grim words make for about another week.
At first I don’t know if it is the gap between our cultures or simply Lu’s natural hand that causes his film to hit me in the same oblique way. Lu was asked to make a movie about the as of yet unexplained train explosion that took place in Iri, South Korea in 1977. Rather than making a film about the explosion as it took place, Lu sets the movie 31 years after the fact. Our flailing heroine is Jinseo, a woman shaken by the explosion while still in her mother’s womb, and as a result born retarded and motherless.
Just like his treatment of the explosion, Lu’s treatment of the hardships that result from Jinseo’s illness is somehow poignantly indirect. Because Jinseo lacks the IQ or the courage to object, she becomes the victim of constant exploitation. Her boss doesn’t pay her, and the men that surround her molest her wordlessly. Jinseo’s life is unspeakably tragic, but every shot depicting it is perfectly framed. In scenes that foreshadow or even depict rape and suicide, I find myself distracted by some beautiful object focused in the foreground – an elegant doorframe or a teapot from which steam slowly rises. The camera never stays on an assault for more than a second or so – it tilts to some other part of the room while we continue to hear the struggle.
This approach to potent expression may seem paradoxical, but Lu’s slower-acting elixirs probably last longer than the standard drugs. I might be focused on the red teapot in the foreground while I’m watching an ominous scene, but teapots everywhere for weeks will recall to me what happened in the background.
-Morgan H. Green