In my trips to Toronto and Pusan this year, I noticed a preponderance of misery in the films I watched. My half-assed theory is that a hopelessness about the condition of the world began after 9/11/01 and has only spread and deepened over the past six years, with no end in sight, and is finding its expression more and more prevalently in films both good and bad. Although the sampling of movies I saw at both festivals may not be representative of a true trend, it seems significant to me that the funniest one I saw in Toronto was Jiang Wen's The Sun Also Rises, which is set during the Cultural Revolution in China, another miserable time.
A.O. Scott, in Sunday's New York Times, sees a similar trend in the slate of upcoming American films about the war in Iraq, and has a similar diagnosis:
"What is missing in nearly every case is a sense of catharsis or illumination. This is hardly the fault of the filmmakers. Disorientation, ambivalence, a lack of clarity — these are surely part of the collective experience they are trying to examine. How can you bring an individual story to a satisfying conclusion when nobody has any idea what the end of the larger story will look like?"
Watching the films in this year's
Korean Cinema Retrospective in Pusan gave me a different perspective on our current miserablism. The focus of this year's retrospective was Kim Seung-ho, an actor who specialized in playing fathers in family dramas in the 50s and 60s. The post-Korean War years were certainly miserable ones, but these films aimed to provide comfort to their audiences by reflecting their hardships, and generously leavening the pathos with humor based on the daily lives of ordinary Koreans. Of course, comparing Korean commercial films from a half century ago to contemporary "art films" is probably unfair, but it does make me wonder: Where are the filmmakers willing to confront and combat our global malaise with humor, wit, and, corny as it sounds, hope.