Japan Society’s new film series, Love Will Tear Us Apart, is a perversely entertaining rejoinder to Hollywood’s Garry Marshall plan for depicting romantic love. Imagine Katherine Heigl delivering the pillow talk in Koji Wakamatsu’s The Woman Who Wanted to Die (1970): “If I disembowel myself, will you decapitate me?” The series, curated by chief film programmer Samuel Jamier, attempts a trans-national exchange of sadomasochism, with 22 features from Japan and South Korea communicating in the universal language of emotional abuse. It includes premieres of new films from Wakamatsu (Petrel Hotel Blue) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Kotoko), and work from auteurs like Hong Sang-soo (Tale of Cinema) and Lee Chang-dong (Oasis).
But back to The Woman Who Wanted to Die and the other early Wakamatsu adrenaline jolt in the series, Running in Madness, Dying in Love (1969), both portraits of disillusioned (and horny) young leftists shot with the punchy intensity of Sam Fuller. Set amid the failing protests against the U.S.-Japan security treaties and the suicide of Yukio Mishima, these are youth-in-revolt films that percolate with a self-immolating intensity. It’s the same subject matter that animates Wakamatsu’s masterful United Red Army (2007), but instead of a top-down survey of leftist entropy, it’s a boots-on-the-ground immersion in Trotskyite troop morale, which is suicidally low. The revolutionaries prefer to court self-annihilation than fight what remains of the good fight.
Death also haunts the corners of Hong Sang-soo’s Tale of Cinema (2005), a bifurcated tale about l’amour fou in art and life. In a film-within-the-film, two dolorous young lovers make a suicide pact, seemingly as a lark (unlike the studiously serious couple in The Woman Who Wanted to Die). The legible world of this “movie” ends, and the inarticulate, misdirected striving of one of its viewers, a dippy wannabe director, emerges. The romantic chatter of the first, fictional world sounds absurd out on the streets, with the director telling a struggling actress that she is his “ideal woman.” No crazed affair ensues, only a perturbed brush-off, but she does lead him to the deathbed of their mutual mentor, a scene of crumbling mortality that forces him, if only momentarily, to take stock of his own rapidly dissipating life.
The series gets literal about intertwining desire and death with a trio of films from body-horror scion Shinya Tsukamoto (best known for Tetsuo: The Iron Man), including the U.S. premiere of his smothering-mother thriller Kotoko (2011). The most powerful use of the sex-death metaphor lies in his Vital (2004), in which amnesiac medical student Hiroshi Takagi (Tadanobu Asano) becomes enraptured by the corpse he is assigned to cut in dissection class. The erotic-asphyxiation games he plays with a classmate lead him closer to the precipice of death, and so to his love, but only in delirious fantasy can he consummate it. Tsukamoto films Asano in bottom-of-the-ocean blue filters, isolated and adrift in his own head. Lyrical hallucinations of his re-animated beloved spur his regenerating memory, which will force him to come to terms with the body on the table, and make peace with the wraith in his mind.
Oasis (2002) also deals with sexual taboos and fantasies of escape, but at a different register. The style is rough-hewn handheld intimacy, but the emotions are as grand as those in a Douglas Sirk movie. A small-time, smaller-minded crook begins a whirlwind romance with a woman with cerebral palsy, and their voracious desire for each other unsettles everyone around them. This ever-expanding passion explodes into scenes of pure fantasy, where the woman can unclench her body and dance by the subway tracks. Imprisoned in their unfit bodies, their love is seen as criminal, and the law forces their separation. This thwarted union builds to a crescendo of unfettered need as devastating as Sirk’s grand melodrama of debility, Magnificent Obsession.
The lovers in Vibrator (2003) are physically fit, but damaged emotionally, fragile refugees of Japan’s Lost Decade, from 1991 – 2000, during which economic growth ceased. Rei (Shinobu Terashima) is a painfully lonely freelance writer, out picking up her nightly stash of booze. On a whim she jumps into the long-haul truck of Okabe (Nao Omori), a gregarious storyteller who hides behind his fictions. It is a lovers-on-the-run movie in which no one is chasing, an escape from one void that runs straight into another. Director Ryuichi Hiroki patiently tracks the protective lies and maneuverings of the cagey duo as they mask their pasts and sink freely into the present of the other’s bodies, an enrapturing and oh-so temporary form of forgetting.
In the bittersweet Korean drama My Dear Enemy (Lee Yoon-ki, 2008), it is the present that needs forgetting, as the global financial crisis affects all of the film’s hucksters and strivers. It follows Hee-soo (Jeon Do-yeon, who won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival), as she attempts to recoup the $3,500 she lent her deadbeat ex-boyfriend. She spends the day at his side as he flirts cash out of women around Seoul, never speaking of their past or their troubles, submerging it in snide asides. What emerges is an economy of flattery—money proffered for ego strokes—a system of prostration before cash that the ex has perfected and the newly downwardly mobile Hee-soo has to learn in order to survive.
Class also plays a role in the most traditional narrative in the series, Villain (2010), an operatic crime saga which traces the radiating impact the murder of a young girl has on the community. The film recalls Mystic River in its scope, which ranges from the urban center of Tokyo to the rural fishing village in Nagasaki. It is the poor Nagasaki kid who commits the crime, and then goes on the lam with a lonely department store employee, who stares at him with the same devotional intensity as the ladies who wanted to marry Charles Manson. The respective families battle with their own grief, while the killer and his girl shut out the world in their paradisiacal lighthouse hide-out, reminiscent of the planetarium in Rebel Without A Cause—both proffering the impossible hope that the worlds above offer a way out.
The series displays a kaleidoscopic array of modes in which Korean and Japanese artists have depicted transgressive desires over the last four decades and placed them in dynamic conversation. The shift from Koji Wakamatsu’s revolutionary ideologues into the apathetic loners of Vibrator and Oasis describes a whole history’s worth of artistic, economic, and social convulsions. The opportunity to witness this shift on the big screen, and to take in the diversity of styles, from Wakamatsu’s blunt kino-fist to Hong Song-soo’s inebriated realism, is an indecent proposal worth accepting.
Love Will Tear Us Apart runs from March 2 – 18: japansociety.org.