Critic turns spotlight on local filmsAs a film critic and an expert on East-Asian films, Tony Rayns has shaped what the Western audience understands as Asian cinema.
He’s introduced some of today’s most established artistic directors in the region, publicizing some of the central figures of China’s “fifth-generation filmmakers,” notably Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, and helped bring their films to audiences in Europe and North America. He is also responsible for drawing attention to Asian queer cinema and experimental shorts by young Asian directors.
In an interview, Mr. Rayns, who was in Korea recently as a panelist for the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, talked about the visual sensationalism in some of the earlier films by Kim Ki-duk, who rose to instant stardom after the Venice International Film Festival showed his controversial film “The Isle” (Seom) in 2000. Mr. Kim also won the best director award with his film “Samaria” early this year at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Mr. Rayns, who is based in London, was one of the first foreign film critics to support Mr. Kim’s earlier works. Yet his critique of the director’s later films have been less kind, citing Mr. Kim’s “childish and attention-seeking” motives that underlie “macho fantasy” in films such as “Blue Gate” and “The Isle.”
In a review of Mr. Kim’s “The Coast Guard” in Film 2.0., a local movie weekly, Mr. Rayns withdrew his support for the Korean director entirely, describing him as “a rare primitivist” after the generation of Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of 1970s cinema who used lurid, sentimental plots.
Moreover, Mr. Rayns said he’s had difficulty in bringing Mr. Kim’s films to festivals he organizes because they don’t meet the principles he set up as a critic.
“When I show a film, I don’t have to like it,” says Mr. Rayns. “But I have to be able to defend it. I have to have some reason.”
Berenice Reynaud, a French film critic and the author of “A City of Sadness,” shares a similar view about Mr. Rayns in an article she wrote for an online film journal, “Senses of Cinema.”
“With Rayns, you have a sense of what you’re going to see, and more importantly, why it was chosen,” she says. “When among aficionados, we sometimes exchange knowing smiles at a screening: ‘Oh, this is a [sic] Tony’s movie?’ Meaning that, as a curator who knows his terrain, Rayns can’t help but project his vision of the world onto his selection of films ― as a true auteur does.”
Mr. Rayns’s affinity for Korean cinema dates back to the early 1980s, when he watched a number of early films by Im Kwon-taek. But his first visit to Seoul was much later, in 1988, when he found talented Korean filmmakers who were less heralded. Since then, Mr. Rayns has been one of the key mediators between the Korean film industry and Western viewers.
Wide range of interests
His interest in film has always covered a broad range of areas, including film criticism, programming, exhibition and filmmaking. He first published articles about film in his university newspaper at Cambridge, where he also ran film societies.
Then he went on to co-edit the film magazine “Cinema” and a film newspaper called “Cinema Rising.” In 2001, he shot “Jang Sun-woo Variations,” a documentary about the director of controversial films such as “Lies” and “Road to the Racetrack.”
These days, Mr. Rayns writes for the British film magazine “Sight and Sound”; edits English subtitles of Korean films; judges at major film festivals and works as a programmer for the Vancouver International Film Festival. Last month, he was awarded the 2004 Kawakita Prize in Tokyo for contributing to Japanese film industry.
His selection of Korean films has always varied in genre and subject matter, though his cinematic taste often tends to lean toward non-mainstream fare when he programs “Dragons and Tigers,” a special section of Asian films at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
His invariable support for Jang Sun-woo, whom the critic dubs “the most interesting director in East Asia,” also shows that he tends to take the development of an auteurist filmmaker more seriously than the quality of the individual work itself.
Some of the Korean films he’s reviewed favorably in the past year include Bong Jun-ho’s “Memories of Murder,” Jang Jun-hwan’s “Save the Green Planet,” Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman Is the Future of Man” and Kim Dong-won’s “Repatriation.”
Mr. Rayns manifests particular distaste for some Korean films that were recently invited to European film festivals including Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy,” a winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes, which Mr. Rayns calls “childish” and failing to reflect on reality.
His criticism doesn’t spare the programmers at major European film festivals, who, Mr. Rayns says, simply try “to endanger controversy.”
“When Alberto Barbera invited Kim Ki-Duk’s ‘The Isle’ to Venice, for example, I don’t believe that he did so from a position of broad knowledge of Korean cinema or with the interests of Korean cinema at heart,” he says. “I think he cynically selected the film specifically to draw attention to himself and the festival.”
His bold criticisms of Korean films have spurred spirited debates among those in the local film industry.
Mr. Rayns’s critique of Lee Jae-Yong’s “Untold Scandal” in Film 2.0 last year led to months of intense disputes between the movie producers and Mr. Rayns’s advocates, which played out in the pages of the magazine. In his Film 2.0 review, under the Korean headline “A film by a rich boy who met a wheel of fortune,” he heavily criticized the film’s lack of creativity and overemphasis on style.
Critics of the critic
Lee Hyun-seung, the director of “Siwolae,” said in an interview with the magazine that Mr. Rayns is simply using his reviews to take his anger out on Korean directors, who no longer need his international film network. Others, such the film critic Kim Young-jin, supported Mr. Rayns, saying, “He pointed out the aspects of the film that other Korean directors find it hard to say up front.”
Mr. Rayns says his harsh words for “Untold Scandal” at the time were partly due to the film’s commercial success in Korea ― “certainly enough of a high-profile hit to be able to take an attack,” he says. “If the film had been struggling to find an audience, I wouldn’t have written the piece.”
As an observer of the local film industry, he has criticized the government for trying to dismantle the screen quota system, which requires movie theaters to screen domestic films 146 days out of the year as a way to protect Korean films from the encroachment of Hollywood blockbusters. But he’s also pointed out some problems in the direction of the movement.
During the Pusan International Film Festival in 2000, Mr. Rayns said it was unrealistic to expect other countries to get behind the Korean film industry when the move to protect the local industry is based on nationalist motives.
Unless the local industry shifted the focus of the struggle to the issue of cultural diversity ― “an issue that the French, the British, the Chinese and everyone else in the world threatened with total domination by Hollywood can easily relate to” ― asking for support from the international community is like asking Koreans to protect French cheese, he quoted as saying in Film 2.0.
“My sense as a foreign visitor is that Korean culture generally is still in a somewhat ‘nationalist’ phase for understandable historical reasons,” he says. “I personally have no strong feelings either way about Korean nationalism, but I think that in some ways it holds back the development of Korean film culture.”
Whether his reasons are right or wrong, Mr. Rayns has certainly brought another view of Korean cinema as a cultural outsider.
“If I am writing for a Korean magazine and my writing is to be translated into Korean, I am aiming to stimulate discussion and provoke debate,” he says. “And my film-critic friends in Korea tell me that I’ve been moderately successful in doing so.”
by Park Soo-mee