Fantasia 2017: Before you see A Taxi Driver, here is some background info about the Gwangju Massacre

Thomas Kretschmann, left, and Song Kang-ho in South Korean film A Taxi Driver.

A Taxi Driver is the closing film of the 2017 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival. It’s a dramatization of chilling, real-life events from South Korea’s tumultuous history.

In May of 1980, Jurgen Hinzpeter, a German reporter, stationed in Tokyo, hears rumours about  government violence against citizens in Gwangju South Korea. News is not getting out because phone lines have been cut and roads into and out of the city are blocked. The country is under martial law; many schools are closed and news reports are censored.

Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann) flies to Seoul and hires a taxi driver named Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho) to drive the 300 km to Gwangju. (In those days, the city’s named was rendered as Kwangju in English.) With advice form local farmers, the two men manage to bypass the barricades and enter the city using tiny back roads.

Once in the city they see a real spirit of solidarity among the citizens, who are hungry for democracy and an end to military rule. Then they see soldiers shooting the protestors, young and old, along with people who try to help the wounded. They capture these events on film while trying to avoid arrest, injuries or their own deaths.

The film’s only screening, today, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, is sold out, but if you are among the lucky people who have a ticket, here are some links to recent articles and ones written at the time, that will give you some background information to the events depicted in the film.

An article in today’s New York Times says: “With the Korean news media muzzled by martial law, only the handful of foreign correspondents present could publish reports on what was happening in Gwangju. . .Mr. Hinzpeter was one of the few foreign correspondents to document the carnage, and his footage was seen around the globe.”

“Mr. Hinzpeter, who died last year at 78, has long been celebrated in South Korea for his part in exposing Mr. Chun’s atrocities. A memorial to the journalist stands in Gwangju. . . Behind a hospital, ‘relatives and friends showed me their loved ones, opening many of the coffins that had been placed in rows,’ Mr. Hinzpeter wrote. ‘Never in my life, even filming in Vietnam, had I seen anything like this.’ “

A New York Times article from May 20, 1980 bears the headline “New Repression in South Korea.”

Gwangju is about 300 km from Seoul. These days, one can drive there in about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

This article from The Hankyoreh calls the massacre Korea’s Tiananmen, referring to the 1989 massacre of students in Beijing, China. Lee Gang-jun lost his twin brother Lee Gang-su. “When he asked a forensic pathologist to determine the cause of death in 1997, just before the body was moved from a cemetery in Gwangju’s Mangwol neighborhood to the May 18th National Cemetery, it was because he wanted the truth to come out. ‘My brother’s skull was caved in, and even the specialists couldn’t figure out what the marks were caused by,’ (Lee) said. Gang-jun believes that his brother died during torture at the Sangmudae military base. After his death, soldiers shot him to create the impression that he died from a bullet would instead of complications suffered during torture.”

This article from ThoughtCo. says “Troops shot dead twenty girls at Gwangju’s Central High School. Ambulance and cab drivers who tried to take the wounded to hospitals were shot. One hundred students who sheltered in the Catholic Center were slaughtered. Captured high school and university students had their hands tied behind them with barbed wire; many were then summarily executed.”

An article in The Korea Observer includes quotes from Na Byung-un, who was there in Gwangju. “In those days, South Korea’s GDP per capita was just under $4,000 per person, or less than one-sixth than that of the United States, according to World Bank data. As a country with few natural resources recovered from Japanese colonization, it struggled to find its footing politically, economically, and socially. This was especially true in Gwangju, a city nestled in the one of the poorest regions of South Korea, agricultural South Jeolla Province. ‘People were very, very poor, and they led miserable lives.’ Na recalls. ‘They didn’t even have one dollar.’ “

“According to Na, there was a rumor that those who criticized the government would be kidnapped and murdered in secret. . . .Na recounts, “People had been uprising and protesting against dictatorship continuously under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. They put innocent people into prison and oppressed the masses by force of arms. So people all rose up. . . All Gwangju citizens were involved in the protests, because all of us were together as one. Everyone thought we had to stand against injustice,’ says Na. ‘Even the police were on our side. They changed into normal clothes at night and joined us.’ “

Tim Shorrock of The Nation has reported extensively on Korea. In this article he says that the Korean troops who injured and killed civilians were “sent with the approval of the U.S. commander of the US-Korea Joint Command, Gen. John Wickham.”

“That decision, made at the highest levels of the US government, forever stained the relationship between the United States and the South. For the people of Gwangju, many of whom believed that the US military would side with the forces of democracy, it was a deep betrayal that they’ve never forgotten. And once the rest of Korea knew the truth about the rebellion and understood that the United States had helped throttle it, anti-American sentiment spread like wildfire.”

(U.S. president Jimmy) “Carter decided that the Gwangju uprising—despite the US knowledge that it had been sparked by the slaughter of unarmed civilian protesters—had to be crushed militarily. Five days after the meeting, South Korea’s crack 9th Army Division rolled into the city and killed the remaining rebels holed up in the provincial capital building.”

Shorrock’s article contains links to many, many others.

A Taxi Driver is distributed by Well Go USA. Perhaps it will return to Montreal for a general run in the future.

See Colossal again, or for the first time, free, outdoors, at the Fantasia Film Festival, tonight!

In the film Colossal. Anne Hathaway’s character has a weird connection with a giant monster that’s attacking Seoul.

Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival showed Nacho Vigalondo’s quirky first feature film Timecrimes (Cronocrimenes) way back in 2008, so it’s highly appropriate that the festival show Colossal.

Though most of Colossal is set in the U.S. (actually, British Columbia, for the small town parts) there is also a giant monster attacking Seoul, South Korea. So it REALLY fits in the Fantasia lineup.

In fact, it’s so appropriate, that when I first heard about Colossal, I thought that it might have its premiere at Fantasia. But, no, it was released months ago.

Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, and Dan Stevens are among the stars.

It will be shown on a terrace behind the Hall Building, at 1445 de Maisonneuve West. Enter by Mackay St.

Colossal,  9 pm, Wednesday, July, 26, 2017.

Django review: Go for the music – ignore the plot

Reda Kateb, centre, plays jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in the film Django, directed by Etienne Comar.

The French film Django presents the life of renowned jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt during the last years of World War II in Occupied France. The music is wonderful, but the plot is disappointing. It features a fictional, generic, femme fatale while all but ignoring Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, a real-life Luftwaffe officer who loved the very music that the Nazis criticized as degenerate. Schulz-Koehn wrote about jazz and even supervised recording sessions under the name Dr. Jazz. More than once he helped Reinhardt and other musicians get out of trouble. Wouldn’t you want to know more about such a conundrum? (Director Stanley Kubrick had hoped to make a film about Schulz-Koehn. The Atlantic wrote an article about that.)

Many German officers attend jazz concerts in Paris, despite that degenerate label. (Signs warn that they’d better not try any dancing, though.) Django (played by Reda Kateb) does not mind playing for Nazis. Music is all he knows and he has to make a living, after all. He also declares “It’s not my war.” On the other hand, he’s in no rush to leave the familiarity of France for an extensive tour of Germany, and the idea of playing for Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and other bigwigs holds no appeal at all, especially since solos, syncopation, quick tempos and other musical flourishes are strictly controlled, when not banned altogether. (Does that fall under the “banality of evil?”)

Django’s manager reminds Django and his bandmates that saying “No” to the Germans is a very dangerous thing to do. The fictional femme fatale, Louise de Klerk (Cécile de France) points out that travelling into the heart of Nazi darkness would also be dangerous. There’s no happy solution to this problem.

After a certain amount of dithering in Paris, Django and his entourage head for the border in hopes of crossing into neutral Switzerland. It’s a closely watched border, though, so they must wait (and wait and wait) while hoping that members of the Resistance will deign to help them eventually. The film pretty much grinds to a halt at this point. Django plays in local bars to earn some food money, sometimes hiding his face under a hat, sometimes not. It seems extremely foolhardy considering his fame and unique style.

(SPOILER!) In one laughably silly scene Django is being chased by tracking dogs, so he lies down in the snow and sprinkles a few handfuls of the white stuff on top of himself. Somehow, I don’t think that would fool the dogs at all.

As many viewers will already know, Django did indeed survive the war, but as far as I can tell, the film fudges his escape attempt. The implication is that he made it into Switzerland and presumably stayed there until the war was over, but in fact, the Swiss border guards would not let him in.

What I did not know before seeing this film: Django Reinhardt could also play huge honking church organs and compose for them, too.

Things I learned later from Google: Django Reinhardt was touring England with his Quintette du Hot-Club de France when England declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939. Django returned to France immediately, but the Quintette’s violinist, Stéphane Grappelli, stayed in England until the war was over.

In regard to spending the war in France, Django said: “It is better to be frightened in your own country than in another one.”

In France during the war you could trade a Django Reinhardt record for two kg of butter on the black market. Django Reinhardt died May 16, 1953 at the relatively young age of 43.

Django is 115 minutes long

Director: Étienne Comar.

Screenplay: Étienne Comar and Alexis Salatko, based on the novel Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko.

With: Reda Kateb, Cécile de France, Beata Balya, BimBam Merstein, Gabriel Mirété, Vincent Frade, Johnny Montreuil, Raphaël Dever, Patrick Mille, Xavier Beauvois (In French, German, English, Romani dialogue)

Music by the Rosenberg Trio.

In Montreal, Django is playing, with English subtitles, at the Quartier Latin Cinema, 350 rue Emery, H2X 1J1.

Django Reinhardt’s music, as performed by Nomad O Swing, Eclectic Django and Denis Chang, can often by heard at Montreal Jazz Bar Diese Onze, 4115-A, rue St. Denis, H2W 2M7.

OMG! Action-packed Commando 2 opens on Friday, March 3, in Montreal!

Vidyut Jammwal as Captain Karanvir Singh Dogra in the film Commando 2: The Black Money Trail
Vidyut Jammwal as Captain Karanvir Singh Dogra in the film Commando 2: The Black Money Trail

In the summer of 2013, Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival showed an Indian action film called Commando. Fantasia fans loved it. (Me, too!)

The headline for my Montreal Gazette blog post was handed to me on a silver platter when I heard a (female) audience member exclaim “That’s the sexiest man I’ve seen in my life!” She was referring to the star of Commando, Vidyut Jammwal.

Jammwal plays a super-skilled, extremely fit Indian soldier who is captured and brutally tortured by another state, in some faraway outpost. Of course, he escapes his tormentors. I wrote that his “skills include, but are certainly not limited to: punching, kicking, stabbing, setting traps, swinging on vines, running up walls (or people) leaping off rooftops, cliffs and bridges, over cars or through the windows of their open doors, etc., etc.”

“He gives good glare, where the bad guys are concerned, but is also ready with great smouldering looks, when the heroine (Pooja Chopra) needs one. Multi-talented!”

The film’s subhead “A One Man Army,” was an understatement, if anything.

If ever a film was crying out for a sequel, it was Commando. And now. . .  it’s almost here! Commando 2: The Black Money Trail,  opens in Montreal (and many other places, I’m sure!) on Friday, March 3, 2017. Whoohoo! The film is about money-laundering on a massive scale, along with a double kidnapping in Malaysia.

Vidyut Jammwal in the action film Commando 2.
Vidyut Jammwal in the action film Commando 2.

Take a look at the exceptional action choreography in the trailer below. (More than 16 MILLION people have already watched it since January 23, 2017!) The action is even more impressive than what we saw in the first film. The leaps, spins, the tumbles! Good grief! How does Jammwal slip through that tiny window? He has been studying Kalaripayattu, a martial art from the Indian state of Kerala since he was three years old. That probably helps!

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Jammwal said “Commando 2 will be the biggest action film in recent times.” “We created a new genre of action, where no cables and wires were used. It will be a visual spectacle.” I believe it! I’m also thinking, maybe it’s time to redefine the concept of a “chick flick.” We don’t necessarily need female bonding, singalongs, weddings, alcohol, flowers, fancy food or clothes, you know?

I usually avoid opening weekends, because the films often sell out and audiences can be too unruly, but in this instance. . .I don’t think I’ll have the patience to wait five whole days until (my unofficial name for it) “Cheapo Tuesday.”

Commando 2: The Black Money Trail, written by Ritesh Shah, directed by Deven Bhojani, starring Vidyut Jammwal, Adah Sharma, Freddy Daruwala, Thakur Anoop Singh, Esha Gupta, Adil Hussain, Suhail Nayyar.

Cinema Politica Mondays: Regarding Susan Sontag


Regarding Susan Sontag, a documentary about the U.S. writer and intellectual, will be shown in Montreal on Monday, March 30, 2015, by Cinema Politica.
Regarding Susan Sontag, a documentary about the U.S. writer and intellectual, will be shown in Montreal on Monday, March 30, 2015, by Cinema Politica.

We can rely on Cinema Politica to bring us interesting documentaries throughout the school year. Tonight’s selection is Regarding Susan Sontag. Sontag was once one of the more visible intellectuals in the U.S.

I haven’t seen the film, but I certainly want to, based on several very enthusiastic reviews that I found. How often is a documentary film reviewed by newspapers, and Vogue and The Economist? Interesting company!

Nathan Heller in Vogue:   “She saw writing as a personal act that bore global responsibility. ‘I didn’t feel that I was expressing myself,’ she’s quoted as saying in Regarding Susan Sontag. . . ‘I felt that I was taking part in a noble activity.’ ”
In Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Ken Eisner writes:
“this (film) should be seen by anyone with an interest in language and history.”

He also says that it “looks at how the great essayist (and not-so-great novelist) was viewed before the role of public intellectual became obsolete.”

But, but. . . don’t we still need “public intellectuals?” What do you think? On with info about the film.

Robert Lloyd In The Los Angeles Times: “Sontag’s best writing gives one permission to see things in a new way — or makes it impossible to continue to see them in the old one.” “Among American intellectuals, she was the rare rock star, and though her work stands on its own with allowance made for any writer’s ups and downs, her personal magnetism is very much part of the story; she was a thinking person’s pinup, friendly and formidable, impish and intense, bright-eyed, wide-smiled, with a head of hair that amounted almost to a signature.”

Susan Sontag wrote a lot of books! Regarding Susan Sontag, a documentary about the U.S. writer and intellectual, will be shown in Montreal on Monday, March 30, 2015, by Cinema Politica.
Susan Sontag wrote a lot of books! Regarding Susan Sontag, a documentary about the U.S. writer and intellectual, will be shown in Montreal on Monday, March 30, 2015, by Cinema Politica.

J. Bryan Lowder in Slate:  “Ten years after her death, Sontag’s supreme writerly confidence remains both an inspiration and a terror to would-be critics and public intellectuals, and for good reason—she was the embodiment of a certain school of serious, morally committed, iconoclastic, and often deliciously haughty 20th-century criticism.”  “. . .what this film provides, is an honest introduction to the person—in this case, a person who comprised qualities both deeply admirable and terribly off-putting in equal measure. Watching Regarding Susan Sontag, I felt awash in that person, carried aloft on the waves of her exquisite curiosities and pulled by the undertow of her messy personal life, suspended in the trough between the figure she wanted to be and the human being she was. . . I thoroughly enjoyed Kates’ attempt to do justice to that package—the whole package—sex, uncertainty, hubris, and brilliance, all mixed up together.”

BTW: Lowder’s review reveals that there is such a things as a master’s degree in criticism. Go ahead, call me naive, but I had no idea! Learn something everyday!

More details about this screening and Cinema Politica can be found on the Cinema Politica web site. According to the web site the “screening will be followed by a Skype Q&A with director Nancy Kates. Venue is wheelchair accessible.”

REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG, directed by Nancy Kates, / United States / 2014 / 100 ‘ / in English
Monday, March 30, 7 p.m.
Concordia University
1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd., W., H-110

Admission: Pay what you can – $5 to $10 are suggested amounts.

Cinema Politica Mondays: Righteous pranksters The Yes Men are coming to Montreal! Meet them and see their latest film!

If you’re already familiar with The Yes Men, the following information might be all you need from me: 7 p.m., Monday, March 16, 2015, Room H-110, Concordia University.

For the rest of you. . . The Yes Men are bringing the latest documentary about themselves, The Yes Men Are Revolting, to Montreal. This is the third film about them, so they must be pretty interesting, right? Right! And the film was invited to the Toronto Film Festival in 2014 and the Berlin Film Festival this year.

The Yes Men are multi-talented multi-taskers. They are authors, activists, co-conspirators, inspired impersonators, performance artists, political pranksters, practical jokers, rabble rousers, social-justice warriors. Or, to put it more briefly, they’re “the good guys.” (Well, I think so, and I know that many others do, too.)

The Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, though they are aided and abetted by hundreds of like minded souls. They use humour, chutzpah and their considerable wits to expose injustice. They hope that their antics will shame corporations or politicians into doing the right thing.

The Yes Men are canny users of the media. They often get their message out through phony web sites, phony press releases, or at press conferences where they impersonate someone in a position of authority.

Their most audacious prank was on BBC TV in 2004. On the 20th anniversary of a deadly chemical leak in Bhopal, India, Bichlbaum impersonated a “Dow Chemical spokesman” who said that the company would take full responsibility for the disaster and spend $12 billion on clean up and compensation. (Dow Chemical had bought Union Carbide in 2001, but refused to accept any responsibility for the victims or for cleaning up the site, which was still contaminated, 20 years after the leak.)

At least 8,000 people died within 72 hours of the gas leak at a Union Carbide plant, 15,000 more died in the following years, and 100,000 had debilitating illnesses “for which treatment is largely ineffective.”

The hoax got lots of international attention, though sadly it did not prompt Dow Chemical to change its stance.

The Yes Men have impersonated representatives of the World Trade Organization, Halliburton,
U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. They even have “Canadian content.” During a Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen they created several fake web sites that said Environment Canada was committed to making huge reductions in greenhouse gases, and that Canada would pay $13 billion in compensation to African countries that were adversely affected by climate change. They spoofed an oil and gas conference in Calgary, and they put Justin Bieber’s face on an asthma inhaler. (That was on a web site created to mock greenwashing by coal companies. You can read the post I wrote about it here.)
When reviewing the previous films, The Yes Men (2003) and The Yes Men Fix the World (2009) some critics wrote that they would have liked to know more about what makes the Yes Men tick, what prompts their activism. While I’ve not seen The Yes Men Are Revolting, reviews I’ve read indicate that we do learn more about the day-to-day lives of the duo and how their political work has an impact on their family relationships.

There is no fixed price for admission to the screening of The Yes Men Are Revolting, it’s a pay what you can situation, though the suggested price is $5 to $10.
I suggest bringing some extra cash, in case there is some The Yes Men merchandise for sale. Their online store has T-shirts, DVDs, posters, books, spoof editions of New York Times, New York Post AND “one Survivaball: Couture for Climate Calamity. Extremely Limited Edition – $10,000.00” I suspect that the last item is a joke. The thing does exist, but are they really selling it? Maybe we will find out on Monday night.

The Yes Men Are Revolting, directed by Laura Nix & The Yes Men / United States / 2014 / 90 ‘ / in English

Screening, with The Yes Men in attendance, at 7 p.m., Monday, March 16, 2015, 1455 de Maisonneuve West, Room H110, Concordia University, Montreal

The Facebook Event page is here.

Learn more about The Yes Men here.

Learn more about Cinema Politica here.