You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Troubled Worlds

War-weariness in South Korea; Murakami’s dreamlike world; a fallen Russian billionaire.

The Front Line

Norwegian Wood


It used to be said that, paradoxically, a war film, even if its intent was anti-war, unavoidably conveyed excitements that were attractive. This paradox has seemed in recent years to be dwindling. For prime instance, Clint Eastwood’s companion films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were as bareboned and glory-free (yet appreciative) as possible. Generalizations are risky in this vast genre, but at least some relatively recent war films have tried to be unseductive.

Such is The Front Line from South Korea. The director, Jang Hun, who is completely competent, has, with his writer Park Sang-yeon, fashioned an account of three years in the war with North Korea, 1950-1953, that leaves us immersed in verity.

The picture has a narrative, but in contrast to the usual emphasis, the story seems to be there to support the background. A South Korean lieutenant is assigned to a platoon on the eastern front to track down a suspected mole who is passing on material to and from the other side. In this platoon he finds a former college friend. Things develop.

But while they are developing, we see a lot of combat, mostly hand-to-hand, often large-scale. Bodies fall and are rarely attended and almost never mourned. Possible death is simply one of the conditions of the job. This professionalism is contrasted by Jang Hun with close-ups from time to time to remind us that these are people.

The fighting is mostly concerned with a hill that is taken and lost repeatedly by both sides. At the end, when a truce is signed, the hill is in North Korean hands. The truce won’t take effect for twelve hours, and the South Korean platoon commander orders that the hill be retaken before then. (If a soldier questions an officer’s order, the officer holds a pistol to the man’s head, which suffices.)

The action of the whole picture is bookended by two scenes with a North Korean officer. Early in the film he scorns a group of South Korean prisoners, including the lieutenant, because they don’t know what they are fighting for and will lose. He releases the prisoners because, he says, they will be needed by the North for rebuilding after the war. Three years later, near the end of the film, we see the same Northern officer with some friends, utterly wearied, no longer sure of what he has been fighting for. Of course we remember that this is a South Korean film.

It is a waste of time to think about war—not any particular war but the phenomenon in itself. It was, is, will be, despite recurrent attempts to tell truths about it. Still, we can be grateful that a Jang Hun comes along now and then to inscribe a human record.

TRAN ANH HUNG is a writer-director who was born in Vietnam, lives in Paris, and has made his latest film in Japan. It is called Norwegian Wood, a title familiar from the Beatles song that is also the title of a novel by Haruki Murakami, the source of this film.

The novel has been translated into thirty-three languages. Now it is translated into film, although, as Tran admits, with some changes. The book (unread by me) is a recollection: Tran puts it into the present tense with an occasional voice-over spoken by the protagonist some years later.

The story begins in 1967 with a hijinks fake duel between two students that delights the girlfriend of one of them. She is Naoko; her swain is Kizuki; the other man is his best friend, Watanabe. With these students, the ’60s are not what they were with us. The lovers are seen only in conventional romantic attitudes—nothing hip. Watanabe is walking along one day when he is suddenly engulfed by a political protest group that swirls past him and, very notably, leaves him undisturbed.

Quite suddenly, and without explanation, Kizuki commits suicide. Soon afterward Watanabe leaves this university and moves to Tokyo. Sometime later, much to his surprise, Naoko follows him there, and here occurs the first of her behavioral oddities. He is reading outdoors, looks up, and sees her standing some distance off looking away—although she has come a great distance to see him. He goes to her, and they greet each other warmly. She proposes that they go for a walk, which suggests intimacy, but they walk quite rapidly with her somewhat ahead of him.

Yet soon they become amorously involved, and she tells him that she has always preferred him. They make love, and he discovers that she is a virgin. She and Kizuki could never do it successfully, she says. (The reason for his suicide?) Despite this encounter, she quite unexpectedly leaves Tokyo, leaving word that she is going to a retreat—a beautiful sanatarium, in fact—outside Kyoto.

What is especially unusual all through the above, and which continues throughout, is Tran’s treatment of the material. Even in the most realistic scenes he manages to create a sense of abstraction, in passionate scenes especially. Many of the moments are shadowy, with a deep blue overcast. Tran has not literally made the story a memoir, but he has visually suggested that this is the way matters are now held in Watanabe’s mind.

In the rest of the film Watanabe follows Naoko to the sanatarium and is patient and tender with her. She responds as far as possible. Then another woman thrusts herself into the story, and of course matters gnarl, sometimes darkly. The film flows on in its stream-like state, which is helped by the fact that we almost never see Watanabe in anything but his relation with these people, almost out of the rest of the world—a student who talks about exams yet who never goes to class or has any other obligations. Besides, all the principals seem to have exceptional money for students, with nice clothes, nice apartments, freedom to travel. Perhaps in some measure that is part of memory’s embellishment.

The acting in the film is key. Every moment by Ken’ichi Matsuyama as Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi as Naoko is valid yet seems distilled by memory rather than presented raw. At the last Tran has made a unique film, a man’s memories of his palpitated student days seen in a somewhat softened dream.

“RICH PEOPLE HAVE human rights, too” is not a cry we expect to hear from Russia, even post-Soviet Russia, but it is the integral point of the documentary Khodorkovsky. The subject, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is now well-known as the Russian billionaire who is in a Siberian prison for tax evasion. A German film-maker, Cyril Tuschi, has investigated the story with a double result: clarity about the complicated saga and some truth about the environment in which it occurred.

Tuschi has a sharp sense of tempo and shot composition, and he obviously knows how to ask questions, because he gets good answers. (Only one bother: there are some bits of animation the absence of which would help.) Khodorkovsky began life as a fervent communist, says his first wife, who met him when they were both chemistry students, was instantly attracted to him and still thinks he is a wonderful man. We are not given details of how and when he left both chemistry and communism, but many who saw his rise provide lively outsider glimpses. Friends, business acquaintances, government officials, even a former German finance minister help in portraying a man who managed to remain ingratiating while determinedly making his way. That is, until he ran into an obstacle named Putin.

Putin is one of the cleverest, most complex, and most dangerous political figures today. Remember that George W. Bush said that he looked into Putin’s eyes and was reassured. Remember, too, that dissident journalists are shot while Putin is in power. Putin became convinced that Khodorkovsky was financing a political opponent of his and apparently took steps. Clips of Putin at press conferences and meetings are in the film and illustrate his dark savoir faire in this matter.

Khodorkovsky, who was out of the country when trouble brewed, insisted on going back to face the situation, and suffered the consequences. (His son, who lives in England, is furious with him for going back.) Khodorkovsky’s lawyer is careful to make it clear that his client is not being mistreated in prison. We see Khodorkovsky when he appeals his sentence and is brought to court, where he is kept in a glass cage and looks quite well. The result of his appeal: his sentence is extended by six years. (At about this point one interviewee says defensively that Khodorkovsky has been called a Jew, but it isn’t true; only his father was Jewish.)

What is missing in this picture is how Khodorkovsky became a billionaire—not the financial details but insight into the social and business elasticity in this restive country that made it possible. Yet Tuschi has given us a close look at a country that is slipping back into the grip of a dictatorial ruler.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the February 16, 2012 issue of the magazine.