A man is haunted by the ghost of his first love…or perhaps not. That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Lee Myung-se’s latest film, “M.”
Having no connection, as far as I can tell, with the Fritz Lang classic of the same name, “M” is instead a mesmerizing visual feast, much like Lee’s two previous features, “Nowhere to Hide” and “Duelist.” Lee is essentially an experimental filmmaker who uses as his materials the outward trappings of commercial genre cinema, much to the outrage of those who watch his films expecting a conventional, narrative-based experience. Instead, audiences are confronted with an artist of pure cinema with an instinctive feel for the plastic, painterly qualities of the film medium, and a worthy successor to Stan Brakhage or Ken Jacobs.
Such an uncompromising stance and refusal to play by the rules of box-office popularity certainly does not win you the love of the masses or help to sell many tickets. But it does result in a masterwork like “M,” which boldly flies in the face of a movie landscape that seems more than ever bent on contracting, rather than expanding, the limits of what is possible or commercially palatable in movies.
“M” casts a hypnotic spell with its incredibly textured visual and tonal tapestry: a dizzying stew of freeze-frames, rewinds, and flash-frames that incorporate dreams, nostalgia, romance, slapstick humor, restaged scenes, aural jokes (for example, voices distorted by a whirring electric fan), and allusions to Edgar Allan Poe. We are thrown immediately in the chaotic maelstrom of its protagonist, Minwoo (Kang Dong-won), a popular writer struggling to meet the deadline for delivering his new novel. Photographs swirling against a black background, a woman’s voice over, and a rapid succession of images that reoccur later in the film fly past with rapid-fire editing, after which Minwoo jolts out of bed, drenched in sweat.
It soon becomes clear what Lee is attempting here: putting his main character’s psyche on screen as if it were a film. All throughout, we must ask ourselves if what we are seeing is dream, fantasy, reality, or scenes from the novel Minwoo is trying to write. The provocative idea Lee posits is that, at least as far as artists are concerned (but perhaps for more ordinary people as well), is that it all is essentially the same. “M” at its heart is an illustration of the agonies of artistic creation, connecting it to other films which deal with this subject, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink.” The latter film, especially, provides some interesting parallels with M, particularly in its surreal and often absurdist sequences. The difficulties of creating art, and the sense of isolation from others that often results from these efforts, are rendered so keenly as to make one suspect that there are some autobiographical elements at play here as well.
To say that Minwoo is a tortured soul is an understatement. Suffering from vomiting attacks and violent nightmares, and unsuccessfully trying to keep his demons at bay with Prozac dispensed to him by a decidedly unhelpful psychotherapist, he begins to sense that he is being followed by someone. That someone turns out to be his first love, Mimi (Lee Yeon-hee), a woman he first met during his high school days. Flashbacks from that time are seen in the latter scenes of the film, and shot in warm, nostalgic golden tones that contrast with the shadowy neon blues of the present story. She may be either a ghost of his memories or a literal ghost, depending on how one chooses to read this. Mimi herself is being stalked by a mysterious, shadowy figure who tries to prevent her from following Minwoo. Mimi is at first invisible to Minwoo, until they both meet in a nocturnal bar called Lupin (a likely reference to Arsène Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s fictional detective character) which seems to only exist during nighttime hours. They have odd meetings and confrontations that combine romantic mystery and farce, as they exchange cigarettes and flirt with each other.
In the meantime, Minwoo’s relationship with his fiancé Eun-hye (Gong Hyo-jin) is becoming increasingly strained due to his violent moods and bizarre behavior, and Eun-hye’s growing suspicions that Minwoo is cheating on her. When she demands to know who Mimi is, after seeing her name in his notes, Minwoo responds that this is the name of his novel, which again raises the possibility that the scenes in which Mimi appears are from this novel. In addition, Minwoo has a cynical, bitter disregard for his own work, often describing it as trash written purely for money and public notoriety. He is a master at the art of procrastination, attempting to keep his impatient editor at bay in two hilarious restaurant scenes which use mirror-image framing and repeated dialogue, while trying to wheedle advance money out of him. His pride and self-esteem are also under attack by the money offered by his rich father-in-law, reinforcing his class-based shame at his dependence on the money and the spacious apartment provided by his fiancé’s family.
All of this sets the stage for Minwoo’s rediscovery of his own past, which for some reason he has willfully forgotten. Mimi’s ghost reawakens his need to return to simpler times in order to escape his present circumstances, and perhaps to find out where he went wrong, and how he arrived at his current state. The film concludes with a startlingly emotional resolution and perhaps Minwoo’s awakening from his constant nightmare. Emphasis, of course, on the “perhaps.” Lee’s visual strategies are not employed in the service of a mere empty technical exercise, a sin he has been accused of by many critics. The film’s initially disorienting avant-garde tropes and heavy noir atmosphere, as it progresses, gradually reveals its big, beautiful romantic heart.
The best way to experience “M” is not to fight it, or question its narrative strategy (or lack thereof), but to surrender to it, emotionally and intellectually. To chide Lee for not offering conventional drama or characters with psychological depth seems, to me, akin for criticizing an apple for not being an orange. If all one wants is storytelling, there is more than enough out there to choose from. Anyone who has followed Lee’s films should be aware at this point what they will likely be getting; if what he offers doesn’t appeal to you, by all means pass it by. But for cinema that appeals to the heart without neglecting the head, Lee Myung-se is definitely your man.
“M” screens June 27 and July 1 at the New York Asian Film Festival. For ticket information, go to the Subway Cinema Web site.