Review: Park Chul-soo’s “Kazoku Cinema”

A typically odd film from Park Chul-soo, one of Korea’s most original filmmakers, Kazoku Cinema (1998) satirically takes on the idea of artifice and “reality” being one and the same. The film starts off with Yoko (Ichio Matsuda), a porn actress who is dissatisfied with her work (and constantly criticized for her unnatural acting), and wants to do something more respectable. She hits upon the idea of making a documentary/fiction hybrid starring her family. She enlists Katayama (Kim Su-jin), an ambitious director, to take on the task of filming her family. Yoko engineers a family reunion, bringing the camera crew along. Yoko prides herself on having a “unique” family, and the characters we meet bear this out. The most reluctant is Motomi (Eri Yu), Yoko’s older sister, an advertising executive who thought she had successfully left her family and past behind. Her brother Kazuki (Shinobu Nakajima) is a taciturn, virginal misfit, whom their mother Kiyoko (Hiroko Isayama) likens to “keeping an expensive pet.” Kiyoko is a real estate broker who has long been divorced from their father Soji Hayashi (Yang Seok-il), a pachinko parlor manager. With the intrusive presence of the film crew, the family reveals their secrets and idiosyncrasies over the course of the film shoot, trying to stick to the script (and endure the ministrations of the over-eager script girl, who takes every opportunity to shoot rolls of still shots), but not succeeding very well. Katayama enthusiastically encourages all the deviations, sometimes filming the family surreptitiously, at times when they are unaware that the camera is rolling.

Katayama tells the family that his conception of this reunion is “like a festival,” but the family’s tortured history puts an end to that notion very quickly. In a brief flashback scene, we are shown the major conflict between the parents: Soji’s constant money problems, failure to provide for his children, and his violent nature. This forces Kiyoko to work as a cabaret hostess to supplement the family income, and leads to her eventually leaving Soji. Soji, in turn, resents his wife for doing this, calling her a whore, and in one scene, while Kiyoko is in the bathroom, he gathers his children around him and relates on camera how he once caught their mother with another man in their house. He also says that Kiyoko often slept with other men.

One very interesting detail about the family, only briefly alluded to, is that this is an ethnic Korean family, even though at first they seem like typical Japanese. In a telling scene, the script girl asks Katayama if they should mention that this family is Korean, and the director discourages it. Given the tortured history of Japan and Korea, there seems to be some subtext to this turmoil-filled family that relates to their ethnic background, which is all the more intriguing for mostly being left unspoken.

Based on an autobiographical novel by Korean-Japanese author Miri Yu, Kazoku Cinema was a Korean-Japanese co-production, gaining distinction for being the first Korean film shot in Japan with Japanese actors. The film anticipates the explosion of “reality” television, and shows why that word should most definitely be in quotes. As much as the family manipulates, and is manipulated by, the camera recording them, Park manipulates the viewer as well, always causing us to wonder whether the family is showing their true emotions or acting for the camera. The film ends with the most startling fake-out of all, after which the mother looks directly into the camera. “Shameful!” she says accusingly, and she could as easily be addressing the audience as well as her director.

From his breakthrough film 301, 302 to his most recent film Red Vacance, Black Wedding (co-directed with Kim Tai-sik), Park Chul-soo excels in offering us decidedly odd characters that we nevertheless end up caring for. There is always the sense that even with the outlandish behavior they often exhibit (including, in this film, a bizarre subplot involving an artist who indulges a butt fetish), in the end they are not all that different from “normal” people, and in fact are more honest about their true natures than most. This lends Kazoku Cinema, as well as Park’s other films, a generous vision of, and ultimately a love for, humanity, with all its messiness and idiosyncrasies.