Rain Check – Easter ‘Break’

Happy holidays, stay safe and be well to all and any readers – from Paul in London

See you on Sunday 25th April

Why might I have forgotten to write my regular, Sunday morning Blog today? To any regular reader, I should apologise, but I simply had something large and important on my mind and it took my mind completely away from my weekly Blog duty, to focus on the aforementioned other task (another form of writing).

My Blog’s formatting has started doing some odd things to me last week, forcing my text to come out far smaller on the screen and more compressed into narrower line spaces. It’s the irritating kind of AI ‘progress’ that often afflicts us today, wherein our own magnificent intelligence and know-how is punished and pushed around by a relatively primitive form of ‘intelligence’ which ultimately might not be any kind of ‘intelligence’ at all and always seems to be in the interest of someone or some thing other than ourselves.

So, now I find myself out of gear and out of sorts with my Blog routine, and scurrying around for a theme on which to write. But it’s not coming, so perhaps you will excuse me taking a ‘rain check’, and taking a week or two off of my Blog, while I focus on my aforementioned other task. Then I will catch-up after this Easter ‘break’ is over (N.B. ‘breaks’ are my opportunities to do my real – most substantial and ambitious – work).

Happy holidays, stay safe and be well to all and any readers – from Paul in London

See you on Sunday 25th April

WANTING & ACTING

‘Do you want to write, or do you want to be a writer?’ This question, raised, provocatively by a famous writer, appears to allude to the distinction between our desire to, or dream of occupying the revered occupation of ‘writer’, and the realities of and actualities – indeed the ‘act’ of writing. We might also suspect or surmise that the famous writer quoted here is suggesting that, in fact, the only way to ‘be a writer’ is to write and to want to write.

Furthermore, to ‘want to write’ must also mean, to have the stamina, the will, the need perhaps to write, as well as to want to write well, i.e. to want to write for the sake of and the love of the craft and the act and the tradition of writing.

It follows that, simply to ‘want to be a writer’ is not sufficient. This dream of inhabiting a preconceived image of ‘a writer’ will not suffice or sustain us sufficiently to in fact be a writer. This ‘preconception’ is also a problem, because, if we attend to writing as an act, a duty, a task and a craft we must also be prepared to become a writer that we don’t initially recognise, i.e. not a writer or a writing that we admire (or some imitation of same) but a writer that we irrefutably are (it’s there on the page) and do not quite recognise as the writer we want to be.

We might just have to live with this discomfort and uncertainty, while accepting the hard truth that our discomfort might also be part of our method, our life and our profession (and every famous and successful writer seems to have plenty of tales to tell about how their career is far from ‘all roses’). One compensation for our lack of consistent comfort and security might be provided by retrospection, in that, occasionally looking back over our writing – whether it be the well-honed, re-written and edited kind, or the rapid writing done here in the form of a first-draft Blog – we might there and then feel a little more assured about the consistent identity, style and value of our writing, and therefore of the style and value of ourselves as a writer.

It’s worth pointing out that this probably applies to the arts in general, so that we can also ask: ‘Do you want to be an artist or do you want to make art?’ Again, it follows that the latter part of the proposition is the most important, as it is only through wanting to make art that we can be an artist, while concentrating on the idea of being an artist might not motivate us to make art, or might motivate us to make art in a preconceived image of art and the artist that is not as ‘true to ourself’ as we might need to be.

I place ‘true to ourself’ in what are sometimes called ‘scare quotes’ here, because, as a generation, we are sceptical about this notion, and yet find it hard to dispense with. It’s true that we are invited today to play with identity, to take on personae, to expropriate artfully the works of others, etc. and yet, it still seems to me (although I am increasingly sceptical about the value of this ‘seeming to me’) that, underlying such strategies, there still remains some inescapable personal drive or ambition to fulfil something or someone we think of as ‘the self’, even if and when we are acting energetically as an apparently ego-less or altruistic team-player or collaborator.

‘Do you want to write, or do you want to be a writer?’; ‘Do you want to be an artist or do you want to make art?’ A contest has to be had, and a balance found, between the self, our chosen craft or profession, and any preconceived and projected image we have of ourselves as a successful, or more successful version of the writer or artist we already are, or really are.

UNQUANTIFIABLE ACHIEVEMENTS

The idea of achievement is a fickle and fragile thing. You can sometimes feel you are riding high, that you’ve slain your inner demons, shed your ‘loser’ self-image, and found the way of working that both fulfils yourself and impresses others. And yet all of this can quickly dissipate too. Worse, it can all – under scrutiny, or when subjected to external, other, and different criteria – look delusory.

At such times, perhaps all we can do is ‘keep calm and carry on’ – as the cliche goes; hold tight to our remaining or core belief and if, as a result of our collapsing confidence we are not sure which way to turn, then at least know to just wait, try to avoid doing anything that might be the wrong thing to do, taking no road rather than the wrong road chosen in panic.

Ultimately, we will need to move on, at the same time as returning to or relocating that priceless belief that seems to warm us as well as excite and confirm our long history of adventures, trials and tortures. After all, as well as; and above and beyond the individual and collective works that we manage to make (and making surely is important to what we are discussing here), it is our way, our method, our style etc. – all of which is unique to us, something we have often found and lost, often glimpsed barely, and just occasionally held confidently in our grip; all of that is what we are. and want to be, and aim to fulfil and share – that is to say it is our HOW as much as our WHAT; it is our WAY as much as our THIS and THIS, our THIS and THAT.

Unanticipated life-changes, against which we have no defence; people who treat us with surprising ignorance and crudity (that, in our perception may even amount to cruelty) can knock us off our metaphorical horse or (equally metaphorical) pedestal. But great beauty and the formidable excellence of others can also lay us low, forcing us to reassess the quality of our work. Sometimes, it seems to me, that we have to simply admit that we have not achieved all that we had hoped; that what we have made – of a work, of our work as a whole, or of our life – is, honestly, and after all, just 50%, 60 % or 70% of what we have so often felt capable – IF ONLY this or that unanticipated factor were not such an obstacle to reaching the heights we feel within us, and which we now and then catch sight of in our work.

Probably, we should resign ourselves to this syndrome, and find within it that great modesty we always and also hear in the voices of those whom we consider, and who are popularly regarded as ‘great’. Yes, their ’embarrassment’ whenever lauded in public, may be part polite shamming (it often looks like a mixed emotion), but surely none of us ever consistently achieves that 110% excellence of which we generally dream. In fact, there may be odd times when we temporarily over-achieve, perhaps momentarily reaching our 135%, and therefore locating something within our thoughts or works of which we are not in control, with which we are unfamiliar, and which is therefore not always helpful. This ‘queers the pitch’ of our aspirations, making what we are aiming for unquantifiable after all, and even something towards which it may be unwise to ‘aim’.

Ultimately, it is best to not look too long elsewhere and at others, but to absorb as much as we can of beauty and greatness found in the world, in ‘little’ things and in ‘little’ people as much as in ‘great’ things and ‘great’ people. We do have a primary duty to kindly nurture the self, to congratulate and take pride in ourselves, and indeed to calmly carry on while always, artfully, and never too harshly, monitoring our own achievements and our our own standards; gently guiding and pulling ourselves along as best we can, and letting others, and simply letting time, in the end, be the ultimate judge of all our truly unquantifiable ‘achievements’.

‘The Woman Who Ran’ (2020) directed by Sang-soo Hong

It struck me this week that some of the things I feel I should, and want to write about are those things that I do purposefully as a way of doing nothing. As discussed in a previous post however, this of course leads to the problem of never doing nothing, never switching-off as an artist, writer, observer, thinker etc.

One of the things I wanted to write about is listening football on the radio (which I think of as absurd, and therefore relaxing), another is graffiti in the park (which I think of as a kind of vibrant and enthusiastic backdrop to my quiet daily walks). But in the end, I feel myself being drawn away from these two themes in the direction of another current or contemporary Korean movie (see last week’s ‘Minari’ post), this time viewed via ‘MUBI’ – a kind of arty or art-house streaming channel.

The movie is ‘The Woman Who Ran’ (2020) directed by Sang-soo Hong, and acted by Min-hee Kim, Song Seon-mi and Eun-mi Lee. I don’t intend to write a long review like the one I did las week for ‘Minari’, but nevertheless just want to express and share my responses. Immediately after watching this film I felt it was kind of engaging, and suggestive, but overall pretty flat. However, the more I thought about it, reflected on it, and discussed it with my partner, the more I liked it. This is a film that doesn’t use any standard or typical kinds of editing, dramatic narrative, lighting or music to manipulate your emotions and/or lead you to identify with any of the characters in particular.

In some ways it reminded me of French avant-garde cinema, of e.g. Jean Luc-Godard, in which all those dramatic and narrative devices are challenged, parodied or dispensed with. Except here, you can see a director of a much later generation, simply being free to do without those conventions, and to make a film stripped of anything non-essential to the simple – but nevertheless quite deep, quite meaningful – information it wants to impart. Let’s just say there are no distractions from what it is that the director wants you to see, hear, and respond to in any way you wish.

The film uses the narrative device of young woman, married for five years, looking up old friends on a series of home visits, while her husband has gone away on a business trip. In a way, nothing more happens than that. Of course there are conversations, catch-ups, and one of the things that all the women friends she visits is the respective states of their respective relationships with men, their marriages, divorces etc.

Interestingly three men do appear in the movie but on each occasion keep their back to the camera. They also seem to be various kinds of ‘pain-in–the- ***’. There is only one symbolic device used in the film and that is a reference to a cock who rules a hen house by means of violence.  

In a way there seems little more to say about this movie than that. Instead of using editing, the director rather straightforwardly zooms in occasionally to refresh the image of a conversation. When music is deployed it doesn’t operate in the background affecting us semi-consciously but rather cuts in, starkly and with apparently purposeful bad quality, to make some kind of clear break.

All the women occupy a liberal, middle-class, postmodern Korea, and exist on the margins of its relatively privileged art scene. The central figure (if we can call her that) claims her life is ‘boring’ (her husband is a translator and she runs a flower shop) though she is clearly privileged enough to change her situation with relative ease.

There are also a few characters who are seen slightly off-stage, including a young girl, neighbour of one of the visited friends, whose mother has left her, having gone off in the night and left her with her (another ‘pain-in-the ***’) father. So, what makes this movie worth remembering, watching or watching again, is its – (I hesitate to use the word) – ‘truth’, in at least showing us some slices of lives in which everyday narratives and relationships are not resolved or over-dramatised but simply trundle on, dwindle away and morph into new narratives and new relationships.

Every apartment contains a little life in which these mini-stories and relationships unfold. In postmodern Korean life, and the postmodern Korean architecture that partly determines it, CCTV also enables neighbours to have a newly mediated relationship with neighbours – who might just live to the side or above or below us- who occasionally drift closer into our own private realm – e.g. a neighbour who is clearly in trouble, or one who complains about our activities.

Yes, there is truth in all of that, and so, formally we can praise and admire the director and the rest of the cast and crew for side-stepping all the usual temptations (and expense) of mainstream cinema, and using a more ‘arty’ realm and remit to hold up a mirror to reality and draw us, subtly, into some worlds we feel we might know or be familiar with.

Form and process aside however, this is surely (see our first paragraphs above) some kind of a ‘feminist’ movie (directed by a man). But perhaps ‘feminist’ is the wrong term here; I’d prefer to say it is a movie about, or ‘showing’ women’s lives and perspectives in a particular place and time, i.e. Korea in the 21st century, or at least a little part of that Korea, a kind of exemplary part in a way, its successful, progressive, artistic, stylish, eloquent and thoughtful part; a part of a society where, it might seem, according to this movie, that lives are not too bad, not too exciting, not too successful, not too boring, not too politicised, and relatively free.

Whether this content and the aforementioned form or formal devices can be reconciled in a more detailed interpretation I’m not sure. I’d like to try. But for now, I’d just like to leave you with the kind of feeling that this movie left ME with – a slightly flat, but OK, gently entertained and lightly informed feeling about a place in the world and a group of people who are interesting enough, free enough, rich enough, happy enough etc. and THAT, probably, is the most or the best you can expect from a society, here, now, in the 21st century, on this often complex, bewildering, messy and sometimes monstrous planet.

Minari – a movie re-viewed

Minari

2020, directed by Lee Isaac Chung

Starring Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim

reviewed by Paul O’Kane
February 2021

N.B. This week, for my Blog post, I wrote a review of the move detailed above. The review has subsequently been re-published on the ‘London Korean Links website, and so, instead of providing the original text here, I am providing this link (below) to the re-published version of the Review.

ENJOY!https://londonkoreanlinks.net/2021/03/02/minari-a-movie-re-viewed/?fbclid=IwAR3OCSynlvPGm22M-wdb3TR3ZiHXk_hES6tBoo-8er8lrEA6dbAd4cdS6eQ

Best wishes,

Paul O’Kane

‘Stop Thinking, Start Working’ – why I am not writing my Blog Post today

I had decided that I didn’t have time and energy to write my Blog post today. One of the best and one of the worst things about my job and my lifestyle is that I have no routine. Every week and every day is different. I guess that’s what I always wanted. All those years, even decades, when I couldn’t hold down a job because I found them ALL too mind-numbingly boring, to the point where I would feel ill and sometimes just walk out, or sometimes slowly increase my poor attendance and punctuality, and kind of drizzle out.

Looking back, I’m not surprised at my response to a severely contrived and parsimonious way of seeing and treating time; time that can be so valuable and fluid, mixed, nuanced and changing for all of us and each of us, but which modern economics regards primarily as more or less ‘profitable’. – And that is to say, primarily as quantitative, when we all know that time can equally be measured and valued in terms of qualities.

Having a job and a lifestyle with no routine, and where no week or day is ever the same is, as I say, both good and bad however. Routine can be very useful in allowing us to maximise our ‘use’ of time to create our best work. A lack of routine can also be maddening when, as this weekend, I find myself unexpectedly burdened with what seems like an impossible task and a tight deadline – hence the reason why I thought today I would not be able to write my Blog.

I have had a part-reprieve however. Thankfully we can at least try and consider the chance intervention of a possible reprieve in our calculations, though that is hard to do when our anxious mind tends to do the opposite under stress, i.e. to spider and spiral off into worst case scenarios that link ever-increasing tasks, duties, and ramifications of tasks and duties, until we simply have to stop thinking and start working to reduce the pile in front of us.

‘Stop thinking, start working’, maybe that should be a slogan pasted on my work room door, or on my computer screen. It’s true that we sometimes work best when we are not really thinking any more; when we submit to the robotics of the production line, where my short-lived teenage factory experiences may even come in handy as models.

To be honest, I’m still in two minds as to whether I should be writing a Blog post at all today. The other, huge, hurried, aforementioned task is still on my mind, and thus my mind is not fully focused on this writing here and now. Perhaps I’ve said something, enough, a little, enough at least to say that I posted this week, as usual; enough to say that I’ve maintained THIS routine, and, for the sake of anyone who reads this, your routine too. Sorry there’s not much here to contend with or respond to, but … oh well, back to work … enjoy this sunny Sunday- which, according to a nexus of modern capitalism and un-modern Christianity, is a day of rest after all.

A Burst Water Pipe and Valentines Day as ‘One In The Other – Illustrating a Neobarique Paradigm

One of the things I try to avoid my Blog becoming, is a diary. Nevertheless, as I sit down to write, trying to clear preconceptions from my head about what I might write today, I can’t help thinking that it is both valentines day and the day on which a pipe has burst in the yard. Water has been pouring out for quite a while, until, that is, the mysterious stopcock was located, and now things are under greater control. As for valentines day, it’s a sweet event, rooted perhaps in the distant European past, to mark a time of couples and couplings as the longer days and sight of crocuses begin to herald Spring; when natural forces within and without us conspire to make hearts swell (at least I certainly feel I have been coming back to life in recent weeks).

Now I have given myself the absurd challenge of creatively linking or intertwining these two apparently unrelated and possibly incongruous events – a burst water pipe and valentines day. So, let me first say that they ARE both events, and that it might be wise to perceive and evaluate life and experience in terms of events rather than, e.g. ‘things’.

I did with, or got done with things a long time ago. In fact I even wrote and gave a lecture, which was subsequently turned into an article in a journal, under the working title ‘I Don’t Believe In Things’ (an editor replaced this, unfortunately, with something slightly less interesting). In that article I referred to that well known French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his vision of late 20th century complexities as ‘neobaroque’. By invoking the 17th century aesthetic of baroque, Deleuze asks us to see our environment according to a pre-modern paradigm. In introductory terms, if you look at baroque painting, architecture, sculpture, music or dance you will see a kind of flaw, as in a misshapen pearl (from which baroque takes its name),; a flaw that is also a movement, a sign of a change, a differentiation, without which we would have stasis or a rigid kind of order (which some of course prefer). Baroque is nothing but complex and Deleuze seemed to believe that modern aesthetics were not complex enough to encompass and describe late 20th century experience.

So, valentines day and a burst pipe in the yard are both events. They don’t exclude each other but each is included in the other. ‘One in the other’ is a phrase that Deleuze sometimes used (it was also the name of a small, independent, London art space for a while), and here you can see differentiation from a ‘thing’-based paradigm, in which one thing excludes another or might not be able to occupy the same space as another. I should add: ‘They don’t exclude each other but each is included in the other’ – and so all is ‘and’: and, and, and (neobaroque paradigm), rather than ‘is, is, is (thing-based paradigm). In fact, somewhere Deleuze wrote that we should never say ‘the tree is green, but rather ‘the tree and green’ (perhaps that is also helpful to painters).

It always charmed me that, in an interview on this subject, Deleuze once said words to the effect that: ‘my favourite sentence is: “There will be a concert tonight” ‘. It’s possible to discern what he means in terms of an event-based paradigm that is always laden with promise and which acknowledges that we are never in a fixed position of knowing but always on the curve, in the baroque turn, or curl, of changing events about which we really ‘know’ little. Knowledge here cedes to experience and we all become surfers of a swirling baroque time.

I was going to write something about altruism being the basis of long-lasting relationships here, but I don’t want my Blog to become a kind of advice column either. Suffice to say that the burst pipe is no-longer gushing; I made my partner a nice card; as well as managing to write my Blog for the day and for this week, and so, these events, which might have seemed incongruous or in conflict might be seen, in neobaroque terms, to include and not exclude each other – ‘one in the other’.

The Difficulty of Locating Ease

Is it always difficult? Does it get more difficult? Or does it get any easier?

Much of the time lately, when so many of our usual escape mechanisms are denied to us, we find ourselves confronted with the difficulties of our lives and careers. We have to face ourselves more existentially than we might. Aches and pains we have to deal with ourselves rather than running to the doctor, our work and workspace is transformed in ways to which we are forced to adapt, and there is a compound sense of difficulty, in us, for us, but also all around us. The radio news and other news feeds remind us hourly of the greater difficulties currently being experienced by others in far more difficulty than ourselves. And yet, all the time that we focus on the difficulties we surely overlook the eases in our lives and our work.

Experience and repetition makes many a task easier than when we first encountered it. And we all-too-easily take for granted all the ‘labour-saving’ gadgets that make modern life easier than it was 50, 100, or 1,000 years ago. Ease is also a state, a condition (challenged by ‘dis-ease’), a state or condition of relaxation and well-being. When there are constant demands made upon us, and constant demands that we demand of ourselves, it can be nigh impossible to locate that ease. The tasks we haven’t yet completed seem more tiring and stress-inducing than those we are doing or have done. Whether we are resting, walking, eating, cooking or ‘working’ we seem to always be working and to have work on our minds.

New technologies of course brought work into the home in a new way that has changed all of our lives. The outcome of the pandemic seems to be that home-working will become more of a norm. Hence, yet again, work and difficulty come to conquer ease and well being. It wasn’t always thus however, even if we recall our youth we can reclaim the image of a less anxious way of life in which we generously awarded ourselves fun and pleasure even when we had achieved nothing in order to ‘deserve’ it. The pressures and demands of surviving, and if possible ‘succeeding’ seem to disallow all of that in later life.Nevertheless, some people are certainly better than others at achieving a ‘work/life balance’, and drawing a line between work and play.

Any artist who has made the move in their mind to see that ‘everything is art’, ‘everything can be art’, and ‘everyone is an artist’ etc. nobly liberates themselves, others, and art itself in this mental process. However, at the same time we could be said to imprison ourselves in a life and a world where there is no escape from art and therefore (for an artist) from work, from enquiry, speculations, research, sketching, making, archiving, evaluation, discussing etc.

Even this Blog is a kind of work, a kind of duty, a kind of service, a kind of labour that I have imposed on myself with a resilient weekly structure. When I recall why, at times I have suspended or re-started my Blog, and why I have often worked on something rather than let it lie, it is often because it is easier to do the work than to not do the work, because when not doing the work there s something always demanding that I do the work.

Personally, I think I am driven by insecurities, the fact that I can’t own my own home, and live in fear of falling down (see last week’s ‘Falling Up’ blog) all the time, back down to the ignominious realms I inhabited in my 20s and 30s. I must secretly believe that all my hard work will one day be justly and amply recognised and rewarded, even though there is little evidence of that to date.

There were times in my life when I had to make decisions about taking what seemed to be an easier and a more difficult path. I tended to scrutinise them at length and choose the more difficult-seeming, while never convinced that the more easy-seeming would really turn out be easier.

It’s difficult even to know how to end this week’s Blog post, so I guess I am just in a difficult time. I’ll end at least on an easier note, a little quote about painting that a friend drew my attention to yesterday. Perhaps there is some relief in this:

‘My uncle had left a paintbox in our attic. This object, which I had been forbidden to touch, fascinated me. One day I forced the lid and squeezed the tubes; blues, reds and greens squirted forth. I took a sheet of cardboard on which the vestiges of a landscape were still visible, and added a roof and trees. I was astounded. Was this painting? It was so easy!’
The French fauvist painter Othon Friesz, born 1879.

Falling Up

We all fall, the important thing is to fall up.

Yes, from time to time, we all fall, and often our falling is not of our own making. Something or someone lets us down, doesn’t conform to our own standards, disables us from maintaining our own standards but yes, one way or another we have to find a way and our own way to fall up and not down. By falling up I mean that, despite what has happened we don’t let go of or lose sight of our own standards, and somehow, through and beyond the difficulties we have to undergo and undertake as a result of this interruption of our usual trajectory, our usual ‘gait’ we might say, we have to maintain that trajectory, that gait, which is, of course, a generally optimistic journey that we call our life, our identity, our reality.

I’ve worked on a memoir (or should I day ‘some memoir writing’) from time to time. Whether it will ever be fully formed and published I don’t now.. I hope so, as I particularly enjoy this kind of writing, and it seems to be somehow less pressured than other forms, perhaps because, after all, only I (only you) can tell this story and there is a certain freedom and a special and precious truth in it for that reason. I long ago decided the title of it would be ‘Falling Up’, and here the title refers (or at least referred -the last time I worked on my memoir- ) to class relationships, which are habitually visualised as a vertical phenomenon, i.e. ‘Low’ and ‘Higher’ classes, ‘Upper’ class etc.

It seemed to me, in choosing this title, that I have indeed lived in a close dialogue with this vertical model, and always felt my life, career and identity to be some kind of ‘upward’ journey from once class to another, from unemployment, to unskilled employment, to skilled employment, as well as from a poor diet, housing and dress to better housing, diet and dress, and from poor vocabulary and articulation to better vocabulary and articulation etc.

Nevertheless, all the time I have been apparently ‘ascending’ in this way – and I have to say here, that it has been a whole lifetime of genuine struggles and setbacks, and which are not over yet – it has never felt like simply climbing a mountain or a set of steep steps but just as much a series of crises, disasters, immense challenges, and falls – hence ‘Falling Up’. Sometimes, out of a disaster would come an unexpected ‘silver lining’ a way out, ‘up’ and forwards that could not have been predicted. And yet, as above, I think this might also have been because, at every time I fell (perhaps occasionally pushed as well) something inside me (along with friends, family and other benign forces outside me) insisted on rescuing me, insisted on the continuation (refusing the ruination) of myself, my story, my standards and my reality.

I suspect that this is what most of us do, and that when we don’t, or for those who don’t or can’t, catastrophe ensues. I sometimes think I took this propensity to ‘insist’ upon the continuation of my own narrative, against all odds, from my mother, who would work tirelessly to help each of her five children (well into their adulthood) to right their boat whenever it had ‘turned turtle’; and who, I think, sometimes strategically put her head in the sand, or stuck her fingers in her ears while making noises with her mouth until something unacceptably negative had either gone away or been absorbed into the fabric of her reality in such a way that it was no longer unacceptably salient, no longer intruding on her spinal narrative of a good life and a happy and fair (enough) world. This stubborn insistence on maintaining happiness and well-being of course made my mum radiate goodness, virtue, optimism and promise, like a perfect apple.

As we said at the outset, when we fall it is often caused by external forces that force us to relocate, to take a grip on, and to keep ‘climbing’ the ‘ladder’ of our own reality. Sometimes that is hard to do, and you might even have opponents or assailants trying to prize your fingers off the rungs and to destroy your ‘ladder’ and replace it with their own. In such circumstances you can repeat the mantra, ‘I may have fallen, but I insist upon falling up’.

‘House of Hummingbird’ – movie review

Last night I got to watch an excellent movie. The director is a Korean woman named Bora Kim. I think I might have seen a short movie by her before, the name certainly ‘rings a bell’ as they say in England. The subject matter of the movie was the experiences of a young girl, of about 12- 14 years I guess, growing up in a quite poor, hard-working family, traumatised by its own struggles.

Sharing a small space puts an enormous psychological pressure on people in relative poverty, compared with those who grow up with more ample space in which to negotiate rapidly changing minds and identities. Here at the centre of a huge concrete architectural edifice we find all the vulnerabilities of a young heart in a rapidly growing and changing mind and body.

People can quickly learn to resent and despise one another in cramped and straitened circumstances, and in part this movie documents the ways in which a family reaches a kind of nadir or low point in their negotiations of space, economics and identity, only to find glimpses of new understandings and a promise of happier times by movie’s end.

I was very glad to be watching a movie made by a woman about the experiences of a young girl. Sadly, this is a rare experience. In fact, I suspect the number of such movies I have watched in my life might amount to a mere handful, a sure sign of a terrible and wasteful gender imbalance in our society. Everything about this film is unusually sensitive. Its narratives progress at a subtle and soft, almost unnoticeable pace, and while we certainly witness the brutalities that can encircle a young girl’s development we also encounter various kinds and moments of tenderness. When we do, we see all the more how every human being is, either deep down, or right there on the surface, fragile, vulnerable, sensitive, in need of love, care, understanding and companionship.

I’ve alluded to patriarchy above, regarding the movie-making business and the dominance of male tales and perspectives and power. In this movie the men are often at fault of oppressive violence, misunderstanding love, cheating, presumption and arrogance, all oozing out of outmoded traditions such as male primo-geniture (the promoted importance of the first born male in any family). Eventually though, we see that the men too need to crack, break-open and cry to find the love and tenderness inside them, if and when they are confident enough to ‘let their guard down’ (yes, a boxing metaphor).

As for the young girl’s relationships with other girls and women, these can sometimes be brutal too, at least in the way that children can be competitive, spiteful, and fickle about friendships. Her mother is caught-up at the heart of all the domestic strife, and quietly grieving for a brother who has suddenly and prematurely died (perhaps killed himself?). That brother mysteriously visited his sister, just before his death, seemingly to remind her of all the (overshadowed and wasted) intellectual promise she had shown before getting married, a promise that he, despite being the prioritised first-born son,, never actually had, and thus could never fulfil for the family.

Meanwhile, an influential and redemptive female figure appears in the form of a cram-school teacher, supplying after-school extra Chinese lessons. This elegant, educated, politically left-leaning and independent-minded young woman takes the main character into her confidence and ‘under her wing’, showing her a kind of love, faith and possibility that can’t be found at school or within the family.

Blood, violence, pain, illness and tragedy all help, obliquely and eventually (and again slowly and subtly) to bring the family together and to leave the story ending on an optimistic note. One reviewer claimed this film was a little too long, but I enjoyed it so much (crying much of the way through, as I all-too-easily and often do) that I saw the length of the film as merely a ramification of the directors’ insistence on telling the story her own way, with an appropriate and requisite sense of ease and at a gentle pace (perhaps embodying what the philosopher Julia Kristeva once deemed ‘woman’s time’).

There is also a wider historico-political frame to this movie. It’s set in 1994, and may be autobiographical (I will be watching an interview with the director streamed live this evening -see links below- and hoping to find out more about this). On the way to school the children pass protesting banners that proclaim the plight of people being forced out of their homes to accommodate aggressive redevelopment. Small-space, impoverished and regimented, identical high-rise housing are always part of the political ‘frame’ in which this young life is presented. At one point, during a walk in the dark with her inspiring and enigmatic cram-school teacher friend, the main character asks about these banners: “why would anyone take away someone else’s home?”. It’s a simple and naive sounding question but one which seems to have the whole absurd and bullying structure of capitalism loaded within it.

The ultimate tragedy of the film sees its ‘small’ narratives, on which we have concentrated, caught up with a national disaster when a major bridge crossing Seoul’s Han river collapses during morning rush hour (a real historical event). This, again, implies corrupt, competitive, corrosive and careless forces operating within a society focused and founded on profit and exploitation when it clearly – given the central narrative and meaning of the film – should instead prioritise that very fragility, tenderness, and care promoted so subtly, and I think wonderfully throughout this movie.

BTW, I haven’t yet discovered how and why the title applies to the movie ? ?

If you want to see it live-streamed for free you can do so today until 11pm 24th Jan 2021 – I think using THIS LINK.
Meanwhile there is a live streamed interview with the director at 11pm UK time. Links here:

With many thanks to Philip Gowman of London Korean Links for letting me know about this film and these events.