Melodramatic Extreme Movies Analysis Paper
Emotional Experience of Melodramatic Extreme Cinema
Cinema of the extreme is a conditional trend in world cinema, which can be traced back to the earliest examples of motion pictures, from Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) and exploitation cinema of the mid XX century and works of acclaimed auteur directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini. Haxan that is an early German documentary devoted to the topic of witchcraft used shocking and horrific imagery, including human sacrifices, torture and an explicit depiction of satanic coven, all of which was rather shocking in the early age of cinema. At the same time, the mixture of documentary style and stylized horrific sequences made this film one of the earliest examples of extreme cinema.
Exploitation was a popular stream in low-budget cinema in the 1970-ies, which utilized brutal violence, nudity and provocative themes to entertain the most undemanding audiences, sometimes crossing the borders of what was morally permissible at the time. While the term “extreme cinema” is vague enough to be used with regard to different films, some are classic examples of cinematic art such as Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971) to the lowest forms of filmmaking like Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS (1975). However, in modern film studies and criticism, this term is used to describe the violent horror and thriller films from Europe and Asia and the popular sub-genre of Hollywood horror the so-called torture porn genre.
This study will focus on modern extreme films made in Southern Korea and Japan, which meet the description of extreme films. What unites these very different films is the usage of strong and often shocking visual elements, including horrific violent and sexual content, which while breaking the boundaries of censorship and moral restrictions affect the viewer on the most primary and purest level of disgust, sexual arousal, laughter and crying. Surprisingly, crying is one of the very common reactions caused by many extreme horror and thriller films. In fact, the reason is that many of these films have melodramatic elements in their plots and evoke the feeling of empathy towards characters that undergo terrifying experiences during the films. However, in extreme cinema, this experience is achieved not so much with the help of emotional connection between the viewer and the film’s characters through the plot but direct visual stimulation by stylized shocking imagery.
This study will focus on melodramatic elements of extreme films and how they combined with other typical tropes from such movies serve to evoke deep emotional response from the viewers. There is a similarity between melodramatic and extreme cinema in the way they influence the audience on the emotional level. As described in the book by Aaron Kerner and Jonathan Knep, melodrama is a genre which handles heavy emotions, which are inseparable from the narrative of the film (Kerner, Knep 167).
Melodrama makes the audience cry, but it works only when the viewers immerse themselves in the plot and share the feelings with the characters. Thus, melodramas typically handle family relations, its characters share close or distant family ties, and the story often relates to the ruination of the family unit or a direct danger to the loved ones of the main character. As most of the viewers can easily relate to such characters, they feel an emotional connection with them. In this regard, melodramatic cinema is emotionally close to pornography as it influences the viewer in similar ways (Kerner, Knep 167 – 168).
Thus, films of other genres such as thrillers and horror films with strong melodramatic elements, regardless of their violent content, while more often with the help of it, can make the viewer cry. At the same time, melodrama makes the audience believe in the possibility of a positive outcome of the events. As a researcher Steve Neale (qtd. in Kerner and Knapp) puts it, Crying is not just an expression of pain or displeasure or non-satisfaction. As a demand for satisfaction, it is the vehicle of a wish—a fantasy—that satisfaction is possible, that the object can be restored, the loss eradicated. There would be no tears were there no belief that there might be another capable of responding to them (Kerner and Knapp 197).
The hope for positive resolution and consequent emotional reaction to the tragic outcome of the events is a common element of many extreme films. However, a melodramatic film, even with any amount of shocking content, does not qualify as an extreme film. The mandatory feature of extreme cinema is sterilization and aesthetic approach in the depiction of such elements in order to evoke an affective experience. This feature is present in many modern Korean and Japanese thrillers and horror cinema. To understand how the melodramatic elements work in the films representing different genres, which can be considered an extreme film, works of Japanese directors Takashi Miike and Tetsuya Nakashima as well as a film by Korean director Park Chan Wook will be analyzed.
Takashi Miike is one of the most productive current Japanese directors. He started his career in the 1990-ies with violent Yakuza films and is still active, making at least two films each year and directing both big-budget mainstream films and smaller art-films. Miike experimented with most of the existing film genres, from psychological horror and crime movies to musicals and video-game adaptations. The specter of director’s experiments with genre and style is impressive. However, he became famous due to his violent horror-thrillers of the late 1990-ies, which were one of the reasons the notion of “extreme Asian cinema” began circulating in the first place, with the smart marketing decision of video distributor Tartan Video Company. The works responsible for Miike’s fame as a director of extreme Japanese films were Audition (1999), Vistior Q (2001), and The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), and Ichi the Killer (2001). While technically only two of these films are horror-thrillers and others are dark comedies, all of these films contained brutal violence and morbid sexual content depicted in a stylized manner, which was enough to qualify them as extreme films.
Among Miike’s films, Audition contains the most melodramatic elements. The film follows a middle-aged single father Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), who struggles to cope with the death of his wife and upbringing of his teenage son. Aoyama decides to use a staged audition to find an ideal woman and, as a result, meets with Asami (Eihi Shiina) (Miike Audition). Surprisingly enough, the first act of the film shows little to no signs of its further dark developments. The audience gets to know Aoyama, understands, and sympathizes with him, despite the somewhat creepy way he uses to find his future spouse. Aoyama is a good family man and a good father, while his back story is rather tragic; thus, the viewers can easily relate to such person. His relationships with Asami are also shown in the subtle and romantic way. The scenes of them together are romantic, and while there is constantly an atmosphere of mystery behind Asami, their relationships emit innocence. Thus, the first 30 minutes of Audition work effectively as a traditional melodrama. However, as the plot develops, Asami’s dark past and her true demented nature are revealed. It becomes evident that Asami is a violent psychopath who tortures, mutilates and murders men because she was mistreated as a child (Miike Audition). Asami’s dark past is intentionally presented through a series of highly stylized reality bending flashbacks, which is also a trace of melodramatic cinema that aims to directly evoke certain emotions from the audience. What follows is a series of highly disturbing scenes, including Asami feeding her disfigured victim with vomit and an infamous final torture scene during which Asami amputates Aoyama’s leg with a string and continues to torture him with the use of needles for acupuncture (Miike Audition). These scenes are very intense, and while not much detail is shown, the shocking effect is achieved with the masterful usage of sound (the sound of string cutting through flesh is especially damaging), reaction shots, lighting and editing. A researcher Tom Mes emphasizes how effectively Miike directs and edits this scene, cutting in precise moments, and using clever juxtaposition between Aoyama’s agony and Asami’s demented joy from the torture process.
Mes writes: Asami’s torture of Aoyama is an interesting scene for several reasons. First of all, on a formal level. The acts are not so much portrayed as suggested in most cases… What makes the scenes very effective is Miike’s use of sound (suggesting what is not shown) and Eihi Shiina’s performance. The actress smiles when she commits these acts and talks in a hushed, also in comforting voice… It’s this contrast between the act and the person who commits it (Shiina’s frail beauty certainly adds to this) that makes the scene as powerful as it is (famously causing numerous audience walkouts wherever it was shown) (Mes 188-189).
Thus, as Mes mentions, the way the torture scene was made was stylistically designed to cause a powerful emotional effect. While not the most bloody and violent among the modern extreme films, Audition is still a very effective film, which is not in the least due to the combination of gruesome scenes with dramatic and melodramatic elements.
At its core, Audition is a love story, which is derailed by horror elements that remain open for interpretation due to vague and dreamlike nature of Miike’s direction. Kerner and Knapp name episodic nature as one of the key features of extreme cinema, comparing them with pornography (Kerner and Knapp 167-168). This episodic feature of narrative is also true relating to Miike’s Audition as the latter part of the film comprises short dream-like horror vignettes. Some researchers even make an assumption that most of the third act of the film occurs in Aoyama’s head as he begins to project his fears on Asami (Hyland 217).
Tom Mes in his book Agitator: The cinema of Takashi Miike describes the whole film as a story of two lonely hearts and misunderstanding; to be more precise, he perceives it as inability of people to understand and accept hidden darker sides of each other, leading to the failure of relationships (Mes 181). Taking into account different interpretations of the film and its narrative, Audition can be divided into two layers. The first one is the love story between Asami and Aoyama which fails due to their inability to accept each other’s secrets and past. On the other hand, it is a surreal violent horror story which mirrors the darkness of both characters, their fears and prejudice, which can be interpreted as reality or a projection of above-mentioned emotions into a dream sequence. From this point of view, the horrific violence in the film works to enhance the emotional weight of the melodramatic story. Accordingly, the audience decides to relate to Aoyama and his son being caught into an encounter with a murderous psychopath or they feel the depth of Asami’s personal tragedy, namely a hell of child abuse and implied rape, which transformed her into a monster. In fact, Miike’s film uses strong characters to take the viewer to equally cathartic and ambiguous ending. Still, it is not only the story and characters that make the film so emotionally invested but it is the final sequences of the film which blur the line between reality and hallucinations of fortune use surreal and shocking images. These scenes represent the extreme cinema in its purest form. Audition is one of the most effective examples of extreme cinema represented by melodramatic plots with extreme horror and violent elements, which serve to highlight the emotions evoked by the story.
Miike continues this trend in his other two films devoted to deconstructing Japanese family unit. Happiness of the Katacuri’s works as a parody; thus, most of its uncomfortable and provoking content is perceived through comedic lenses.
Vistior Q (2001)
Visitor Q is Miike’s more shocking and outrageous film in which the extremity of content is perceived inseparably from the plot. The film follows the Yamazaki family as they are undergoing a low point in their family life when the stranger enters their family to change it through a series of horrible events. Ironically, the visitor succeeds in solving the family’s problems, leaving them as in the state of peace and happiness (Miike Visitor Q). The film is intentionally filled with as many shocking and outrageous scenes as possible as if Miike was trying to check how thin the boundaries of permissible in Japanese cinema are. The film starts with a scene of incest, which is followed by even more shocking episode of necrophilia with a darkly comedic twist as due to rigor mortis the “lovers” cannot be separated, which leads to some shenanigans (Miike Visitor Q). Still, the core of the film is family relationships.
Despite the obviously shocking content of the film, Tom Mes emphasizes that shocking the audience was not the primary intent of the director: In an interesting break with his own tradition Miike approaches his theme in reverse order starting at the point of disintegration in order to build it back up again. Visitor Q’s protagonists the Yamazakis are a completely disintegrated family. It’s an obviously exaggerated picture, but despite it’s potentially sensationalist the film is anything but exploitative (Mes 207).
There are uncomfortably awkward sex scenes and constant shots of the mother Keiko (Shungicu Uchida) lactating, which serve to evoke both physiological and physiological reactions. At the same time, the explicit content of the film is spread throughout the film so thickly that it compiles the majority of what the viewer witnesses.
This style of filmmaking implies the supposed authenticity of the film’s reality, which directly contradicts its outrageous and sometimes even pornographic content. The director uses handheld digital cameras and presents major part of the film in a documentary-like manner. The stylization, which is so important to the extreme cinema, in this case lies in the imitation of realism.
Mes writes: Visitor Q contains plenty of potentially offensive elements Viewer reaction was strong when the film played film festivals and received official releases around the world. But these strong reactions are not so much the direct result of the film’s contents, but of its style. It’s not what is shown as much as how it’s shown (Mes 214).
The researcher lists such methods the director uses to create the visual style of the film as the usage of digital camera, framing, characters speaking directly into the camera and title cards which comment on the film’s narrative. As the plot of the film, as little there is, handles family issues, it can be seen as a traditional melodrama. Even the ending of the film is upbeat since the mysterious Visitor unites the family through a killing spree and a collective dismemberment. However, in this case, the reaction of the audience is very difficult to predict as the viewer can be desensitized by the content of the film and cannot possibly relate to its characters, this is the case where extreme melodrama does not work. Whether this was the director’s intention is open for argument.
Park Chan Wook
Films of the Korean director Park Chan Wook along with the works of Miike are often named among the most effective examples of modern Asian extreme cinema. At the same time, his films are also highly melodramatic and emotional. Park is often called Korean Shakespeare not only because he often draws inspiration from classic literature but also because most of his films are in their core dramatic stories grounded on family ties and conflicts.
The Vengeance Trilogy
The Vengeance Trilogy is the best example of the director’s work. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) is, on the surface, a simple revenge story; however, the film is more complicated. In the center of the film’s narrative are 5 real and symbolic families, namely Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) and his sister, Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter, the family of gangsters who steal organs, Peng-family that is a family of a worker fired by Dong-jin, who commits suicide, and terrorist friends of Ryu’s girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doona). In a series of faulty decisions, crimes and accidents, these families clash in bloody conflicts with each other only to be destroyed (Park, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance).
Thus, plot wise Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a typical family melodrama. The film even uses popular melodramatic tropes such as the “it’s too late” trope mentioned by Kerner and Knapp (169). This plot device is used in the film repeatedly, for example, Ryu gets home to find his sister committed suicide, Ryu does not hear Dong-jin’s daughter drowning, and Ryu returns home to find Yeong-mi murdered (Park Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Another noteworthy scene, which is aimed at causing an emotional reaction from the audience, is the prolonged funeral scene during which Dong-jin’s ex-wife collapses into tears (Park Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). It should be mentioned that long and highly emotional funeral scenes are very common to Korean extreme cinema, with another notable example being the funeral scene from The Host (2006) directed by Park’s associate Bong Joon-ho. Overall, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is constructed in such a way that the audience is forced to relate to most of the characters due to the fact that they are sympathetic and their motivation is in most cases righteous. In the scene when Dong-jin’s murders Ryu, he admits that Ryu is a good person, but he has no choice but to kill him (Park Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). While he obviously has a choice and just makes a wrong one, still, the inevitability of the tragedy which destroys those who do not deserve it creates a devastating emotional impact.
When it comes to visuals, sound and the usage of violence, Park Chan Wook creates a completely different atmosphere, which is cold, distant and relentless. There is almost no music in the film up until the ending, which differentiates it from a typical melodrama. The way Park directs the film is intentionally unemotional. At the same time, the torture and murder scenes most of which occur in the final act of the film are bloody and brutal. Just like Miike in Audition, Park understands that not showing his violence in detail can be more effective than showing everything. Thus, in a scene when Dong-jin tortures Yeong-mi with electricity, her body is covered. The audience can only hear her speak and see the seizures, when she is electrocuted; however, as the torture continues, the shocking effect is strengthened by a puddle of bodily fluids appearing under Yeong-mi. Ironically, in the same shot in the background, the audience can see Dong-jin eating (Park Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). The whole film is grounded on the juxtaposition on different levels, for example, the audience is forced to sympathize with the kidnappers and murderers, the dramatic scenes are depicted in a cold and distant manner, and the horrific violence is often accompanied by indifference of people who commit it. As a result, this raises the question which was also touched upon by Kerner and Knapp, whether melodramatic elements could even work in extreme cinema:
While many of these conventions and syntactical elements of the melodrama are evident in extreme cinema’s familial dramas, including tears within the dietetic universe, the spectator is more likely to experience dread, disgust, or some other affective response (169).
The juxtaposition mentioned by the researchers is well illustrated in the way two autopsies are shown in the film, and Dong-jins reaction to them; accordingly, during the autopsy of his daughter, Dong-jin is shot in a close-up, and the audience can see how devastated he is and closer to the film’s final during the second autopsy he visits, Dong-jin is so exhausted and used to the horrific tragedy which surrounds him that he is much less interested and even yawns. At this moment of the film, the viewer just like the main character is so overwhelmed by the constant suffering that he becomes desensitized, and the film’s visuals contribute to this emotional state.
While in Sympathy to Mr. Vengeance, the director obviously plays with the viewer’s emotions, consequently making them question their own perception of the depicted tragic events, other two films in The Vengeance Trilogy are much more emotionally straightforward. Both films handle family drama and use melodramatic tropes, this time Park does not miss the chance to use a lot of manipulative music, and are focused on ambiguous characters, doing morally questionable actions.
However, unlike Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, both Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) are meant to make the audience cry. In both cases, the usage of extreme violence and shocking visuals serve to enhance the emotional impact. Two scenes are notable in this regard. During the climactic reveal in Oldboy, its protagonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) discovers that the person whom he was trying to avenge for imprisoning him for 15 years manipulated him into having sex with his own daughter Mi-do. Dae-su wants to prevent Mi-do from knowing the truth; thus, he humiliates and mutilates himself in a prolonged and very uncomfortable scene driven by the amazing acting of Choi Min-Sic. The scene ends with Dae Su cutting his own tongue with a scissors, punishing himself for his own past sins. Once again, in this sequence, the director points the camera in another direction, making the scene work with just sound (Park Oldboy). The combination of traumatic revelations with disturbing imagery makes the climactic scene of Oldboy rather powerful. In this case, shocking visuals and character drama work effectively in combination.
Similar emotional effect is achieved in the final act of Sympathy to Lady Vengeance. In the climactic scene of the film, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) kidnaps the serial killer Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik) and gathers the families of all his victims for collective revenge. During the most powerful part of the scene, some of the parents have doubts about killing Baek so she shows them the video-tapes taken by the killer in which their children are murdered. The audience sees short glimpses of the content of these tapes, and once again, the camera cuts just in the right moment. In one of the most effective cuts, the shot of Mr. Baek beating the chair from beneath the feet of a child who is about to be hanged is intercut with their relatives collapsing to the floor. The whole scene comprises people screaming and crying, including Lee Geum-ja, who feels partially responsible for the deaths of these children (Park Sympathy to Lady Vengeance). As a result, neither the characters nor the audience feels remorse during the following bloody murder of Mr. Baek, which is just what the director intended, namely to place the viewer into an uncomfortable place of supporting violence and people committing vigilante justice. However, the director extends the revenge scene, rationalizing it and adding comedic elements. In another stylistic decision, the camera leaves the room following the cord which leads to the room, where Baek is tied to a chair so that the audience can see that he is informed of everything happening in the room where his fate is decided (Park Sympathy to Lady Vengeance). The combination of horrific violence, awkward comedy and heart wrenching drama makes audience become emotionally confused.
The director (qtd. in Kim) comments on the scene: The rage in the hearts of the viewers grows thinner. Mr. Baek is a total villain, but when he suffers vengeance he looks pitiful. There is a curious reversal where the aggressor seems to become the victim and the victim seems to become the aggressor (Kim).
Thus, as director admits that the scene is intentionally constructed to emotionally confuse the viewer. Once again, a combination of dramatic tension and shocking content helps the director to create a much deeper and effective narrative, which reaches the viewers on different levels. While all three films in The Vengeance Trilogy can be seen as narrative-driven family drama films made to keep the audience emotionally engaged, “tearjerkers” as a researcher Linda Williams calls them, it is important to emphasize how episodic scenes of shocking visually stylized violence causes the physical response from the viewer.
The final film under analysis is a Japanese thriller-drama Confessions (2010) directed by Tetsuya Nakashima. When compared with other films mentioned above, Confessions is the least shocking in its content and the most unusual and expressive in its formal decisions. Similar to Park’s The Vengeance Trilogy, the film tells a story of revenge of a teacher Yuko (Takako Matsu) for the murder of her daughter. As it becomes evident that the killers are young boys from her class, there is a certain moral ambiguity in the film, which is quickly dismissed by the revelations about their personal agenda (Nakashima Confessions). The boys are revealed to be real monsters; thus, Yuko’s revenge, no matter how horrific, feels earned. Just like in the above-mentioned films, the narrative of Kokuhaku is grounded on melodramatic narrative (families are endangered and destroyed, the “it’s too late’ trope is used). Nevertheless, it is not the film’s provocative story but its stylized visuals which make Confessions a real extreme film. The film does not have a traditional dramatic structure; its plot is divided into small story vignettes, namely individual confessions from different characters, which are presented through a series of moving images and carefully designed “motion postcards” (Nakashima Confessions).
All these short sequences are highly stylized and emotionally accentuated by the musical score. There are not many violent scenes in the film, and all of them are shown in an aesthetic and almost beautiful manner with the help of slow motion and framing of the shots. Kerner and Knap describe how the extreme nature of Confessions work to influence the audience, “In keeping with extreme cinema, though, this emotional investment is amplified by the affecting elements, which are elicited through the highly embellished audio design, its play with editing, and composition” (Kerner and Knapp 24). Confessions is a beautifully looking and incredibly sounding film, which despite its dark plot, succeeds in causing a powerful emotional reaction from the viewer. The visuals of the film are inseparable from its perception. A reviewer Seongyong Cho describes the visual side of the film:
The cinematography has cold, gray tone with those ever-present gray clouds floating in the sky in the late afternoon. Many scenes are as stylish and drowsy as the music videos, with frequent slow motions (you can see every droplet whenever something is splashed) for depicting the daily activities at the school – including the savage bullying on the rooftop. We come to accept that the people in the movie are no more than broad caricatures and they are living in some sort of warped reality or daydream (Cho).
Visual style of the film described by the reviewer highlights the film’s violent and disturbing content. While Kerner and Knapp doubt the ability of extreme cinema to bring the audience to tears, Confessions cast doubt on this suggestion. The film uses beautiful imagery and moody soundtrack which is definitely supposed to make the audience sad and even cause tears.
Cinema of the extreme is characterized by its ability to cause affective experience for the viewer. While some reactions such as disgust, sexual arousal, and laughter are obviously caused by the characteristic visual content of such films, the experience of crying during such film is more complex and arguable. Such experience could be caused by the viewer’s involvement in the plot and characters. Films like Audition, Confessions and The Vengeance Trilogy are constructed like traditional melodramas since they handle family issues and the danger to the relatives or the family unit as well as they use dramatic tropes similar to traditional melodramas and many stylistic devices of the genre. The stylized violent and sexual content in such films often cause completely different affective reactions like laughter or disgust. Still, the above-mentioned films make the audience cry. Extreme stylized scenes in these films in many cases serve to enhance the emotional reaction. In some exceptional cases, the directors use the melodramatic form to transgress the audience’s expectations and provide completely different emotional experience such as Takasi Miike did with Visitor Q.