Friday, March 8, 2013

"The Berlin File," or "So what'd you think?"

"So what'd you think?"

I laugh to myself whenever someone asks me that after a Red Lantern pick.  No one asked me that after "The Avengers" or "Spider-Man 3" or "The Dark Knight Rises."

The question, I think, implies that Asian films didn't earn their way into the multiplexes through the usual means -- cultural power and sheer earning power -- and should therefore be subject to further scrutiny.  ("A-ha!  I knew I smelled a rat.")

Look, in case you don't know, it's a big deal that American multiplexes are playing subtitled films that star black-haired people.  Hell, I remember when Scarecrow Video in Seattle, then and now the world's biggest video store, had all of ONE Korean movie on its shelves (Bae Yong-kyun's "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?," if you must know).

Now you can watch Asian movies from the comfort of stadium seating, a distinction that not even European films have earned, and it's no con or accident.  It's a reflection of relevance and prosperity, an accomplishment that speaks for itself.

Don't get me wrong -- quality does matter, and in the end it's what'll separate the great directors and national film industries from the mediocre ones.  But quality is a matter for the long run and for the pundits.  For now, visibility and ticket sales are what count.

That brings me to our latest pick, Ryoo Seung-wan's "The Berlin File."  Anyone who watches the trailer or even reads a synopsis can guess, this is a "Bourne" series ripoff: There's the lone special-ops badass, the close-quarters combat, the intriguing European setting (Berlin, no less, one of the locations of the "Bourne" series).  But smirk at the filmmakers, and they'll smirk right back.  Of course the movie's unoriginal.  That's kind of the point.

East Asians are known for being good at playing classical music.  Have you ever stopped to wonder why Asian parents continue to subject their kids -- myself included -- to the music of dead white guys in powdered wigs and ruffled shirts, generation after generation?  My simple answer: It's a way to excel without breaking the bonds of conformity.  The music's 300 years old, it's scored, there's not a whole lot of room to reinvent it.  But given that the variables of said music are fixed, they can be broken down, worked on systematically till they're razor-sharp and -- here's the key -- used as substantial bases for comparison.

Everyone wants to be great, Asian people included.  But it so happens that Asian people have to do it under the rubric of conformity.  Korean pop, TV dramas, blockbuster films -- formulaic like Similac, and Koreans like it that way.  And so, I would say, does everyone who likes Korea's pop culture exports.

Korea's a culture built on imitation and refinement, not innovation.  For centuries, advancement in Korean society was built on memorizing the Confucian classics of China -- becoming the guy with the least ingenuity, in other words.  So why wouldn't Koreans apply the same approach to their pop cultural products?  Koreans will take someone else's concept and machine the shit out of it, polishing the edges till Spider-Man couldn't grab 'em.  This makes the culture easy to swallow and to sell.  Look at K-pop mills, which took the boy band concept and turned it into a science.  Dramas that use the same tropes over and over.  Big-budget movies like "The Tower" and "The Berlin File," made from cookie-cutter formulas.

Americans' first reaction to a derivative flick like "The Berlin File" is usually to scoff, because there's an unspoken assumption -- a good deal of it earned -- that Asian imitations are, as a rule, inferior.  (Thank you very much, Canal Street.)

But let's look at some hard-to-argue-with facts: The movie's set pieces are well staged.  The fights are well choreographed.  The movie has a slickness overall.  Productionwise, it's first-rate.  No one could leave it thinking he/she had just watched an arthouse experiment.

Asian people love the result of this obsessive, assembly-line attention to detail: streamlined, plentiful, addictive pop culture starring people who look like them.  I once asked my friend why the boy band g.o.d. was so much more popular in Korea than NSync, which was probably the world's biggest band at the time, and his answer was simple: The quality between the two groups is about the same, but Koreans can identify with g.o.d.  And in time, when quality truly ceases being an issue and Americans come to terms with the Asian tidal wave that's crashing over them, they'll warm to these movies too and come out to the cineplexes to watch them.  Or their hipster friends will drag them there -- whichever comes first.

For now, let the numbskulls invoke auteur theory and argue over "The Berlin File's" intrinsic artistic value.  Koreans are too busy moving on, which means refining the formula even further.  While you were sleeping, they went from myopically geopolitical thrillers ("Shiri") to slightly more world-conscious thrillers ("The Man from Nowhere") to pan-Asian thrillers ("The Thieves") to truly international -- multilingual, East-meets-West, shot-entirely-on-location -- thrillers ("The Berlin File").  Christ knows what's next, but whatever it is, it's going to look like it belongs in a multiplex.

"The Berlin File" is now playing nationwide.  See the official movie Web site for locations.


  1. That's a very astute observation about why Asian parents make their kids play classical music... And I like your point about Korea's industry being driven by primarily by imitation, but also refinement. Not just in entertainment, but in tech as well, like Samsung.

  2. Awesome. I'm waiting for you to write more.

  3. Great observations, thank you for sharing.

  4. I watched The Berlin File last night and was pleasantly surprised by its production values. Thanks for the insightful comments.