Monday, July 2, 2007

Traces of Love (Gaeulro)

Once in a while I see a film and think, "Boy, I wish there was a functioning auteurist movement these days, because here's a film that could use that perspective." The last time I thought this was yesterday, at the New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center, apropos the Korean tearjerker Traces of Love. Perhaps the auteurist connection is in my mind because contemporary Korean tearjerkers bear considerable resemblance to the ones that Hollywood used to turn out in the 50s, right down to the liberal use of classical piano music.

The title Traces of Love is for English-language audiences; the Korean title is Gaeulro, which, I read, translates roughly as Towards Autumn. The director is Kim Dae-Seung, whose bizarre but interesting Bungee Jumping of Their Own caught my attention a few years back. (I missed Kim's second film, the historical drama Blood Rain, which played at last year's Asian Film Fest.) Somehow the wacky aspect of Bungee Jumping had obscured its style in my memory, and I wasn't expecting much out of Traces of Love. But Kim must now be taken seriously.

Traces of Love is a poor title, because the love that is cruelly extinguished in the film's first act lives on, not in trace quantities, but as a tidal wave that overwhelms all other psychic activity in the present. (Whereas the film does indeed contain a lot of autumn scenery.) There is nothing restrained about the film's sentiment: the characters exist only as vehicles of their passion; all other components of their psychology are excluded from consideration. The unthoughtful and maudlin aspects of the melodrama are real, not just apparent. That's why Traces needs auteurist support.

If Kim's limitations are obvious, so are his virtues. Traces of Love is visually stunning from beginning to end: not just when it photographs its characters against the vistas of the scenic island that is the film's capital, but even when one of them descends a flight of stairs in an urban walkway or crosses a cafeteria. Inseparable from the serenity of the widescreen compositions is Kim's love of stillness, his willingness to suspend the film in lengthy, contemplative passages that simply register the characters walking through air and light, the landscape shifting quietly behind them, a murmur of natural sound the only thing on the soundtrack. What makes Traces more than a stylistic exercise applied to inadequate material is that the eerie calm of the direction envelops the universal sentimentality of love and loss, turning the movie into a strange, heightened vision of afterlife rather than any kind of depiction of everyday psychology.

There are a number of short clips of Traces of Love on YouTube that manage to convey the film's weird and pellucid mood. Unfortunately, the clips cut off the edges of Kim's 2.35:1 compositions. A Korean DVD of the film with English subtitles is available, and is supposed to contain a 2.35:1 widescreen version.


Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this recommendation, Dan. I was actually a great admirer of BUNGEE JUMPING OF THEIR OWN -- one of the few. (Kim really needs to hire someone new to translate his titles doesn't he.)

While I've kept up with the wonderful lead actors from that film (especially the tragic Lee Eun-ju), somehow I lost sight of Kim Dae-Seung. I wasn't aware of either of his two follow-up. I'll be ordering DVDs of both in moments.


Dan Sallitt said...

Chris - if you see Blood Rain, let me know what you think. I'm kicking myself for missing it.

I get the feeling that English titles for Korean films are often not translations, but entirely new entities that are chosen at an early stage of marketing. Maybe we aren't the target audience.