Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Streaming Cellar: The Pit and the Pendulum (2008)

Currently Streaming on Amazon Prime

We believe we know those closest to us, our families, loved ones, friends we've known from childhood. We may believe we know and understand these people, but we don't. Not really. There will always be missing pieces, like an incomplete puzzle. We have a tendency to substitute those missing pieces with aspects of ourselves, but this a double-edged weapon we wield. When we love or respect someone, we round them out with our most positive aspects, or what we aspire to be. When we dislike someone, they become a receptacle for our worst tendencies, the parts of ourselves that we fear to be seen as. But it's an illusion, and we'll never see the entire puzzle completed. There will always be this lacuna, this defining information that will forever be unknown to us.

This is something that's been on my mind a lot lately, and it forms the dramatic thrust of The Pit and the Pendulum, a 2008 Korean film that has absolutely no relation to the Edgar Allan Poe story (the title is both literal and metaphorical. I'll explain in a moment). The film is narratively framed by four friends (a fifth will join them) sitting in a cafe and discussing their absent friend Sang-tae. The film takes its time letting the audience know the reason for the gathering, and for the somber attitudes of everyone involved, but eventually we figure out that another absent friend has recently died, and Sang-tae may have had something to do with it. Before we learn that information (and really, you don't get most of the pieces of the puzzle until the end) it's clear that Sang-tae is the focus of the group's thoughts this night, and that however close he may have been to them, something has happened to sour him in their thoughts.

The film proceeds in an elliptical style, with characters trading stories about Sang-tae that oftentimes are little more than anecdotes, brief glimpses without context that show Sang-tae striking one of the friends, Byeong-tae, drinking too much at business lunches, or confronting a woman, Eun-young, whom he appears to be stalking. There is a story about how Sang-tae and one of the others found an unconscious girl in the woods, the victim of a taxi driving serial killer who shows up a couple times during the film (in one of several genre elements that lurk on the sidelines and sometimes infect what is otherwise a fairly sober drama). We hear that Sang-tae was embarrassingly inappropriate with the woman, massaging her and even asking for her phone number. There is discussion about the fact that Sang-tae was fired from his teaching job, and we're given two different reasons for why he might have been let go. It's clear he was drinking too much, and while most assume he was fired for always being drunk, there is also the intimation that he raped one of his students, the niece of the dean of his university.

But hold on a second. As I said these stories are little more than anecdotes, and surely there must be more to them.

Every story inspires another memory in someone else at the table, and they come forward with their own story about Sang-tae that provides a little more information. We see the scene with the attacked woman, and to our eyes it looks only as if Sang-tae is trying to keep the woman conscious and alert. We see Sang-tae with the woman he is accused of raping, and it's clear that she is obsessed with him, and she drunkenly tries to seduce him before Sang-tae places her into a cab (is this the cab driven by the serial killer? The film never brings it up). We find out that the woman Sang-tae appeared to be stalking is actually a childhood friend and former lover, and that the unease between them is due to the fact that Eun-young, had an abortion, though Sang-tae was unaware of the fact that he had gotten her pregnant. Even the striking of Byeong-tae is shown to be the boiling over of long held resentments, as Byeong-tae has had a lifelong habit of inserting himself, unwanted, into Sang-tae's life and co-opting his friends and loved ones. Byeong-tae openly tries to seduce Eun-young, who Sang-tae still loves and is confused by the coldness she shows him, and Byeong-tae even writes Sang-tae's life history into a screenplay while claiming everything was invented entirely by him.

Sang-tae does drink a lot, clearly to the point where it is damaging his personal and professional relationships, but he never comes across as quite the alcoholic his friends make him out to be. In a bit of business that might come across as too culturally specific for many western viewers, Sang-tae's own personal crisis is kicked off when he discovers, in the course of writing his thesis, that his grandfather was pro-Japanese during the Japanese occupation of Korea, even going so far as to adopt a Japanese surname. He discovers this information while researching the history of a mass grave left by the Japanese and recently unearthed. This would be the titular Pit.

Each story offers context to the stories that preceded it, sometimes weaving in and out of them. We learn more as we go along, and our perceptions of everyone involved swings back and forth. This would be the Pendulum. To the viewer, it becomes clear that Sang-tae's treatment from his friends has been unfair, and yet they themselves cannot see this. We never truly know anyone, and we fill the empty spaces with ourselves. It can be hard, often impossible, to change perceptions about ourselves held by others. Sang-tae has fallen in his friends eyes, and they can only see an alcoholic asshole, and not the young man suffering a mental crisis. A crisis exacerbated by the fact that his friends are withdrawing from him when he needs this most. It's a situation I think we're all familiar with. People form an unfair opinion of us, but what can we do? If we struggle to change the opinion, it will only serve to distance them further. If we ignore it, that will only confirm it. Cutting those people out of our lives may be too painful an amputation. This is another pit, one that Sang-tae is sinking into.

It's been incredibly hard to find any information on this film online. I found a Variety review of the film from 2008, but that's about it. The IMDb page is strangely inaccurate, listing incorrect character names and a completely incorrect plot summary. This is why I haven't named every character I discuss. To make matters worse, I found the film listed on various Korean resources and wikis, and they're all wrong, as well. They each say that the friends have gathered for Sang-tae's funeral, when he is clearly alive at the end. They also state that they are all students of Sang-tae, when in fact they all know each other through other means (Eun-young knows him from childhood, Byeong-tae knows him through their shared military history). I guess that's to be expected from a rather low-key Korean film. Despite the glut of great films that have come out of Korea in this century, they still haven't quite reached the cultural awareness of China or Japan to most Americans. It also appears to have been a fairly minor event in its own country, however, with the sources I've found saying it only played on four screens, and it's current box office total is $6,454. That makes it the perfect film for this project, as I do believe it's worth seeking out.

I've watched this film twice now in the last week, because after my first viewing I had a few unanswered questions. The Pit and the Pendulum is more of an interesting formal experiment than a satisfying film, at times. Writer/director Sohn Young-sung has mentioned the style was influenced by the twisty stories of Jorge Luis Borges, and that is clear through the Russian nesting-doll style of the film, and on the various outre moments on hand. I haven't even mentioned the possibly immortal martial arts master that Sang-tae meets as a child, or that this master (who speaks to Sang-tae from a noose he's been hung from, left for dead) might be locked into an eternal battle with the cab-driving serial killer. Or the fact that one of the people we've been watching the entire film is, actually, a ghost. On first viewing it can be hard to figure out what the point of it all is, since the film's focus is never really explained until the final scene. It didn't help that the subtitles were often stilted and broken. They were never indecipherable, but it added a layer of distancing to the viewing experience.

The movie ends without resolving all of the stories. There are a lot of unanswered questions revolving around Sang-tae and his relationships, but that's entirely appropriate. We never really know anyone, and there will always be the missing pieces.

Next week in the Streaming Cellar: The Houses October Built (2014), which is currently streaming on Netflix.

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