NYAFF Report: M Review
There is little doubt that Korea's Lee Myung-Se is one of the purest cinematic talents working in the world today. His grasp of the language unique to cinema is staggering, his ability to merge cinematography, editing and sound unparalleled. The man is a flat out technical giant. That said, his devotion to form often leads to some problems with story and while with M Lee irons out the tonal problems that plagued The Duelist to craft one of his most unified and focused works to date the film is so heavily constructed that the highly structured form obscures the emotional core of the story resulting in what is arguably his least accessible film thus far.
Minwoo appears to have it all. He is young, talented, on the verge of marrying a beautiful young woman who adores him, and is both popular and critically acclaimed for his writing. But all is not well beneath the surface. The pressure is mounting for his new novel, a novel he has yet to even start due to a massive case of writer's block. He is plagued by nightmares and headaches. And he just cannot shake the feeling that he is being watched. There's a good reason for this latter condition. Minwoo feels like he is being watched because he IS being watched, followed everywhere by a young woman who seems to know nothing whatsoever beyond that fact that she loves him. For days she follow him without making contact until finally the pair meet in a bar and share an easy rapport.
This meeting troubles Minwoo. He is convinced that he knows the girl from somewhere but can't place where. Meeting her seems to have eased his writer's block but the strange dreams continue unabated, he seems to be developing odd gaps in his memory and his fiance is starting to complain that he seems distant, like a different person. Who is this girl and how can she possibly relate to Minwoo? Does she have a connection to the dreams?
A supernaturally tinged romance M has the distinction of being crippled by its greatest strength. Lee has created a stunning technical film here, beautifully shot and heavily edited into a looping, elliptical structure that constantly replays variations on set themes to illustrate the vagaries of memory and feeling. Every shot is impeccably constructed, every frame loaded with small details and visual flourishes that only a director as obsessive as Lee could possibly hope to work in. There are very few directors with the vision to even envision a film as visually and structurally complex as this, even fewer that could actually pull it off. The problem with this, however, is that the relationships get lost in all the structure. Lee's film keeps you constantly off balance, always wondering what is real and what is not, always wondering what is actually happening and what can be trusted. The constant looping and questioning of reality makes the film into a mental exercise, a puzzle to be sorted, a Rubik's Cube that keeps the audience at a distance. Because you never quite know what is what you are never free to really invest in the characters and share in the emotion of their story, a fatal issue when you're trying to create a romance. There is simply too much head and not enough heart in the film and by the end the formalism of it becomes entirely too much and the film feels far longer than its actual running time.
It is worth noting here that the version of the film screened in Toronto is not the final cut. Lee is returning home to continue work on the editing of the picture before premiering the final version in Pusan later this year. He is so incredibly strong on the technical end that we can only hope that he is able to resolve the structural issues and make his film feel more like the poem he wants it to be and less like the intellectual essay that it is.