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NYAFF, 2008: "M" (Lee Myung-se, South Korea)

Above: Kang Dong-wo dreams he may be smoking in Lee Myung-se's M.
Lee Myung-se (Nowhere to Hide, Duelist) is, for better or for worst, building a reputation as being one of contemporary cinema's preeminent stylists. The successes and failures of the director's approach can be seen in his newest film, M. Its strange splendor and unusual appeal is great, but fleeting. It is never quite as beguiling as it is in its first half, where dreams of one character bleed into that of another, and the story purposefully does not provide enough grounding for the audience to know what part of what they are watching is real or not.
Whereas someone like Alain Resnais used a highly psychological form derived mostly from Hitchcock to express the dreamlike chronology possible in movies, Lee is exploring the two-dimensional imagistic possibilities. His technique is graphic, not psychological, and he fluidly splices together time and spaces and degrees of reality like a comic book. Similar in its use of space to Speed Racer but far more self-aware of the way film can digitally blend planes of the image to confuse impressions and points of view, M succeeds for a surprisingly long amount of time by charting a mostly context-less series of liquid-like dissolves between dreams and memories of a troubled writer, his wife, and a quirky young girl who seems to be either the writer's stalker or his ghost.
Eventually though, without a story hook to hang his oneiric montage on, Lee risks pursuing a simple series of clever audio-visual transitions. But at its best M's hushed, viscous images are so resoundingly sleepwalking that there is never a sense of any scene "outside" of potential dreams and fantasies. And, before one senses a commitment by Lee to the banal mystery which these dreams envelop, Lee substitutes true content for a deliriously unclear and ungainly soap opera, romantic comedy, and a creative personal crisis, capped off by the deliciously insipid acting by Kang Dong-wo (who plays the troubled, dreaming writer, whispering his muffled lines with that dreamy loquaciousness of Marcello Mastroianni's dubbed dialog in Fellini). Whether Lee ever reveals his true colors in the film—what he, or it, truly believes in—is a matter as shrouded by artifice as the true character, desires, emotions, or humanity of M's haunted protagonist. And for a while, there is a profound pleasure in the film in our inability to see what is true.

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