Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Movies: Piggly wiggly.

In Teddy Wayne's upcoming novel Kapitoil, a fable of business and family ethics set on Wall Street in dwindling twilight of the 20th Century, Qatar (pronounced like "cotter" and not "kay tar," I've just recently learned after a lifetime of mispronunciation) white collar migrant programmer and mathematical genius Karim Issar is invited to the Limelight by two co-workers. The co-workers use the popular ten point scale to evaluate the appearance of the women in the club. Karim, the narrator of the novel, observes:

They observe the dance floor and and assign ratings to different females from 1 to 10. They say an overweight female is "the worst" and is "four 40s deep," and rate her a 1, which means 1-10 is a poor scale, because it assigns a point even when someone is "the worst" and there exists only a 9-point range.

A friend joins the overweight female, and she is additionally overweight, and Dan says she's "even nastier" and also assigns her a 1, even though if she is in fact inferior, she should receive less than 1 (or the first female's rating should retroactively rise slightly). This is why the Y2K bug is happening: Humans usually do not anticipate what comes next after what initially seems to be the limit, so they programmed their computers to function up to the year 1999 and not 2000. Even Jefferson and Dan, who are resolving this problem nonstop, did not consider the maximum-limit issue in this context. But possibly it is because they have been drinking alcohol, and also they are not the most considerate people.

This passage sprang to mind while watching Kim-Jin Won's 2007 horror flick, The Butcher. I couldn't help think of those critics who suggested that flicks like Hostel and Saw were about nothing but the physical act of torturing people. They were ultra-thin works devoid of sub-, con-, or urtext. It was just about the image of the human body being put under extreme physical duress. Honestly, this appeal to meaninglessness is almost always the last refuge of the useless critic. All expressions, no matter how vapid, are born of time and place and directed by human intention. There's always something beyond the literal.

(NB to bloggers still riding the dead "about nothing" horse, the smart critic has moved on to "it's got no soul" as their non-point point of choice. It's a vague, yet nuanced sounding critique that the film in question lacks the key, but intangible essence of authenticity. Though criticizing a flick for not having something that you can't define or identify is no less lame as critical position, it places you in a comfortably religious realm of argumentation: the existence of soul - as either a religious concept or a aesthetic principle - is simply a matter of faith and those who disagree with you are simply non-believers, to be pitied or demonized as needed. The argument has a ruthlessly mindless efficiency in that it doesn't invite counter-argument the way claims of meaninglessness inevitably do.)

More importantly, The Butcher, like the proverbial second fat chick, forces us to reevaluate what we assumed was the limit of torture porn. If the Hostel franchise, with its ugly American characters and the overt reworking of free market logic as deathtrap, was the zero point of meaning, the The Butcher either dips into negative numbers or forces us to start adding numbers to our ranking of Hostel.

A stripped down, real-time experiment in brutalizing the audience, The Butcher takes the framework of the infamous torture porn subgenre and distills it, boiling the concept down to a starkly unpleasant 75 minutes. In that time the film asks a single question of the viewer, "How much suffering would you take before you sacrificed another to end it?"

Set in an abandoned industrial fossil, the real-time film covers a single shoot by a trio of snuff filmmakers. The flick fuses the first person POV approach of Blair Witch and [REC] to the hyper-squalor vibe of torture porn: The film is cobbled together from footage shot by the snuff filmmakers and footage shot from cams attached to head harnesses strapped to each of the victims. There's the nameless director, his assistant, and their hulking star: a massive, violent, inarticulate monster who wears a pig mask throughout the flick and is identified by the filmmakers simply as "the Pig." The filmmakers alternate between maniacal bloodlust and clock-watching boredom. The director takes a call from his church-going mother. He and his assistant discuss the difficulty of getting good victims and the nature of the market (the American market is especially ravenous when it comes to their product, we're told). Absurdly convinced of their own value, jealous of their prerogatives as "artists," yet desensitized and incapable of human sympathy (perhaps the sole prerequisite of artists) as death camp doctors, the director and assistant anchor the film with their oddly inhuman presence. Their skewed values - they see Americans as perverse for craving their product, but that a strange professional pride in cranking out snuff - tempt the viewer to consider the whole film as an satire on the hyper-stylized violence and clumsy moralism of Korea's contribution to the "Asian extreme" genre.

Satire or not, they make for great villains. Though the link is most certainly unintended, the bizarro professional pride of the filmmakers reminded me of the lamentations of Wall Street bankers post-collapse. In their ability to sever their moral compunctions from the professional act of feeding a market for which they felt nothing but contempt, the snuff filmmakers of The Butcher perfectly, if unintentionally, represents banal professional evil. When you hear the filmmakers bitch about their work conditions, you get the same little throw-up in you mouth that you get when you hear some architect of the Great Recession wonder, "Why aren't they grateful?"

The exception to this is "the Pig." A too-obvious borrowing from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the Pig is naked copy of Leatherface. That said, I think Won should at least be given credit for emphasizing some of the characteristics that make Leatherface memorable. Like his original, Pig has an odd relationship with the "family" of filmmakers around him. He's a prima donna. Moody, excitable, easily offended, but also desperate to be praised, the Pig seems to throb with a thoughtless murderous energy that is barely kept in check by the surreal professionalism of the other two filmmakers. This vibe of monstrous childishness is often lacking from the descendants of Leatherface, but the Pig's got it.

These filmmakers start with four victims: two men, two women. The victims are bound at the wrists and ankles. They have ball gags in their mouths. The assistant reveals that two of the victims, are actually married. The other two are strangers. That's all we ever learn about the victims. The married victims have names, but they aren't particularly important to the "plot," such as it is. We're going to develop a quick nomenclature system right here to distinguish these basically interchangeable meat slabs: married male = V1, married female = V2, unmarried male = V3, and unmarried female = V4.

The plot: After some shop chat, the filmmakers decide V2 should be the first to go. When V1 protests, he's beaten until his vomits on himself. V2 is dragged to the slaughter chamber and Pig decides that he doesn't like her smell and refuses to kill her. The director and his assistant decide daylight is burning and swap out V2 with a double header of V3 and V4. Off-screen, we here them get dispatched noisily and quickly. Turns out Pig got overly excited and failed to drag out the murders to a suitable running time.

Distraught as the waste of victims, the filmmakers drag V1 and V2 into the now blood-soaked slaughter chamber. The director cuts a deal with V1, if he can withstand 10 minutes of torture without asking the filmmakers to quit, then the filmmakers will let his wife go unharmed. Failure to last the full ten minutes means the filmmakers will kill V1 and his wife. V1 agrees and the Pig goes to work. First V1 is beaten with a hammer about the head and neck. Buzzed with bloodlust, the Pig then rapes V1 for a minute or two. Finally, Pig takes a chainsaw and chops V1's left hand in half.

This breaks V1. He begins to beg the director to stop the torture. Because V1 was unable to last the full ten minutes, the filmmakers turn to kill V2. V1 begs for a second chance. The director offers an alternative deal. Seems the director feels the snuff op has gotten in a creative rut. There's more than one way to skin a human, but the filmmakers feel they've pushed the whole extreme slaughter thing as far as it can go. If V1 can provide them with a truly novel idea for killing V2, then the director will let him go. No new ideas and the filmmakers will kill both of them. Faced with the prospect of more pain, V1 embraces his new role as slaughter consultant and provides the killers with a novelly grotesque way to dispatch his wife, V2. The director approves of the new plan and they let V1 go.

V1 limps his way out the ruin/studio, incurring even more damage when he steps in a particularly nasty bear trap left around by the filmmakers to deter snoopers. Meanwhile, the filmmakers begin to execute V1's plan for killing his wife. The Pig, overzealous in his duties, offs V2 before the filmmakers can fully execute V1's plan. Foiled twice in one day, they give chase to V1 who manages to escape by stealing one of the filmmakers' cars. Safely away, V1 breaks down and cries.

Roll credits.

Weirdly paced, lacking dynamic characters (though not devoid of characterization), hanging on a barebones plot, filled with dialogue that's mostly grunts and screams, and hinging on profound betrayal that makes the sole survivor's victory of impossible odds a bitter triumph that forces the view to wonder if death wouldn't have been better, The Butcher is a thoroughly unpleasant film. And, for now, it may well represent the height (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of the torture porn aesthetic. And, as such, it makes for an interesting test case for some of the claims made about the subgenre.

First, despite The Butcher's refusal to add backstory to the elements within the film, even this minimalist assault on the senses isn't without context or broader meaning. The filmmakers are an acid etched portrait of Won's perception of the South Korean film game circa '07. Long protected by an isolationist quota system, Korean filmmakers could depend on a certain marketshare by virtue of government mandate (similar systems exist in countries all over the world as bulwarks against what's perceived as American cultural imperialism). In '07, the Korean quota system crumbled. In a free market, Korean filmmakers saw their marketshare evaporate to imports. The negative impact of the removal of government protection was exacerbated by the spectacular failure of several big budget homegrown productions. Increasingly, filmmakers turned their attention to the production of extremely violent productions meant for overseas consumption - films meant to be gobbled up by an American audience with a seemingly unquenchable appetite for films in which Asians do horribly violent things to one another. The Butcher shows this cultural logic taken to its absurd extreme: the sacrifice of local value for a degrading product meant to appeal to foreigners hungry for exploitative fare. Arguably, The Butcher, made outside the studio system for a pittance, is exactly the kind of film it professes to mock, though I have my doubts. Compared to stylish fare like Oldboy, The Butcher tries hard to avoid entertaining the audience. It alternates between tedium and discomforting imagery in a way that's meant to abuse the viewer rather than pander. Of course, there will always be people who find that entertaining. Whether that makes Won's film insincere or foolish rather than biting is something individual viewers have to decide.

Second, this raw "torture porn" flick complicates the idea that the point of torture porn is the sick thrill of allowing the viewers to vicariously torture folks. In fact, a majority of flicks in the subgenre focus intensely on the victim's experience rather than the experience of the torturer. By locking most of the film into the literal POV of the victims, The Butcher gives this thematic logic is purest visual expression. Any critical assessment of the subgerne predicated on the notion of identification with the torturer fails to reflect the prevalence of this victim-centric experience.

Third, The Butcher reflects an important aspect of the subgenre in that it is a film produced outside the states. The impact of torture porn on American horror cinema is vastly overstated by critics. Recently I read the blog of film studies professor who lamented that her students tastes ran towards the "torture porn fare Hollywood has been pumping out in spades." In spades? After the disastrous crash and burn of Captivity, only a single franchise in the subgenre seems to have any life in it - Saw - and even that is reportedly shutting down after the next installment. Compared to the endless flood of zombie-fare, torture porn was a minor blip on the Hollywood scene. The subgenre's afterlife has mostly been in foreign productions, where its found a home in the cultish "extreme" currents of various national cinemas.

More a curiosity for those who view horror as a sort of emotional endurance test than an enjoyable film, The Butcher is a near perfect example of the horror genre's least understood, most maligned subgenre and a stands as a challenge to professional and amateur critical establishment that has never developed an approach for dealing with the inevitable consequences of the concept of fear as entertainment.


Sasquatchan said...

All that being said, isn't it just a bit too meta ? Is there any sense of tongue in cheek or not ?

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen the Butcher (and don't think I ever will), but aren't you applying a "one scale to judge them all" approach here, when it might be more appropriate to think of Hostel as a "1" on the Hollywood/mainstream movie scale and "the Butcher" as a "1" (or whatever number might be appropriate) on the "Asian extreme / underground" scale?

CRwM said...


There's certainly a sense of self-awareness. I imagine almost any film about filmmakers is inherently meta to some degree or another. Though there's very little by way of actual humor. (There are a few "jokes" though they tend to fall completely flat and may even be played to intentionally fail.) Without the humor, I'm not sure you'd say it was tongue in cheek.

CRwM said...


The reference to the whole scale thing was to discuss the folly of placing things on a scale. It's almost inevitable that, sooner or later, something is going to break your scale. I brought it up because it reminded me of critics who placed films like Saw and Hostel at the far extreme of a scale of minimal content, apparently without considering that somebody could push it further, which would render the whole scale false because the purpose of extreme terminal points on a scale are to mark out the space of the possible.

Personally, I don't dig on scales so much.

That said, you have an interesting point. Is this really a "torture porn" flick or an "Asian extreme" pic? Argument could be made for both. In one of the few interviews I found with the director, he credited Western flicks, and only Western flicks, as his inspiration for the film. The film is also conspicuous in its refusal to present its carnage in stylish or stylized ways, something common in Asian extreme flicks.

On the other hand, the film seems to be, on some level, a comment and perhaps satire of Asian extreme flicks - even to the point of becoming the very thing it satirizes.

Personally, I think you get more mileage out of thinking of it as a Western style torture porn film. I find that the label Asian extreme often carries with it an expectation of Baroque over-the-top craziness. This flicks too purposefully simplistic and blunt. It feels brutal but not anarchic. It's got the workman-like ethic of its villains, the gore and violence of the flick are just another day at the studio. Which is where it's satiric bite comes from: It seems to say that, after the last act of unspeakable carnage is in the can, the makers of this supposedly anarchic art wipe off, punch the clock, and get ready to do it all again. Maybe the best way to think of it is as an anti-Asian extreme flick.

Thanks for the thought provoking comment.

David C said...

Would it be bad to point out that the mathematics of the novel extract are faulty? (Now, if you could assign a 0, that would give you an 11-point range, which might be seen as bad.)

But anyway.

It sounds like an interesting film, but I must admit I've mostly given up such things for less demanding fare (for better or worse).

CRwM said...

David C,

Point away! That's the danger of creating mathematical genius characters when you are not yourself a mathematical genius. Fair criticism.

Scrymarch said...

I hadn't realised there was a Korean cinema free trade experiment going on ... from outside Korea it seems like there is a massive export boom of TV / cinema from there going on. I guess they must be desperately looking for new markets, as you say, but it is hardly all torture porn.

CRwM said...


The Korean film biz is, in my inexpert opinion, learning to balance the need to nurture a thriving local film industry with the need for international market penetration and access to a global talent pool. Despite the grim turn at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, you could argue that the liberalization of film biz in Korea yielded results. New Wave Korean cinema (starting, say, 1999 with the release of Shiri) has not only lifted the international profile of the Korean film industry, but also made Korea one of the few countries where American films do not reliably dominate the domestic market. (Shiri outperformed Titanic in the Korean market.) Furthermore, as you say, New Wave cinema embraces a full spectrum of genres.

That said, foreign markets seem to most strongly embrace their horrific works. The dramatic Oasis (2002) is often considered to be the a milestone of modern Korean cinema, though it remains a minor curiosity outside Korean market. By contrast, Oldboy is a popular cult hit and companies like Dreamworks shell out millions for remake rights to flicks like A Tale of Two Sisters.

Butcher's specific job at American film consumers makes me feel that the director was specifically riffing off the fact that foreign markets seem to have a boundless craving for the gruesome stuff and, in tight economic times, people are ready to pander to that hunger.

Scrymarch said...

The more I think about it, the more the violent export for English speaking markets trend rings true. They manage to sell a lot of TV melodrama into East Asia though from what I've seen, and romcoms like "I'm A Cyborg, But That's Ok" don't seem to get the red carpet at Cannes. I guess the definitive sarcastic East Asia melodrama-porn film is still in our future.