Friday, January 20, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Yoga (2009)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Hyo-jeong (Yoo Jin) works as a host for a home shopping show. Unfortunately, her producer thinks she's starting to show her age and replaces her with a younger beauty pageant winner, the fact that Hyo-jeong is not even nearing middle age notwithstanding.

Understandably Hyo-jeong is completely broken up about this career low that also fits in well with the copious amounts of self-doubt and dissatisfaction with her life she is carrying around. Fortunately (or so she thinks) there's hope for her on the horizon. On a meeting of former class mates she had met her former friend Seon-hwa (Lee Yeong-jin). "Former" friend because Hyo-jeong one school day decided that Seon-hwa wasn't pretty enough to associate with. But now Seon-hwa suddenly looks like the ghost of a supermodel.

After Hyo-jeong is fired, she meets Seon-hwa again and manages to convince her to tell her how she managed to change her appearance this much. Turns out Seon-hwa took part in a very special yoga retreat run by a former acting star and well-known beauty that completely changed her life.

Hyo-jeong talks herself into a place in that special yoga class too. Together with four other women feeling in need of "physical perfection" and a weird yoga trainer, she is locked into a rather rundown building full of greenish mold. There, the women are supposed to follow a rigorous yoga regimen and have to follow some rather peculiar rules (no eating! no mirrors! no showering until one hour after the training has ended! no cell phones!) that are supposed to isolate them from problematic influences and purify their energies. Still, only one of the women will be able to reach the goal of (and I quote) "perfect beauty" through this.

While Hyo-jeong and the other women have increasingly strange and dangerous experiences, that might have to do with the fasting regimen or just your usual supernatural shenanigans, Hyo-jeong's boyfriend stumbles over a dying director and finds some expository information about the actress who owns the school for us, the audience. The actress' story of being ousted by her director and (at least the latter is suggested) lover when live sound recordings for movies finally arrive in South Korea at the end of the 70s has some parallels to Hyo-jeong's life, and very possibly of a lot of women working in showbiz.

Obviously, whatever evil there is afoot in yoga class must have to do with this past unpleasantness.

At first, I was less than convinced by (female and feminist, at least in my reading of the film) director Yoon Jae-yeon's Yoga. 29-year old Yoo Jin is really a bit hard too swallow as woman fired from her TV job for having one wrinkle too many, especially since there aren't even any fake signs of aging plastered into her face. Now, I'm actually convinced that this is part of the film's point: that the societal demands on the appearance of women are so absurd that you can look like Yoo Jin and will still be looked at as flawed. It also helps that the feeling of beatenness Yoo Jin manages to convey is terribly convincing, as if her Hyo-jeong was carrying the problems of a much older woman around with herself. It only goes to show again that having been the member of a girl group does not necessarily mean one does not have talent for acting.

It all fits quite nicely into the film's basic message which seems to be: society's demands on women to be "perfect" (whatever that may mean) are so high that the only way to fulfil them is by becoming a soulless husk to be filled by the expectations of others and your own ability to be cruel to other women to perpetuate the problem. Yoon puts so much emphasis on the latter part that one could be tempted to interpret it as misogynist, but I think her point is more to show a system that - once it has been set in place - perpetuates himself without the need for much input by men. Once the impetus is given, people are all too good at building their own cages.

I was pretty impressed by Yoon Jae-yeon's other directorial effort, Wishing Stairs (a part of the consistently good to excellent Whispering Corridors series), and found that film to be highly influenced by the Italian giallo, especially the films of Dario Argento. Yoga again shows an Argento influence in the framing of sequences, production design and lighting (I hope you like green), not so much in movement and editing, but this time the parallels seem to be more to the Argento of Suspiria. Which, I think, is a perfect film to be influenced by when you're making a horror piece that's more based on dream-logic and metaphorical logic than on straight plotting and realism. Don't misunderstand me, though. Yoon as a director may show the influence of Argento, but she is much more than a mere copyist, taking certain stylistic elements of Argento and others typical of slick South Korean filmmaking of the last decade and making them completely her own.

Although I admire Yoon's directorial style, and appreciate her imbuing her film with meaning beyond "Oh, that's a nice gore effect!", I have one larger problem with Yoga. While watching it, I found the film intellectually and aesthetically stimulating, but emotionally very distant. Basically, I was thinking about the film and appreciating it, but not feeling it, especially not as a creepy or scary movie. I'm not sure if that's part of me being a guy and not understanding the incredible pressure on women on an emotional level, or a flaw of the film, though, so I hope that won't keep anybody reading this away from Yoga.

After all, even if the film "only" engages on an intellectual level, that is more than can be said about a lot of movies.

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