E J-yong’s fictional documentary 'Behind The Camera' is the postmodernist film I’ve been waiting for all my life. It deals with a particular concern of postmodernism that can’t be tackled through isolated academia alone: the interaction between fiction, reality, and the viewer. Subjects like intertextuality and archive fever are all possible topics for study without the presence of any art, but how can you talk about fiction without some example of fiction?
It would be easy to mangle the premise in trying to explain it, but let’s give it a shot. 'Behind The Camera' is a fake documentary about director E J-yong making a film, and that film is about people making a film. So immediately we’ve got four levels of narrative. His script involves a director not turning up to actually direct this fictional film, instead choosing to give direction and run the set through the conduit of Skype, monitors and webcams, while he sits half the world away in Hawaii. E J-yong himself decides to mirror this decision by going to Los Angeles, and directing his crew in Seoul in the same way. To the justified frustration of everybody.
The production quickly starts unravelling. Actors are upset and crew-members feel like they can’t do their jobs properly because they have to go up to a big TV screen to talk to their director. They start wondering if this is all a big joke, and whether he really did go to LA after all. And this is all an echo of what’s going on in the script that they're actually shooting.
If it’s confusing then that’s kind of the point. 'Behind The Camera' dares you to find the story that’s being told at the centre of it all, but if you go looking for it in the film that’s at the deepest level of fiction (i.e. the film that’s being shot by a crew who are actually actors being directed by E that’s the subject of 'Behind The Camera'), then you’re looking in the wrong place. While the instinct is to look for the story there, the only narrative that exists is located at the plane where it intersects with you, the viewer.
And despite the chaos, that narrative is very entertaining! Many of the featured actors are famous in Korea, and there’s a cameo from international director Kim Jee-woon, and seeing them wrong-footed by this experimental project is a joy in itself. The banter between the cast and crew is very funny, and their frustrations are presented in a dynamic and entertaining narrative. It’s important to remember that the 'documentary' itself is a narrative, not the actual events - and look for the scene in the credits at the end which expands on that.
So given that I think 'Behind The Camera' is the perfect postmodernist film, why haven’t I given it a perfect score? The problem is that while it’s intellectually evocative, it misses the other half of the mandate of art: that it be emotionally evocative too. This is a criticism that’s often levelled at postmodernist art, that it’s emotionally barren and unable to generate empathy, which makes it almost anti-Humanist, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.
It should be perfectly possible to reflexively comment on a medium, or comment on the interaction between fiction and reality, while creating a story that engages viewers emotionally. I think the difficulty is that when you start playing with levels of fictionality you interrupt the standard mechanism with which viewers suspend disbelief. In order for them to feel real emotion, they require ‘real' stakes. Obviously the stakes are never real because they only exist on the screen, but viewers need to know what they should accept as real for the duration of the film.
For example, Mark Kermode made the argument in a review that Tetsuya Nakashima’s 2010 thriller 'Confessions' was emotionally unengaging because of the heavily stylized way in which it was shot, but I think he misdiagnosed. Similarly stylized Nakashima films have been satisfactorily engaging in the past, the difference this time was that 'Confessions'’ narrative structure relied almost exclusively on a series of pull-back-and-reveals, and when we’ve seen events recontextualised a number of times it becomes impossible to accept anything new we’re shown as genuine, and that inhibits the viewers’ emotional connection with the film.
In the same way, when 'Behind The Camera' doesn’t allow you to ever settle on one level of fiction as the ‘reality’ that you are supposed to believe in, you are subconsciously going to treat all of them as equally fictional. This is both the purpose of the film and its weakness. 'Behind The Camera' is a funny and disarming movie, and while it won’t exactly move you, it’s still a smarter and more entertaining presentation of some interesting ideas than Charlie Kaufman ever came up with.
- Interviews and on-stage Q&A with director E J-yong and actress Yun Yeo-jeong at the London Korean Film Festival
'Behind The Camera' is out on DVD in the UK on Monday, through Third Window Films.