Friday, October 19, 2012


Some slippery and rather dangerous subjects have been floating around in my head, but couldn’t be addressed without exposing fragile people or causing unwarranted gossip.  But there’s always a way and last night my movie provided it.  The movie “Untold Scandal” (“Joseon nmnyeo sangyeooljisa”) is a 2003 South Korean film.  It is a translation from “Les Liasions dangereuses” which is a novel Choderlos de Laclos that has been restaged and refilmed repeatedly.  The appeal is that it shows how the deep personal framing of intimacy can be a vulnerability that attracts those who feed on control, seeing it as power.

The plot assumptions depend upon letters, in this case tabloid-sized rice paper with elegant columns of brushed ideograms.  There are two sets of lovers, one young and one old, and one “empress” manipulator who ends up in this version as anguished as her victims.  Much of the appeal is in the gorgeous  Korean material culture, esp. the costumes.  The story needs to be in a patterned and rigorous society where the rules can only be tolerated by a second level of “unrule” that is just as patterned but defiantly subversive.  It is the interplay of compliance versus corruption that makes hypocrisy and nakedness compelling as both romance and philosophy.

If this isn’t the ground of theatre, I don’t know what is.  The rigors of what is composed onstage with the underlying emotional stress of the offstage company has been best laid out in ballet movies.  One could include “Black Swan.” Sometimes the situation is funny, as in “Day for Night,” a Truffault movie about actors making a film.

But schools, armies, governments, small towns -- the potential is everywhere because inner states of yearning and fulfilled intimacy are so often shaped to the point of deformation by conventional society, which functions through power and especially control.  Power over the young, the female, the lower class, the innocent and so on.  The dynamics are near-universal.  Think of the series called “In Treatment” in which the vulnerability of the clients is brought to the powerful psychotherapist who is secretly riven by his own issues.  Like Lady Jo, he ends up nearly destroyed by his love for his clients and his desire to help them in what he hopes, unlike Lady Jo, is a benign way.

And on the other hand, the vulnerable, the flawed, the needy, look for a powerful patron to control their lives for them, to be responsible for them and “take them away” from all troubles.  If the arrangement doesn’t work or even leads to disaster, in the mind of the supplicant it is all the fault of the powerful person who was supposedly in control.  It becomes a betrayal, even a sin.

And this is the power of the underdog, the one that Perls says “always wins.”  The prostitute, the boy or girl of the streets, the slave, the crippled -- seem to lose and yet, as in “Untold Scandal,” the karma of the oppressor seeks the tyrant out and at the very least they are scorned.  From the lofty vantage point of the writer or observer, control freaks are losers who may pay a terrible price -- hung by their heels.

These stories are obviously meant to be cautionary tales but, just as obviously, they are exciting and memorable, particularly if the struggle is beautiful and full of surprises.    The English versions are lovely, but this one is exotic and, one could argue, timely politically.  In fact, maybe the real value of such tales is that after watching them we can more easily recognize the same patterns in the lives around us.  The coach who seduces the student, the politician who has a mistress or two on the side, the Mormon whose fifth wife is fifteen years old.  But what about the seemingly wicked who turn out to have been using their power for good:  the brothel madam who protects her whores, the mafia don who saves widows, the drug dealer who sends ghetto kids to college.  

If a human being survives by constantly taking in information about the world, (mostly through the senses) sorting of what we see, hear and so on; and if that human being needs principles and clues about the life around them so as to make good decisions about how to proceed, then this whole category of stories is valuable, not at all pornographic or frivolous.  The tales are particularly useful if they frame the totally foreign and unknown (sci-fi counts) in the familiar forces of every human relationship, particularly those of families.  (All the main characters in “Untold Scandal” appear to be cousins.)

I’m hearing from my aging acting class cohort that they feel “real” acting training has now gone by the wayside -- that youngsters no longer care and no longer even bother to learn their lines.  They seem to have none of the “heart” the old-timers remember.  It is the young who are corrupt and frivolous, looking for power without vulnerability.  This cries out for a novel or movie to stage the puzzle.

No longer is the “action” in the rigid world of major ballet companies nor Broadway production nor even the labyrinths of Hollywood or television.  I’ve been lucky to have seen some of the real action: ensemble repertory theatres where the actors don’t just learn lines but possibly write them, where the actors do trapeze work and juggle.  Where the social advocacy is stronger than personal genius.  A friend sent me a YouTube vid she considered horrifying:  It was a Chinese production of “Swan Lake” in which the prima ballerina swan posed en pointe on top of the prince’s head.   I’m just enough of an appreciator of the deviant to have found it quite wonderful, as much fun as the male version of “Swan Lake” -- was it “Drake Lake”?

The trouble is that for people who have thought the world of rigid conformity was the only one in existence and so have suffered in order to fit themselves into it, the only way to justify themselves is to impose that same order on everyone else, thus forcing the strong among them to form a new and defiant order under the surface, secretly, and inevitably both disruptive and renewing.  Or the young may fly in hopes that somewhere there is a place for them.  The most dangerous liaison of all is the one that reveals alternative worlds.

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