RECYCLING / The consumer-cultural detritus of the wealthy occident yields unexpected consequences in a very different part of the world.
The Fantastic, Waste No.4 New York, New York
Country: Finland

The Fantastic

In the wake of February’s historic Oscar sweep for Parasite, Bong Joon-ho has repeatedly reiterated that much of his early film-education was obtained via VHS tapes of mainstream Hollywood fare, viewed when he was a nerdish teenager 1980s Daegu. He was far from alone; thousands of his South Korean peers devoured such movies with the same avidity as their western cousins.

And even beyond the 38th parallel — in the Democratic People’s Republic then ruled by Kim Il-sung — the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Lee, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were, in certain quarters, household names.

This is the «hidden history» explored by acclaimed Finnish visual-artist Maija Blåfield in her new half-hour work The Fantastic. An aesthetically distinctive and consistently illuminating essay about the impact of cultural creations upon the human psyche, it draws upon from the theories of illusion and reality expounded by Bulgarian-French structuralist Tzvetan Todorov.

Her starting-point is the weird historical detail that countless tons of western consumer products were for decades transported to North Korea to be burned as waste. The vast bulk duly went up in smoke, but a significant quantity of videocassettes were surreptitiously saved from the flames. They were taken into homes and played — illegally but discreetly, an unlikely form of samizdat.

In a control-based society where external elements were routinely excluded and demonised, such glimpses of world(s) beyond often proved transformational. Blåfield’s audio foregrounds interviews with anonymous defectors who had their eyes opened by Hollywood’s excesses: «We could see things we had never imagined before,” notes one. «I wanted to experience something new. I was curious,» recalls another. «After the film, reality became different… The film became the reality.»

The Matrix, with its vision of sinisterly extravagant mental manipulations, unsurprisingly struck a particular chord. One speaker, meanwhile, remembers being startled by Die Another Day, in which James Bond battles nefarious North Korean soldiers — the latter presented as completely stereotypical terrorists» unrecognisable from the heroic images propagated by N.K. government propaganda.

In a control-based society where external elements were routinely excluded and demonised, such glimpses of world(s) beyond often proved transformational.

Compiled over a six-year period, The Fantastic avoids the obvious route of excerpting clips from the film in question, instead relying on sequences shot undercover by the director during «tourist» visits to North Korea ranging from bucolic riversides to grey cityscapes. Mirroring the distorted «lens» of the VHS medium, these slowly warp into abstraction.
In one striking passage, she lingers on a large apartment-block, tweaking her cinematography to subtly emphasise the bluish glow of televisions burning behind the windows, before sideswiping her audience with a sci-fi-inspired coup de cinema worthy of Maestro Bong himself.

Waste No.4 New York, New York

Peeling back layers of urban history, Finnish director Jan Ijäs continues his ongoing Waste series of essay-shorts with the fourth in the series, New York, New York. He deftly manages the seemingly impossible feat of finding a new cinematic way to approach one of the world’s most oft-filmed cities. Monochrome images of streets, buildings, waterways, and semi-rural spaces tiptoe accessibly towards the experimental tradition by means of frame-rate distortions.

The 20-minute piece delivers tranches of information via the detached, dispassionate narration of a female speaker. More than half of the running-time is concerned with various «Potter’s Fields» which have existed in NYC down the centuries: communal graveyards for the poor, the destitute and the anonymous. Such humble necropolises tend to be found, for obvious reasons, beyond the areas where living citizens reside. As New York steadily expanded through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, its progress marked and accelerated by various diseases and disasters, the location of each successive Potter’s Field was pushed further and further away until 1869, when it reached its current location: tiny Hart Island, in Long Island Sound, technically part of the Bronx.

This is population-wise «the largest cemetery in the United States,» its million-plus numbers boosted each week by arrivals handled by penitentiary prisoners; the «Death Patrol,» would seem an ideal basis for a dark Hollywood thriller.

Having covered the burial grounds in patient detail, Ijäs then examines a different kind of underground interment in the film’s final section. Fresh Kills is a colossal landfill site on Staten Island#; active from 1948-2001, it briefly reopened to absorb the post-9/11 wreckage of the World Trade Center. It is now leaking foul pollutants into nearby watercourses at an alarming rate.

Erudite and darkly humorous, Waste No.4 mines New York history somewhat in the fashion of Luc Sante, whose non-fiction classic Low Life likewise digs deep into the social strata that make up this most complex, fascinating and frustrating of mega-metropolises: Madison Square was, not so very long ago, a «swampy triangle.» The Waldorf Hotel was built on the site of a «Deaf and Dumb Asylum.»

The Waldorf Hotel was built on the site of a «Deaf and Dumb Asylum.»

Readers of Philip K Dick’s landmark sci-fi- novel Ubik may be reminded of the eponymous drug’s ability to collapse decades and even centuries, allowing (at a certain psychic cost) the user to glimpse lineaments of past edifices within modern-day structures. Ijäs’ «trip» is safer stuff, thankfully, cinema as time-travel: through a 20-minute window, an entire half-millennium may fleetingly be glimpsed.

These two films both competed at the Tampere Film Festival, Finland, 4 – 8 March 2020.