The Asiaphile film critic and sometimes film-subtitler Tony Rayns renders an astute, thoughtful profile of the latitudinarian film director Jang Sun-Woo in “The Jang Sun-Woo Variations.” Rayns idiosyncratically contends that Jang’s mangy, woolly hairstyle are as revealing of his true character as the political and sociological concerns expressed in his films. Described by its maker as a work-in-progress, breezy two-hour pic doesn’t have too much excess baggage to shed, though the intrinsically cinephilic nature of the material will limit exposure to highly specialized outlets, particularly in the U.S., where Jang’s work is little-known.
Rayns proselytizes the merit of Jang’s collective filmography, so that long before pic is over, one is anxious for a look at “Road to the Racetrack” and “A Petal.” Rayns accomplishes this through
a series of 12 “variations,” or chapters in which extended clips are juxtaposed with Jang’s own commentary about the films, his background as a political activist and the future of Korea.
Rayns’ hybrid technique aligns itself succinctly with Jang’s protean
personality, but his dispensing with the stateliness of most films about filmmakers gives the docu a real kick. Pic is a spinning mobile of fluctuating discourses and locales, situating Jang in a variety of ironic spaces (examples: talking about sex while seated inside a Buddhist temple; speculating on religion while undergoing a massage in a male bathhouse).
We even see Jang at work on his latest feature, a high-flying, “Crouching Tiger”-esque martial arts picture, based in part on “The Little Match Girl” — and there’s more than a hint of bilious cynicism to Rayns’ presentation of the footage.
Docu seeks to view Jang’s work in the broadest social-artistic framework. But it’s a distinct shortcoming that, despite extensive interviews with film theorists, men-on-the-street and many Jang writers and actors, Rayns fails to sufficiently contextualize Jang’s work within the wider spectrum of the Korean New Wave movement, even while asserting Jang as a key figure in it.