This blog has been written as part of my MA degree for Raindance
Master of Mise-en-scène
In 2005, as part of my undergraduate Film degree, I had one course remaining. The only option was a course in Contemporary South Korean Cinema. It turned out to be one of the best courses I had ever taken.
During the course, we were introduced to a wealth of cinema. Starting with IM Kwon-Taek’s ‘Sopyeonje’ (2000), the course introduced us to the work of directors LEE Chang-Dong (Peppermint Candy, (2000)), KIM Ki-Duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring (2003)), BONG Joo-Ho (The Host, (2006)), KIM Ji-Woon, (A Tale Of Two Sisters, (2003)), and the work of one of my favourite director’s of all time, PARK Chan-Wook.
The first film of his to which I was introduced was ‘J.S.A. Joint Security Area’ (2000), a thriller based in the DMZ. We ended the course with a screening of ‘Oldboy’ (2003), one week before the film was due to screen for the first time in New Zealand at the International Film Festival.
I had such a phenomenological response to the film that for one whole month after seeing it, I would flash back to its penultimate scene, (involving scissors and a body part), as though a nightmare was haunting me. I have not, to this day, been as affected by a film as I was with that.
Until I saw Cut, his section of The Three Extremes (2004), an anthology horror film with shorts from Takeshi Miike and Fruit Chan.
What attracted me to the work of Park Chan-Wook was not just the violence in his films – those who know me can attest to my love of all things violent in films. I think there should be more violence in films. I love it. MOAR! – but his mastery of mise-en-scène.
During the production course as part of my Honours degree, 2010, our teacher, Alex Funke, gave the class an exercise that Sergei Eisenstein gave to his students in 1933.
“He required his pupils at the USSR Film School to stage the scene from Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov murders the old pawnbroker. He added a crucial proviso: it had to be filmed in one shot and from a fixed camera position.”
– Bordwell, 2005, pp. 17-18
It was a challenge. The actors entered had an interaction at a door, moved into the room, came towards the only window, one bent down to pick something up, another murdered them from behind, and we saw the lifeless body on the ground. All of this had to be seen from one angle.
After trying so many different angles and lens lengths, we were finally shown the way the scene was shot. The exercise was to find the one angle to shoot and block the actors so that all the action could be seen. What we learnt was to focus on the actors, direct their movements to help tell the story. We also learnt, again, that our default reaction as young filmmakers is to come up with a long list of shots, rather than telling the story in an efficient and concise way.
This exercise was borne from Eisenstein’s research into mise-en-scène and mise-en-cadre (otherwise known as mise-en-shot).
Ever since being introduced to Eisenstein’s exercise, I have wanted to analyse Park’s films through the lens of Eisenstein’s research into mise-en-scène.
Mise-en-scène translates to “putting on stage”, and has been used within film to denote the placement of key elements within a scene. It includes blocking, camera angles, camera movement, lighting, art design, props, costume. The stage is the screen in cinema. Mise-en-shot, by comparison, is the shot composition; what is placed specifically within the frame of a shot.
In ‘Sympathy For Mr Vengeance’ (2002), the first film of his Vengeance Trilogy, I noticed that he was using shot setups and character blocking in a way that enhanced his telling of the story, and in a way that I had not seen before. In one scene, deaf-mute Ryu tries to get Yu-Sun, the young girl he and his sister have kidnapped, into crying so he can take a photo to send to her father for ransom. This was done in one shot (31’26 to 33’36), with Yu-Sun running off-camera, Ryu chasing her but remaining within the frame, taking a photo of her off-camera, and she runs back into frame.
The director’s choice of how to tell the story includes setting up the frame and directing the actors Every one of Park’s films includes stunning setups and shot compositions that aid in telling the story. His framing and blocking actors are quite simply beautiful and show a mastery of filmic vocabulary.
In one of the classes for my undergraduate film degree, in 2003 or so, we were given a shooting exercise. Take the below script excerpt – a piece between two characters – and, in groups, shoot it with a maximum of four static set-ups. The excerpt was from ‘Lone Star’ (dir. John Sayles, 1996, see Appendix One below).
All of the groups struggled with keeping to four set-ups. We all had wide shots, close-ups, a mixture of 2 shots. Then we were shown the scene as it was shot in the film.
It was one shot. One static shot.
The purpose of the exercise was to show us that new filmmakers always use too many shots, more than are needed. Simplicity is important; choosing the best shot, rather than too much coverage. Let the actors dictate the performance rather than your camera shots.
There is a famous scene in ‘Oldboy’, clip below. In it, our protagonist, Dae-Su attempts to escape and has to fight through a corridor of henchmen, armed only with a hammer.
Many directors, when faced with an action scene like this, would have come up with a long list of shots. An action scene always takes a long time to film, as there are so many different movements and angles to capture. Park did shoot different angles, but in the edit, decided to go with this – which is much more exciting and effective.
Park likes film “where stories mostly take place in a confined space, turning it into a small universe unto itself.” (RedCarpetNews Extra), and, in the same interview, films that have little dialogue. This affords him the ability to tell the story visually, with mise-en-scène, rather than with words.
When I run the Action On The Side projects, one of the exercises that I give directors is to write out the shot list and draw storyboards. Inevitably, as with any project, the director wants more shots than they need. I tell them to cut the shot list by half. It is better to combine shots now than on set. My rationale comes from my classes on mise-en-scène and from the work of Park Chan-Wook. He has inspired me to develop my visual vocabulary and have amazing mise-en-scène in my own projects. I now challenge every director to really think about their shots and how to use the information held within to tell the story.
And if you want your own inspiration, turn to the work of Park Chan-Wook.