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The Crescent Moon

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Director: Jang Kil-soo
Year of Release: 2002
Language: Korean

So, a long time after I wrote that I am going to review some movies just a bit more systematically, I have finally started doing that.

I didn’t go into an infinite loop: I just took longer.

Most people will find my list of Great Movies (when compared to my list of Very Good Movies) unconventional, if not strange. And this movie is likely to be perhaps the one (out of my selection of Great Movies) to which rarely any other movie critic will do the same honor. But then I don’t really see myself as a critic. I claim to be a good movie viewer, which is more important in my opinion than being a good critic. Anyway, it seemed quite appropriate to me to start my movie reviewing career with this movie. I was so bent on starting with this one that I stopped myself from reviewing any other movie here before I reviewed this one. So you can be quite sure that I am not taking it lightly and it is not a passing fancy. In fact, it’s already more than two years since I discovered (I hope not in the colonial sense) this movie.

Why did I put this relatively unknown movie in my list of Great Movies? Simply speaking, because it fulfills my criteria of being a Great Movie. But I wouldn’t try to objectively list those criteria. You can get a sense of them if you keep reading my reviews.

But you won’t be so surprised if you are familiar with Korean movies, which are known to be among the most creative by those who know about them, so much so that both Hollywood and Bollywood are getting some of their inspiration from there.

Like several other Great Movies in my list, this one too starts out quite unassumingly. And if you are (according to my standards) not a good movie viewer, you are unlikely to notice much in this movie that can make you call it Great. You might just say that it is a good enough movie. Perhaps I too would have done so when I was just beginning to learn the difficult but quite a tempting art of movie viewing.

The Crescent Moon is, first of all, a classic example of the works of fiction which are centered around what I call the Sibling Motif, or more particularly, the Young Sibling Motif, or even more particularly, the Mixed Young Sibling Motif. This motif requires two protagonists who should be young (children or adolescents) and they should be brother and sister. It involves telling the tale of their experiences, adventures if you like, over a period of time that can range from the shortest possible to whole lifetimes, but is usually a few years.

It is not an uncommon motif and is found in some of the greatest works of fiction, literary or audio-visual. I am not very sure, but it seems to have become more popular from the nineteenth century. Off the top of my head, I can think of many works built around this central motif. From the nineteenth century itself I can cite George Eliot’s classic tragedy, The Mill on the Floss, about the life and death of a girl who is more devoted to her brother than he is to her and who (like many others in Eliot’s novels and like herself) is also an unusual female character in the Victorian era literature in that she is quite an independent individual with a better brain and better education than her brother, but who nevertheless doesn’t do anything that could be considered indecent even by the Victorian standards, though she is hardly ever treated fairly by anyone.

Another, much more well known, classic which is centered around this motif is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. Since it is so well known, I won’t say anything about it. There is also the movie masterpiece (and the novel on which it is based) called Pather Panchali. From around the same time, there is a different kind of movie masterpiece, which is much less well known. That one is Charles Laughton’s only directorial work, The Night of the Hunter, which has still not received as much recognition as it should have. Incidentally, both of these movies are in my list of Great Movies. Coming to more recent times, there is, of course, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Needless to say that there are numerous others such as Jean Cocteau’s (much darker) Les Enfant Terribles, which unfortunately I haven’t read as I simply haven’t been able to lay my hands on it. And all the three novels by J. D. Salinger (but more so Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey) are also centered around this motif, except that in his case there are other siblings too who either appear in the novel or are talked about. (About defining what a novel means in Salinger’s writings, you could almost call his collected works a single fragmented novel).

I don’t exactly know what it signifies, but I notice here that the first three books that I mentioned were all written by women and the main protagonist is the girl in all of them, whereas the two movies were made by men and they had the boy as the main protagonist.

Coming back to the movie under review, this one doesn’t really make either the boy or the girl the main protagonist. In that sense it seems to me to be a more paradigmatic example of the works centered around the motif.

The girl in this movie is significantly younger than the boy and we are in fact shown the boy seeing her recently born sister. He is not happy as he is given the task to care for her when the grandmother is busy working inside and outside the house. The mother left the girl with the grandmother and we don’t know anything about the father. So the siblings are not only motherless and fatherless, but their only refuge is the old poor grandmother who has only a few years of work left in her.

The boy is even more unhappy with her sister when she turns a out to be a little hunchback. The fact of the sweet little extremely lovable girl being a hunchback, if I might mention with technical and/or academic brutality, allows the movie to look at the world from a different perspective and to develop the character of the brother, who gradually becomes much more affectionate to her, overcoming his embarrassment at being the brother of a hunchback and being the target of taunts for the same reason from his friends, who the movie doesn’t really make out to be monsters.

The movie also has many other minor and not so minor motifs. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that it is full of what could be called (with some justification) clichés. But then (to use a clichéd expression) some of the greatest stories ever told are full of clichés. Wise usage of these clichés and ‘worn out’ motifs often gives a work of fiction that epic quality which is the dream of most authors and auteurs. This movie is a case in point.

It deals with themes ranging from migration (to city), poverty, the struggle for survival, moral ambiguity, exploitation, child labor and unthinking oppression by the state in the name of development to the relationship between a boy and a teacher, but unlike in Mera Naam Joker (which is not one of my favorite films), here the teacher is a mother figure for the motherless child. It even has a section (which is one of the least clichéd and the most interesting) about the repressed sexual desires of a middle aged woman (to whom the boy delivers newspapers) and the awakening desires of her adolescent maid servant. But (despite the mother figure teacher) this is not really a movie for prudes and moral puritans (the teacher is introduced to the boy’s family through the intervention of the family’s dog who steals the teacher’s ‘chest scarf’). It gives both of them (the woman and her maid) due dignity, even as it presents the tragi-comic nature of the situation. If you want some single label for this movie, then I would have to give you Humanist.

Apart from the brother and the sister, the other important character is the grandmother, who we come to know better and are sometimes surprised by as the movie proceeds. To use another cliché, she represents all the honest hard working members of the class to which she belongs. I might confess here that, unlike some ideologues, I don’t believe that all the members of any class (including hers) are honest and hard working. But I don’t think that changes anything with regard to most other things.

On the whole, like Pather Panchali, this movie has a lyrical (sometimes poetic) quality that, if you get it, would remain with you for a long long time, even if you don’t see it again, which I think you are likely to do if you can. And it is so strong that the fact that The Crescent Moon doesn’t have any very ‘innovative’ technical flourishes is not a good enough reason for me to keep it out of my Great Movies list.

Another important reason why this movie works so well is the perfect cast, which is very important for this kind of movie (as it is for movies by Fellini and the Neo-Realists), even though it may be less important for other kinds of movies, such as those by Godard. Which brings me to mention that this movie somehow makes me recall The Nights of Cabiria.

I might add one caution for those who are very sentimental and also, at the same time, very particular about hygiene. Keep a handkerchief ready. It won’t take anything away from the movie’s greatness.

P.S.: I have found out that the famous French magazine Cahier du Cinema (to which Truffaut used to contribute regularly) conducted a poll of major critics and prepared a list of 100 great films. In this list, The Night of the Hunter is ranked second, along with La Règle du jeu by Jean Renoir. By the way, Truffaut’s was among the few favorable reviews that this movie got at that time. Let’s hope the great actor will break the wall of regimentation that stipulates that if someone was as great an actor as Laughton, he couldn’t be an equally great director (unless he is already recognized as an exceptional auteur, like Orson Welles: after the deification, everything is allowed). Most people now (barring, perhaps, the movie historians and the like) don’t even know that at one time he was as famous as Marlon Brando, Lawrence Olivier and Alfred Hitchcock. And how many people know that he not only worked closely with Bertolt Brecht on the English version of Brecht’s Life of Galileo (and played the title role in it), Brecht also wrote a poem about the actor’s garden. For the longer term, however, let’s also hope that he is not deified.