Film noir is a categorical description of Hollywood crime movies especially the ones whose main plot is driven by cynical attitudes and sexual intentions (Conrad 2006 3-4). Most of the films in this category are the ones that emerged from the Hollywood mills in the period between 1940 and 1950.
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These movies were mainly done in black and white and their cinematography was mainly inspired by Expressionist cinematography originating from Germany. The storylines of the films that fall into the film noir category of the period were mainly inspired by the criminal outcrops that arose in the United States in the period after the Depression.
Even though the concentration of Film noir was in 1940s-50s, many other films in decades to follow had characteristics of Film noir. However, these films being not typical noirs were branded Film neo noir meaning that they had both cinematic and thematic elements of Film neo noir but were essentially hybrids of various styles (Conrad 2007 1-10).
This essay seeks to shed light on the distinguishing features and characteristics of film noir. To this extent the works of two popular directors (Park Chan-wook and Quentin Tarantino) shall be assessed with the aim of identifying the noir elements in them.
Later, a comparison of the styles of both directors shall be presented with an aim of establishing the elements that they do in a similar way as well as establishing the fundamental differences in their work. To this end a various literature, spanning print to electronic shall be consulted to provide background material for the essay.
Existential characteristics of film noir
There are various elements that are used to distinguish film noirs. These components cover both visual and stylistic aspects as well as the narrative element. For instance, it has been generally agreed that the typical film noir has to have a tragic ending (Donovan 38). Below is a detailed explanation of the film noir distinguishing factors:
Most of the distinguished film-noirs carry low-key lighting schemes where there are clear contrasting between dark and bright elements. This style has been defined as chiaroscuro. In some scenes of noted noirs, the faces of characters were partially (or sometimes fully) covered in darkness.
These effects were in some instances achieved through obscuring the artificial lights used in sets with things such as banister rods. Another visual element that must be present for a film to be classified as a noir is the omission of color. However, this is not a categorical element as some color films have been routinely classified as noir by various film scholars.
As far as shots and camera work is concerned, noirs are notably known for using low, wide and skewed angles. Some shots are taken through translucent glass or other items that could result in distortion. In the primary film noir era, night shots were taken at night which was a stark contrast to night shots being shot during the day in modern filmography.
Narration and structure
The plots of film noirs are generally not straight-forward. Most of them involve frequent flashbacks as well as various other editing styles that end of distorting and to some extent shadow the sequence of the narrative. In some films, the fundamental narration is presented as an independent flashback.
When voice-overs are used to complement the visual narrative they to some extent end up appearing as noir hallmarks. Experimentations have been done with some noirs being narrated from the point of view of the protagonist, and some being presented without ever clearly revealing some characters.
Storylines and characterization
A majority of film noirs are characterized by plots that revolve around crime and mostly the element of murder. Other society-shunned vices such as greed and jealousy are regarded as the basic motivation for the criminal activity informing the story.
Once the criminal has been identified, the story shifts to introduce an investigator, whose main purpose is unveil the crime and ensure that justice is installed. Unlike in other film categories, noirs generally the characters of heroes are to some extent questionable and these characters end up appearing alienate. A number of other characters appear archetypal such as corrupt policemen and writers going through mental block. In most film noirs cigarette smoking is commonplace.
The setting of most Film noirs is urban and certain towns such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago among others form the popular location. Bars, animal-fighting dens, boxing arenas and gambling hideouts shape most of the scenes for the films in this category. Some movies in the film noir classification happen in complex settings such as railway stations, factories and warehouses. On average, in most film noirs, there has to be a scene where rain falls, and this scene happens at night.
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The tone of most noirs is ‘downbeat’ and hopeless, and lacks the excitement that is typical of films in other genres. Film noir is generally described as primarily pessimistic with most of them presenting the stories of individuals who find themselves in unbearable situations. Most of them find themselves in such situations that are propelled without them playing an exacerbating role. To some extent, these individuals will more often than not be fighting against fate. These films present the world as fundamentally immoral.
Existential characteristics of film noir in the movie Old boy
The movie Old boy , directed by Park Chan-wook is a cinematic translation of the Japanese comic going by the same title and written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya (Lee 203). This film is sequel in The Vengeance trilogy and it presents the story of an individual named Oh Dae-Su, who spends around fifteen years of his life locked up in a hotel room.
From the outset, it is easy to identify the noir element of this film in the plot of the story. First, Dae-Su does not know what he did for his captors to torture him for that long (Ridely 38). Secondly, when he is finally let free, he still finds himself entangled in a web of crime and violence. The darkness is further propagated by the fact that he is so much engulfed in his quest for revenge (Tomkins 73).
However, he still maintains a loveable trait when he falls in love with a beautiful Sushi chef. The sexual motivation that is characteristic of noirs is presented in the fact that Dae-Su ends up discovering that the Sushi chef, Mi-Do, with whom he has had sex is actually his daughter, and that his captors had actually plotted from the beginning to get him to commit incest (Philips 97-98).
Dae-Su again involves himself in irrational actions when he slices off his tongue as a presentation of the extent he is willing to go to get the silence of Woo-Jin, who was one of his captors. Woo-Jin tragically takes away his life, essentially contributing to the darkness of the film (Spencer 18-20). Towards the end of the story, Dae-Su gets hypnotized and the film winds up on a rather unconventional note with him in a relationship with Mi-Do.
Various flashbacks have been used in the film especially when Dae-Su recalls the growing up of his daughter to culminate with the revelation that the daughter he has in mind is actually Mi-Do. These are the types of flashbacks that were typical of the 1940s-50s films and have ended up giving up this film a noir characteristic (Lee 203-219).
As far as the setting is concerned, various locations have been chosen and combined with strategic lighting to give the film a characteristic noir look (Lee 203-219). For instance, the fight in the corridor is well played out to partially obscure the participants from time to time. Another scene that that has been consciously presented with noir elements in mind is the final scene whereby the shots on snowy landscapes end up distorting the viewers regard of the passage of time.
Critical reception of Old boy
Old boy generated a lot of warmed-up opinions, particularly by film critics. This is particularly in regards to the ending which left most viewers uncertain of the safety of Dae-Su’s secret. Robert Egbert, a reviewer with the Chicago Sun-times found the film superior and described the violence in it as purposeful. Salon.com, through its writer Stephanie Zacharek also finds the film interesting and praises the noir element that according to her words makes the film ‘beautiful, anguished and desperately-alive”.
However, there are a number of reviewers who found the film either too shallow or too confusing. Among these individuals are Manohla Dargis and J.R. Jones of the New York Times and the Chicago Reader respectively. Dargis says that the film leaves the viewer with very little to think about while Jones claims that too much critical information has been left out. He actually describes the film as over-glorified.
The other two films in the vengeance trilogy have had a lukewarm reception with the first installment, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance receiving more acclaim for its cinematography, which is mildly noir and regarded by Elaine Perrone of efilmcritic.com says that the film is more visually striking than its successor.
The last installment of the trilogy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has characteristic noir elements particularly in its narrative and plot. It received numerous positive reviews for its music, which was seen to complement the narrative hence increasing the weight of the story.
Existential characteristics of film noir in the movie Pulp fiction
The movie Pulp Fiction was made in 1994 and was directed by Quentin Tarantino. Like Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy this film is a neo-noir as it has characteristic noir elements from the outset.
The story has a rich and satirical combination of humor and violence which play a big role in making it both easy to watch and also more effective as far as driving the message home is concerned (Tarantion 1-360). The storyline in its direction has inherent noir elements. This is because it employs various intersecting storylines of individuals in the dark world of crime.
It is not immediately easy for viewers to tell the direction of the story because the presentation follows a scatter-sequence format. Tarantino, in his characteristic style, avoids chronological sequencing it takes some time for a first-time viewer to catch on with the ‘fluctuating-pace’ story. The humor presents in the dialogues of characters and most reviewers have regarded the film as dark-comedy and definite example of a post-modern film.
The entire structure of the story is flipped such that the end comes at the beginning, making the film appear like one whole flashback. It is actually the sequence at the end of the movie that informs the viewer that the credit-roll after the very first scene was actually strategically and accurately placed. This is an editing style that was typical of a number of noirs and Tarantino employs it appropriately with the result of making his film neo-noir.
The choice of location also makes the film classically noir. The scenes at a small diner, boxing arena’s and dark criminal dens are elements of setting that distinguish a noir and have been appropriately used in this film to give the slow and classical pace of the 1940s-50s films.
The kind of film stock that was chosen was also intentionally-picked with the aim of giving the film the pace of a noir while at the same maintaining the clarity of a modern film. These two elements combined to give the film the visual appearance of a neo-noir.
Critical reception of Pulp-fiction
Pulp fiction received very favourable reviews from some of the most respecteds film critics in the world. Robert Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described it as very well written and consciously designed to be a hit. Richard Corliss of Time magazine also gave the film a thumbs up declaring that it had towered over other films to ever emanate from Hollywood.
He went on to say that it is such films that will encourage the come-back of the theatre culture. Other critics who found the movie appealing included Owen Gleiberman and Peter Travers of the Entertainment weekly and Rolling Stone who both said that the film made individuals rediscover how enjoyable film watching can get.
However, even with these positive reviews, there were a number of critics who found the film wanting to some extent especially with the noir effect that Tarantino wanted to present. The lighting of the film was distinctively and this is one of the elements that make the film not qualify as a typical noir.
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times concluded that there is no way this film could be defined as noir or a parody of noir as it was very clean and failed to give room for operatic death and other characteristics of traditional noir. Stanley Kauffman of The New Republican found the movie extravagant on the effects and very little on content.
Park Chan-wook vs. Quentin Tarantino
The direction of both Chan-wook and Tarantino from the films Oldboy and Pulp fiction appears to be drawn towards resolution of conflict at a very slow pace.
Both films capitalize on extreme violence to capture the attention of the viewer as well as distract him/her from directly getting the gist of the story. Even though both films were done in the 21st century, the two directors ensure that they bring out noir characteristics which are essentially the features that make the movies very compelling to follow.
Comparison and contrast of character development by Chan-wook and Tarantino
Chan-wook develops his characters by introducing characters gradually and with the pace of the story. He dedicates a lot of time following one character which makes it easy for the audience to understand and appreciate the persona of the character. Existential characters are also brought in gradually and the reader is given ample time to appreciate their inherent nature.
Tarantino on the other hand develops his characters at a much faster pace than Chan-wook . He introduces his characters in a sequence of cross-linking scenes early in the film essentially making the viewer aware of the presence of a number of protagonists and antagonists as well as side-characters. Oh Dae-Su in the film Oldboy presents as a victim from the outset especially because he is not aware of why he is in the situation that he is in.
This ends up leaving the viewer more sympathetic to him and even leads one to be tempted to support him in his cause. Jules Winnfield from Pulp fiction on the other hand is a toughened character who knows the direction he is headed right from the time he is introduced. It is therefore easy to predict that the film will end with him on top of the case. This is unlike in Dae-Su’s case where the viewer cannot immediately tell whether or not he will succeed in his mission.
Differences between Korean and American film values
Korean films are more reserved and tend to steer away from over glorifying crime. This is well ensured by making criminals shoulder their own burdens and making victims triumph to some extent (Cage 123-143). American films on the other hand are never shy of controversy and may actually make the antagonist dominate the show.
Nudity and violence are provided in American films as long as they can be used to capture the attention of the viewer. This is in contrast with Korean films where the two elements (nudity and violence) are only portrayed whenever the situation calls for it. The Korean style of narration is also very straight forward as has been detailed in the film Oldboy.
This makes it easier for any individual to follow the story. American movie makers on the other hand have a pre-conceived notion of who the film is targeted at and this makes the complexity of their presentation target a particular section of society. This segregation element has been presented in Tarantino’s Pulp fiction which to some extent requires some degree of film style understanding to watch comfortably.
Each film is an independent work of art and it will tend to have unique structure particularly in terms of the narrative and structural elements and this will primarily depend on the choices made by the creator. This essay has analyzed the narrative structure of the film Pulp fiction directed by Quentin Tarantino and Oldboy directed by Park Chan-wook.
Focus has been on the assessment of the general narrative, visual techniques and elements of characters and characterization that are applicable, particularly in the regard of the films being easily characterized as Film noir. Various forms of literature have been used to provide the background for assessment of the films and this has come in handy to help in further explaining the element of film noir.
Cage, Rober L. “The Good, the Bad and the South Korean Violence, Morality and South
Korean Extreme Fim.” Choi, Jinhee Wada-Marciano, Mitsuyo. Horror to the extreme: Changing boundaries in Asian Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009. 123-143. Print
Conrad, Mark T. The philosophy of Film Noir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. Print
Conrad, Mark T. The philosophy of Film Neo-noir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. Print.
Donovan, Barna William. Blood, guns and testosterone: action films, audiences and a thirst for violence. Lanham: Scarecrow press, 2010. Print.
Lee, Nikki. “Salute to Mr. Vengeance!”: The making of transnational auteur Park Chan-wook.” Hunt, Leon Wing-Fai, Leung. East Asian cinemas: exploring transnational connections on film. London: I.B Tauris, 2008. 203-219. Print
Philips, Kendall R. Controversial cinema: the films that outraged America. Westport: Praeger, 2008.Print
Ridely, Jim. “Film: (Very) Oldboy.” The village voice (2009):38.Print
Spenser, Liese. “Revengers tragedy.” Sight and sound (2004): 18-20.Print
Tarantino, Quentin. Pulp Fiction: A Screenplay . New York: Hyperion/Miramax, 1994. Print
Tomkins, Joseph. “The political unconscious of Park Chan-wook: The Lofic of revenge and the structures of Global capitalism.” Essays in film and the humanities (2008):69-8.Print