A review of "Linda Linda Linda" — 6 years ago
“The language of cinema is universal.” This is Landmark Cinema’s introduction to its movies — a contradiction, however, to how much of the American public seems to like its movie-watching. “Like” is a guess on my part; Jonathan Rosenbaum argues, in essence, that the weekly charts of top ten highest-grossing movies are more of a reflection of how producers, marketers and distributors view the American movie-going public. There’s no reason, for instance, that Park Chan-Wook’s satisfying but disturbing revenge flick Oldboy would not have cashed in at the box office — except for the fact that it has subtitles and, most importantly, was relegated only to limited film-festival or one-week runs in North America. (Okay, there are various acts of mutilation and torture, and an animal gets eaten alive — but surely Jackass Number Two had similar scenes, no?)
While we cultural anthropologists generally dislike so-called “cultural universals,” there are surely certain cinematic codes and conventions familiar to the movie-going middle class everywhere. Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda, a film about Japanese high school girls who form a band, is an excellent exemplification of that “universal language,” and therefore runs the risk of an American remake. Hollywood’s remaking of Japanese horror movies, for instance — perhaps testifying to its relentlessly acquisitive nature or its history of appropriating things in its own image — consistently removes the specific cultural context from which the film emerges, almost as if the American public needed to be shielded from hearing foreign languages or different cultures.
Let me illustrate this dynamic by posing something opposite. I encounter something similar in my introductory sociocultural anthropology classes, where a student would invariably say at the end of the semester that they learned a lot because they could “relate to the readings,” or that they could “see themselves in the situations,” or, my favorite, that they “learned more about themselves.” But my standards in this cinematic case are somewhat different: These lessons are absolutely commendable, but there is something to be said about a perceptual lens that enables one to recognize, appreciate, and understand difference, rather than simply projecting oneself onto the ethnographies. Surely film audiences can do the same, at the same time using those codes of the “universal language” to guard against archaic exoticisms.
(The fact that the band in Linda Linda Linda, called “PARANMAUM” — Korean, apparently, for “Blue Hearts,” the name of the ‘80s Japanese band whose songs they cover — is led by a Korean singer who can only speak halting Japanese, her second language, nicely entwines the twin themes of the possibility of intercultural communication with a nostalgia that cannot be shared; “Linda Linda” is not a song from the lead singer’s childhood, and despite this (or because of this) by the end she inhabits it and makes it fully her own.)
Linda Linda Linda isn’t perfect; it traffics in the usual stereotypes, none of them very deeply fleshed out — the tough one, the one with a crush, the hesitant outsider (played wonderfully here by my new favorite actress Bae Doo-Na). But unlike, say, Joan Freeman’s Satisfaction (terrible) or Alan Parker’s The Commitments (better — it’s based on a Roddy Doyle novel after all), there’s no anticipation of a big break, no big club date or audience, just a high school basketball court performance on a rainy afternoon. In this respect the dilemmas are charmingly small, but massive in its adolescent context: will they find a place to rehearse? Will they make it to the concert on time? Will they ever get those opening notes right? This is where Yamashita’s direction shines; when they finally get to sing their song, the crowd-pleasing scenes at the conclusion are genuinely earned.
It is in the film’s series of final frames — almost-still shots of empty courtyards and hallways — that the film acquires a particular gravity. With the mystic guitar chords of memory ringing in the background, the film tells us that the high school — surely one of the more emotionally charged locales, however one might repress it, in a typical viewer’s life — will always be there, even if its temporary residents will inevitably come and go. Spaces only become places once they are animated by the lives and recollections passing through it. The film works in the same way, a testament to the uncanny power of music to anchor the hearer in a fleeting temporal space through a brief, bittersweet burst of nostalgia.