Cinema via Cell Phones? We Have Seen Park Chan- Wook’s iPhone 4 Masterpiece, and Now We Believe

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A short film about psychics, floating corpses and the afterlife proves that riveting major-league cinema can be created on the tiniest of devices.

From time to time there are cinematic experiments that demand attention. When Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble elevated the game for high-definition digital filmmaking, critics like David Denby took notice. When James Cameron promised a 3-D project that would redefine the possibilities of immersive filmmaking, Hollywood took him seriously. In 2011, the cinematic breakthrough changing minds is a 31-minute short film that has gathered a rabid cult following.

From the outset, it was the director who tantalized film lovers: Park Chan-wook, the man behind such acclaimed works as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, teamed up with his brother Chan-kyong in an attempt to create a frightening, fantastical film using only an iPhone 4. The finished product, Night Fishing, was first screened for a handful of reporters back in January, before going on to win the award for best short film at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. It arrived in America not long after at South By Southwest. This past weekend, it made a splash in New York City as part of this year’s Creators Project film sidebar.

About 300 curious onlookers packed into Brooklyn’s powerHouse Arena bookstore to watch Night Fishing. And from the first sequence, it becomes clear that the Parks viewed this project as the chance to push the iPhone camera to its limits. A finished portion of the film is already up on YouTube (though there appears to be a slight decline in resolution, versus what I saw projected in Brooklyn):

All but unrelated to the storyline that follows, I must admit that this music video prelude filled me with a sense of giddiness. Apart from the dynamic performance of the lead singer, there’s a nimbleness to the camerawork here that is exciting to behold  — and while I’m sure just about any filmmaker could do all this with a standard digital video camera, I’m curious if the directors felt more liberated to make dramatic framing/movement choices, since they were working with such a small recording device.

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If you watch the above clip to the end, you’ll meet our hero: A meandering fisherman, out for a stroll. His casual day at the lake quickly devolves as the sun sets and he pitches camp. He starts to have nightmares, about pulling up a white-clothed corpse from the water’s depths — a corpse that promptly awakens and seems to know intimate details about his life and family. As this dream state collides with the waking world, the Parks quickly elevate a simple fishing tale into an exploration of that mysterious space between life and death.

As seen during the Creators Project screening, the one major drawback to the iPhone shoot appears to be a slight degradation in image quality. That is to be expected, and there are indeed a couple of issues to be found with depth of vision, and crispness of image. But here’s the caveat to that observation: With something like Night Fishing, where stylized framing and points of view are par for the type of surreal story being told, I stopped noticing the blurred edges almost immediately. I was far more captivated by the editing rhythm, the camera movements and the supernatural juxtapositions.

Made for less than $150,000, what’s most memorable about Night Fishing is just how much the Parks were able to do with the limitations of their device. The brothers routinely manipulate their focus, and darken the edges of the frame, to draw the viewer’s eye across the screen. During a dream sequence, they use grainy, pixellated black-and-white to create a creepy, ethereal atmosphere. In the opening sequence above, it only takes a couple of seconds to see how aggressively the brothers rotate the camera, from fixed overhead views to tumbling floating shots, turning upside down as we ride along with a hat that’s flying with the breeze. Near the end of the story, there is one sublime slow pan that blurs the lines between the waves of the lake below, the arch of the mountains beyond and the blue hue of the sky above – a blurry fade between heaven and Earth (see 00:12 below).

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What the iPhone camera might add to the equation is a sense of urgent proximity. In multiple sequences, the Parks use their iPhone 4 to bring us within inches of an actor, thrusting the viewer into a character’s point of view. During these moments, there is something about the shape of the lens and the handheld twitchiness of the camera that makes the sequence seem that much more kinetic and alive. Twice in the film a psychic female serves as a medium, channeling someone from beyond the grave, and during these two episodes the camera hovers dangerously close to her, evoking an aura of anxiety and chaos. The effect is noticeable and, I’m guessing, easier to achieve with an iPhone than with a standard camera.

All things considered, Night Fishing is so subtly hypnotic that there’s no denying its effectiveness. By the end of the opening sequence, I forgot all about the devices being used on the set. And I emerged convinced: We have arrived at the crossroads where an iPhone video camera can be used to achieve a professional-grade cinematic experience. In fact, we cannot be far away from the first full-length iPhone studio feature.

Given the economics at play, this represents yet another profound step forward, towards a world where amateurs with a minuscule budget can shoot (and distribute) like professionals. Here is a compilation of Night Fishing highlights, which spotlights many of the key camera techniques and visual aesthetics I have written about:

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