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Screening Room

She Done It Right

Mae West's 'I'm No Angel' is one of the films credited with saving Paramount.

October 14, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The UCLA Film and Television Archive screens one of Mae West's best pictures, "I'm No Angel," which along with "She Done Him Wrong," her screen version of "Diamond Lil," have long been credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy during the depths of the Depression. It will be shown tonight in Melnitz Hall's James Bridges Theater at 7:30.

Of these two racy pre-Hays Code pictures, "I'm No Angel," directed by Wesley Ruggles, is arguably the better. It's the one in which West plays a carny hoochie-coochie dancer who graduates to circus lion tamer and in the process conquers high society (and Cary Grant) while remaining very much herself. It's so fast and funny that you hardly notice the social commentary; this also is the one in which West ad-libbed, "Beulah, peel me a grape." It begins amid lots of pungent sawdust-and-tinsel show-biz atmosphere but ends up in a gleaming world of white-on-white Art Deco elegance. It is presented by the Ted Mann Foundation with contemporaneous short subjects.

The archive launches "The Diabolical Cinema of Kim Ki-Young," a five-feature retrospective of the idiosyncratic, ultra-intense Korean director, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the James Bridges Theater with "Killer Butterfly" (1978). Through melodrama at its most lurid, Kim (1919-1998), a confounding cross between Douglas Sirk and Samuel Fuller, was able to reveal vividly a society in the throes of industrialization, urbanization and liberation for women. A college student, Young-Gul (Kim Jung-Chol), has the singular misfortune to be chasing a butterfly when a young woman, suffering from terminal cancer, persuades him to share a suicidal beverage so that she will have companionship in the next world. He survives the poisoning only to face the neurotic wrath of the dead woman's best friend (Kim Ja-Ok), who happens to be the daughter of a rich and prominent archeologist (Namgung Won) to whom Young-Gul has become an assistant. Myriad complications and bizarre incidents ensue. Kim Ki-Young is here concerned with the transcendent nature of relationships between men and women, life and death, but in its incessant and lengthy hysteria the film is ultimately more wearying than entertaining.

Far more rewarding is "The Housemaid" (1960), which screens Sunday at 7 p.m. It is understandably considered a masterwork of the Korean cinema. With its stunning expressionistic style, it tells of a young woman from the country, (Chu Jung-Nyo) who becomes a live-in housekeeper for an upwardly mobile composer, Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-Gyu). In addition to his teaching piano lessons, working as an accompanist and directing a women's choir in an immense textile factory, his wife works long hours as a seamstress to supplement the family income. The Kims' hard work has bought them a spacious home for themselves and their two children, but they are caught up in the universal rat race to the extent that the collapse of Mrs. Kim (Lee Un-Shim) through sheer exhaustion has necessitated the hiring of what proves to be the housekeeper from hell. Class conflict, sexual fantasizing and exploitation and rampant materialism are thrown into bold relief as the housekeeper intends to place the Kim family in her ruthless, vengeful thrall. The result is an enduringly provocative film that is bravura in its every aspect.

For all its outrageousness you do not have the feeling that Kim is going for dark humor in "The Housemaid," but "The Insect Woman" (1972), which follows it, is surely meant to have a bleakly comical edge.

To support her mother, a concubine whose married lover has just died, and her younger brother and sister in addition to herself, Myung-Ja (Yun Yo-Song) follows in her mother's footsteps, becoming the mistress of Mr. Lee (Namgung Won), who has led a life of indolence ever since he realized that his dragon of a wife (Chon Kye-Hyon) has a far better head for business than he. Myung-Ja makes the mistake of falling in love with Lee and becomes as much of a nonstop hysteric as the archeologist's daughter in "Killer Butterfly," which in turns makes her lover's wife a nonstop harridan.

"The Insect Woman" is almost as bizarre as "Killer Butterfly." The series concludes Oct. 28 with "Iodo" (1977) and "Promise of the Flesh" (1975).

Information: (310) 206-FILM.

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