By James Udden.
If the Vancouver International Film Festival is any guide, then the state of world film culture remains healthy – at least for now. Every film festival strives for an identity of sorts, but not all succeed. Vancouver manages to successfully nourish multiple identities over its two plus weeks. The 30th edition continues VIFF’s longstanding tradition of providing a daring range of programming that draws out an equally vibrant range of local ethnic communities speaking everything from Farsi to Tagalog.
During the first full week, the core identity of the festival lies with its usually impressive array of recent films from East Asia under the rubric, “Dragons & Tigers.” Expertly programmed by Tony Rayns and Shelly Kracier, this includes a competition of eight first features by young Asian directors. This year’s eight were judged by the likes of esteemed Hong Kong director, Ann Hui, (who also showed her latest film at VIFF) and Simon Field, producer of Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Bonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
The competition itself is both unpredictable and at times surprising. Past winners of the “Dragons & Tigers” award include now esteemed festival directors such as Kore-eda Hirokazu, Hong Sang-soo and Jia Zhangke. Time will tell if this year’s winner will one day join such recognizable ranks. Nevertheless, there is no denying that The Sun-Beaten Path, helmed by Tibetan director, Sonthar Gyal, deserved the $10,000 top prize. Shot for just over US$100,000, this is a beautifully composed meditation on a guilt-ridden young man’s peripatetic quest for redemption. It also suggests that the Tibetan plateau is one of world cinema’s more underutilized resources. Given how shockingly low this budget is for a film even by the standards of indie films in the USA, one still has to wonder if it was perhaps unfairly high when considering that other entries were barely more than student films with budgets ranging from only US$1000-US$3000. Some of the entries did seem like nothing more than student films; some such as Woman in the Septic Tank (Philippines, dir. Marlon N Rivera) and Invasion of Alien Bikini (South Korea, dir. Oh Youngdoo) were at least crowd pleasers even if not exactly memorable films. A Japanese entry, Recreation (dir. Nagano Yoshihiro), was one of those films made for just a few thousand dollars, and at times it had the technical shortcomings to show for it. Yet it was also a surprisingly effective and disturbing sketch of juvenile crime in Fukoka Prefecture. (Nagano himself says that Japanese audiences were so disturbed by what they saw that many ran out crying during its screening at the PIA festival.) The jury gave the film a special mention, noting in particular the strength of its ensemble cast. Also receiving a well-deserved special mention was Baby Factory (dir. Eduardo Roy Jr.) one of three films in the competition hailing from the Philippines. This was a polished and penetrating look at the social underbelly found in a massive maternity ward in Manila.
The Dragons & Tigers section extends well beyond the eight films in the competition to include a vast and daunting array of the most recent works from East Asia. This includes several films that this reviewer would label as “can’t miss.”
For starters, past winners and participants of the “Dragons & Tigers” competition continue to make their presence felt at VIFF. The awards ceremony itself was followed by the world premiere of Mitsuko Delivers directed by a past competitor at VIFF, Ishii Yuya, who has gone on to be arguably the leading comedic voice in Japanese cinema today. Like Sawarko Decides (screened at least year’s VIFF), this lasted work is a scathingly funny satire of Japanese mores, this time centering on a young unwed mother who whips an entire neighborhood into shape by sheer will. Past “Dragons & Tigers” winner (1996) Hong Sang-soo continues to show the “Hong touch” with his latest foray into the tangled world of male/female relationships in The Day He Arrives. While not perhaps his strongest effort, it still offers the same intricate delights of plotting (and drinking) that will please those familiar with his work. Still, nothing quite prepared this reviewer for the surprise that was I Wish. Kore-eda began his career with a Dragons & Tigers winner back in 1995 for his first feature, Maborosi. Since this his career has been unpredictable. In this case, the film serves as almost an antidote to a much darker earlier work, Nobody Knows. Instead of young children forced to fend for themselves as occurred in that film, in this case two brothers, forced apart by divorce, conspire to meet at a particular point in space and time to make a wish, even though they understand this may all be superstition. Yet the sheer delight of the children’s acting, and the humor, would certainly have left Ozu smiling, just as it did for nearly everyone who saw the film in Vancouver.
Other films were equally memorable, even if for different reasons. Life Without Principle is evidence that the Hong Konger, Johnnie To, has not his distinctive edge as a director. This is a more personal work for To, who takes a scathing view of human behavior in his own backyard during the recent financial crisis. Yet expertly photographed and even more precisely wrought as a network narrative, he ends the film with a shot whereby different characters in the film finally cross paths, each are unaware of how closely connected their lives actually have been. More of an event was a Taiwanese entry, Sadeeq Bale (dir. Wei Te-sheng). Financed largely from the profits of his previous hit, Cape No. 7, the most expensive film in Taiwanese history is currently poised to become a box office champion in Taiwan after its less than respectful treatment at the Venice Film Festival. Unlike at Venice, or even more recently at TIFF, Vancouver showed the film the only way it should be seen: in its complete four-and-a-half hour version, which is being shown in two parts in Asian theaters. To the astonishment of everyone, including current festival director Alan Franey, this film managed to sell out all of its advanced tickets well before any other film at the festival, proving that Vancouver has an equally sizable Taiwanese ex-pat community. The film itself is impressively made even if sometimes exceedingly brutal in its depiction of a 1930 aboriginal rebellion against the Japanese colonizers of the time. The depiction of the original massacre at Wushe is noteworthy for its frank and effective portrayal of even Aboriginal atrocities. In the end, these aboriginals come across as neither noble nor savage, which is to the film’s credit.
Finally, special mention should be made of what is arguably the best film shown in this year’s “Dragons & Tigers” at VIFF. In over one hundred minutes of screen time captured in roughly seventy shots (meaning more than a minute and a half on average), Eternity, by Thai director, Sivaroj Kongsakul, is one of the most beautiful and touching examples in recent years of a slow meditative style that is now rather commonplace for Asian films finding their way into the festival circuit. The story is exceedingly simple: a ghost has retuned to a spot where earlier in his life he made a key decision by convincing his then young wife to move to his home village in the countryside. The film then revolves around that happy moment in deliberate fashion, slowly registering an unforgettable elegy to both love and inevitable loss. Kongsakul now becomes a director this reviewer will continue to seek out. Moreover, this particular film may please even those who normally do not have any patience for “slow cinema.”
Any film festival worth its salt is an opportunity for regret. Certainly this is in part due to regret of films seen, since no festival showing this great of range of world cinema could possibly please everyone. Yet in a festival with such dynamic programming, there is also the regret of films one could not see since there were too many offerings at once. This reviewer did not regret seeing the lone Romanian entry this year, Best Intentions (dir. Adrian Sitaru), an ingenious exercise in using only POV shots of every character in the film, including merely incidental observers, yet never once using the POV of the protagonist. There was also no regret at not having seen Bela Tarr’s A Turin Horse and the Iranian film, A Separation (dir. Asghar Frhadi), since they had already been shown earlier at the Berlinale in February, and both deservedly won prizes there. Still, there was great regret at being enticed (maybe even hoodwinked) into viewing the North American premiere of Takashi Miike’s Harakiri: Death of a Samurai. Of course, with any film done in 3-D, the question must be addressed: why 3-D? Why indeed. In this case one suspects it was truly a promotional gimmick, as if they were winking and suggesting: what if Audition had been made in 3-D? Instead this was a bland cinematic exercise where even the 3-D was underwhelming. All along this reviewer could only think of how dull the falling snow in this film appeared compared to the unforgettable falling snow in Sword of Doom or even the cheesy Lady Snowblood. Equally regrettable was Iranian expat Maryam Keshavarz’s overseas co-production, Circumstance. The most impressive aspect of that screening was the sheer size of the Iranian expat community that showed up at the festival’s largest venue, the Vogue. The film itself was merely subversive in content (at least by Iranian standards), but utterly conventional and bland in form. Others report that the true Iranian offerings, including Goodbye, The Green Wave, and This is Not a Film (along with A Separation) would have made much wiser choices.
That being said, there is never a cause for regret in attending the VIFF, and the 30th edition confirmed once more why this might be the best festival relatively few know about. One only hopes that the VIFF does not change too much. Unlike most festivals, it seems to do most everything in just the right proportions, including making cinema of the world over easily accessible to this diverse, film-crazy city.
James Udden is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Gettysburg College and the author of No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsienpublished by Hong Kong University Press.