By James Udden.

It is hard to imagine a film festival better run that the Vancouver International Film Festival, now completing its 29th year during the first two weeks of October 2010. Hardly the largest or the most famous of film festivals, this does not seem to concern the organizers, programmers and volunteers alike. Like the city itself, they know who they are and they recognize what is more important than mere status: namely a wide array of films well worth seeing in a place well worth visiting.

One major appeal of the VIFF is its well-deserved reputation as the North American gateway to the latest films from the Asia-Pacific region, a remarkable accomplishment considering this festival is sandwiched between Toronto and Pusan. This is largely due to the long-standing efforts of Tony Rayns who helped establish the only significant prize awarded at the festival: The Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema, given to a new director from the Asian-Pacific Region. (Past winners include Hong Sang-soo and Jia Jiangke.) It is hard to argue with a jury that included Bong Joon-ho from Korea and Jia Jiangke from China. Nevertheless, not everyone agreed with the awarding of top prize to Good Morning to the World, a Japanese entry directed by Hirohara Satoru. This centered on a young high school loner who becomes interested in the past of a homeless man who died on the street, setting him on an unpredictable quest. While an engaging enough film made for virtually nothing, and while it showed some stylistic flair, it did not seem as assured as another Japanese entry in the competition, Icarus Under the Sun, a film helmed by two female directors, Abe Saori and Takahashi Nazuki, for a mere $500 budget. While nothing was done with the lighting scheme as a result, this film proved that long takes with a strong sense of framing composition costs nothing. Even more impressive was a Korean competitor, End of Animal, a film so polished and so eerily and inexplicably apocalyptic that one easily forgets that Jo Sung-hee, the director, shot this on HDCAM. All three of these contenders made their international debuts at Vancouver, and all three represent talents whose future works should be sought out.

Beyond the eight films in the competition, Dragons & Tigers also includes close to forty other films from East Asia from names both well-known and the not yet-well known. The more established names included the Cannes winner from Thailand, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This was a mesmerizing cinematic puzzle that seems to reflect not any particular Buddhist cosmology so much as one created by Weerasethakul himself, with Karmic forces that cannot ever be explained, yet with ever lingering images (including red-eyed monkeys) one cannot get out of one’s mind. Hong Sang-so had not one, but two films screened at the festival, HaHaHa and Oki’s Movie, the latter being a whimsical look at filmmaking and love from very different perspectives, a Hong trademark, but including arguably the most painfully funny Q & A session ever depicted on the screen. (Apparently the personal is cinematic.) Meanwhile the Dragons & Tiger Award Gala featured Feng Xiaogang’s blockbuster on the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, Aftershock, which resonates given the recent disaster in Sichuan. One should not dismiss this film too easily: it is conventional and melodramatic, but surprisingly measured and effective in doing so. Its final shots of the memorial to the victims provide a fitting end.

Given Aftershock’s record-setting box office success in China, and it being the Chinese entry into the Oscars, Feng’s film along with the duo from Hong Sang-so and the Cannes winner from Thailand will all likely be available for future screenings and DVD releases. Yet there were other gems in the vast Dragons & Tigers selection that one can only hope will find future releases. Three films in particular show that East Asians are becoming their own masters of deadpan humor. Sawako Decides is described as being a “comic drama” in the festival catalog, but for this reviewer this was perhaps the funniest Japanese film since Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992). Ishii Yuya certainly understands how much in the contemporary Japanese society is still ripe for satire. Sawako, a young, lovable loser returns from Tokyo to take over her ailing father’s clam packing factory. The women workers all hate her at first. Of course, Sawako wins them over, but only by revising the corporate song into a lower-middle class fight song that leaves one in hysterics, and asking the women point blank how many actually slept with her father in the past. (The answer is a perfectly composed single take where all the women are lined up in depth, and one speaks for all of them, answering in the most straight-faced manner possible.) Equally priceless were four reaction shots the first time Sawako asserts herself, and the oddest and funniest French kiss to ever grace the screen.

Even more surprising were two new Chinese comedies. Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation made its North American Premiere. Set in Inner Mongolia during an extremely uneventful winter vacation, this was at first a seeming exercise in cinematic minimalism done in mostly static long takes with even more static staging of the actors who sometimes can go minutes with moving or speaking. Yet soon the jokes begin, culminating in the least heated argument two teenagers can ever have and a young boy so world-weary that his declared dream is to be an orphan when he grows up! As offbeat as this film is, even more surprisingly offbeat was Thomas Mao, a film by Zhu Wen which made its international premiere at the VIFF. This is a difficult film to describe outside of its basic premise of a western artist/traveler in a remote area of China who speaks no Chinese, lodging with a lone Chinese man who speaks no English. One could see the misunderstandings coming in their bilingual yet mutually incomprehensible exchanges, yet those alone made it worth seeing this film. (Well, that and a duet pissing scene that defies description.) This hardly explains a swordplay sequence (possibly of ghosts?) that involves a love-hate relationship expressed through ever spurting blood, resulting in one of the best satires of the wuxia tradition ever. Nor does it explain the last third of the film, where Thomas is now an artist’s subject who does speak Chinese, and the Chinese man is the artist, only now in a city. The greatest fear with such a wonderfully odd, offbeat film is that nobody will ever chance distributing it in North America, a tragic end for such a wonderful comedy.

Equally surprising and impressive was a Taiwanese entry from Chung Mong-hung, whose The Fourth Portrait marks only his second feature-length narrative. This film is so assured in terms of composition and lighting that this seems like the result of an old cinematic soul. (The shots through colored plastic in a karaoke lounge are not to be forgotten.) Equally impressive is the measured and careful treatment of a young boy, Xiang, whose father dies, after which he returns to his mother and has to deal with a stepfather haunted by his own dark secrets. In one shot, the stepfather unexpectedly kicks Xiang out of the frame so shockingly and effectively that it packs visceral visual punch.

Unfortunately, the entries from Hong Kong during this edition of the VIFF were less impressive. Aside from the impression that Teddy Robin has recently undergone a career renaissance, and the sometimes amusing homage to martial arts films of old found in Gallants (dirs. Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng), films such as Merry-Go-Round (dirs. Yan Yan Mak & Clement Cheng) and Echoes of the Rainbow (dir. Alex Law) suggest that limitless sentimentality and nostalgia are now the order of the day, supplanting formerly limitless action hi-jinks.

The VIFF also makes sure it has ample programming in tune to the latest happenings outside of East Asia. Of particular interest here are some films from Iran. Three Iranian films provide a current cross-section of the range of filmmaking possible in the current political climate. Homayoun Asadian’s Gold and Copper arguably comes closest to what the current regime favors from its cinema, given its heartfelt focus on a seminary student dealing with his wife’s illness. A much darker view of Iran emerges in the bleak and visually arresting The White Meadows, a film that raises questions as to why it was made until one realizes the primary filmmakers (Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafir Panahi) are serving jail sentences. Yet the most memorable film would have to be the latest from Abbas Kiarostami, whose remarkable Certified Copy made its Canadian premiere. While listed as a European film and completely filmed there and starring Juliette Binoche, this is truly a Kiarostami masterwork, as if Through the Olive Trees had been translated to new languages and climes, this time starring older, mature, European adults.

Any film festival is a reminder that in many ways the short-lived movement of the Italian neo-realism never died, but is more like an itinerant show that never stopped. Films such as Chassis from the Philippines, the visually accomplished R U There from the Netherlands, or October from Peru are evidence enough of this fact, as are Romanian entries such as Belly of the Whale. Nevertheless, other Romanian entries such as Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, a three-hour exploration of a desperate man caught in an existential moment of truth resulting in methodical bloodshed, remind us once again why Romanian cinema is currently still the hottest ticket on the festival circuit.

Finally, special mention should be made of the documentaries made at the VIFF, in particular Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s The Two Escobars, a feature-length version of a documentary originally commissioned for ESPN that provide s view of Pablo Escobar unlike what one would expect. The most haunting, however, was A Film Unfinished, by Israeli director, Yael Hersonki. Based largely on found footage of a German film shot in the Warsaw Ghetto just before its famed uprising, this film adds to its uncanny effect by including both former residents and the cameramen, causing them to face a past that they may have just as well forgotten. Like the festival itself, this film is neither unfinished nor will it easily be forgotten, a reminder of why the VIFF remains one of the best windows both onto cinema and the world.

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.

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