By James Udden.
Before attending the Festival des 3 Continents, I had only associated Nantes with a historical edict and a film festival I hoped to attend someday. Now I associate the actual film festival with an actual city, and a delightful one at that. Since very little is written about the Festival des 3 Continents in English, this is arguably one of the most underappreciated film festivals in the world. Since 1979 Nantes has been a true gateway festival, and sometimes a veritable launching pad for later world-renowned directors who would later rise to the victory podiums of Berlin, Venice and Cannes.
Unlike other festivals, Nantes possesses a clear identity based on precise programming parameters – only films from Africa, Latin America and Asia (including the Middle East) are to be screened. That being the case, it was surprising how French this festival was despite not showing a single French film: at every screening you will mostly hear only French being spoken in the audience; only French is spoken during the opening and closing ceremonies, and at the Q & A sessions in between; moreover, there is no guarantee that every film will have English subtitles. (Fortunately, all eleven entries in the competition were required to have English subtitles, and the catalogue was bilingual for the most part.) This, however, should not dissuade anyone who does not speak French from attending. If one is interested in the latest in World Cinema outside of the West, plus additional sidebars with a strong historical perspective of the same, this is a festival worth attempting. This is due to the strong and diverse programming by Jerome Baron and Charlotte Grayson, all under the careful management of Sandrine Butteau. The current organizers continue a longstanding tradition first established by the legendary Jalladeau brothers, whom you will still find in attendance.
This year’s competition struck this reviewer as being unusually deep in terms of quality and talent. I do not dispute the audience prize (Prix du public), which in this case corresponded with the top prize by the jury, the Golden Montgolfiere. Nor do I have take issue with the jury’s choices for the Silver Montgolfiere or special mention. Yet there were other films that I felt deserved equal mention.
Wang Bing, from China, won both the Montgolfiere d’Or and the Prix du public for his 150+ minute documentary, Three Sisters. Set in the mountain regions of Southwestern China, this film featured some of the most unforgettable imagery of the entire festival. It is a painful and poetic look at the harsh, quotidian existence of rural life in Yunnan. No doubt this film winning the admiration of jury and audiences alike will raise the question of whether this but a reification of the orientalist gaze of rich societies peering into the lives of poor ones. Yet in this case this would not tell the whole story: since this is China, this film is a deft political reminder of how much the impressive economic progress does not penetrate parts of Chinas hinterlands. It certainly makes the dazzle of cities like Shanghai seem more like Potemkin villages than reflecting the reality of China as a whole. Needless to day, this is not a film to the Chinese government’s liking.
The runner up prize (the Montgolfiere d’Argent) went to an Argentinean entry, Beauty, helmed by Daniela Seggiaro. If anything, this film is a critique of Orientalism despite its intriguing ambiguities. A young native girl lives with a white family. At times she appears to be but a house servant; however, at other times she is treated like an adopted daughter. Yet interspersed throughout are voiceovers of the young girl speaking in her native tongue laid over blurred images of flowing water. With its very different cadences almost hypnotic in effect, these inner monologues reveal how much she is not really a part of the culture she otherwise appears to be adopting. The supple shifts in rhythm give this film an added lyric quality.
The jury also gave a special mention to the Korean entry, Sleepless Night, directed by Jang Kun-jae. With its often minimal editing and minimal camera movement, this film, along with another Chinese entry in the competition, Memories Look at Me, offer further proof that a long-standing tradition of Asian minimalism is still very much alive. (The latter film was a debut feature by Song Fang, who previously appeared as the film student in Paris in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s, Flight of the Red Balloon.) However, Sleepless Night is an ingenious look at a happy married couple wondering if they will remain happy if they have kids. The narrative structure is unpredictable, including two prolonged fights that unexpectedly turn out to something else, the latter of which is a senseless domestic dispute over slightest shifts in words at a dinner party that is simply a tour de force. The very last shot of the still happy and still childless couple is elegiac: she looks over at her husband with a touch of melancholy, perhaps realizing that even such certain bliss that they currently have may not last.
I feel compelled, however, to give a special mention to two more entries in the competition. It’s a Dream, by Mahmoud Ghaffari from Iran, and I.D., by K.M. Kamal from India, were arguably the two most intense films in the entire competition. The former was snuck out of Iran in a suitcase, and no wonder given its taboo themes of a rapacious underground economy, sexual exploitation and illegal abortion. What is most notable, however, is the delayed exposition regarding the true nature of particular relationships, most of all between the main female protagonist and a man who turns out to be her brother-in-law. I.D. involves a rich, young woman with a new career in marketing in Mumbai. She feels compelled to find out the identity of a painter who had come to her apartment to work, only to suddenly have a stroke and die. This leads her to the labyrinthine underbelly of Mumbai. The style of the film ratchets up the tension to the very last shot, making her once comfortable existence now almost a permanent paranoid state as she faces head-on the dichotomy between the world she markets for and they real world she now traverses.
Although the two Mexican entries in the competition were a disappointment, all the other competition films had some merit which space will not allow mention here. However, I should make mention of the one film in the competition I did not manage to see for logistical reasons. This was the nearly six-hour long documentary (of sorts) called Theatre 1/Theatre 2, made by the Japanese director, Kazuhiro Soda. Surprisingly, such extraordinary length did not prevent it from receiving the Young Jury Prize. I hope to catch this film at a future date, if only because some French youth have officially put me to shame to find the time and patience and appreciation for a film I missed.
Outside of the competition there was even more to offer. One delightful surprise was Hao Jie’s The Love Songs of Tiedan. This is a beautifully shot work set in Northern China abutting Mongolia. The film at first seems to promise a sentimental or melodramatic look at the fate of an accomplished singer of er ren tai, a form of opera banned during the Cultural Revolution. Instead it turned out to have some biting comic moments, most of all a hysterical juxtaposition of a wedding imagined in its ideal state — versus the actual wedding. I sincerely regret I could not make it to a screening of the Japanese experimental masterpiece, Page of Madness, a film I have seen many times before, but never on a big screen with live musical accompaniment as was offered in Nantes at a special screening.
Page of Madness is only one example of how well-versed one can become on non-Western film history by attending this festival. (I suspect Jerome Baron is the driving force behind this, since he also teaches film history at the University of Nantes.) Recent Hong Kong history was well covered in a sizeable retrospective of Milkyway films. This allowed me to see lesser-known works of Johnnie To such as Yesterday Once More (2004), a prime example of a Milkyway crowd-pleaser which can then finance the films To more desires to produce. Most surprising to me was Lawrence Ah-mon’s Gimmie Gimmie (2001). This film had a strong ensemble cast and more compelling look aimless youth than one normally expects.
The greatest revelation, however, was a large retrospective of a lesser-known Japanese director, Shinji Somai. Unfortunately, none of the prints delivered came with the English subtitles promised from Japan. Fortunately, being forced to follows these narrative based on pure visuals showed what an effective director Somai truly was. Typhoon Club (1985) may be an unrecognized masterpiece. The moment when young students sing and dance in the eye of a typhoon — in the buff — was both touchingly innocent yet laced with something deeper as well. An early Somai work, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981), seemed to constantly come completely out of left field, but in a good way. As I watched this film on purely visual/sonic terms, not understanding the dialogue or the subtitles for the most part, I suddenly realized this film was as unpredictable as a Senjin Suzuki film, yet sometimes done in the style of Hou Hsiao-hsien. It is hard to find an odder juxtaposition than that.
Then again, unexpected juxtapositions are precisely what are possible at Nantes and its Festival des 3 Continents. This is certainly not one of the largest festivals in the world today, but this is certainly one of the better focused and properly sized. I sincerely hope I will have an opportunity to return in the future.
James Udden is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Gettysburg College and the author of No Man an Island: Hou Hsiao-Hsien and the Aesthetics of Experience, published by Hong Kong University Press.