Sauna on the Moon

By Yun-hua Chen.

This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival (20 June-1 July, 2012), led by the new artistic director Chris Fujiwara, differed from last year in a remarkable way. It broke from the previous year’s strong link with University of Edinburgh and strategically placed itself closer to other art forms which will be showcased in the festival city in upcoming months. We can see this move in EIFF’s cooperation with Traverse Theatre, where the press office was situated this year and where many gigs, talks, industry and public events took place.

Black's Game
In terms of programming, there was a fantastic and well-balanced selection. Films which were premiered in other film festivals such as the well received Tabu (2012) of Miguel Gomes at the 2012 Berlinale, Christine Laurent’s Demain? (2011), and Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador (2011) were presented here for the Scottish audience. Following EIFF’s tradition as a discovery film festival, impressive debut features such as Ian Clark’s Guinea Pigs (2012) and Lu Sheng’s Here, There (2012) were included. In addition, thrillers from North European countries such as Jackpot (2011) and Óskar Thór Axelsson’s Black’s Game (2011), as were spotlights on Shinya Tsukamoto and Wang Bing. Retrospectives of Shinji Somai and Gregory La Cava further broadened EIFF’s geographical, thematic and historical scope. Environmental, ecological and social concerns also ran through the festival, reflecting some major global issues of the year. Toshi Fujiwara’s No Man’s Zone, Atsushi Funahashi’s Nuclear Nation and Yojyu Matsubayashi’s Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape reflect upon the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake in 2011, the subsequent tsunami in northeast Japan, and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Maja Borg’s documentary Future My Love (2012), in its poetic and experimental manner, explores alternatives to monetary capitalism at the time of global economic crisis.

Here, There
At the forefront of Chinese cinema, apart from Mao Mao’s Here, Then (2012) which won the award of the best film in the international feature competition, Lu Sheng’s Here, There is another eye-opening feature from China. This touching portrait interweaves three interconnected characters and three locations. A middle-aged man lives solitarily in the snowy mountains of China’s far north, remote from his wife and son, breeding reindeer for a living. A young waiter at a small restaurant in Shanghai starts to have a relationship with a girl who sells insurance that she cannot afford herself. A young Chinese student who has recently arrived in Paris gets to know the usually invisible face of the city and its inhabitants at the margins after he is robbed of his passport. Through the tenuous link between these characters, the film juxtaposes winter in Paris, in Shanghai, and in the wilderness, and makes a contrast between urban margins and the deserted rural space. It contemplates on the essence of human relationships despite differences in class, race and age, as well as the physical, geographical and psychological distances between people, against a backdrop of comparable winter scenes with images of thick ice, white snow and fog breath. In the end of this touching but not overly sentimental feature, the Parisian metro brings the Chinese student and some Romanian buskers together in the same space and the same frame; the encounter between individuals nowadays usually happens in such an unexpected manner.

Sauna on the Moon
Zou Peng’s Sauna on Moon (2011) takes an insider look at the brothel Chang E in Guangdong, one of the provinces that have profited the most from the country’s opening-up to capitalism and materialism. The boss Wu’s erotic empire is a miniature of the money-driven China; he recruits and exploits hardworking young girls, who have been trained to satisfy even the most perverted needs of the customers and are rewarded with little of the country’s increasing revenues. The interior design and flamboyant costumes of Chang E create the dreamy fantasy world of the brothel, contrasting to the grey and dingy sweatshop clothes factory in the neighbourhood. DJ Chen’s Young Dudes (2012) from Taiwan, on the other hand, indulges more fully in the virtual world of image and sound. The young dudes’ longing for a fantasy world pushes them to delve into parallel universes, the actualised virtual and a psychedelic journey. Under its strong soundtrack, the film reflects upon the young generation of confusion, virtuality and nomadism in contemporary Taipei, although some of its creative ideas failed to be developed into maturity on screen.

There were many outstanding South Asian films this year as well, including Kamila Andini’s The Mirror Never Lies (2011) from Indonesia and Asoka Handagama’s Him, Here After (2012) from Sri Lanka. Also, the jury member Lav Diaz’s six-hour long Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) solicited a lot of responses from the audience. Loy Arcena’s Niño (2011) and Mes De Guzman’s Of Skies and Earth (2011) as well as Khavn de la Cruz‘s Mondomanila, or: How I Fixed My Hair After a Rather Long Journey (2012), all from young and productive filmmakers in the Philippines, were premiered in the Philippine New Wave series. Adapted from Norma Wilwayco’s prize-winning novel, this low budget film pays tributes to Philippine cinematic tradition and at the same time creates a new path by providing a shocking and provocative portrayal of Manila in a sarcastic manner. In the psychedelic journey, we see deliberately grotesque characters and exaggerated references to sex. It is a surreal pellmell of genres, inbetween thriller, drama, comedy, musical and political allegory. Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143 (2012), which was made possible thanks to donations from web-surfers, takes a more realistic approach. Apart from the driver, who was played by the productive actor Allan Paule, also a local sex idol, the film casts predominantly non-actors. Throughout a cab journey, we see snapshots of interaction between the cab driver and his passengers across the social spectrum, including a self-mocking snippet of film-within-a-film.

Tondo, Beloved
Tondo, Beloved: To What Are the Poor Born (2012) is another impressive film from Philippines. In this at times heartbreaking documentary the camera follows a family that lives in a shack near the North Harbour of Manila. While they live so close to all the profit-generating machinery and cargos, they don’t benefit from these industrial devices at all and have no access to modern technology. The mother, Virgie, pregnant with the fourth child and always barefoot, earns the living of the family from fishing at a rock between the shack and the dock. The fish on which they survive, however, has been contaminated by pollution from the neighbouring factories. The film powerfully portrays the contrast between disproportionate gigantic cargos in the background and the fragile shanty town constructed of bamboo, straw and wood pieces right above the sea. The three children pass their day crawling on the floor of the small dwelling space, running between small passageways, gluing pirated DVDs to the walls, or indulging in the simple joy of adding sugar to their homemade jelly. The boys’ worship of American heroes posing with their guns in Vietnam war movies is an ironic remark about the country’s colonial past and the imbalanced power struggle in international politics, both of which are unknown to the kids. The documentary ends with a shocking birth-giving scene in its crudest manner. We see a newly born baby coming to our world while realising that this baby, along with his impoverished family, will be forced to leave their home soon because of government policy.

Him, Hereafter
Him, Hereafter (2012), made by a Sinhalese director in the Tamil language, takes an unusual look at the aftermath of the 26-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka. With the trauma of the civil war looming in the background, a Tamil rebel soldier is rehabilitated and sent back to his native village after fighting for the revolutionaries who lost the war. He is at the same time feared by the villagers and haunted by the past. As he tries to reconcile with the past and establish a new career, the film shifts from his pursuit of a former lover, who has been forced to marry an old man after his departure and then widowed right afterwards, to his relationship with another woman after he replaces the latter’s husband as a jewellery shop guard. As the jewellery shop owner turns out to be a smuggler and exploiter, these two characters start a series of misadventures, which they treat in a light-hearted manner. The film nevertheless powerfully shows that no one is safe from the chain of exploitation and corruption in the post-war society of Sri Lanka, where the ones with social, physical and financial strength rule over the weaker ones without mercy, and where no one can claim to be completely innocent. In their ghost-like existence, they are all wanderers and nomads in a society deprived of trust.

Yun-hua Chen recently completed her PhD in Film Studies, and is currently working on several academic articles.

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