September 22 to October 5 2000,
Annyong Kimchi (MATSUE Tetsuaki, 1999)
Body Drop Asphalt (Wada Junko, 2000)
Dokhtaran Khorshid/Daughters of the Sun (Mariam SHAHRIAR, 2000)
Fah Talai Jone (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000)
The Goddess of 1967 (Clara LAW, 2000)
The Great Vancouver One Piece! Challenge (various, 2000)
Hua Yang Nian Hua/In the Mood for Love (WONG Kar-wai, 2000)
Love/Juice (Shindo Kaze, 2000)
Mayis Sikintisi/Clouds of May (Nuri Bilge CEYLAN, 2000)
Mei Lan Fang De Shi Jie/The Worlds of Mei Lan Fang (CHEN Mei-Juin, 1999)
Roozi Keh Zan Shodam/The Day I Became a Woman (Marziyeh MESHKINI, 2000)
Suzhou He/Suzhou River (LOU Ye, 2000)
Wo Jiao A-Ming-la/Bundled (Singing Chen, 2000)
Yi Yi/A One and A Two (Edward YANG Dechang, 2000)
Zhan Tai/Platform (JIA Zhangke, 2000)
The Vancouver International Film Festival is a gem of a film festival, especially for those who closely follow Asian cinema. Tony Rayns and crew selected a wide range of new films for this year’s Festival, including shorts, documentaries, 16mm and video, from all over Asia. Many will not appear at other North American festivals, yet a couple of the ‘big-name-directors’ were included in the program for local consumption, such as Cannes-winners Edward YANG Dechang and WONG Kar-Wai. The atmosphere of the Festival is as relaxed as those of us “east of the mountains” expect of the West Coast – few line-ups even for the regular audience, theatres in far-flung areas of the city to allow for different local audiences, economically priced and generally hassle-free screenings. It was very easy to approach directors after Festival screenings, and in fact encouraged. All films mentioned are in 35mm format unless noted.
The 8th annual Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema offered Festival-goers nine first (or second) feature-length films by new directors from Pacific Asia. This year the countries represented were Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. I saw four of the nine competing films: Body Drop Asphalt (Wada Junko, 2000), Wo Jiao A-Ming-la /Bundled (Singing Chen, 2000), Fah Talai Jone (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000) and Love/Juice (Shindo Kaze, 2000).
Fah Talai Jone (which translates into When the Heavens Strike the Thieves) was awarded the first prize of $5,000 Canadian. This was a rollicking technicolour melodrama, a loving homage to the lost Thai films of the 1960s. The wealthy heroine Rumpoey (Stella MALUCCHI) is never without a handkerchief close at hand, the poor hero Dum (Charthcai NGAMSAN) wears a black cowboy hat and is a sharp-shooting bandit. There is so much bright colour in this film, especially pink, that it practically leaks off the screen. Never patronizing towards the over-the-top style of the beloved films of the director’s youth, and avoiding tacky parody, Fah Talai Jone won over the jurors with its energy, enthusiasm and tender care.
Body Drop Asphalt was shot on digital video through a grant from the Aichi Arts Center. WADA Junko has been involved in a number of experimental short films, and she includes some of those techniques in this film as well as more extravagant computer graphic insertions. The film’s opening credits last approximately 30 minutes. A very funny song, complete with sing-along karaoke characters across the bottom of the screen, is a complete change from the protagonist MANAKA Eri (OYAMADA Sayuri)’s previous dour introspective moments. The plot is complex, at times fantastic (a novel representation of God appears to Eri!), and debates the necessity of romantic love in today’s modern society. Despite the film’s occasional seriousness, I found it very intriguing overall.
Wo Jiao A-Ming-la/Bundled is a 16mm first feature directed by Singing CHEN, who is part of a group of filmmakers trained by HUANG Ming-Chuan. These film artisans develop experience in all technical aspects of the filmmaking craft through their apprenticeship with HUANG. This socially aware film follows a few homeless characters through their own maps of Taipei, usually off the radar of fellow citizens with ‘normal’ living standards. The character A-Ming (YEN Mu-tsuen) is played by a homeless man, who continues his life in a shelter today. Bundled skewers societal attitudes towards the homeless and mentally ill, and the structure of the film reflects the disconnected lives and hallucinations of the characters. The music was particularly striking, including the folk-style songs sung by YONG (ZHANG Yui-wei) to ‘full-moon guitar’ accompaniment. This complex film gave me even more on a second viewing.
Love/Juice was eagerly awaited by the capacity audience, perhaps due to the program book descriptions’ hints of a sexual relationship between the two female protagonists. Unfortunately I found the characters of the roommates, art student Kyoko and photographer Chinatsu, quite uninteresting, and the dialogue uninspired. I was more interested however in the nifty layout of their apartment. Ms. SHINDO Kaze explained that she originally planned to leave the ending less open, and perhaps include cannibalism. I was sorry that the combined audiences for the three previously mentioned films did not match the size of this one.
Mayis Sikintisi/Clouds of May (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2000) has been compared to current trends in Iranian cinema, but that is a bit too easy. Yes, there are lovely shots of striking countryside and it is a film about a filmmaker making a film, but that was where any potential overlap ended. It is clearly not easy to be a young man in modern Turkish society. Jobs are scarce, as are places at public universities or apartments in Istanbul. The filmmaker character Muzaffer (Muzaffer ÖZDEMIR) is trying to convince his parents to appear in his film, a period piece set in the time of World War I. His parents’ town is near the site of Gallipoli, and for some decades his elderly father Emin (M. Emin Ceylan) has taken over custody of a vacant woodlot. Emin is very worried about the imminent arrival of a team of government land surveyors who will claim the woodlot as national forest, since Emin cherished the trees and did not cut them all down. There are many sun-dappled scenes of Emin and his oaks. Muzaffer has a video camera for most of the film, and occasionally we see his video footage, for example of his young nephew Ali (Muhammed Zımbaoğlu). Ali has been entrusted with a raw egg for 40 days in order to show he is responsible enough to be given a wristwatch. Village life seems quite petty and dull. Modern life and technology arrive in the pony-tailed person of Sadik (Sadik Inescu), the light/sound man for Muzaffer’s film, who has a cigarette lighter/penknife/flashlight that plays the Lambada. Ali is fascinated by the lighter, and even changes his watch request after seeing this amazing item. The pace of Clouds of May is not fast, but viewers (even those unfamiliar with Turkey) will remember images of Emin in his forest or Ali playing with the tortoise. Clouds of May was awarded Best Turkish Film of the Year at the 2000 Istanbul Film Festival, so it definitely resonated well with its domestic audience.
Annyong Kimchi (MATSUE Tetsuaki, 1999) was the director’s 16mm graduate thesis at documentary film school, and provides an engaging self-discovery of his Korean ancestry. Matsue’s grandparents moved from Korea (while a Japanese colony) to Japan in the early 1900s, and took Japanese names. He had not told any of his close friends that his family was Korean until very recently. The traditional Korean food kimchi makes Matsue nauseous, although he is continually exposed to it at family events. He investigates his grandfather’s life in Japan, focusing on his tombstone with the name Matsue on it. He interviews his sister, parents, aunts and grandmother about how they see themselves, as Korean or Japanese, and how it has been for them to live as outsiders in Japan and considered lesser “overseas citizens” by Korea. We also see Matsue’s first trip to his ancestral village in Korea. In the film’s closing segment he asks all his close family in Japan to declare their identity by choosing to wave Korean and/or Japanese flags. Fast-moving and humorous, this documentary portrays an unexamined aspect of Japanese society.
Mei Lan Fang De Shi Jie/The Worlds of Mei Lan Fang (CHEN Mei-Juin, 1999) is a video documentary on the fascinating Beijing opera superstar MEI Lan Fang, pulling together footage and photographs from his life (1894-1961). The video also includes interviews with other actors and one of Mei’s sons. Mei came from a family involved in opera for generations and his acting was highly regarded while still a teenager. His specialty was playing female roles, in which he aspired to embody the ideal of femininity. He did not try to portray realistically female characters, and he also did not consider himself a female impersonator. Mei was involved in one of the first Chinese colour feature films, Sheng Si Hen/Wedding in the Dream/Remorse at Death (FEI Mu, 1947/8?), which filmed a staged performance. Mei was a strong supporter of the Communist Party after 1949, and was officially popular until the Cultural Revolution. The role of Dieyi (Leslie CHEUNG Kwok-Wing) in Ba Wang Bie Ji/Farewell My Concubine (CHEN Kaige, 1993) is loosely based on Mei’s life. Mei was married and had children, and his surviving family make it quite clear that there is no question of homosexuality throughout Mei’s career. This video provides viewers, previously unaware of Mei’s vast popularity, with a crash course in his career and an overview of how his life intersected with major historical events. Opera buffs will be thrilled at the chance to see this rare performance footage.
An event that surely could not be easily recreated elsewhere was the Great Vancouver One Piece! Challenge, which pitted the Japanese creators of the One Piece! Project against Canadian filmmakers. The One Piece! films must be a single, uninterrupted take from a fixed camera, without post-production on sound or image. Unfortunately it seems the Canadian filmmakers did not take these rules to heart, or maybe had not seen any of the Japanese originals, as picture editing or additional sound seemed in evidence in Male Multiple Orgasm (Blaine Thurier, 2000). Also I took the One Piece! idea to include a certain element of improvisation or spontaneity, and so a filmed version of a short story (Anxious Objects, Colleen Mayrs, 2000) did not really appear to be in keeping with the concept, even if I liked the original story. Probably what those who stayed away feared was that all18 of the films would be like Ai/Love (KOJIMA Fusako, 2000), which was a bunch of mostly naked people jumping up and down in front of the camera while yelling statements about love and holding up cardboard signs. There was no editing, people just ran around the set while the cardboard was in front of the lens. One can’t say this was boring, especially when Red Loincloth was on screen. The Japanese films suffered a bit of a disadvantage during the screening, as they were shown on VHS instead of DigiBeta and also lacked subtitles. Tony Rayns read the English translation aloud over the speakers, trying not to drown out the original Japanese sound. The audience was urged to take notes somehow so as to vote with applause after all films had been screened. I was startled to see the Canadian film What Else Have You Got? (Harry Killas, 2000) was the overall audience favourite. This was five minutes of one man’s face as he pitches various story ideas to an off-screen voice. You rather quickly get the idea that he is pitching the life of Jesus to the Christian God. Some of the Japanese and Canadian films were dull, not much more than yelling, swearing, spitting or sounds of sex. I preferred Sho-ten Kono Hen De/Going to Heaven, Just About Now (YAGUCHI Shinobu, 2000), in which a recently deceased man reappears to his closest friends to tell them what fun he had in Osaka on his 24 hours of probation back on earth. Yaguchi is one of the founders of One Piece! (along with SUZUKI Takuji) and the director of the features Hadashi No Picnic/Down the Drain (1992), Himitsu no Hanazono/My Secret Cache (1996) and Adrenaline Drive (1999). If an audience member was not familiar with the One Piece! concept, the long evening combined with the technical glitches may have become overwhelming. As Yaguchi explained in his hilarious video introduction, this idea really works for certain directors and really doesn’t for others. A wild event!
I find film portrayals of the lives of women in Iran fascinating; there is so much I don’t know. Vancouver offered two very strong first feature films by women Iranian directors this year. Both films are intense and highly recommended. These two films are not at all the stereotypical tale of a lost child in Tehran or a lonely boy in the countryside, but rather very politically aware and complex tales. Iranian films were among the only sold-out (even oversold) shows at the Vancouver Festival, due in part to a large local expatriate community plus the general Festival buzz.
Roozi Keh Zan Shodam/The Day I Became a Woman (Marziyeh MESHKINI, 2000) consists of three linked stories. Each story features a woman at a different but crucial age: Hava (the Farsi equivalent of Eve) who has just turned nine years old; Ahoo who seems to be abandoning her recent marriage; and the very elderly Hoora who may be leaving the earth.
Perhaps Hava’s segment is the most unsettling for a Western audience. As she is now considered a woman, she should wear a headscarf and can no longer play with the neighbourhood boys. She is independent-minded and finds some strategies to deal with this situation, even just for one day. It is not clear that Ahoo has any real strategies available to her, only a very snazzy mountain bike. Hoora has found the funds of her dreams, and uses a coterie of small boys to assist her in her final shopping spree. The final story is the most fantastic, garnering the most laughs, and is only depressing if one reads the segment as stating that death is the only way for women to escape oppression. The setting for all three stories is the island of Kish, known for its resorts and a generally more permissive atmosphere. Meshkini is the wife of the celebrated filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and he is credited as the scriptwriter. I will remember the scenes of Ahoo’s veils flapping in the wind and her clutching of the veils in her teeth during my (unencumbered) daily bicycle commute for quite some time.
Dokhtaran Khorshid/Daughters of the Sun (Mariam Shahriar, 2000) is an extremely elliptical film, with very little dialogue. Available plot synopses add more information than a non-Farsi speaker can glean from watching the film, including the germ of the plot. Our protagonist is Aman, a girl whose father shaves her hair and sends her dressed as a boy to earn money at a carpet workshop in another hamlet. Aman is extremely good at knotting carpets, and does the work of three women. The cruel workshop owner treats Aman like an indentured servant, and she is locked in the workshop each night. It seems that only the audience knows she is a woman. We are shown pieces of various stories, but not always enough to clearly understand what is happening. Perhaps we see dreams instead of reality. There are many points of possible discussion in this film. Aman seems trapped, but sometimes the workshop door is open. Both a man and a woman are attracted to her, and it is not clear if they realize she is a woman or not. Aman seems to be fixated on a young woman with green eyes living across the road, who brings her food. This is quite a visual film, often focusing on Aman’s evocative face and the colours in her environment. The camera looks through windows and through the warp threads of the looms. The folk music used in the film is also striking. Time in the film can really only be measured by the rugs in progress. Without revealing too much, I think it is safe to say that if you can last through some of the more harrowing segments, the ending will be worth waiting for. This film was awarded the Prix de Montreal for first feature film at the 2000 Montreal World Film Festival, and has received acclaim at other international festivals as well.
Clara LAW’s new film, The Goddess of 1967 (2000), is her second film following her relocation to Australia. JM (Rikiya KUROKAWA) is a very modern young man from Tokyo who is dedicated to buying a certain Citroen DS. BG (Rose Byrne) is an unusual blind woman who claims she can lead him to the owner of the car. Together they head out into the empty countryside. There are many more flashbacks of her life than his, and we are eventually shown the roots of their problems. The desert holds many surprises. The colours shown in this film are really beautiful; Law used some extraordinary processing techniques. I did not find this an enjoyable film, mainly due to the tiresome protagonists. Kurokawa seemed a pale imitation of NAGASE Masatoshi’s character in Qiuyue/Autumn Moon (1992), which for me is still LAW’s best film. Rose Byrne won the Best Actress at the 2000 Venice Film Festival, so this film does provoke a variety of reactions.
Vancouver’s programmers included this year’s crop of important films from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China. What a year! These are not so-called “difficult films” only for Asian-film aficionados, but rather substantial works that any serious filmgoer should be able to get her teeth into.
WONG Kar-Wai-directed films continue to contain all the elements I hope for in an ideal unforgettable film – stunning visual style, a gripping soundtrack, excellent actors and a good story. Hua Yang Nian Hua/In the Mood for Love (2000) is certainly no exception. Mrs. Chan (Maggie CHEUNG Man-Yuk) and Mr. Chow (Tony LEUNG Chiu-Wai) live in neighbouring flats in 1962 Hong Kong. When they learn their spouses are having an affair, Chan and Chow strike up a friendship. What does or does not become of their relationship is the rest of the film. Much has been made of the way WONG creates a film: he writes the script each day; he does not give the actors prior information on the characters; he submerges the actors in his desired atmosphere; and he takes months longer than anticipated. WONG draws such high-quality performances from the actors; and although his creative process can be difficult for them the results may be the best work of their careers and so it is no surprise they put up, even begrudgingly, with his approach. WONG fans will breathlessly await each of Mrs. Chan’s fabulous dresses and every smouldering look from Mr. Chow. I wanted to stay on for at least another 98 minutes after the film ended. Tony LEUNG Chiu-Wai was awarded Best Actor at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
Yi Yi/A One and A Two (Edward YANG Dechang, 2000) earned YANG Best Director at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. Yi Yi will also be the first YANG film to receive North American distribution. This portrayal of the problems in the life of protagonist NJ (WU Nianjen) and his family seems both particular to modern-day Taipei society and general to families in any modern city today.
An audience willing to sit for 173 minutes is amply rewarded. Again, strong acting is the key. Edward YANG’s previous body of work has not fit neatly into narrow constructs for contemporary Asian film, but enthusiasts or scholars (e.g. Fredric Jameson) have not been so lazy. Yi Yi should break out of those strictures.
Two young Mainland China directors provided films in 2000 – Zhan Tai/Platform (JIA Zhangke, 2000) and Suzhou He/Suzhou River (LOU Ye, 2000). Platform follows the main members of a laconic cultural performance group through the massive changes in China from 1979 to 1990, in the hinterland of north-western Shanxi province. JIA manages to include so much in this film that it would certainly bear another viewing. This 190-minute work is only JIA’s second work, following Xiao Wu (1997). He continues to collect accolades from film festivals around the world. Suzhou River is a quirky sort of mystery story, set in very modern Shanghai. LOU twists the usual sort of plot exposition, so the audience does not necessarily know if anything we are shown happened in the story, or if the characters are inventing it in the re-telling. This may not be the China some people want to see on film; these pager-toting characters hang out in bars that feature Budweiser or margaritas. This is by far the lightest-weight of the Chinese-language films, but still bears watching.
The Vancouver International Film Festival programmers continue to reward their audience with excellent choices of films. Kudos all around! I hope the rain holds off again next year.