Vancouver International Film Festival (all original titles as listed in the VIFF catalogue), September 26 – October 11 2002
Dragons & Tigers Competition for Young Asian Cinema
Border Line (LEE Sang-Il, Japan, 2002)
Eliana, Eliana (Riri RIZA, Indonesia, 2002)
Isan Special/Kuen Prachan Tem Doueng (Mongmongkol Sonakul, Thailand, 2002)
Parachute Kids/Tiaosan Haizi (Tom Shu-Yu LIN, Taiwan/USA, 2002) 16mm
Roadmovie (KIM In-Sik, South Korea, 2002)
Shanghai Panic/Woman hai Pa (Andrew YS CHENG, China/Australia, 2001) DV
Too Young to Die/Jukeoko Joha! (PARK Jin-Pyo, South Korea, 2002)
The Trigger/Kou Banji (Alex YANG, Taiwan, 2002)
Woman of Water/Mizu no Onna (Sugimori Hidenori, Japan, 2002)
Other Noteworthy Films
Babyface (CHENG Yu-Chieh, Taiwan, 2000) 16mm
Childhood/Musunde Hiraite (TABATA Shizuko, Japan, 2001) video
Camel(s)/Nakta (deul) (PARK Ki-Yong, South Korea, 2002) DV
Childhood/Musunde Hiraite (TABATA Shizuko, Japan, 2001) video
Come Drink With Me/Da zui Xia (King HU, Hong Kong, 1965)
Dance with Farm Workers/He Mingong Tiaowu (WU Wenguang, China, 2002) video
Monrak Transistor (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand, 2002)
Now, Where, To?/Tsugi, Doko, Iku? (SHIRAWAKA Toshihiro, Japan, 2001) video
Oasis (LEE Chang-Dong, South Korea, 2002)
The Skywalk is Gone/Tianqiao Bu Jianle Taiwan (TSAI Ming-Liang, Taiwan, 2002)
Summer, Dream/Shiding de Xiatian (CHENG Yu-Chieh, Taiwan, 2001) 16mm
The 2002 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) maintained the Festival’s reputation for presenting new and striking Asian films in a warm and welcoming environment. VIFF this year included even more Asian films than in previous years: 41 feature films, six mid-length films, and 14 shorts constituted the 2002 Dragons & Tigers: the Cinemas of East Asia program. As usual, programmer Tony Rayns curated a slate of films in many genres and from many countries, including shorts, student videos, digital videos in addition to features. New features from TIAN Zhuangzhuang, JIA Zhangke, Fruit CHAN and KITANO Takeshi were all screened at VIFF this year. This report will concentrate on the Dragons & Tigers competition. All films were in the 35mm format unless otherwise noted.
The 2002 Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema offers a $5,000 CAD prize to the director of the “most creative and innovative first or second feature-length film by a new director from Pacific Asia”. This year’s jury members were: director/critic Olivier Assayas, an early proponent of Asian film; Marie-Pierre Macia, festival programmer; and Park Ki-Yong, director. Nine films were included in the competition, and the surprise winner was the digital video work, Shanghai Panic/Woman hai Pa (Andrew YS CHENG, China/Australia, 2001). This year’s competition slate included just one world premiere, Parachute Kids/Tiaosan Haizi (Tom Shu-Yu LIN, Taiwan/USA, 2002). My choices for the award would have been either Eliana, Eliana (Riri RIZA, Indonesia, 2002) or Too Young to Die/Jukeoko Joha! (PARK Jin-Pyo, South Korea, 2002) with Roadmovie (KIM In-Sik, South Korea, 2002) a close third.
Shanghai Panic came to VIFF after making its debut at Berlin followed by Hong Kong, amongst other international festivals. It seems to be one of a number of films, including video documentary Shanghai Boy (Michelle CHEN, LI Xiao, USA/China, 2002), which also screened at VIFF, that spotlights a small social circle. The video follows popular novelist Mian Mian and her hipster friends through various emotional, personal, and physical crises.
Eliana, Eliana was my first experience of Indonesian film, and although this was not a popular success at home, I found it refreshing. The title character, Eliana (Rachel Maryam Sayidina), is a young woman in her early 20s who is a bit adrift after five years of living in the teeming metropolis of Jakarta. Her estranged mother arrives from West Sumatra to convince her to return home. The film takes place over one night. Eliana and her mother take a taxi all over Jakarta, stopping by pool halls and all-night cafes along the way. The performances are strong, especially the experienced actor, Jajang C. Noer, who plays Eliana’s mother. The taxi driver provided a good foil to the intense mother-daughter relationship, and the small role of his photographer son offered an artist’s eye on the street life of Jakarta. Like so many other countries, the Indonesian domestic film industry has shrunk drastically and is only now trying to regain lost ground. Riri RIZA’s first film Sherina’s Adventure/Petualangan Sherina (2000) was a huge domestic box-office hit, allowing him to make this more personal feature. The film was shown in the cinemascope format, although many of the settings are very confined. Eliana, Eliana won the Young Cinema Award and the NETPAC/FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize at the 2002 Singapore International Film Festival. Recommended, if it appears at a film festival near you.
Too Young to Die is a dramatization of an actual elderly married couple’s daily life; until very recently, it was censored by the South Korean Media Rating Board for “unknown reasons” (according to the director), most probably because of the explicit sex scenes. The actors, Mr. PARK Chi-Gyu and Ms. LEE Sun-Ye, are in their early 70s, and portray fictional characters with the same names and similar life stories. The film shows their initial meeting, their wedding, their daily lives and especially their very active sex life. I particularly enjoyed the scenes of their practice sessions for a singing contest, where their winning entry is a Japanese song about youth as well as the lessons in writing the husband gives his semi-literate wife. (The Japanese song lyrics are also used as effective section titles.) The film’s style is not particularly gripping, but both the setting (in a traditional Korean house in an old neighbourhood) and the characters’ passion for each other’s company drew my interest.
The short video Now, Where, To?/Tsugi, Doko, Iku? (SHIRAWAKA Toshihiro, Japan, 2001) was shown before Too Young to Die. The director interviews his aging parents about their lack of retirement plans, especially his welder father, after 30 years of daily life in the same apartment and at the same factory. Footage of the director exploring an abandoned and derelict industrial housing zone are edited between interview segments. The parents keep telling their son to turn the camera off.
Road Movie was one of a number of surprising South Korean films at this year’s VIFF, by which I mean I was surprised (as someone who has taken many years to warm up to the Korean film trend) that these films didn’t completely antagonize me. This debut film features a very unusual character for South Korean film, a gay man. Dae-shik (HWANG Jung-Min) is the only main character to really know his own mind, and has decided to turn his back on “normal” society to live on the streets. At the film’s start, the physically imposing and black-clad Dae-shik takes a bankrupt and alcoholic stockbroker Suk-won (JUNG Chan), in a once-white suit, under his wing. They leave town for a trek through the countryside, their relationship intensifying all the while. Suk-won does not react well when he finally understands Dae-shik’s interest in him, and the situation spirals badly out of control. I was disappointed in the character given to the female lead, Il-joo (SUH Rin), as she is jettisoned from the road trip at an early opportunity. Road Movie was made on a low budget and shot on 16mm, but this was not distracting.
Isan Special/Kuen Prachan Tem Doueng (Mongmongkol Sonakul, Thailand, 2002) is also a road movie, an overnight express bus trip from Bangkok to the north-east Isan province. Previously known as a film producer, Ms. Sonakul described the film as springing from her love of Thai soap-operas. In Isan Special the disparate passengers become the type of characters found in popular dramas (and their voices are dubbed by recognizable popular Thai voice actors) and act out a complex revenge poor-girl/rich-stepmother tale on the bus. When they get off the slightly ramshackle bus, for example at a rest stop, they switch back to their normal personas. Definitely this film would resonate even more for someone with additional knowledge of Thai pop culture. My expectations were a bit high for this film, and they were not completely met, partially due to it being too long. I also wanted the characters to stay in the “real life” off-the-bus mode more than they did, as they had their own interesting lives that I was curious about. Despite the fantastic elements, I believe it does provide a window on Thai life. My views are mixed, but overall positive.
This film was preceded by my favourite of the student shorts at VIFF, the three-minute long video Childhood/Musunde Hiraite (TABATA Shizuko, Japan, 2001). We see a wrinkled piece of blank paper filling the screen, and hear background street noises. The piece of paper is smoothed out with a hand, while the noises fade out. We see the woman (probably the director?) doing the smoothing “reflected” in the paper as if in a mirror, then the paper becomes a still photo with no soundtrack. Something external crumples up the photo, and the film ends. Simple, yet effective.
Border Line (LEE Sang-Il, Japan, 2002) is less successful as a road movie than the other two films mentioned above. The director was awarded the 12th Pia Film Festival scholarship, which funded the production of the film, and the strength of the script attracted a cast of apparently well-known actors. A group of misfits, or sort-of misfits, cross paths with each other over the span of a few days. Yakuza money goes missing, a father is murdered, a child is bullied at school, and a mother is having a nervous breakdown, to name but a few of the crises strewn throughout this drama. There are a number of intergenerational communication breakdowns featured here, some unresolved over a few years. The end of the film does not necessarily provide solutions for the unsympathetic characters involved in the many plot threads. I did not find this film memorable.
The Trigger/Kou Banji (Alex YANG, Taiwan, 2002) springs from the beleaguered Taiwanese film industry, or lack thereof. There are no cinemas that will exhibit any local films, only Hollywood product. Alex YANG has worked with the well-known director Edward YANG on both A Brighter Summer Day/Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian (1991) as co-writer and actor (the deep-voiced Shandong), and Yi Yi (2000), as an acting coach for the child actors. The adult female lead of The Trigger, Kelly KO, may be familiar as the love interest from Yi Yi, while the adult male lead, NI Ming Ran, is a famous Taiwanese television host and media personality. Alex Yang has said he wanted to try to understand the problems of today’s youth, and their problems connecting with their parents’ generation. Unfortunately the plot of a young man who comes across a gun and the bad things that follow has become an all too common concept in Taiwanese cinema, and The Trigger does not manage to create something that compelling from its ingredients. In this permutation, the young woman character pays the high price often paid by the young male role, which was disappointing. I am not really fond of a film with a noble gangster/murderer either, which is again the case here. The settings were mildly noteworthy, mainly the former gangster’s kitschily-decorated small café and the neighbouring seedy indoor fish pond complex, complete with teen prostitutes. Despite all of these issues, I would not be averse to trying this director’s future works.
The Trigger was preceded by the fascinating short The Skywalk is Gone/Tianqiao Bu Jianle Taiwan (TSAI Ming-Liang, Taiwan, 2002). The three main characters from What Time is it There?/Ni nei bian ji dian (2001) reappear here, but the elevated walkway where the LEE Kang-Sheng character sold watches has been demolished, and all three characters seem extremely discombobulated by its absence. There is also an ongoing water shortage, and an audition to be an actor in porn videos. The short ends with a view of clouds, while we hear a song about the ringing of the Nanping bell waking the singer from their loneliness. I’m certainly looking forward to the next Tsai feature!
Parachute Kids stems from the director Tom LIN’s MFA work at the California Institute of the Arts. At first it was planned as a documentary, but the director changed his mind after the would-be subjects revealed too much incriminating illegal behaviour. The phenomenon of “parachute kids”, youths under 18 sent to live on their own and study in English at overseas high schools, certainly bears sociological study. This film follows Jonathan, a recent arrival from Taiwan, through one evening of hanging out with his friends at a pool hall. There is a somewhat confusing series of flashbacks, often involving his even younger girlfriend Lisa, a Chinese-American who is about to move to Taiwan with her parents. The pair cannot communicate effectively due to language barriers, and mis-set watches as well as missed cell-phone calls do not help. A very evocative Teresa Teng standard reappears throughout the film, as a touchstone for both the young teens and Lisa’s parents. The actor playing Jonathan (Jonathan CHEN) was more convincing than some of the others, all of whom were non-professionals. I feel this film was very well-intentioned about its topic but may have benefited from even more editing.
The full-house audience at the VIFF screenings of Woman of Water/Mizu no Onna (Sugimori Hidenori, Japan, 2002) was told by the director/writer that there was “no need to understand, just feel it”. Mr. Sugimori’s previous background is in directing commercials and television, and this script was awarded funding from the Sundance and Rotterdam film festivals. The lead actors are very well-known, ASANO Tadanobu and the best-selling singer Ms. UA. The director’s premise involves the four elements – water (the title character), fire (the Asano character), air (a free-wheeling woman motorcyclist) and earth (a homeless woman). UA’s character has a special relationship with nature, and causes rain to fall whenever something important happens in her life. She also lives in a traditional bathhouse, originally managed by her father. A series of life changing incidents introduces the Asano character, a man overly fascinated by fire. The director clearly has an interest in nostalgia. UA’s town starts to rely on its public bathhouse again, leading to types of interactions different than daily life for most modern-day families. Another example of this nostalgia is that this is almost a cell-phone-free film, compared to a number of VIFF films where plot twists were unveiled in cell-phone calls. I found both the lead characters’ intentions troubling, as she takes him in to her home (and even offers him a job tending fires) after he tries to rape her in a cave, while later on he uses a flaming tyre to threaten the crowded living space of a homeless woman who is very close to UA. The setting of the bathhouse was very lovely, with murals of Mt. Fuji. This is a very glossy-looking film, with a number of scenes that might make nice TV commercials (such as the rain that “falls” up). I suppose I did not let myself “just feel” the film on first viewing, but on second viewing it was still quite difficult. I would rank it fourth of the competition films.
VIFF is known for its discoveries of young filmmakers, and this year two of the most compelling works were shown outside of the competition: Babyface (Taiwan, 2000) and Summer, Dream/Shiding de Xiatian (Taiwan, 2001). These 16mm films were both the work of CHENG Yu-Chieh, currently a 24-year-old undergraduate economics student. Without any formal film training, but a real love of cinema, he seems to have put his many hours of film viewing and lots of hands-on experience to extremely good use. Summer, Dream was awarded the best creative short at the 2001 Taiwan Golden Horse Awards, and was also a prize-winner in the 2002 Taipei Film Festival. In his first film, Babyface, he appears onscreen as CHENG, one of the male leads, opposite Kuo-Fang, a boy whose head is swathed in a full-face mask after some undisclosed burn incident. Kuo-Fang’s kindness and attention are not taken well by Cheng, and trouble ensues. By the end of the film, the flashbacks are revealed to not be what we originally thought. Summer, Dream is a well-crafted coming of age film, set in a rural suburb of Taipei. Hsiao-chih is a young man who had planned to be studying overseas abroad during the summer, while Elisa is a Quebecois teacher of English who is fluent in Mandarin. When Elisa rents a room in the apartment with Hsiao-Chih and his grandmother, across the way from the tiny convenience shop the grandmother tends, life changes for all three characters. Cheng attracted an experienced crew for this film, including director of photography CHANG Chan (The Terrorizer/Kong bu fen zi, Edward YANG, 1986 and Darkness and Light/Hei an zhi guang, CHANG Tso-Chi, 1999). I am sure we will hear more from this thoughtful filmmaker after his compulsory military service is over in two years.
Dance with Farm Workers/He Mingong Tiaowu (WU Wenguang, China, 2002) is a video documentary of a 2001 experimental dance/performance piece organized by the Living Dance company, with the participation of 30 construction workers from Sichuan. The camera follows the workers, all originally farmers or youths from farming families, as they work with 14 professional dancers and artists to create a piece to explain their lives in Beijing. The setting is an abandoned warehouse, which is gradually filled with bricks, sewing machines, and other items to be incorporated into the performance. The chanting of the farm workers’ folk songs really grew on me over the course of the video, although I am not sure what my feelings would have been if I was in the warehouse audience that hot August night.
Thai cinema has been creeping onto the radar screens of film festivals all over the world in recent years, and the 2002 VIFF included two memorable Thai film offerings from directors who helped create that buzz. Blissfully Yours/Sud Sanaeha (Apitchatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, Thailand/France, 2002) is an atmospheric, almost abstract film from the director of Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), while Monrak Transistor (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand, 2002) offers a more traditional structure and story from the director of 6ixty-nin9 (1999).
Blissfully Yours was awarded Le prix un certain regard at the Cannes Film Festival 2002, and the unusual film will certainly travel to many films festivals in the coming months. I believe it takes 45 minutes for the opening credits to appear, and suddenly, during a song by Nadia. Blissfully Yours does not involve a great deal of plot, although it is certainly not bereft of plot. It introduces us to a Burmese illegal immigrant, Min, his lover, Roong, and the older woman, Orn, who is paid to look after Min while Roong works at a ceramic statue painting factory. Min is suffering from a variety of skin ailments and also constant worry about his illegal status. One sunny afternoon, Min and Roong head off to the countryside near the Burmese border, for an idyllic picnic complete with ants and sex. Orn also appears at the same riverbank after her own tryst. Min’s diary and sketches are superimposed in white over the film at different points, which gives some background to the characters. It is not clear how much of the film’s story is based on the actual lives of the actors, and how much is fictional. I felt the final “where are they now” notes superfluous if the characters are fictitious. I think at least some of the audience left feeling as though they too had basked in the Thai sun while they watched the film. Recommended.
Monrak Transistor is about a would-be singer of popular Thai folk music, somewhat analogous to old-fashioned North American country music. Unfortunately this is a downward spiral of a career, and bad things just keep happening to the hapless protagonist Pan. At the beginning of the film I was very unsure of the precise era, but I believe this is intentional; it is clear, however, that the ending takes place in the present day. The conflict between what is required for life in a traditional village and life in very modern Bangkok is key, which is not at all a situation unique to Thailand. I was very taken by the music in the film, much of which is based on the hits of the 1960s star Surapol SOMBATCHAROEN.
Also outside of the competition were two very strong films from South Korea. Camel(s)/Nakta (deul) (PARK Ki-Yong, South Korea, 2001) is a black-and-white digital video work made on a tiny budget. Oasis (LEE Chang-Dong, South Korea, 2002) has been a box-office success in Korea, as the sold-out VIFF theatre full of Korean youth would attest, and swept a number of prizes at the 2002 Venice Film Festival – special prize for best director, best young actor/actress, and FIPRESCI award to name a few. Lee himself is a former Dragons & Tigers award winner for Green Fish/Chorok Mulgoki (1996).
Camel(s)‘ paucity of dialogue and lack of any onscreen colour may lead some viewers to feel it is “difficult”, but it is worthwhile staying with the film. The basic premise is that a man and a woman go off on a seemingly illicit weekend trip to a seaside resort, spending their time at love hotels, karaoke bars and seafood restaurants. They don’t know each other that well. As they eat fresh seafood, they let slip their thoughts about how their life expectations have lowered, the “heaviness” within them, arranged marriages, and so on. We often hear their crunching in lieu of conversation, or the clicking of the vehicle’s turn signals. The scenes in the love hotel were especially touching, as both the man and the woman seem more unhappy after they had sex than before. Recommended.
Oasis is likely to be quite controversial and prominently discussed, and for good reason. At least it is a damning condemnation of the invisible status of people with disabilities in modern South Korea. Fellow Senses of Cinema contributor, Shelly Kraicer, feels the treatment of the disabled characters in this film may stand in for the usual problems with the portrayal of women in Korean films, or in Korean society generally. Both the main characters do not fit in to society at all, Jong-Du (SOL Kyung-gu) is both mentally disadvantaged and a recently released convict while Gong-Ju (MOON So-ri) has cerebral palsy that significantly limits her physical movements, including speech. Their relationship blossoms, after a terribly rocky start, and yet is completely incomprehensible to their families, who would prefer to ignore these two at the best of times. Gong-Ju is criminally neglected in her daily life, and no one, other than Jong-Du, takes her seriously or tries to communicate with her. I found the fantasy or dream sequences unsettling, which was probably the filmmaker’s intention. When Gong-Ju straightens up and becomes “normal”, it is not clear to me if this is Jong-Du’s ideal woman or Gong-Ju’s own view of herself, either of which I felt somewhat denigrated her “real” twisted body yet again. Oasis also reunites the cast of Lee’s previous film Peppermint Candy/Bakha Satang (1999). It is not an easy film to watch, not because of the actress’ memorable portrayal of a person with a disability or the grim surroundings, but because the characters face such extreme frustration and obstacles on a continual basis. Recommended.
A definite highlight of the 2002 VIFF was the opportunity to see the newly-restored print of Come Drink With Me/Da zui xia (King HU, Hong Kong, 1965) from the balcony of the Vogue theatre, in super-wide Cinemascope. The film is one of the first offerings from the new owners of the fabled Shaw Brothers studio archive. The teen-aged CHENG Pei-Pei is terrific as the Golden Swallow, whether she is dressed as a man or as a woman, and I was a bit sad when the story changed tack to focus on the Drunken Cat (YUEH Hua/Elly LEUNG) character. There is always so much to watch in a King HU film, whether the editing, the swordplay, the hair ornaments or the sets. Especially if you would not usually feel any resonance with a typical martial arts or kung fu film, please try the real wuxia pian (martial chivalry or swordplay film) if given the opportunity at a film society near you.
VIFF yet again successfully provided a wide array of Asian films to the eager audiences. I will definitely remember the three-minute short about a crumpled piece of paper as well my as my hitherto-thought-impossible Korean film breakthrough, and much more. Thanks again to the fabulously helpful Festival organizers and staff.