AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival
November 3–13, 2005
American Film Market (AFM)
November 2–9, 2005
Berlin and Cannes have markets unfolding concurrently with the official selection; in 1983 Rotterdam created CineMart, an international co-production market, so successful that projects have to go through a selective application process. In the last few years, a trend has developed for less prominent film festivals to get coupled with commercial events in which films, and/or television programs, are offered to a variety of buyers. When the city is small enough, and the market taking place close by, it is a blessing; it allows film professional to move back and forth between festival screenings and market events. Such is – or was – the situation at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), even though the relationship between both events has often been problematic. In the late 1990s, the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) was started by people involved in the Dutch distribution company Fortissimo in conjunction with the HKIFF, while another event, FilmArt, generated by the Hong Kong Trade Development Center, was taking place in June. Eventually the two events merged and last year FilmArt and HAF took place at the same time as the HKIFF, in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, a 15 minute commute from the Festival’s headquarters and main venue – that is, if you walked and took the ferry across Victoria Bay, and then walked again (if you were foolish enough to take a cross-harbour taxi, that was another matter). Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict at the Convention and Exhibition Center, this spring FilmArt and HAF will be held between March 20 and 23 two weeks before the opening of while the Festival on April 4.
What I find more opaque is the logic that prompts market and festival organisers to schedule their events concurrently, yet miles apart. A striking example of the inconvenience thus created takes place in Shanghai: while the Festival is housed in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the heart of the former French Concession, the Film and Television Market has been exiled in the new development zone of Pudong, across the Hangpu River. At rush hour (an extensive notion, considering Shanghai’s maddening traffic) it takes over one hour to go from one place to the other, and there’s no subway close to the Crowne Plaza. In other words, either you do the Market, or you attend the Festival. The decision to combine the AFI International Film Festival and the American Film Market, strangely, follows a similar pattern. Created in 1981, the AFM, one of the most important film markets for independent film production (i.e. anything that is not Hollywood), has traditionally taken place at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, in the spring. A couple of years ago, the AFM was moved to the fall, so its dates would coincide with that of the AFI Festival. Again, a mixed blessing. One of the rare areas in Los Angeles and its vicinity where walking in the street is not a capital crime, where boutiques, restaurants and a spectacular waterfront encourage the flaneur, Santa Monica is particularly welcoming to foreign exhibitors who come to the Market without the intention of renting a car or braving the hazards of SoCal freeways. Being carless, and, moreover, working around the clock with wall-to-wall meetings, they’re basically stuck on a small portion of Ocean Avenue and never once venture to the plush screening rooms of the Arclight Theater in Hollywood – the current venue for the AFI. Should they have a car, the trip, at rush hour (and we’re talking of a “window” that goes from 2:45 pm to 8:45 pm), could take them up to two hours. And there is no subway, no train, just a rickety bus service mostly used by Latino immigrant workers and people down on their luck.
So – why? The people who benefit the most from the conjunction of the events, it seems, would be the Angelinos themselves, who then have the choice between several sets of screenings every day. Not that everybody seems to appreciate the opportunity. AFI 2005 started on a note of animosity, when Scott Foundas, the young and bright editor of the LA Weekly, wrote a sweet-and-sour description of what he identified as the festival’s “long-running identity crisis” (is it an important showcase or Hollywood lapdog?) that makes it resemble to some a “hand-me down patchwork doll.” With his usual wit and stamina, Foundas was articulating what most of us who are not Hollywood lapdogs have been thinking for a while – but the Festival direction, I was told, was not amused.
Not that the flaws patent in the Festival’s selection is entirely the fault of the organisers. Every culture has the film festival they deserve. The tide may be changing as one notices the achievements of the curators of OutFest, one of the largest and most culturally eclectic gay-and-lesbian film festivals, of the LA Independent Film Festival – but if Los Angeles still does not have a major film festival it’s basically because of the narcissism and cultural blindness of the people working “in the industry”. Sadly, they are the only ones who could stage, finance and support a world-class cinematic event, and, sadly, they think that the only cinema that matters is produced somewhere between Burbank and Culver City, not in the rest of the word.
Not that the AFI is a total waste. Indeed, the majority of the American features premiered there are opening commercially within a few weeks. Yet, there was nothing bad in being able to preview James Mangold’s Walk the Line (2005) – a film about which one can say, retroactively, that it didn’t find its critical niche – a situation that the lone Academy Award received by Reese Witherspoon is unlikely to change. “Serious” criticism often dismissed it as just another biopic capitalising on the recent death of a country music hero. I would like to make the case, on the other hand, that, before being “a Johnny Cash movie”, Walk the Line is a quintessentially James Mangold film. The director of Heavy (1995), Cop Land (1997) and Girl, Interrupted (1999) has a fondness for characters who are in-between marginality and the mainstream, sincerity and phoneyness – an explicit metaphor for Mangold’s career and artistic positioning. This fine-line, unorthodox, uneasy treading uncovers, for both the director and his protagonists, a genuine tragic dimension. A turning point in the film takes place when Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), having failed at organising (of all things) a Thanksgiving dinner that would satisfy his parents, runs down the slope on his tractor and crashes. A witness to the event, June Carter screams “I’m not going down there!” To which a wise and smiling Mrs Carter responds: “You’re already down there, honey!” Mangold’s oeuvre is about the “down there”. Sometimes the movie flops, but, more often than not, he comes out of it with grace, yet a little dirty.
On the other hand, I am less impressed than the majority of my colleagues by either The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada or The Art of Flight (both 2005). Both are well-meaning attempts to communicate the suffering, fate and dilemmas of non-white subjects, but both are unable to decentre themselves from the heroic point of view of the White Male. The Three Burials is the better of both films, and, far from being a mere showcase for the directing and acting talents of its auteur, the formidable Tommy Lee Jones, it benefits from an award-winning screenplay by the Mexican director Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams). Lee Perkins’ (Jones) endeavour – kidnapping the trigger-happy cop who murdered his Mexican buddy to carry the body for a proper burial across the frontier – is of the stuff that made great American cinema in the Golden Age of the Western. The rotting condition of the corpse adds a touch of post-modern macabre and Latin American Magic realism. Yet, there is something ultimately phoney about the ending. It’s difficult for Americans to think that Mexican immigrant workers have left behind families and children to whom they send the better part of their meagre salaries. So we think of these Mexicans as being alone – and The Three Burials ultimately falls in that trap: Estradas (Julio Cesar Cedillo) had invented his wife and family, he was a mysterious man coming out of nowhere. Yet the film has pizzazz, fantastic landscapes, moving moments of male bonding, mystery and a great performance by Jones. On the other hand there is, I am afraid, nothing much to salvage in The Art of Flight, the first film directed by former CNN journalist David Anders Hutchins. Intent on documenting the plight of Sudanese having fled the Civil War to Egypt and being denied refugee status by the United Nations, Hutchins is painfully unable to connect with his subjects and resorts to brooding (in a soulful voice over) over the fate of the white journalist who vents his frustrations by jogging by the corpse of a dead dog (always the same dog, by the way). Hoping that he’s become friends with one of his interviewee, Jere Maluk, Hutchins is shattered to realise that the only thing the Sudanese man hopes to get from him is money, and ponders whether the ever-presence of his video camera might have been an obstacle between them. Indeed. At the Q & A, a young Mauritanian spectator accused the film of being “white supremacist”. I had to applaud.
Hutchins might have taken lessons from other white filmmakers who know that documenting “the Other” is no simple feat, that it takes time (and time without the camera) to get to simply know them, and that you only talk about yourself when invited to join the conversation. All things that veteran PBS documentary filmmaker Julie Gustafson does beautifully in Desire (2005), a film that developed over a period of ten years and was shot in collaboration with five teenage girls from various walks of life in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Two of them came from a housing project in the Lower Ninth Ward called Desire, one from a working-class neighbourhood and two from more affluent high school. Instead of “studying” them and asking them questions, Gustafson gave them cameras so they could tell their own stories, send video letters to the people they loves, and even question the filmmaker about her own history with unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Finely edited in a way that respects the original material while contextualising it, Desire casts an illuminating light on the inner world, the dilemmas, the evolving sexual identities of teenage girls. Freud didn’t know what women want – Gustafson gives us an insightful, sometimes disturbing idea of what teenage girls desire – whether it’s about going to college versus having a job, stopping to smoke, liking women instead of men, or deciding between having a baby or finishing high school (“after all the trouble that we Black people had to survive in this country, every life is precious…”).
A bit timid compared to other international film festivals, AFI’s international selection provided a welcome for Angelinos to preview films such as Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), Tsotsi (2005) by Gavin Hood (South Africa’s Academy Award Nominee that won Best Foreign Picture) or Neil Jordan’s latest foray on transvestism, Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – all slated for commercial distribution. For cinephiles, the most attractive – but also the most puzzling – section was the “New Asian Classics”. It’s unclear how familiar AFI organisers are with either Asian cinema or what constitutes a “classic” – but what I respect in that section is their faithfulness to certain directors, one of them being Wang Xiaoshuai, a slightly underrated Chinese filmmaker of the Sixth Generation.
Present at the AFI a couple of years ago with his excellent Er di (Drifters) (2003), Wang was lucky to won the Prix du Jury at Cannes last year with his new opus, Qinghong (Shanghai Dreams) (2005) – without yielding to commercialism and not abandoning his signature style of long, complex takes in which violence silently simmers. A melancholy meditation on China in the late 1970s, loosely inspired by the history of his parents, the plot unfolds at the conjunction of two different kinds of dreams. Qing Hong’s father, Lao Wu (Yan Anlian), a former “urban youth” who had foolishly accepted the Party’s invitation to resettle in a shit-hole little NorthEastern town to build “a new front for socialism,” now wants nothing else but to go back to his birthplace, Shanghai. He is ready to do everything to reach that goal, including an illegal departure should he fail to convince the boss of the factory where he’s stranded. Meanwhile, the teenaged Qing Hong (Gao Yuanyuan), who has grown up in the town, has nothing against the college education her father dreams for her, but, for the time being, she wants to hang out with her best girl friend, dance to imported rock music, and wear red high heel shoes – a gift from a young factory worker (Li Bin) smitten with her. Wang’s elegant camerawork acutely captures the pain these three characters inflicts on each other. The father alienates and oppresses his daughter while willing the best for her, loses his wife’s affection, destroys the fabric of his family. The sincere local boy is so annihilated by Qing Hong’s rejection that he crosses the line and commits an irreparable act. And Qing Hong, torn apart between the desire of being a good daughter, her tenderness for the boy and the growing pains of a normal teenager (which involves, among other things, being a witness of her best friend’s first sexual entanglement), falters, hesitates, moves back and forth, tries to have it both ways and none at all – causing a tragedy amplified by China’s expedient and unforgiving penal policy. In the bleak dawn, the distant shots of a public execution are heard, the kind of sounds that will haunt the heroine’s nightmares for years and years to come.
Another pleasant surprise at the AFI is to discover the newest film by Sabu (aka Hiroyuki Tanaka), the very idiosyncratic Japanese director author of Posutoman burusu (Postman Blues) (1997) and Monday (2002). Shisso (Dead Run) (2005) is, stylistically, less gripping that his last offering at the AFI, the haunting Kôfuki no kane (Blessing Bell) (2002) – yet its corky mixture of minute realism, surreal conflagration of events, off-colour private fantasies and bizarre sexual situations make it a vintage Sabu film. The story is told – retroactively from the dead, so it seems – from the point of view of a young boy, Suji (Yuya Tegoshi), who grows up into a lonely adolescent in a small town. First he meets a couple of flamboyant and impoverished thugs, and, later interacts with a strange high school girl and a priest intent of confessing his past misdeeds, while an arsonist randomly sets neighbouring houses on fire. Suji eventually gets a glimpse of the girl’s secret (yes – it’s sexual), and runs into the former lower-class moll, now married to a powerful gangster but still beautiful, available and eager to get pregnant. When the gangster arrives, locks his wife and Suji in a gaudy hotel room and designs a punishment that involves the services of one of his sex slaves, we realise that we are in the last step of a descent into nightmare that had started in the first images.
With Tau man ji D (Initial D) (2005) by the tandem Andrew Lau/Alan Mak, AFI may have tried to capitalise on the enthusiastic response to their programming of the three installments of Mou gaan dou (Infernal Affairs) (2002–2003) last year. A prolific director, Lau is no stranger to filming in episodes – having grabbed the attention of Hong Kong’s mainstream audiences and film critics with his very successful series about young gangsters in working-class housing projects, Gu huo zi zhi ren za jiang hu (Young and Dangerous) (1996–1998). Yet he’s also an uneven director, capable of the worst schlock. Populated with drop-dead beautiful boys and no less interesting-looking older men (the great Anthony Wong as the alcoholic father of the protagonist), Initial D is charming but really slight, and already looks toward episodes 2 and 3. In this race to death over the treacherous curves of a Japanese mountain road, cars get smashed aplenty and nobody dies. The female love interest is casually disposed of at the end so the hero can devote himself full-time to male bonding, but you know she’ll reappear later.
Bunhongsin (The Red Shoes) (2005) was a delightful surprise – especially considering that South Korean director Kim Yong-gyun’s first feature, Wanee wa Junah (Wanee and Junah) (2001), a soapy romance directed at teenage audiences, was more miss than hit. Kim has obviously found himself in the new horror genre surging throughout Asia. Loosely inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Red Shoes unfolds in a territory similar to the Japanese director Hideo Nakata’s highly successful Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water) (2002). A young mother (Hye-su Kim), recently separated from her husband, lives with her little daughter in a new, creepy apartment, and struggles to find emotional footing in her new status as a single parent. The horror that ensues can be read as a symptom of the uneasiness triggered in contemporary Asian societies by the dissolution of traditional family units and the new powers reached by the single female – anxieties that parallel ours, which is why Western audiences have been so receptive. Yet Kim takes a clearer stand about the issue of gynophobia (fear of women) and his female protagonist is much more pro-active, desiring and, therefore, dangerous, than her Japanese counterpart. For one, Sun-jae is a shoe fetishist, who keeps her impressive collection of high heels under a glass case in the kitchen; hence her compulsion to steal a pair of pumps mysteriously left in the subway, as well as her protective stance when her best friend or her precocious daughter want to try them on, make total, and increasingly horrific, sense. Kim stages finely the touch-and-go conflict that unites and separates a mother and daughter living together alone, as well as the problems Sun-jae has with men. Having caught her straying husband in flagrante delicto, she has a hard time opening herself sexually and emotionally to a new romance, as the cute interior designer who woos her quickly finds out. Kim manages to take us into the mind of a charismatic, yet seriously disturbed, woman who may or may not be a murderer. Preserving her mystery and displaying splendid scenes of hysteria, he takes us on a journey into dark fantasies, bloody mutilations, fake or true memories of the past and haunting visual compositions.
Picking up a good screening at the AFM, on the other hand, was harder, but could be hugely rewarding. I had the good fortune of being invited to the preview screening (on video) of Marwan Hamed’s Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building) (2005) that has since surfaced in the Panorama section of the Berlinale in February. Based on the eponymous Egyptian best seller (published in 2002 by Alaa Al Aswany), it follows the parallel and intertwining lives of inhabitants of a Cairo landmark, once built by an Armenian millionaire and now partitioned into units rented to the well-to-do or the have-not. Hamed’s first feature, The Yacoubian Building is also the first serious attempt by the Egyptian company, Good News Group, to crack open the international market – with the hope of moving its national cinema forward. Teeming with events and characters, The Yacoubian Building eventually focuses on one main narrative strand: an aging playboy, the scion of an aristocratic family, Zaki (Adel Imam), gets into serious trouble through his fondness for B-girls, and eventually finds unexpected redemption with a much younger woman, Botayna (Hindi Sabri). A salesgirl from a poor family, Botayna is robbed of her childhood sweetheart when the latter joins a group of Fundamentalist Muslims. Including heinous sibling rivalry in the upper classes, tragic homosexuality, torture in prison, corruption at all levels of society, the liberation of women, the film tackles head-on the most acute problems faced by an evolving Egyptian society, and could herald a renewal in Egyptian cinema.
Another treasure, caught by pure chance, was Le Domaine perdu (The Lost Domain) (2005) in which Raul Ruiz cinematically reinvests the Chile he had left for over 30 years. Opening illusionary vistas and surreal encounters, Ruiz weaves an intriguing interaction between two first-rate French actors, François Cluzet and Grégoire Colin, and suffuses it with the mysterious tropes of Le Grand Meaulnes. Written in 1913 by Alain-Fournier who was to die in World War I the next year, the novel deals with romantic longing by suggesting several levels of reality, in particular a mysterious party in which the participants may be ghosts or illusions – which Ruiz reproduces with flair and wit. While WWI casts a shadow over the mystique of Alain-Fournier, Ruiz introduces elements closer to his personal history: WWII, and the regime of terror started in Chile in 1973. Here and there, men disappear, leave ambiguous traces, might be dead, might have begotten children in a forgotten night of passion. In The Lost Domain, Ruiz who, when arriving in France had steadfastly refused to “play the role” of the Chilean exile/martyr (see his interview with Cahiers du cinéma at the time), gracefully lets history catch up with him and stages his own in-between-ness – not only between countries and continents, but between different forms of reality and representation.
There was a great divide in the “products” offered by the US exhibitors (the horror genre tends to be over-represented, with offerings such as Ghost Game [Joe Knee, 2004] or Raiders of the Damned [Milko Davis, 2005]) and European companies presenting “quality films”. The Paris-based Celluloid Dreams had 30-odd movies to sell, including Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Zui hao de shi guang (Three Times) (2005) (shockingly, still undistributed in the US), Kitano Takeshi’s Takeshis (2005) and the smart and poignant Een Ander Zijn Geluk (Someone Else’s Happiness) (2005) by first-time Belgian female director Fien Troch (that had its premiere in San Sebastian). The Dutch distributor Fortissimo was exhibiting European festivals favourites such as Peter Greenaway’s A Life in Suitcases (2005), Tsui Hark’s Chat gim (Seven Swords) (2005) and Zhang Yang’s Xiang ri kui (Sunflower) (2005) – as well as The House of Sand (2005) by the Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington (later shown at Sundance). MK2 screened Gela Babluani’s 13 Tzameti (2005) (that went on the win the International Dramatic Competition at Sundance). Pathé France presented a series of French commercial films including some by noted auteurs (Cedric Kahn’s L’Avion , Anne Fontaine’s Entre ses mains ) and replete with the most prestigious actors (Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Devos, Vincent Lindon, Nathalie Baye, Anouk Aimée…). StudioCanal offered films by Costa-Gavras, Diane Kurys, Patrice Chéreau, Cédric Klapish, Xavier Beauvois. In addition to the Ruiz film, the German distributor Bavaria Film International had a most impressive line-up: Bab’Aziz (2005) by the Tunisian director Nacer Khemir (Locarno), Hong yan (Dam Street) (2005), the second feature from Li Yu, the young Chinese director of Jin nian xia tian (Fish and Elephant) (2001) (Venice), Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl – Die letzten tage (Sophie Scholl – The Final Days) (2005) (Germany Academy Award Nominee – also shown at the AFI), and one of my favourite movies of the year, Philip Gröning’s Die Große Still (Into Great Silence) (2005) (see my article on the Sundance Film Festival).
Yet in the last few years, what has really made the AFM interesting to me has been the afflux of Asian exhibitors, eager to tackle the US and international market. Some films were screened both at the AFI and the Market, such as The Red Shoes (presented by the South Korean company CineClick Asia). The South Koreans have been particularly aggressive, followed by Japanese exhibitors, such as the prestigious Pony Canyon, who specialised in dramas, comedies and thrillers with high production values. Even the legendary Shochiku company (that detains the copyright of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse’s films) was present with a rather innocuous line-up of romance and horror films. With the collapse of the Asian market that insured in-built revenues to the films “made in Hong Kong”, exhibitors from the SAR have also become regular visitors to the AFM. One of the most active is Golden Network, which has neatly cornered the nascent production of Thai horror films. Media Asia, actively involved in co-production with China: in addition to the Leon Lai vehicle, Ching yi ngor sum gi (Moonlight in Tokyo) (2005) (produced and directed by the Andrew Lau/Alan Mak team), they brought Feng Xiaogang’s first costume drama, Ye yan (The Banquet) (2006), and Qiuqiu ni, biaoyang wo (Gimme Kudos) (2005), the latest opus by Huang Jianxin, one of the great underestimated filmmakers of the Fifth Generation – a sharp and melancholy comedy about one simple man’s desire to make his father proud of him. One should also mention Emperor Motion Pictures (that presented Jeff Lau’s Ching din sai sing [A Chinese Tall Story] ) and a dynamic, new company, FocusFilms Inc, dedicated to working with new directors from both Hong Kong and China – they’re producing Crazy Stone (2006), the new film by Ning Hao (Incense, Lü cao di [Mongolian Ping Pong]). Famous for having acquired and for restoring the Shaw Brothers’ Library of legendary Martial Arts films of the 1960s and 1970s, the Malaysian company Celestial Pictures was offering Peter Chan’s first musical, Yu gwo Ngoi (Perhaps Love) (2005), shot in Beijing and Shanghai (after its world premiere in Venice). Even the PRC follows suit. The China Film Group Corporation (regrouping the Beijing State-funded studios) had opened a booth and offered 20-odd films, from festival fares (Liu Hao’s Hao Da yi dui yang (Two Great Sheep) (2005), Zhang Yang’s Sunflower) to interesting dramas (Huo Jianqi’s Qing ren jie [A Time to Love] ) to propaganda (Liu Heng’s Zhang Si De ).
In total, 7,000 film professionals flocked the Market and more than $500 million changed hands in the course of eight days.