Already at its fifth edition, the Hanoi International Film Festival (HANIFF) cannot exactly be said to have made world headlines. However, in a country marked by a deep colonial past and a film industry still recovering from the demise of the national protection it enjoyed during the (non-market) socialist years, HANIFF speaks with a voice, which, in the tradition of festivals borne to stand up for the subaltern part of the world, is still distinct in its clamouring for attention.
What surprised at this edition was not so much the focus on Asian films, which had already become a trademark of this Vietnamese festival during the previous years, but its effort to be, whether willingly or accidentally, a platform for postcolonial and postsocialist productions hailing from places as diverse as Poland and Iran, both of which received this year a special section. The postsocialist “feel” was backed up, moreover, by a hybrid physical geography: with festivities taking place in the former Vietnamese-Soviet Friendship Palace, and with screenings in both socialist-era style theatres as well as mall locations, this variety, coupled with completely free admission, insured the removal of any “elitism” usually associated with (Western) film festivals, and therefore attracted quite a handsome local audience.
The host country itself was represented with only one production in this year’s competition: Cao Thuy Nhi’s Summer in Closed Eyes; and even if a retrospective section cropped together two dozen recent Vietnamese features, their themes rarely managed to steer too far from the standards made popular by mainstream cinema. As such, James Ngo’s 200 Pound Beauty is a straightforward remake of its South Korean 2006 counterpart of the same title, while Van Cong Vien’s My Sassy Girl adapts for local audiences both Jae-young Kwak’s 2001 eponymous drama, as well as its 2008 American remake. Indeed, the influence of Hollywood, but also South Korean commercial cinema on the recent Vietnamese film industry is somewhat paradoxical, if inscribable to a similar “tradition” of “Hollywoodisation” other postsocialist national cinemas underwent in recent years.
However, commercial cinema was not the only way in which South Korea made its contribution to this year’s edition. Offering new directorial voices a platform for representation, HANIFF made it possible for newcomer Lee Kyung-Sub with Student A to launch his first feature in Asia as part of the festival’s main competition.
Watching a film like Lee Kyung-Sub’s in Vietnam brings to mind Fredric Jameson’s claim that non-Western national literatures don’t necessarily align with the Western model when their protagonists are made to speak not for themselves or individualism, but for their entire cultural environment. In spite of its somewhat trite conceptual embellishments, Lee’s plot is fundamentally simple: ostracised by her classmates for her idiosyncratic behaviour, middle school student No-ran takes refuge in a mutually supportive relationship with a depressive teenager who helps her navigate the murky waters of pre-adulthood. Beyond its schematic construction and somewhat cliché structure, Student A comes to reinforce, however, the stereotypical role that the concept of the “collective” plays in non-Western societies, but in doing so, it equally forefronts the struggle that takes place at the most basic level of social interaction. If in various understandings of the “collective” in the Western world the term acquired a certain derogatory nuance, what is important for Lee is to show the inner mechanisms that make the collective both powerful and dangerous, and as such, the ways in which it can become itself a means of resistance to the all-encompassing power of Westernisation. Even if a rather romantic and not altogether sustained effort to awaken a certain social consciousness, the power of his debut feature stands therefore in its ability to reify that somewhat dialectical movement between the Westernisation drive that has forced so many postcolonial cultures to emulate the West, and the pull of the “traditional” in the shape of an affective togetherness that rarely finds a voice in Western film culture.
This dialectics is entirely lost in Rouhollah Hejazi’s The Dark Room, grand award winner of this year’s edition, and the sixth feature of this Iranian director. Focusing almost claustrophobically on the contemporary couple par excellence, Hejazi’s purported aim is to dispel some of the mania related to child abuse, which has been so thoroughly explored by that master of family drama, Thomas Vinterberg, in The Hunt (2012), among others. The problem with Hejazi’s otherwise “normalising” film is that it plays like a macabre joke whose only potency lies in its redeeming “punch line”. While analytical in his undertaking, the Iranian director doesn’t quite succeed in freeing his film therefore from a certain goal-oriented dogma, which, even if adducing, as stated, of a certain “progressiveness”, it barely addresses (postcolonial) societal misgivings which auteurs such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami were able to bring to the centre of attention in their cinematic practice, and through which Iranian cinema shot to world attention. If not a disqualifying reason in itself, The Dark Room plays too much like a “Western drama”, therefore illuminating too little the gap between modernity and “tradition”. Not that this should be played up as a postcolonial cliché, but Iranian cinema found in this dialectical relationship (at least until now) an identity that certainly protected it from the effects of Westernisation. With Hejazi’s drama, these effects, while not overwhelming, open up the possibility of a pronounced move of Iranian cinema towards the West, its thematic and clichés notwithstanding.
Lee Kyung-Sub’s debut in South East Asia was accompanied by a similar one from Eastern Europe. As such, Piotr Domalewski’s Silent Night – completed and released last year – won the best director award at HANIFF. After winning last October the grand prix of the Polish Film Festival in Gdansk, Domalewski’s film wasn’t exactly a surprise. The “feel” of Silent Night is that it doesn’t stray too much from the type of postsocialist “miserabilism”, which powerful dramas from the Romanian New Wave have already made famous in the 2000s. Weaved around a dysfunctionally chaotic family Christmas gathering – Eastern Europe style, that is, replete with drunken grandfathers and aimless youth pendulating between abandonment and hope – the film reminds one of Cristi Puiu’s recent Sierra Nevada, without, however, displaying either the haptic closeness of Puiu’s cinematography or the existential drama of the Romanian director’s characters, who seem always on the brink of an imminent collapse. However, in the postsocialist/postcolonial Eurasian context, Silent Night does reinforce the presence of a palpable shared affective space, which, in light of the film’s winning of a directorial prize in Vietnam, might go to show the similarities of a world which Katherine Verdery rightly identifies as playing being “between posts”, therefore urging to furthering collaboration between the postcolonial and postsocialist spheres.
Indeed, that might become the Festival’s most promising asset for future editions. Straddling a geography and chronology inherited from both the colonial and the socialist experience, HANIFF, which already shows signs of youthful, if yet tame, vigour, might in that way pick up the pieces left over from the reorientation of such formerly socialist festivals as Moscow and Karlovy Vary, which have lost in the postsocialist present both their commitment to the erstwhile progressive goals of Communism as well as their past glory. This heritage could be equally exploited by the host country: considering the rich – if virtually unknown – tradition Vietnam has in both the art and commercial cinema styles, a tradition which goes back to the early ‘60s, the lack of a more “local” voice in recent productions is both sad and perplexing.
That said, Vietnam is well-positioned in South East Asia as a meeting point for the legacies of these otherwise still present and influential ideologies, to fashion itself into Eurasian postcolonial/postsocialist cinematic platform which, if following the instinctive direction in which the festival is headed at the moment, might garner it the attention and personality it already deserves.
Hanoi International Film Festival
27-31 October 2018
Festival website: https://haniff.vn/