Any consideration given toward Asian cinema for most people in the ‘West’ is always going to be compromised. The system of production and distribution of English language films, even European language films, will generally conform to a pattern of circulation. For most ‘Western’ countries with any aspiration to facilitating a national cinema, there is normally a bureaucracy or a network set up to give maximum opportunity for new work by both emerging and established filmmakers to be screened to distributors, festival directors and critics and, eventually, after a winnowing process, to the paying public. There is thus a relatively seamless and painless process for exploitation and circulation.
Attempts to emulate or mirror this process for Asian films have generally been met with indifference by those same networks of Western distributors, festival directors and critics. Attempts to insert Asian films into these networks are sporadic and haphazard. The last half century of filmmaking has produced giants from Japan, India and China. Two more recent decades have seen the rise of filmmaking in Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand to unprecedented levels of quality. But it is still reported with some surprise that so many awards at this year’s Cannes festival went to Asian filmmakers. Why? The winners included Edward Yang and Wong Kar-wai, two directors whose work has now been on public display, even here, for over a decade. Australia’s major festivals, SBS TV and, in Wong’s case, commercial cinemas, have all screened their work. These are major filmmakers of our time.
There are caveats. Distributors are fearful of likely box-office results of most Asian films. Few if any of those screened in art houses (as distinct from ethnic ghetto cinemas) would have earned more than $100,000 in box office grosses. Festival directors fear an audience turn off if ‘too much’ Asian stuff is included. Even a more comprehensive and wide-ranging festival like London with its selection of anything up to 200 new feature films will usually devote no more than ten per cent of its program to films from Asia.
One result is that Asian directors tend to be ignored until they have anything up to half a dozen features in the bag – not always, but often enough to suggest that a phobia of finding audiences for Asian films exists. This is sometimes justified with the offhand suggestion that audiences don’t want to see them anyway. While major festivals take place throughout Asia (in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Pusan and now Chonju), few if any western critics, distributors or festival directors attend them. Compared to the number of reports from critics attending secondary European or American events, the coverage tends to be small and confined to specialist magazines like Cinemaya or Sight and Sound. I tried once to file some copy from Hong Kong to a ‘serious’ Australian daily, which had given me accreditation, but the editor apparently looked at it blankly. He saw no resemblance at all to what festival coverage as he knew it consisted of, which I suspect was middlebrow American or British films with an accompanying glamour photo. Or maybe it was me.
The lack of a pathway out of Asia is a serious impediment to understanding films from those countries. But this lack is not a new phenomenon or a recent example of globalisation. Think back to the work of Akira Kurosawa. Not until 1951 was any film made by Kurosawa shown outside Japan. Finally when Rashomon took Venice by storm that year, huge surprise, even astonishment, is recorded. Part of the reason for this lies in the insularity of the Japanese cinema itself. Its focus has rarely been on the opportunity for export. Despite Rashomon‘s success, there was however no thirst to discover the dozen films Kurosawa had already made. They took years, a decade and a half in fact, to emerge. Nor was there any rush to screen the works of other masters. Mizoguchi came to light. Ozu’s work started to appear a half decade later when he was already into his stately phase. Naruse hardly made it at all. Festivals have been catching on to Seijun Suzuki in the ’90s. It’s instructive to note that even David Thomson in his invaluable Biographical Dictionary of Film confesses to never having seen a Naruse film.
The situation has of course improved since the ’50s but hurdles remain and thus the focus is inevitably uneven. The circulation of the work of the now well-established director Takeshi Kitano provides an instructive example. His earliest work, the violent thrillers Violent Cop (1989) and Boiling Point (1990) went largely unnoticed outside Japan. The Vancouver Film Festival put them on display and then nothing much happened until Kitano made a film, A Scene at the Sea (1991), which corresponded more with what an art movie should look like. The early films were judged too violent, too far outside the comfort zone of art cinema, too inexplicable for civilised tastes.
The same thing seems to have happened with Miike Takashi, author of eight films, only one of which, The Bird People in China (1998), a pastoral comedy about clashing cultures set in idyllic rural China, has been screened anywhere in Australia. Entirely ignored have been his series of triad and gangland thrillers, often overblown in their violence and filled with some of the most unpleasant characters ever to disgrace the screen. Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and D.O.A.(1999) comprise a trilogy of violent menace. In between this group are several other films including the slightly more tender Blues Harp (1998), which nevertheless still focuses on a violent and sleazy underworld, though this time through the eyes of a part-black, part-Japanese boy with a few redeeming virtues. Again, Vancouver has screened all of these over the last few years but it is only in the last twelve months that other festivals have started to pick up on them.
In may ways Takashi’s likely impact over the next year or so will have parallels with that of Kurosawa some fifty years ago. Here is an unknown director, already with a substantial body of work across the genres, making films which have been box-office successes at home, commercial films full of action and romance whose sheer enthusiasm and energy will be sufficiently exotic for there to be proclamations of a new master. We shall see.
In the meantime, the only portal of early work to the West is Vancouver which gives special attention to the programming of films particularly from East Asia. That festival is now utterly distinctive from the myriad of other events taking place around the English speaking world. Look back over most years and almost all the major city festivals will seem to circulate each year a selection from the same hundred or so new films that have been launched at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance and Toronto. Almost all will have been processed through the bureaucracies, networks and other festivals of official European or American independent production.
Mostly out of curiosity I have been to Vancouver several times in recent years . There can be found at least some attempt to bring some order into this chaos of Asian film circulation. For a start, an attempt has been made to recognise filmmakers at the earliest stage of their careers. For the last six years an award has been competed for by first time film-makers. This is the Dragons and Tigers Prize. The winners have included Kore-eda Hirokazu (Maborosi, 1995), Hong Sang-Soo (The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well, 1996), Zhang Ming (Rainclouds Over Wushan, 1996), Lee Chang-Dong (Green Fish, 1997), and Jia Zhangke (Xiao Wu, 1998). (To my chagrin neither of the two best films in last year’s competition – Wei De-Shen’s About July, [Taiwan, 1999] and Yamashita Nobuhiro’s Hazy Life [Japan, 1999] – got the judges’ nod.)
The eight films in each year’s competition usually accompany another forty or so new films from East Asia that make up Vancouver’s Dragons and Tigers selection.
In my first visit in 1993, the star attraction was Chen Kaige’s lush crossover to a mass appeal movie, Farewell to My Concubine (1993), a film which was just about to get the Miramax treatment. Alongside it however was Tsai Ming-liang’s remarkable debut feature about the Taipei underclass Rebels of the Neon God (1992) (a film which has been screened in Australia where the press and media ignored it).
The coverage of Tsai Ming-liang’s work is a good case in point to illustrate Vancouver’s desire to put in the hard yards. Prior to his feature debut, Tsai cut his teeth making television dramas, on video, of such dramatic intensity and such insight into the lives of those displayed that it was obvious he was a director of great skill and a born story teller. Tsai showed a talent for getting inside the skin of his characters. Vancouver found and subtitled two of these medium length dramas, All Corners of the World and Boys (both made in the ’80s). It was here that Tsai started his explorations of the Taiwanese poor and already revealed a striking ability to combine studies of youthful characters with considerable narrative skills. The latter film especially demonstrates this with its sequences of an older boy bullying a younger and wealthier one to regularly hand over money, finally forcing him to steal from his parents’ bank account. There have been few better portraits of tough kids and their propensity to be nasty to each other.
The advent of Tsai Ming-liang was only just one sign of some remarkable filmmaking occurring in Taiwan. I thought Ho P’ing’s 18 (1992) to be as wildly energetic and as equally disjointed in its narrative as any of Nicholas Roeg’s (best) films. The brooding events might have been fact or fantasy but were always engrossing. Its stunning blood red images (by a cinematographer called Tom Ryan) and the nervy editing were all of a wonderful piece.
Known already for his Man From Island West (1990), Huang Mingchuan represented a different strand from the rigorous realism of the other Taiwanese filmmakers. His Bodo (1993) was, as programmer Tony Rayns warned, “strange and hallucinatory”. He might have added somewhat obscure but nonetheless compelling. Once again Huang has made his film, a dark allegory about Taiwan and its future, entirely outside the commercial production system. In 1999 he was back in Vancouver again with Flat Tyre (1999), a mysterious story of a woman roaming over Taiwan photographing statuary and stumbling into an odd relationship.
In 1993, Zhang Yuan’s early Beijing Bastards (1993) was screened. By 1999, six years and seven features later, his work was there again, as had been the films in between. Now, possibly because of the prize he won at Venice last year, he has broken through. An international distributor has picked up his latest film Seventeen Years (1999), one of the best ever dramas about prison life in an authoritarian society only just starting to comprehend the idea of rehabilitation. As for its predecessors they would seem to be lost to us.
In 1998, I was back again and almost by chance the first film I saw struck me as one worth making the trip for. Kore-eda Hirokazu’s After Life (1998) shows a group of clerks assembling at the beginning of the day in what looks like a run down East European housing estate. The place though is limbo and the clerks’ job is to receive clients for processing on their way to their afterlife. They will ask them to search their memories and recreate the most blissful moment of their lives. That is the memory they will take with them on their journey to the hereafter. This is the stuff of fantasy, but presented with a quiet almost documentary feel: it is a narrative that engages and uplifts the spirit, a film about overcoming grief and finding spiritual meaning and purpose in even the most banal and unfulfilled lives. It is a film which seeks to find the good in people’s lives. It is, dare I say it, a masterpiece, and I expected then it would soon become the subject of considerable international admiration.
Perhaps. After Life had a modestly successful commercial distribution in the US and was eventually shown commercially in England after an impassioned article in Sight and Sound by Tony Rayns led a distributor to re-evaluate its potential. It has been screened at the Melbourne and Brisbane festivals and is now showing on the World Movies cable channel prior to an SBS appearance. Don’t miss it, even in the somewhat ordinary quality tape that World Movies has acquired. Interestingly, Kore-eda has had offers from Miramax and others for remake rights. Wait for the Tom Hanks version if you dare.
Kore-eda is the first of the six winners so far of the Dragons and Tigers prize to go on and produce a film that hit something like the big time internationally. Still one out of eight or so ain’t bad and a second winner, Lee Chang-Dong, has just released his follow up, Peppermint Candy (1999), a startling meditation on modern Korean history through the eyes of one man who is, in turn a soldier, a cop and a businessman.
Two other quite striking debuts also took place in 1998. Lee Suh-Goon’s Rub Love (1997) is a fantasy about a hitwoman whose memory is erased and she lapses back into (traditional Korean) female dependence, dominated by the man she has met, a nerdy manga artist. The effects and the settings are splendid even if the story goes off the boil a bit towards the end. Clearly Lee who is distinguished in Korean film making by being extremely young (24), and a woman, is a talent to be cultivated.
More traditional, with a nod to Ozu, was Hur Jin-Ho’s Christmas In August (1997), the gentle story of a young man setting his affairs in order after he learns he is dying . Complications ensue when a pretty parking inspector, who uses his photographic studio to develop her snaps of offending cars, starts to show a romantic interest. Low key but always poised above any awkward sentimentality, this is a film which captures much of the strengths of family and friendship and does it with a striking economy of words. The images and their repetitions and elisions tell us all we need to know.
The 1998 prizewinner was the Chinese film Xiao Wu. Despite also winning prizes at Berlin and Pusan, it was ignored by the Australian festivals. It is another that is currently showing on World Movies. The story of a small town petty thief and pickpocket opens up into a very telling picture of Chinese underclass life and was even more impressive given that its actors were entirely non-professional. The extraordinary performance by Wang Hongwei in the title role deserves special mention. Here is the quintessential little tough guy living on his wits in a society where his every action is disapproved by someone whether they be friends, relatives or even the local police who regularly attempt to cut him down to size. Jia Zhangke’s debut is filmmaking without frills, another no-budget independent triumph from China, and one made with considerable courage.
Finally Vancouver’s effort at completeness takes distinctive turns. Usually there is some often brilliant Japanese avant-garde animation. In 1998, there was Wong Kar-wai’s six minute advertisement for Motorola and Takeshi Kitano’s first venture into music video, a song called “Begin” sung by his daughter and starring…., right,Takeshi Kitano. There was an extraordinary video by Nagasaki Shunichi, Dogs (1997), a low budget black and white thriller made for satellite TV about a female cop who turns a blind eye on a crime and then becomes embroiled in a very steamy affair with the perpetrator. The escalating tension as the guilt starts to worm its way into the characters’ minds would have done Patricia Highsmith proud. A year later Nagasaki’s return to mainstream filmmaking, the elegant ghost cum horror picture Shikoku (1998), put him back in the forefront of Asian filmmaking.
In 1999, the Koreans made the most extraordinary impact. Apart from a selection of short dramas by young filmmakers that just eat alive anything produced elsewhere, there was the low budget drama Fly Low (1998), a hot teen pic, Rush (1999), a stunning, and very droll commercial thriller, Nowhere to Hide (1999). Then there was the sensational Lies (1999), Jang Sun-Woo’s utterly fearless, completely astonishing paean to l’amour fou in all its absolutely explicit detail.
As we roll along into 2000, a number of key films from Asia are out and about. Commercial distribution still seems a long way out of reach especially if a blazing four star top ten masterpiece like After Life can’t attract a skerrick of distributor interest. But, imperfect as the system may be for the circulation of Asian films, it’s important that what’s happening in Asia be sought out and screened whether it be at festivals or on World Movies (and eventually SBS). Miike Takashi’s latest, Audition (1999), is a ripsnorting horror movie that starts off looking like an Ozu picture. Then, after a moment that gives the audience one of the great shivers of cinema history, it has its space invaded by something like a John Carpenter flick on speed. It has already played more festivals than all the other Miike films combined. Seventeen Years (Zhang Yuan, 1999) and Shower (Zhang Yang, 1999) are both up for local commercial release. But what of Hazy Life, Shikoku and a half a dozen others? We shall see. The problem won’t go away. And then there will be several dozen more released through the Vancouver portal by the end of this year to face an uncertain fate.
A dozen years ago Vancouver made a conscious decision to pursue and screen this part of world production. Now it shows over forty East Asian films a year and, guess what, audiences pack the screenings out, more so than for the Italian, French and American independents that are otherwise standard festival fare. There’s a lesson there but it involves commitment, perseverance and dedication.