“It took the Mediterranean communities 30 years to make a mark on Australian culture, it does take time you know.”
Anonymous employee of the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, 4.48pm: 30 May 2000.
Upon talking with this employee, I was taken by the passion and emotion with which this person criticised the Australian film industry and media in general, a tone seething with multiculturalism. Throughout my rambling words of agreement, I thought, “maybe it is time for a change.”
Despite the long history of Chinese migration that dates back to the gold-rush, the ‘Asian wave’ only began in the late 1970s. My question is simple – has it been long enough? Let’s ruminate – if it is time for the emergence of an ‘Asian-Australian’ culture how would it work? What does one include and exclude from ‘Asian’? What does ‘Asian’ mean? How is it still ‘Australian’? Will it be a cut ‘n past fusion of diverse but geographically regional cultures? Will it be about the harmonious co-existence of a multitude of cultures that we can all taste but not touch? ‘Asian-Australian’ culture is a difficult concept at the best of times but it is perhaps one way to characterise the inaugural Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival (SAPFF). Bringing together work from Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and the Phillipines, the rich mix of Asian feature films, Asian-Australian short films, seminars and parties ensured a diverse, open and inclusive approach to the praxis of multiculturalism.
In 1999 the festival directors, Juanita Kwok and Paul de Carvalho met through the Asian Australian Artists Association to realise they both aspired to host an Asian film festival in Australia. Having both personal and professional ties to Asia, their concern was that Asia had poor cultural representation in Australia and, perhaps as a result, Asian-Australians had not been very culturally salient. Although they had always been interested in Asian cinema, they had also found it equally as difficult to access these films and this cinema culture.
Having attained seed funding from the New South Wales Film and Television Office, they managed to secure support from various government agencies of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea as well as some funding from the Australian Film Commission and the City of Sydney. They assembled an Advisory Board of experts (including academic Chris Berry, cinematographer Chris Doyle [Fallen Angels], filmmaker Pauline Chan [Traps] and the Director of the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, Brian Lau) and a small team of volunteer Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese speaking media co-ordinators. The aim was to target the vast Asian migrant communities of Sydney via the local ethnic newspapers and magazines that have become such a force in alternative, multicultural media in Australia.
In terms of Asian cinema in mainstream Australia, the SAPFF coincidentally followed hard on the heels of Eastern Connection – a festival of Asian independent films that were travelling around Australia – but was different in several important ways. SAPFF was a forum for mainstream Asian cinema, a vehicle to showcase films that had been successful in Asia. It took Asian cinema out of the intellectual voyeurism of arthouse culture and placed it squarely within the context of commercial mainstream cinema. As Paul de Carvalho says, “our programme was a selection of commercially and critically successful films made across the Asia Pacific over the past few years. We want to show Australian audiences what the vibrant film industries of the region are now producing, and what movie-goers in these countries are watching.” In a broad sense, the festival managed to find a niche beyond both the arthouse Asian classic and the high-budget ‘Honkywood’ film (Hollywood-ised Hong Kong action film).
In March 2000, the Reading Cinema in Sydney’s Chinatown set the scene for the launch of this festival, the first of its kind in Australia. Before a sizable gathering of industry and community figures, Korean star Park Joong-Hoon officially opened proceedings before the Australian premiere of his latest film, the action-noir visual treat Nowhere to Hide (which has since secured theatrical distribution in the US). During the course of the ensuing days, local short films produced by or about Asians-Australians were screened before each feature. Among them were award winning films such as Andrew Soo’s Liu Awaiting Spring about the coming of age of a gay Chinese boy and Cate Shortland’s Wong Kar-Wai-ed documentary about the lifestyle and tensions of young Japanese in Australia, Flowergirl. The Japanese do seem popular at the moment with sessions for the Japanese films Perfect Blue, a dark noir anime and the hyper-stylised yakuza flick, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, selling out quickly. Meanwhile Nowhere to Hide and Thailand’s biggest ever grossing film, Nang Nak. which iss based on a traditional Thai myth, were the other major hits of the festival. These films showed the enormous support and interest such an event stirred in the local Korean, Thai and Japanese communities.
An important feature of the festival were the two seminars – “Asian-Australians in the Local Film Industry” and “Australia and the Pan-Asian Film Industry”. Amongst the panelists were local Asian-Australian actors and filmmakers including Teck Tan (Spinning Gasing), Hilton Fatt (The Wiggles), Anthony Wong and David Chiem, Richard Harris (Chairman of the Australian Screen Directors Association) and Gary Hamilton from distribution and production company, Beyond Films. They discussed the lack of Asian representation on screen and the limited, stereotypical roles that Asian actors were offered. Anthony Wong said that the only roles he had been offered recently were either as a Chinese chef, gay toy boy or triad gangster. Moreover, he quoted a study done by Harvey May of the University of Technology, Queensland which showed that in 1999, there was not one sustained role for an Asian actor in commercial television drama. Is it that there are no talented Asian actors in Australia? How would we know if no one is looking?
With a Korean film being the most popular film in Taiwan, a Japanese film topping the box office in Korea and Hong Kong film being a hit in Japan, there is much evidence of cross-fertilisation within the Asian film industry. With its traditional markets in Europe and the US, Australians have largely remained out of this loop but for a few exceptions like Teck Tan and Chris Doyle. Why? The most interesting point of debate was about the prevalent racism in Asia – both towards other Asian nations and Australia, to the extent that there are not many co-productions in Asia. Though it must be said that at least they are watching each other’s films. Most Australian films have barely a chance in that market. Moreover, how do Australian producers deal with Asia? How do they secure deals with Asian distributors and investors? With the amount of production activity in Asia, it is obvious that some people see it as a source of much business opportunity both in distribution and production. For example, as the southern hemispheres’ leading film-processing laboratory, Atlab is desperate to get its hooks into the Asian market but has faced problems establishing itself.
Another guest of the festival was Nowhere to Hide‘s director, Lee Myung-Se. I spoke with him at length about the possibility of an Australian-Korean co-production and we looked at some of the renowned post-production facilities around Sydney. But with the international success of Nowhere to Hide, his future lay in New York where he was planning his next project. I suppose this only makes sense – if he can go to the US, why would he come to Australia? If Australia is to become an option, we must work with Asia to develop talent rather than seeing dollar signs in post-production and location fees; in short we must create a cultural relationship with the region. I asked Lee to characterise Eastern cinema and his reply was this: “I don’t think we should look at cinema with this cultural divide, and for this all I can speak of is my own films – in Buddhism there is a concept of ‘motion in stillness’, I try to make my films with the idea of ‘stillness in motion’.” I surmised that Eastern cinema can be characterised by its auteurs and their ability to project an image of ‘Easterness’, and in this department Lee was doing just fine.
Finally, it was a shame that there was no ‘Pacific’ element to the festival but that would have been another mammoth task in itself, perhaps stretching the umbrella a bit too far. But what about the term ‘Asian’? As such a concept seems to have been successfully applied in this festival, maybe it is indeed valid. In any case, it only gains validity in relation to an exclusive, non-‘Asian’ majority that has so characteristised the Australian media. Kwok and de Carvalho have a vision for this festival – to make Australian audiences literate about Asian cinema, to encourage cultural collaboration between Asia and Australia and to provide a forum for Asian-Australian films to be showcased. Given its initial success, the SAPFF will become a major event on Sydney’s cultural calendar. Though it represents Australia’s ‘first contact’ with pan-Asian cinema on such a scale, it may well open up cinematic dialogue between Australia and the region in the hope that this will foster more productive cultural relationships.
* * *
NOWHERE TO HIDE
Republic of Korea, 1999, feature, 110 mins
Directed by LEE Myung-Se
Cast: Park Joong- Hoon and Ahn Sung-Ki
An assassination takes place in a port-city and Detective Woo leads the chase to track down the killer. What ensues is a thrilling mind-game between the two with a final showdown in a torrential rainstorm. Praised as “a lunatic derby of cuts and bravura movie-making” by the New York Times, NOWHERE TO HIDE is a different kind of action film that overrides genre expectations. Director Lee Myung Se is one of the most inventive directors working in cinema, and has long been called Korea’s premier stylist.
Thailand, 1999, feature, 100 mins
Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr
Cast: Inthira Charoengpura and Winai Kraibutr
A re-working of the popular nineteenth century Thai legend of undying love, NANG NAK is Thailand’s biggest box office success, beaten only by Titanic and Jurassic Park. It tells the story of a young woman, Mae Naak who marries and falls pregnant to Phor Naak. He is soon sent away on military service and when he returns finds his loving wife and child and a terrified village awaiting him. NANG NAK was winner of Best Film at the Bangkok Film Festival 1999 and Best Asian Film at the Rotterdam International Film Festival 2000.
Japan, 1997, animated feature, 82 mins
Directed by KON Satoshi
Cast: IWAI Junko as Mima (voice actor)
Mima Kirigoe quits as lead vocalist of an all-girl pop group to establish herself as an actress. Struggling to retain a sense of self in her new career, and taunted by an internet fan site, the distinction between reality and fantasy begin to blur, dragging Mima into a psychological vortex. PERFECT BLUE is a completely new kind of animation which takes as its theme the ‘fears lurking in everyday life’. Described by Roger Corman as “a startling and powerful film. If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney, they’d make a picture like this.
WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES
Hong Kong, 1999, feature, 92 mins
Directed by Johnnie To
Cast: LAU Ching-Wan and Ruby Wong
Just out of prison, tough gang-boss Michael gets into a fight with his taxi driver and finds himself beaten up outside a Macau hotel run by young widow, Judy. Lodging in the hotel, he sets out to reclaim old debts. Thwarted in his efforts and hounded by a cop anxious to send him back inside, Michael begins to dream of a simple life with Judy and her son Tony. Overcoming his violent reactions to situations becomes his biggest challenge. A hero that breaks the mould, from the prolific and highly awarded director, Johnnie To.
SO CLOSE TO PARADISE
China, 1998, feature, 90 mins
Directed by WANG Xiaoshuai
Cast: WANG Tong and GUO Tao
Drawn by the promise of work, two friends from the same village have moved to a port-city, but have not found what they hoped for. Dongzi has ended up a “shoulder-pole”, the lowest kind of day-labourer, while Gao Ping becomes a victim of his own scam. When Gao Ping tries to track down the man who cheated him, the two friends are drawn into a seedy world of prostitution and crime. This is the latest film by Wang Xiaoshuai, the foremost of China’s sixth generation film makers.
THE QUIET FAMILY
Republic of Korea, 1998, feature, 103 mins
Directed by KIM Ji-Woon
Cast: PARK In-Hwan and MUN Hee-Na
When a family takes over the “Mt Lodge” guesthouse, they are troubled by the lack of any customers and the mysterious words of a passing crone. After two weeks of intense waiting, their first customer checks in, only to be found dead in his bed the next morning. Burying him to avoid ruining the business starts off a chain of mishap and murder. A biting black comedy by young first time director Kim Ji-Woon.
IN THE NAVEL OF THE SEA
Philippines, 1997, feature,114 mins
Directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya
Cast: Jomari Yllana and Elizabeth Oropesa
In a remote fishing village in the 50’s, Pepito grows up learning the trade of his mother, Rosa, the only midwife of their community. At first, the young son doesn’t mind the unusual arrangement, but as he grows older, he begins to resist the role traditionally meant only for women. A beautifully shot film by Director Marilou Diaz-Abaya that contrasts the everyday reality of the villagers lives with their superstitions and beliefs.
SHARK SKIN MAN AND PEACH HIP GIRL
Japan, 1998, feature, 107 mins
Directed by ISHII Katsuhito
Cast: ASANO Tadanobu and KOHINATA Sie
When Samehada (Shark Skin Man) decides to run with yakuza money, a chase ensues which has a bizarre cast of characters after him, from a poster collecting knife expert to a spoilt yakuza brat with a super keen sense of smell. Not to mention the sexually twisted uncle of Toshiko, the hotel clerk, Samehada has teamed up with in his getaway. From the very cool opening credits, this film establishes itself as a hyper-fashion statement, bringing a fresh new look to a classical cinema genre.
CONNECTION BY FATE
Taiwan, 1998, feature, 115 mins
Directed by WAN Jen
Cast: TSAI Cheng-Nan and CHANG Chen-Yue
Former political activist Ah-De lost his sense of purpose in life when his young son is accidentally killed and his marriage dissolved. He now roams the city as a disillusioned taxi-driver until he picks up young Taiwanese aboriginal, Mah-Le. When Mah-Le is executed for murder, his spirit returns to re-visit Ah-De. This sombre but beautiful film stars young Taiwanesee aboriginal pop star, CHANG Chen-yue and singer songwriter TSAI Cheng-nan . Director WAN Jen is considered one of the most significant directors of the New Taiwan Cinema.
With each Asian Feature film, the Festival screened an “Asian Australian” short film. That is, films by Asian Australian directors, or with an Asian Australian storyline or theme.
1999, 16 mm, 17 mins,
Director Cate Shortland
Filmed at Bondi, Flowergirl is a fictional account of three young Japanese living in Australia. Daisuke ( a vegetarian ) is about to return home to Japan to work in his father’s butcher shop. He is in love with his flatmate Hana, but is too shy to tell her how he feels. A collaboration with Japanese-Australian photographer and film-writer Jun Tagami, Flowergirl has won prizes at Dendy Awards for Short Film, Flickerfest and Women on Women Film Festivals.
MY TIGER’S EYES
1992, 16mm, 21 mins
Director by Teck Tan
The conservative anti-Communist era of the 1950’s, the Cold War and the Reds under the bed.in Sydney a young boy grows up and the Irish neighbours suspect his family might well be Communists.MY TIGER’S EYES evokes the atmosphere of a previous era, capturing the cultural nuances of neighbours on either side of the fence, and in the process saying something of what it was like being Chinese in Australia.
1998, 30 mins
Directed by Gabrielle Finnane
Eugenia Falleni also known as Harry Crawford and Jean Ford was raised in New Zealand but spent most of her unsettled, disconcerting life in Australia. In this visually surprising half-hour film, Eugenia tells her story from beyond the grave. At sixteen she ran away to sea. She lived and worked as a man. She married a woman. I, EUGENIA won the 1998 Dendy Award for Best Australian Short Film,General Category, Sydney Film Festival.
1999, 11 mins
Directed by David Chai
When some old high school friends come to visit Lisa, it triggers off recurring nightmares and prompts her to seek professional help. When she does so, it leads to a tragic discovery.
1998, 10 mins
Directed by Wayne Nicholson
MUMMY’S BOY is about Danny’s obsession to keep his mother happy, no matter what the cost. Shot in a single day, Wayne Nicholson drew out an outstanding performance from Howard Trevor as Danny.
1997, 15 mins
Directed by Bruno De Villenoisy
NO NIGHT is about a man on his deathbed recalling the most significant moment of his life. It is his first day of school, as a young Chinese boy entering a classroom where he looked different from his classmates. After being bullied for the contents of his lunchbox, a sympathetic teacher lets him in on a secret.
THE LAMA OF GREYSTANES
1999, 19 Mins, documentary
Directed by Anne Delaney
Zatul Rinzin Rapoche is the 11th reincarnation of the lama of the highest monastery in the world. In 1959 when the Chinese invaded Tibet, Rinzin was forced to flee his homeland. Now 57, he lives in Greystanes with his wife and three children. Still a lama, but no longer a monk, he works as a security guard to support himself, his family and his monastery back in Tibet.
“SE-TONG” (BOY SERPENTINE)
1999, 17 mins
Directed by Heng Tang
BOY’s obsessive fascination with snakes begins when as a six year old he stumbles upon a giant snake while frolicking deep in the forest. The image of the serpent and dragon are auspicious and positive symbols in Chinese culture, yet in the film BOY is vigorously discouraged from having any involvement with the “demon-like” insignias. SE-TONG reveals allegorically how religious fanaticism and right wing fundamentalism interact to problematise ethnic diversity in Australia.
1999, 2.30 mins,
Directed by Linden Goh
When a Chinese guy and an Anglo-Australian girl go on a blind date, fate and food intervene to bring them together over a plate of noodles. A cross cultural comedy that really sucks.
SWEET & SOUR
1997, 7.15 mins,
Directed by Linden Goh
A young mans plans to end his relationship with his girlfriend are disrupted by a fortune cookie containing a proposal of marriage. A short black comedy about love gone wrong, kooky fortune and fortune cookies.
LIU AWAITING SPRING
1998, 11 mins
Directed by Andrew Soo
Liu Awaiting Spring is a short film which threads the ancient art of Chinese opera through a modern coming of age tale in suburban Sydney. It addresses some timely contemporary issues : homophobia, xenophobia and disease-phobia. Liu Awaiting Spring was screened at Berlin Film Festival 1999 and won the Teddy Award for the Best Gay and Lesbian Short Film. It was a Best Short Fiction Film nominee at the Australian Film Institute Awards.
1999, 15 mins
Directed by Chris Richards-Scully
White Dragons is about the non-Asians who through their interest in the arts have become immersed in Asian culture.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
NOWHERE TO HIDE
“a lunatic derby of cuts and bravura movie-making”
– The New York Times
THE QUIET FAMILY
“THE QUIET FAMILY” is a sly, genuinely anarchic comedy of escalating absurdity about an “average” Korean family.”
– Derek Elley, Far East Film, Udine Incontri, 1999
” A very new take on a legend we all know in our heart, NANG NAK makes us believe that love is stronger than death. This visual and dramatic tour de force is a milestone in Asian cinema”.
– Tony Rayns
SO CLOSE TO PARADISE
” has a verismo feel for the seedier side of contempo mainland life”.
– Derek Elley, Variety
SHARK SKIN MAN AND PEACH HIP GIRL
” Katsuhito Ishii’s SHARK SKIN MAN AND PEACH HIP GIRL, famously drooled over by Tarantino, is a stylistic cross between David Lynch and Takeshi Kitano.”
– Stephen Cremin, the 2nd Pan-Asian Film Festival, 1999
” A startling and powerful film. If Alfred Hitchock partnered with Walt Disney, they’d make a picture like this”
– Roger Corman
” PERFECT BLUE uses the conventions of a classic film noir plot to kick sense into everything from internet junkies to the absurd phenomenon of the Japanese ‘ pop idol’. Knowing that the dark corners of the psyche are much scarier than any number of sci-fi monsters and robots, it pushes anime into a fruitful new direction”.
– Tony Rayns