“Asian cinema is well represented this year right across the program. Many festival directors I have spoken to over the last year believe this is one of the strongest years for Asian films in recent history.” That’s a quote from director Gayle Lake’s introductory notes to the 47th Sydney Film Festival held in 2000. It suggests the festival-goer that year would see a variety of exciting and challenging films, documentaries and shorts from the huge region collectively known as Asia. So how many Asian films were featured in 2000? Of the 166 items programmed that year a total of eight originated from Asia. Eight. And how many films in that same year originated from the United States of America? 41. Yes, 41. Yet Lake makes no mention of this nation as being well-represented in the Festival, no mention of the USA as a place which caused a buzz of excitement for festival directors around the world. The presence of North American and British films in huge numbers at the Sydney Film Festival is simply a given.
Jump forward to early June 2003. In recognition of its 50th festival, the SFF held a 2-day symposium with a variety of guest speakers discussing the role of the Festival today. One session was devoted to Asian cinema and the “enormously significant role” it has played in the history of the SFF. “It is impossible for one session to do justice to the diversity of national cinemas that deserve attention under the umbrella Asian cinema,” gushed the introductory abstract. Here was the SFF patting itself on the back for its championing of Asian cinema, secure in its belief that it is indeed representing the region in a significant way. But it isn’t. And while it would be too strong a criticism to suggest the Festival is ignoring its Asian neighbours, it is certainly true that the region comes at the tail end of a field dominated by European and American cinema.
One of the highlights of last year’s SFF was the Critic’s Forum chaired by ABC film critic Julie Rigg, which canvassed responses from both professional critics and the general audience to Kim Ki-duk’s feature film Bad Guy (2001). Kim had already established a dramatic presence internationally with his five earlier films, including the extremely controversial feature The Isle (2001). None of these played at the SFF. His most recent film The Coast Guard (2002), which features topical subject matter – a marine stationed near the Korean DMZ – opened the Pusan Film Festival in 2002 but did not make it to the SFF this year. Here we have a high-profile, controversial Korean director and, as a film festival audience, Sydneysiders have had the chance to see only one of his films. None of Kim’s work is likely to receive theatrical release in Australia and television sales, restricted inevitably to SBS, involve a bout with the censor’s scissors before screening. The natural home for films like these is the festival circuit.
Kim is just one of a number of directors and screenwriters who have helped focus international attention on Korea, with Korean films a consistent presence on the festival circuit now for some years. Just to prove the point, the Melbourne International Film Festival programmed a Kim Ki-duk retrospective last year. In all, 77 feature films were produced there in 2002, 30 of which are considered “notable” by the excellent Internet site Darcy’s Korean Film Page. Both the Hong Kong and Pusan film festivals have featured a range of Korean films, as have their European and American counterparts. This year, the SFF showed two films from Korea.
Is it unfair to single out Korea in this way? No it’s not. In fact, Korea, along with Japan, produces the bulk of the Asian cinema we do see at the SFF. The numbers are best illustrated by the table below.
As you can see, cinema from India, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China/Hong Kong is moderately well represented, though the numbers remain extremely small. This year’s figures are a little skewed by the 50th anniversary retrospective program which, for example, accounts for three of the five Japanese films. The other countries which have made it into the Festival – Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand – are very poorly represented. And what about the rest of Asia? In the past eight years, not one film from the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia or Sri Lanka has screened at the SFF. Do these countries have film industries? Yes, to a greater or lesser degree, they do. An example of the lesser degree is the Sri Lankan feature The Terrorist (Santosh Sivan, 2000). This stunning film portrays a young Tamil woman’s metamorphosis into a separatist guerrilla fighter. It was released in India and was later picked up for distribution around the world. Did we see it at the SFF? No, we did not. Another example, Eric Khoo’s Singapore/Vietnam co-production Song of the Stork (1998), about the experiences of five men during the years of the Vietnam war, played widely in festivals internationally, but not in Sydney. At the greater end of the spectrum, the Philippines has a vibrant film industry and a fascinating cinematic history. The same applies to Thailand, yet only one Thai film, Penek Ratanaruang’s Talok 69 (1999), has made it to Sydney. So are we missing out on something? Yes, I believe we are, as a closer look at the Thai example will show.
In the last couple of years, Thai cinema has started to get a lot of attention. In 2001, the Pusan Film Festival included seven Thai features and four shorts in a section entitled ‘Bangkok Express’. In 2002, a Thai film festival held in London screened 15 features. The international festival circuit has reflected this Thai focus too. Films such as Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002), The Iron Ladies (Youngyooth Thongkonthun, 2000), Mon Rak Transistor (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2001), 6ixtynin9 (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 1999), Bangkok Dangerous (Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang, 2000), Fun Bar Karaoke (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 1997), Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000) and Nang Nak (Nonzee Nimibutr, 1999) have all screened at a range of festivals including Rotterdam, Toronto and Cannes. Thai features have also been an increasing presence in festivals around the world devoted to Asian cinema.
Much of the hype about Thai cinema has been generated by one filmmaker, Nonzee Nimibutr. This writer/director/producer trained in graphic arts, spent a number of years working in advertising before he turned to features. I first came across his work in 1997 when he released Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters, a period crime picture with a distinctive tone and style. In 1999 he made Nang Nak, a horror genre ghost story which picked up a number of awards internationally. In 2001 he released Jan Dara and last year another supernatural omnibus tale called Three. All these films have received festival and theatrical play around the world.
What Nonzee has done is spearhead a new movement in Thai cinema. Apart from making his own films he wrote the script for Bangkok Dangerous and produced Tears of the Black Tiger which was released in Australian cinemas by Dendy Films last year. Tears… was the first Thai film to be in official selection at Cannes in 2002. Its writer/director, Wisit Sasanatieng, also cut his teeth in television advertising and Tears… is an extraordinary, visual feast as well as very funny and clever. Then there’s a set of directors who can be defined, and sometimes define themselves, in creative opposition to the Nonzee style antics. Pen-Ek Rataranuang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul stand out as filmmakers searching for a unique voice. Do I need to mention that, with the exception of 6ixtynin9, none of these titles has screened at the Sydney Film Festival? With this track record in Thai cinema as an example, can the SFF say it is up there with the leaders in showcasing Asian cinema?
Back to the table of statistics for a moment. It’s obvious that Asian films in general are represented in far fewer numbers than those of the United Kingdom and the USA. Given the huge variation in annual production between these regions, putting them together can seem like an exercise in comparing apples and oranges but the figures do tell us something about where our cultural focus lies in terms of international cinema. On average, about 90 films are produced annually in the UK. The figures for China are about the same. As a comparison, in 2001, Hong Kong produced 133 films. In 2002, 25 films were produced and released in Thailand. If you take the production figures, and the knowledge that a good percentage of these Asian films are reaching international festivals and getting extensive theatrical release, the representation at the SFF seems, at the very least, lower than might be expected.
Perhaps a more relevant comparison is with SBS television (1). Over the past two and a half years, SBS has purchased five Thai features, has one awaiting contract and another five under assessment. During the same period it purchased 19 Korean films, has three shortlisted and another six still being assessed. Just a reminder; how many Thai films have we seen at the Sydney Film Festival in the past eight years? Just one.
Film writer and critic Anchalee Chaiworaporn (2) has described Thai cinema as having a two-tier structure – a tiny, independently produced arthouse circuit and a larger, commercially orientated entertainment slate. The work of independent filmmakers like Nonzee, Wisit Sasanatieng and Penek Rataranuang lies somewhere between the two extremes. Their films are accessible but not mainstream; individualistic but committed to high production values and often slick stylisation. Some of Nonzee’s films are unashamedly romantic, and all these filmmakers acknowledge they are aiming at a commercial market. But if that rules them out for the SFF then it should also rule out fare such as Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002).
Is a greater focus on Asia a viable or desirable option for the SFF? Should it be obliged to show more cinema from our own geographical region? Clearly such a policy cannot be imposed on the Festival Director nor should it be. But there is an argument for a shift in emphasis away from what Adrian Martin recently called “flaccid American indie films” to a more demanding, more challenging and more informative cinema. The SFF has traditionally been seen as providing a broad-ranging program based on a small number of films from a wide range of countries. No specialisation is emphasised other than a long held commitment to documentary. But there is in fact a cinema favoured by the SFF, a cinema which towers in its representation over all others – the cinema of the United States of America.
Let’s get rid of the vapid and derivative American offerings, to my mind best represented this year by the numbingly ordinary and predictable Marion Bridge (Wiebke von Carolsfeld, 2002). I would happily wait the two or three weeks until Confessions of a Dangerous Mind comes out in local theatres if it meant a chance to see Blissfully Yours or Mon Rak Transistor. Would gladly sacrifice one of the two Frederick Wisemans in this year’s program if it meant screening the Filipino minor masterpiece Scorpio Nights (Peque Gallaga, 1985), a Lino Brocka retrospective or an in memorium screening of Leslie Cheung’s best work.
In his 1998 Festival notes, departing director Paul Byrnes wrote “If there is one guiding idea behind what I have tried to do in selecting films for the festival, it’s that cinema does matter, that it’s more than just an entertainment medium; that immersing yourself in it is a sustaining act which can make us more human, more tolerant, somehow bigger.” These words, from a director who was careful always to eschew the political, seem positively radical in comparison to the bland, comfortable SFF we have today. In turning its cultural face away from the features, shorts, animations and documentaries made in Asia, the Festival denies us, the audience, that chance to engage with the multiplicity of world views held by our geographical neighbours. The Festival must find its way back to creative and imaginative programming. It needs to burrow in and dig out exciting, provocative and demanding films. No small, cash-strapped festival can do that globally. Leaner and more focussed is the way to go. Where the Sydney Film Festival chooses to concentrate that focus in the future may be the deciding factor in its survival.