23 September – 10 October 2007
While I couldn’t make the trek to the 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), there were murmurs amongst those who attended of a less-than-stellar program and a duration that dragged on far too long. The Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum (HAF) was back for another year with new projects by Lou Ye, Jia Zhang-ke, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Kim Jee-woon amongst many others and by all accounts the newly established Asian Film Awards (AFA) was a glitzy affair with everyone from Jafar Panahi to Korean pop-star Rain turning up for the ceremony (given the Asia-Pacific Screen Awards’ bid for an Asian Oscars-style prestige it’s anybody’s guess what will happen to the AFA next year). Hong Kong’s International Film Festival still remains an important venue for showcasing a range of up-and-coming Asian films and every year there’s a wealth of mainland Chinese indies to soak up before they travel abroad. The retrospectives and spotlights are worth the effort of coming to the HKIFF (2007’s program included Herman Yau, Pedro Costa, Luchino Visconti and Li Han-hsiang) and the festival’s surrounding city atmosphere is always lively.
The problem remains though that Pusan still reigns supreme in the region and even then many Asian filmmakers aren’t choosing to premiere their works at the festival over, say, Toronto, Venice, Cannes or Berlin. Timing can be everything if you’re not a festival in the top-tier and by hosting the HKIFF in the late March/early April period there’s an awful lot that falls through the festival’s cracks. Working for a small film festival myself, which doesn’t even rank on the HKIFF’s scale, I can sympathise with the fact that the global festival calendar coupled with the release patterns of international distributors is always going to force you to miss out on some big catches.
But the problem of HKIFF’s timing seemed to stick out this year a little with the fourth instalment of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (HKAFF), jointly run by HK indie company Ying E Chi (they recently put out the HK discs for Jia’s Dong and Still Life) and the Broadway Cinematheque. Bookended by Ang Lee’s Se, jie (Lust, Caution) as the opener and Jia Zhang-ke’s Wu yong (Useless) and Lee Chang-dong’s Milyang (Secret Sunshine) as closers, the HKAFF expanded its program this year with a 63 film line-up and its late September/early October setting paid off with significant dividends from both Cannes and Pusan. Furthermore, by hosting the event during this time distributors eager for some kind of forum to unveil their films in Hong Kong can take advantage of the HKAFF whereas the HKIFF remains months off. It gives their Asian releases a little momentum before a wider theatrical release and this was directly evidenced by the fact that Secret Sunshine rolled out on a wide release a day after its HKAFF screening and Lust, Caution was similarly released in most cinemas fairly close to the festival’s opening night.
As the title suggests the festival is devoted exclusively to Asian cinema and notable titles included Jiang Wen’s Tai yang zhao chang sheng qi (The Sun Also Rises), Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (which sold-out with a snap of the finger), Im Kwon-taek’s Chun nyun hack (Beyond The Years) and Feng Xiaogang’s Ji Jie Hao (The Assembly) which only a few days before opened Pusan. A retrospective on Lee Chang-dong’s work nicely complemented the screening of Secret Sunshine and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) was screened as an “Asian Classic”. The high presence of mainland Chinese cinema from the tiny (Wang Wo’s Noise) to the gargantuan (The Assembly, The Sun Also Rises) seemed to be the most distinctive point of this year’s collection and the festival even hosted a talk with filmmakers Li Yang and Du Haibin.
Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution received critical praise from some quarters and even earned Lee a second Golden Lion at Venice but it’s hardly worth endorsing as anything beyond a mildly risqué and ultimately dull spy thriller. It’s WWII and things start off promisingly: a gang of politically-passionate, if at times naïve, students with anti-Japanese sentiments drop their fund-raising theatre performances, which are designed to whip up patriotic fervour, for a more direct form of action – infiltrating the social circles of a collaborationist official for assassination. The leader, Kuang (Wang Lee-hom), transforms one of the female members, Jiazhi (played rather superbly by Tang Wei) into Mrs Mak. Her mission is to cosy up to the wife of Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), the enigmatic and aloof collaborationist working with the Japanese on the mainland, while the couple are in Hong Kong. This first section almost echoes moments of Yuan Muzhi’s seminal Malu Tianshi (Street Angel, 1937) as we get to know the gang and their exploits creating false identities for themselves are handled in a largely playful tone. In one blackly comic moment, Lee wrings a few laughs out of a very brutal stabbing as a traitorous contact of Yee’s refuses to die before each member of the group takes several turns at violently killing him. In another scene designed to lighten the atmosphere Jiazhi loses her virginity to a rather unappealing member of the group in order to prepare her for the eventual seduction of Yee.
Lee makes sure that their training and the eventual confrontation with Yee and his wife contrasts directly with the solemnity of the film’s second half when Jiazhi reunites with Yee and begins a passionate affair with him. It’s not particularly engrossing stuff on the screen and by the time the titular sex comes along you can’t help but feel that none of the principals have been rendered with much psychological depth (in particular, the fabulous Joan Chen is squandered with an almost nothing role). This is a pity since the montage of sweat-speckled sex between Leung and Tang is loaded with a passion, tension and frenzy which is virtually absent from the rest of the film. Maybe the point for Lee is to manage the film as a collection of dualities from the title, the narrative structure composed of the training and then the mission, the inherent transformations of both Yee and Jiazhi’s personas, whatever, but too often the film feels trapped between a sombre spy-thriller and fulfilling the promise of an explicit expose of the couple’s psycho-sexual dynamics. It’s been mentioned elsewhere but its nonetheless worth including that Lou Ye’s Zi hudie (Purple Butterfly, 2003), which is not amazing by any measure, still remains a superior film similarly focussed on the same period, the resistance movement, the clash between natural instinct and national duty, etc.
Tang Wei remains the film’s great asset with a performance which shifts modes from innocent passivity to hardened cool with a controlled intensity. Tony Leung Chiu-wai, best known for his work with Wong Kar-wai where the majority of his characters have demanded gentleness, introvertedness and mourning, trades that in for brooding menace, pent-up sexual rage and paranoia. If his role in 2046 was meant to be the darker side of his In The Mood For Love persona, then Lust, Caution is the twisted alter ego for 2046. Leung has a naturally beautiful (and it seems age-defying) face, a soulful grace to him which has been toned down here but not to the extent that we cannot imagine why Jiazhi would be fraught with conflict between falling for him and selling him out to the resistance. Curiously Lee doesn’t show Yee at work torturing resistance fighters which probably would have added dimension to the nature of his sexual liaisons with Jiazhi. We learn of his capacity for violence when he rips off a belt to whip Jiazhi, only to then bend her over and take her from behind, but its difficult to fully come to grips with his overall dangerousness and by extension his allure, his persona. It’s something that harks back to the overall problem of feeling trapped between the lust of the sexual encounters and cautiousness of psychologically contextualising them, maybe a deliberate strategy on the part of Lee but it sure makes for a frustrating experience.
With the proliferation of unfettered capitalism and rabid consumerism gripping parts of the mainland luxury designer brands have sprouted in cosmopolitan areas, a startling reminder of the vast class inequality surely to snowball into the major problem facing the nation in the next five to ten years. In fact a recent Goldman Sachs report found the mainland to be the world’s third largest consumer of luxury goods and in a climate where “money talks and bullshit walks” (to borrow a phrase from Robin Weng’s superb Fujian Blue), labels such as Prada, Lacoste, Chanel, Gucci and Valentino have all become short-hand symbols of power and obscene wealth. Armani plans to rollout over 20 stores throughout China for next year and while Hong Kong was once known as the primary market for high-end labels, the growing class of Chinese property tycoons and mining bosses will surely change all that.
Enter Jia Zhang-ke who obviously found that clothing, from the designer tagged to the handmade items sold to the rural poor, was the perfect entry-point to explore the various classes of people making, designing and donning the goods. His latest documentary, which also took home a Venice prize, Useless, moves from Guangzhou to Paris and finally to Jia’s hometown Fenyang as the camera quietly observes the production, exhibition, designing and consumption of clothes: what all this adds up to is another powerful snapshot of the variety of lives and quotidian details of daily living which make up contemporary China. It’s a deceptively simple film on the surface but by shifting the focus mid-way through to a Parisian fashion show for Chinese designer Ma Ke’s latest offering, Wu Yong which directly translates as “Useless”, Jia seems to be reflecting on the cultural transactions between China and France, an important nation for the export of Chinese cinema and art.
By bookending Ma Ke’s Parisian tour with scenes of the Chinese workers’ lives who make clothing on a mass-assembly line, and the Fenyang miners who buy cheap pants and shirts when they surface from underground, Useless isn’t just about showing the workers’ struggle, it’s about highlighting the absurdity of an expensive fashion show. That is, where gimmickry such as clothing being rubbed in dirt only adds to the European applauds while back in China dirtiness is nothing more than the by-product of daily life in the outer provinces. Rural chic may be a hot fad on the French catwalk but back in Fenyang it’s an entirely different story: the contrast between the French fashionistas besotted with Ma’s clothing in a sparse warehouse show and the average citizens who have abandoned all hope of happiness in their cottage clothing stores to opt for a mining job is at once comical, depressing, horrific and speaks volumes about the European consumption of “China” in a quiet and respectful manner, which is the kind of analysis we’ve come to expect from this director of major importance.
Two films by female directors, Guo Xiaolu’s Jin tian de yu zen me yang? (How Is Your Fish Today?) and Li Yu’s Ping guo (Lost in Beijing), both offered tidy, easily-digestible visions of up-to-the-moment China but you couldn’t find two more strikingly different films. Guo’s film has done a lot of mileage on the festival circuit and no doubt programmers and festival directors have been seduced by its cute and seemingly clever conceit. However, I’m yet to be adequately convinced that there’s much innovation, daring, wit or intellectual rigour underpinning it’s tale of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter crafting a fugitive tale and the various narrative plains the film scuttles between showing creator and creation. If the concept of a screenwriter naming his fish “Belle de Jour” and his cactus “Fellini” constitutes your version of Chinese art-film smarts (is this so far removed from something Tarantino might have done ten years ago?) then you’ll absolutely fall in love with the film’s facile take on the inter-mingling of fiction and reality. For the rest of us we can comfort ourselves with the scores of better mainland indies circulating which actually engage with the issues without the artistic preciousness on display here.
Li Yu’s Lost in Beijing is still facing difficulties with the mainland censors which is rather ridiculous given that the sexual content is fairly tame and its criticism of the idle rich isn’t exactly going to spark riots in the streets. What remains is a moderately absorbing drama which is more than anything else a fine showcase for Fan Bingbing who’s at the top of her game as a massage parlour girl raped by her boss and bribed into carrying the baby so he can continue his family heir line. It’s the sort of role that demands a multi-dimensional performance and I had my doubts when I saw Fan’s name topping the credits. But she’s utterly convincing as she juggles vulnerability, quiet and explicit desperation and cunning whilst trying to reconcile the challenges of the moral vacuum which she falls, or more correctly is pushed, into. She may be quickly garnering fame for her beauty but here all the glamour of her star-persona is stripped away so we’re left with the kind of ordinary prettiness which helps immensely in adding realism to a film which often betrays its realist roots for easy contrivances (the crux of the film depends on Fan’s window-washing boyfriend cleaning, by sheer chance, the window where she’s just been raped).
The sexual candour of Lost in Beijing is refreshing but it’s more of a prelude to the exploration of the more familiar issues of capitalistic ruthlessness and morally-vacuous ambitiousness, Chinese-style. Li favours a hand-held visual style devoid of any fireworks that’s meant to denote a gritty realism which occasionally clashes with the inflated performance of Leung Ka-fai as the rich massage parlour manager: too often he appears more suited to a Johnnie To flick by overstressing his character’s aggression and petulance. Of course for western audiences it’s the kind of character which will be easily understood and identifiable – the rich bastard whose material wealth can’t buy him a family – and maybe Leung’s performance suits that end. But while Lost in Beijing has plenty going for it as an entertaining, if a tad schematic, drama it seems to strain a little for accessibility at every turn for those unfamiliar with the inner working of Beijing’s bourgeoisie (a mid-way montage is all to the tune of a western ambient-ish song). Unlike some of the best films coming from the artier spectrum of China’s industry which hint at the ultimate enigmas and absurdities in the nation’s breathtaking growth and modernisation, there’s no chance you’ll get lost in Li’s Beijing.
Jiang Wen’s The Sun Also Rises marks the return of the iconic Chinese thesp in the director’s chair after seven years (his sophomore effort Guizi lai le [Devils on the Doorstep] was released in 2000) and his latest reportedly took nearly three years to complete, although he’s starred in numerous films in the meantime. Bursting with exuberance, sometimes even giddying, and magnificently realised, Jiang’s film divides into four parts set during the Cultural Revolution of 1976 (the final segment occurs in the winter of ’58), extending across the four seasons. Although when broken down the basic story isn’t too complicated Jiang injects a wealth of narrative divergences, hints of magic-realism and plenty of accentuated details into proceedings to the point where you can’t help but feel that in the seven years between his last film and Sun a lot of ideas and innovations have been furiously bubbling inside Jiang, desperate to explode on the screen: the opening intermittent shots of a fast-moving train gliding across tracks flooded with flowers sets up a film which showcases the pleasures of directorial catharsis.
In the opening quarter, a young single mother working in one of the many rural areas seen by the Party as a prime location for rehabilitation and re-education suffers a blow to the head leaving her delusional and intermittently crazed. Meanwhile her teenage son (Jaycee Chan, much better here than in the middling 2 Young) has begun to enquire about his absent father, known by his Russian moniker Alyosha, while balancing duties as a youth leader. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Sun seems to be enveloped in its own loopy sense of logic from the first half-hour but as the film shifts seasons and eventually eras, the various narrative pieces slot together snugly so on a second viewing there are a lot more pleasures to derive from the plotting and how the narrative interlocks together and interacts with each portion.
The tone from the opening emphasises the comedic, all madcap, frantic movements and actions emphasised and it flows throughout, although in the last two sections the film accumulates a greater level of seriousness allowing the final moments to be both visually astonishing and sombrely reflective on everything which has preceded. The punchy rhythm of the editing perfectly complements both the mother’s craziness and the son’s energetic inquisitiveness but I must admit I wasn’t entirely taken upon initial viewing with this constant lunacy.
It only later began to win me over as the film settled down (relatively) into a much more satisfying mode balancing the comic and the historical as a chef, Liang (Anthony Wong), is wrongly accused of groping a woman at an outdoor screening of a propaganda movie. He’s confronted with a sensual and seriously alluring doctor, Lin (Joan Chen), who tries clearing him of any wrong-doing but it’s futile and he accepts punishment. Again a certain vein of madness flows through this vignette but Jiang dispenses one knock-out visual treat when the propaganda film is projected against the contours of the surrounding make-shift cinema to catch Liang as he escapes an angry mob: the result is a whirlwind of intense colour and light all set to the rhythms of the film’s vintage soundtrack. It’s a positively dazzling moment and seemed to directly back up what Jiang noted in his director’s statement, “the sensation of images is beyond words”. (1)
In the third part, Liang’s buddy Tang (played by Jiang) and his wife arrive in the same town we’ve seen in the first part to commence his “re-education” in the countryside. His wife soon commences an affair with the teenage boy whilst Tang goes out on daily hunting expeditions with local kids using a rifle given to him by Liang. Finally Jiang takes us to western China in the 1950s as we meet up with most of the principal characters and things are placed into a newish perspective. Sun certainly demands second and third viewings to make sense of such a frantic rush of history, small details, humour and character psychology and you’d be hard pressed to take it all in on a first screening but there’s a richness and a genuinely unique and bold vision powering the film which is worth two, three and many more viewings. Genius? Maybe. Mandatory? Absolutely.
Throughout the latter part of the ‘90s, the Lunar New Year on the Chinese mainland would not be complete without a comedy from Feng Xiaogang. Feng’s name probably doesn’t register with most audiences in the west as opposed to say, Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige, but within China his name is gold, like Spielberg’s in Hollywood if he’d primarily stuck to comedies (currently Judd Apatow’s magic touch may be another parallel). With hits like Cell Phone, Be There or Be Square and Big Shot’s Funeral, Feng reaped in huge box-office takings and established a reputation for crafting witty urban comedies that were directly accessible for the masses. The director probably could have coasted on his prior successes for much longer delivering similarly-themed and -set films but in 2004 he made Tian xia wu zei (A World Without Thieves), a marginally successful caper film with a tinge of Hitchcock. It still retained a great deal of the staples that his audiences responded to but it seemed like a small-step in distancing himself from his prior efforts. Two years later came Ye yan (The Banquet), a mega-budget epic which gave Zhang’s Ying xiong (Hero) a run for its money in the visual lushness department, and it couldn’t have been further from everything that came before in Feng’s filmography.
Whether it was a cynical attempt to cash in on the audience, both within China and abroad, for the monumental period piece is anybody’s guess but The Banquet was a humourless, ice-cold Shakespearean melodrama which was far more of a triumph in cinematography and art design than anything else. The Banquet’s critical reception was as equally cool as the film but it did seem to prove that the director could handle the technical craft of filmmaking on a huge scale even if he had to still learn a thing or two about integrating satisfying storytelling and characterisation into the aesthetic mix. His latest, The Assembly, turns to another genre – the war picture – and once again it seems to prove that he’s reliably adept at handling the visual and aural elements of the battlefront well enough but still can’t find a real beating pulse beneath the surface flash.
Essentially The Assembly fuses together two sub-genres of the war film together for its tale set during both the Chinese Civil War of the late 1940s and the Korean War. For the first half we’re treated to a frontline view of the combat, bracingly captured in a washed-out visual style not unlike Taeguki’s battle-scenes, and in the second part, a crippled war veteran (from the first half’s battles) sets out to find the remains of his fallen comrades and properly restore their honour as national heroes. There’s a much thicker skin plastered over both sections so that propagandistic flag-waving (a usual component of the mainland’s war-films) is kept to a minimum even if the basic arc and ultimate payoff of the second-half is plainly concerned with celebrating communist wartime heroism. There’s not enough time in the battle-scenes for anything but bullets, bloodshed, yelling, dirt, rubble and explosions (the norm) but Feng utilises the timid Wang Jincun, a former teacher who takes on a role as a frontline “political officer”, as a kind-of surrogate for the audience to experience the horrors of the fighting conditions as well as some token attempts to get to know the other soldiers (it seems like some scenes were deleted which would have developed them beyond their primary role as mere tank-fodder). Fans of gritty war-porn will most likely find the first 40 minutes or so utterly orgasmic as Feng does an admirable job of grounding you directly in the action with darting, nervous camerawork, frames bursting with flying debris, sensory gimmicks (one soldier’s hearing goes and a high-pitched tone fills the soundtrack) and a particularly impressive duel between a heavy-duty tank and a squadron of men armed with ineffectual Molotov cocktails. The first part, let’s be frank, adds up to very little and doesn’t really serve the second part as well as it should but it’s very easy to be swept away with the confident staging of the action and even if mainland censors will have to get out the scissors at a later stage it easily stands up against the violence and horrors of South Korean and Hollywood war flicks.
Wang is prominent as only one of two essential characters (the other is the gruff Captain Gu) because his frontline experience is an essential plot device for the second half: the debilitated Captain Gu, the sole survivor of their unit’s disastrous battle campaign, teams up with the Wang’s now-widow to find out the truth about their battles and the location of the soldiers’ bodies. Gu, played with a fierce intensity by Zhang Hanyu, wanders through post-war China gradually recovering while he seeks out answers about the battle campaign that left most of his comrades dead. The second section shows a little flair for bringing out the human drama in Gu’s story, which evidently draws from actual history, but the jarring split between the two sections never really reconciles in a desirable manner, a little disappointing given Feng’s prior experience in negotiating story-arcs and characterisations in his earlier work. Feng showed up for a post-screening discussion which was lost on anyone who didn’t speak Mandarin, even a Cantonese translator wasn’t on hand, but the few people I spoke to after the screening were less than enthusiastic about his latest. Sure there’s flashes of brilliance if we’re honouring technical craft but Feng should realise that these experiments working in commercial genres with an eye for the big-budget prestige, the period-epic and the war film, aren’t really delivering a shred of the intrigue and humanity his comedies did.
On the topic of formally-assured-but-essentially-redundant filmmaking it’s worth briefly mentioning a master filmmaker who delivered a less than masterful work, namely Im Kwon-taek and his 100th feature film, Beyond The Years. For most western audiences access to Im’s illustrious and snaking filmography has been restricted to a select few titles, the advent of Region 3 DVDs slowly rectifying the issue (a Korean boxset was recently released covering five classics spanning the late ‘80s to the turn of the millennium). Arguably Im’s most famous and emblematic work, Sopyonje, was released in 1993 to a select few theatres. The film’s popularity snowballed and soon energised sectors of both the Korean film industry and the Korean people’s affection for their national cinema (Refer to Film Comment article by Chuck Stephens). Based on a novel by Lee Chung-joon, Sopyonje focused on the traditional musical culture of “pansori”, a musical style boasting a wailing vocalist and a simple backing drum. Maybe it was the film’s popularity with the Korean people or what it did for the industry but there’s clearly something deeply special about Sopyonje for Im. Why else would the veteran director choose to revisit this kind of material for his 100th film, Beyond The Years?
Lee Chung-joon’s short story “Southern Man” provided the basis for Sopyonje and Im has turned to another part of Lee’s output, “Wanderer in Seonhak-dong”, for Beyond The Years. It is a real milestone for Im to reach his 100th film but there’s an overall feeling of redundancy to Beyond The Years, nothing’s particularly at fault but there’s also nothing to distinguish it above a picturesque retread of Sopyonje. To use the term “pleasant” may be faint praise but it seems the most fitting adjective to label a film full of visual splendour, aural pleasures and few new ideas. Hell, some filmmakers would probably kill for the formal assuredness, the way in which Im confidently integrates various epochs and flashbacks/flashforwards within the narrative framework and his ability to get spot-on performances from his leads. But Im is not just “some filmmaker”, he’s an institution, a major figure in cinematic history and maybe my expectations were far too high for what a hundredth film could and/or should be. But as expected in the final moments we’re treated to a terrific conclusion that carries a poignancy not particularly earned by Beyond The Years but by the knowledge of what has gone before this film. It’s something akin to the feeling of seeing someone you respect get the lifetime achievement Oscar even if they’ve been overlooked for outstanding individual work, there’s a mixed satisfaction but at the end of the day you can’t begrudge the achievement. Those few closing minutes reflect on massive change, in one simple fade a lake’s complete urban development is shown, and point towards a tranquil embrace of the future. Two majestic cranes glide across sun-dappled water only to drift into open skies as the end-credits roll. This image is a beautifully constructed reminder of Im’s past glories and yet still suggests a master far from his expiration date. It had the desired effect though because when I got back home I ran to my DVD player to give Sopyonje another spin.
Expectations were also high for Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine although I’m happy to report they were more than met. Given the already sizeable reporting on Lee’s near masterpiece I’m not sure whether I can add anything new to the discussion. Yes, Jeon Do-yeon is simply magnificent in the lead role as a woman in a desperate struggle with her grief, her faith, love, lust, loneliness, the gamut of human emotions, but equally praise-worthy is Song Kang-ho who trades in recent roles chasing mutant-fish (The Host) and mafia thugs (The Show Must Go On) for a performance of quiet, understated brilliance. It’s so refreshing to see him in a part that requires a hefty confrontation with internal struggles of the heart, the libido and the mind. At one stage Jeon’s crazed widow throws herself at him in an act of madness ready for sex, long after he’s gone to great lengths to sleep with her. Temptations ride high for him to have her there and then but he’s also grappling with his faith too and rejects her advances. This scene stands out as an example of how note-perfect each actor is in inhabiting the complexities of their roles and how important Song’s character is to the overall structure of the film. Sitting there though my mind also returned to just how great Lee is as a storyteller, a first-class director and writer who seems to nail with a razor-sharp precision how the editing, framing, sound and attention to minor details all service the film’s story and emotional punch.
I read somewhere online that Sunshine is more of a “writer’s film” which I wouldn’t really agree with. Lee’s background may be in writing novels and screenplays but this is definitely a “director’s film”, a director keen on naturalistic representation without doggedly clinging to social-realism, a director eager to present acute shifts in mood and temperament and struggles of the soul for the cinema screen. Because Lee chooses to tackle weighty subject matter (faith, redemption, tragedy) doesn’t automatically qualify him for the “writer” tag, it just suggests a mature and rigorous intelligence eager to capture in strictly cinematic terms the sort of stuff which would make for decent reading. Nothing leapt out more wonderfully with a filmmaker’s sophisticated touch than Sunshine’s opening and closing shots of a blue sky and a messy backyard. It takes some sort of directorial genius to impregnate a patch of dirt, a plastic bottle, concrete and some tubing with a tremendous emotional resonance and power and convey so much about the fallacies and pitfalls of unquestioning faith and obedience, not to mention the horrors of small-city living.
Sunshine is definitely critical of religious faith but isn’t exactly a venomous attack, instead it focuses on the difficulties in reconciling faith with natural human impulses and desires. Lee lays bare the inherent problems of those who acquire their faith as a means of sheer escapism: if you put your faith into a system fundamentally built on logically shaky ground then don’t expect a rational set of results. This becomes abundantly clear as Jeon’s widower invests a huge amount of importance on forgiving the killer of her child as a means to speed up the grieving process. The killer calmly and insistently explains that the same God which she depends on has already forgiven him and that he’s been guaranteed a place in heaven for confessing his sins. The power and superiority of handing out forgiveness is the main sustenance that’s fuelling her fragile psyche and when she learns that her God has usurped this power and has robbed her of the right to control the grief on her terms she soon begins to question the actual mechanics of faith. By opening with a shot of the sky but turning to the earth at the film’s close, Lee’s simply stating that there’s a greater need to return to humanistic approaches to conflict resolution.
Walking out of the cinema I couldn’t also help but reflect on how Sunshine relates to another film featuring Song Kang-ho that uses a child’s kidnapping as a crucial plot device, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. It speaks volumes about Lee and Park Chan-wook that one man turned in a mature, thoughtful and deeply humane exploration of how we cope with grief and revenge whereas the other crafted a moderately successful if rather juvenile throwback to Aldrich-ish hardboiled toughness with plenty of ultra-cruel violence which seems to now satiate a strong demand abroad for Asian cine-extremism. To be fair if you’re revisiting Lee’s prior films, which I didn’t get the chance to do at the festival’s retro, there’s no comparison between the man that made Green Fish, Peppermint Candy and Oasis (and also wrote Park Kwang-su’s To The Starry Island and A Single Spark) who consistently focuses on intense, psychological drama and Park, a director who unleashed a string of cartoonish duds recently like his portion of Three…Extremes, Lady Vengeance and the thoroughly despicable I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK (which co-opened the HKIFF I might add and has thankfully since got next-to-no attention elsewhere). Sunshine has since been selected to compete as South Korea’s entry for the best foreign film Oscar and while I don’t hold out much hope that voters will compensate truly great filmmaking, after all this is the same body of voters who reigned honours to Crash and The Departed, it’s a marginally hopeful sign that with enough exposure it will find an audience abroad beyond the festivals.
In the Midnite Craze section Yeui-eomneun geotdeul (No Mercy For The Rude) and Dead Time: Kala heavily subverted both the hitman-thriller and the neo-noir detective archetypes and showcased the vibrancy of Asian genre filmmaking which is smart, immensely enjoyable and in the case of Kala politically astute. Joko Anwar’s Kala begins like an Indonesian film-noir when a series of mysterious deaths sparks a detective and a narcoleptic reporter to investigate but soon develops into a rip-roaring comic book thriller with a healthy dose of Sam Raimi-inspired energy. In pure entertainment terms the film works remarkably well, served by a visual approach which emphasises numerous throwbacks to ‘40s noir lighting and production design whilst retaining a punchy editing rhythm and some decent CGI. What elevates this above another fun Asian genre piece, the sort of film brandished with the “cult” tag on specialist message boards, is its perceptive take on Indonesian society and politics, in particular Indonesia’s infamous authoritarianism. Police brutality, state repression, corruption and bureaucratic squabbling all form Kala’s background, slightly removed from the central bloodshed and set-pieces but nonetheless prominent enough to make a statement about past-and-present Indonesia. Anwar is smart enough not to let the socio-political dimensions overwhelm proceedings, he’s clearly knowledgeable and adept at adapting the rules of genre filmmaking to a specific environment and with a finale shamelessly set-up for a sequel or two (apparently a trilogy is being considered) he’s definitely a filmmaker warranting attention.
Equally successful but from a country with a much more solid background in genre-bending is Park Chul-hee’s No Mercy for the Rude, a potent mix of noir, slapstick comedy, hitman thrills and quirky family melodrama. There’s far less of a relationship between Park’s film and up-to-the-moment Korean society but keen viewers might make something of the domestic responsibilities burdened onto a man belonging to a deadly macho culture. Park’s time working as an AD for luminaries such as Jang Sun-woo, Hwang Qu-dok and Lee Jang-ho obviously developed in him a sense for judging mood and comic-timing: No Mercy is funnier than you’d think and finely balances violence and the more serious social implications of the set-up so that things never really stray into the realms of genre-parody. Killa (Shin) is a mute hitman, the result of a tongue deformity, who has got a penchant for seafood and bullfighting (which should qualify this for some kind of prize for genre originality). He belongs to a syndicate of mercenaries who include a former ballerina and his chief mandate for killing is to take out, as the title suggests, the rude. His efforts to raise enough cash to pay for surgery go a little awry when he’s lumped with a girlfriend and a child. Juggling familial responsibility and assassinations isn’t the easiest of tasks but when you can’t communicate beyond a series of grunts it makes life very difficult. The film’s slick visual panache will no doubt sit well with Korean action fans looking for a snazzy action flick but there’s plenty more here to satisfy those searching for a thriller with intelligence and wit. If you’re in Australia, a decent DVD has been released through Madman but if you’re willing to fork out a little more there’s a special edition Korean boxset which includes the terrific soundtrack (major problem though: like most Korean discs the film has English subtitles but the extras don’t).
For a festival which welcomes and mixes Asian filmmaking from big to small it seemed fitting that the two main venues I attended screenings for couldn’t have been more different. Sandwiched in the densely populated district of Yau Ma Tei and only a brief walk away from the famous Temple Street night markets was the Broadway Cinematheque which is worth a few descriptive lines here for anyone visiting Hong Kong. The cinema is smallish but remains a hive of cinephilic activity with regular screenings and discussions of art-films and classics, after the festival’s close Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Godard’s In Praise of Love were being advertised. Conveniently there’s a terrific bookstore/cafe neighbouring the cinema and even better, within the complex is a DVD and poster store chock full of merchandise for discerning consumers. Kowloon’s HMV has long been known as the place to go for import discs but I was amazed at the range on offer in the tiny store at the Cinematheque: the new releases wall boasts a selection of Czech classics on British DVDs, the latest Criterion and Eclipse releases as well as many experimental works, boxsets and up-to-date Asian titles (amongst the treasures, I found the now-deleted Masters of Cinema disc of Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents, an English subbed and anamorphic version of Cheng Yu-chieh’s rather good Do Over, some Japanese promo flyers for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s earlier films and the soundtrack for Le Samourai.) At the other end of town and well, the other side of town, is the Palace IFC cinema nestled within the IFC shopping mall, a slick and monolithic tribute to Hong Kong consumerism. It’s pretty easy to get lost amongst the luxury brand shopfronts but once you find the cinema you’re confronted again by a connecting bookstore/café and DVD outlet. Stacked with far less DVDs there’s still a few rarities on offer and I managed to sift through the book section to pick up studies on Murnau and Chor Yuen, which surely attests to something of the range there.
A colleague and I were recently discussing just how many small film festivals dot the global landscape and with so many forums for new and old cinema it seems an awful lot are awash with mediocrity which surely comes down to a lack of judicious programming, vagueness in identity, egotistical directors, or just hopeless management (or sometimes a combination of all four). It’s getting harder and harder to distinguish a smaller festival above the scores of others vying for the same films, the same guests and in one recent instance the same marketing design but coming to the HKAFF, still very much in its infancy, I was deeply encouraged by the spirit, enthusiasm and ambition of its organisers and staff who seemed unfazed by their bigger International brother. Unlike some festivals though they were actually able to transform such enthusiasm and ambition into a terrific festival with a solid line-up of films from masterpieces like Useless and Secret Sunshine to fine indie work like Dog Days Dream and The Bet Collector and yes, impressive guests too like Jia Zhang-ke, Feng Xiaogang, Ang Lee and Pang Ho-cheung (last year brought Hou Hsiao-hsien, Shu Qi and Chang Chen to open Three Times). It’s hardly going to overtake the HKIFF any time soon but for a festival which didn’t exist half a decade ago it’s a great alternative if you can’t make it to Hong Kong in April. Wandering through Yau Ma Tei’s urban jungle flooded with cheap trinkets and seedy bars to a cinephile’s oasis in the form of the Broadway Cinematheque, Lee Chang-dong’s film kept floating through my mind forcing me to reflect on all the rich pleasures the world can offer. The clouds opened up with rain as I entered the theatre but I couldn’t have been happier with this small patch of secret sunshine.
Hong Kong Asian Film Festival website: http://www.hkaff.com.hk