Asian cinema triumphs in this year’s D&T, Tony Rayns’s last
For over a decade the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Dragons and Tigers program has provided a crucial forum for emerging Asian filmmakers to strut their stuff on the world stage, an event where the pleasures of genre filmmaking (2001’s lineup, for instance, unleashed Miike Takashi’s Ichi the Killer onto unsuspecting hordes) seamlessly co-exist in a slate of experimental works, formally and structurally innovative pieces, and on occasion the plain ol’ masterpiece.
Speaking of masterpieces, Jia Zhang-ke’s recent golden triumph at Venice for Still Life Seemed to underscore how D&T has become tantamount to an invaluable weather forecast for the world’s best talents. And this year’s program boasted new works from three notable Dragons-winning alumni who easily qualify for the tag of “world’s best talent”: Jia (his feature-length Still Life and the hour-long companion doco Dong), South Korea’s poet of male humiliation Hong Sang-soo (Woman on the Beach), and Japanese master Kore-eda Hirokazu (Hana, Kore-eda’s first foray into period film territory). Among the other notable names — Miike’s queer-prison-whodunit exercise in metaphysics Big Bang Love, Juvenile A; Ann Hui teamed up with Peacock‘s writer Li Qiang for The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt bringing along Chow Yun-fat and Zhao Wei for the ride; Tsai Ming-liang returned to his native Malaysia for I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (do any of us, Tsai?) and then co-directed the award-winning My Stinking Kid with his regular actor Lee Kang-sheng; Bong Joon-ho unleashed the beast with his glorious monster-mash The Host; queer maverick Cui Zi’en tackled Les Enfants Terrible with his characteristic appetite for the offbeat in Withered in Blooming Season; and Thailand’s MVP and winner of most unpronounceable moniker Apichatpong Weerasetakul (try repeating that ten times after a few rounds) drew inspiration from his folks whilst pushing the bifurcations even further for Syndromes and a Century. It might be somewhat tempting to get caught up in the rush of high-profile titles but D&T‘s original conception was also to showcase fresh voices, and this year continued the trend — China’s Ying Liang and Han Jie, Taiwan’s Cheng Yu-chieh, Japan’s Ichii Masahide, D&T Award-winner John Torres and Korea’s Kim Kyong-mook.
The big news this year was that the man behind it all, Tony Rayns, was announcing 2006 would be his last Dragons and Tigers. You could forgive Rayns for wanting to take a breather from the gig, after all the Sight and Sound contributing editor has to juggle an increasing role as the go-to guy for all things Asian cinema whether it be subtitling, filmmaking (his Jang Sun-Woo Variations looks set for DVD release soon), programming for other fests, or even audio commentaries. (And in case you were wondering why he took out best audio commentary award from DVD Beaver, check out Masters of Cinema’s discs of Pitfall, Face of Another, or Vengeance Is Mine and Criterion’s Ugetsu and YiYi. Also, it probably should be noted his recent exhaustive interview for the region 2 disc Faust included just about everything on the subject except maybe Murnau’s eating patterns during production.)
When South Korean films The Host opened proceedings and King and the Clown closed them, it was a sharp reminder that Rayns was one of the first to identify that cinephilic nation on the rise, long before Park Chan-wook became a household name in fanboy households. In short, he has probably done more for bringing Asian cinema to the west than just about any other film critic. And witnessing him in his element, I couldn’t help but assign a sort of Wellesian grandeur to the man. Sure he commands a presence and his words have a razor-sharp incisiveness that can fell cinematic redwoods (hello, or rather goodbye, Kim Ki-duk!). But it’s the feeling you get of being in the company of a genius that made me think to note down “Citizen Rayns” as a possible article headline. Additionally, Marlene Dietrich once commented that she felt like a plant that had been watered when talking to Welles, and I guess I can admit as much when it comes to Rayns — a casual conversation with him will probably lead to a crash course in King Hu’s Shaw Brothers work or a thorough rundown on the work of South Korea’s top auteurs.
South Korea, as it happens, was well represented in the festival with a mix of titans (both The Host and King and the Clown occupy the two top spots in the box-office history of Korean cinema), relative newcomers, and some old D&T faves like the Kim Brothers and Hong Sang-soo. With mutant beasts, gay sadomasochism, serial-killing love interests, ballerina hitmen, Marxist Predators, and transsexual court-jesters of the past, South Korea cinema proved as wildly diverse and cinematically daring as ever. The majority of screenings I attended were packed with Koreans, which could either be a triumph of VIFFs advertising department to reach the Korean community, a sign of the word-of-mouth buzz within the community, or both. This was most evident during the screening of Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, where Bong was greeted like a rock star, with one plucky girl even rushing to the front of the stage to give the director a bouquet of flowers. Through the gracious support of the festival I was able to spend some time with the delegation of Korean filmmakers, among them Bong, Park Chul-hee, Kim Kyong-mook, Son Jae-gon, and Kim Sun. The sense of fellowship and camaraderie between the various tiers of Korean filmmakers (both big and small) was a pleasure to observe. And to see newcomers such as Kim Kyong-mook and Kim Ki-hyun share drinks with Bong and Park Chul-hee without the slightest hint of awkwardness, as if everyone had known each other for eons, was one of the highlights of the festival.
From its Cannes Directors Fortnight buzz and the rumours of a U.S. remake, The Host Was certainly the kind of high-profile title to open things up with a bang. Following on from his 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho returns to the stomping ground along the Han River of his short Sink and Rise (which appeared as part of the omnibus Twenty Identity) and finds a very different entity surfacing. “America is the sublime and the abominable,” declared Jean Pierre Melville — a convenient maxim to position Bong’s film around. While its central narrative conceit seems steeped in the late-night lineage of groovy American monster-movies (the kind where the retro-cool movie posters would now fill out a Taschen coffee-table tome), there’s also “America the abominable” lurking through the film, not just in the titular fish-beast created by the incompetent disposal of industrial amounts of formaldehyde, but also in the U.S. army’s webs of spin and cover-ups that fuel much of the dramatic conflict. While Bong’s vision of the American military may be pure fiction, in light of the “secret prisons,” Guantanamo tortures, and flawed U.S. “government intelligence,” The Host Seems eerily documentary-like in its examination of the increasingly Orwellian War on Terror. There’s obviously a chilly resentment towards the U.S. in South Korea as the two countries have a long, complicated relationship. The film utilizes this love-hate alliance to even tap into Vietnam-era scars of the past, the vision of anti-U.S. protestors caught in a haze of Agent Orange-ish gas remains the most strongly resonant image.
Far from a simple polemic of didacticism however, The Host operates on much the same level as Bong’s previous two features, Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories…, expressing the director’s strong affinity for society’s working-class everyman (and woman). Here he benefits from the superb-as-ever Song Kang-ho and Bae Doo-na to firmly connect the personal with the political. What separates The Host from most of its American equivalents is its firm commitment to character. Its social-realist roots blend harmoniously with the genre overtones because Bong’s imperilled family are three-dimensional, flawed (like the rest of us) and very human beings, not hackneyed screenwriter designs for the sake of plot mechanics. And if the Fangoria crowd were in any doubt, the “monster” (pretty much the direct translation of the Korean title), which U.S. FX wizards The Orphanage and New Zealand’s WETA studios worked on, is near flawless CGI. (Trivia note: Oldboy‘s Oh Dal-su provided the voice and movements for the beast a la Andy Serkis for LOTR‘s Gollum.) Next up for Bong is a “small drama,” followed by an adaptation of a French sci-fi comic for those who want to keep track of this extraordinary director’s career.
In Son Jae-gon’s My Scary Girl, university lecturer Daewoo has been unlucky in love until he meets Mina and falls hard for the wide-eyed beauty with a very dark past. A shaky romance develops between the pair until Mina’s ex-boyfriend shows up, a catalyst for the film to kick into gear from The 40 Year Old Virgin to So I Married an Axe Murderer with far more intelligence and style than the American duo put together. Son, making his sophomore effort after the low-budget Hitchcock nod The Man Who Saw Too Much, riffs off the Kleenex and ice-cream trails of countless soppy Korean melodramas and brainless comedy fare, which Kwak Jae-yong’s mega-hit My Sassy Girl took to a new (low) level, to craft a very biting take on the hazardous minefield of modern romance.
From the opening tirade in a doctor’s office, Daewoo (played with a fine comic edge by Park Yong woo) could be a distant cousin to one of Hong Sang-soo’s bitter and dysfunctional protagonists were it not for his touching naivete, evident when he practically loses it over a simple open-mouth kiss. See, Daewoo may be the sort of sophisticated intellectual who’s well versed in the Russian classics, but when it comes to women he’s hopeless. By chance Mina, a pretty “design student” who’s set to head abroad and living temporarily in an apartment below him, is available although recovering from a prior “relationship.” Son takes this relatively generic set-up, complete with a crisp visual flair you’d expect from a studio romance flick, and turns it upside down, milking laughs from even the most basic of tasks like shopping for a kimchi fridge or a fine steak dinner in a fancy restaurant. (One of the best moments has Daewoo lament for his titular love in an elevator in a lovely hovering act between parody and genuine lament.)
You only need to trawl through the monthly release schedule of trashy South Korean movies to understand why My Scary Girl is such a refreshing and dynamic work: it may masterfully tear its generic peers to shreds, but it’s all done with a lack of smugness. Son’s venture into the mainstream has a genuine heart (when it’s not trying to extract it with a butcher’s knife), which is more than you can say for the glut of rom-com peers it leaves in its wake. It seems likely he’ll continue with studio-endorsed outings. If he can employ the same level of wit and sophistication shown here, he may just end up being the king of comedy (he already penned the nation’s first parody film, a take-off of Shiri).
Lee Jun-ik’s King and the Clown became a titan hit in its home market, and given that the film is a 16th-century period romp about a couple of court-jesters (one of whom is a very beautiful drag “princess’), it came somewhat out of left field. When two actors, a gruff entertainer with an apparent crotch of steel and his drag colleague are forced to hit the road after killing a rural thug, they take their travelling act with the help of some dim-witted peasant types towards the capital. There a bawdy parody of the megalomaniacal King lands them in seriously hot water with government officials. Surprisingly, though, when the King views the performance, he sees the funny side and employs them as the royal court-jesters. Complications arise when the pretty transsexual actor attracts the eye of the unstable King Yeonsan. Sure enough, an untapped reserve of confused sexuality comes to the surface between the main players. While the film is somewhat coy about its queer undercurrents, the end result is at once funny, violent, and emotionally fulfilling.
If King and the Clown engaged with gay issues in a roundabout way, Kim Kyong-mook’s Faceless Things approached the subject with the force and immediacy of a young man in need of catharsis. It may be shocking enough to raise the eyebrows of the most seasoned viewer, but what separates it from a mere exercise in controversy-baiting are its ambitious structural elements, its impassioned tone, and its rather special formal attributes: at a mere 21, Kim has a very bright future. Variety critic Robert Koehler commented in his jury speech at the D&T Award ceremony where Kim garnered a special mention, “Many aspects of this film impressed us: its confrontational attitude, its personal social and sexual dimensions, its sense of formal rigor, its reckless freedom and its fearless expression of a young gay man in today’s Korea.” Three shots, a touch of animation and one very realistic scene of coprophilia left the audience largely stunned, Rayns had to get the Q&A going after which a few hands shot up — as expected it was the only film where I was issued a warning by ticketing staff to take note of the “controversial’ subject matter.
From South Korea’s wild men of politics, sex, heavy metal, and everything in between,Geo-Lobotomy is endlessly fascinating, frustrating, and full of conceptual innovations. But unlike their previous feature-length, Capitalist Manifesto, the brothers Kim inject a far larger dose of horror genre conventions into the mix, resulting in possibly the first Korean film to feature a Marxist riff on Predator. In a rural mining town left for dead by capitalist progress, the most valuable resource has become gold teeth (really!) instead of coal, and the townspeople have become increasingly seduced by a newly established casino. The central protagonist, desperate for cash and spurred on by his omnipresent VO father, falls into the traps of capitalism’s soul-crushing machinery, and soon enough Geo-Lobotomy splits from its social-realist roots to slasher-flick heaven. What underpins the entire film, which blurs the horror of industrialism with the horror of a faceless stalker, is a McCarthy paranoia embodied in the red-herring finger-pointing toward a frumpy woman who just happens to be left of centre. What separates this from being a sophomoric exercise in Politics 101, however, are the sharp formal aesthetics, which aren’t far removed from some of the better filmmaking devices Godard would employ in mid-period work like Weekend, La Chinoise, or Tout Va Bien. And like Godard, the Kims have an irresistible love of cinema itself but incisively splice politics into the equation: part ghost-town western, part Friday-night horror feast, and a liberal serving of passionate politicking all add up to a final product (they’ll have to excuse me for indulging in the kind of commodifying language they’d cringe at) that again displays the ability of South Korea’s indie filmmaking establishment to innovate and dazzle.
Hong Sang-soo has carefully carved out an oeuvre of humiliated males in his previous six features, many of them connected with the realms of academia or the film industry. It’s anyone’s guess whether Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo), the protagonist of his latest film Woman on the Beach, is based on Hong himself, but regardless he makes a dysfunctional and emotionally stunted character who could be related to any of Hong’s male creations from Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Turning Gate, or Tale of Cinema. There’s a key scene where Joong-rae draws a geometric diagram of a large triangle pertaining to some hackneyed bubblegum psychology (even the onlooker’s bullshit detector goes off) that argues for the interconnection of present imagery with memories of the past: Joong-rae could just as easily be making the diagram for the audience as for the woman he’s trying to dupe. A moment where Joong-rae tries to convince Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung) that he didn’t spend the night with another woman is exactly the sort of petty, immature behaviour that made for one of the funniest scenes in Turning Gate when Kim Sang-kyung’s actor Kyong-su tried to convince an irate diner that he wasn’t checking out his girlfriend’s legs. The narrative splits in half like A Tale of Cinema, and once again Hong employs the zoom lens as a mid-scene reframing tool, even for comedic effect (witness the three-shot reveal in an early scene). This zoom also seems to be taking on a symbolic nature; its as if each of Hong’s new films since Virgin are reframing, refining and cutting closer and closer towards some bone of ultimate truth.Woman on the Beach isn’t leaps and bounds away from any of Hong’s other works thus far, but there’s a sharper, more refined edge to his take on relationships and the role sex plays within them, as well as the inexplicable nature of the “male intellectual.” Call it something approaching Director Stripped Bare by Himself. You’ve got to wonder what will happen when Hong finally runs out of clothes to shed …
A special mention should go to Ryoo Seung-wan’s breathtaking thriller The City of Violence, which was scheduled for screenings but thanks to the problematic tangle of North American exhibition rights was ultimately barred. With each new film Ryoo seems to be improving exponentially, although it’ll be interesting to see if he can top this no-nonsense, funny, extremely violent throwback to Suzuki Seijun’s Tattooed Life. A quick sketch of the plot doesn’t exactly leap off the page: after the shady murder of a bar owner, the guy’s sworn brothers investigate and subsequently take revenge against the town’s underworld. But I think to a large extent many of Suzuki’s formula films operated on the same level: routine gangster fare energized by a formal flair. Stylised gesture and camerawork overwhelm any sense of realism the film may strive for, and you only need witness the dazzling set-pieces of the street-gang rumble or the final climatic showdown to know that Ryoo is one of the most talented action technicians working today.
Park Chul-hee, an assistant director to such luminaries as Jang Sun-woo, Hwang Qu-dok, and Lee Jang-ho, teamed up with Save the Green Planet‘s Shin Hya-kun for No Mercy for the Rude, a comedic hitman-thriller that drew large crowds and lots of laughs in each of its packed screenings. Park’s slick visual panache, efficient editing, as well as a knack for great comic timing made for a terrific mix of film noir, slapstick, and hyperbolic violence. Killa (Shin Ha-kyun) is a mute hitman (the result of a tongue deformity that caused social ostracisation from an early age) and is probably the genre’s first to have a fetish for seafood and bullfighting as well as being part of a syndicate of fellow mercenaries that includes a former ballerina. 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 terrific genre-blending, which will probably continue with Park’s next film, a “comedy” to again star Shin.
In Han Jie’s very fine debut Walking on the Wildside, three young boys from Shanxi province (in Northwestern China) hit the road after a bout of local gang warfare goes horribly wrong. As much a social critique of the human cost of the natural resources boom in China as a splendid road-movie/kids-on-the-lam flick, Wildside presents a dystopian landscape of aimless youth, filthy small-town living, and polluted skies. The production began when Han was just twenty-six years old and there’s certainly an exuberant, youthful rage propelling the film, a vision seemingly informed by equal parts Red Bull and Rossellini. If there’s more than a passing resemblance to the cinema of Jia Zhang-ke, typified by Jia’s digital masterpiece Unknown Pleasures, then it’s probably down to Jia’s involvement in the production, initially assisting in raising finance (the film was funded through a French production company with additional financial assistance from the Rotterdam International Film Festival) and eventually acting as the film’s producer. (The links to Jia go even further in one particular nightclub scene where Jia’s muse, Zhao Tao, makes a humorous cameo.)
The doyen of queer mainland cinema Cui Zi’en concocted a melting pot of forbidden desire and raw sensuality in Withered in Blooming Season, a riff on Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terrible, although Melville’s 1950 film adaptation sure as hell didn’t have one character sexily dribbling milk on another’s lithe body (probably the best scene). Elsewhere the formal minimalism of Betelnut separated it from just an All the Youthful Days retread, although there were more than a few commonalities between the two films. A group of teenage boys spend their days dodging the sweltering sun of Hunan by getting into fights and hanging out in Internet cafes, Karaoke bars, and on the riverbanks, sometimes chewing betelnuts. Not exactly groundbreaking but agreeable all the same.
Much better was Ying Liang’s Taking Father Home, in which a Sichuanese youth heads off into the big smoke to search for his wayward father armed with little more than a pair of geese. Aside from the apparent budgetary restrictions of DV, Ying delivered an engrossing and comic journey all with an adept eye for framing. (The film picked up the Asian Digital Competition award at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival.)
Karmic Mahjong, Wang Guangli’s comic-thriller, boasted terrific cameo appearances from Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke — Jia as an erratic hostage-taker, Wang as the negotiator-cop who’s desperate for a band-aid to placate the situation — and little else apart from a novel reworking of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train as a plot development. The steady decline of Hong Kong cinema over the past few years was evident in the former filmmaking powerhouse’s complete absence from the program — their closest representation was the new Ann Hui film The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt starring Chow Yun-fat, although even then the story was set on the mainland and was distinctly in tune with present Chinese society. Although it was occasionally funny and had a first-rate performance from Siqin Gaowa in the lead, Aunt was fairly unremarkable and failed to excel as comedy or socially resonant drama.
The surprise Golden Lion at this year’s Venice fest, Jia Zhangke’s Still Life once again proves just why Jia is often credited as the world’s greatest filmmaker under forty (I’d easily extend that bracket, but that’s another article). Utilizing his stable of regulars like cinematographer Yu Likwai, composer Lim Giong, and the always wonderful actor Zhao Tao, Jia’s focus has shifted from Beijing back to the outer provinces (if you could really class Fengjie as such). With the move comes a return to some familiar staples of his work in Xiao Wu and Ren Xiao Yao. Like all of his previous features there’s a healthy dose of pop culture referencing: the main drawing card being John Woo’s cinema, which gets another workout (music from The Killer was used in Xiao Wu) when one of the town’s wannabe thugs “Brother Mark” watches A Better Tomorrow on a small TV set and proceeds to light up his cigarette with a piece of paper fashioned as a dollar bill (getting many laughs from the audience). A Better Tomorrow could easily act as the film’s subtitle though, the main thrust of the “action” (if you can call it that) involves a middle-aged Shanxi native arriving in town looking for his ex-wife and daughter and a Shanghaiese woman (Zhao) on a search for her long-lost husband, both parties on a quest for emotional and spiritual resolution amidst a crumbling, but breathtakingly expansive, region in rapid transition.
Another name connected with Jia’s earlier work would be Bresson (rather tenuously it should be noted). Here the performances and indeed the film’s overall rhythm is highly reminiscent of the French master — although admittedly there weren’t any computer-generated UFOs and rocket ship-cum-concrete buildings floating through the French skies of L’Argent or Au Hasard Balthazar (a somewhat puzzling inclusion that drew a few muffled giggles from the audience). Pop culture references aside, the film displays a stately elegance and visual splendour that was certainly evident in The World and Platform (and in a few scenes from Unknown Pleasures). Yu Likwai’s atmospheric cinematography drifts across abandoned building sites, decaying homes, and the surrounding mountaintops of the Yangtze River area, creating a sense of eerie solitude (Lim Giong’s haunting score drives this home) and further infusing every scene with the impending doom of government-sponsored flooding. Overall, this isn’t necessarily a damning portrait of modern China, but it does point to a future full of tough endings and compromised beginnings — like Dong.
“Can’t we live our lives with the blood of our race coursing through our hearts?” pleads Liu Xiaodong, the subject of Jia’s documentary simply titled, Dong. Dong Represents another masterly and downright fascinating movement in Jia’s career and finds the blood pumping not only to the heart but also to the brain. Liu, or as he’s affectionately known “Dong” (also the Chinese word for “east’), is one of China’s key modern painters and he’s even popped up in Jia’s The World, Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days, and Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards. The documentary follows Dong as he tours the Three Gorges district in China, there to paint a multi-canvas epic of half-naked men, and then to Bangkok, to repeat the process with a group of scantily dressed young women. Walking amongst the rubble against a backdrop of breathtaking mountains in the Three Gorges area, we see Dong coming to terms with the environment he’s about to capture on canvas. Ultimately that ethereal majesty seeps from Yu Lik-wai’s superb cinematography onto Dong’s work (or maybe that’s vice versa). In fact, there’s a constant visual interplay between Jia’s frame and Dong’s canvas that provides the subtextual thrust of the film, most evident during Dong’s brushwork and Jia’s camera, which delicately hovers over the wearied faces of Dong’s subjects, the good people of the Three Gorges (the literal translation of San Xia Haoren).
Both Jia and Dong seem fixated with the human form (in Dong’s case influenced by the stone statues of the Northern Zhou era and Roman statues). In Bangkok the camera lingers over the spotted legs of a young Thai woman resting on the side of the street and even Dong himself as he gets to work on his paintings while the canvas itself is a vision of soft enticement as if artist Jack Vettriano was let loose in a Thai Karaoke bar. There’s scant dialogue in between stretches of philosophizing Dong partakes when he’s accosted for a talking head, one particular interview finds him discussing the artists’ burden, and for the most part it’s an effective application of the “picture says a thousand words” adage. Both artists seem to understand that the lines fusing art and life, men and women, and the development of the future (and with it the destruction of the past) aren’t soldered by the written word but by the image itself. Together with Still Life, Dong was easily the highlight of the Dragons and Tigers program.
Tsai Ming-liang had two projects in the program, his contribution to the “Mozart’s Visionary Cinema: New Crowned Hope” project, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, and a featurette-length telemovie co-directed by Lee Kang-sheng (and curiously featuring another co-director in its credits). I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone found Tsai returning to his native Malaysia for a continuation of his established style: eerie long takes, gentle humour, and lethargic pacing. It’s never made completely clear whether or not much of the action is in fact a dream belonging to a bedridden Lee Kang-sheng, but what does unfold is a love triangle involving a waitress, a labourer, and Hsiao-kang (Lee), much of it situated in a deserted construction site. Tsai applies his unique visual sensibility to the new environment, and there’s a host of funny gags peppered throughout the haunting tour of Malaysia’s working-class areas. It wasn’t much of a departure from the director’s recent works (granted there wasn’t the sexual overload of Wayward Cloud), but it certainly succeeded in its own dreamy state of urban mugginess.
Less successful was My Stinking Kid, which adequately conveyed the “message” underpinning the film, the need for social acceptance not only of those with abnormal medical conditions but the wider community of outcasts as a whole. But the film displayed none of the formal magic which you would’ve expected with Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng helming. There were a few Tsai-esque visual compositions and even an appearance from Chen Shiang-chyi to suggest an adept hand guiding the production, but it was far closer in look to a training video than anything you’ve come to expect from the man who took the Golden Lion.
Two films from more masters that will probably enjoy far greater exposure in the coming months: Kore-eda Hirokazu’s first foray into period drama, Hana, is a rich tapestry of samurai politics, gentle humour, and delicately rendered characters. In its interweaving of theatre with life and the assured pacing and cutting, Hana even echoes Renoir’s Golden Coach — I’d love to find out why it didn’t make the cut at Cannes this year. The master of narrative bifurcations and tropical mystery, Apichatpong Weerasetakul, looked to his parents for inspiration and came up with the glorious, curiously titled Syndromes and a Century. Walking a fine line between avant-garde hospital dramedy and gallery installation piece, Syndromes boasted some of the most alluring and hypnotic imagery of the entire program like the Kubrickian hospital hallways and the postmodern prosthetic limb structures (bordering on sculptures). Along with the wisps of smoke being sucked into a basement tube opening, one of the many startling moments, went many of my critical faculties. It’s the kind of picture that demands a headspace of its viewer bypassing all traditional forms of judgment — it might explain to some small degree why “Joe” is one of the most important artists working today.
Cheng Yu-chieh made a definite impression with his wild New Year’s fantasy drama Do Over. Five very different lives cross paths on the eve and aftermath of the New Year leading to a few tragedies (or not, as the final reel makes clear) and some hopeful beginnings. A visually stunning widescreen canvas of pulsating disco lights, lush expansive fields, and lonely highways compensated for the occasional overload of thematic and narrative twists and turns. You could call it dramatically scattershot, but I’d prefer the label “youthful energy” — energy desperate to cram in all the sensory and intellectual pleasures of life like there’s no tomorrow. Tomorrow does eventually come, however, and Cheng makes clear that he has no time for sad endings. The dawn of a new year coincides with a better outlook on the state of things — it’s a pity that most of the world’s conflicts couldn’t be guided with the same optimism.
Dog Days Dream by Ichii Masahide is a seriously offbeat two-hander charting a young Japanese couple on their steady decline into suburban malaise. Laced with a black humour that culminates in a great final reel gag involving the guy’s desperate quest for an air conditioner for his shitty apartment, the film smoothly transitions the couple from hopeless realists to grubby nihilists. Funny and at just the right length, a comedy of tiny proportions tackling epic social problems. Tackling the problems afflicting the lower classes, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros showed the most unlikely manifestation of adolescent love blossoming from Manila’s poor housing district. A campy young kid, Maxi, develops a schoolboy crush on the local cop, but the ups and downs of young love don’t just touch the levels of drama and comedy you’d expect — they practically knock at the ceiling of what’s possible in this bittersweet tale of corruption, both personal and political.
After a slight hiccup with the judging panel, the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema went to John Torres for Todo Todo Teros, a digitally shot, sometimes dizzying cocktail of personal travel diary, reflection on life in Manila and cine-essay on the current “War on Terror.” It’s the kind of groundbreaking work that rightfully joins a list of winners as diverse as Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger and Liu Jiayin Oxhide — visually inventive to the nth degree and with narrative freakouts that could have almost been scripted by Julio Cortazar. The overwhelming sense of “Big Brother” paranoia and dread juxtaposed against the intimacy and downright beauty of the Berlin footage made this both intellectually stimulating and emotionally fulfilling — a fine choice by jury Jessica Winter, Robert Koehler and Apichatpong Weerasetakul.
My overall personal impression of this year’s Dragons and Tigers was just how egalitarian the world of cinema can be when there’s not a Hollywood star in sight. I was exchanging conversations with some of my heroes in the critical circles (Tony Rayns, David Bordwell, Robert Koehler, Chuck Stephens) and the filmmaking realm for that matter (Apichatpong, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Sun), and there wasn’t a hierarchical divide separating “me” from “them,” no agents manhandling people, no stalker paparazzi and no big egos. Everyone was just there for their love of cinema. This love of cinema is what Tony has induced in his audiences and readers over the decades, an uncomplicated affair with a cinematic spectrum running from The Host to Todo Todo Teros — you can assign which is the Dragon, which is the Tiger. If you want paper tigers, look no further than the recent wretched “masterpieces” of Park Chan-wook or Johnnie To. If you’re after the real deal, it’ll most likely come with a “Tony’ endorsement. Without the tireless work of a cinematic Columbus like Rayns, many filmmakers might have faded into obscurity and the world would have been the worse off for it. David Bordwell summed it up perfectly in a note read out during the closing night gala screening: “Like André Bazin and Henri Langlois, Tony is one of the animateurs of world cinema, and everyone who loves film is in his debt.” Enough said really.