By Sean Axmaker
November 7, 2003 - 7:16 AM PST
In the world of film festivals there is Cannes and Toronto, Venice and Berlin, Sundance and New York, and then there's pretty much everybody else, and they are all trying to find something to make themselves unique. The Vancouver International Film Festival, which ran this year from September 25 to October 10, is one of those other festivals. Scheduled just a few weeks after Toronto and Venice, Vancouver is more concerned with providing a smorgasbord of high profile offerings for the local audience plucked from those two festivals than with competing for the sort of splashy world premieres that woo international critics.
Vancouver also has that one unique program that makes it stand out. The "Dragons and Tigers" festival-within-the-festival has been nurtured by its curator and programmer - critic, historian, Asian film expert, and sometime film translator and subtitle writer, Tony Rayns - from its embryonic incarnation 14 years ago through its growth into the largest, longest running and most adventurous exploration of contemporary Asian cinema in North America. This year over 40 features screened, including over a dozen international premieres. Highlights include Kitano Takeshi's audience pleasing, humor-filled, blood-spraying remake of the classic blind swordsman action series Zatoichi, Tsai Ming-Liang's hushed elegy for the communal experience of cinema-going Goodbye Dragon Inn and Pen-ek Ratanaruang's meditative, black-humored drama of suicide and Yakuzas Last Life In The Universe (all of which had world premieres at Venice and North American premieres at Toronto), a tribute to Ozu Yasujiro actor Aoki Tomio (whose 65-year career was celebrated in clips and rare short film) and the international premiere of a hand picked collection of short comedies made for the cult Cop Festival phenomenon.
The brainchild of Shinozaki Makoto (whose Kitano Takeshi bio-pic Asakusa Kid played at VIFF 2002), Cop Festival is a series of shot-on-video cop genre shorts directed quickly, cheaply, and tongue firmly in cheek by some of Japan's top directors. The quality varies widely, as does the entertainment factor (the novelty wears thin after a while, even with a series of familiar faces going to town on their own images); they all essentially seem concerned with the filmmakers having good time. The better entries include the delightfully playful Small Elephant Detective (from actor Tsuda Kanji), a video stop-motion story of a tiny stuffed toy elephant who follows up clues, tracks leads and grills suspects without uttering a word (the ominous way he raises his badge tells the suspects all they need to know), and Tanaka Yoji's brash Coming Out Detective, a feverish dream fantasy of a tormented cop with an unfortunate name and a non-stop barrage of gay puns and homoerotic gags. For the genuine oddity factor, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Ghost Detective, which (according to Shinozaki) was shot in a mere three hours (and apparently edited in another three hours), shows horror maestro Kurosawa spoofing his own ghost stories: an undead detective (looking very much the pale, blank-faced mime in black jeans and turtleneck) corners a series perps and ends up scaring them all to death.
On a more serious note, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Bright Future was coolly received at Cannes in a cut version. VIFF, through the technology of DVD and video projection (there are no subtitled film prints of the director's cut), offered the international premiere of the original 115-minute version of his dreamy shot-on-video drama and reveals a minor masterpiece. Kurosawa does Imamura in the story of the unstable, easily confused young man Yuji (Odagiri Joh) who idolizes his brooding roommate Mamoru (Asano Tadanobu, whose gentle smile and black open eyes radiate a distant serenity) and becomes obsessed with his beautiful but deadly jellyfish. Beautiful but deadly is the theme that runs through the entire film: unspeakable acts are grounded in sacrifice and lead to second chances and opportunities for redemption, not just for Odagiri's impulsive child-man but also for Mamoru's lonely father (Fuji Tatsuya), who takes in the veritable orphan Yuji. It's no horror film, though there are ghosts (here, a specter becomes a nod of affirmation) and a serene school of fresh water jellyfish floating through the Tokyo canals, ghostly underwater angels of gossamer delicacy and a deadly sting.
The Japanese collection was particularly strong in all genres. Rayns introduced Hiroki Ryuichi's Vibrator as, "In my view, the best Japanese film of the year." The emotionally fragile Terashima Shinobu impulsively climbs into the cab of truck driver Omori Nao ("I want him. He looks good enough to eat," reads the intertitle, one of many that put us in her head) and hits the road. It's not so much a journey of self discovery as an escape that begins in harmless lies and casual (but tender) sex and ends up knocking away every support that props up her rickety self-image until she collapses in a psychic meltdown and builds herself up again with the tender cushion of Omori holding her firmly but gently. In addition, it's a marvelous trucker's tour of Japan's rural roadways set to a soundtrack of American and Japanese country rock. For the record, the title refers to the omnipresent hum of the truck cab.
More searing is The Wild Berries, Nishikawa Miwa's sharp satire of the rot beneath the fašade of politeness and togetherness in the modern family dropped through the trap door of Japan's modern economy. Father has lost his job but marches out to "work" everyday without a word to his family (he gets by secretly carrying bribes from his old company and borrowing from loan sharks), mother is pushed to the breaking point as she looks after her demented father-in-law, and schoolteacher daughter (still living at home) carries on a hopeless romance with a genial but passive co-worker more concerned with appearances than emotions. When the lies come crashing in, it's the disgraced son who comes to the rescue: a con man and petty hustler whose gift of glib saves the day in the midst of public humiliation. Nishikawa is cutting in her uncompromising portrayal - there's no phony sentiment or softening under emotional bonding - yet she has genuine compassion for these characters. It's akin to juggling broken glass without cutting her own fingers. Where she draws blood is in the film.
Miike Takashi's Gozu is more evidence for the case that Miike is a major director content to goof on minor works. At 129 minutes, it drones on as a Yakuza underling (Sone Hideki) drifts through a surreal Yakuza Neverland called Nagoya, where the dead Yakuza are disposed of. In this case, the corpse of an insane gang elder inexplicably takes rises for a walkabout and Sone haplessly chases him through bizarre adventures involving a restaurant with a cross-dressing cook, an inn run by a matron who lactates enough to keep the local populace in bottled milk and a junk yard that doubles as a tannery for the tattooed skins of disposed criminals. Miike seems disengaged from entire scenes, then jump starts the film in a mind-melting finale, an insane, unholy marriage of Lost Highway, Jules and Jim, and his own Audition, highlighted by the most demented nightmare of coitus interuptus put on film.
By all accounts, the previously released version of Jang Sun-Woo's South Korean video-game fantasy adventure turned mad mindwarp conspiracy Resurrection of the Little Match Girl features English subtitles so sloppy and slapdash that the game was indecipherable. Vancouver launched the world premiere of the newly re-subtitled version. It doesn't necessarily make sense of the long, strange trip but it does reveal the perverse pleasures of an insistently unfathomable film, beginning with the demented goal of the game that delivery boy and video-game nut Ju impulsively dials into. He has to make sure that the blank faced waif (Kim Hyun-Sung) freezes to death on the street (just like in the Hans Christian Anderson story) thinking warm thoughts of the winning player. Meanwhile, a colorful gallery of opponents (including a husky transvestite Lara Croft on a motorcycle) is working to save, seduce or otherwise stash her away for their own gain. Why? One of the many unanswered questions in this surreal tweaking of The Matrix. Ju falls in love with the virtual girl and flips the game on its head and the Little Match Girl turns into La Femme Nikita, taking destiny into her own armed and dangerous hands. Jang merges "fantasy" and "reality" until they are indistinguishable (if they even exist in the first place) and kicks out the action jams with a sneaky sense of humor, a flamboyant sense of style and a crazy collection of alternate endings that, win or lose, leave the player wondering just what really happened.
Kim Ji-Woon, the director of the darkly satirical The Quiet Family and the farcical The Foul King, enters Hideo Nakata territory with A Tale of Two Sisters and proves himself an even more accomplished director of unsettling cinematic visions. With a coolly attenuated style that hovers at a distance to view the chilly relations between sisters Su-mi (the protective elder) and Su-yeon (the submissive, silent younger) and their frayed stepmother Eunjoo (Yum Jung-ah, whose try-too-hard politeness is both sympathetic and suspiciously icy) in a house haunted by past (mis)deeds that are never discussed, Kim captures a brittleness that threatens to snap as sublimated hatreds are unleashed in sharp words and increasingly hostile confrontations. It's hard to tell what holds more sway over the creepy doings of the house: guilt, ghosts (both eerie floating specters and a screamingly terrifying figure of rotting black vengeance that crawls under the cabinets) or sheer madness. The shadowy, suggestive images and unnerving silences interrupted by quiet footsteps, ticking clocks and squishy Lynchian soundscapes makes the haunting of this house so shiver-inducing that you don't really care, at least for the first 90 minutes. The frisson dissipates in the flashbacks of the third act, where the complex explanation trades the eeriness for an aching sadness, but Kim saves a few heart-grabbing moments to punctuate the back story. For all the contrived ingenuity of Kim's twisting screenplay, the final moments land on a solid emotional foundation that explains, enriches and reverberates back through the film.
As unwieldy as the third act may be, A Tale of Two Sisters shows a developing sophistication for Kim. The same, sadly, can't be said for Bong Joon-ho, whose Memories of Murder is a thoroughly conventional take on the contemporary strain of frustrated cops and elusive serial killer thrillers. Bong's previous film, the inspired social satire Barking Dogs Never Bite, had real teeth. This overlong story of fumbling rural cops whose offhanded corruption gets a kick in the butt by an intense young detective from Seoul manages a few jolts (thanks largely to a thumping, percussive soundtrack) but no dramatic resonance, and Bong files all the interesting edges from his characters. Would that he had some of fearlessness Jang Jun-hwan exhibits in Save the Green Planet, a weirdly warped tale of a genial madman who, convinced that aliens have infiltrated Earth, kidnaps and systematically tortures the corporate CEO he's convinced is their leader. Made up of equal parts whimsy and dementia, Jang relentlessly pushes his story of madness, revenge and petty power plays to the limit: both victim and victimizer become more despicable as the film wears on and the tortures (many of them played with a darkly comic tone) stray further from the edge of sanity. All the furiousness doesn't really add up to anything and the kick at the coda is hardly original (the film is never quite as clever as it thinks) but there is grungy fun to be had in gizmo-laden art direction and the battle of wits between the boyish nutcase whose violent streak is sublimated in earnest explanations and the hardboiled corporate player whose survival instinct is matched by his tenacity.
Save the Green Planet was one of nine films up for the "Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema," a special sidebar competition for first and second-time directors. Others in the competition include Royston Tan's 15 (Taiwan), a punky, punchy portrait of schoolkid nihilists. Slick and raw, and at times too insistent in its editorializing, Royston's film leaps through thumbnail snapshots of five kids (non-actors all) who have already written off their future and races with a headlong momentum and a jolting graphic style that favors pure experience over any reflection of how or why, or what's more, where the parents are in all of this. Yet for all of its expressive style (aping everyone from Wong Kar-Wai to Spike Lee) there is little connection or insight. It all becomes hollow, hopeless spectacle.
Gina Kim's Invisible Light (South Korea) is all reflection and thoughtful observation. "Women are invisible in Korean films and it makes me angry," explained Kim at the film's initial screening. "They're not really invisible, but they are defined in opposition to the men. I wanted to make a film about women's bodies without men in the way." The two short dramas confront two women who have only a tangential connection but more in common than they realize: the bulimic Gah-in is so obsessed with her weight she can hardly leave her apartment and the married Do-hee finds herself pregnant by her lover and immediately bolts from her miserable marriage. The still, static takes of Gah-in's inertia gives way to a nervous handheld style that gets uncomfortably close to Do-hee by the finale. Kim, a former documentarian, is more concerned with being than doing and her relentless watching finally achieves an intimacy and immediacy.
Sadly, I did not see the "Dragons and Tigers" winning film Uniform, from China's Diao Yinan. In his awards ceremony statement, jury member Scott Foundas (a critic for LA Weekly and Variety) called it...
...a first feature of remarkable maturity and accomplishment - a film that possesses a complexity in its characters, an economy in its storytelling and a texture in its imagery which many filmmakers don't achieve until much later in their careers, if indeed ever. Like other works by the "underground" film-makers of China's new generation, it is a film set against a society beset by industrial decay and urban despair, wherein a lost generation of young people are searching for their identity. But the concerns of this film extend well beyond that. It is, in short, a film about the masks we wear as people, and the way in which lies can sometimes bring us to a place deeper than truth. By unanimous decision, this year's Dragons & Tigers Award goes to Diao Yinan for his film Uniform.
The other jury member were Choi Kwang-Hee (senior editor of Film 2.0) and Tomiyama Katsue (founder of Tokyo's Underground Film Centre and president of Daguerreo Press, Inc., publishers of Image Forum magazine).
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A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.
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