Friday, May 30, 2008

Ten Thoughts on Asian movies at the Sydney Film Festival*

1. There are some areas where Asian film-makers have cornered the world market. Animated films featuring sex, bloody and extreme violence, carnage and subversive thoughts about society have become the hallmark of Japanese cinema. At first, maybe around the time of Akira this was a product of the nation’s fascination with the graphic novel or manga but now it’s full-fledged international industrial phenomena. The SFF’s offering, Shinji Aramaki’s Appleseed Saga:Ex Machina gives aficionados a fix on the future with nods to John Woo.
2. China is a gobbler upper. Since Hong Kong lost it’s ‘independence’ in 1997, film-making in the former colony has slowed and increasingly integrated itself into mainstream Chinese production. The creaking and archaic Chinese studio system has been invigorated to a degree by foreign investment and the relocation of key production figures like Tsui Hark to Beijing. This has meant that commercial production is belting along and even key independent film-makers like Jia Zhangke can find a niche within the system. It can at least now cope with his tales of alienation and loneliness. Jia’s Useless is a documentary meditation on change and the loss of ‘Chinese values’.
3. Resourcefulness is at a premium. Some Chinese film-makers still don’t always trouble the authorities with meaningless and bureaucratic applications for permission to make their films, export their films or screen them at overseas film festivals. They take the inevitable rap on the knuckles. This usually takes the form of a request to pay a visit to some harassed and fearful official at a ‘Bureau’ somewhere to ‘explain’ how these things came about. They then get on with the job of making another movie. Peng Tao’s Little Moth which delves into the shameful trade in disabled children, using them as begging bait on the streets, has all the aching humanity as any film by the Dardenne brothers or, to make a probably too grand claim, the Bresson of Balthazar and Mouchette. Authorities don’t necessarily appreciate humanity on screen.
4. Reourcefulness is everywhere. Philipino cinema has given us a bright new star. His name is Brillante Mendoza and. With the speed and facility of Fassbinder he has made five films in three years, a pace unparalleled in today’s production climate and we have to scramble to keep up. His last two, Foster Child and Slingshot, both have a sense of documentary immediacy, using actors in real-life settings. Slingshot in particular has drawn comparisons with the work of Robert Altman with its network narrative set among a poverty stricken community living in a tenement in a down at heel part of Manila.
5. The skill to do network narratives isn’t confined to Hollywood. Mendoza’s Slingshot is just one smart movie juggling characters and plots with gusto. Taiwanese tyro Singing Chen, whose first film Bundled featured at an earlier SFF, has come up with the smart, droll and surprising God Man Dog, featuring a pop singer, her spiritualist husband, a guy with a truck transporting Buddhist statues and a petty thief. Their individual stories are all meshed together in what Shelly Kraicer calls “a small miracle (which) keeps all those balls in the air, crisscrossing in delightfully unexpected ways, creating image after image of astonishing beauty and building to a series of climaxes whose magic seems gracefully easy, completely earned and uncannily rhapsodic.”
6. South Korea is the powerhouse. Just as its industrial production elbowed Japan out of the way, South Korean cinema has shaken and stirred the Asian melting pot. More of its films get remade, more of its high end quality film-makers get foreign funding, more of its films routinely win prizes. Its producers back mavericks like Jang Sun-Woo, action men like Ryoo Seung-wan, smart and sassy genre masters like Bong Joon-ho and Ozu acolytes like Hur Jin-ho. Then there is the case of Hong Sang-soo. He has spent over a decade meditating on the battle of sexes, making movies that with titles like The Woman on the Beach and The Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, which are redolent with references to western art. But Hong strides through this with stories that deflate male egos, sympathetically show female wile and, in the end, reveal mutual incomprehension. His films crackle with sexual tension and, in some cases, are as about as explicit as you can get. This year’s is Night and Day
7. Masters and Apprentices. Taiwan’s cinema has a great tradition by which its major figures actually devote time to developing other talent more broadly. A couple of decades ago two titans emerged, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. They were intimately involved in each other’s work, Hou acting and producing Yang’s early masterpiece Taipei Story. Hou has continued to involve himself with others. So too has the third titan Tsai Ming-liang,. Tsai’s fetish lead actor Lee Kang-sheng has turned to film-making himself and has now made two features. Help Me Eros seems so small scale that it’s hard to get a grip on. The lead, played by Lee, is living through a quick descent into poverty. His human contact is a girl in a call centre and a sassy cigarette seller who dispenses betelnut to good customers and is being harassed by the club owner she works for. Then the surprises start and include a scene with an eel in a bathtub that does have more than its share of sexual drollery.
8. The hardest thing is getting on board early. We’ve already mentioned Brillante Mendoza but what to say about Miike Takashi. His western spoof Sukiyaki Western Django and his noirish take on teenage violence Crows:Episode 0, introduce SFF audiences to a director who has made gangster pictures, horror movies, a kid’s film, comedies with bite and historical and contemporary action pictures. Be warned. The director can be a major addiction. You will have approximately 75 films to catch up with, made at a furious pace and dating back only to the early 90s when Miike first got a start making low-budget gangster flicks with brio and gusto that went straight to video. Those early pictures are now revered and of course are very difficult to track down. But don’t delay. Next year Miike will make another five or six pictures. Some wont be so good, some will be ripoffs of whatever else is fashionable. But there will be something among them to make the blood curdle, the hairs on the back of the neck stand up in outrage or sheer admiration. Miike’s movies remind you that enthusiasm and an ability to make something whip-crack sharp and up to the minute takes a smart film-maker a long way.
9. Japan’s classical tradition remains largely unknown but someone’s working on it. We still haven’t seen any, or maybe its only most of Naruse, Shimizu and others. That’s hardly the fault of the SFF, just an observation of how Japan itself has only opened very narrow portals that allow us a look at it’s vast output, especially the incredibly vibrant pre-World War 2 cinema. It’s just a fact that there are certified masterpieces laying round the archives which may never see the light of a projector in a subtitled copy. However, a single spark can start a forest fire and the screening of Kinugasa Teinosuke’s A Page of Madness is a cause for genuine celebration especially as it will be screened in the vastness of the State Theatre with a live performance of Phillip Johnston’s specially commissioned score.
10. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are new frontiers. They are not rich countries. They have not consciously set out to conquer the world of the cinema and take over from others who went before. They have just made quite an impact. Their film-makers are winning invitations to the major film competitions, attracting the attention of quality oriented producers/investors in Europe and elsewhere. They win prizes and create buzzes that ought to make Australia, its producers, its film bureaucrats and anybody else wishing to see us get back to the once-attained highwater marks of world cinema have a good hard look at themselves….enough.
* I wrote this piece at the request of the Sydney Film Festival and am a member of the Festival’s Film Advisory Panel


Matt Riviera said...

Great post! I'm thrilled by the Sydney Film Festival's recent love-in with Asian filmmakers under the artistic direction of Clare Stewart.

If the SFF has a role to play on a global scale it's as a showcase for the tremendous talent in the region. A focus on new Malaysian cinema is long overdue, for example.

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