Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Young masters and untamed youth - Vancouver in Autumn

Vancouver is off the beaten film festival track. It's not a mega event withhundreds of world premieres fighting for the attention of thousands ofcritics, buyers and festival programmers. Its main program collectstogether the usual hundred or so suspects for international art houseattention and it presents a broad based focus on new Canadian cinema.Its distinguishing mark is a focus on new, and 'young', cinema from EastAsia. It's a program which attracts a small but hardy band of scholars andfestival advisors if not directors, and has been developed over twodecades of complete devotion first by Tony Rayns and now by Rayns andChinese film expert Shelly Kraicer. It has succeeded in launching a dozenmajor film-makers into the west and continues to unearth new talent throughthe annual Dragons and Tigers competition with its prize of $10,000provided by local arts patron Brad Birarda.

This year the selection ran to close to fifty new films and again it wasbookended by full house screenings of two Korean hits. The opener was KimJie-woon's The Good The Bad The Weird a playful action-packed homage toSergio Leone set in the war zone of Manchuria in the 30s. The closer wasYim Phil-sung's fairy tale for adults Hansel and Gretel a film whichchocolate box colors that might have been designed for Jacques Demy with a tale straight out of Angela Carter to concoct pure contrived pleasure.Otherwise though it was the Japanese, both their quality commercialfilm-makers and their aspirational and very youthful debutantes, who shookthe place up. The best film on show was yet again a new film by Kore-eda Hirokazu. The director's first feature Maborosi was an early winner of the D&T prize andhe has sent each of his five succeeding films to the festival as they comealong every couple of years. Last time it was his period samurai flick Hana which knocked us about and caused people to compare him with Jean Renoir.This time it's Still Walking a family drama which evokes the work of themaster Yasujiro Ozu. The generations come together for a reunion on the date of the accidental death of one son. They're quietly respectful buteach cant stand one or more of the people in the room and each has theirown unresolved issues with others. A few of those matters get a little better, some get a little worse and everyone goes home. Kore-eda has a knack for masterful simplicity and there's no doubt that the festival invitations toscreen the film are going to flood in from around the world.

There is one peripheral matter of some astonishment about this film. Both Cannes and Venice rejected it for inclusion in their competitions, decisions which utterly baffled those who saw the film here where it was the hit of the week.

Hashiguchi Ryosuke's All Around Us has a similar quiet focus on a familybut this time its just a couple working their way through eight years ofmarriage. The relationship started offhandedly and endures some harshpsychopathology before it finally achieves some sort of serenity. Long andcontemplative but very moving.Elsewhere Kitano Takeshi's Achilles and the Tortoise amused intermittently and Miike Takashi demonstrated yet again why he ought to be the permanentoverseer of the James Bond franchise. Miike still makes several films ayear, his total being over a hundred by now and could easily fit in Bond's slam bang action sequences on his schedule. His God's Puzzle cheerfullymixes a story about quantum physics (!) with his trademark jokey action andnone do it better than he, especially where the action takes place in therain-soaking open air. Among other new work by established directors a word should also be put infor Service another low-budget and very raunchy peek at the Filipino underbelly by the prolific Brillante Mendoza. Its subject is a dysfunctional family who operate a rundown cinema named ‘Family” somewhat ironically, that mostly serves as a pickup joint (to put it politely) for the local gay community.

The D&T competition for eight young directors remains at the heart of Vancouver's engagement with Asia. This year, for probably the first time inany film competition, half the entrants were made by women. My own favorite among them was Sode Yukiko's Mime Mime, a supersmart story of a young bored teenager, a mild rebel with bad attitude and a risky sex life involving office visits to her middle-aged former school teacher. He's mostly bemusedby her infatuation but more than happy to be the complacent recipient ofher experiments. The jury gave prizes to two others of the women. Emily Tang's Perfect Life won the $10k. It's enigmatic but very assured, much influenced you suspectby the work of its co-producer Jia Zhangke. The story has parallelnarratives about two young women, one trying to disengage from her familyand the other, thousands of miles away, whose husband has peremptorilydisengaged from her and their two kids. Both of them live in the world ofChina's economic miracle but, as In Jia's work, Tang wants to look at justwho wins and loses in the orgy of 'progress'. Do the stories connect? Forjust a revelatory instant. More temperamental was Yokohama Sutoko's German + Rain another story abouta temperamental and rebellious young girl but this time one almost outsidethe borders of polite Japanese society.The other prizewinner was Gao Wendong's grim but fascinating Sweet Food City symbolically set in a model metropolis built a mere fifteen years agobut now a slum inhabited by thieves, pimps and prostitutes among others,all trying to live in buildings that are literally being scavenged and pillagedfor their bricks even as people squat within them. Gao's camera prowlsaround the architecture, to shoot in places where the image ofdeconstruction is astonishing. His story of a prostitute and her man has anarrative that's a bit messy and requires you to fill in some gaps yourselfbut you cant beat a good Chinese indie film (last year's Little Moth wasanother) when they decide to show us a good hard peek at the people beingleft behind.

Finally a word should be said for what was perhaps the most unusual movieof all, this year at least. Seo Won-tae's Synching Blue is a formal contemplation of solitariness and contemporary alienation.. A young Asian man spends his time alone in a large house and resorts to what young menoften resort too in such circumstances. He has some connection with a young American woman who works as a swimming pool attendant. Most of the activityat the pool is taken up by a mixed gender team of synchronised swimmers. Seasoned observers could not recall any previous work of art which thus asked its audience to even contemplate the possible connection between that amusing 'sport’ and the gentle practice of onanism. If you came looking for the unusual or for young people to give us something naughty Seo's film,completely free of dialogue, supplied it. So did several others. Vancouver in the autumn when uninhibited youth comes out is quite a place to be. Thecrowds that come out testify to that.