Sydney International Film Festival 03

Meanwhile at the State Theatre…

by Russell Edwards

Part 1: Chinese films at Sydney 2003

The 2003 Sydney Film Festival was one of the most consistently enjoyable – albeit unspectacular – festivals in director Gayle Lake’s reign. However the under-representation of Asian films in her programming, and the lack of quality on display, is a sad testimony as to why Sydney needs Paul De Carvalho’s and Juanita Kwok’s Sydney Asian Pacific Film Festival, when Melbourne and Brisbane seem to be able to survive without a similar entity. Whether this is the result of poor programming (I counted 9 films that Gayle Lake probably saw at Pusan) or whether the directors of the Melbourne and Brisbane festivals have
outmanoeuvred her when it comes to inviting films, it is difficult to say.

I must confess I didn’t make it to everything, but three of the festival’s undeniable stand outs did come from the Asian region. One of them, Together, came second in the audience’s overall choice, as if in rebuke to the long-held belief (consolidated during the reign of Paul Byrnes) that the Sydney fest audience are unwilling to embrace Asian films.

Already picked out for general release by the eagle-eye of Hopscotch distributor Troy Lum, Together marked a return to form (and to English) by fifth generation film-maker Chen Kaige.

A movie as vibrant, touching and precise as Vivaldi’s four seasons, Together told the story of a peasant violin prodigy and the unanticipated consequences when his father escorts him to Beijing in search of an appropriate violin teacher and a scholarship. There is no scholarship – corruption is rife – but the right teacher is found in the form of a scruffy deadbeat with lots of cats, grungy socks under his bed alongside a photo of a lost love. Meanwhile the boy has his heart captured by a flirtatious goodtime girl who requests the boy play for a rich boyfriend’s birthday. The film hits all the right marks and while the cast is good (including Chen himself who has a supporting role), the boy who plays (and actually plays violin) Xioachun is spectacular. The finale is a tear-stricken affair which should generate enough positive word of mouth to pack them in when Together gets a general release.

Another stand out Chinese film at the Sydney fest, criminally neglected by the audience was Blind Shaft. At time of writing Blind Shaft has not been picked up for release yet, despite the string of prizes it has picked up at international festivals including a Silver Bear at Berlin. An engaging study of human greed which stops short of being a thriller, Blind Shaft tells the story of two unscrupulous peasants who run a scam finding jobs for unemployed workers. Palming off the workers relatives, the scammers kill them and then trap the remains in mine cave-ins they have triggered. The cave-ins act both as a cover for their deed and more importantly, as a means to blackmail the mine bosses about unsafe work practices and conditions. According to the director who was present at the Q & A (a surprising amount of which was conducted in mandarin which marks some kind of milestone for the Sydney fest), this type of scam is not unheard of in China. However, whether fiction or fact, Blind Shaft had a sense of authenticity, that never strained even despite plot developments which on paper might seem unlikely.

Part 2: Korean films at Sydney 2003

Also overlooked by the fest audience, Oasis (which like Gayle Lake I caught at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival) which won Best Film at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Co-produced by the Pusan International Film Festival’s international programmer Jay Jeon (who in his role as international man of mystery – even the Koreans find him inscrutable – was actually attending the Sydney Film festival with a degree of anonymity), Oasis looked set up to be a maudlin film about a demented prison recidivist who attempts to rape, falls in love with and successfully woos a woman with extreme cerebral palsy. Fortunately, Oasis developed well beyond its sentimental premise and really hits it stride with an unexpected, but in retrospect completely logical plot development on the cusp of its third act. Oasis was decidely un-PC in its use of able-bodied actress So-ri Moon in the starring role. The fantasy sequences where the character’s inner-beauty is revealed by having the actress perform without physical impairment were emotionally striking, but were considered by some to be politically suspect. But that said, Oasis is reminiscent of the finest moments of Heather Rose’s Dance Me To My Song and is certainly a far more superior film overall.

While Jay did not present his film to the Sydney audience, he did act as a kind of guardian for Road Movie’s director Kim In-sik who also visited with a considerable entourage. Road Movie is a rather disappointing self-explanatory titled film which kicks off with a full on gay sex scene. The rest is an express train to nowhere including a rather startling karaoke scene for the more heterosexually concerned. While such naked antics might knock the socks off your more sheltered Koreans, really this is just shock politics for the film festival circuit. Given the fest’s other adventures with the now banned Ken Park indicates that we are not even immune to this in Australia, of the range of Korean films available, this seems a disappointing and misguided choice.

Part 3: Indian films at Sydney 2003

While Asian films were in the minority, Indian films were a majority amongst them. The best of these was Mr & Mrs Iyer, an astute story about a orthodox Hindu woman on the way to be reunited with her husband, who finds herself coupled with a worldly Muslim photographer on a bus trip. When the bus journey is disrupted by a racial riot and military curfew, the pair are forced to pose as husband and wife. Slowly the duo unravel their identities and the prejudices of the other (though it is somewhat biased in favour of the photographer), and fall gently in love – to no advantage. In a festival full of films about refugees and civil war, this seemed the most considered of the lot and the greatest exploration of the ancient tensions that exist in India. A moving, and revealing portrait of the intricacies of modern India, this is a film that is well worth chasing up, even if cinematically it was not as lush as those accustomed to Bollywood.

Rather less compelling, but also worthy of attention was Peck On The Cheek. Two stories that fed into one, this Tamil language movie told the life story of a young Tamil girl who was adopted by a well known writer and his wife on the subcontinent. This was set up by a sizeable prologue about the girl’s birth mother and how civil war in Sri Lanka lead to her relinquishing of her child. When the girl Amudha insists on meeting her birth mother, her foster parents who had kept the adoption secret, guiltily relent and take the daughter to Sri Lanka. It’s an odd picture in many ways because while it flirts with the conventions of Bollywood, it does so in a way that is both joyous and restrained. The musical sequences rarely venture outside of the spirit of the film or so boisterously break with the narrative that they seem extreme. Regardless the music is engaging and captures the appropriate exuberance of their chosen moments. Most of the film, has the feel of a “serious” live action Disney picture, and yet it manages to include a civil war, substantial guerilla warfare and a stunning section with a suicide bomber. The problem here is that the film never fully maintains its adult momentum once it establishes that it really is the search of a child for her mother . Director Mani Ratnam has a substantial track record, which includes two best foreign film Oscar nominations, and so his work is obviously one that bears further examination.

Part 4: Asian retrospective

Unfortunately I was unable to get to any of the Asian films in the Sydney fest retrospective which included Kinugasa’s 1954 Cannes hit The Gate of Hell, Kurosawa’s always profoundly moving Ikiru (Living), Teshigahara’s The Face of Another and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s perennial favourite The Blue Kite.

But while India didn’t feature in the fest’s retrospective, it was the generator of the fest’s annual silent feature… sort of. In some ways Shiraz (1928), was perhaps a sign of what is wrong with the Sydney fest’s approach to Asian films.

This silent film presentation was actually a German, Indian and English co-production. Despite some interesting backdrops of Islamic buildings of the sub-continent, the film itself was incompetently directed and one suspects was primarily prepared for European audiences rather than the multitudes of the sub-continent. The clue is in not one, but two, visible kisses, which in Indian cinema was taboo and even now is still rarely seen. Nevertheless, according to the program notes, Shiraz was released in India to controversial acclaim.

Static in the tradition of English cinema, Shiraz was basically an exotic bedtime story for those who were awed at the extent of the British Empire. For a modern film festival it is an odd choice, given the many silent films that deserve a spotlight. Silent films are problematic for modern audiences in many ways, but to indulge in this largely orientalist confection, is an odd choice given the PC emphasis on refugee-themed films throughout the rest of the fest. If ever a film needed to be contextualised by a seminar, this was it.

Making matters worse was the choice of two musicians who applied a desperately limited themes via a series of instruments of their own invention, with music that largely mismatched what was on the screen unless it was clinking of tubular bells for camels, donkeys and elephants. When the post-modernist, art stream takes over the cinema, be afraid, be very afraid. A collision of bad choices, lead the SFF audience to feel superior (if the laughter was anything to go by) to the film they were watching. This should not be the aim of a status festival, and at the risk of sounding pompous is a transgression of its internationalist principals. Given that this film was also in the Sydney audiences top five, is a damning comment of the cine-literacy of the festival audience.

And if you think that’s harsh, be warned that everything else from here on in is going to get a bucketing. Click to another Heroic Cinema page now if bad reviews turn you off.

Part 5: The worst of the rest

The Indian film Shadow Kill was a plodding story with a rather obvious O. Henry ending about an alcoholic right wing hangman. Observed as a man who uses his instruments of death to aid the innocent, we are witness to the burning of nooses and the executioner using the ash to anointing and heal the sick. Most of the film is taken up with the hangman, invited to perform his craft in a nearby village, being told the story of an innocent man who is sentenced to death. And if you can’t tell where that is going to lead, you better go to the back of the class.

From Taiwan came Somewhere Over the Dreamland. A rather dull film of the type made hip and perfected by Wong Kar-Wai and to a lesser extent Tsai Ming Liang, of alienated people wondering around a city centre in this case Taipei with a tenuous narrative link binding them together. Some inventive story elements like the bumpkin who returns to the big city because his wallet has been found amongst the concrete debris of a demolished building he helped build years before, were amusing, but well before the halfway mark, dullness and predictability, if not outright indifference settled in.

Similarly, the Japanese film The Blessing Bell from Sabu, failed to capitalise on the wit and outright hilarity of his previous film Monday and instead went the route of the ambling road movie (often without cars) that tend to equally bore Western and Japanese audiences alike. Touching on the universal themes of redundant workers in a faster moving and more youthful world, The Blessing Bell seemed moribund from the word go. The difference is that the protagonist is not as young as most of those portrayed in the genre, but this doesn’t imbue the pic with any additional depth.

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