As a child, I was the proud owner of a study desk with a laminated tabletop world map (Mercator projection). That map inspired a lifelong wanderlust, and back then I was fascinated by the isolated city of Vladivostok at the edge of the vast country, shaded in a sickly pale green, then known as the U.S.S.R, which was. Entranced by the exotic spelling, beginning with the adjoining “V” and “L” and ending emphatically with a mighty “K”, I was also fascinated by the city’s northern position. I recall my father telling me that ships could only reach the port with the use of an ice-breaker. Nowadays, I associate Vladivostok not with snow and ice, but summer, sea and cinema. And I certainly don’t need an icebreaker, when I visit the Russian city, because with 2014 being my fourth visit, the Vladivostok International Film Festival or to use its more exotic name Pacific Meridian, International Film Festival of Asian Pacific Countries in Vladivostok is one of my most familiar haunts on the festival circuit.
Vladivostok is at the coal face of East meets West. The majority of its 800,000 inhabitants (with the exception of the imported minority group of Central Asian construction workers) appear completely Eastern European and just happen to share borders with North Korea and China while South Korea and Japan are both a short boat ride away. Conscious of that, the festival has a strong focus on Asia.This was reflected in the choice of a South Korean film as the opening film in 2014. A Hard Day (Dir: KIM Seong-hun) a comically edgy film about a cop who amongst other disasters (divorce, embezzlement charges etc) accidentally kills a pedestrian while driving to his mother’s funeral and finds a unique place to hide the pedestrian’s body: in his mother’s coffin! Russians are just as entranced by the power of Korean movies as other nationalities and the film was received well.
The festival’s main competition included films from Sri Lanka (28, directed by Prasanna Jayakody); India (Liar’s Dice, directed by Geetu Mohandas); China (Uncle Victory, directed by Zhang Meng); and Japan (Still the Water by Naomi Kawase). While Cannes favourite Kawase ended up winning the festival’s main prize from a jury known to regularly sample the Cannes Kool-aid, I avoided it in favour of the less pretentious Japanese offering, Little House.
Since Kabei: Our Mother (2008), veteran journeyman director Yoji Yamada has tended to make dramas that have centered on Japanese families during the Manchurian War era. The uninitiated confuse the subject matter of these films with the greatness of Yasujiro Ozu. This collision of PR and wishful thinking doesn’t bring Yamada’s films within coo-ee of Ozu’s quality, but as the most enduring of Japan’s commercial directors, Yamada is not without his charms. With a young man, urging his grandmother to write her war-time biography, the film is delightfully touching with its portrait of an unassuming young servant woman and her witnessing of an extra-marital affair. And if Little House pushes things more melodramatically than is comfortable for some mainstream audiences, it does so unerringly in a way that is impossible to criticise. Typically, Little House virtually turns a blind eye to Pearl Harbor while indulging in the tragic reprisals (in this case the carpet-bombing of Tokyo), but the film does have a splendid eye for the day-to-day minutiae of Japanese life.
Vladivostok like many organisations tends to overstretch its idea of Asia Pacific (APEC anyone?). While this may offend purists, it allows for the inclusion of the United States of America and ipso facto permits invitations for Hollywood A-listers. This year, Adrien Brody and Steven Baldwin were in attendance and after having such a good time in 2013, Mr Blonde himself, Michael Madsen returned. Madsen threw his hosts into a panic by turning up 24 hours early. This necessitated the quick arrangement of a hotel room and transportation when Madsen surprised everyone by calling from the airport to announce his arrival.
But this slightly stretchy (to employ a term from Ryu Seung-wan’s The Unjust) definition of Asia Pacific is more than just a cover for Hollywood indulgence. There was enabled invitations for the truly sublime The Life After (directed by David Pablos) from Mexico and two very New York indies: the sexually and psychological provocative She’s Lost Control (directed by Anja Marquardt) and the visually stimulating Little Boy Lost drama, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (directed by Sam Fleischner).
Naturally, there were some Russian films on hand in the competition. Bloodbank documentary Blood and fictional problem child drama Correction Class received accolades, but it was The Fool, Yury Bykov’s bleak film about a workman who stands up to Russian corruption that captured my imagination. My admiration was dismissed by my Russian friends because they felt the film was just mere exotica for me, while it represented depressing daily reality for them. While one hates to argue with friends, their protests actually affirmed my belief that the film is a dead-on-target portrait of contemporary Russian society.Though not currently part of the Russian empire as I write, a startling film from the Ukraine called The Tribe about the illicit goings-on in a teenage school for the deaf mute, was (ironically) one of the festival’s most talked about films. Eschewing dialogue or subtitles, The Tribe leaves its audience sufficient time, space and information to deduct what the plot is. Uncompromising and sometimes brutal, it eventually falls victim to its own devices, which were extended single takes and long shots designed to allow contemplation of the frame and the hand-signing of the characters. Unfortunately, these devices also keep the audience at an emotional distance. Dollying cameras recalled The Round-Up (1966) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), but eventually the film seemed to descend into sadism and, worse still, pointlessness.
Amongst all this, I was presenting five Australian films to Russian audiences. My personal favourite of the bunch was Rolf De Heer’s incredible Charlie’s Country. Father Bob Maguire surely provided a challenge for translators for In Bob We Trust and I had a handful in trying to help join the dots for audiences who watched the short version of The Turning (which I didn’t know existed until I arrived in Vladivostok). However that was easier than trying to explain why Ruin — Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s film set in Cambodia with an all-Cambodian cast — was considered an Australian film. Of all the films I presented, the gender transitioning drama 52 Tuesdays gathered the smallest audience. This was nothing to do with the homophobic rhetoric associated with Russia, but due to the worst programming decision of the festival which had Russian LGBT themed documentary, Children 404 screening at the same time!
Vladivostok’s head programmer Yury Goncharov is a regular at Hong Kong’s Filmart, and this is also where I first saw many of the impressive Chinese films on offer at the Pacific Meridian. I found that stunning Chinese noir Black Coal, Thin Ice still packs a punch (and enjoyed once again its spectacular if somewhat superfluous fireworks ending). Also on offer from China was Blind Massage which does for the visually impaired – albeit more gently – what The Tribe did for the deaf; the chilling Soul from Taiwan, and Fruit Chan’s post-apocalypse portrait of Hong Kong The Midnight After. On the more commercial side of Hong Kong, Johnnie To’s Blind Detective almost rounded out Vladivostok’s Chinese selection.
But the true Chinese surprise was the arrival of Sammo Hung for the Pacific Meridian’s closing night. While he didn’t take to the stage, Hung added a much needed extra bit of glamour on the Pacific Blue carpet, since the Hollywood A-listers had already left town. No one supplied any context. Hung was just there. Eventually, I got whiff of a (still unconfirmed) rumour that Hung was in town to shoot a film in Vladivostok with Andy Lau, who was due to arrive the day after the festival finished.
Such impromptu arrivals are a great example of how open and unpredictable this festival can be. Part Asian showcase and part Hollywood and Russian star-parade, this festival is unfortunately too close to the Venice and Toronto schedule to ever really hit the big time. However, the Pacific Meridian has established enough of a reputation on the festival circuit to ensure that Vladivostok is known for much more than merely being a distinctive name on a map.