THE INAUGURAL ADELAIDE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
28 February – 7 March 2003
Well, the festival certainly went off like a string of fireworks: tickets sold fast and early, many sessions were sold out, and audience reactions, at least at the sessions I attended, were positive. The staff of the Nova were professional and courteous as ever, and the only hiccup was a persistent series of projection problems, caused, I was informed, by the quality of the prints: several prints were either slipping on the spindles (nomenclature?) causing the film to judder horizontally, or not being taken up correctly, causing a lights-up-and-wait at each reel change.
But these issues were minor and transient, and I for one enjoyed the first AIFF in great big gobs. The chairs at the Nova are about the comfiest around, the films were great, and Rundle Street is full of places to eat before the show or coffee after.
And now, drum roll, the films that I caught:
Part 1: From Taiwan
BLUE GATE CROSSING
Directed by Yee Chih-Yen 2002
This film was my first at the fest, and I can’t imagine a better way to start: an endearing, saccharine-free meander through the lives of three high school students. Lin Yuezhen is pretty, vapid, and in love with Zhang Shihou. Zhang, a tall boy with a swimmer’s physique and a charming grin, falls in love with Lin’s friend, Meng Kerou. Meng, for her part, spurns Zhang and is secretly in love with Lin. The largely inarticulate interactions of these three teens as they work their way through this tangle are simultaneously credible and intriguing, a combination that’s difficult to achieve.
Meng Kerou in particular stands out: her silent determination to avoid the wistful Zhang, and her tight-lipped refusal to be perturbed by her friend’s minor betrayals, make her irresistable. Zhang, who persists in trailing behind Meng with a hopeful “Scorpio – blood type O – swim team – guitar society – not bad looking” as if spruiking himself on the street, wound his way into my heart at least. Or perhaps that was just a result of his furtive nighttime training sessions: there’s nothing like wet men to make me go weak at the knees. And swimmers just take me back to my youth (now several centuries ago).
I think this is the obverse of the life of which All About Lily Chou-Chou is the reverse: where Lily gave us characters exuding the malicious cruelty of which children may be capable, this film gives us characters who show the warmth, good sense, and generosity of spirit we’d like to think we all possess.
And, of course, wet men.
Part 2: From Hong Kong
Directed by Corey Yuen 2002
This session was packed out: I swear there were people hanging from the rafters, or at least it seemed that way. And the film started well, flinging gorgeous women around with lots of action and plenty of techie goodness. Karen Mok is always great to watch, although I for one (and I know I’m not the only one) missed seeing her legs. Hsu Qi carried her part with elan, while Vicki Zhao Wei won dozens of new fans.
In fact, the combination of the three women dizzied large sections of the audience: I don’t think anyone needed oxygen, but it was a close thing. And I’m pretty sure that, of those present that evening, not many will now remember any US offering featuring three supposed action heroines. Heh heh.
JUST ONE LOOK
Directed by Yip Kam-Hung Riley 2002
This one surprised me a little: I was expecting a too-sweet romantic comedy used as a flimsy excuse to parade young stars.
What I got was a rather melancholy nostalgia about the glory days of Hong Kong cinema. With, I might add, a frog, at least two rats, an astonishing afro, and a black bra.
While the leads all performed commendably, and demonstrated far more acting skill than I’d expected, my heart was lost to two of the supporting actors. Anthony Wong, as the small-time triad Crazy, has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award at the upcoming HK Film Awards, so it’s no surprise that he won me over as well. The other support, Eric Kot as the kung fu teaching father of one of the girls, showed once again his ability to balance a character finely on the edge between comedy and pathos.
Overall, a simple but endearing story, ably portrayed by a talented cast.
Other Hong Kong films at the festival were Inner Senses, My Life As McDull and GeGe. The first two I’d seen already, and the third conflicted with So Close, but they were good inclusions in a fine program.
Part 3: From Japan
Directed by Seijun Suzuki (Japan, 2001)
Colour, style, and more flashy costumes than you could poke a stick at, even given a week of stick-poking: that sums up this gloriously bizarre offering from Suzuki. The rich colours, funky costumes, and poses make this look reminiscent of a film by Greenaway or Jarman, who would probably also be proud of some of the dream sequences (or indeed some of the not-a-dream sequences). The starkness of the sets, which usually featured one or two main characters with perhaps one piece of furniture, would have been spurned by Greenaway or Wong Kar Wai, but worked beautifully here to give an air of unreality.
I loved some of the characters, particularly the first suspect for the “One hundred eyes” title: a handsome young man with floppy blond hair, whose sex appeal was somewhat squashed by his persistent nasal drip. It’s hard to lust after someone when they stick an inhaler up their nose and snort.
The heroine was cooler than a sackful of ice: for some reason unknown to me, she lived in a bathhouse, to which cosy home she brings the young girl who seeks to become her student. Obviously assassins lead a much more interesting life than analyst/programmers, and I feel I should change my career path. The final showdown took place in a romanesque setting complete with an elegant sufficiency of bald men in loincloths, and more ugly babies in jars than I needed to see. No, make that final showdown minus one: the final showdown came as a complete surprise to me, and rounded out an entertainly quirky film.
Directed by Seijun Suzuki (Japan, 1966)
I’ll declare myself right away, at the risk of making some enemies: Tokyo Drifter is what Cowboy Bebop aspires to be. Since I’m in Adelaide, a safe distance from Deni’s wrath, I’ll continue.
First, the hero, Tetsu the Phoenix: lordy lordy, what a man.Powder blue suit, white buckskin shoes, and the ultra-cool demeanour of one who knows he’s got the entire female population in the palm of his hand and doesn’t care. A matinee idol with the high cheekbones, complex hairline, and pouty lips of Jet Li, he strolls through the film kissing his girl and kicking his enemies with equal elan. Even while escaping from squads of goons sent to eliminate him, he can’t resist taunting them by whistling or singing his signature song.
Oh, that song. A slow, sultry jazz number that I’m still humming days after. Tetsuya Watari, the pouty hero, apparently needed some voice coaching to sing it, although Chieko Matsubara, the torch-song heroine, did not. It was but the icing on the cake, though, of an indescribably funky film that played with genre conventions and tossed them aside. Preferably into the snow, through which our hero waded in his white shoes, only a trench-coat protecting his powder-blue suit. But then, as he says “a wanderer needs no woman”, and apparently doesn’t need warm clothing either.
STORY OF A PROSTITUTE
Directed by Seijun Suzuki ( Japan, 1965)
This tale, of a comfort woman sent to the front to service Japanese troops in the Second World War, was interesting as a historical film dealing with a controversial subject but was probably the least appealing of the films I caught at this fest. There’s a good chance that most of my failure to be gripped could be attributed to the rather grim subject matter, and the age of the film, it is true, but it seemed a tad melodramatic to me.
One character that appealed to me was the middle-aged Korean lady (as evidenced by her wearing of traditional Korean dress on several occasions) among the comfort women. As a woman culturally more reticent than the Japanese women, and of course somewhat older, she didn’t get as much business as the others, nor did she get paid as much: she says wistfully to one soldier “You’re the only one who pays me the same as the Japanese rate”, and seems determined to give him value for money, even though he only seeks a private place to read his political books. She also has the final word on the tragic death of the main character and her lover: as the women are gathered around the pyre, blazing in the black sandy wastes, she declares “Surviving is more difficult. Dying is just cowardice”, and returns to her unlovely life as the lowest rank in an unrespected group.
Part 4: Wrap-up
You can probably tell that I enjoyed myself at this festival: I confess I was even surprised at how well it went off, and how good the selection of Asian films was. Not comprehensive, mind, but good. I’d hope that future fests will feature more Asian films, and after seeing what we got this time, I’ve got plenty of confidence in the AIFF programmer, the indefatigable Adele Hann.
For my money, the best of the fest was a tie between the sweet Taiwanese Blue Gate Crossing and the 60s Japanese funkfest that was Tokyo Drifter. One unaffected and endearing, one cooler than a hatful of ice cubes, they bookended my festival perfectly: I started and ended the festival time on a high note. From a swimming, cycling schoolboy diligently pursuing a reluctant love to a suave yakuza vanquishing enemies while remaining loyal to his code, via a kimono-swathed assassin lodging in a bathhouse, it was beginning-to-end fun. Sceptics should note that I’m actually confessing to liking a Taiwanese film here, which is a landmark event. Props to the AIFF for bringing it on!