Asian Films at PIFF 2004

Featuring about 70 screenings per day in one outdoor and 16 indoor theatres grouped in two locations about 40 minutes subway ride apart, the 9th Pusan International Film Festival was a densely scheduled affair that often required some advance daily planning and on-the-spot thinking to get into desired sessions. Like last year, ticketing for guests and press was occasionally a problem, with quite a few sessions ostensibly selling out within an hour after sales commenced each morning. Given the availability of free seats at some of these sessions, as well as the festival’s (to me) horrifying assigned seating system and its challenges in directing the flow of patrons in and out of the aging three-screen cinemas in Nampo-dong, there remain some confusing issues that organisers will hopefully to attend to when the construction of the new cineplex in Haeundae is completed in a few more years. After a couple of days it became apparent there were ways to avoid many such problems (best left for independent discovery), and festival veterans (this was my first) seemed quite satisfied with improvements over the previous edition’s widely publicised troubles. I managed to see nearly everything I wanted to (topped by 2046 and Café Lumiere), experienced a few pleasant surprises (University of Laughs, We Shall Overcome Someday) and valiantly withstood one garbled slap in the audience’s face (Izo) that I hope never to stumble upon again – though I fear it’s already invaded my nightmares.

Many thought that the recent Korean films on offer were lacklustre, imagining a decline in creative output in the past several months. Some from director Chang Yoon-hyun (The Contact, Tell Me Something) was a notable absentee that I’m sure just about everyone wished had screened in place of the over-hyped closing night film The Scarlet Letter. The best thing about this picture was its PIFF publicity campaign. Its mega-stars Han Suk-kyu (Christmas in August, Shiri) and Lee Eun-joo (Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Taegukgi) graced the public stages scattered around Pusan on several occasions late in the festival, and it was entertaining to be swept up in the ensuing chaos. Korean fan culture in full swing is a sight to behold. Dominated by young adults who own the latest cell phone/digital camera (3 megapixels, 4x optical zoom!) combos and who are keen to engage their idols in non-personal film-related discourse, their enthusiasm and acumen generates a buzz that is supremely different to anything I’ve witnessed in an Australian film festival (perhaps the Park Chan-wook forum at MIFF 2004, packed with Koreans living in Australia, came close – Old Boy’s two screenings at PIFF, incidentally, quickly sold out).

The best of the Korean films was probably Kim Ki-duk’s Venice champion 3-iron. Prolific filmmakers are always going to have their ups and downs, and while I find Kim’s work more miss than hit it’s hard to dislike this quiet story about a drifter and an abused housewife carving out a functional love in extraordinary circumstances. Not unlike Yi Yi, Kim investigates dimensions of the 180° of space behind us that we don’t usually think about or notice. When the male lead (Jae Hee) is inserted into this patently visible but subjectively obscured space, it seems to represent and embrace the crack in society he occupies. Not explicitly a comedy, a great deal of amusement is caused through the clueless behaviour of the supporting cast who fail to perceive what is going on behind them. With basic editing patterns that adjoin optical point-of-view with objective shots, Kim unobtrusively depicts spatial relations and supplies confidence that his command of a minimalist style is ripening. Far more specific as an auteurist work than Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, this will hopefully attract local audiences when it opens here next year.

Aside from 3-Iron, Old Boy and Hong Sang-soo’s Woman is the Future of Man, the other work from an internationally renowned Korean filmmaker at PIFF was Im Kwon-taek’s Low Life (aka Raging Years). I quite liked this historical rags-to-riches-to-downfall epic that others have found conventional and unsuccessful in terms of Im’s recent reputation as the foremost purveyor of Korean cultural identity. Weak at the finish, it’s nevertheless a fairly compelling drama that pushes the boundaries of audience sympathy for its characters. Tae-woong (Cho Seung-woo) is a ruthless gangster with few redeeming qualities, but unlike others living through the politically and socially turbulent era the film depicts (1958-1972), he dangerously remains ideologically uncommitted. Ultimately he is no more or less happy or safe than the others around him who manipulate their beliefs in relation to the system that governs them, clearly demonstrating the ‘human misery’ (as the catalogue has it) and class condemnation of non-elites. Low Life is too male-centered for its own good, glorifying brutal gangster culture and often positioning important women (Tae-woong’s ‘sister’ then wife, the head of the KCIA’s wife) at the periphery of its action, but it’s an interesting project in light of Im’s more overtly nationalist projects.

Someone Special is a dramedy that commences on shaky ground: a man is dumped by his girlfriend, reveals that he’s never really felt true love, and is diagnosed with a terminal disease that might allow him a few more months on the planet. Thankfully we’re spared any extended deviations into melancholy as the script takes some interesting directions: a woman has lived next to, and been in love with, him for years yet he’s oblivious to her existence; he is wrongly accused of a bungled burglary in the neighbourhood; as a veteran professional baseballer he’s never been given the chance to pitch since a successful stint in college that was interrupted by injury. Helping this film immensely is the tremendous pairing of unconventionally mannered actors Lee Na-young (Please Teach Me English) and Jung Jae-young (Silmido) in the performances of their careers thus far. Jang Jin, director of the quirky Guns & Talks, again displays a strength for carefully arranged big climaxes, and the script describes an honest relationship that simply falls into place as a factor of occurring at just the right time in its protagonists lives (a tactic I liked a lot in I Wish I Had a Wife). By the way, there is an answer to the ‘what happens’ question that Lee asks Jung and that the film avoids giving for the sake of romantic mystery … but as a baseball fan who’s seen it happen I can’t help myself, it’s a ground rule double.

Two other Korean films I enjoyed were the time-travelling fantasy melodrama My Mother the Mermaid, and dark comedy The Wolf Returns. I was fortunate to experience more of the local fan culture when director Park Heung-shik and leading man Park Hae-il (who in Memories of Murder might have been the bad guy) graced Mermaid’s post-screening. Viewers loved the tone and Cheju Island setting of this picture, with one young woman commenting that she had finally discovered something that she could watch with their own mother. The story takes a daughter, into the past where she meets her parents at the dawn of their relationship, a journey that complicates her understanding of their since difficult lives. The gritty contemporary framing narrative, featuring a ferociously stubborn mother and a wretched, near-mute father, is heavily contrasted by a nostalgic mid-section tracing their affectionate and amusing beginnings as, respectively, diver and postal courier. Thus contextualised against the raw portrayal of the troubled present, the timeless love whimsy is made to feel exceptionally artificial, a product of the daughter’s hopeful imagination, grounding Mermaid in its depiction of a cruel and somewhat unpleasant social reality. The makeup, costumes, hairdressing and special effects that allow the chameleonic Jeon Do-yeon (Happy End) to play both daughter and mother in the past are outstanding, but at times the actress seems lost in the dreamy requirements of the daughter while in turn overstating the younger mother’s ‘delightful peasant’ persona. For his role of the young father, Park Hae-il earned the rapturous welcome of the audience, wowing them with a brief mimic of his character’s hilarious exploitation of English.

Summery colours and the sound of cicadas pervade The Wolf Returns, a work that evokes jocular continental Europe at a juncture when Hollywood modes of production in Korea are so dominant. Although it is unsuccessful as a coherent and sustained dark comedy, for Korean cinema junkies Wolf’s atypicality is refreshing and it gave me at least a charming, unexpected festival interlude. It involves the willing relocation of a city cop (Yang Dong-geun, Address Unknown) to a rural outpost somewhere in the beautifully shot Kangwon Province. Since it’s a zero crime area, life is fantastic. But when it’s announced that their station is below quota and hence tabled for closure, Yang seizes the initiative and humorously tries to create wrongdoings. The plot navigates dozens of trivial situations and introduces more characters than the relaxed pacing can stay abreast of, but we’re assuredly returned to Yang’s reasons for escaping a hectic life and the progressive accumulation of Wolf’s small details proves to be a pleasurable, if befuddling, experience.

Of all the national crops this year I thought the Japanese films boasted the highest quality. Lakeside Murder Case had a high profile coming into the festival and was constantly in great demand in the video screening room. While the premise and setting are fantastic (a man’s mistress is murdered while he and his estranged wife attend a prolonged pre-examination for their daughter at an elite boarding school), the mystery becomes involved in minutiae and crawls towards a bold climax that felt past its internal and extra-textual use-by date. Its renowned leading hand, Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance, Cure), is far less idle in one of the revelations of the festival, University of Laughs, from veteran TV director Mamoru Hoshi. Developed by Fuji Television, and with little to show for itself in terms of production ‘values,’ this is a devastatingly funny two-hander largely set within the confines of a theatrical script censor’s office in Tokyo in 1940, when censors evidently judged nationalist sentiment desirable if not imperative. Uproarious rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue in Koki Mitani’s astonishing screenplay obviate apprehensions with the static spatial confines, figuratively peeling back the walls with his wonderfully imagined verbal battles between the censor and a talented young playwright. While shot-reverse shot editing dictates the repartee early on, the camera is released from static compositions as a function of the censor’s gradual bonding with the writer. Given its subject matter, what could have easily been maintained as unadventurous canned theatre is transformed into an enthralling mobile-camera, character-centered piece that flaunts its comparable love for both theatrical and cinematic forms. It’s a case of an appealing marriage between form and content, between director and scenarist, and the performers inhabit the material like two long lost brothers – certainly the most harmonious arrangement of elements in anything I saw at Pusan.

At least two of the Japanese films recounted historical stories about ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Directed by Yoichi Sai (Doing Time, Quill), Blood & Bones studies the shocking impact of a violent, boozing, misanthropic first generation Korean immigrant upon his family, neighbours and subordinates. Takeshi Kitano is supremely hateful in his portrayal of this loathsome creature, whose chief preoccupations include battering and raping his wife, chasing and pummelling his legitimate and illegitimate sons, smashing his daughter’s face, commanding his mistresses into bed, extorting obscene working hours out of his employees, physically threatening his clients; doing, basically, whatever the hell he feel likes. He’s a gruesome creation, one that frustrates spectatorial pleasure because no other character is able to successfully stand up to his assaults. Though humorous in parts, this picture offers an impression of diaspora about as warm and comforting as a daylight mugging, and while Takeshi is thoroughly believable it’s hard to see his adoring fans embracing this at the international box office. Although skillfully executed, and perhaps a necessary exploration of insanely difficult social circumstances, it’s relentless misery failed to sustain my attention through to its relieving conclusion.

Totally different, and with a more concerted effort to popularise, and poke fun at, Korean-Japanese relations within a specific area in Japan (Kyoto in the late-60s), We Shall Overcome Someday is a swinging high school gangland romance that enthralled the crowded, youthful Korean audience I found myself among. Where Blood & Bones appeals quite literally to history and Korea’s unresolved grudge with Japan, Overcome manufactures a thoroughly plastic milieu and universal coming-of-age narrative in its account of segregated ethnicities and nostalgic national loss. Given South Korean cinema’s unyielding pursuit of the perfect national division metaphor, as evidenced most blatantly by films like Kim Ki-duk’s The Coast Guard, it’s quite surprising to discover in a Japanese teen comedy an earnest and moving commentary on the North-South divide (with particular emphasis on the North). It also offers rollicking entertainment and romance as rival high school gangs clobber each other senseless, a Japanese singer-guitarist in the making chases the love of the Korean gang leader’s sister, wooing her with a famous but banned song from her homeland. Squarely aimed at young consumers of both Korean and Japanese pop culture, it’s brilliantly poised somewhere between the recent cinematic output of those nations: evoking Japanese youth films in its warm and wickedly offbeat depiction of late-60s trend-shifting and cultural revitalisation, Korean romantic melodramas and gangster comedies with its unabashed foregrounding of affectionate saccharine lovers and its caricatured violence among young men who know all too well that they’re idiots. Regionalised as such, and difficult to market, the final product may be too specific to reach and attract audiences beyond East Asia, especially when it comes to gripping the deceptively corny emotional moments in their wider political contexts.

A lot has already been written about the distinctive blend of 2D and 3D animation in Appleseed and I have to agree that its gorgeous, fluid images make its occasional plot inconsistencies seem trivial. Gradually revealing the backstory of its war-torn milieu, it works best when detailing the interrupted love of Deunan, an ass-kicking female soldier, and the tragic figure of her combat mentor, a man once killed whose psyche has been retained within a thoroughly non-human exoskeleton. Ontological questions about such hybrid human/machines are probed with a great deal of anxiety, and in the fashion of Ghost in the Shell we’re informed that our emotional experience through time and reality is what supplies the meaning to the mere fact of our corporeal existence. While hardly original in conception, Appleseed wins favour for its smashing visuals, confident thematic deployment and for the several hauntingly exquisite plot contrivances that immerse you in its tactile ‘atmosphere’. Superlative among these is the construction of a horrific situation that via a holographic recording allows Deunan to see herself as a helpless young girl witnessing the murder of her mother. The idea behind this is brilliant: just as she was during the original incident, tough, resilient, adult Duenan is put into a mode of equally wretched powerlessness. Moments like these fully maximise the speculative possiblilites of the generic material, clearly an indicator of Appleseed’s success within the constraints of its imposing lineage.

I have nothing nearly so nice to say about Izo, Miike Takashi’s exhausting, maddingly excessive account of a ghost warrior’s thirst for vengeance. Spanning, it seems, the entirety of past, present and future history, located, ostensibly, on another plane of in-between existence, portraying, it could be said, a vacant consciousness trapped somewhere in the black hole of despair, Izo is either a mesmerising head-tripper for actively hallucinating diehards or an utterly incomprehensible salvo of conceited post-modern fish slapping for enthusiasts of rationality. Narrative description is pointless (I feel sorry for whoever had to write the catalogue entry), and while I have no qualms considering this one of the ugliest, most thoughtless pictures ever made I’m equally certain that a fair proportion of the audience felt quite the opposite. Here, Miike has reached a lofty new point in his mastery of sadistic audience insensitivity, but I guess this alone makes the persistent popularity of his work all the more intriguing.

Through its quasi-market events (the Pusan Promotion Plan), industrial gatherings (film commission showcases) and programming, Pusan has always asserted ‘pan-Asianism’ as a way forward for Asian national cinemas within a global market that is increasingly aware of the competitive entertainment products emerging from the region. It’s no surprise to see Asian co-productions and other instances of regional co-operation make it into the schedule. As they were for many of the fine individual pictures, Japanese productions were again prominent.

Co-produced between companies in Japan, Hong Kong and China, the omnibus film about love features three stories that each depict how two characters from different national cultures meet and develop a relationship. While this screened to positive reviews at the outdoor venue, I only managed to catch the first segment, a taut and enjoyable cute fantasy featuring the lead male from Blue Gate Crossing, and part of the second, an absurdist comedy foregrounding the linguistic incompatibility of a previously jilted woman and a none-too-bright guy she ropes into getting some information out of the ex. A fine exercise in multinational collaboration, I look forward to the day I can see this in its totality.

First love was also on the agenda for Formula 17, a a delirious work that demolishes simplistic assertions about Taiwan’s fabulous commitment to an art cinema. Director DJ Chen’s queer rewriting of the poor boy/rich girl narrative is unlike anything imaginable from Hou, Yang, Tsai and co. Unfortunately, it takes too many cheap shots to merit much interest: the plot is inane, the chracters idiotic, the execution unadventurous. I found it tough to sit through without wishing I was doing something as mundane as eating lunch in the food hall on the 5th floor of the Sfunz (‘special fun zone’) centre. While not without its boisterous admirers, for me the formula was something like brain plus abandon equals an excessive waste of other festival opportunities.

There was really only one Taiwanese film at PIFF that I was dying to see. Although it’s going to take more than a single screening to digest and reflect upon, Hou’s Café Lumiere is a wonderful work. Envisaged as a tribute (more so than a stylistic homage) to Yasujiro Ozu in the year we celebrate (don’t we?) the 100th anniversary of his birth, Café Lumiere, if you put faith in the literal translation of the original Japanese title, is simply about Coffee, Time and Light. There is a plot upon which Hou hangs the exploration of these facets of daily life, but it’s so inconspicuous, and expertly underplayed, that you hardly notice it. Pop star Yo Hitoto is exquisite as Yoko, an independent researcher who has recently become pregnant. Her friend, Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), runs a bookstore and is an avid fan of the Japanese rail system. He shares Yoko’s affection for coffee and helps her find historical documents related to her fascination in an old Taiwanese musician who used to spend time in Tokyo. The story behind Yoko’s pregnancy is carefully withheld to the conclusion, as is the explanation for the numerous references to her umbrella collection…

More so than they ever did for Ozu, images and sounds of trains dominate Hou’s aesthetic invention. A favoured composition is returned to on several occasions, a wide shot presenting a swarm of multiple train carriages twisting through, above and around a network of tunnels. In one astonishing long take, the camera zoom-pans from a medium shot of Yoko in a train moving left of screen to a similar scale shot of Hajime in another train, further across the tracks, moving in the opposite direction. Hajime spends half the movie hopping between trains, field recording the ambient noise that inhabits their space. Through this narrative engagement, we’re invited to find pleasure, just as he does, in listening attentively. Typically for Hou, off-screen space is also maximised: after a character exits screen space, only curtains fluttering in the breeze, washing drying in the sun and common household objects remain, but while the motionless camera fixes and restricts our vision it also draws us closer to a mode of detailed observation. The result is a enveloping film experience that will no doubt reveal many extra layers of technical aptitude, beauty and meaning upon additional viewings.

From Thailand, I caught The Overture, a biographical melodrama featuring some ferocious performances on the ranad (a traditional Thai instrument, similar to a xylophone), and Baytong, Nonzee Nimibutr’s latest film about a monk forced out of the monastery to look after his neice after an act of terrorism kills his sister, her mother. Neither of these charming pictures is entirely successful. Overture develops two dramatically overblown plot threads that distract from the marvellously energetic and comically entertaining ranad showdowns between a youthful prodigy and a temperamental master. Baytong, which I nevertheless enjoyed quite a lot, tries hard to personalise explicitly Muslim terrorist activity, but then enigmatically and unsatisfyingly remains distanced from the ethnic politics it has so carefully established. I met Nonzee briefly, and utterly failed to engage him in this topic: he did, however, exclaim “Cool!” upon receiving the prototype Heroic Cinema business card, so you can imagine how low you would have to stoop to trivially browbeat such a vocal supporter!

The Beautiful Washing Machine is almost unnoticeably a ghost story, at least according to its Malaysian director James Lee. A lonely man purchases a second-hand washing machine that fails to work unless others are around. In a moment of boredom and frustration, the man puts a frozen chicken inside it one night, and the next morning, a woman has bafflingly materialised and commenced manually washing his garments! The perplexing narrative continues when the man decides to pimp the taciturn woman and is murdered by her first, unsatisfied customer. With nowhere else to turn, Antonioni-like the plot keeps following the woman as she stumbles into an older widowed man’s family life where she continues silently housekeeping and unintentionally (?) pissing off the man’s hard-nosed daughter. A minimalist work that feels a little like a Tsai Ling-miang film, Washing Machine requires concentration and endurance but the final results are rewarding: it’s an accomplished low budget, digitally shot oddity that defies one-dimensional interpretation.

From mainland China, The Foliage is another Shu Qi vehicle that the do-anything, ex-softcore skin flick actress rides with aplomb. In this heated sexual awakening set during the Cultural Revolution she plays a village girl whose life is changed in one key moment. Late for the bus that will take her home after a long journey to make an official request (that is callously denied), she starts desperately running after it. She catches the eye of a rebellious young man riding on top of the bus who forces it to stop. Had he kept snoozing and failed to notice her, they never would have met and at such a dangerous point in history she never would have fallen so crazily in love. Given its impoverished setting and despairing story, director Lu Yue, who photographed Shanghai Triad for Zhang Yimou, has captured a possibly too luscious visual environment, but I suppose that formal decision is unsurprising when it comes to framing up Shu Qi and her famous tresses.

…Which finally brings me to the latest and greatest from Hong Kong. With the achingly beautiful 2046, sublimely hearty McDull, Prince de la Bun, surprisingly effective Rice Rhapsody and the breezily skillful 20:30:40, there’s plenty to cheer about from (still) the world’s most entertaining cinema.

William Chang’s signature is all over 2046. His stupendous knack for marrying artifice with the concrete provides a stupendous tactility to the sets. In contrast to his amazing constructions, the plastic sheen of something like the boneheaded Casshern seems all the more ugly. It’s fine to talk about Chris Doyle and the other DOPs and marvel at their gorgeous mixed temperature lighting, fluid handheld camerawork, and creative shallow focus compositions, but without Chang’s locations the world they entrap with the lens would look and feel a lot more ordinary. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so immersed in the sensation of staring at and through the receding shadows in the secluded corner of a cracked, pale green wall! Chang also edited the film, underscoring the his importance to the success of the latest Wong Kar-wai movie and indicating how closely he and famously hesitant director collaborate. Suffice to say when 2046 opens on Australian screens next year, vacillating like Mr Wong is totally unnecessary: it’s a masterpiece.

Less astonishing is ex-Wong assistant Yan Yan Mak’s second feature, Butterfly. Josie Ho (Horror Hotline: Big Head Monster) is miscast and a little tiresome as a married woman struggling to accept her sexual identity. When she finds herself attracted to another woman, it triggers exhilarating memories of her high school lover, her first and only girlfriend. Notwithstanding a fine impulsive performance from Eric Kot as the woman’s blindsided husband, the piece never really ignites much passion. Spritely nostalgic flashbacks fail to gel with the heavier emotional content of the main thread, resulting in an inexorable, while not utterly tedious, push to a predictable finish.

Sylvia Chang’s renewed prominence in the Hong Kong film industry was on display in two films. She starred in Rice Rhapsody as the solo mum of three gay sons, and with a considerable degree of confidence both directed and co-starred (with Lee Sinje and Rene Liu) in the multi-generational 20:30:40. Unmistakably concept driven, 20:30:40 follows the slightly overlapping experiences of three individual women in Taipei aged 20, 30 and 40. Lee, who wants to be pop star, teams up with another energetic young woman to form a Twins-like singing act, and hardly notices her sexual awakening. Liu is a hotheaded, emotionally confused flight attendant accumulating a trail of jilted male lovers. And Chang is a florist who embraces the dating game after she discovers that her husband has been cheating on her for years. There’s a delightful warmth to the film that sustains its flimsy story, and thankfully there are only a few moments where the characters happen to cross paths simply to demonstrate how clever the filmmakers were to get everyone in the frame at the same time. As a failed rocker in Lee’s segment, Anthony Wong captures some of the laughs, but he can’t steal the show from the women, all of whom are terrific. Chang’s exhausting efforts to rebound, which include taking tennis lessions with a fitness freak sex addict, and Lee’s mischievous bedroom antics with her girlfriend are amusing highlights. There’s also one neat secene where Chang flips out upon getting that panicky, forgetful feeling we tend to have when our minds are concentrating on everything but the obvious.

While there was a general consensus that the event lacked a certain spark of freshness and overall quality this year, as a first-timer I can’t say I unquestionably shared that opinion. With such a large programme compressed into so few days, the major problem for me was getting tickets and finding time for everything I wanted to see. But the cool cats there from the start have witnessed how Pusan has quickly unfolded to become a major festival on the calendar. Supremely well orchestrated to that end, along with Hong Kong it remains the event for establishing Asian film industry networks, for questioning the past, present future of Asian cinemas, and for partying hard between larger and still more important film markets in Europe and America. So, as I was asked to say down the barrel of a camera for a local TV crew on closing night: ‘forever Busan’!

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