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Mostly Asian, and why not?

Thursday | October 5, 2006   open printable version open printable version

David here:

A correspondent asks: Why am I spending so much time at the Vancouver Film Festival watching Asian movies?

Well, I have dabbled in other regions. Most recently, I enjoyed Eugène Greene’s short Signs, a metronome-and-protractor movie that nonetheless harbors a sharp sting of emotion. More straightforwardly entertaining was Aki Kaurismaki’s Lights in the Dusk. You’ve seen the story’s premise before, both in film noir (femme fatale dooms hero) and in other Kaurismaki films (loser comes stubbornly back for more trouble, and gets it). But it’s as usual filmed in a laconic, Bressonian way, and we get another Kaurismaki protagonist who is blank-faced, obstinate, more than a bit thick, and, despite everything, quixotic.

Still, Asian films have come first for me, as for many others here. Why? The evidence is clear: Since the 1980s, movies from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Mainland China, South Korea, and more recently Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines have offered an almost unrivaled range of accomplishment. (Want names? Tsui Hark, John Woo, Wong Kar-wai, Kitano Takeshi, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Jia Zhang-ke, and on and on.) The energy hasn’t flagged, and Vancouver has been in the forefront of supporting this tidal wave of talent. Tony Rayns’ brilliant programming has set an international standard, and the festival’s Dragons and Tigers competition for first features have brought many young filmmakers to world attention.

So herewith some more outstanding Asian revelations from my final Vancouver days:

Hana: Kore-eda keeps surprising us; each film is quite different from the one before. In a downtrodden neighborhood of Edo (the old name for Tokyo), people live in mud and dung, struggling to get by. Some of the loyal 47 ronin wait impatiently to avenge their executed lord, while a young man hangs around trying to find his father’s killer. But the fact that the youth is a fairly inept warrior tips you off to the essentially comic vision underlying this warm movie. Add in a bully who isn’t actually a bad guy and a gallery of low-life neighborhood types, who pass the time rehearsing a play that unwittingly satirizes the samurai ethos. The result is a film that probes the righteousness of vengeance with tact and vulgar humor. Everybody I know wanted to see this again, right away.

My Scary Girl (Korea): The Trouble with Harry meets The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. Dae-Woo has never had a date, but he decides to start with his cute neighbor. He doesn’t know that she’s a Woman with a Past, not to mention a fairly worrisome Present and an ominous Future. Romantic comedy shifts to black comedy, and bowling pins mix with lopped-off fingers. It’s a crowd-pleaser, and Hollywood will probably rush to remake it. But will an American director have the guts to keep the very logical but not wholly happy ending?

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone: Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang has provocative ideas and burnished imagery, but sometimes I’ve thought he’s too clever by half. This movie, his first in his native Malaysia, won me over because it seems to play to all his strengths. Four people intersect around, under, and on a mattress, with an extra character as a kind of comatose sentinel. Tsai’s gorgeous imagery isn’t just pretty for its own sake. Like Tati, he can design compositions which are actually funny, and his long takes give us time to probe the textures and crannies of staircases, a building site, and ordinary streets. The film’s last shot is alone worth the price of admission.

No Mercy for the Rude (Korea): This time the hitman is a mute (or is he?) vowing to kill only the really bad people, and hoping to accumulate enough pay to afford an operation on his “short tongue.” He falls in with a street kid and a hooker, and as the seriocimic plot unfolds we get the very Asian insistence that childhood innocence can be recovered even in the midst of carnage. The film indulges in some flights of fancy—a hitman’s picnic, a hitman who’s a ballet dancer—before coming to its satisfying end in, of all places, a bullring.

Faceless Things: Warnings about gay sadomasochism to the contrary, this doesn’t offer much you can’t see in Warhol or Waters. What it does provide is three shots. The first, nearly 45 minutes long, provides virtually a one-act play about a motel tryst between a businessman and his teenage lover. The second shot shifts us to an anonymous sexual encounter that is admittedly fairly off-putting, but handled with the mix of casual framing and off-kilter suspense we find in, again, Warhol. The very last shot is very brief and puts the other two into a new context. Director Kim Kyong-Mook is only in his early twenties, but his ambition and daring make him a filmmaker to watch.

My last night has come all too soon. So just to make sure that the Europeans are still at work, I’ll check on the French cop movie Le Petit Lieutenant. I’ll end with another Dragons and Tigers entry, the Taiwanese movie Do Over.

Maybe a Chinese dinner afterward. Film isn’t the only thing that Asians do well.

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