SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL 2008 – WHAT'S ASIA GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Some are outrageous and confronting, some are exciting, some are riveting -
and some are made illegally: East Asian Cinema is making huge strides on the
international film circuit and festivals are keen to get on board. The 2008
Sydney Film Festival (June 4 – 22) has programmed a broad and representative
selection. Former Melbourne Film Festival director and film distributor, Geoff
Gardner, offers 10 Thoughts on Asian movies as a teaser.
1 There are some areas where Asian film-makers have cornered the world
market. Animated films featuring sex, bloody and extreme violence, carnage
and subversive thoughts about society have become the hallmark of Japanese
cinema. At first, maybe around the time of Akira this was a product of the
nation’s fascination with the graphic novel or manga but now it’s full-fledged
international industrial phenomena. The SFF’s offering, Shinji Aramaki’s
Appleseed Saga: Ex Machina gives aficionados a fix on the future with nods to
2 China is a gobbler upper. Since Hong Kong lost it’s ‘independence’ in
1997, film-making in the former colony has slowed and increasingly integrated
itself into mainstream Chinese production. The creaking and archaic Chinese
studio system has been invigorated to a degree by foreign investment and the
relocation of key production figures like Tsui Hark to Beijing. This has meant
that commercial production is belting along and even key independent film-makers
like Jia Zhangke can find a niche within the system. It can at least now cope
with his tales of alienation and loneliness. Jia’s Useless is a documentary
meditation on change and the loss of ‘Chinese values’.
3 Resourcefulness is at a premium. Some Chinese film-makers still don’t
always trouble the authorities with meaningless and bureaucratic applications
for permission to make their films, export their films or screen them at
overseas film festivals. They take the inevitable rap on the knuckles. This
usually takes the form of a request to pay a visit to some harassed and fearful
official at a ‘Bureau’ somewhere to ‘explain’ how these things came about. They
then get on with the job of making another movie. Peng Tao’s Little Moth which
delves into the shameful trade in disabled children, using them as begging bait
on the streets, has all the aching humanity as any film by the Dardenne brothers
or, to make a probably too grand claim, the Bresson of Balthazar and Mouchette.
Authorities don’t necessarily appreciate humanity on screen.
"a small miracle"
4 Resourcefulness is everywhere. Filipino cinema has given us a bright
new star. His name is Brillante Mendoza and. With the speed and facility of
Fassbinder he has made five films in three years, a pace unparalleled in today’s
production climate and we have to scramble to keep up. His last two, Foster
Child and Slingshot, both have a sense of documentary immediacy, using actors in
real-life settings. Slingshot in particular has drawn comparisons with the work
of Robert Altman with its network narrative set among a poverty stricken
community living in a tenement in a down at heel part of Manila.
5 The skill to do network narratives isn’t confined to Hollywood. Mendoza’s
Slingshot is just one smart movie juggling characters and plots with gusto.
Taiwanese tyro Singing Chen, whose first film Bundled featured at an earlier SFF,
has come up with the smart, droll and surprising God Man Dog, featuring a pop
singer, her spiritualist husband, a guy with a truck transporting Buddhist
statues and a petty thief. Their individual stories are all meshed together in
what Shelly Kraicer calls “a small miracle (which) keeps all those balls in the
air, crisscrossing in delightfully unexpected ways, creating image after image
of astonishing beauty and building to a series of climaxes whose magic seems
gracefully easy, completely earned and uncannily rhapsodic.”
6 South Korea is the powerhouse. Just as its industrial production
elbowed Japan out of the way, South Korean cinema has shaken and stirred the
Asian melting pot. More of its films get remade, more of its high end quality
film-makers get foreign funding, more of its films routinely win prizes. Its
producers back mavericks like Jang Sun-Woo, action men like Ryoo Seung-wan,
smart and sassy genre masters like Bong Joon-ho and Ozu acolytes like Hur
Jin-ho. Then there is the case of Hong Sang-soo. He has spent over a decade
meditating on the battle of the sexes, making movies that with titles like The
Woman on the Beach and The Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, which are
redolent with references to western art. But Hong strides through this with
stories that deflate male egos, sympathetically show female wile and, in the
end, reveal mutual incomprehension. His films crackle with sexual tension and,
in some cases, are as about as explicit as you can get. This year’s is Night and
7 Masters and Apprentices. Taiwan’s cinema has a great tradition by which
its major figures actually devote time to developing other talent more broadly.
A couple of decades ago two titans emerged, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang.
They were intimately involved in each other’s work, Hou acting and producing
Yang’s early masterpiece Taipei Story. Hou has continued to involve himself with
others. So too has the third titan Tsai Ming-liang,. Tsai’s fetish lead actor
Lee Kang-sheng has turned to film-making himself and has now made two features.
Help Me Eros seems so small scale that it’s hard to get a grip on. The lead,
played by Lee, is living through a quick descent into poverty. His human contact
is a girl in a call centre and a sassy cigarette seller who dispenses betelnut
to good customers and is being harassed by the club owner she works for. Then
the surprises start and include a scene with an eel in a bathtub that does have
more than its share of sexual drollery.
"enthusiasm and an ability to make something
8 The hardest thing is getting on board early. I’ve already mentioned
Brillante Mendoza but what to say about Miike Takashi. His western spoof
Sukiyaki Western Django and his noirish take on teenage violence Crows: Episode
0, introduce SFF audiences to a director who has made gangster pictures, horror
movies, a kid’s film, comedies with bite and historical and contemporary action
pictures. Be warned. The director can be a major addiction. You will have
approximately 75 films to catch up with, made at a furious pace and dating back
only to the early 90s when Miike first got a start making low-budget gangster
flicks with brio and gusto that went straight to video. Those early pictures are
now revered and of course are very difficult to track down. But don’t delay.
Next year Miike will make another five or six pictures. Some won’t be so good,
some will be ripoffs of whatever else is fashionable. But there will be
something among them to make the blood curdle, the hairs on the back of the neck
stand up in outrage or sheer admiration. Miike’s movies remind you that
enthusiasm and an ability to make something whip-crack sharp and up to the
minute takes a smart film-maker a long way.
9 Japan’s classical tradition remains largely unknown but someone’s working
on it. We still haven’t seen any, or maybe its only most of Naruse, Shimizu
and others. That’s hardly the fault of the SFF, just an observation of how Japan
itself has only opened very narrow portals that allow us a look at it’s vast
output, especially the incredibly vibrant pre-World War 2 cinema. It’s just a
fact that there are certified masterpieces laying round the archives which may
never see the light of a projector in a subtitled copy. However, a single spark
can start a forest fire and the screening of Kinugasa Teinosuke’s A Page of
Madness is a cause for genuine celebration especially as it will be screened in
the vastness of the Sate Theatre with a live performance of Phillip Johnston’s
specially commissioned score.
10 Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are new frontiers. They
are not rich countries. They have not consciously set out to conquer the world
of the cinema and take over from others who went before. They have just made
quite an impact. Their film-makers are winning invitations to the major film
competitions, attracting the attention of quality oriented producers/investors
in Europe and elsewhere. They win prizes and create buzz that ought to make
Australia, its producers, its film bureaucrats and anybody else wishing to see
us get back to the once-attained highwater marks of world cinema have a good
hard look at themselves …. enough.
Published June 5, 2008
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