The 20th Vancouver International Film Festival - A Report
by Lisa Roosen-Runge
Lisa Roosen-Runge lives in Toronto, Canada, where there is still one remaining first-run Hong Kong cinema. She spends her spare time trying keeping up on current Asian films.
www.viff.org , September 27 to October 12, 2001 - Vancouver, Canada
A Drowning Man (ICHIO Naoki, 2000)
The Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) celebrated its 20th anniversary this year to deserved acclaim. Its commitment to showcasing the latest in Asian film is unparalleled internationally, and is what makes VIFF invaluable for Asian cinema fans. This year, VIFF showed over 40 East Asian feature-length films, as well as a wide selection of short films and videos. The films were selected under the direction of Tony Rayns, who considers everything from student works to those by internationally renowned auteurs. In addition to the most recent works by HOU Hsiao-hsien (Millenium Mambo/Qianxi Mambo) and TSAI Ming-Liang (What time is it there?/Ni Neibian Jidian) (two of my most memorable 2001 films so far), the 2001 films of Ann HUI On-Wah (Visible Secret/Youling Ren Jian) and Stanley KWAN Kam-Ping (Lan Yu) were included. Vancouverites were not missing much from this year's crop of important international art films. This report concentrates on some of the new Asian directors at VIFF. While the fabled West Coast rain did not hold off throughout my visit, the overall atmosphere of the Festival remains cheerful and accessible. The low-key atmosphere is a definite bonus, as one can basically stroll into a film of one's choice 20 or 30 minutes ahead of time and directors are available to chat with the audience after many films. Quite a change from the advance planning required of the Toronto International Film Festival! All films are 35mm unless otherwise noted. (By the way, the purpose of the shaker can labelled "yeast" at the Cinémathèque is apparently to put on top of popcorn. I think it is a West Coast trend.)
The Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema consists of $5,000 CAD awarded to a Pacific Asian director for their first (or second) feature film, chosen by an international jury. This was the 10th year of the competition, and the nine films came from Mainland China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. I was able to view seven: Birdland/Chengshi feixing (HUANG Min-Chen, 2000), A Drowning Man (ICHIO Naoki, 2000), Go For Broke/Heng shu heng (WANG Guangli, 2001), Mirror Image/Ming dai zhuizhu (HSIAO Ya-Chuan, 2001) Nabi-The Butterfly (MOON Seung-Wook, 2001), The Orphan of Anyang/Anyang de guer WANG Chao, 2001), and Sorum (YOON Jong-Chan, 2001).
The Orphan of Anyang was the film I found the most intriguing amongst the competition films. It is an underground independent production, meaning it was made without adhering to the required Chinese bureaucratic procedures and consequently cannot legally be exhibited in China. A first film written, directed and co-edited by WANG Chao and based on a novel written by the director, Orphan is set in a mid-sized industrial city where many factories are closing down and layoffs are prevalent. The opening scenes of the male protagonist, YU Dagang, wandering through the town, including an empty factory site, tell a great deal without dialogue. In fact, dialogue is not the main feature of Orphan. Much of the time the camera is across the street from the action, and passing vehicles block our view of the characters we are trying to follow. The plot involves unemployed 40-ish Dagang, prostitute FENG Yanli (ZHU Jie), her infant son and small-time gangster boss Si-de. Yanli offers the cash equivalent of 100 bowls of the cheapest noodles per month for anyone to take in and care for her child. Dagang decides to try it (despite his lack of experience), while Si-de is both deciding how to handle the idea that this infant may be his son and facing his own serious health issue. As the film progresses, Dagang and Yanli grow closer, even posing for a 'family' photo. She continues to work; he runs a street-side bicycle repair stand. I enjoyed the scenes of Dagang and Yanli strolling through the outdoor markets carrying the baby in its red quilt, contemplating small purchases. The view of winter in this fading town makes life seem very dismal, and the film's ending, open-ended as it may be, shuts out the possibility of pleasant life options for Yanli, except at best in her imagination.
Birdland, another winner at the 2000 Taipei Film Festival, also screened previously at the HKIFF 2001. I found this 16mm film confusing the first time I saw it. The director Q&A session following the screening helped as the director explained his vision for the film as a comment on the uncertain future of Taiwan as a nation. Taipei's gritty edges are shown here rather than glossy Western-style consumer lifestyles. The two characters played by the same actor can be difficult to follow.
The final Chinese-language film in the competition, Go For Broke, was a feature recreating events in the lives of laid-off factory workers in Shanghai. The workers play themselves, and the film was shot on location in 12 days without multiple takes, costumes, make-up, extra lighting and other usual trappings of filmmaking. We are introduced to the cast of characters as they go about trying to establish their business. Led by the charismatic entrepreneur ZHANG Baozhong, the start-up renovation company has a series of ups and downs. Zhang's instincts are leading the company to the brink of financial disaster, so he decides to try the new municipal lottery. Will a win really change their fate? A few of the characters are more prominently portrayed than others, such as the woman treasurer risking her savings to buy an apartment or the taxi driver who has twin daughters with disabilities. Again modern urban China is depicted as beset with problems as it strives to blend old and new ways, perhaps insolubly. This is an independently-made film which has permission to be exhibited in China, and I am curious how it will be received there. Very few of the millions of Chinese laid-off factory workers will be able to solve their problems through winning a lottery.
I definitely disliked Sorum. Again and again many Korean films exhibit terrible attitudes towards women, and this film would not convince me otherwise. An orphaned young male taxi driver with a somewhat mysterious past moves into a run-down apartment building with its own murky history. Most of the film seems to be set on rainy nights, leading to dark glistening scenes. Very complicated family relationships are exposed over the course of the film, as well as a number of murders. There is a supernatural element to the film, but this has a lesser role than one may have thought. Not at all to my taste, I regret staying to the end.
Nabi The Butterfly also featured an orphaned taxi driver, and there was a lot of rain, but luckily the similarities with Sorum ended there. This film is set slightly in the future, when an "oblivion virus" is rampant which erases recent memories (somewhat similar to the magic wine in Ashes of Time [Wong Kar-Wai, 1994] that still allows affected characters to remember how to speak and walk). Tourists come from around the world on special tours of the unnamed Korean city to try to deliberately catch this virus, following the trails of shimmering butterflies to lead them to exposure sites. An independently-minded and self-sufficient Korean woman, Anna KIM (KIM Ho-Jung, winner of Best Actress award at the 2001 Locarno festival), who has been living in Germany, arrives intending to forget her present bad memories. Her young tour guide Yuki (KANG Hae-Jung) is seven months pregnant and is not very successful at bringing Anna to meet the virus. The orphan cab driver K (JANG Hyun-Sang) is suspicious of Yuki's ailments, and is using his taxi to try to find his parents amongst his passengers. Dangerous acid rain is prevalent, and since the best way to remove it is to have a shower, there are a few more shower scenes than one might otherwise expect. All three main characters have physical scars which are connected to their relationship with children. Yuki and Anna also share an evening of shopping, arcade games, chatting and home cooking, adding some background to the characters. Yuki eventually gives birth in a very striking scene at the beach.
The look of the film is very stylized, with much attention given to the colour palette. The Butterfly was shot on digital video and projected on 35mm film. The discussion of memory and family ties may not provide any earth-shaking revelations or replace Afterlife (Hirokazu KORE-EDA, 1998), in my view one of the best filmed reflections on memory, but perhaps I was too pleased at the lack of violent rape or murder to notice. Some other viewers took this film to have an especially environmentalist attitude. I admit that the revelation about Anna's expired passport did not make any sense to me, and I was confused by the extra non-Yuki character played by the same actress. I also did not find the epilogue completely necessary. Still, The Butterfly is recommended as an unusual film despite the minor caveats.
While not in the official Dragons and Tigers competition, the Festival included other first or second feature films by Asian directors, some of which are noteworthy. Seafood/Haixian (ZHU Wen, 2001) or Fish and Elephant/Yu he Daxiang (aka Jin Nian Xiatian) (LI Yu, 2001) could have fit into the competition in my view.
Haixian/Seafood (ZHU Wen, 2001) won a special jury award in the Cinema of the Present Lion of the Year section of the 2001 Venice Film Festival (where it was sometimes referred to Frutti de Mari), and the film had quite a lot of hype preceding it in Vancouver. It is an underground independent film shot on digital video and transferred to 35mm film. Set just prior to Chinese New Year in the cold snowy winter off-season in Beidaihe, the summer resort for Communist Party leaders, we follow a depressed yet striking looking young woman, who goes by ZHANG Xiaomei among other names (played by JIN Zi) as she looks for an open hotel. She doesn't speak much, and we infer that she is suicidal from her actions and demeanour rather than her words. A police officer, DENG (CHENG Taisheng), takes a particular interest in her well-being; he decides that she is a prostitute intent on suicide and that he can convince her to stay alive. His main methods are very questionable sexual assault and stalking and he also tries to convince her that eating seafood makes life worth living (he has a three-point explanation of this theory). For a few days they eat seafood and drive around the sights of frozen Beidaihe; she has a cold, then he has a cold. As they walk around on the crunchy snow he takes a lot of snapshots of her, which I found somewhat jarring given the basis of their relationship. She doesn't seem remotely interested in him, but she doesn't manage to successfully avoid him either. Deng seems to be a domineering and corrupt policeman, always involved in a series of favours and gifts, and his domestic life seems cruel and perverse as well. There is a strange dream-like segment where an old peasant woman claims she has been robbed, and Deng tries to chase the robbers. I would like to have more information on the Chinese music Deng listens to on his car radio; it includes pop music, odd historical ballads of emperors, and opera. The end of the Beidaihe section of the film puts Zhang in an impossible situation with Deng, and it doesn't end at all as Deng might expect. There is a surprising epilogue, also somewhat focussed on money. It is difficult to discuss this film's endings without revealing too much of the plot, but at least one is a triumph for Zhang. This intense and well-constructed film holds up to scrutiny, but I admired rather than enjoyed watching it.
Yu he Daxiang (aka Jin Nian Xiatian)/Fish and Elephant (LI Yu, 2001) was another Chinese underground independent first feature, shot on 16mm and directed by the novelist/media personality LI Yu. Fish and Elephant was also shown at the 2001 Venice Film Festival. It was billed at VIFF as the "first lesbian film ever made in China", which may be overstating the director's intentions. Li, who was quite firm that she herself is not a lesbian, stated that she wanted to make a feature continuing the themes explored in her documentaries the relationships women have with each other, the modern mother-daughter relationship, and the current status of women in China. Whilst experiencing trouble casting professional actors for the film, she happened to meet a young lesbian couple in a bar, and convinced them to act in her film along with other non-professional actors. Fish and Elephant follows a young woman Xiaoqun (PAN Yi) as her divorced mother hounds her by telephone to go on an endless series of blind dates with apparently eligible bachelors. These dating scenes are very droll yet simultaneously depressing they are set in interesting-looking teahouses where the men do most of the talking until Xiaoqun tells them she is not remotely interested in men. ("That's impossible!" is the usual response.) Xiaoqun is an elephant keeper at a zoo and has pet fish at home. One day she tries on a hand-sewn jacket at a clothing stall, and is given a very large discount by the designer and stall owner, Xiaoling (SHITOU). Xiaoqun pursues Xiaoling in a quiet yet persistent way, despite the presence of Xiaoling's boyfriend. They move in together, and things are going smoothly until two more women arrive Xiaoqun's mother moves in to deal with the marriage problem in person and Xiaoqun's former lover, Junjun (ZHANG Qianqian), appears at the elephant house on the run from police. It is a very hot summer in Beijing. While the Junjun-related crime or incest subplots were not that interesting to me, generally this was a slightly unpolished yet thoughtful film. Xiaoqun and Xiaoling's relationship has highs and lows, and seems realistic (with endless cigarette smoking instead of talking!). I feel it is quite a feat for non-professional actors to convincing play themselves on film. Some of the mother-daughter scenes were quite touching, including Xiaoqun's mother listening to tapes of the rock musician CUI Jian over and over, and when her mother cooks a special meal of dough-drop soup for the 'roommates'. The scene where Xiaoqun explains to her mother that she is not interested in getting married, and is in fact gay, was shot from across the restaurant where they are eating, even including an intermediate table's customers in the shot, providing an unusually remote perspective on a key plot development.
Fish and Elephant might be overlooked by film festivals in favour of other more glossy underground Chinese films produced this year. However, I would recommend it and will keep an eye out for her future works.
Roots and Branches/Wo de Xiongdi Jiemei (YU Zhong, 2001) is diametric to Fish and Elephant, the epitome of an official commercial film. A box-office smash in China, it's the sort of film that is often described in festival catalogues as 'heart-warming'. It stars Gigi LEUNG Wing-Kei, a very popular Hong Kong model/actress whose acting skills are not on the same plane as her idol stature. The plot follows the family of a music teacher Mr. QI (CUI Jian) who suffer physical deprivation in the Cultural Revolution, but happily sing together in the evenings. The two boys and two girls become separated, which is explained to us in a series of flashbacks. About 15 years later, the older sister Sitian (played by Gigi Leung) returns to China for the first time to conduct an orchestra and to search for her family. JIANG Wu (of Shower/Xizao [ZHANG Yang, 1999] fame) is her oldest brother Yiku, a taxi driver who uses his taxi to try to find his family. XIA Yu (star of Yangguang Canlan de Rizi/In the Heat of the Sun, JIANG Wen, 1994) is wasted here in a minor role as her younger brother. David LI, the young star who works very hard in another much more serious VIFF film, Denghou Dong Jianhua Fala/From the Queen to the Chief Executive (Herman YAU, 2000), is cast as Sitian's flashy boyfriend/assistant. Many tears are shed on screen and in the audience; this is an unabashed mainstream crowd-pleaser.
Roots and Branches was the Chinese film that seemed most popular with audiences many times I heard it discussed while waiting in line-ups for entry to other Asian films. I will continue to try to avoid heart-warming films in the future.
Hua Yang de Nianhua was a three-minute short complied by WONG Kar-Wai to be shown before a fundraising premiere screening of his film Hua Yang Nian Hua/In The Mood for Love (2000) at the Hong Kong Film Archive. As ZHOU Xuan sings the title song, actresses (including Zhou Xuan, LI Lihua, HUNG Sin-nui) flicker by in excerpts from Mandarin-language films produced in Hong Kong and collected by the Archive. William CHANG Suk-Ping edited this fast-moving short. I could have watched it a few more times as I could not keep up with the parade of beauty crossing the screen.
VIFF continues to be a crucial stop for fans, critics and film festival programmers in search of exciting new Asian cinema. Life lessons learned from films: exhibit caution around an orphaned taxi driver; bundle up before heading to China in winter; call the ambulance first, make coffee later; and a girl won't smoke if she has a boyfriend to talk to. I look forward to VIFF 2002.
© Lisa Roosen-Runge, October 2001
For other reports on film festivals, check our Film Festivals page.
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