"If you think about Berlin, this city was ripped apart, so people here understand," said Chinese director Wang Quan'an today as the 60th Berlinale got underway. "People long to be together. In Asia, people deal with feelings differently then in the West, but the longing to be together is universal."
Wang related the historical experience of the German capital, divided by East and West during the decades of the Cold War, to his new film "Tuan Yuan" (Apart Together), which is having its world premiere tonight as the opening night film at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Thursday's opener delves into the divide between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. Fifty years after the establishment of the People's Republic of China and the republic on Taiwan, permission was given for a group of ex-soldiers from Taiwan to travel to Shanghai to reunite with family members. Their return forms the backdrop for one aging soldier, Lui Yansheng, who travels to a very different Shanghai than the one he fled decades before. His intentions, however, are a bit different from the others. He would like to reunite with his former love, Qiao Yu'e (Lisa Lu) and despite their many years of separation, she agrees. Family ties are convoluted in the story; Lui's son with Qiao is now an adult and loyal to her second husband (Lui's brother). Lui hopes to persuade the family to let his long lost love return with him to Taiwan by offering up money, but the proposal leads to a family outcry.
"In this film, we see geographical distance but also temporal distance," said Wang, who won the Berlinale's Golden Bear for "Tuya de hun shi" (Tuya's Marriage) in 2006. In "Apart Together," social niceties and reverence melt away during family dinners, revealing personal strife and problems that boil to the surface. "When families eat together, things become alive, but there are also arguments," Wang added today, saying that the story was inspired by real-life events.
"The most important relationships in my films are based on real truths, and I do a lot of interviews with people. I want to understand their stories and how their lives work," he explained.
"Apart Together" is screening in the Berlinale's Competition section, which will be judged by its seven jurors, who gave their insights and thoughts Thursday morning on a range of topics from this year's lineup to their own personal projects and even politics and female circumcision. This year's hallowed group of seven include jury president Werner Herzog, Italian director Francesca Comencini, German actress Cornelia Froboess, Chinese actress Yu Nana, actress Rene Zellweger, Spanish producer Jose Maria Morales and Somalian author, Nuruddin Farah.
"What constitutes a good film is nothing we can say exactly," said Herzog, dodging a question about the types of films the group might lean toward. "You never know if it will be a wonderful vintage year or not, it's hard to tell when you're starting out."
"I love to see what moves and teaches. A film resonates if it challenges what you think you know," said Zellweger, who later added that she doesn't quite comprehend the business side of the film world currently. "Marketers, I think, shy away from challenging film, but this is something I personally love."
"The most important thing is to really concentrate, to perceive the art within films without any prejudices," added Comencini. "Apart from making films, I love watching films."
The discussion of this year's lineup was temporarily sidelined when a German journalist asked Farah about female circumsicion, which the author said has been a consistent subject in his own work.
"Female Circumcision is a barbarous act and we must continue to educate [people] about the practice. It has been present in almost all of my work including my first novel ['From a Cooked Rib']," said the author. "It is good that people around the world know about this, but it's very important that people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and other places learn about this harmful practice."
Back to the immediate task of judging the films, more than one juror expressed their excitement at spending two weeks in Berlin to see what is in store for the Berlinale's 60th edition.
"There isn't clear cut criteria for this sort of thing," concluded Werner Herzog. "But I'm sure the art will come through."
Brian Brooks is the Managing Editor of indieWIRE and part of the team covering the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival.
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