Discovering Asia's Newest Auteurs & Learning from Classics at the 28th Hong Kong Fest
by Chris Fujiwara
Though this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival featured a number of worthy recent European films, it can be assumed that the main interest of most of the festival's foreign visitors was in its Asian offerings. Foremost among the Asian films I saw, Zhu Wen's "South of the Clouds" won both the Firebird Award for Young Cinema (given by a jury composed of Marco Bellocchio, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ann Hui, Erika Gregor, and Roger Garcia) and the award of the international critics' association, FIPRESCI (on whose jury I served along with Bombay-based festival program director and critic Sudhir Nandgaonkar and Hong Kong writer and critic Lawrence Pun). A work of stringent and serene intelligence, "South of the Clouds" combines a sense of absurdity with delicate sadness and a feeling of tragic necessity. The hero is an affable, usually disoriented middle-aged widower who, encouraged by his daughter, makes a trip to the Yunnan region of southern China. An embroilment with a prostitute leads to his being held under house arrest at his hotel -- a logical situation for a man who, like others of his generation, has spent his life "like trees, rooted wherever we're planted," as he says at one point. Zhu's style, classically limpid, recalls Rivette and Buñuel, both of whom he admires; the film's final stroke is a freeze frame that's both surprising and moving.
In "The Missing," Lee Kang-sheng (Tsai Ming-liang's regular star) makes his directorial debut with an exploration of loss, mapped onto urban space. The narrative concerns a woman searching for her missing grandson and a teenage boy searching for his missing uncle. Scenes depend on an intense visual or optical immersion in situations: a huge closeup of a boy's eyeball contains the reflection of a video-game screen; overhead shots render at once both outer and inner space, separated by partitions. The telephoto pans following the grandmother's frantic search through a park are among the rather rare aspects in which "The Missing" does NOT feel like a Tsai film, but despite the strong influence of Lee's mentor, "The Missing" can stand on its own as a poignant and beautifully controlled work.
Genjirou Arato's "Akame 48 Waterfalls" is, like "South of the Clouds," a film about a journey that takes on a metaphorical meaning. The hero is a young man who comes to a strange city (Osaka) and moves into a shady pension, where he spends days in his room skewering pieces of meat to be served in the restaurant downstairs. His odd encounters with the other residents fill out a disjointed narrative, which shifts into a kind of road movie when, in the last hour, the hero and a prostitute set out for the title tourist attraction. Arato's elegant use of Scope gives the film much understated urgency. Another metaphorical-journey film, Carol Lai's "The Floating Landscape" concerns a young woman who, grief-stricken over the death of her lover, an artist, visits the Qingdao area in search of the landscape he depicted in his last works. Though well-meaning and thoughtful, the film lacks tension and relies too much on photographic prettiness.
Three Chinese digital-video features resembled each other in both their virtues and their failings. Pan Jianlin's "Good Morning, Beijing" interweaves two inconclusive narratives, one about a disaffected massage-parlor girl; the other about a man who has a taxi drive him around Beijing while waiting to receive instructions from the kidnapper of his girlfriend. The film's main assets are its bleak nighttime atmosphere and its elegant compositional sense. In James Lee's "The Beautiful Washing Machine," two men -- a young office worker and a well-to-do widower -- come into successive possession of a passive, silent, inexplicable young woman. The first man treats her as a slave and pimps her out, before he is murdered; the second man brings her into his home, where she becomes the catalyst and focus of resentful power plays by his adult children. The film is more interesting for its Akerman- and Tsai-influenced formal qualities than as a rudimentary parable about women's oppression.
The best of these three films, Zhang Lu's "Tang Poetry" is a largely dialogue-less series of disconnected vignettes, set mostly in an apartment and dealing in an oblique manner with the relationship between an arthritis-stricken thief and his dancer girlfriend. The director's visual taste runs to vertical bands of light and shadow, against which the actors are more or less stranded. Classical Chinese poems (in intertitles) intersperse the film, lending a beauty and suggestiveness to which the stark and fitful narrative seems inadequate; a few moments are misjudged, including the suicidal ending, but on the whole the film is compelling.
The noteworthy offerings from Korea included Kim Gok and Kim Sun's "Capitalist Manifesto: Working Men of All Countries, Accumulate!," which teaches a few basic lessons in capitalism through playful and extended repetition (the same action, a young man's entering a room, occurs numerous times: usually, the pan that follows his entrance reveals three card players sitting on the floor, but sometimes a prostitute in face paint is there). The deranged hero of Jang Jun-hwan's "Save the Green Planet!" is a UFO-logist, beekeeper, and mannequin-maker who captures a macho businessman whom he believes to be a fifth-columnist from Andromeda, preparing the destruction of Earth. The battle of wills that ensues is absorbing, and director brings off his mixture of genres (horror, paranoid conspiracy thriller, fantasy, detective film, science-fiction) with panache.
I caught only a small sample of the films representing South Asia in the festival. Partho Sen Gupta's "Let the Wind Blow" offers a portrait of young people lured into a whirlpool of criminality and consumerism in contemporary India. The poor student hero still feels allegiance to the past (represented by the classical play his drama class is studying, his mother, and the beautiful middle-class female student who befriends him) but spends too much time with the aggressive, pessimistic pal who becomes the film's equivalent to the Robert De Niro character in "Mean Streets." Meanwhile, India and Pakistan are threatening each other with nukes. Though earnest and engrossing, the film is hampered by too much emphatic dialogue linking the characters' problems to social and political strife. A competent but predictable entertainment, Ekachai Uekrongtham's "Beautiful Boxer" concerns a sweet transvestite's rise to Thai kickboxing stardom. The film wears out its tenuous welcome through its cloying obeisances to two separate sets of clichés: those of the boxing film and those of the contemporary gender-bending comedy-drama.
The festival was distinguished by a wealth of retrospectives and special programs, devoted to, among others, Peter Kubelka, Stan Brakhage (in a series curated by Fred Camper), Ernst Lubitsch (16 films), Hiroshi Shimizu (13 films), art director William Chang (whose work with such directors as Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan, and Tsui Hark inspired the editors of the festival catalog to describe him as "the true artistic pivot of the Hong Kong New Wave"), and actors Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, both of whom died in 2003. There was something for everyone, even cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who, asked about the presence in the Chang and Cheung/Mui retrospectives of several films that he had shot, replied: "Maybe I'll go and see those films at last."
I managed to catch several Shimizu films, which confirmed my growing awareness of this contemporary of Ozu (born the same year, 1903) as one of the greats of Japanese cinema. "Forget Love for Now" (1937), "The Masseurs and a Woman" (1938), and "Notes of an Itinerant Performer" (1941) are dazzling journeys through the unexpected, on three levels: narrative, style, and emotion. Although Shimizu has sometimes been seen as a competent laborer in a variety of genres (he was extremely prolific, directing 163 films from 1924 to 1959), each of these three films is heedless of genre and imperious in its demand to be taken on its own terms.
A major retrospective of Cantonese melodramas from the 1950s and 1960s opened a window on a filmmaking universe both familiar (in its broad concerns and emotional range) and strange (in its protocols and passageways). I saw three films in the series. A striking and enjoyable film on the theme of the solidarity of the urban poor, Lee Tit's "In the Face of Demolition" (1953) takes place mostly in an apartment building inhabited by people clutching at the lower rungs of the middle class: a nightclub taxi dancer, a teacher who is thrown out of work, a jobless draftsman who is reduced (to everyone's unconcealed shock and dismay) to selling his blood. Characters are quickly and deftly characterized, with much humor, and the dominant tone is affectionate; but the film doesn't shrink from establishing that the characters' problems are linked to social conditions and to the greed and ruthlessness of landlords. The mise-en-scène has a Renoirian flavor, and at certain points, the film clearly recalls "Le Crime de M. Lange": like Renoir's hero, the teacher hero of "In the Face of Demolition" is an aspiring writer who is promised the moon by a would-be publisher and gets let down badly.
Although director Lee Sun-fung is considered enough of an auteur in Hong Kong to have warranted his own retrospective and a large book dedicated to his work, I found his "Anna" (1955), a loose transposition of "Anna Karenina," somewhat stilted. The lighting and mise-en-sc`ne sometimes recall the more hastily shot of Buñuel's Mexican films, but Buñuel's humor and inspiration are lacking; everything here is sober and restrained, though at the same time recognizably "melodramatic" in a rather rigid way (everyone seems to be acting a type, especially Anna's husband, a complete jerk with a pencil moustache).
More lively and compelling, "Winter Love" (1968) is an outrageous film, but also chilling in the directorial control exercised by Chor Yuen (a.k.a. Chu Yuan, known in the West for his many Shaw Bros. martial-arts films of the 1970s). A successful young novelist falls in love with a pretty girl whom he meets by chance in his regular coffee shop. At first she pretends to be rich, but he discovers that she works as a call girl. Layers of backstory unfold in flashbacks, establishing that both the man and the woman come from poor backgrounds. Bizarre plot twists lead to a hyperbolic showdown in a deserted soccer stadium, where it's revealed that the call girl's drug-addict husband is the novelist's childhood friend (and not just any friend: the very one who smashed open his piggy bank to pay for the hero's father's funeral). Characterized by a horror of poverty and a predisposition to moral outrage, "Winter Love" paints everything in the broadest possible strokes, displaying a flair for stark contrasts and images that come at the viewer naked (including some moments suggestive of horror and fantasy cinema, such as the masked apparitions of the heroine and her sister). It's interesting to note the use of instrumental versions of "Eleanor Rigby" and "Happy Together" during a party of the debauched rich; the film also appropriates the love theme from "Doctor Zhivago": the heroine's favorite song, it's played at several points in the film, including her death scene.