Many festivals around the world offer enough features to fill an encyclopedia, but many brand themselves with a specialty. Sundance is known for its American indies and Telluride for its tributes. The Vancouver International Film Festival — weighing in at 16 days, featuring 350 films — could be known for many things: its hospitality, its rain, its scope. But it’s best known for its East Asian programming, presented from its perch on the Pacific Rim, selected by British critic and curator Tony Rayns.
Last year, Rayns announced, would be his the final year at Vancouver. But while he did, in part, hand over the reins to Chinese-language film expert Shelly Kraicer, it was no surprise to many to see, on awards night for the Dragons & Tigers competition last Thursday, a sanguine Rayns recalling the “choked-up farewell speech” he gave the previous year before introducing the jury for the Dragons & Tigers competition films he once again curated.
The Dragons & Tigers program collects films from a variety of Asian countries — this year, films from China, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea were particularly prominent. Among those 40-plus features (also programmed are a large number of shorts), eight compete for the “Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema,” a prize upped this year from $5,000 to $10,000, and awarded in the past to promising filmmakers like Jia Zhangke (“Xiao Wu,” 1998) and Kore-eda Hirokazu (“Mabarosi,” 1995) who’ve often proceeded on to much international fame.
It was two Chinese films the jury (Korean filmmaker Jang Sun-Woo, Bangkok Post critic Kong Rithdee, and filmproducer/critic Colin McCabe) chose this year: Robin Weng‘s “Fujian Blue,” tragicomic diptych that the jury found to be “an extremely realistic film about contemporary China, showing why and how so many present-day Chinese try to emigrate illegally from the southern coastal province of Fujian,” and Zhang Yuedong‘s “Mid-Afternoon Barks,” a surrealist series of stories tripping off modernization motifs that the jury found “witty” and “well-observed.” A Jury Special Mention went to “Obbah: A Girl’s Elder Brother,” by Kim Jong-Guk. The South Korean film was created in one long 63-minute take outside the old Seoul Station, and was honored for its “formal invention and insight into the complexity of contemporary Korea.”
All three films were certainly discoveries, and their directors employed ingenuity with what looked to be low-budgets and technical limitations. While many festivals fill their coffers with cherry-picked selections straight off the circuit, or delivered via generic means through the Internet, Vancouver’s outreach to young cinemas across the ocean is certainly something to be lauded. New curator Kraicer, who’s been writing about Chinese language cinema since 1994, and is based in Beijing, told me he uses networks of young filmmakers, producers, academics, and supporters of independent films to find work before they hit the circuit. His Dragons and Tigers offerings — from not only mainland China, but also Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore — attempt, he said, to “show the widest spectrum of unexpected Asian images, from commercial films to those that arrive via alternative routes.” He avoids certain cliches when speaking of Chinese filmmaking — “banned” and “underground” films — though he acknowledges some films do, of course, undergo censorship. Instead, he says, he considers independents “unauthorized films,” and tries to tap into their networks of distribution.
Taken as a whole, the Dragons and Tigers films certainly spanned a variety of genres, budgets, ethnicities, and philosophies, from “Island Etude,” possibly the most non-commercial film ever to be Taiwan’s number one commercial hit of the year (“Lust, Caution” has now outstripped it), to an audience-pleasing, but not censor-pleasing, noir comedy with a gay subplot from Indonesia, “Dead Time,” to the sexually extroverted but strangely faith-based Malaysian romantic comedy, “Gubra,” to two very young films from Japan that mine the troubled youth demographic for storylines.
One of those, “Bare-Assed Japan,” made its international premiere with a story of vegetable farming, debasement, and emotional release. The other, an international premiere, “This World of Ours,” takes a few characters on a “Clockwork Orange“-styled ride, and its nihilism is certainly a work of imagination. It was created by Nakajima Ryo, a director who suffered for a few years before making the film as a hikikomori, “shut-in kid,” which is one who doesn’t leave his room for fear of the outside world’s expectations. The film, he told the audience at Vancity Theatre after a screening in a Q&A that curator Rayns said was the longest of the festival, broke him out of his shell. It must have — he not only directed it, he wrote, shot, and, over four years, edited it himself. Looking at the mid-20s director fresh out of his catatonic closet, the audience was witnessing an instance of “young film” at its most vulnerably youthful, and Vancouver “discovery” curating at its best.