What Time is it There?

16 – 25 November 2001

The two cinemas hosting the Bangkok Film Festival, the Grand EGV and the United Artists, sit atop six floors of high-end merchandise, gleaming escalators and glass-walled elevators designed for maximum visual consumption. Very few, if any, cinemas in Bangkok exist independent of a shopping mall structure; it is the co-evolution of movies and shopping, where commercials are played alongside trailers before the start of a film, and the two, or even three, look virtually the same. The Grand EGV features a “Movie Walk,” a limp version of Universal Studios-type fare, with large fiberglass figures of Yoda sitting on a picnic bench or King Kong hunching his shoulders somewhere near the bathrooms. On a wall of celebrity portraits, Jacky Chan grins next to Kate Winslet next to Leonardo DiCaprio next to James Dean, and on a giant mural, Superman darts past a waddling Charlie Chaplin and a vacant-looking Brad Pitt from Meet Joe Black – all this before entering the theater. One gets the sense that they all arrived to Bangkok at the same moment, a formidable and undigested mass of film and marketing rushed through the projector for a quick profit. It is a formula that works. Though Thai films are shown, Hollywood sells and on the Movie Walk, where a giant statue of Jim Carrey in The Mask stands beside the theater entrance poised with a sledgehammer, Hollywood is watching you.

Before making any film, the Thai filmmaker must wrestle with Hollywood. Getting a Thai film shown in a Thai theater is not as easy as one might think; it requires toppling the Hollywood giant, or at least squeezing in next to it. During but not part of the Festival run, three Hollywood films were being shown on four screens at the EGV cinema, in addition to a single Thai and a single Korean film. For the Thai filmmaker, marketing, at both the local and international levels, becomes nearly synonymous with filmmaking itself. During a Festival Q&A session with Tony Rayns, film critic and longtime advocate of Asian cinema, Thai filmmakers asked an unusual question: what direction should Thai filmmaking go to attract international audiences? One could tell that they were new to this and were, for lack of anything else, looking to the Hollywood model of success, where art appeared as industry and vice versa. These filmmakers pursued their art in a national system where anything and everything can be sold, and success is the meter of survival. For them, the contradiction between artistic merit and marketability was not immediately apparent. It was reconciled, defused, and if the film looked good and made some money, everyone walked away happy. The please-everyone approach only goes so far, however, and its limitations were felt at the level of the Festival’s many and often conflicting interests.

“The point is not to make it big, but to make it interesting,” said Pimpaka Towira, the Festival’s programmer. Only four years old, the Bangkok Film Festival undertook the enormous task of broadening Thai audiences to international films and exposing international audiences to Thai films, a worthy sounding goal, but in the end it meant Thai audiences turned out for Thai films lacking English subtitles, Western audiences turned out for Western films lacking Thai subtitles, and for all but the biggest films, the theaters remained mostly empty. As a consideration, “interesting” films resulted in conservative choices, winning formulas over artistic daring, repetition over creativity.

In terms of local films, the Festival screened those about the young, made by the young, and presumably for the young, among them the internet thriller Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001), the bad boy rumble Die Bad (Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2000), and the sexually explorative Girls’ Night Out (Im Sang-Soo, 1998). Onscreen adolescent actors smoked and slouched, looking for or running away from those close to them. They were gaunt and stylish, never having enough money but always dressed in the right clothes. Their demons were large and abstract – prostitution, gangs, gambling – and they fought them alone, hopelessly, suffering the consequences of one wrong turn. It was the urban fable told with endless monotony, but the difference was that it happens in Asia, always with an eye to the West. “We grew up on American junk,” Daniel Wu wryly comments in Beijing Rocks (Mabel Cheung, 2000) and the film, like so many others currently being made, is the result of a childhood fed on french fries and advertising. It is a familiar refrain for the Asian adolescent, who, born under Western influence, adopted some of the idealism and skepticism of previous generations but moreover accepted many cultural contradictions whole, pillars of everyday realities. This, then, is the angle contemporary Asian filmmakers are taking: to represent the adolescent experience of today, with or without its myriad complexities. In Goal Club (Kittikorn Liewsirikul, 2001), a group of high school students film themselves with a camcorder, exclaiming, “this is the real life of Thai teenagers – we’re making the Thai Blair Witch!” The reference is surprisingly blunt and without irony. It is the easy permeation of one ideology into another, in this case the Western do-it-yourself ethic merged seamlessly with Bangkok street life. In theory, the Blair Witch model provides an opportunity for honest expression, though the film may have been nothing more than a grand hoax. Theory, however, is not enough. Too often it was traded for real substance, and the resultant films were victims of a system they had been so well-positioned to criticize. However urgent the imperative to tell the real story, it was buried beneath an onslaught of fast cuts and blurry camerawork, DV grit and an insistent techno beat. Anxious to sell or anxious to be understood, few of these films ever got off the ground. In another example of failed Blair-Witching (if success is even possible,) Return to Pontianak (Djinn, 2000) got lost in the Malaysian jungle and never found its way out. What began with potential – an adopted Asian-American girl in search of her mysteriously disappeared birth mother, the notion that even jaded young clubbers and techies must ultimately “return to where they are from”– dragged on in lengthy pouts, arguments, cigarette drags, and when in doubt, which was often, gratuitous tree shots, the camera sped across the blurred and decidedly un-scary sunlight streaming through the branches. Oxide Pang’s One Take Only (2001), the Festival’s closing film rushed to the theater only two hours after its final mix, also showed promise in its raw energy and rough poetry, but over-indulged in style: a music video aesthetic composed of stop-action photography, heavy contrast, and speed zooms that served to drown, rather than enhance, the developing story. These and the many films like them ran and ran out, simply because they never saw their target.

For most Thai films, “American junk” meant little more than the bitter root of living in a contemporary city whose Asian identity is inseparable from Western influence. Those that dealt with history, however, told a different story. Freedom was by no means an invention of the West, though in many Southeast Asian countries, it was delivered by Western hands. Telegram (Slamet Rahardjo Djarot, 2001) opens with a young girl reading aloud from a history textbook, turning to her father to ask why Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands was taken away as soon as it was given. Daku, the father, is a thoroughly modern man, a reporter and ardent defender of democracy, so much so that he cannot bring himself to face his traditional Balinese past. Similarly, the star-crossed lovers in Wong Kar-wai’s lyrical In the Mood for Love (2000), the Festival’s opening film, seemed to be in the right place at the right time, but never to the right effect. Southeast Asia of the ’60s was changing dramatically; it was becoming its own and it was becoming unrecognizable, both hideous and powerful. In the Mood for Love takes place on the eve of independence, at the top of the roller coaster’s penultimate suspension, moments before the fall. Sensing the imminent change, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) know they are powerless to stop it. They rehearse confrontations with their cheating spouses, they make plans to leave for Singapore together, but ultimately their preparations are not enough. “I didn’t expect it to hurt so much,” sobs Chan after Chow admits, as her husband, that he has a mistress. Things never happen as planned, nor as they are remembered. The film recognizes that the past belongs to the past, a world whose motives will forever remained enigmatic, clouded by memory, the very mechanism of retrieval. Freedom is but a notion that exists in the present to taunt the past and future, an abstraction used by opportunistic dictators and businessmen to propel their countries into the modern world. In Wong’s film, there exist no hypotheticals, no other way. Freedom is chained to time, and buried in history.

With films like Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasantieng, 2001) and Suryiothai (Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol, 2001), 2001 has been a year of high hopes for Thai cinema, breaking through in international recognition and with it the seductive allure of international markets. Everyone turned out for the gala opening – socialites, media personalities, government officials, corporate representatives – anyone who had a stake in the film community’s newfound self-confidence and global potential. Few seemed to notice the absence of the guest of honor, Wong Kar-wai, and even fewer stopped to listen to the mumbled tape the famed Hong Kong director sent in his place. Oddly enough, cinema didn’t seem to matter. However much the Festival geared itself to the expansion of world cinema within Thailand, English was the official language of the event, from the lusty “Asia! Asia! Asia!” chorus of the woman lip-synching onstage to the preponderance of English subtitles in nearly all the films. The Bangkok Film Festival was as much (if not more) an elaborate advertising campaign as it was a celebration of contemporary cinema, and mingling its commodity status with artistic vision, the cinema of the region offered an unusual outlet for tourism. If the tourism industry can be said to sell the exotic in familiar packaging, it comes as little surprise that the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) figured prominently among the Festival’s sponsors. Cinema is a perfect paradigm for tourism, offering a safe, 90-minute voyage into a different world viewed from the comfort of a luxury theater. What the TAT failed to understand was that the experience of Thailand in the theater would inevitably rival the one outside. Sure, there were Thais crowded at the many McDonald’s and upscale noodle shops, but more were hidden behind, seated at smoky hawker carts that dished out fried bananas and coconut curries. The claim on authenticity is a tenuous one, and from the air-conditioned opulence of the theaters to the gloss of the films themselves, it was evident that the Festival promoters were more intent on creating an image of the country than representing what is truly there.

Marketing cast a heavy shadow on the Festival, obstructing the clarity of many potential gems. No doubt the hyperbolized “Asian film” is a hot commodity in international cinema, but its self-awareness, a great strength when used to self-examine, more commonly undermined the uniqueness of a film when used to self-promote. The films represented in the Asian Cinema category ran together, their messages simplistic and repetitive and their characters unmemorable and indistinct. Despite its provocative billing as a “motorcycle kung-fu love story,” Eating Air (Kelvin Tong, Jasmine Ng, 2000) made a far better poster than it did a film. Goal Club was slightly better, though reduced to an obnoxious public service announcement against gambling during the film’s ending credits. It was hard to believe that a region so dynamic could be so boring, and it was an even harder sell.

World Cinema films, by contrast, were honest and provocative, and as Asian films made abroad (almost all World Cinema films featured Asian actors or directors), they explored the tougher issues of reconciling Asian identity to a Western world. The stories were personal, idiosyncratic, and had the urgency of being made not for money, but because they needed to be made. Jacky (Brat Ljatifi, Fow Pyng Hu, 2000) is the story of a young man in the Netherlands who complies with his mother’s wishes of marrying a Chinese wife. Jacky’s mother never seems to approve of anything, frowning at the wife’s housekeeping, testing the softness of Jacky’s couch, and circling a hedge with a pair of clattering shears. When the exhibitionist tour guide arrives unannounced to perform a Chinese opera for her birthday, he is scorned by her guests for his high-pitched singing and outlandish costume. The moment wavers from harmlessly comic to deeply troubled as the tour guide is ordered out, humiliated by a tradition he simply cannot get right. “I am not a tourist, I live here,” reads a shirt Jacky wears, and the film is similarly passive, filled with awkward pauses and deadpan silences, long shots in cold rooms. Jacky is surprisingly and refreshingly empty, marked not by dramatic confrontation but stillness, the slow workings of immigrant tension.

If the image of the exotic was off-target, the image of the familiar was even further amiss. Alongside the brutal and banal portrait of American suburbia in Series 7 (David Minahan, 2001) stood Todd Solondz’s dismal Storytelling (2001), a self-indulgent and mean-spirited whine that operated on the principle of humor at the sake of everyone’s misfortune. Storytelling included a wide shot of a gray New York skyline, the twin towers standing upright, still and impossibly there. Though recognizable, the image of America represented in Asia was already anachronistic, and the laughter in the theater echoed rough and wrong. Solondz himself, after the New York Film Festival premiere of Storytelling in October, admitted that he didn’t “feel comfortable mixing up a discussion of my film with a discussion of the [9/11] tragedy.” If the two subjects did not fit each other, it’s because they belonged to different eras in recent American history, a line of demarcation whose full significance meant more than a month’s delay for the Festival’s opening, or, ironically, a crunch in the nation’s tourism industry.

This is My Moon

When (“Uncle”) Tony Rayns was asked by Thai filmmakers what kinds of films should be made to attract Western audiences, the answer was already embedded in the question. “Sincerity,” he stressed, “audiences can feel sincerity. It’s not a farang’s job to direct Thai filmmaking.” Rather than focusing on what sells, any filmmaker should concentrate on what needs to be made. When Asoka Handagama received the Special Jury Prize for This is My Moon (2000), a dehumanized landscape of Sri Lankan ethnic warfare, he startled everyone by saying, “this award can’t make me happy, but I can be happy if my film can help resolve the conflict in my country.” In the end, the idea of courageous filmmaking prevailed; awarded the Golden Swing prize for best feature, Zhang Yang’s Quitting (2001) took the corrupted life of mediocre actor Jia Hongsheng and dramatized it on stage with the real Jia and his family. “It was an opportunity to learn about myself,” admits Jia, who years ago gave up acting for being “too fake.” The film’s storytelling devices are exposed, the camera passing across the walls of the set and an overhead spotlight pointed harshly on characters taken aside to explain, elaborate, and understand. With Zhang, Jia resumed acting in the only character he could ever honestly portray: himself. What we see, then, is the powerful drama of someone going through the process of self-confrontation, owning up to the tremendous pain of reliving the past. As David Fisher remarked of his film, Love Inventory (2000), “the process is on the screen.” Courage comes in the way of personal investment and risk, and Love Inventory, documenting Fisher’s family’s search of a long lost sister, painstakingly recorded every step of the way, never directed or rehearsed. What distinguishes these films is that they ask themselves why they are made and answer the question by making a difference, whether it is to one’s country, one’s family, or oneself.

Strongest among all the films was Tsai Ming Liang’s tender What Time is it There? (2001), a meditation on death in death’s absence. The film is told in fragments, loosely joined in rhyme and incidence, with a video of Truffaut’s 400 Blows rented in Taipei and the simultaneous appearance of Jean-Pierre Léaud, the film’s lead actor, in a Paris cemetery. Winning the award for best director, the film’s brilliance came from its lack of direction, or the patience given to each image to form its expression slowly, on its own. What Time is it There? is a place film; it is concerned with death’s insistent and irrational uniformity across dark spaces everywhere, and the playful and poignant connection of life anywhere. It moves across cities, on the tops of buildings and in the reclined seat of a car. Choosing clips in which the young Léaud spins around in an amusement park ride or steals a bottle of milk, Tsai cited them as “expression” scenes, moments in which a place offers its emotional landscape, subtly evident under its physical one. Behind Tsai’s methodology is the assumption, or faith, that cinema can reveal a world beneath the visible one. Ultimately what the winning films demonstrated was that courage does not go unappreciated, and despite market indications, truth can sell an audience far better than tourism-approved entertainment.