Devils on the Doorstep

Festival website, August 9 – 18, 2001

Of all the recent developments in film exhibition, one that causes much bemusement is the seemingly exponential growth in so-called ‘festivals’. It seems that every nation and every interest group now seek publicity through a festival. This can involve hurling together anything from the various uncommercial films from a prominent filmmaking nation like France (whose major films at least straightforwardly reach their audience through regular theatrical distribution or through cable channels like World Movies) to events featuring films from countries like Greece or from Eastern Europe where local production rarely screens beyond national boundaries. Pardon my cynicism but rather too many of these ‘events’ (the word ‘festival’ surely denotes some sense of celebration and engagement) seem to exist more from inertia than anything else.

Faced with this proliferation, the media has a hard time keeping up and is usually in no position to know whether the selection is representative of the good, the bad or merely the safe. So put most of them to one side.

But at least one of these newcomers does look like it’s here to stay and has a good reason to do so. This is the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival (SAPFF) which has its second outing from 9 to 18 August at Reading Cinemas in the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown.

You have to wonder whether an event like this has only come into existence because there are enough enthusiasts out there who felt that Sydney’s major film festival was simply not doing enough. I have a suspicion that the Sydney Film Festival’s refusal to screen at more than two venues may have contributed to its narrow focus and lack of breadth. For whatever reason, the Sydney Film Festival has hardly given any time, space or attention to what has been happening in Asia. This year was no exception and you have to wonder whether SAPFF has already been tacitly ceded the territory.

This year SAPFF has just about doubled in size. Its program includes a retrospective program – a first for the Festival – and it has been smart enough to link up some of its program with the Brisbane International Film Festival, sharing guests and a few titles while reducing costs. It’s also taking a ‘highlights package’ to Canberra which might presage a welcome move into a wider national circuit.

One hopes that Festival Director Juanita Kwok’s words are true when she claims that the films selected are “indicative of the artistic energy that is continuing to come out of Asia”. That’s as good an acknowledgment as any that SAPFF still has to live or die on quality. But the films are out there. Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep (2000) is clearly a coup, one of the major films from Asia of the last year. It comes surrounded by not a little controversy about its subject – the ambivalent relations between Chinese villagers and the Japanese occupying forces. Jason Sanders of the San Francisco Film Festival compares the film to Kusturica’s Underground (1995) saying that it “wisely balances its spectacles, comedies and confusions against its overwhelming, all-to-real tragedies.”

Garin Nugroho

Festival guest, Garin Nugroho’s A Poet (2000) is also amassing a reputation not simply for being the first Indonesian film to address the events of the 1965 coup which brought the dictator Soeharto to power but also for the focus it gives to the current rebellion in Aceh. Garin Nugroho is, in the words of Tony Rayns, “a one-man ‘new wave’ who has ‘single-handedly kept Indonesian cinema alive”. In one sense it’s unsurprising that Australians have seen so little Indonesian cinema. Our attention is directed elsewhere. In another sense it’s astonishing that we should have ignored almost completely a significant national cinema on our doorstep. A few dedicated people, most notably David Hanan in Melbourne have spent countless hours seeking to open some lines of communication but even those best efforts have seen no more than a handful of films and film-makers cross the narrow divide

For the rest of the new films from Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Sri Lanka who is to know.the glorious or desultory uncertainty of festival going.

It’s a pity that the planned retrospective of films featuring early Chinese screen goddesses has been called off. A pity that this leaves as the only retrospective a screening of Wang Yu & Brian Trenchard Smith’s abysmal The Man from Hong Kong (1975). In fact I can’t think of a single merit attached to the film which sank into deserved obscurity a quarter of a century ago. To describe it, as does the publicity, as a “classic” is to demean the term, unless classic means simply 25 years old. I must also confess distaste that ScreenSound Australia (the re-named National Film and Sound Archive) has paid for a new print. See it if you must for the 10BA lows to which Australian cinema could sink in the ’70s.

Better still chase down SAPFF’s short film competition and head for the Q&A’s with Nugroho and Korean Director Im Sang Soo. Im’s new film Tears promises much – a good follow-up to the director’s raunchy and rather touching debut Girls Night Out (1998) (which itself bobs up on World Movies every now and then).

SAPFF has stepped into a large breach and might just be the festival that deserves to garner a wider reputation. The 2001 edition at least is heading into under-explored territory and that in itself is a welcome start.