Opera Jawa

12–20 October 2006

South Korea’s Pusan International Film Festival, now 11 years old and the most dynamic in Asia, almost had a problem – but one it has treated with the nonchalance it deserves. From the start, this maritime city at the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula adopted the catchy acronym PIFF as its logo and today the downtown entertainment centre is known as PIFF Square. A year or three ago, however, Pusan changed its name officially to Busan. BIFF? Sounds positively confrontational, so the festival simply ignored the change and kept its existing initials.

Now, though, it faces an impostor, too. Far to the north, Kim Jing-il stages a biennial film festival in his own capital. And what’s that called? The Pyongyang International Film Festival – PIFF for short. Is Pusan’s nose put out of joint? Not a jot. Let Kim call his pantomime what he will. The world knows that Pusan is the real McCoy.

The Pusan festival does two complementary things. It introduces the pick of recent western films to local audiences and the best of what’s been made in the east in the past year to visiting critics, distributors and festival representatives. And year by year it gets bigger. It started in the teaming district of Nampodong, where young girls barely out of school squeal at personal appearances by such Asian superstars as Andy Lau. Now it’s spread east as well to the beach resort of Haeundae, 45 minutes away by taxi, where the festival takes over a 10-screen megaplex for the duration, and further east, too, to two more complexes of a similar size. PIFF is a banquet, but you need to be fit to cope with it.

And what do visitors get? Simply a medley of the best from China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and even Iran. All told there were 245 films this year from 63 countries. For anyone mad about Asian movies it’s like an annual fix and choosing between sometimes distant venues is a challenge. I saw about 25 pictures in a week and rather resented the need to sleep, eat and meet valuable contacts at the nightly parties.

For me the highlight of the festival was an extraordinary collection of eight Korean classics, newly discovered and restored, some of them dating back to the mid-1930s and the war years, when Korea was controlled by Japan. The most striking feature was how much they resembled contemporary Japanese works by Shimazu Yasujiro, Shimizu Hiroshi and even Mizoguchi Kenji. The women’s costumes are plainly Korean and direction is always credited to a Korean – Yang Joo-nam, for example or Ahn Sug-young (names now entirely forgotten) – but the tone and even the camera angles feel Japanese. In Yang Joo-nam’s Sweet Dream (1936), for example (the oldest Korean film now extant), a wife leaves her husband for what promises to be a more exciting life with someone who proves a con-man. It echoes such contemporary feminist works as Mizoguchi Kenji’s Naniwa Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, which were made in the same year.

Angels of the Street

Not all these early Korean movies were as stark as this, but Choi In-gyu’s Angels of the Street (1941) is about an orphanage for street kids, reflecting a sympathy for and understanding of youngsters that recalls Shimizu Hiroshi’s Four Seasons of Childhood (1939). Were these films, despite the Korean credits, steered by an on-set Tokyo adviser? It’s an area clearly in need of further research for post-war Korean films are not remotely like these. Whatever the final conclusions, films of great distinction, hitherto unknown and, indeed, unsuspected by modern viewers have been added to our knowledge of world cinema.

A shortcoming is their too-ready reliance on excerpts from familiar western music – a spillover from piano accompaniments in the silent era. Some of the Korean rediscoveries were very much of their time. It is difficult, for example, to summon much enthusiasm for such blatant recruiting drives as Suh Kwang-je’s Military Train (1938) which takes the official Tokyo line that Korea and Japan has always been one nation, and Ahn Sug-young’s Volunteer (1941), which is like seeing an Asian equivalent of Hiterjunge Quez (1933). Park Ki-chae’s Straits of Chosun (1943) actually equates the war spirit with family honour. These are propaganda pieces, of course, but are they any different from, say, The Way Ahead or Mrs. Miniver? If the war had panned out differently, what would people think of these films now?

Among the rediscoveries was a much later (1962) film by Shin Sang-ok, the South Korean filmmaker apparently abducted with his actress wife Choi Eun-hee by North Korea in 1978. Both subsequently escaped back to South Korea, but only after making several films toeing the Pyongyang line. The Arch of Chastity (1962) was made before their abduction and implicitly condemns an ancient Korean custom in which widows were obliged to remain chaste after their husbands’ deaths. The anti-feudal tone of this film evidently persuaded Pyongyang that he would be a good catch. In fact, however, the film is flawed. Shin Sang-ok had a sharp eye for striking long-shots exploiting the full scope of the wide screen and often tilted at expressive angles, but he was unable to curb his taste of melodrama. Sympathy for the heroine, expected to remain chaste in the face of male lechery, seeps away as Shin’s wife runs the full gamut of tears and extravagant emotional gestures.

Compare this with Mainline, one of only two Iranian films in the festival. It’s co-directed by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, a distinguished Iranian woman director, and Mohsen Abdolvahab and explores a mother’s desperate attempt to cover for her drug-addicted daughter and wean her off narcotics. No tears, no breast-beating, simply a calm, no-nonsense approach to a problem seldom admitted in Iranian cinema. Everything in Tehran is clearly not always as virtuous and god-fearing as the mullahs would wish. Magisterially shot in black and white and widescreen, Mainline was one of the unexpected discoveries of the festival.

The other Iranian film was actually Kurdish, directed by Bahman Ghobadi, who made A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) and Turtles Can Fly (2004). Where those films captured the challenge to the Kurdish nation first of living under Saddam and then of avoiding land mines as the Allies attack, Half Moon addresses the even more chaotic world in which the survivors now live. It is actually closer in theme and treatment to another film by this director – his 2002 picture Marooned in Iraq, which focused on the Kurdish music tradition. Here a family of musicians in on its way to a concert to celebrate the downfall of Saddam, but this has done nothing to improve their prospects. It’s a sympathetic picture, but less hard-hitting than either Drunken Horses or Turtles Can Fly.

The best film in the festival was unquestionably Garin Nugroho’s Opera Jawa. Imagine the magnificent opening sequence of his 1995 film And the Moon Dances extended for the whole duration of the picture. Opera Jawa draws on a popular tragic love story from the Ramayana, effectively transposed to modern times. It’s sung and danced to superb choreography and the accompaniment of haunting gamelan music. The effect recalls that moment when Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959) swept the board at the Cannes Film Festival. Garin’s film is cast surprisingly as a requiem for the victims of natural disasters and offers a succession of unforgettable images. The only false element is a digression to embrace what appears to be a protest against local corruption. It strikes a realist note alien to the stylisation of the rest of the picture and is poorly integrated.

The Chinese selection was frankly mixed and conspicuously lacking Jia Zhangke’s Venice prize-winner, Still Life, which was snared by the overlapping London Film Festival. The most controversial Chinese film was Summer Palace, in which young students react to developments in Beijing during the period that included the Tiananmen Square massacre. Actual newsreel footage from that time (presumably foreign) is included and the director, Lou Ye, who previously made Suzhou River (2000), sent his picture to Cannes without official approval and was banned from working for five years as a result. But given the readiness of some western distributors to back maverick Chinese productions, Lou Ye seems remarkably unperturbed. Summer Palace has divided opinion in the west. For me its sympathy for a forgotten generation, some of which now live in the west, was powerful and moving – though it’s fair to say that view is not universally shared.

There was greater agreement over Luxury Car by Wang Chao, whose first film, The Orphan of Anyang (2001) was much admired. Luxury Car explores the generational conflict in modern China between parents brought up under traditional communist values and their grown-up children now accustomed to a socially (though not politically) freer existence. It struck an altogether more astringent note than The Road, which takes a broad-sweep view of recent Chinese history through the eyes of a female bus conductor who ages from late teens to late 40s during the course of the picture.

Directed by Zhang Jiarui, this is the acceptable view of what has happened in China – a steady path from well-meaning, if mistaken directions in the Cultural Revolution to the modern, economically liberated but still politically circumscribed China of today. Like all good propaganda, it’s smashing entertainment, with the heroine growing as beautiful in middle age as Loretta Young did in Hollywood movies of the 1940s. But it doesn’t stray one inch from the party line. For that you must look to Still Life and to Tian Zhuangzhuang. Banned for life, apparently for covering the same ground as The Road in The Blue Kite (1993), he’s back in business with The Go Master, another great Chinese film Pusan allowed to escape to London.

Curiously, three of the most interesting films made in China this year all focus on a search for lost relations. In Luxury Car, a father seeks his missing son. Still Life involves a double search (a middle-aged man for his estranged wife and a wife for the husband she plans to divorce) while in Ying Liang’s Taking Father Home a young boy attempts to find his long-lost father. Just a coincidence? Or can we see in the rapidly changing modern China an attempt to recapture older, more certain values?

Crossing the Line

Pressure of time and conflicting cinematic attractions meant that I was unable this year to squeeze in any of the new Korean movies. However, one related film that I did see was Crossing the Line, a British-made documentary about one of the four American GIs who defected to Pyongyang after the Korean War. It’s directed by Daniel Gordon, whose third film about North Korea this is and who is clearly in Pyongyang’s good books. James Dresnok, a serving American soldier, walked across the minefield separating the two Koreas and threw in his lot with the communists. Welcomed by Kim Il-sung and eventually granted North Korean nationality, he still lives there, extolling his life under a system that “will look after me till the day I die”.

He and his fellow deserters agreed to play vicious American soldiers in films actually directed by Kim Jong-il, who fancied himself as a filmmaker before assuming the mantle of head of state. Daniel Gordon’s film includes several strident clips from what are clearly terrible films. By Dresnok’s lights he has traded hell for heaven on earth. Certainly, to judge by his mouthful of gold teeth and the groaning hoard his family enjoy while the impoverished nation starves, he has benefited greatly from the move.

In allowing Dresnok to tell his own tale, this film gives him, unintentionally perhaps, enough rope to hang himself. He defected, it seems, not out of any ideological conviction, but to dodge a court martial. His unit had been forbidden to fraternise with local prostitutes – a ban he not only disregarded but forged a pass countermanding the order for himself alone. He married twice in Korea and attempted to grope the wife of fellow-defector Charles Jenkins and got a sock in the jaw for it. But what was a guy to do? Jenkins had grown old and was no longer satisfying his wife. “Know what I mean?” That’s surely something any red-blooded American (whoops, North Korean) would do. If the film hoped to enlist sympathy and admiration for Dresnok it has back-fired through his own testimony.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, the first film Tsai Ming-liang has made his native Malaysia rather than his adopted Taiwan, had many admirers, but I have to admit to being unable to agree. It’s minimalist, of course, and on the surface nothing very much seems to happen. The victim of a street attack is found by the roadside, taken in and nursed back to health. Was it a robber or a sexual assault and how, when he recovers, will he respond to the conflicting demands of his male rescuer and the frustrated spinster across the way? It’s hard to care.

Scream of the Ants finds Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf once more almost deliberately avoiding comment on his native land. In Kandahar (2001) he addressed the problems of Afghanistan. Now he’s in India accompanying a believer and an atheist en route to, maybe, some kind of enlightenment. It looks good – but you’d expect that of a stylist like Makhmalbaf. In tackling weighty philosophical themes, however, is he perhaps neglecting the more urgent problems on his own doorstep?

Japan fielded a film that’s actually a lot more subversive than it appears and might easily be overlooked as just another samurai saga. In fact Hana cocks an irreverent snook at the whole code of bushido. The director, Kore-eda Hirokazu, who made Maborosi (1995) and After Life (1998), set respectively in modern times and Purgatory, here vaults back in time to the Genroku era – the period of the famous 47 ronin, to whom a tongue-in-cheek reference is made. He has never been associated with costume pictures and here makes an audacious leap into what is for him uncharted territory. A warrior has been killed so the samurai code requires his son to avenge him. Unfortunately, he’s the worst swordsman in all Japan and a bit of a scaredy-cat to boot. What’s more, his potential adversary is rather a nice chap living in retirement. So to hell with convention. That’s the message. If Nobel had existed then this reluctant samurai would have been a candidate for the Peace Prize.

Azur and Asmar

One goes to Pusan primarily to see the Asian offerings. But there are western goodies also to be savoured. If Opera Jawa had any rival as best film, it came not from the Far East but from France. Michel Ocelot is a traditional animator who has no truck with the CGI experiments favoured by Pixar and others. And he tells fables rather like Lotte Reiniger’s. Raised in Guinea and Anjou, he has a dual perspective and is well placed to explore the racial and religious conflicts that rend the world today.

His new film, Azur and Asmar, is set in a fairytale kingdom in which two young boys grow up as brothers until their differences tear them apart. Azur is white with blue eyes, while Asmar is dark with brown eyes. Asmar and his mother are banished for non-conformity. Many years later, however, Azur is shipwrecked in a strange land where blue-eyed people are condemned as sinners. It is Asmar’s kingdom and, for his own safety, Azur feigns blindness. In effect he is trying to pass for black. It is easy to see what Ocelot is getting at. Many films, of course, have their hearts in the right place. What, for me, makes Azur and Asmar special is its visual invention – even more dazzling than in Ocelot’s earlier film Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998).

Let’s close on another high note – a jeu d’esprit of scintillating virtuosity from the world’s oldest filmmaker, Manoel de Oliveira. Belle toujours runs only 70 minutes but it’s a spellbinder. The title’s a play on words since this is a sequel to Belle de Jour, Luis Buñuel’s 1967 movie about a housewife who gratifies her secret desires by visiting a brothel in the afternoon. It’s 39 years on and even the apparently ageless Catherine Deneuve wouldn’t seem quite credible today. So Bulle Ogier does surrogate service in the lead role. But Michel Piccoli repeats his past role. De Oliveira is now of an age to please himself rather than his producer. And – who knows? – it may please them both. And all of us, too.