Reflections

10–24 November 2006

A year after showing at the Warner Village multiplex in the plush new Xinyi district of East Taipei, the Golden Horse Festival reverted to its niche in bohemian Ximending on the west side, two floors up in the Shih-tzu-lin shopping mall whose seedy interiors featured in Tsai Ming-liang’s The River a few years back. Cinema-going here was strictly for a younger crowd, mostly students prepared to run the gauntlet of cell phone stalls on the ground floor before getting to the up-escalator. But the screens were high-quality and the place had a lively, buoyant feel to it. Shih-tzu-lin is usually accessed, like all of Ximending by exit number 6 of Ximen MRT station. This inspired the debut feature of Lin Yu-hsien, a talented documentary maker, which premiered here and grabbed the attention of the Japanese media. The film, with its clear echoes of Chungking Express and Trainspotting and its setting of Ximending with its Japanese-inflected youth culture, was called appropriately Exit no. 6. It proved to be a smart local take on movie-going reflexivity. 95% of the sell out audience watching the premiere of Exit no. 6 would have got to the cinema via Exit no. 6.

The main story this year is of one major plus and one big minus. The plus was the New Crowned Hope package commissioned by Peter Sellars and making its last stop before heading to Vienna for the Mozart anniversary celebrations. Arguably the two best Asian films in the Festival, despite the last-minute surprise of Kim Ki-duk’s Time, were part of the Sellars package: from Thailand, Apichatpong’s Weeresethakul’s mesmerising Syndromes and a Century and from Indonesia Garin Nugroho’s cine-opera Opera Jawa. The minus were two key pullouts. A third film in the Sellars’ package, Tsai’s I Don’t Want Sleep Alone shot in Kuala Lumpur, was withdrawn from the opening night at the last moment, its director in a fit of pique after failing to get nominated in the major categories for the GHA (Golden Horse Awards). It is impossible, however, to feel a burning injustice about this, despite Tsai’s high technical standards. Brilliantly shot and stylised as ever, his film inhabits an emotional void and his tendency to serve up Lee Kang-sheng as a straight stud to anonymous females, as he had done in The Wayward Cloud, now lacks all conviction; especially here where the diminutive Lee seems for much of this film to be a passive and lifeless corpse. On this evidence, sadly, Tsai’s cinema is in crisis and needs a new lease of life: otherwise he is in danger of repeating himself to the point of self-parody.

Highly rated by many here, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Go-Master, with Chen Chang in its lead role, and based on the life of Chinese Go-master Wu Qingyuan in twentieth century Japan, also suffered dramatic pull-out. Luckily this was after its showing, but the Chinese authorities still judged its lack of Hong Kong production input good reason for it not to be in Taipei. GHA nominations for Chen Chang and for best art direction had ensured its screening and though the film was submitted to GHA by the Hong Kong branch of Fortissimo Films, a Dutch distribution company, it still placed it in that grey area where the Chinese could deem it ineligible. Never mind that Tian’s film is set mainly in Japan in a Chinese–Japanese co-production with a Taiwanese superstar in the lead role, cultural politics between island and mainland, two very separate countries, are ever thorny and volatile.

The Festival is also complicated by virtually being two Festivals with separate authorities: a managerial overseer for the GH competition and a Festival director for both foreign and indigenous films. At times, the Doppelganger effect made things creak at the seams. The international section, however, showed its clout under director Zoë Chen not only with the visionary Sellars package but something truly rare and long overdue, a full and fascinating tribute to Philippe Garrel. It also had a contemporary, tripartite focus on Matthew Barney, Nobuhiro Yamashita and Nicholas Winding Refn. The Refn section contained a candid documentary, Gambler, by fellow Dane Phie Ambo, showing Refn going bankrupt after the flop of his American feature Fear X and thankfully paying off his debts back home with the box-office cut from Pushers II & III. Whoever said sequels are unnecessary?

On the home front Hou Hsiao-hsien flew in from Paris where he has been busy winding up his contribution to Orsay, a quartet feature involving Olivier Assayas, Raul Ruiz and Jim Jarmusch, to receive a Festival FIAF award for his efforts to improve film restoration in the country’s cinema archive, into which the government is now putting serious money. In affable mood, Hou was also represented by proxy in two striking Taiwanese premieres from his ex-assistant directors. Yao Hung-i’s Reflections was made under the banner of Hou’s 3H productions, and tells the story of a lesbian affair in contemporary Taipei that apparently provided the storyline for episode three of Three Times; while En Chen’s lyrical Island Étude was both a rhapsodic hymn to the country’s coastline and a cyclist road movie seamlessly blending documentary and fiction.

After this Our Exile

Both were more intriguing features than the five GH best film nominations, whose lack of distinction made for a downbeat year. For this disappointed viewer the novelties were the Macao locations of Johnnie To’s Exiled (shot by Cheng Siu-keung) and the Malaysian settings of Patrick Tam’s After this Our Exile, given a sensuous feel and soft ochre hues by the superb lensing of Mark Lee Ping Bing. The veteran Tam’s film, a father-son saga reminiscent of Bicycle Thieves and his first feature for 17 years, pulled most of the key GH awards, rightly for its powerful drama (father and son abandoned by a young wife/mother tired of erratic patriarchy) and the dynamic acting of its seasoned male lead, Kwok Fu-shing. But at nearly three hours running time the film was too long and had no real competition. The many signs of GHA cinema, all mainstream films chosen by a conservative jury, replicating the worst habits of Hollywood, were ominous: a misfiring big-budget musical – Perhaps Love; Hong Kong gangsters recycling a Noodle Eastern – Exiled; mainland gross-out heist comedy – Crazy Stone; and a mindless Taiwanese ghost thriller – Silk (James Bond meets Dark Water). All had smart professional input but cinematically plumbed the depths. This made for an indigestible diet of weekend viewing at the nearby Chen-shan-mei cinema, rendered worse by worn prints and awful projection with subtitles periodically disappearing below the screen.

The only redeeming feature was the eye-candy, otherwise known as highly talented actors wasted: Takeshi Kaneshiro with Xun Shou in Perhaps Love and Chen Chang with Eguchi Yosuke in Silk. The many sumptuous guises and disguises of Xun Shou, bewildering amidst the entrails of an indecipherable plot, seemed a Chinese eye-fest designed to atone for the ubiquitous Western models whose figures sell designer clothes and cosmetics here on billboards and in shopping malls. Assailed by studio kitsch and baleful echoes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, I confess I watched the movie with half-closed eyes, secretly waiting for Xun Shou to waft on in her next brilliant disguise. But it’s also sad to realise the charismatic Chen Chang is likely to be seen by a million more spectators in Silk than he is in The Go Master or Three Times. And it’s enervating to watch Johnnie To’s flair for comic pastiche and balletic tribute to Leone exhaust itself before the hour mark in Exiled, knowing that a Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs won here just a few years back.

From Taiwan, on the plus side, the two nominated GH documentaries both impressed. Yang Li-chou’s My Football Summer, the eventual winner, was a close-quarter study of an adolescent football culture among school boy Aboriginals in Hualien County in the east of the island. The filmmakers succeed in getting under the skin of their topic, so that football dreams are taken out of cliché mode and reinvigorated through the 24 hour intimacy of the camera with the squad, its coach, its training ground, its matches and its dormitory life. The film ends on a downbeat note. The team lose in the final by a penalty shoot-out. But even in conveying this moment of enduring sadness the film’s lightness of touch remains enchanting. Much more ambitious and much darker, the black and white documentary Doctor by Chung Mong-hong is a tale of two boys in the United States – a precocious Taiwanese-American (the doctor’s son, Felix) who hanged himself on the Fourth of July, 1996 and a Peruvian boy of similar age six years later who is suffering from a rare form of cancer and trying desperately to survive. Through the bereaved doctor, a cancer specialist who treats the Peruvian boy, their stories are linked in unlikely, disturbing ways.

Relief from GH features was also at hand from South East Asia. Opera Jawa and Syndromes and a Century have complementary virtues because they both stretch film viewing through spectacle and surprise. As an adaptation of “The Abduction of Sinta” tale from the Hindu epic Ramayana, and now updated to the present, Opera Jawa is a full quintet of interwoven forms – fiction, film, dance, music, theatre. Shot in lush Javanese locations with a subtle yet insinuating conceptual art design, brilliant installation work and a magnificent array of performing dance troupes, it triumphantly becomes the total artwork it aspires to be, closer in spirit to Sellars’ groundbreaking stage productions perhaps, than any of the other gifted films in the Mozart package.

In Nugroho’s reworking of the classic tale “abduction” is really seduction, highly erotic without being explicit – or erotic precisely because it is not explicit. And the essence of seduction lies in the delicacy of gesture, the texture of the musical voice and the cinematic quality of dance. Siti, played by Artika Sari Devi, is an ex-dancer famous for interpreting the role of Sinta but after her marriage to a local businessman, Rama, the tale takes over her real life. She abandons dance for marriage and here the film plays surprising variations on its theme of passion which has little place in the Western romantic canon. Siti’s marriage as we can graphically witness in the prolonged sequence of the opening kiss is infused with an erotic charge that would suggest absolute fidelity. But while the body of the husband–lover signifies a still and tender love, dance, now forbidden by her husband, suggests movement and desire and is a temptation too great to resist.

In the figure of Ludiro, her husband’s enemy whose young thugs destroy his business, she finds her true adversary, the male embodiment of dance as sensual, irresistible desire. Her attraction to the cunning and sensual Ludiro is not only carnal therefore, but also a compulsion to reincarnate her longing for the dance. This electrical charge of an eternal triangle is pressed tight into a love–dance sequence where her suspicious husband enters the house, hoping to catch her with her ruthless seducer. She quickly hides her lover under the folds of her long flowing skirt and presses his head tight between her thighs. Aroused by the concealed cunnilingual act of her lover that follows, she is prompted to seduce her resistant husband on the bed where she sits and on which, oblivious to cuckoldry, he lies. Nugroho films the dance sequence in medium-long shot in one flowing movement without a cut as Siti turns her long sinuous body towards the reclining Rama and Ludiro crawls away unnoticed from between her thighs. It is a sublime, suspenseful movement that filmed wrongly could have veered into the ridiculous. But as a testament to the director’s sure touch, it takes the breath away.

Like Opera Java, Weeresethakul’s Syndromes and a Century has, to use Laura Marks’ alluring term, a “haptic” sensibility. The textures of both films seem to lend themselves to all five senses, the sensations of smell, taste and touch as well as sight and sound, enveloping us with a sensuous surround whose power of cinematic illusion goes far beyond the functions of film technology. Like Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century is a tale of two halves with connecting characters. But it is also a memory film like Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974), straddling the past and present of successive generations. Its narrative stream emerges without obvious storyline as an elliptical cinema of poetry that blends together fragments of a life as if they were floating recollections, all with a dream–momentum of their own.

Syndromes and a Century

In the 1970s a young female doctor interviews an ex-army medic desiring to work in her country hospital by asking absurd questions that induce unintentionally comic answers. (For example, does he prefer circles, squares or triangles?) It is the unlikely start of a romance that is based on the first meeting of the director’s parents and leads to the birth of the director himself. In this genetic ontology of his very being, the director frames the cool horizontal look of his bright white hospital against the lush fields and rainforests beyond with an entrancing beauty and the camera drifts off, as if on air, into the verdant interior. Within, a series of incongruous incidents involving doctors, patients and Buddhist monks unfold. There is passing talk of reincarnation and in the second part of the film there is reincarnation of sorts, a change of generation to the present where, nonetheless scenes in part one are repeated with slight changes of dialogue, mise en scène and character. The transformation is not truly a transformation for everywhere it is different while it appears the same. (On first sight it does appear the same before it becomes different.) Unerringly Weeresethakul clinches this paradox of vision. We are in two different time–space capsules yet one still seems a continuation of the other. We are in parallel worlds yet also consecutive worlds. We are sitting still in the cinema watching the film but the ground is moving under our feet. We are living through a graceful, gliding enigma that nothing, not even the beautiful images we see before us on screen, can ever resolve.

Another hospital, another doubling. Chung’s Doctor is a film that explores uncanny likeness, but also bears an uncanny likeness to Syndromes and a Century, which also explores uncanny likeness. Both films have doctors and hospitals at the centre of their narratives; both have dual time zones and trace their mysterious connection to one another. Both films have eerie musical soundtracks, Chung richly overlaying his story with John Cage. Both films have open, inconclusive endings. While one film is a dream-like feature that accesses autobiography the other is a factual chronicle that invokes the metaphysical. Wen Bi-chen, a cancer specialist in Iowa appears to have the model immigrant family, a wife devoted to her husband and two children with musical as well as medical talents and great ambitions. Their home video camera is witness to their felicity and to their son, Felix, a witty, precocious boy approaching adolescence – in the first sequence, we see on camera the ritual of Felix having his first shave.

The director’s recycling of found family footage echoes Capturing the Friedmans (2003) and like that film is a benchmark for a future trend in documentary during the age of digital home movies. And like that film too it reveals unexpected darkness beneath the kids’ humour and the family smiles. Yet the film exposes not the corruption of adults, since the parents are beyond reproach, but the clash of East and West in the uncertain psyche of the second-generation son. Moreover the film uses the found footage as flashback from the present time – 2002–03 in Miami. Felix, the family translation of Yu-Ho – “warm sunlight” – is a smart American kid but not an all-American brat. He has a proto-Asian agenda. He repeatedly watches the Samurai kitsch of Shogun and with spectacular seppuku (ritual suicide). He owns a Bonsai and a pet snake called Buddhica. He wittily talks to camera with a white board illustration of his future tomb and the familiar objects that will accompany him to the afterlife. He has an obsession to learn, in his father’s words, about “the moment of death”. He hangs himself in his room’s walk-in closet on the Fourth of July when his grandparents have arrived from Taiwan for the American celebration of nationhood and his father has to be called home from a local fireworks display to witness his dead body.

After mourning his death, the family move to Miami for a new life where Bi-chen meets a Peruvian family in Florida seeking special treatment for their son, Sebastian. Like Felix, Sebastian is a lover of snakes and like Felix, he is destined to die. As the cancer in his chest eats him up and Doctor Wu’s radiation treatment is to no avail, he endures the constant pain by playing football in the yard of family friends and Gameboy on their TV console. The film asks us to compare one sharp and sudden death that is destructively willed, with another that is prolonged and resisted and beyond mental control. The doctor fails twice over to save young boys of a similar age who have much to offer life and one of them is his son. What is the connection between the Doctor’s dying patient and his dead son? Is there some form of strange reincarnation at play in the cruel coincidences of the world? There are echoes in this dark void of repetition, though probably not intended, of Chris Marker and of Vertigo. Whereas Weeresethakul’s film has the poetic licence to create images of transcendence, there is no such luxury here and you feel the director’s choice of resisting colouration is vindicated. And if documentary chronicles facts it can also avoid them. Both deaths are offscreen and rightly so, for how could it be otherwise?

About The Author

John Orr is Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, the author of Contemporary Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, 1998) and Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema (Wallflower Press, 2005), and co-editor with Elzbieta Ostrowska of The Cinema of Roman Polanski (Wallflower Press, 2006).