This is an appropriate question, as last fall the 34 year-old Canadian festival unfolded its second year with its new administrative team (Jacqueline Dupuis taking over the functions of Executive Director in 2014, with former director/founder Alan Franey having decided to step down to remain as Director of Programming – assisted by a brilliant team including Program Manager/Senior Programmer PoChu AuYeung). International cinephilia is at this juncture when the future and functions of film festivals, in this period of economic, political and economic malaise, are subjected to questioning that could be anything from malicious to empathetic. So, indeed, why Vancouver? It’s not a market, it is not star-studded with red carpet events, and the arc of its programming is made up of films already premiered, written about and eventually awarded at more prestigious (so-called “A-list” festivals): 1 Jacques Audiard’s Cannes Palme d’Or Winner Dheepan and this other Cannes winner, the sublime Nie Yinniang (The Assassin) by Hou Hsiao-hsien; Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Rak Ti Khonkaen (Cemetery of Splendor); Jia Zhangke’s Shan He Gu Ren (Mountains May Depart); Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul (Alfred Bauer Prize Berlin 2015, nominated – long list – and then denominated in the short list of Oscar for Foreign films); cinephilic favourites Manuel Gomes’s As Mil e uma Noites (Arabian Nights) and Hong San-Soo’s Jigeumeun Matgo Geuttaeneum Teullida (Right Now, Wrong Then – Golden Leopard in Locarno); Lenny Abrahamson’s about to be Oscar-nominated Room, etc…

In the last couple of years, another change affected the way Asian films are presented. Created in 1994, the Dragons and Tigers Competition, an important staple of the VIFF identity, offered a cash prize to first- and second-time directors from a selection gathered by British scholar and critic Tony Rayns in his trips through East Asian (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, The Philippines…). In 2014, the competition was merged with films of different geographic/cultural origins in the “Best New Director Award” that was discontinued after one year. Meanwhile the Dragons and Tigers section remained as an integral (but non competitive) part of the Festival, curated (since 2007) by Shelley Kraicer for Chinese films and Tony Rayns for all other East Asian fares.

In international film circuits, the popularity of Asian cinema is subjected to much ebb and flow: now it’s trendy, now it’s less so. Fashion phenomena undermine a serious assessment of the region’s contribution to world cinema, a contribution as multifaceted, complex, surprising and enriching as its populations, in their cultural and linguistic variety, and Vancouver, against all fads, continues to provide a space and a forum where important Asian films, whether or not they make a killing in Western media and art houses, can be enjoyed and appreciated. And there was enjoyment galore in this year’s edition.

Scroll and Time

The explosion of digital cinema did not have the same (after)effects in every context. In China, where it took off like a firebrand, both in commercial cinema (as more movie theatres became digital, and sooner, than in most Western countries) and in the permanently reconfigured independent sector, the availability of small cameras allowed for an unprecedented decentring of the units of production that, until then, were limited to Beijing and the main urban hubs. As shooting could be done in the most remote parts of the countryside, one has also witnessed the emergence of “minority” filmmakers, expressing the specific traits of their culture. Having nobly listed 50 official minorities after 1949 (even though it meant lumping together ethnic groups with different cultures and histories), the government of the PRC has had an uneasy relationship, to say the least, with the issue. At the cinematic level, this gave birth to a genre finely analysed by Paul Clark, the “Minority films” that were nothing more than a form of propaganda, a harbinger to the “main melody” slogan adopted in the late 1980s. 2 Independent digital culture, as we know, has explored the rough edges of this utopian societal harmony, and this is also true in the representation of minority cultures and lifestyle. Bi Gan’s first feature, Lu bian ye can (Kaili Blues), that reaped a number of international awards (Best Emerging Director in Locarno; Montogolfière d’Or in Nantes Festival des Trois Continents) is unthinkable outside of the digital realm. Even though it is produced by a young Beijing-based independent company, Blackfin, and supported by another Beijing company, Heaven Pictures Culture & Media Co., Ltd., known for taking risks and giving chances to ground-breaking young directors (Hao Jie, Li Ruijun, Peng Tao, Yang Jin) – as Beijing is still the financial hub – it was shot in one of the centres of Miao culture, in the southern province of Guizhou, where about half of the 9 million Miao people are living. According to archaeological discoveries, the Miao are probably the oldest population in China, but became subjected to the other ethnic groups ruling the country, whether the Han or the Manchu. They periodically waged wars against the dominant cultures, and their revolts were mercilessly repressed. During the Long March, however, they helped Mao Zedong and his troops.

The English title, Kaili Blues, while evocative, is also somewhat inaccurate, 3 as the film takes place in three locations: Kaili, which is indeed the main hub of Miao culture, in particular of celebrations involving the lusheng, a traditional reed-pipe instrument; the town of Zhenyuan, also a Miao centre; and the small village of Dang Mai. In Kaili, the main protagonist, Chen Sheng, shares a small medical office with an elderly female doctor, Guanglin. He also writes poetry, and reads it over the radio (these poems were written by Bi Gan, who is a published poet as well). He takes care of his young nephew, Weiwei, until his half-brother, Crazy Face, sells him in Zhenyuan. Chen leaves to retrieve the boy, while entrusted a mission by Guanglin: he has to deliver a shirt and a music tape to Airen, a man she knew and maybe loved during the Cultural Revolution.

Vancouver International film festival review

Kaili Blues

None of these tasks will be accomplished. Having lost a button on his own shirt, Cheng starts wearing the one intended for Airen. He gives the tape to a young hairdresser with the same name as his dead wife, Zhang Xi. He tries to track Airen through other lusheng players, but only locates his house and family after the old man has died of illness. He just looks, from a distance, at Weiwei playing in a Zhenyuan schoolyard.

Starting with Guanlin’s narration of her nostalgia for her (missed?) relationship with Airen and Weiwei’s disappearance, the film is suffused with feelings of loss. In the young hairdresser’s shop, Cheng reveals his own history. He had borrowed money from a gang boss to pay for his wife’s medical expenses, and, when a rival gang killed the boss’s son, he had to seek revenge against the perpetrator, landing in prison, while Zhang Xi died of illness. We also learn that he had bought the medical practice with money left by his mother, on the condition that he looks after his nephew, since Crazy Face is totally unfit as a father. In a car driving through the verdant and steep Guizhou mountains, while the camera frames the view from the windshield, Cheng and another man, off-screen, trade stories of their lives. One of them has to do with hard work in a mine, illegally riding the shuttle car out of exhaustion (something which is punished by having your pay of the day docked), being caught and pleading with the task master to be let off, by calling him “Old Master”. This, in turn, earns the storyteller a severe beating and a prison term. I found out that once upon a time, the locals didn’t know how to fuck. They learnt how to shag by observing how the dogs did it. So they called the dogs “Old Masters”. In its bawdy jocularity, this may be the most political moment of the film, as it alludes to the exploitation of migrant workers in mines, their deprivation of the most basic civil rights on the workplace, the hardships they endure.

This off-screen story telling is prefaced with the first mechanical hiccup in the film: Cheng asks to drive his friend’s car, but does not really know how to work the clutch. Later, a truck carrying lusheng players has broken down and is being repaired. Two young men are having trouble with the engine of their motorbikes. For a “roadside picnic” in which many modes of wheeled transportation are used, these happenstances are more than incidental, but reveal something about the texture of the plot: false starts, aborted departures, awkward repetitions, missed encounters.

It is not, as some have interpreted, that Cheng meets the reincarnation of his dead wife as the hairdresser or a grown-up version of his nephew as the young man who offers him a ride on his motorbike, but he inhabits a world of déjà vu where signs points in the direction of his (or Guanglin’s) loss. This leads us to the famed 40-odd minute one-shot-sequence through Dai Ming, a tour-de-force made only possible in the digital age – as it draws comparison with another technical feat, the single shot of Mahi va Gorbeh (Fish and Cat, 2013) by first time Iranian director Shahram Mokri, in which the same actions (a group of students camping by the Caspian Sea fall victims of serial killers) are repeated from various angles and shown at different moments of their unfolding, mixing the sequential order between past and present.

In his analysis of a nine-minute take in Mizoguchi’s Zangiku Monogatai (Tale of Late Chrysanthemums, 1939) – almost the maximum a 35mm camera magazine would allow – Noël Burch coins the concept of “station-by-station montage” in a one-sequence shot, and discusses “the cellular division of space evident in the découpage” as “the demarcation in this shot between movement and fixity (of both camera and characters) define some dozen separate tableaux.” 4 In both Shahram Mokri’s and Bi Gan’s films, what makes the one-shot-sequence so exciting is not its continuity, but its découpage into a series of discrete scenes, that are, says Bi Gan, as many “planets” with “their climate, their water, their gravity, creating their own protagonists”: 5 Cheng and Weiwei on the bike, Cheng with Zhang Xi in the barber shop, Weiwei with Yangyang at the river…

The tradition of Persian mural paintings and East Asian scroll paintings informs this very specific segmentation of space which ends up as a spatialisation of time. On the painting, the gaze of the observer is invited to wander and discover different aspects of the visual field that, often, represent different moments of a story being told. So the shifting of times, past merging with the present, which has intrigued viewers of Fish and Cat and Kaili Blues, may be the return, not of the repressed, but of a very ancient form of iconographic expression, the snake of eternity biting its tail, digital media recovering the lost space of ancient paintings. While Mokri designed a rather abstract, minimal set, Dai Ming is a real Chinese village, with its endearing mess, local architecture and folk customs, so the mode of shooting had to be more “hand-on”, more intimate as well. Bi Gan asked his DP to follow the action on a motorbike (see note 5), so the camera insinuates itself in the back alleys, staircases, small shops, river banks, the main square of the village, on the bridge and the small boat crossing the river; follows Cheng getting his shirt repaired by the seamstress Yangyang, his hair washed by Zhang Xi, who, thinking him crazy, escapes as soon as she can to attend a concert on the square – where Yangyang waits for her and Cheng is already there, singing with the musicians; witnesses Weiwei’s flirtation with Yangyang; and comes to rest with a close-up of Cheng on Weiwei’s bike, saying “This is like a dream.”

Yangyang keeps eluding Weiwei, as she is about to leave the village to become a tour guide in Kaili. As she has promised to come back when time reverses, Weiwei promises to “work on the train” to make this happen. The last image shows Cheng on the train, and, reflected on the windowpane, is the image of a drawn-up clock whose hands are turning backward…

South and North

Even though he spends half of his time in Canada, Luo Li keeps making films about his hometown, the city of Wuhan, in Hubei Province (just north of Guizhou), at the intersection of the Yangtze and Han rivers. So water is what defines Wuhan, as made clear in Luo’s previous film, the Dragon and Tigers 2013 winner Tang huang you difu (Emperor Visits the Hell) and, again, in this year’s entry (after a successful premiere in Rotterdam), Li Wen manyou Donghu (Li Wen at East Lake), which deals (in part) with the environmental damage created by pollution and real estate development onto the East Lake, which is the largest urban lake in China and Wuhan’s most famous touristic spot (Chairman Mao’s villa is located on one of its bank, and it is in Wuhan that he took his famous swim in 1972). At the frontier between document and fiction, arrives Li Wen, the actor who played the Emperor in Luo’s previous film. Here he is a painter-turned-policeman, who continues to pursue his artistic aspirations in the privacy of his home, while collecting archival photographs, especially of the Cultural Revolution.

Vancouver International film festival review

Li Wen at East Lake

Li Wen is a complex man, whose abilities are lost on the tracking of crazy men, monitoring of environmental activists, preparation for the visit of unnamed officials and obsessions with a possible dragon in the lake. In this haunting, elegantly penned, intelligently crafted hybrid work, Luo surrounds him with equally multi-faceted characters. A particularly insightful scene confronts Li Wen with a couple of young people. Unbeknownst to him, the young man is gay, and has just confided his relational problems to his female friend, who is preparing an academic paper on queer culture. Eating snacks with the pair, Li Wen reacts in a rather boorish manner to the research project, seeking the support of the young gay man, willfully oblivious to the fact he is embarrassing him, finally getting upset when the young woman starts talking about castration anxiety. Luo skilfully stages and deconstructs these moments of everyday social missteps, eager blindness and sincere faux pas, turning Li Wen at East Lake into a cinematic gem.

World premiered in Venice’s Orizzonti section, Pema Tseden’s Tharlo was another highlight. 6 Born and raised in the Chinese province of Qinghai (formerly the Tibetan province of Amdo), Pema 7 is an ethnic Tibetan, a Chinese citizen, a published writer in Chinese and Tibetan, a former translator between the two languages, and a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy: a network of cultural contradictions that he handles with a light touch and a smiling elegance, as his films are done with official approval. (The only exception was Lao Gou (Tibetan: Khyi Rgan) (Old Dog, 2011), which, shot under the radar, ended up with a shelving period of two years and a limited release in China with imposed cuts). Since his thesis work at the BFI, the 22 minute, award-winning rTswa thang (Grassland, 2004) and his celebrated first feature, Lhing vjags kyi ma ni rdo vbum (The Silent Holy Stones, 2005), his films have been shot in the Tibetan language, in his native province, and delve into multiple facets of the push-pull resistance-erosion of Tibetan culture faced by the double encroachment of Chinese domination and pervading modernity. After a compulsory detour into an innocuous folk pageant in the grand tradition of “happy minority” socialist films (see note 2), Wu Cai Shen Jian (The Sacred Arrow, 2014) to calm down bureaucratic minds upset by Old Dog, Tharlo is a masterful return to form. Another Heaven Pictures Culture & Media Co., Ltd. Production, it is superbly shot in black and white (a first for Pema) by Lu Songye – born and raised in Inner Mongolia, a 2008 cinematography graduate from Saint Petersburg State University in Russia, currently teaching at Hulunbeier University in Inner Mongolia, and known for having co-signed the cinematography of He Fenming (Fenming, A Chinese Memoir, 2007) with Wang Bing. 8 It is also the first time Pema is adapting one of his novellas to the screen. 9

Vancouver International film festival review

Tharlo

Pema structures his films around one essential shot 10. The Kiarostami-like moment when, at the end of Tshol ba (The Search, 2009), Drobe, the young woman asked by the fictional film team to embody the mythical heroine of a classical Tibetan opera, and who had, until them, steadfastly kept her head wrapped in a scarf, let go of the fabric, in the background of a wide shot, her back turned to the camera but her face directed at the man she loves. The 6 and a half minute shot in which, while the panting and muffled cries of the dog struggling for his life are heard off-screen, an aging herder pulls at the chain collaring his beloved Tibetan mastiff, preferring to strangle him rather than being forced to sell him to a Chinese trader. (This shot, with clear political implications, was the one Pema had to cut for the Chinese release.)

Toward the end Tharlo, the eponymous protagonist – who usually goes through life under his moniker, “Ponytail” – is sitting, visible from the shoulders up, a hat on his head in front of a mirror. The mirror is on the extreme left, allowing us to see, on the right, the furniture of a cheap barbershop. A young woman, Yangchuo (Yangshig Tso), stands behind him. On the small table between the mirror and the man, a pile of banknotes. Ambient radio music is heard. Tharlo reaches off-screen (presumably to his bag under the table) and brings more banknotes on the pile until it reaches his chin. This is the money he made selling the flock of sheep he was herding for a landlord. He asks the girl to “put it away”. She complies, and then returns behind him, touches his cheeks, removes his hat, massages the top of his head, and ask him to let her cut his ponytail, so he won’t be recognised. He nods his assent and closes his eyes. As the 10 minute-long shot continues to unfold, she endeavours to shave his head. Even though we are suspecting Yangchuo to be a swindler and a cheat, she seems to be overcome by the solemnity of the operation. When this is over, Tharlo looks at the mirror, discovering, with awe and tears in his eyes, his new persona. What makes the moment so potent is that, in this gaze, it is no longer the fictional Tharlo, but television comedian Shide Nyima, whose 17 year-old ponytail was a trademark, who is looking at himself, registering the loss. Considering Shide’s fame, this is an equivalent, in Tibetan cinema, of the publicity stunt organised by Orson Welles when he had Rita Hayworth’s long curls cut off in front of invited journalists. Yet, we never saw Hayworth’s gaze when she looked at herself with short hair for the first time; the only mirror stage Welles offered us was the final killing at the end of The Lady from Shanghai (1947), when she was looking at her death. Here the solemnity comes from the merging of fiction and reality, Tharlo/Shide offering himself to the ministrations of the femme fatale, who is enacting the mise en scène decided by the director, with the entire cast and crew holding their breath, hoping there is indeed tape in the camera, that the light metre functioned, that nobody made a false move, because there will not be a second take.

For Tharlo, who has come from being a simple, honest sheep herder proud of his ability to memorise entire pages of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book to a Renoirian character like in La Chienne (1931), there is no turning back. He gets a hold of his new existence through the mirror stage apparatus of the barber shop, recomposing his most intimate being under the touch and the gaze of the woman for whom he has broken the law and who will ultimately betray him. Yet during this moment out of time, she is here with him. She looks at him looking at himself, she gives birth to his new being, a powerful alchemy is taking place, captured by this extraordinary shot.

Walls and Borders

Another minority that has had trouble finding a voice has been that of the Korean Chinese. Like Pema, Zhang Lu is both a novelist and a filmmaker. His first feature, Tang shi (Tang Poetry, 2003), shot in Beijing the midst of the SARS epidemic, is a remarkable merging of his cinematic and literary leanings. Unable to work because of a nervous disease, a pickpocket holes up in his apartment and spends time eavesdropping on his neighbours and watching literary programs on the poetry of the Tang Dynasty, whose verses are used as scansion between the different “chapters”. 11 This was followed by Mang Zhong (Grain in Ear, 2005), about the plight, exploitation and revolt of a single Korean-Chinese mother selling kimchi in the streets of Beijing’s industrial outskirts. The film received Korean financing, and, when it won an award at Cannes, Chinese newspapers didn’t mention it. Zhang continued to explore the Korean Chinese community, as well as the issues of border and (illegal) border crossing between the two countries with noted features such as Hyazgar (Desert Dream, 2007), and Tumangang (Dooman River, 2011).

In 2012, Zhang moved to South Korea, and I lost touch with him, missing the first two features he shot there, the documentary Pung-gyeong (Scenery, 2013) and the light-hearted Gyeongju (2014), so I was overjoyed to discover with Pilleum Sidae Sarang (Love and…, 2015), a 70 minute ambling into literary and cinematic tropes, that Zhang still displayed the same wit, the same light, intelligent touch, and the same acute sense of mise en scène. Divided in four chapters, “Love,” “Film”, “Actors”, “Love Again”, and haunted with literary references (an excerpt from Borges’s “La Muralla y los libros” (“The Wall and the Books”) from Inquisitiones), filming with uncanny accuracy the traces left by human beings in empty spaces, Love and… is a sort of joyfully perverse return to the walled-in world depicted in Tang Poetry… from the other side of the Dooman River, but also from the other side of representation, opening up toward unobstructed vistas that are themselves mise en abîme of the cinematic process.

Vancouver International film festival review

Love and…

The film starts with a black and white sequence: a young woman visiting her grandfather at the hospital discovers that he has fallen for a nurse and pursues her in the most outlandish way. Not so fast. This is not the way to represent love! The image turns to colour, and a young man bursts into the scene, thrusting the accusation to the director of the film-within-the-film (the nurse and her patient). As he turns out, he is only a gaffer, and his interruption is not welcome. Frustrated, he leaves, taking one roll of film with him.

With his love of labyrinths and mirrors, Borges provides a paradoxical Ariadne’s thread here, as a close-up frames a Chinese translation of a compilation of his work; the book, probably, was part of the library which Zhang brought with him when he moved to Seoul (to paraphrase Aragon, our books, like our kisses, follow us). 12 In this peripatetic book, a man who was writing in Spanish about the first Chinese Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, is translated into Chinese (and the excerpt is read by a voiceover in Korean). Shih Huang Ti’s claim to fame is to have ordered the construction of the Great Wall of China as well as the burning of all the books written before him. Perhaps… Shi Huang Ti thought: “someday there will be a man who feels like I do and he will efface my memory and be my mirror and not know it”… Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

In Love and… Zhang Lu is both the director who “doesn’t know how to film love,” (does anybody ever know how to do it?) and the gaffer who interrupts the shoot. The two men “cancel” each other, throwing each other’s imperfect reflection into a hall of empty spaces in which the dialectic of absence/presence keeps being enacted.

And Borges is not the only reference. Zhang includes allusions to Chinese culture by overlaying a vintage love song about “mandarin ducks”, and humorously asserts his Korean-ness by (mis)quoting and subverting scenes of a number of contemporary films, from the tunnel sequence of Bong Joon-ho’s Hangul (Memories of Murder, 2003) to Lee Chang-dong’s Bakha satang (Peppermint Candy, 1999), Kim Ji-hoon’s Hangui (May 18, 2007), 13 and Ahn Sun-Kyeong’s Kwihyang (A Blind River, 2009). The montaged sequence is silent, while the performers move their lips, and the dialogue, sometimes rewritten to fit Zhang’s film (Did you argue with the director at 2:00 pm and dump the reel at 3:00 pm?) is presented as intertitles, as in early cinema.

In the last act, the opening sequence is replayed, but as sound only, as the voices of the actors float over the empty space of the hospital, a reminder of Marguerite Duras’s Son Nom de Venise dans Calcutta Désert (Her Name of Venice in Deserted Calcutta, 1976). This sonic re-enactment is interrupted in the middle by a crowd of silent patients in hospital pyjamas who cross the hall, as if inhabited by forgotten stories, then disappear in a shuffling of shoes, while a voice repeat Fire upon Water. Water upon fire. Anchovy Peanut Cabbage.

An unanswered phone rings, Mendelssohn’s The Nuptial March is heard, the voices resume their narration, punctuated by visual remnants of the first sequence: a peeled apple, a knife, a film screen, film production gear, a purloined reel… until the film gently rolls to its sweet, meditative conclusion.

Park Kiyong is another director obsessed with the intersection between Korean and Chinese culture. Revealed in by his narrative film 1997 Motel Seoninjang (Motel Cactus), shot by Christopher Doyle and shown at the VIFF, then consolidating his reputation with the black-and-white award-winning Nakta(dul) (Camel(s), 2002) he turned to making documentaries in 2012. His previous film, also shown at the VIFF, Garibong (2013) was an affectionate portrait of a Seoul neighbourhood populated with Chinese-Korean immigrants (ethnic Koreans like Zhang who had returned to South Korea after decades, maybe generations of living in China).

Crossing the frontier the other way, with Yanji (2014) he casts an intimate, fascinated glance at the garrulous, chaotic, congenial cross-pollinating of cultures, food and grooming habits in the titular North Eastern Chinese city (Jilin Province), which, located by the Korean border, is inhabited with a mixture of Chinese and ethnic Koreans. As all over China, destruction, construction and industrialisation are in full boom, busy markets that we can imagine fragrant with the smell of freshly cooked spicy food are adjacent to construction sites, mom-and-pop shops offering cheap hair-cuts in Korean stand next to skyscrapers. Park’s camera meanders through the crowds, rubs elbows with passers-by in the streets, enters the modest homes of working-class families where parents supervise a kid’s homework while preparing dinner, follows young lovers… The to-and-fro between urban planning and the resilience of the local population is particularly visible in this sweet-and-sour melting pot that stands as a testimony of the unexpected aspects of cultural hybridity.

Vancouver International film festival review

Yanji

Jang Kunjae, who owes part of his career to the Dragons and Tiger award won by his first film, Hwioribaram (Eighteen) in 2009, was back with a third feature, Hanyeorum ui Fantasia (A Midsummer’s Fantasia), which, shot in Japan, is also a subtle, sweet meditation on cross-cultural attraction and misunderstandings. Young Korean people are hot on Japanese trends and fashions, and the film, co-produced by filmmaker Kawase Naomi, has become an indie sleeper in Korea. In the first part, shot in black and white, a Korean filmmaker (Im Hyeong-book) and his female, bilingual AD Minjun (Kim Saebyuk) wanders through the small Japanese city of Gojo (33,000 inhabitants), located in a mountainous region of Nara Prefecture, to scout the possibility of making a film. At night, the filmmaker walks the streets alone, catching the fleeting sight of a young woman. During the day, he and Minjun get help from a young city council member (Iwase Ryo), who introduces them to elderly locals, who share their memories. Even though it was only founded in 1957, Gojo already shows signs of attrition, as most of the younger population has left for the big cities. The second part switches to colour, and can be read as a “fantasia” culled from the stories told before, a tale of what may have happened, one day, in Gojo. Kim Saebuk returns, alone, as a stylishly dressed young woman who seems to be on a mysterious quest. Later we’ll learn that she is an actress in Tokyo, maybe at a turning point in her career, hesitant about the path to take. She is again paired with the Japanese actor Iwase Ryo, who this time embodies a persimmon farmer. He offers his services as a guide, simply because he has fallen for her. She probably has a boyfriend in Tokyo, and does not feel for him the way he does, but a certain attraction bonds them, and he shows them the places that are meaningful to him, the ones that have marked his childhood. Their lovely, mostly improvised, interaction, gently keeps us on our toes. Even though we know it’s not possible, like the persimmon farmer, we have hopes.

Vancouver International film festival review

A Midsummer’s Fantasia

Women in Love

Another highly successful film in its own country (and a winner at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival), Take Masaharu’s Hyaku-en no Koi (100 Yen Love) was showcased in the small section “Nippon Neo-Noir”, and it’s a sort of Japanese response to Eastwood Million Dollar Baby (2004), with a more grungy look and a less philosophically heavy ending. The film belongs to Ando Sakura, an award-winning actress who comes from a family of noted politicians and film professionals, and gained, then lost, weight, all the while training in a boxing gym, to play the unlikely heroine Ichiko. At first, she is a sloppy, overweight, shabbily dressed, unemployed and sexually repressed 32 year-old woman living at her mother’s apartment, until a quarrel with her recently divorced sister makes her move out, and, penniless, forced to take a job as a salesgirl in a 100-yen convenience store (the equivalent of an “all for a dollar” shopping outfit). A lecherous co-worker, thinking her an easy prey, has designs on her, but, passing a boxing gym, a young man on his way down the professional slope, Kano (Arai Hirofumi), catches her eye.

Gradually, Ichiko becomes her own woman, turning her victimisation and marginalisation into strength. She calls the cops after a sexual assault; she enrolls in the gym and starts training; she brings a sick, drunken, puking Kano into her rented room, cooks for him, and the two start living together without spelling it out. He resists, of course, and betrays her for a slimmer, younger cutie. Yet she continues training, gradually winning the respect, then the genuine affection of the men in the gym. However, she is close to her expiration date, as there is a certain age after which women are no longer allowed to take part in a boxing competition. It’s now or never, and the scenes in which Ichiko is training, while her body, her face, her hair, her sense of self are changing, are truly fascinating. And yet, this is no million-dollar baby. Wisely, generously, humorously Take keeps the movie at a 100-Yen level – making us share the true exhilaration of small victories won by ordinary people.

One of the most loyal audiences in Vancouver is the Farsi community, that flocked into the theatres where Iranian films were playing: Jafar Panahi’s 2015 Golden Bear winner Taxi, of course, but also films by young directors – such as No Land’s Song in which Ayat Najafi documents his sister Sara’s effort to stage a concert of female musicians in Tehran, while women have been forbidden to sing in public since the Islamic Revolution – or Ida Panahandeh’s second feature-length film, Nahid (awarded the Avenir Prize at Cannes’s Un Certain Regard). Starring two exceptional actors, Sareh Bayat (who was the pregnant, working class and religious Razieh hired as a housekeeper by the divorcing couple of Asghar Farhadi’s Jodaeiye Nader az Simin/A Separation, 2011) in the title role and a very nuanced Pejman Bazeghi as her new romantic interest, Masoud – a well-meaning widower who has genuinely fallen for her, but is still trapped in the privileges of his gender and class. In a small city by the Caspian Sea, Nahid struggles to make a living and support her young son, Amir, having long divorced a no-good, gambling and drug addicted husband, Ahmad (Navid Mohammadzadeh). She works several jobs, has to duck the landlord, make shady deals with him or plead with his wife to get her key back when she can’t afford the rent. Yet she enjoys her hardly-won independence. One of her jobs is for Masoud, who owns a beachside hotel, and the two start a romance on the sly. Masoud is getting tired of having to hide and would love to get married. The Iranian legal system may not offer this as an option to Nahid, as Amir is at a difficult age where he resents his mother for forcing him to do his homework, and finds it much more fun to be hanging out with Dad and his hard-playin’, hard-drinkin’ buddies. Ahmad has threatened to take the boy back if Nahid remarries – and has the legal right to do so…

Vancouver International film festival review

Nahid

In a landscape buoyed by other female directors, such as Rakhshan Banietemad, Mahnaz Afzali, Mahnaz Mohammadi and Tamineh Milani, Panahandeh opens a new vista on the complex situation of women in contemporary Iranian society, their dilemmas, the unfairness of the judicial system, but also their strength, their desires, their humour. Nahid is neither victim nor saint; like many of us, she is multi-layered, and wants several things at the same time, has strong bonds with other women while pining for the affection of a man, wants to be loved but not controlled, is faced with economic inequality on the job, yet still finds fulfillment in her work, no matter how menial. In short, one of the most credible and relatable contemporary heroines of late.

Here comes Lucy

With a few exceptions – Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s Microcosmos (1996), Jacques Perrin’s Le Peuple Migrateur (Winged Migration, 2001) or Luc Jacquet’s La Marche de l’Empereur (March of the Penguins, 2005) – nature films rarely make it to non-specialised film festivals and even less to art houses, and I had to overcome my own scepticism before deciding to see Ouragan (Hurricane). Yet, Vancouver is a festival where you expect the curators to take calculated risks; it also provides opportunities to meet filmmakers and talk to them in an unhurried way. So a passionate conversation with one of the three filmmakers, Cyril Barbançon, who has a long experience with animal and nature films, as a director or as a DP, finally convinced me, as well as the lure of seeing images in 3D in one of the specially equipped theatres.

Vancouver International film festival review

Hurricane

It began with a common and challenging desire to make a film about something invisible…the wind, director/producer Jacqueline Farmer said in an interview. And because that wasn’t difficult enough, we decided to shoot it in 3D. So began a five year journey, of technical research and development and shooting 3D in the field. We took our cameras into storms, underwater and into the skies. 14 The third person on the team is Andy Byatt, a former filmmaker for the BBC, now based in France, and who once specialised in underwater cinematography. Together they embarked on a five-year journey that took them from Senegal to Puerto Rico, the Southern United States and Cuba (18 storms in total) to draw the elusive portrait of a fictional hurricane called Lucy, born on August 15, declared dead on September 12 that, in a female voice, speaks the visionary words written in 1866 by Victor Hugo, then in exile on the island of Guernsey, in the chapter “The Wind and the Sea” of his novel Les Travailleurs de la mer (Toilers of the Sea). As to be expected, the text assigns a metaphysical dimension to the phenomenon: it is the breath of the infinite. It also draws surprising ecological conclusions, as nature’s destructive force that cares very little for what it does to humans is also an agent of renewal. I would be a monster, if I wasn’t a wonder, says Lucy, that adds without me there would be no rivers, no fruit, no flowers.

Yet, at the level of the images, Hurricane, while spectacular, is somewhat humble, meticulous, almost intimate. It follows the struggle of an anthill to survive flooding, the patient escape on blades of grass, then, once the tornado is over, the no less patient regrouping, re-crossing the devastated forest on broken twigs, torn leaves and crushed blades of grass. Men and women are no more – or no less – important than ants in the wake of a catastrophe of such dimension. They gather their children, their pets, their cattle, huddle in constructions that seem as fragile as matchboxes while the raging wind threatens to blow the roof from over their head; they help and console each other; they inspect the site of the disaster, salvage what can be salvaged, cry over what can’t. And, patiently, courageously, the camera is there, which means there is an operator braving danger to bring back these images. An operator seduced, as we, in the comfort of our seats, can’t help being, by the terrifying mixture of grand beauty and sadness, by the spectacle of nature running amok with a logic that we can’t comprehend but dimly perceive. In the sand storms overtaking Senegal as in the floods covering the Cuban coastline, there is a design, alien to our desires, that has something to do, as Hugo wrote, with a sense of the infinite.

So, why Vancouver? Because it is still a festival where you can both follow the latest works of filmmakers you are familiar with while opening up to unexpected encounters and discoveries. We will be back for more.

 

Vancouver International Film Festival
24 September – 9 October 2015
Festival website: http://www.viff.org

 

Endnotes

  1. A note for the non-initiated, which could as well be a useful reminder for the initiated, “A-list” is the moniker commonly adopted to denote what should be more adequately called “Competitive Film Festivals” – as per FIAPF regulations. The FIAPF (Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films) is the regulating body that grants accreditation to festivals. To be accredited as “Competitive” a festival can only admit international premieres (the first time a film is shown outside its country of production) in its competitive sections. At the time of this writing, there are 15 competitive film festivals – including Cannes, Berlin, Venice, San Sebastian and Locarno. Being accredited as competitive has no bearing on the size/importance of a festival – Tribeca and Sundance have not sought FIAPF accreditation – nor on its quality: Rotterdam, Vancouver and Hong Kong are not “competitive;” the Viennale is accredited, but as “non-competitive;” Pusan and Sitges, for example, are only accredited for “specialised” competitions (first Asian features for one, horror/fantasy films for the other).
  2. Paul Clark, “Minority films: Serfs and Smiles” in Paul Clark, Chinese Cinema – Culture and Politics since 1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1987, pp. 95-101; and, for a more recent (2007) update, Benjamin D. Shaffer, “’Happy Dancing Natives’ – Minority Film, Han Nationalism and Collective Memory” http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1140&context=isp_collection, accessed December 1, 2015.
  3. The original Chinese title translates as Roadside Picnic.
  4. Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer – Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press) 1979, pp. 231, 232.
  5. See interview with Bi Gan (in French): http://www.filmdeculte.com/people/entretien/Entretien-avec-Bi-Gan 21950.html, accessed December 8, 2015
  6. In Venice the film was bought for distribution by the French-Chinese company Chinese Shadows; later it went on the win the Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in Taipei’s Golden Horse festival.
  7. Pema Tseden, the Romanisation of his Tibetan name, is how he imposed to be known internationally, at the expense of Wanma Caidan, which is the pinyin form of the way his name is pronounced in Putonghua.
  8. Pema’s cinematographer on his first three features, Sonthar Gyal, has since become a director with two films produced or co-produced by Pema: Dbus lam gyi nyi ma (The Sun-Beaten Path, 2011) and Gtsngbo (River, 2015).
  9. The original story was published in French in Neige (Arles: Philippe Piquier, 2013), a collection of seven stories translated from the Tibetan by Françoise Robin and from the Chinese by Brigitte Duzan, and which also includes “Searching for Drime Kunden”, written after the shooting of The Search. A few of Pema’s short stories – but, as yet, not “Tharlo” – have been translated into English. See http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/at-the-borders-of-homeland-and-exile-tibetan-literature, accessed December 5, 2015
  10. This point was confirmed by Pema in a conversation I had with him in his studio in Beijing on 6th June, 2015
  11. Considered a high point of Chinese civilisation, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) is quite distinct from what is considered another golden age, the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), and, in contemporary Chinese culture, is often used as a counterpoint to the hegemonic Han culture embodied in the current regime.
  12. Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent? Et leurs baisers au loin les suivent. Comme des soleils révolus. (Is this how men live? And their kisses follow them from afar. Like bygone suns. Louis Aragon, Bierstube Magie allemande in Le Roman Inachevé (Paris: Gallimard),1956
  13. A thinly disguised political allusion, as the film is about the 1980 massacre ordered by the army to suppress student demonstrations.
  14. http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3849, accessed January 12, 2015

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.