a culturevulture.net special report by Susan Cunningham
A more sensitive or cynical person would have deciphered the warning signal several weeks before the premier of this year’s Bangkok Film Festival. Thesignal was the announcement ofa Thai juror to sit alongside the likes of New York Post critic V.A. Musetto, Jerry Maguire producer Christopher Lee and Philip Cheah, the longstanding director of the Singapore International Film Festival. Was the juror a critic, director or a teenage heartthrob? Nope. This was yet another unit from Thailand’s voluminous stockpile of downsized beauty queens in search of a purpose.
The selection was a jarring note, coming from the small group of frustrated filmfiends that founded the annual event. The founders three years ago set the laudable goal of showcasing new independent feature films from throughout the world as well as documentaries and "alternative" big films that seldom reach Bangkok’s monotonous cineplexes.
Without an inside line on jury contestants, here’s a wised-up guess: in return for the sponsorship of the Tourist authority or Thai Airways, or both, or more, the organizers had to sell off a little piece of their souls. And in their hamfisted eagerness to burnish the nation’s image, the bureaucrats ended up reinforcing Thailand’s lightweight credentials in the world cultural division.
You can’t help wondering … what did the other government and corporate sponsors demand?
Whatever the meaning of the harbinger, the festival stumbled through two long weeks before ending October 4. Despite the extended schedule, the approximately 70 films, 60 of them features, represented a decline in overall numbers. Last year the total number of features, documentaries and shorts exceeded 100. Gone too, were the director retrospectives. The seminars look destined to follow.
Snafus surged. They ranged from power outages to films held up in customs, which in turn set off rescheduling nightmares. Promotion and press relations do not seem to be a concern. Surely some of the mistakes are to be expected in a Third World country, but viewers were in high kvetch already.
And for a very good reason: the good films seemed to be outnumbered four to one by the lame, the halt and the excruciating. In particular, the makers of the one-note documentaries (Pop & Me, Pitch People) should be kindly but firmly funneled to the torturing professions. As for Dolphins, winner of the Best Short prize, all you need to know is that there are hardly any dolphins in it.
Thank goodness for the always reliable Iranians and Indians. Mohammed ali Talebi’s Willow and Wind won the jury’s top Golden Elephant Award, the only one of the seven competitors worthy of it. Indians proved in Train to Pakistan that they can look straight into the face of ugly history. The Danes (The One and Only) are gaining on the Swedes (Fucking Amal, Love Fools) as the new refreshing kids on the block.
The Russians are still investigating new dimensions in pessimism (The Day of Full Moon). Korean films (Rainbow Trout, Chunhyang) may be a rarefied taste, but the directors have a fearless disregard for formula and a great feel for cinematic language. As for The Ninth Gate, say what you will about Roman Polanski’s excesses or Mrs. Polanski’s acting chops, but is there anyone but Johnny Depp that can carry a 127-minute film like this–apparently appearing in every scene, every minute?
Also notable was a gay sub-theme, even if the organizers and promotional material failed to mention it. At least seven features had prominent gay characters. Given the mores and the laws elsewhere in East Asia, this had to be a regional festival record. Indeed, these outings may well have surpassed the total number of "gay" films publicly screened in all neighboring countries together in a year. This says a lot for Thais’ open-mindedness and the growing commitment to freedom of expression.
Herewith is the lowdown on the highlights and the hyped:
Perhaps Zhang Yimou’s new film, The Road Home, was so disappointing, dismaying actually, because it was so hyped. What happened to him? Could this be a piece of political penance? Zhang made his name in the early 1990s with gorgeous period films (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) that dramatized the desperate plight of women in traditional Chinese society. Zhang last year took an abrupt, grittier turn with the contemporary Not One Less. Inspired by Iranian films, he realized that the mundane triumphs and struggles of very ordinary people–such as a teenage village schoolteacher–could still make a gripping story. And he didn’t shirk from showing the dirt and ugliness that are synonymous with the Chinese city and village today.
The Road Home and Not One Less share some superficial similarities. A 30-ish present-day businessman returns to his native village for the funeral of his father. As the film shifts from black-and-white to color, he dreamily recalls how his schoolteacher father (an "intellectual" by Chinese standards) met his illiterate mother when he came to teach in the new village school. There is plenty of potential drama here. But this isn’t a movie: it’s a treacly pink- and red-tinted extended music video that might illustrate a compilation of mournful flute tunes. We see many scenes of the young mother, the pretty, pigtailed Zhang Ziyi, as she runs in slow-motion in the countryside, spies on the school and prepares dishes for the eligible bachelor. Eventually, the two exchange a few words on cuisine matters. That’s it. There are no further revealing conversations, no scenes in the classroom, no interactions with adults or children, none of the village itself, no explanation of the teacher’s "political problem." No reminders of age-old shrines, superstitions or workaday rhythms. We get no inkling how either this girl of leisure, the sole child of a blind widow, or her fellow villagers put food on the table.
The most repugnant deception is the fairy-tale time and place. The narrator tells us that his parents met "40 years ago." Yet in the late 1950s, the entire country was wracked by a Mao-induced famine that killed up to 30 million people. Emaciated or bloated from dropsy, the villagers would be scrounging for grass, weeds and bark. And this isn’t a fertile, rice-growing area; it appears to be low thinly-forested hills–the sort of area where the half-dead fed on human flesh. If we push the time up to 1960, there still wouldn’t be such variety and abundance of food or all those pink-flecked cotton quilts (they went into the soup). Nor a herd of sheep left to run across the road. The lack of dialogue is understandable, though: at that time, Chinese peasants would be talking about nothing but food and death.
Chac (Jury Winner, Best Documentary)
A Road Home is feeding off the nostalgia for simple village life that often infects urban people removed by two or three generations from the backbreaking, uncertain, smothering reality. But as Chac demonstrates, decent documentaries have an insidious way of enabling the subjects to subvert the director’s intentions. Here the subjects are two Vietnamese families, relatives of the mother of director Kim-Chi Tyler. Appearing at the screening, Tyler rightly insisted that Chac isn’t concerned with the American Vietnam War. Her mother did marry a kindly, much older American civilian, thus enabling Tyler, her mother and brother to escape before the fall of Saigon. But the other facts of the mother’s early life would be the same regardless. Many a strong-willed, ill-educated Vietnamese woman faces the same circumstances and the same sparse options today.
Tyler always knew that her late mother, Chac (the name aptly means "Strength" in Vietnamese), had fled her Mekong Delta village after being repeatedly beaten by her husband, Tyler’s natural father. What Tyler discovers when she returns is that her mother was beaten by her own mother and brothers, "Bio-Dad" has no regrets or apologies, her younger sister died in mysterious circumstances and, as her wispy maternal grandmother puts it, Chac worked as a "whore" in Saigon. The two families are bickering and gossiping to this day.
Perhaps more evident in her remarks at the screening than in the film itself, Tyler has continued to visit and to forge a bond with the odious father and the rest of the clan. She likes to imagine herself as a simple village girl. She doesn’t get it. You don’t get to select the elements of your Vietnameseness. None of these relatives considers that a woman might be more than a pack animal to be bartered between families. To be part of this village, she’d have to submit–or face the kind of penalties Chac might have told about.
It’s Woody Allen as he was in the old days. Yes, back when he was not only still funny, but when he knew it was patently risible to suggest he could be married to someone like Sharon Stone. Even funnier is seeing the familiar nebbish as Tex, a kosher butcher inhabiting a New Mexico trailer and wearing a cowboy hat and jeans. After theTex hacks up his cheating wife, a missing body part proves to have miraculous powers. With such a tourist attraction on hand, townspeople are reluctant to see justice done. Andy Dick, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Kiefer Sutherland, Cheech Marin … the starry members of the ensemble cast whiz by so quickly that none of them–save David Schwimmer as a lecherous priest–has time to get on your nerves. The film Director Alfonso Arau and screenwriter Bill Wilson are forces to be reckoned with.
Anyone who’s ever lived as a gaijin will avoid Go-Con!: been there, done that, why do you think I left? But this is exactly what we’ve been trying to tell the rest of you. Yes, really, most Japanese men well into their twenties are dorks with the social skills of 14-year-olds elsewhere (How do you think Japan became a foreign man’s paradise?). Yes, it’s very plausible that such a group could meet weekly, year on end, endlessly performing the same silly drinking games, repeating the same few catch-phrases and feeding the same few lines–without once emitting an opinion on a topic as controversial as a movie. And yes, the role of Japanese women in movies, as in Japan itself, is to provide a well-groomed, tittering backdrop.
Go-Con, according to the program notes, is a Japanese-English word used by “young and trendy Japanese” and means “hanging out in a new age matchmaking style.” Whatever. Here, three ill-dressed dorks with curious hair meet weekly in a cafe, inviting a changing cast of four women and one man. If the film intended to push the critical envelope, it might have displayed some awareness that, for people this conformist, societal and parental pressure to be married by age 30 still wields tremendous force. That explains why some sensible people waste an evening on long-odds crapshoots. It’s unlikely, though, that the character just returned from the United States, too stylish to be an office lady and presumably working for a US company, would slum among the go-cons. And it’s inconceivable that she would consider rekindling a pre-America romance with Lead Dork.
If they were somehow dragged to this movie, gaijin would gripe that there is only one too discreet scene of a dork with his head in the toilet bowl and not one of any young Japanese man in a drunken coma on the cafe floor. These are valid points. I would argue, however, that this is why Nobuyuki Shintani, as “one of Japan’s leading television directors,” specifically omitted any scenes of men exiting the cafe or stumbling onto the trains. This film, after all, was crafted for a uniquely intuitive Japanese audience, which can fill in the blanks with vivid, sensual images of group barfing all the way home. And Japanese women (who never barf, incidentally) will intuitively know the secret words that the actresses wailed behind closed bathroom doors while they re-applied their matte foundation: “Will there ever, ever be a female Japanese director?”
A standout among the gay-themed films, Fucking Amal has already won wide distribution and deserved praise in the United States and Europe, so recapping it would be overkill. Let’s just say that some of the compelling reasons to see this emotionally true film have been overlooked by reviewers. For one, there’s the face of Rebecka Liljeberg, who plays lonely 16-year-old Agnes. Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom), the girl Agnes has a crush on, is a knockout, extroverted enhanced blonde that could star in any mainstream American teen flick. But Agnes is the ordinary imperfect girl that you see everyday, with an ordinary, childish face that is still so lovely and expressive. You can’t get enough of it.
Then there’s Agnes’s unusual film family: it isn’t in any way dysfunctional. The parents, particularly the wonderful Ralph Carlsson, do and say precisely the right things but are helpless to rescue their daughter from pariah-hood. It is thus all the more heartbreaking to sit with them as the minutes tick by and no one comes to Agnes’s birthday party. Correctly, no teachers appear in Fucking Amal; they don’t play major roles in a teenager’s universe. Finally, there’s the depiction of teenage boys in all their luggishness. The girls seem to see it ("Is that the only joke you know?" one girl snaps), but peer pressure or the boredom of the "fucking" little town of Amal propels them to unsatisfactory pairings. Remarkably, the director is a man, 31-year-old Lukas Moodysson. Should he stay in Sweden or answer the call of Hollywood?
Trust the Goethe Institute to be a courageous festival sponsor. Three of the festival’s German films were set, at least partially, in Nazi Germany, and two of these dramatized the lives of real gay people. (The other, besides Aimee & Jaguar was Der Einstein Des Sex, based on the life of a Jewish, gay, socialist, activist sexologist.) . The reckless, Jewish Felice (Maria Schrader, an arresting, unconventional beauty) works in the Berlin underground. Improbable but true, she falls in love withditzy Gentile Lilli (Juliane Kohler), the wife of a Nazi officer and the mother of four. The love story plays out with the momentum of Greek tragedy. But the films works on other levels too. It’s a thriller. It has the look and feel and paranoia of the time. And it offers a glimpse of how the underground resistance operated. For Felice, it meant passing in very high places.
Hong Kong director Yonfan has made a path-breaking Asian film but,if the few reviews I’ve seen are representative, Westerners haven’t grasped the significance.Many viewers here surely were sighing, "At last! Gay Asian men that aren’t transvestites, freaks, queens or (as in Shang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace) products of very Freudian childhoods." Not that Bishonen! (aka Beauty!) offers any slices of settled gay domestic bliss as now crop up so often in Western movies. Yet as the film traces the trail of call boy Jet (Stephen Fung), we at least learn that a gay Hong Kong man might be a tycoon thug, a cop, a movie star or an office worker. Or your brother or your boss. The romances are unconvincing and Jet is unsympathetic, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
It helps to understand how deep the homosexual taboo runs in Chinese societies. Probably all the men working as call boys have severed their family ties. And the taboo means the cop, sweet Sam (Daniel Wu), will never come out to his beloved parents. But we get no sense of the larger gay networks. Does Hong Kong only have a gay sub-culture or, as in Thailand, is there a nascent gay community?
How could Seducing Maarya start off so ripe and turn so rancid? Especially when the Maarya is played by the accomplished Nandana Sen, possibly the world’s most beautiful woman? Indian-Canadian Vijay (endearing Mohan Agashe of Mississippi Masala) is devastated by the death of his wife. When the resourceful new immigrant Maarya takes over his restaurant kitchen, Vijay decides that she’d make the ideal wife for his son, Azziz (Cas Anvar). Although Azziz is gay, he willingly submits to the marriage because it’s "tradition" and will cheer up the old man. The neglected wife and Vijay are convincingly drawn to each and commence an affair.
We seem to be ensconced in a competent, low-key comedy that will convey us to a novel accommodation between New and Old Worlds. But when Maarya’s hoodlum brother shows up, the film can’t bear the weight of violence, incest and Indian politics. Strangely, Malaysian-Canadian director Hunt Hoe is more baffled by the gay relationship than the incestuous one. Finally, it’s simply not true to character that these street-smart siblings would throw up Canada out of sentiment for Mother India. The pair would have too much fun casing out the Canadian angles.