Asian Film: mirror images

Mike Walsh on the 2003 Pusan International Film Festival

Lee Kang-sheng, Goodbye Dragon Inn

Lee Kang-sheng, Goodbye Dragon Inn

Korean cinema’s rapid ascension to international attention over the past decade has been paralleled by the rise of the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) as Asia’s leading festival. In only its 8th year, Pusan is an inspiration to those of us who see festivals playing a vital role in screen culture.

This year PIFF moved to Pusan’s beachfront area where the accompanying film market events have established themselves. Opening night was a huge affair replete with fireworks, fanfares and schoolgirls screaming as cool stars sauntered into the open-air arena. The festival draws an astonishingly young audience from all over the country. You have to envy the Koreans the genuine popularity of their national cinema.

One of the tropes that spanned films from several countries this year was that of mirrored relations between characters. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s opening night Doppelganger was built explicitly around this conceit. Japanese cinema has always contained a strain in which deep structures are laid on the surface. Here a repressed workaholic splits, generating a double who does everything his original self fears.

After the successes of Cure and Bright Future, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is invoked in the same breath as Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano, though this film plays out the doppelganger motif in a rather tedious fashion. Its major interest is the means employed to show the split in the protagonist. Digital effects are downplayed in favour of old-fashioned solutions such as montage and split screen opticals.

Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s take on the double was played out through the romantic comedy Turn Left, Turn Right. To has always shown an interest in abstraction and this tendency is growing stronger. The premise here is that 2 lovers are destined for each other, but they have a hard time meeting because their lives are so symmetrical. Mirroring here is a way of keeping people apart. As in Kleist’s story The Earthquake in Chile, the earth has to open to produce the asymmetry necessary for narrative closure.

The third mirroring story was perhaps the highlight of the festival. We’re due for a big evaluation of Thai cinema pretty soon. Pen-ek Ratanaruang works a variation on his 1999 film 6ixtnin9 with Last Life in the Universe, which deals with a relationship between opposites whose difference brings them together. The film takes its stylistic cues from its obsessively neat Japanese librarian who meets a messy Thai bar girl when they are both involved in the death of a sibling. Filmed by Christopher Doyle, whose reputation is associated with his hot, handheld style for Wong Kar-wai, this is a beautifully controlled meditation on the balance between the needs to create order and disorder. In examining this balance, Last Life in the Universe traces a movement from an empty, fatalistic freedom to a hopeful state of unfreedom.

Speaking of empty freedom, Tsai Ming-liang’s new film Goodbye, Dragon Inn is indeed another Tsai Ming-liang film. This means that we get some brilliantly conceived long takes which foreground long moments of stillness, and a subtly complex sound mix built around ringing silences. We also have characters who interest the director for their pathologies, highlighting the gulfs within his yawning spaces.

The film is set in a cavernous old movie theatre screening King Hu’s great martial arts movie Dragon Inn to a small crowd whose primary interest is extremely repressed homosexual cruising. In one of the few lines of dialogue, someone observes that the theatre is haunted and it’s a small interpretive leap to see the characters as ghosts, with the spectacle on the screen having a greater purchase on human passion. Films such as King Hu’s translate desire into action, a transaction impossible in Tsai’s world.

The 2 big auteur-driven successes this year will surely be the new films by Takeshi Kitano and Kim Ki-duk, though both are calculated in their appeals to international art cinema. When Kim was in Australia in 2002, his only English was “I make dangerous films.” His new film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring deals with the art cinema trifecta of tranquil landscapes, Buddhist philosophising and cute children. The director himself has a sizeable role, stripped to the waist and showing off his martial arts moves in freeze frame.

While Spring… is a bit too beautiful for its own good, there’s still a lot here for those interested in Kim’s career. It is clearly the reverse image of The Isle as both films deal with marginalised characters who seek refuge in the middle of a lake.

Zatoichi will undoubtedly return Takeshi Kitano to international favour after the fiasco of his US crossover attempt with Brother. Kitano has learned the lesson of Akira Kurosawa’s international success—namely that the jidai-geki (the period action film) is a version of Japaneseness that travels. Reinventing the Zatoichi franchise, Kitano spices up the character of the blind master swordsman with his characteristic alternation between bloody violence and whimsical humour. Perhaps the only way you can get away with a tap dance in a movie these days is when it follows some spectacular blood-letting. There is a thematic celebration here of the hero and the artist as frauds, but there isn’t the rich stylistic play with space that constitutes the most interesting aspect of Kitano’s filmmaking.

The Korean cinema has enjoyed a huge expansion over the past year and the price has been several large budget films falling flat. After last year’s Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, this year’s sci-fi fiascos have included Natural City and the animated Wonderful Days.

The strongest Korean genre is the psychological horror film, with Tale of Two Sisters as this year’s prime example. It manages to combine art cinema introspection with a commercial storytelling that appeals to both genders. As the Korean industry grows to a point where larger budget spectacles become feasible, filmmakers have to become more conscious of the need to foreground narratives that appeal to multiple audiences.

Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder is deservedly the break-out hit this year, pulling off the combination of police procedural and social allegory. Based on a true story of unsolved murders from the 1980s, the film suggests that the viciousness of Korea’s recent history still hangs in the air, as the murderous violence the police chase is within themselves. Coming after the revelation of his debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Bong may indeed be the major auteur around whom international interest in the Korean cinema coalesces.

2003 Pusan International Film Festival, Pusan, South Korea, Oct 2-10, 2003

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 17

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004