Cinema diplomacy

David Varga

New Moon, director Marilou Diaz-Abaya

New Moon, director Marilou Diaz-Abaya

The third Sydney Asian Pacific Film Festival gave the impression of a cultural event nascent with possibility. Despite the abundance of work to source, the program comprised a promising sample of films from across the region combined with popular cult offerings.

Opening night featured festival guest Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times. While Yimou’s earlier works, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad are saturated in colour, allegorical period themes and immaculate stylisation, Happy Times focuses on contemporary Beijing and those marginalised by China’s economic miracle. Zhao (Zhao Benshan) is a retired factory worker struggling against the stigma of poverty in his longstanding yearning to marry. When he finally locates a prospect through a dating agency she demands an expensive wedding, the first indication of her new China greed. Zhao’s friend suggests they raise money by hiring out an abandoned bus to young lovers, The Happy Times Hut. Zhao, embellishing his standing by masquerading as a successful hotelier, is persuaded by his fiancée to take care of her stepdaughter Wu Ying (Dong Jie). Zhao becomes increasingly protective of the blind Wu Ying as their friendship evolves through shared feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Despite at hinting the possibility for greater intimacy, Yimou crucially frames their mutual need within the overwhelming dispossession of a new class unable to define its place, making the comedic and humanist touches seem whimisically misdirected at the film’s emotionally demanding resolution. While Wu Ying escapes to make her own way in the new world, Zhao’s future is as forebodingly open-ended as China itself.

Demonstrating much about modern China’s reading of western individualism, Quitting is an autobiographical account of Jia Hongsheng, a prominent actor whose career is derailed by drugs. After months of smoking pot, Hongsheng becomes convinced he is the progeny of John Lennon and is committed by his family to a mental asylum. This is not the kind of hedonistic depravity the world’s alternative press might latch on to as an example of vertiginous chic, and audiences jaded by the west’s fetish for chemical excess in film (drug porn) will find the film’s earnestness naive. With Honsheng’s elaborate confession to authorities the key to his redemption, it’s little surprise Quitting passed Chinese censors despite its taboo subject.

In contrast, Tekashi Miike’s Dead or Alive (Japan) is a vision of surfeited postmodernity. Its opening montage is a machine-gun paced exposition of Tokyo at the moment of apocalypse. A prostitute jumps from a high-rise, a man greedily snorts a 5-metre line of cocaine, hit men pull automatic weapons from a convenience store’s frozen food section, a Chinese crime lord erupts ramen noodles as a gluttonous feast ends with an assassin’s bullet, and for a further 10 minutes violent imagery cascades in a tsunami of perversity and power. Miike’s disintegrating world is constructed from images without origin—the same diaspora and rootlessness that defines his characters. Crime fighter Jojima (Aikawa Sho) and gangster Ryuichi (Takeuchi Riki) share a profound longing for connection and place. Jojima is alienated from his family and Ryuichi is the offspring of ‘Zanryu Koji’—children left in China after WWII who returned unwanted to mainland Japan. Feeling no debt to Japanese society, Ryuichi and his small group muscle in on the Shinjuku underworld. The searing final confrontation between Jojima and Ryuchi suggests anything is possible in Miike’s films. Apart from the lead actors, the sequel to Dead or Alive is a complete departure. Sho now plays Mizuki the hit man and Riki his mysterious rival. Escaping from the yakuza the two share a ferry-ride home to a small island far from Tokyo, rekindling a childhood friendship. With the spiritual hollows of the Tokyo underworld behind them, the island gives rise to a nostalgia for lost innocence. Refreshed and purposeful, the killers leave to revive their careers, pledging to donate future profits to help suffering third world children. Despite a brief period of renewed professional gratification, the team discover the yakuza have long memories and hit men aren’t a rare resource in Tokyo city. Using a formula of chaotic imagery heavy with pastiche and satire, Miike takes the yakuza genre firstly to a limit of excess in DOA I, switching to a far more mercurial sense of possibility in the sequel. With his prolific average of 4 films a year, the crammed and sometimes vocal audience was evidence of Miike’s revered reputation in Japanese cult cinema.

Hong Kong’s signature action films were absent from the program, but flights of HKs irreducible cinematic imagination were on offer in the animated children’s film My Life as McDull. McDull is an animated piglet and he’s impossibley cute. He’s also a failure in the eyes of his mother, and seeks to prove his worth by becoming a master in the ancient art of ‘Kung Fu Bun Snatching’ (no really). My Life as McDull is scattered with many Desiderata-like platitudes to assuage the gravity of average inadequacy, but a blending of disparate animation techniques and an almost random inventiveness from image to image is enough to overcome a lack of ballast.

Sandy Lives (Vietnam) demonstrates how the cinematic image has the power to place us in another cultural reality, if only as tourists. Set just after reunification, a husband and wife reunite after a 20-year wait, only to find their lives are now irrevocably disconnected. Memory, desire and the lingering horrors of war shift together and apart like the transient shores upon which their riverside village is built.

Entertainment as myth disguising social and economic contradiction is at the core of Heart’s Desire, the smash hit of 2001 Indian cinema, providing the festival’s best taste of popular Asian cinema. Set in Mumbai’s equivalent of Bel Air, 3 baby-faced young men sing, dance, laugh and cry through 3 hours of gushing Bollywood optimism and coming-of-age romantic longing. After their summer of discovery, Aakash and Sameer are matrimonially bound. Siddharth, the inquisitive, sensitive young artist almost derails the friendship by falling for Tara (Dimple Kapadia), an older woman with a child and a drinking problem. From the ensuing fallout we learn that young Indian men are strongly discouraged from relationships with older women who like a drink. Thankfully for the buddy motif, Tara dies of cirrhosis, allowing the trio to blossom to manhood accompanied by more socially acceptable partners. Despite occasional thematic reservations, it’s impossible not to enjoy this Mumbai 90210 epic with its sprightly performances from Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Skashaye Khanna, and Preity Zinta, and especially the scenes shot in Sydney.

For me the festival standout was New Moon, a contemporary dramatisation of the resistance of Mindinao Muslims in the Philippines. Akmad (Cesar Montano) is a Manila doctor who returns to rescue his family from attacks by state-sanctioned Christian militias. As Akmad is drawn deeper into the conflict, director Marilou Diaz-Abaya subtly subverts an obvious moral resolution, emphasising the complexity of history and tolerance. The mostly expatriate Filipino audience connected deeply with the deft storytelling, sighing in epiphany at twists in the sentient narrative, demonstrating how the collective experience of engaging with film transforms according to viewing culture. Cesar Montano’s introduction of the film increased the generous and intimate audience fervour. Leaving the session, I was repeatedly asked if I enjoyed the film by enthusiastic strangers. How often does such openness occur in Sydney’s film-scene citadels?

Unsurprisingly, New Moon and Heart’s Desire shared the audience award for most popular film. The Short Soup short film competition winner was Tree by Eliza Johnson, an impressionistic and simple play of colour in which a young girl protectively remembers her dead mother through elaborate rituals. Ballad of the Praying Mantis by Naoki Tsukushi, a fatal affirmation of queer identity over family duty was the winner of the SBS eat carpet award. Also promoting a sense of Asian community were seminars on co-productions and the special challenges facing filmmakers in developing unique Asian-Australian voices, a retrospective of formative and hitherto suppressed Chinese animation, and a ‘meet the filmmaker’ session with cinematographer and Wong Kar Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle.

Despite room to grow the program, directors Juanita Kwok and Paul De Carvalho have succeeded in bringing the vast voices of Asian cinema together in best possible spirit. While Australia’s view of Asia is so often founded on economic opportunism rather than a desire for cultural understanding, festivals such as the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival are vital in promoting greater regional awareness. With screenings mostly well-attended audiences can only hope for an expanded festival in 2003.

Asia Pacific Film Festival 2002, Dendy Martin Place, Aug 8-17.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 34

© David Varga; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002