Sunday, October 22, 2006

World Film Festival of Bangkok - Final Report


By being involved in the New York Asian Film Festival I know how hard it can be to fill seats for a festival with limited resources. There are certain films where you know that even if the tickets were free along with a coke and popcorn it would still be a struggle. Hell, if we had thrown in a blind date with Aishwarya Rai, I still don’t think anyone would have come to the Ram Gopal Varma films. But how much harder would it be I wonder if the prints we showed were all sub-titled in Italian. That is basically what this fest has going against it. All the prints are sub-titled in English and nothing else. Good for me. Not so good for the population of Bangkok. So the small target market are farangs and English speaking Thai’s who are interested in foreign art films and that might explain why of the seven films I have seen the audience has been somewhere between 30 and 60 people. Most of them are in fact farangs with a smattering of Thai’s. Rather odd and almost pointless it seems to me, but not being experienced with international film festivals I don’t know if this is the norm or not.

It is also a festival that seems devoid of personality – all the films are being shown in huge multiplexes with very little presence from the people behind the event. There are no introductions, no program books and no one there if things go wrong with the screenings – like starting the film literally just as they let people in or showing one of the short films two times! Probably the only thing the NYAFF has going for it are Grady’s frantic and excitable introductions and the fact that we are all there to be pelted by the angry crowds if need be. The folks behind the programming here are also of the old school of festival programming – back when a film had to be slower than a hot day at the beach to be considered “worthy”. Not that these films are bad – I have enjoyed nearly all of them but after watching three of these back to back to back as I did the other day I felt like I could have used a shot of adrenaline to the heart. Here are some very brief comments on what I have seen the last few days.

Climates

This is from the renowned Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan who won the Grand Prix three years ago in Cannes for “Uzak” and won the Fipresci Award this year at Cannes for this film. Now honestly I have no idea what the Fipresci Award is for but I assume it is of merit. I also admit to knowing absolutely nothing about Turkish films as this was my first one and I have no idea if this is in any way representative of them (I hope to convince a friend to begin a blog on Turkish films so that I can learn more about them). I came away with a few broad impressions of the film – it feels very European to me – in particular Italian or French with its slow calm intimate exploration of a souring relationship and everyone in Turkey seems to spend an enormous amount of time drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes!

It is beautifully shot (in HD video) with some stunning landscapes but primarily in stark close-up’s with the faces of the actors practically imploding on the screen. A relationship between a middle aged professor (played by the director) and his younger TV actress girlfriend (played by the director’s wife, Ebru Ceylan) is dissected and laid bare with a particular focus on the male psyche. The film begins in the summer with the two of them on a long needed holiday to the seashore, but this is a relationship clearly in trouble weighed down and sinking with a past indiscretion as the obvious culprit. But it is deeper than just that and by the time the holiday is over so are they and they return to their separate lives in Istanbul, where the man again takes up with his previous indiscretion. In a scene that was really surprising to me (as I had assumed that Turkey might have some strict censorship rules around sexual content – the Ministry of Education just censored out a picture of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” from school textbooks), the couple engages in some very rough and revealing sex (at which time a number of folks walked out) and the viewer begins to rework their assumptions about this guy. He can’t shake his former girlfriend out of his system though and follows her to a TV shoot into the snowy east of Turkey where neither of them can really express what they want or really seem to know what they need.

The film is very slow and in truth very little happens but it has such a sense of blemished reality to it that you feel like you are almost a voyeur. It is an honest and intriguing portrait of a man who is seemingly fairly solid and mature but at his core somehow very hollow and incomplete. The film has been picked up for US distribution by Zietgist Films.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

This latest film from director Tsai Ming-Liang is a return to his very minimalist style after the rather outrageous, offensive and I thought quite wonderful “The Wayward Cloud”. In a film almost deplete of dialogue except as background noise, he painstakingly etches a melancholy scene of urban loneliness, longing and our need for human contact. Full of long static takes in which I sometimes felt I could take a coffee break and not miss much, the story inches along like an earthworm but still manages to build in its wake an overriding sense of empathy and poignant fragility. The ending is perhaps absurd and rather cinematic but touching and hopeful.

The urban setting is not his usual Taipei, but Tsai instead shifts it to the impoverished backstreets of Kuala Lumpur. This may seem like an odd choice for the director, but Tsai is actually from Malaysia and on a trip back last year he felt inspired to make a film there. Using a series of short wordless shifting scenes, Tsai gradually depicts a group of disparate characters in a desolate and loveless landscape. A homeless Chinese foreigner (played by his usual actor of choice, Lee Kang-Sheng) is set upon and beaten by a group of conmen and left damaged in the streets. He is spotted by a group of poor Bangladesh workers who have found a used mattress in the garbage and they take both discarded items back to their barely functional apartments. Rawang (Norman Atun) nurses Hsiao back to health – washing his body, standing him upright to urinate – and a suspected sexual wanting begins to possibly surface.

In another parallel thread, a waitress (Chen Shiang-Chyi) has to care for the paralyzed son (also played by Lee) of the owner of the place where she works and she too in similar fashion to Rawang has to wash him down and in one instance is shown by the mother how to jerk him off. The three of them slowly close this circle and their distance apart in their desperate desire to simply feel something other than isolation. Though I admit to at times feeling frustrated by the glacial pacing of the film, it pays off finally and the film received a very nice hand of applause at the end. Though the settings of the film are little more than an abandoned building, a cesspool, dark alleys and patchwork apartments, Tsai and the cinematographer do wonders as they lavish this world with stunning and striking visuals – at times there are some truly beautiful shots such as the older mother looking at herself in an aging mirror, a butterfly landing on a bare back or a dream like scene of people encased in gasmasks (because of the smoke from fires in Indonesia) eerily standing outside a store watching an Indian music video on TV. There are moments of sly humor as well – two of the characters trying to make love with those gasmasks on and frantically trying to kiss and breathe at the same time. Funny on one level, but it is also an urgent cry for love. As is this film.

Isabella

I had previously seen “Isabella” on DVD and thought it enjoyable but a bit derivative. On this second viewing though it picked up some true resonance for me and left me feeling rather wistful and rueful by the end. In my review of Edmund Pang’s last film, “AV”, I stated that as entertaining as his films could be it felt to me as though he was sliding by on his wit and cleverness and that I thought he needed to aim for something with more depth. I assume he read my review and this is his answer. That was sarcasm by the way. In “Isabella” Pang for the most part plays it straight without indulging in parody or slight of hand and gives the audience a melancholy tinged look at a mildly corrupt and empty man coming to terms with what he has become over time. It works nicely because of the natural slow rhythm of the narrative and two finely honed performances.

The one obvious criticism that can be aimed at this work is that it often seems overwhelmingly influenced by the style of Wong Kar-wai. These influences appear everywhere from the musical choices, the lighting, the camera angles, the mood and the pacing. Wong Kar-wai casts a giant creative shadow over Hong Kong and his enormous international stature must make it difficult for any young director to escape his influence – especially for those that are attempting to make “serious” artistic films. It feels that when Pang decided to move in this direction with a more personal story he turned to Wong as an inspiration – whether intended or not. Even with this aura wafting through the film though, it still maintains enough of its own identity with a wry sense of humor, affection for its protagonists and its gentle humanity.

Pang replaces Wong’s 1960’s Hong Kong with the old sections of Macau and in similar fashion he uses this backdrop to create an intimate mood of melancholy, nostalgia and decay. Filming on its winding narrow cobblestone streets and within decrepit paint peeling apartments, Pang infuses his sets with various shades of omnipresent greens and natural light. One night Shing comes face to face with his past when a young girl, Bik-yan, follows him into a bar and hits him over the head with a bottle. Thinking that he had slept with and paid for her the previous night, Shing attempts to silence the underage girl but is truly taken aback when she declares that she is his daughter from a past relationship and that her mother has recently died. The guilt he still feels for having long ago abandoned his girlfriend at the abortion clinic as a teenager comes to the surface and he takes Bik-yan into his apartment and his life. He is a cop and as he admits to her not a completely honest one and he may have to soon take a fall. With the Handover to China looming it is perhaps an opportunity for him (and Macau) to start over again. As their relationship and affection for one another grows he starts to examine his life.

With only a skeleton of a plot, this slowly paced and gently told story nearly becomes a mood piece set to music, colors and shadows. Pang injects moments of humor into the film such as Bik-yan putting off all Shing's’s girlfriends with lies and tough talk or him teaching her the proper way to hit someone with a bottle (you need follow through). Both actors – the usually comic Chapman To and the fresh faced and long- legged Isabella Leung – give fine understated performances - something that Pang seems very able to elicit from his actors. Though I believe the film didn’t do nearly as well at the box office as some of his previous work – in particular “Men Suddenly in Black” - I hope Pang continues to push in this direction and that he will eventually establish his own identity.

Silence Will Speak

I gave this new Thai film some forty minutes of my life and felt that was enough of a sacrifice for art. I felt some guilt at walking out of a film from a young filmmaker, but there are times you want to make a show of protest – but I did it silently in homage to the film! This felt (and may be) like a student project and not a very good one – abstract and pretentious and badly shot on video. It has zero dialogue and when there was a fifteen minute continuous static take of a man making an origami bird in a traffic jam I knew I was in trouble. It didn’t get any better. Maybe this director will be the next Tsai Ming-liang with his minimalistic style, but I will wait until then I think.

12:08 East of Bucharest

This Romanian film from director Corneliu Porumboiu is a slyly amusing deadpan look at the state of the country sixteen years after the revolution forced Ceausescu to leave power and brought an end to Communism. The “12:08” of the title refers to the time of day that Ceausescu announced he was leaving and the “East of Bucharest” refers to the location of the film. It is an unnamed small sized city that is unrelentingly drab and gray in the dull winter light. The anniversary of that day in 1989 – 12/23 – is being seized upon by a TV talk show host to ask the question whether this city participated in the revolution or whether it only celebrated the revolution that took place elsewhere in Romania.

His supposed guests all take a hike on the day of the show and so he has to quickly replace them with a school teacher who enjoys his drinking and an old man who use to play Santa Claus. The teacher tells how he and three other co-workers began the revolution in the town by going to the Communist headquarters to protest and getting into a fight with security, but soon calls start coming in saying he was actually drunk on the day and nowhere near the place. The old man begins his story of the day by talking about his now dead wife and the fight they had and the flowers he bought her – and the talk show host sinks lower and lower. It is quite funny in a gentle low key way, but one senses that behind the humor the director is asking his audience “where did the revolution go?” The final caller simply telephones to tell them that it is snowing outside – big lovely flakes and they should enjoy them now because by tomorrow they will turn to mud and this seems like an apt metaphor for the revolution.

Sugarless

This is another independent debut work from a young Thai director that was shot on video, but there is actually a story attached to it. Now this film very likely will never show up in the multiplexes here or ever be released on DVD because of its somewhat sordid depiction of Bangkok and its offsetting urban fairy tale search for true love. Let’s just say that the “happy ending” of this one won’t be found in Cinderella.

Long ago Withit came from the countryside to look for his girlfriend who had left for Bangkok seven years previously and disappeared. He assumes she went into prostitution and so he becomes a taxi cab driver in hopes that one day he will pick her up and so nightly he trawls along the streets where they work. He is thirty-five years old though and needs to find a wife. So when he reads a letter in the Lonely Hearts section of the newspaper from Beau asking for a good man to take care of her and her education he replies. With just a few lies. He tells her that he is a wealthy owner of a chili paste factory and is looking for his true love. After a period of time, they agree to finally meet in the park on New Year’s Eve.

But Withit isn’t the only one with a few fabrications to answer for. Beau isn’t a first year student at university but in fact is a male transvestite who has been selling his body since he was a teenager. When asked by one customer why he does this, Beau tells him that when his customers orgasm he is truly happy. But he wants love and so enters into this correspondence with a man and sends a picture of a woman to him. On the day they are to meet Beau beams with happiness and it never really occurs to him that Withit might be somewhat disappointed.

But they never are able to find each in the large park and both go back to their lonely lives thinking they have been jilted. Later that night the cab driver picks up Beau working the streets and they go for a little ride. While the film first picks up with Withit it is fairly light and sets the viewer up for a sweet romance, but at the halfway point when it switches its narrative to Beau the story sobers up quickly as it follows his rather dismal life. It is a strange but intriguing film of sad people looking for love in all the wrong places.

3 comments:

Wanda said...

I am definitely going to check out "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone" if I have the chance. Your description of the film makes it sound very appealing. Of course, I like the dark and lonely tones in movies, which is probably why this sounds attractive to me. It's probably why I like Francis Ng's films so much. His characters are quirky and something about them speaks to me, I guess. I haven't been exposed to much cinema other than Hong Kong and North American, but you've opened my eyes to other cultures and I'm looking forward to checking out some Korean and Japanese films as well. I hope your adventure continues to go well. Take care.

Brian said...

Hi Wanda,

I am far from being an expert on the films of Tsai Ming-Liang but a few reviews I have read don't rate this as high as some of his previous ones. Most critics and fans seem to go into raptures over "What Time is it Over There", "The Hole", "The River", "Rebels of the Neon God" and "Vive L' Amour" - so you may want to start with those.

paul said...

I've been to International Film Fests in Hong Kong, Korea, Italy, and Quebec, and I can confirm for you that the majority of films are typically screened in the original language with English subtitles.