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Fresh 'New Current' Films From SE Asia

2006/10/19 | Permalink | Source

By Paolo Bertolin
Contributing Writer

Tonight the curtain will fall over the 11th Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF). Right before the screening of the closing film, the Chinese hit comedy "Crazy Stone", by Ning Hao, the awards ceremony will disclose the recipient of the 11th New Currents Award. Open to debut and second films from Asian filmmakers, PIFF's competition grants an award of $30,000. This year's contenders included 10 films, including no less than eight world premieres. They were however more geographically unvaried than usual, as all entries came from East Asia. There were no representatives of either South Asia or Iran.

The jury in charge of determining the winner is this time chaired by Academy Award-winner director Istvan Szabo from Hungary, and also features Hong Kong producer Daniel Yu, two times Cannes' Grand Prix winner Bruno Dumont from France, Iranian master filmmaker Abolfazl Jalili and domestic actress Moon So-ri.

If the five-member jury was to bestow its kudos on artistic merit only, there would be no doubt the choice would fall on the sole grand revelation of the competition, Malaysian "Love Will Conquer All". The debut feature for the 28-year-old Tan Mui Chui, who previously made herself a name on the festival circuit thanks to award-winning shorts, is a carefully observed and poignantly moody character piece centered on Aping, a young woman who has moved from the countryside to Kuala Lumpur to work in a small family restaurant.

A petty criminal declares his devotion to her, and takes her on a car trip. "Where are we headed?" she asks, increasingly concerned by the lengthy drive. "We'll just drive till the fuel is gone, till you tell me you will marry me and we'll have children together", he replies. They end up in a village by the sea and dine in a fisherman's hub. He wins her but then mysteriously vanishes. Relying more on subtle details and body language than on explanatory dialogue, Tan's direction modestly leaves the protagonist's suffering unspoken, creating a touching intimacy with the audience. Tan's arresting filmmaking skills and superb direction of actors, exhorting remarkably realistic performances, hailing a major talent that deserves recognition.

However, if attuned to a more traditional style of filmmaking and to engrossing narratives, the jury might prefer to honor Vietnamese saga "The White Silk Dress". Tracking the fate of an utterly deprived family against the backdrop of the tormented history of the country, Huyhn Luu's debut is competent and technically more sophisticated than most Vietnamese productions, yet suffers from conventional plotting and an obtrusive score.

Other likely prize-receivers include the two Korean competitors. Park Heung-shik's "The Railroad" confidently exposes an encounter between two lonely souls, crossing paths at the terminal station of Kyongui train line, just before the DMZ. Taking its time to deliver his subdued climax, Park nevertheless displays an assured command of visual composition and emotional punctuation. Kim Tae-sik's "Driving My Wife's Lover" instead convincingly balances ironic, grotesque and surrealist ingredients in a sapid drama-comedy conveying not-so-veiled criticism of Korean macho-ism.

The duos coming from Japan and China proved less persuasive. Nakamura Mayu's "Summer of Stickleback" falls into the category of youth portraits and although well observed and sometimes intense, lacks the distinction of a personal signature. Tominaga Mai's "Wool 100%" belongs instead to the specimen of Nipponese quirkiness, mixing live action, animation and dolls play, but is unable to go any further than mere toying with cinematic techniques. The two Chinese films testified at least the spreading of regional filmmaking in mainland China, thanks to the pervasive use of digital cameras, which grants freedom from the far-fetched procedures of official approval from Beijing Film Bureau. Nonetheless, Yang Heng's "Betelnut" does not rise over stylistic and narrative contrivance in its adolescent chronicle, whereas Wei Tie's "Distance", although extremely interesting in its depiction of the exploitation of immigrants flocking from the countryside to the city, is let down by a repetitive structure and debouches on a predictable ending.

Leste Chen's "Endless Summer" from Taiwan reportedly raised considerable interest among international buyers. The film centers on a bizarre love triangle of two boys and a girl, where one of the boys is in love with his best friend, the girl is drawn to the gay guy, while the straight guy is obviously taken by the girl. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Hashiguchi Ryosuke's "Like Grains of Sand" (1995), Chen's film sports a cooler, less demanding look than Hashiguchi's but lacks the troubling sincerity of the Japanese classic.

Finally, "Just Like Before" by Filipino Mike Sandejas is a self-indulgent rock movie, casting real-life band The Dawn. Although Sandejas' film has a small chance to win at PIFF, through its excellent score it certainly makes audiences willing to dig deeper into Pinoy rock.

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