An Indian Summer of Asian Films By Max Tessier

in 8th CineFan

by Max Tessier

As well as the Asian film quarterly Cinemaya, Aruna Vasudev’s Cinefan festival of Asian Cinema, walks now under the banner of Osian’s, a powerful company based in Bombay. Its 8th edition (July 14th-23 rd, 2006) was once more the occasion of viewing a wide range of Asian films, and of Arab cinema (part of it being geographically in Asia , although not really culturally…). Apart from the competition films, one could always shift to many different sections, such as Asian Frescoes, Arabesque, Cross-cultural Encounters, a Focus on Buddhism (which gave us the rare opportunity to see a film made in Bhutan, Milarepa, directed with talent by Neten Chokling), a retrospective on Stanley Kwan, one of the sharpest ‘auteurs’ in Hong Kong, and, last but not least, a retrospective of the great Bengali director Ritwick Ghatak (1925-1976), in the presence of his widow and son. On top of that, one could also attend some of the events of IBM2 (Infrastructure for Minds and Markets), notably an international media round table, and Talent Campus India , or go and admire the outstanding exhibition of selected masterpieces of Asian Arts, passionately gathered around the world by Osian’s master mind and soul, Neville Tuli.

Although the competition of Asian films, as presented to the main jury and the FIPRESCI Jury (composed of Miss Ritwa Dutta, from India, Mrs Luz Maria Virgen, from Mexico, and Max Tessier, from France) was quite uneven in its choices, it was enough to appreciate the wide diversity of themes and styles (or absence of style in some cases), from Iraq to Japan. If we could have done well without films like To-day and To-morrow (Kayf al hal?), made in Saudi Arabia by Palestinian film-maker Izidore K.Musallam, or Love’s Lone Flower (Gu Lian Hua), a very conventional soap melodrama by Taiwanese director Tsao Jui Yuan, we could also pick the better and the best among the heterogeneous selection of twelve films, from younger and older directors: Two Girls (Iki Genc kiz), a provocative portrait of established mothers and rebellious daughters in present day Turkey by Kutlug Ataman, Homeland (Ontarjatra), by Tareque and Catherine Masud, honestly showing the return of a mother and her son to Bangladesh after fifteen years of absence, or The Companion (Dosar), a B/W portrayal of a man, his mistress and his family after a car accident, filmed by Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh. A very strange film came from Japan , in the shape of a stylish mystery-thriller, Ubume (Ubume no natsu), by veteran director Akio Jissoji, once a post-New Wave experimentalist (as in, for example, his film This Transient Life (Mujo, 1970)).

However, one of the most interesting films came from Sri Lanka, with Letter of Fire (Aksharaya), the fourth feature by controversial director Asoka Handagama, already shown in competition at the latest Tokyo Film festival. This highly self-conscious, provocative film, is a deliberately frontal attack on various sexual and moral taboos of the modern Sri Lankan society, through the quite explicit story of a boy (whose mother is a magistrate in the High Court), who happens to kill a prostitute, and is hidden by his mother, when he should be delivered to the Justice. “The whole film is about a trauma”, says the passionate director of This is my Moon (2000) and Flying with one Wing (2002). “Everyone in it faces some kind of trauma, so, when I was trying to find a title for this film, I came to know that (Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher, was explaining that this kind of traumatic experience cannot be interpreted by language; it can only be inscribed in letters of fire. So, I borrowed that idea…” (unquote). Although quite intriguing, and powerfully directed, the film (a French co-production with Heliotrope Films) happens to be rather quickly over-demonstrative, through a series of long scenes (running altogether for 136 minutes), involving the mother, the boy, who has an embryonic sexual relationship with her, and the impotent father, to an almost slapstick sequence in a deserted museum, where the mad magistrate destroys almost every object of art, in the name of a true liberated life… Not surprisingly, this big ball of fire thrown at the face of a rather prude and traditional Buddhist society, as radically opposed as it may be to the stylistic approach of another recent Sri Lankan film, The Forsaken Land (Camera d’Or at last year’s Cannes festival), has triggered the wrath of the local authorities, who called the film pornographic and subversive, leading a to its ban, and a trial against Asoka Hanadagama, still pending.

The other outstanding film came from the Philippines, with The Bet Collector (Kubrador), a very gripping portrayal of a female bet-collector for the popular, if illegal, number game ‘jueteng’, played by excellent actress Gina Pareno, and skilfully directed by Jeffrey Jeturian, with a HDV camera. Deservedly, the film won the main prize (also for the actress), and the FIPRESCI prize, after a long discussion to know if it could be awarded by FIPRESCI again, after it was honoured in the recent Moscow festival. But it WAS definitely the best film according to most of the people and juries here (see the special review of the film by Ritwa Dutta).

Let us also mention the highly cerebral and overwhelmingly personal film Love Story, a Chinese puzzle directed by Kelvin Tong, from Singapore. Unfortunately, the film’s vision was badly damaged by a terrible projection (out of focus as a rule…), which is a recurrent technical problem in this otherwise rather well organised festival, as compared with most of the other festivals in India. Let us underline the warm reception for all juries, including ours, more than well treated in one of the very best hotels in town, and let’s also hope that the technical flaws, unworthy of an international film festival, will be solved as soon as next year.