Asia Outshines the Rest on the Lido

in 61st Venice Film Festival

by Atsuko Saito

When director Chan-wook Park took the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes this year for his “Old Boy”, Korean films were officially catapulted into international fame, but it joins the much-celebrated Chinese Fifth Wave and the Taiwanese Nouvelle Vague directors in forming the third prong of a vital new triumvirate of Asian cinema. The trend was continued at Venice, where Asian directors continued to reveal their original perspective. The growing importance of Asian films at the Mostra is reflected in the number of Asian entries in the main competition: even excluding Iran, the world’s largest continent was represented by 5 features: Korean Kwon-taek Im was in competition with his “Low Life”, as was fellow countryman Ki-duk Kim’s “3-Iron”; Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animation “Howl’s Moving Castle”, Chinese Zhangke Jia’s “The World”, as well as Taiwanese master Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s newest film, shot in Japan, “Café Lumiere”.

“Low Life” tells a metaphorical tale of Korean social history following the end of the Korean War, the story of one lowly gangster’s life with big-as-life production values allowing realistic re-creations of 1950s streets. The effect is stunning, drawing viewers into a living if seedy world which appears in such minute detail to fool even very discerning eyes into believing it had been shot on the exact same street corners and alleyways where Korean films were shot in the decade following the war. Although the narrative staples of old Korean films—cynical red-baiting, politicians cozy with the underworld, the black market involving the US military—are all revived and included, they have not been injected with any modern or contemporary nuance. Thus, the film feels like a lovingly remade genre period piece, but lacks further resonance. Nevertheless, Im’s is clearly a powerful new talent in Korean and world cinema.

The hero of “3-Iron” is a resourceful young squatter who leads a hermit-crab existence, locating his squats by posting flyers on house and flat doors, then watching to see if the residents remove them. His method is not infallible: in one tiny house he breaks into, intending to it make his temporary home, he finds a soul-mate of sorts in an abused, imprisoned and tortured housewife. He rescues her, and they take flight. Director Kim (“The Isle”, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter”) consistently startles audiences with the brilliant audaciousness of his ideas, and to this story of improbable love between a man who leads a shadowy existence and a woman forced to live as a vague shadow beneath her brutal husband, Kim has added an ingenious twist: the protagonist never speaks a single word. The purely visual expression of the couple’s deepening feelings is astounding.

Hayao Miyazaki, whose “Spirited Away” scooped up the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2002, the Best Animated Feature Oscar ® the following year, and nearly two dozen other awards as well, is arguably the best-known and most successful Japanese director alive. Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, in defiance of the Hollywood CG juggernaut, still meticulously draws every frame of their pictures by hand, and the resulting suppleness of line and warmth of colour have won them universal acclaim. Add to the visual beauty, Miyazaki’s plots and characters contain depth and contemporary resonance which Pixar simply cannot match: “Princess Mononoke” (1997), ostensibly a children’s picture, treats the weighty theme of civilization’s dependence on nature with sophistication and finesse. His newest film, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, centers on 18-year-old girl Sophie, who is transformed by a witch’s curse into a 90-year-old hag, and of how she falls for the handsome wizard Howl. The film studiously avoids animation cliché and facile oppositions: good=beautiful, bad=ugly, hero=valiant, villain=wicked, all are turned upside-down in Miyazaki’s universe, and the film gains depth, humanity and emotional power thereby. This film will appeal to Miyazaki fans, and to others who have yet to see one of his pictures.

Zhangke Jia, unique among post-5th generation directors, is relatively well-known among the film-festival crowds. His first feature Xiao Wu made the international festival circuit in 1997, followed by “Platform” which premiered at Venice in 2000, and “Unknown Pleasures” at Cannes in 2002, and he has been a “rising star” for many years. In his ensemble-piece entry at Venice this year, The World, he depicts the lives of the employees of a grand Beijing amusement park, replete with the replicas of monuments from the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower. A dancer is in a holding-pattern relationship with a security guard from the same rural village as her. The group is full of restless rural youth, and reflects the painful dilemmas of China itself, where neither the promised political nor economic freedoms have materialized, but where hope still lives on in the hearts of a new generation.

The undisputed genius of the Asian lot is Hsiao-Hsien Hou (“City of Sadness”, “The Puppetmaster”, “Goodbye South Goodbye”). Shochiku’s decision to enlist the Taiwanese to direct, initially raised questions among insiders as to why Hou was chosen over a Japanese. The final product bears testimony to the correctness of that decision. Though Hou is often compared to Ozu—who was affiliated with Shochiku for many, many years—his own methods differ greatly from the Japanese master’s. Ozu, known for placing actors like bonsai in a frame, and for endless takes, would not feel at home on one of Hou’s sets, where the actors are given nearly complete freedom to move and act as they want. Granted, the two treat themes of family relationships in changing times, and they have a similar tendency to close observation of human nature. Hou’s “Café Lumiere”, however, tells the story of a Japanese freelance writer researching the life of a Taiwanese musician who studied music in prewar Japan, and can be called a family drama. She travels between Taiwan and Japan, and her family frets over her growing exhaustion. Pregnant, she decides to raise the child alone. Her widowed father meets her at the station. The plot is typically spare, but Hou has been slowly draining film of ‘drama’ throughout the course of his career. In this work, he radically excises ‘Ozu-esque’ elements, and reduces the film to three wavering characters in delicate suspension, to spare colors and pure light. No living director comes close to having the same intense feel for light as Hou; indeed, he and his Asian cohort can be said to be the leading lights in world cinema today.