Festival Favorites: Life Conquers All By Susanna Harutyunyan
Pusan International Film Festival on its 11th year of existence appeared to the participants and guests at its very height through its programs, the number of guests, and the diversity of festival events. The organizers of the festival do not hide their ambitions to become the major cinema event on Asia. There are many proofs of it, starting with the newly opened PIFF Pavilion on the seaside and the newly established Asian Film Market.
There are both supporters and opponents of the development perspective of PIFF. The latter group are more worried about the threat of the commercialization of the festival; the former, on the contrary, speak with enthusiasm about the big business potential of the festival. In any case, the Pusan festival has been able so far not to lose sight of its main goal — supporting the independent Asian cinema and discovering hidden talent.
The “New Currents” program in the 11th PIFF presented at least two discoveries — Love Conquers All by Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia) and Betelnut by Yang Heng (China). Both films were obviously the festival favorites, both won main festival prizes, and both are bright examples of independent, low-budget, non-commercial cinema. But the main thing is that these films contain and reproduce the feeling of “pure cinema.” The young directors observe reality attentively and with great respect to what we call “life as it is,” transforming it into a stylish cinematic narrative structure. Meanwhile, both the narration and dramaturgical structure appear as if from nowhere — from the concentration on real life, from the underlined details, from the mood created out of minimal tools.
The action in both films takes place in the streets, in street cafes — not accidentally, since it is well known from film theory that the street is one of the most cinematic (cine-genetic?) objects. The protagonists of both films (the girl who has moved to capital city of Kuala Lumpur and works at her aunt’s restaurant in Love Conquers All, and the two ordinary teenaged boys in Betelnut) are very young people from the provinces on the very beginning of their grown-up life road. In opposition to common dramatic cliché, which portrays the energy of youth and passionate love, these films draw a picture of people without much hope or future. Real life does not give them much freedom of choice. But there is no protest in them. They are ordinary young people from the street who steal motorbikes, extort money from kids and girlfriends, and engage in hapless fistfights. The great Western illusion of a world of unlimited opportunities and of a “self-made man” does not work in this frame of reference. But at the same time the ordinary everyday street-life turns to be not less dramatic and full of paradox. The ordinary people also turn to be as fragile and lonely as their attempts to overcome their loneliness and build their lives are ineffectual.
Isn’t there a secret paradox or a dilemma in the title of the film — Love Conquers All? The classical literary phrase (from Virgil), in the context of the film, gets quite a different meaning. For Ah Ping, the protagonist of Love Conquers All, love does not have the same meaning that the classic writer meant, but is just an attempt to adapt to the traumatic reality, to take life as it is, and to make it less painful. It is quite interesting that Ah Ping’s boyfriend exposes his cards at the very beginning, setting forth the most probable, often performed, and desperate development of her love story, not leaving room for any illusion. Like many other pretty girls, she will become a street prostitute, to earn money for her boyfriend. She does not have any other way than accepting the given script. Of course, theoretically, there is always some other choice — “to jump,” which is several times articulated by her boyfriend. But we understand that she will never jump, will never run away from her destiny, no more than will the protagonists of Betelnut. That’s why the title of the film is so ambiguous and ironic in context. Moreover, the title opens up some kind of play or dialogue with the author. It can be easily paraphrased as “Life Conquers All,” which means “Life is as it is.”
But there is also another variant, suggested by my German colleague on the FIPRESCI Jury, Helmut Merker, which is as follows — “Cinema Conquers All.” This brings us to the very starting point of our conversation — what “real cinema” or “pure cinema” is about? Each of these two films gives its own answer to this essential question, and each director found his or her own way to transform the ordinary life of ordinary people into a fact of cinema-art.