How the Asian Cinema Rescued Locarno Hard-Rock Tai-Chi, Bittersweet Tristesse And Other Fragments of Grace Ex Oriente Lux By Rüdiger Suchsland

in 58th Locarno International Film Festival

by Rüdiger Suchsland

In Locarno a lot has changed in 2006. With Frédéric Maire the festival has a new artistic director and the number of films has been reduced — but in fact it is still too high for festivals of this level, and there are far too many sections. It is quite complicated to find the best way through this jungle and not just for a new visitor of this well known and old festival. What is really worth a visit, especially in the minor sections, can easily be overseen, and the new competition of the “Cinéastes du present” does not help to make the program and its hierarchy clearer and easier to understand.

Still, Locarno combines very heterogeneous interests: On one hand it wants to be a festival for a broad audience in order to please thousands of viewers with open air-screenings at the renaissance Piazza Grande, with popular movies of blockbuster-quality and some Hollywood-star-glamour. At the same time it wishes to be an A-Festival and a global player in the festival circuit with a competition of not less than 21 (!) international premieres. The results did not fit together very well – at leats in 2006. The competition of 2006 was (in the impression of this year’s whole FIPRESCI Jury) not better than third class, with too many boring — in their cinematic approach — worthless films without any artistic or at least political and social importance. At least half of the competition will easily be forgotten after the festival.

Two of This Year’s Most Promising Debuts

Two of the few exceptions came from Asia: The Chinese film Bliss (Fu Sheng) by first time director Sheng Zhimin unfolds a complicated family-pattern of a couple which lives a modest lifestyle. The father lives with his second wife and her son, who has come out of jail, then meets a young, very reserved girl. Some dark secrets unite these people. Full of understatement and subtlety with a careful approach to all his characters and always aware of the social and political background, the film follows this family through some weeks of their life — a life marked by suffering and loss, weeks in which their fate will change. Bliss is one of this year’s most promising debuts. One can be sure that we will hear a lot more from this director within the next years.

It’s the same with Korean director Kim Young-nam. His debut Don’t Look Back won this year’s FIPRESCI award. It is the portrait of three twenty somethings in Seoul. Their lives do overlap for just a few moments in the film, but all three suffer from the same existential condition: fear, unsatisfied longing for love and the sense of life, the lack of orientation in a society full of compulsion to work, competition, consume and pure materialism. Don’t Look Back is a quite typical Korean film, its fine laconic humour and its precise and poetic pictures make it an outstanding contribution to year’s competition.

It’s no surprise that two of the few good films came from Asia. Compared to Europe where we find just a few young, really innovative and unique directors and cinéastes d’auteurs, the cinema of the Far East provides us every new year with an astonishing abundance of artistically challenging and high skilled filmmakers which are worth a close look.

Quite a special film and one of the rare discoveries in Locarno was The Whispering of the Gods (Germenium No Yoru) by Japanese first-timer Tatsushi Omori: a fabulous and in the same time disturbing, sometimes shocking experience. The film opens with a sequence where a young man is giving a handjob to a catholic priest. Soon we realize that he murdered a couple and now flees back into the monastery in the snowy mountain region, where he has been raised in the spirit of catholicism. The film unfolds a panorama of temptation and sin, a feast for the devil so tot say. The main character is a pure immoralist, all the bad things he does seem to be don with of a certain innocence, a very pure approach. One of the monks says that he is “the closest of all of us” in relation to God. So The Whispering of the Gods reminds the viewer to the shocking and fascinating tales of French surrealist writer George Bataille – in its calm storytelling, itss mature way of narration, its clever framing and its sheer beauty to Carlos Reygadas film Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el Cielo). Omori’s great film can be seen as a battle in heaven too – its Japanese version of course.

In its two sections “Open Doors” and “Digital Cinema” Locarno concentrates on the cinema of the Asian region and shows, that Southeast Asian cinema is much more than just the well known films from China, Japan and Korea. 15 films from Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia were shown — some of them quite well known already like Blissfully Yours from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul — but most of them were quite new. The films from Singapore and Malaysia are especially of thrilling originality, even though their directors very often have their personal family roots in the Chinese tradition.

After 15, shown in Venice in 2002, director Royston Tan takes for the second time a close look at lonely children in 4.30, but with a lot of humour. Every morning on the way to school, 12-year-old Xiao Wu meets a tai-chi meditation-group. And every morning he has a new idea to mock them and to disturb their calm and peaceful exercise. Once he just switches off their CD player; another time he changes the CD and their traditional meditation music into a hard-rock track.

In many aspects the film works through this kind of running gags and through the repetition of the same situation with tiny variations. In this way Tan tells about the approach between Xiao Wu and his room mate, a young Korean, who suffers from love sickness and whom Xiao Wu — we hardly ever hear something about his family situation, whether he is an orphan or not — sees as a replacement father. But one day, the young man disappears.

The Glamorous Surfaces of the Consumer Society

Many of these films are filled with melancholia and bittersweet tristesse, but at the same time they are highly poetical and full of sensibility for the details of daily life and social reality. Be with Me by the Singapore filmmaker Eric Khoo contains pure, long frames, in his portrayal of a group of people. A security guard unhappily falls in love with a young woman who is more interested in girls and is bemoaning her quite superficial former girlfriend. In the centre of the moving but never kitschy, fabulously designed and arranged film is a real life person, the deaf and blind writer Theresa Chan. A man who cares for her, first by chance, than gets more and more involved.

All these films are politically aware, but indirect, often ironic in their critical approach: My Beautiful Washing Machine by the Malaysian James Lee brings its characters together again. They debate, start love affairs or just share the loneliness with each other. With a lot of lust Lee stages the glamorous surfaces of the consumer society: cash-machines, senseless TV talk shows, stupid conversations with a costumer hotline and over and over again visits to a supermarket. Lee’s camera loves its very own, clean and serial aesthetics and condenses them into surreal glimpses.

Very special experiences were the three dreamy, tender and captivating short films by young Malaysian Tan Chui Mui. All of them deal with the various ways of human relations. His shorts screened included South of South and Company of Mushrooms are also noteworthy for his cinematic style. In 26 minutes A Tree in Tanjung Malim doesn’t show more than just an intense talk between a male thirty-something and a girl who turns 18 at midnight in wonderful casual poetic visuals and decent, restrained dialogue. It is therefore a study in hope and transience. One is reminded of Truffaut and finds oneself at the same time in the middle of a very new, very foreign world.

Loneliness, Melancholia and Isolation

Everything is directed in a very precise style. The narration serves the pictures not the other way round, which is often the case in European cinema. The visuals are always a bit more important than the story and characters — without these visulas they would easily been forgotten. In opposition to the cinema of the West the characters don’t always have to explain themselves and their motivations — whoever takes a close look will understand everything. The common experience of all these films is loneliness, melancholia and isolation — and the stoic-ironical, sometimes has a bit of a resigned look at it.

We can also find quality in the compilation film project “Digital Short Films” by three filmmakers, in which the Korean Jeonju film festival (since the year 2000) unites each year three well known Asian directors. Each one makes a 30-minute-film on a subject set in advance. Among the participants we find well know names like Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Shinji Aoyama. The latest film in that series is Talk to Her where Eric Khoo is resuming the shocking experiences of an Indonesian maid in Singapore in form of a fake documentary. The Kasachian Dareshan Omirbaev transforms Chechov’s About Love into a contemporary situation in his country. Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang together with his (and Wong Kar-wai’s former) director of photography Christopher Doyle senses after a never outspoken love story on a long distance flight, which occurs just in looks: cinema day dreams, atmospheric fragments of grace and intensity, which can be found nowhere more beautiful and thrilling nowadays than in Asia.