Multiple Voices, Diverse Cultures

in 27th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Linda Lai

Chicken Poet by China’s MENG Jinghui, an experienced experimental theatre artist, stands out from twelve other highly accomplished films and won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 27th Hong Kong International Film Festival (April 8-23, 2003), while the jury made a unanimous vote for Thai director Jira MALIGOOL’s Mekhong Full Moon Party for a Special Mention. Both films were singled out for the extra surprises they offer while all contesting films are highly accomplished.

Chicken Poet was recommended by the jury for “its stylistic excellence in an inter-medial dialogue between cinema and theatre, and its sharp satire of the plight of a poet/artist.” Indeed, Meng’s transposition of the formalistic rigor in his own experimental theatre resulted in a fully integrated cinematic language with a unique grammar of absurdity, madness and irony. It takes advantage of design-conscious graphic composition of individual shots, careful choreography of the human body within the frame, and a mise-en-scène as well as editing principle that transforms locations into space of abstraction, landing on the surreal without losing the materiality of place and culture. Dialogues are concise and to the point, story details strongly rooted in the quotidian. All this makes the film critical but not overbearing, formalist without pretensions, magical yet socially engaged, abstract yet accessible. With its characters drawn from real, living individuals within Meng’s own circle of friends, the film also resists easy typification of its characters or metaphoric reading.

Although specific references are made here and there of a poet, the condition of the Chicken Poet, according the Meng, applies to that of the artist in general in China’s Mainland, whose trade is trapped within the competing theses of market economy and individualistic autonomy. The fact of a Chinese poet’s success hinging on the help provided by an anonymous, pirated CD-ROM on poetry movements in the West lays bare the futility in upholding any essentialist defense for the category of a poet/artist. Is poetry a realm of self expression, a signifier of noble qualities, or a community struggling for self perpetuation to preserve legitimacy in the changing social hierarchy? No easy answer.

A Rich Ethnographic Document

Mekhong Full Moon Party in many ways shares Chicken Poet’s investment in local culture and an affection for the magical. Mekhong was congratulated by the jury particularly “for its joyous dialogue with one’s own folk traditions and accessible representation of Thai-Laotian mythologies to the international audience.” The film is like a rich ethnographic document, laying out a broad spectrum of beliefs, argumentation, modes of praxis and managerial operations around the issue of whether the fireballs emitted annually over the Mekhong River at Ponpisai in Isan are indeed the work of the serpent-god. The quest for a definite answer is superceded towards the end of the film by a humanist embrace of differences. With carefully tuned humor via the play of language, a fluid shooting style, and an ensemble of caricature-style comic personae, the film is a sure crowd-pleaser. Here, too, I find the filmmaker making the cake and having it for himself as well. For the film takes advantage of a myth as heavily commodified among domestic tourists as foreign visitors. Self critique of one’s culture is built upon a preference for a rational world view based on Western science, and yet the filmmaker wants to declare sympathy with local attitudes of life. The film after all deserves special mention for its idiosyncratic character and the universal theme of make-belief. It is local but not enigmatic, colloquial but not banal, somewhat corny but not repulsive.

Other voices of local culture and social issues are incarnated in Blind Shaft (LI Yang, China, 2003), Hotel Hibiscus (NAKAE Yuji, Japan, 2002), and Somewhere over the Dreamland (CHENG Wen-tang, Taiwan, 2002), all finding very “local” contact points that defy generalization. The motif of the isolated urban dweller desperately making effort to connect with other individuals marks Somewhere and Borderline (LEE Sang-il, Japan, 2002), both with a sophisticated style and complex plot structure deploying the narrative of path-crossing. While Somewhere’s hope in returning to one’s indigenous roots to touch base with a lost myth is a bit artificially eulogistic, the small stories and characters assembled in Borderline are well crafted but too generic.

The Cinematic Representation of the Female

A welcomed feature of this year’s nominees is a general awareness in women’s social-cultural role, especially effort to address stereotypical paradigms in cinematic representation of the female, and to undo fixated cultural discourses on women. Women’s Prison (Manijeh HEKMAT, Iran, 2002) benefits from the unique space devoted to women issues already carved out within the recent history of Iranian cinema. The film takes a procedural approach to the monotonous routines within a penal institution, from day to day, from year to year. But taking a closer look, Hekmat’s women’s prison is no more than a microcosm of Iranian society, lacking in any gender-specific insight, nor explicit statements made on women’s subject/object position in the Iranian context. The film’s progressive element to me, if any, lies in the research process of the film alone. For in the end, the film is too sympathetic with disciplinary/correctional practices, and an implied belief in authority of good will, rewarding the female protagonist who, after seventeen years of imprisonment, finally proves herself to be a “positive” subject of compliance. If the female prison warden is portrayed as lonely and misunderstood, it is so to spell out the cost of good discipline, underlining a typical maleness in the attempt to uphold authority.

Ardor (BYUN Young-joo, South Korea, 2002) delivers an unusual story focusing on the difficult process of a comfortable housewife’s self-rediscovery and healing process via sexual awakening. Confident visual style, a solid script, concise dialogue and well paced narrative together make the film such a gem that it must not be overlooked. For sure the sex scenes of the housewife and her secret lover are the key rituals of her redemption in the narrative process. And here also lies my disappointment with the film’s misplaced gender politics. The sex scenes are after all overtly idealized and aestheticized for the visual pleasure it delivers, not much different from that in many soft porns. A comment made by a male viewer coming out of the screening worries ran: “There isn’t much except that the female lead’s figure is fabulous.” In brief, I find the details of foreplay and love-making positions and too standardized, lacking in an effort to push eroticism and sexuality fully to the radical side. Should the film be better off without relying on lyricism of love-making, beautiful bodies, and the melodramatic norm? Should one justify such moves with mainstream cinema’s market demand? While these questions are open for debate, I hold onto my critique of the film’s failure to go beyond the conservative paradigm of monogamy and heterosexual love. So much of the issue at hand is still caught up with the give-and-take thesis of: “I have devoted my whole life to you. How dare you to be unfaithful to me!” In the end, the film’s accomplishment is limited to its reversal of the Hollywood formula of the femme fatale. In this case, the victim (female protagonist) becomes the winner, and the secret lover (the handsome male doctor) has to be punished and die like many Hollywood heroines do. Where does the hope of liberation lie for the female protagonist? Perhaps only at the moment when the film closes.

The rainstorm and inexplicable “wetness” in One Night Husband (Pimpaka TOWRIA, Thailand, 2003) give the film a peculiar visual-emotive texture. Most of the narrative finds the one-night bride, self-determined and fearless, roaming through the city of Bangkok to demand clues for her missing husband. The film ends with the bride and secret lover of the same man implicitly joining in sororal compliance of his death verdict, turning the film itself into an act of murder and revenge. The note of liberation is infested with morbidity and enmity and much darker than Ardor’s. In many ways, One Night is more elliptical, dialogues under-developed, many scenes unnecessarily long and speechless, still marred by a melodramatic formula, and its visual grammar disturbing and a bit uneven. Yet I find some of these defects turning out to endow the film with a special edginess that demands more sober viewing than Ardor does with its language of comfortable, polished cinema of diegetic absorption.

A real treat for me is Woman of Water (SUGIMORI Hidenori, Japan, 2002) for the return of magic to cinema in the thick histories of realism for the fiction film. Its magic is spatial, visual, perspectival, of free association, and dwelling in minor details of everyday life. Dreams and the real, insanity and sobriety — everything melts and blends into poetic flushes of sight and sound. Although the main characters are mapped against primal energies of nature, the film is a rich flow of small wonders — in the capture of a chimney, a group of trees, a corner of a room, an ordinary sandy beach and so on. Its mise-en-scène follows the sensibility of visual automatism, consistently carrying its viewers into paths of awesome grandeur. And one doesn’t have to confine one’s reading to the director’s claim to detail a general picture of an Asian heroine or feminine benevolence for the new century. For the three woman characters in the film are as fluid as water. Embodied in the formalist configuration of each of them are infinite qualities impervious to speech and definitive description. The women in Woman of Water dwell in a peculiar space somewhat between the social-cultural and the mythical, but for sure they are very real.

Homosexual Love

The embrace of homosexual love as a fact of life is fully materialized in Road Movie (KIM In-sik, South Korea, 2002) with its low-key, low-contrast visual scheme and coarse-grain photography, resulting in a heavy, breath-taking romantic saga of extreme difficulty. However, the intensity of true love was nonetheless delivered at the cost of the stigmatization of women typical of many films with a gay concern. Thus we have a handy and necessary portfolio of woman characters, functional and subjugated to the valorization of gay love: we need the bad guy, that is, the woman who is everything about obstacles to a man’s autonomy, the embodiment of family bondage and conservative values, and the woman who supplies the trial and tests by luring, though unsuccessfully, a gay man into heterosexuality. To complete the task, the filmmaker did not forget to insert an understanding wife who at the end would let go of her man to convenience the final consummation of gay love.

Post-colonial Critique of Hong Kong

Finally, we have two rather atypical Hong Kong films, absorbed in eclectic borrowings of Western cultural theses and artistic traditions. Fubo, a veteran autopsy attendant in the mortuary, has two counterparts — a killer and a prison chef who listens to the last words of death row convicts — all engrossed in the dissipations of death. Though shot in real locations in Macao, the film’s quality is nothing local, whereas the dialectics of life and death signifies an indulgence in existentialism of the Western kind. For a feature-length debut, the film’s spatial and visual sensibility testifies to the promise of its makers. The over-exposed scenes of the mortuary interior and the warm colors of the prison are haunting, except that the narrative process limps with wavering story development and a rushed, predictable ending.

Night Corridor is undauntedly ambitious, capitalizing on a medley of gothic horror like Dario Agento’s, pictorial composition and chromatic scheme of Goya’s paintings, a decadent mother like the one in Blue Velvet, and Catholic iconicity of Almodovar’s, all appropriated for a nightmarish, sexually alluded post-colonial critique of Hong Kong with an autobiographic presence imposed into the already equivocal text. Night has a very interesting story and strong visual sensibility in general, but suffers from bad dialogues, weak scene-to-scene transition, an unguarded excessiveness in making its simple plot points too clear and repetitive, and a distracting camera style that is interesting only on its own right. As is the case for Lee’s first feature The Accident (1999), individual shots, carefully constructed and lit with lavish pictorial charm, are better enjoyed as still photographs. The overall stylistics fail to integrate with the story-telling activity which is overtly functional and thin, unfortunately turning the devoted effort in cinematography and art direction into mannerist gestures. Best part of the story comes towards the end but ends too soon.