New films from South East Asia Silence, Candy Colours and Outsiders By Rüdiger Suchsland

in 56th Berlinale

by Rüdiger Suchsland

One could begin with the colours, sometimes bright and fluorescent, sometimes pastel, sometimes full, and then again blunt, or just deep black and light white. One could as well speak about the pictorial design and framing, could mention rapid or calm, but always hypnotic camera movements. One could speak about editing techniques which suck the viewer into the picture, about the game of speeding up and slowing down. One could mention a lot more — it wouldn’t change a thing. If the art of cinema is the art of communicating with moving pictures, if it is to transport truth beyond the spoken language and the tellable, if film is not just the continuation of literature by other means, when movies start to become really interesting, when they know the art of the unspoken and of the interspaces, when they enchant and ask riddles — then the centre of the present world cinema definitely lies in Asia.

The aesthetic awakening which happens in the cinematography of the South East Asian countries is broad, not longer related to single names or short dated fashions. The films of the last two years prove: What happened 40, 45 or 50 years ago in the European cinema today happens in Asia: an artistic revolution, a rebirth of fantasy. It’s a reinvention of the language of cinema which shows a broad effect in all the other regions of world cinema — and which does not leave anyone untouched. One can fall for this cinema without escape: Through body and heart it strikes directly the intellect; without being instructive, it is always wise and witty and never underestimates its viewers.

The Berlinale has always been a special place for Asian cinema and its filmmakers. It was here where the great directors of the Chinese 5th generation, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, had their first successes, and it began to open up in the then still quite closed and hidden film scene of mainland China. And it was in the Forum of the Berlinale where the famous Hong Kong directors of the era of the handover, Ann Hui and Stanley Kwan, had their first appearance in Europe. Wong Kar-wai’s first movies have been shown in the Forum before they were in the competition in Cannes.

During the last years the presence of Asian movies seemed to be shrinking in Berlin, in competition as well as in the Forum. Both seemed to be less a place for discoveries. Perhaps the new Berlinale team of Dieter Kosslick was not so interested in movies of this region as Moritz de Hadeln was. Also in 2006 there was — compared with earlier times or with Cannes and Venice — a lesser strong Asian performance in the competition.


With a lot of anticipation and curiosity the audience expected the new pictures of Thailand’s Pen-ek Ratanaruang: Invisible Waves assembles once again the pan Asian core team of Pen-ek’s worldwide success Last Life In The Universe: Prabda Yoon wrote the script, Australian Christopher Doyle worked as director of photography and the Japanese Asano Tadanobu took the leading role. Like its predecessor, Invisible Waves unfolds a meditative force and a hidden wit. This seemingly simple story of a Japanese cook living in Hong Kong and fleeing to Thailand, after he murdered his boss’s wife with whom he had an affair, has definitely some spiritual meaning and a lot of laconic wit. The visuals are excellent and stylish. But the trancelike rhythm never forces the audience into the story, keeps them always distant and cold, too cold for a movie like this. So Invisible Waves could never come near to the director’s former success.


Similar, Isabella, Pang Ho-Cheung’s small love story, is set in the melancholic humidity of Macao in the months before the handover. A corrupt cop meets a young girl who could be his daughter — is she or is she not? Around this question we dive into a moral tale which is strong in atmosphere but never thrilling and a bit calculating in its music. All in all, Isabella appears as an epigone of Wong Kar-wai, Johnnie To and Yip Kam-Hungs Metade Fumaca (Ban Zhi Yan).

Out of competition came Chen Kaige: The Promise (Wuji) is a typical Chinese adventure movie and a true martial arts fantasy tale full of CGI and special effects, which have always been a speciality of Chinese cinema. Chen Kaige tells the story of a princess who wants to get rid of a curse in a nonchalant way, full of nostalgic candy colours — but quite difficult for a non Chinese audience.

This was one of just a very few Chinese movies in Berlin. “We do not want automatic participants”, explained Forum’s chief Christoph Terhechte. This may be not enough of an explanation for widely ignoring the cinematographic continent of mainland China. Despite those failures, the splendid selection of the 2006 International Forum showed a very strong performance of Asian cinema with a bunch of films worth to be seen. The only Chinese movie in the Forum was Before Born (Jie Guo) by Zhang Ming. A cool and thrilling homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic L’Avventura, Before Born shows a repressive China, poor in communication, without aim and vision, a kind of Beckett like existential essay on emptiness beyond the new economy boom in the metropolises of China. The labyrinth repetitive structure of the narration in combination with the surreal plot gives an impression of Chinese daily life experience between tradition and hypermodernity.


The strongest appearance of the last years came from Korea. The films of this year’s selection confirmed this impression. In Between Days by So Yong Kim shows nothing more but the daily life of a young Korean student with a radical subjectivity. She has immigrated to Canada, has to learn the English vocabulary, and is bored by everything except by her co-student whom she adores. One could call the state of her mind a state of alienation. But the movie does not comment her life, it shows her life. All this is told in a crystal clear direct way that touches the viewer from the very first moment on and captures him forever.

Three other Korean movies told stories about outsiders and the reaction of society towards them. Host & Guest (Bangmunja) by Shin Dong-il is the story of a cool, dry and stoic film professor who finds himself caged in his bathroom. After more than a day he is liberated by a young Christian missionary. From this day on a difficult friendship starts between these lonely men, between a cynic and a believer. It ends in a parable for tolerance.

Chio Chang-cho’s The Peter Pan Formula (Peterpan-eui Gongsik) is more quiet and more patient. The film tells about a 16-year-old boy who does not know his father. After his mother commits suicide, he is lonely and without orientation in the catastrophy of daily life. But his dreams and fantasies are real, the neighbour’s lonely and beautiful wife and her stepdaughter and the shops where he can steal some money to survive. So more and more the reality disappears until the film turn into a bitter accusation of the Korean society.

Lighter, less tough is The Aggressives (Tae-Poong-Tae-Yang) by Jeong Jae-eun, a film on the way of life of the skater scene in Seoul. Filled with dynamic music, the film shows skating as a symbol for a free life in self determination.