What is Film?

in 20th Busan International Film Festival

by Hiroaki Saito

All 8 films participating in the New Currents category of the 20th Busan International Film Festival were made by new filmmakers whose themes and expressions were filled with ambition.  Because of their radical challenges, their films sometimes confused the audiences.  However, among messages and questions that these new directors ask themselves, I found something common. That is, a question that asks,”What is film?”.

Night and Fog in Zona (Cheondang-eu-bam-kwa-angae) asked this question most clearly. The film was directed by Jung Sung-il, a Korean film critic. The film follows how Wang Bing, a Chinese documentary filmmaker known for Tie Xi Qu:West of the Tracks, directs his film. The length of the film is 235 minutes. Jung might intentionally make the film long to inherit the nature of films by Wang Bing who also always presents long ones.  Almost 4 hours of film somewhat forces its audience to be patient. Many may feel particularly sleepy in the latter half of the film that shows scenes of asylum on and on.

Here comes the question again. “What is film?”

Jung Sung-il’s answer could be “To keep eyes on times that pass by.” By continuously concentrating on things happening in front of you, once in a while, you do encounter the moment that sparks. Waiting for that sparkling moment, audiences may be allowed to sleep while watching films.  At the beginning of this film, Wang Bing expresses his admiration to Andrei Tarkovsky. Night and Fog in Zona may not have as lyrical moments as Tarkovsky’s films. Yet, we can notice Jung’s consistent approach in searching for beautiful images that are born of coincidence. From a sober mind, however, it is true that you cannot help feeling imbalance between the depth of the film content and its length.

The answer to “What is film?” from another Korean director, Lee Seung-won, in his film Communication & Lies (Sotong & Gujitmal) may be “Do not to take your eye away from things you do not want to see”. The film depicts the complex relationship between men and women who suffer intolerable wounds, reminiscent of Kim Ki-duk’s films. There are scenes you want to avoid watching in Communication & Lies where hideous sexual expressions and vicious deeds between characters take place. Out of 8 films, the largest number of audience members left the theater during the screening of this film. Still, we can feel the extraordinary energy coming from its visuals through the use of long shots and the unusual quantity of heat from the actors. By presenting things the audience would want to avoid watching with his powerful directorial ability, Lee tried to expose the real human nature. I hope that Lee will keep this approach in his second and future films.

“What is film?”

Both Takuro Nakamura with West North West (Sei Hoku Sei) and Yerlan Nurmukhambethov with his film Walnut Tree (Zhangak Tal) seem strongly insistent that “The film is to tell situations happening in the present tense in one’s country”. Through a romantic relationship between females, West North West shows intolerance to others still resting deep in Japanese society now. Walnut Tree joyfully portraits an uproar around a wedding in Kazakhstan.  The two give totally opposite impression because of their difference in visual tone and structure, I found the two connected at their core. This may happen coincidently, but from an audience point of view, it is a happy finding.

The film FIPRESCI gave an Award to this year, is an Iranian film called Immortal (Mamiroo). It is a very earnest story of an old man who blames himself for the death of his family and tries to commit a suicide many times but fails as his grandson keeps stopping him. Director Hadi Mohaghegh captures the beautiful nature of a small Iranian village, and there, he thoroughly looks at people who have suffered at the hands of destiny and yet still fight positively against it. Overwhelmed by various visuals like miracles, the major theme to comes out of this film is simple.  Why do humans continue to live and why do humans die? Audiences from different cultures can universally identify their own end of life with the theme. The film has a magical power and can let everyone can share in it.

To the question of “What is film?”, Immortal seems to answer: “Film is human life”.

Edited by Tara Judah