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Christine Piper reports how Western audiences are shifting their perceptions about Asian cinema – aided by films such as In the Mood for Love, and festivals such as the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival, now in its second year.

Riding on the back of the phenomenal success of Crouching Tiger, jewels of Asian cinema are glittering in the limelight, and audiences around the world are suddenly taking notice. At the Cannes Film Festival in May last year, six of the twenty-three films chosen for official competition were films from Asian countries. On top of this, Edward Yang was awarded Best Director for Yi Yi (A One And a Two…), Tony Leung Chiu-Wai awarded best actor for his role in In The Mood For Love, and Chinese director Jiang Wen received the Grand Jury Prize for Guixi Lai Le (Devils On The Doorstep). Could this be the start of the next wave in cinema?

With festivals cropping up all over the country, Asian cinema is now a burgeoning industry. This year Australian filmgoers can taste the delicacies of the Asian film industries at the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival in August and the Hong Kong Film Festival in September (showing in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney). Oh, and don’t forget the Chinese film festival in Melbourne, the Japan Cultural Centre’s free weekly screenings in Sydney, and all sorts of special Tibetan, Japanese animation and Korean film festivals flourishing in cities around the country. Such a plethora of festivals shows that Asian films are finally gaining the recognition they deserve. Gayle Lake, director of the Sydney Film Festival, observes, “Western audiences have finally got it beaten into their heads that something that is exotic and foreign is not a bad thing – it should be embraced.”

Juanita Kwok, co-director of the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival, wanted to organise a festival in Sydney because of the huge number of great Asian films around that weren’t getting enough exposure in Australia. She says, “Crouching Tiger was a real breakthrough film that has created a lot more openness to Asian films… But at the same time, Asian films are becoming more popular [in foreign countries] because tastes are becoming more diverse.”

“reflecting the multiplicity of voices that exists in Asian film making”

After the overwhelmingly positive response from last year’s inaugural festival, this year’s Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival is expanding to screen fifteen new films, as as well the popular seminar program that ran last year. Over 10,000 patrons are expected.
But the biggest draw card of this year’s festival is perhaps the national short film competition they’re running in partnership with SBS television’s Eat Carpet program. A selection of short film entries will be screened alongside feature films, and five winning shorts selected by a jury will be screened on Eat Carpet. Juanita Kwok says, “We are really trying to get people interested in Australia’s connection with Asia, and include them in the whole experience.”

The Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival directors try to choose films that shift perceptions of what Asian films are. One of the films shown at last year’s festival was the Hong Kong movie, Where a Good Man Goes (1999). Rather than the blood-splattering, action packed experience that you’d expect, it was a decidedly non-action film which focused on subtle character development. Above all else, the films that are screened at the festival show just how diverse the different cultures are, reflecting the multiplicity of voices that exists in Asian film making.

Eugene Chew, a Sydney filmmaker, thinks that many Asian films now reflect the distinct characteristics within displaced cultures. Worldwide migration has produced a diaspora where Asian “micro-cinemas” are forming in new countries, producing yet another outlook on Asian culture. Australia is experiencing the birth of such a micro-cinema, as Asian Australian filmmakers are more interested in exploring their identity. Eugene believes, “Asian Australians are finally allowed to be proud of being Asian, and that’s reflected in the films they make.”

“perhaps more Australians will look to Asia to base their careers”

Despite the innovation of our filmmakers and the growth of our film industry, Australia is still the somewhat awkward neighbour to the frenetic hub of Asia. However film festivals provide a valuable opportunity for us to feed off that energy. Juanita Kwok says, “We hope that the festival will act as a catalyst to propel Australia in a more active role.” With the success of Australians such as cinematographer Christopher Doyle (long time collaborator with maverick Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai), winning the technical prize at Cannes in 2000 for In The Mood For Love, perhaps more Australians will look to Asia to base their careers.

Although film industries in different Asian countries are trying to establish their individual identities, they still value the strength of cultural interchange amongst themselves. Juanita Kwok points to the growing strength of Asian films through ties that they’ve created with each other. “There’s a greater interaction between different Asian film industries. Changes such as Jackie Chan shooting in Korea, a Japanese film being the top of the box office in Korea and all the Hong Kong stars in Hollywood. That kind of trend is everywhere. It’s a cross-fertilisation that’s going to grow.”

Juanita Kwok sees the cross-fertilisation between Asian countries as a positive step to fortify their developing industries. “I think the exciting thing about our festival is that we’re bringing all the Asian communities together and presenting a united effort. It’s a great way of unifying those different communities.”

“a stigma which still surrounds subtitles”

While interest in Asian films is certainly growing within the artistic elite, on the scale of Western mass-cultural appeal, their popularity still wanes in the shadow of Hollywood. It’s still hard to convince the Australian public to see foreign films instead of the Hollywood films which dominate the market, and on top of that there’s a stigma which still surrounds subtitles. Indeed, when publicising the first Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival, Juanita Kwok conceded: “We had a hard time trying to generate interest in the Australian press.”

It’s unfortunate that films from Asia aren’t given greater exposure, as in our own TV industry, it seems our Asian community is also being ignored. A Report on Casting in Australian Commercial Television Drama, released in May last year, found that despite the fact that there are over one million Asian Australians, not one was represented in a sustained role in Australian dramas in 1999. Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology monitored dramas such as Water Rats, All Saints, Home and Away and Neighbours, finding that not one Asian actor was cast in a sustaining role in these series. Does this reflect our attitudes towards the Asian population in Australia? In any case, festivals such as the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival are, in part, making amends for this lack of exposure.

“Hollywood is at least prepared to share the limelight”

Even though Asian film makers and actors have limited representation in the mainstream media, perhaps the influence of Asian aesthetic is affecting Australian audiences in more subtle ways. Quentin Tarantino is a fan of the absurd violence and action sequences of Hong Kong films, and Martin Scorsese admires the techniques of Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa. Director John Woo has abandoned Hong Kong for Hollywood, bringing a new camera style to Hollywood action films such as Broken Arrow. Recent films such as Pulp Fiction and Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, have taken an unconventional approach to storytelling, indicating that Hollywood is also moving away from the techniques it’s famous for. This year, even the Academy Awards begrudgingly acknowledged a worthy newcomer, as Crouching Tiger added four Oscars to its booty of accolades. The awards signalled that Hollywood is at least prepared to share the limelight.

But the truth is, no one knows where cinema will take us in the future. Yet the developments in Asian film can leave us clues. We can only hope that magic from all parts of the world will be able to visit our screens. As Gayle Lake, director of the Sydney Film Festival, says, “cultural changes take time and the general psyche of Hollywood has been quite entrenched for almost eighty years now.”

Watch out Hollywood, I think I can see a tsunami on its way.

Published July 26, 2001

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The second annual Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival will be held at Reading Cinemas, Market City, Chinatown, Sydney, August 9 - 18, 2001. Full details on WEBSITE

In The Mood For Love

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