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Vancouver is off the beaten film festival track. It’s not a mega event with hundreds of world premieres fighting for the attention of thousands of critics, buyers and festival programmers. Its main program collects together the usual hundred or so suspects for international art house attention and it presents a broad based focus on new Canadian cinema. Geoff Gardner went off the beaten track to file this report.

The distinguishing mark of the Vancouver film festival is a focus on new, and ’young’, cinema from East Asia. It’s a program which attracts a small but hardy band of scholars and festival advisors if not directors, and has been developed over two decades of complete devotion first by Tony Rayns and now by Rayns and Chinese film expert Shelly Kraicer. It has succeeded in launching a dozen major film-makers into the west and continues to unearth new talent through the annual Dragons and Tigers competition with its prize of $10,000 provided by local arts patron Brad Birarda.

This year the selection ran to close to fifty new films and again it was bookended by full house screenings of two Korean hits. The opener was Kim Jie-woon’s The Good The Bad The Weird a playful action-packed homage to Sergio Leone set in the war zone of Manchuria in the 30s. The closer was Yim Phil-sung’s fairy tale for adults Hansel and Gretel a film which chocolate box colours that might have been designed for Jacques Demy with a tale straight out of Angela Carter to concoct pure contrived pleasure.

"The best film on show"

Otherwise though it was the Japanese, both their quality commercial film-makers and their aspirational and very youthful debutantes, who shook the place up.

The best film on show was yet again a new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda. The director’s first feature Maborosi was an early winner of the D&T prize and he has sent each of his five succeeding films to the festival as they come along every couple of years. Last time it was his period samurai flick Hana which knocked us about and caused people to compare him with Jean Renoir.

This time it’s Still Walking a family drama which evokes the work of the master Yasujiro Ozu. The generations come together for a reunion on the date of the accidental death of one son. They’re quietly respectful but each can’t stand one or more of the people in the room and each has their own unresolved issues with others. A few of those get a little better, some get a little worse and everyone goes home. Kore-eda has a knack for masterful simplicity and there’s no doubt that the festival invitations to screen the film are going to flood in from around the world.

Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s All Around us has a similar quiet focus on a family but this time its just a couple working their way through eight years of marriage. The relationship started offhandedly and endures some harsh psychopathology before it finally achieves some sort of serenity. Long and contemplative but very moving.

Elsewhere Takeshi Kitano’s Achilles and the Tortoise amused intermittently and Takashi Miike demonstrated yet again why he ought to be the permanent overseer of the James Bond franchise. Miike still makes several films a year, his total being over a hundred by now and could easily fit in Bond’s slam bang action sequences on his schedule. His God’s Puzzle cheerfully mixes a story about quantum physics (!) with his trademark joky action and none do it better than he, especially where the action takes place in the rain-soaking open.

"raunchy peek"

Among other new work by established directors a word should also be put in for Service another low-budget and very raunchy peek at the Philippino underbelly by the prolific Brillante Mendoza. It’s subject is a dysfunctional family who operate a rundown cinema that mostly serves as a pickup joint (to put it politely) for the local gay community. When you see the movie you get the title.

The D&T competition for eight young directors remains at the heart of Vancouver’s engagement with Asia. This year, for probably the first time in any film competition, half the entrants were made by women. My own favorite among them was Yukiko Sode’s Mime Mime, a supersmart story of a young bored teenager, a mild rebel with bad attitude and a risky sex life involving office visits to her middle-aged former school teacher. He’s mostly bemused by her infatuation but more than happy to be the complacent recipient of her experiments.

The jury gave prizes to two others of the women. Emily Tang’s Perfect Life won the $10k. It’s enigmatic but very assured, much influenced you suspect by the work of its co-producer Jia Zhangke. The story has parallel narratives about two young women, one trying to disengage from her family and the other, thousands of miles away, who’s husband has peremptorily disengaged from her and their two kids. Both of them live in the world of China’s economic miracle but, as In Jia’s work, Tang wants to look at just who wins and loses in the orgy of ‘progress’. Do the stories connect? For just a revelatory instant.

More temperamental was Sutoko Yokohama’s German + Rain another story about a temperamental and rebellious young girl but this time one almost outside the borders of polite Japanese society.

The other prizewinner was Wendong Gao’s grim but fascinating Sweet Food City symbolically set in a model metropolis built a mere fifteen years ago but now a slum inhabited by thieves, pimps and prostitutes among others trying to live in buildings that are literally being scavenged and pillaged for their bricks even as people squat within them. Gao’s camera prowls around the architecture, to shoot in places where the image of deconstruction is astonishing. His story of a prostitute and her man has a narrative that’s a bit messy and requires you to fill in some gaps yourself but you cant beat a good Chinese indie film (last year’s Little Moth was
another) when they decide to show us a good hard peek at the people being left behind.

"the most unusual movie of all"

Finally a word should be said for what was perhaps the most unusual movie of all, this year at least. Won-tae Seo’s Synching Blue is a formal contemplation of solitariness and contemporary alienation.. A young Asian man spends his time alone in a large house and resorts to what young men often resort too in such circumstances. He has some connection with a young American woman who works as a swimming pool attendant. Most of the activity at the pool is taken up by a mixed gender team of synchronised swimmers.

Seasoned observers could not recall any previous work of art which thus asked its audience to even contemplate the possible connection between that amusing ‘sport” and the gentle practice of onanism. If you came looking for the unusual or for young people to give us something naughty, Seo’s film, completely free of dialogue, supplied it. So did several others. Vancouver in the autumn when uninhibited youth comes out is quite a place to be. The crowds that come out testify to that.

Published October 16, 2008

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The Good The Bad The Weird

Vancouver International Film Festival 2008
September 25 – October 10

Still Walking


Feature Film Award:

Nonfiction Feature Award:
(the late) Eva Norvind for BORN WITHOUT

Women in Film & Television Vancouver Artistic Merit Award:
Tantoo Cardinal for MOTHERS&DAUGHTERS.

Most Popular Canadian Film Award:

People's Choice Award:

I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)

Inaugural Documentary Audience Award:
THROW DOWN YOUR HEART, directed by Sascha Paladino

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