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The Vancouver Film Festival, a significant gateway of Asian cinema to the West, also showcases award winning films from other festivals – and it serves the festival well, reports Geoff Gardner.

The South Korean film Eighteen directed by debutante Jang Kun-jae has won the Vancouver International Film Festival Dragons & Tigers Award for 2009. The film is a powerful, authentically felt and exact story of teen love going off the rails and getting way out of hand. Focussing on high school seniors Mi-Jeong (Lee Min-Ji) and Tae-Hoon (Seo Jun-Yeong) who take off for the weekend and then come back to face the wrath of their parents, the film follows the liaison as it flowers, falters and then spins out of control as heavy pressure is exerted to end it and for the kids to conform to Korean mores and study, study, study. Tae-Hoon is an unhappy and rebellious kid; he bolts from home and tries to contain his continuing fury as he gets a job as a delivery boy for a Chinese restaurant. The resolution is downbeat but the eventual conformity rings true.

"with considerable command of his narrative"

The jury admired the film for its structure and direction, both assured, suggesting a young director with considerable command of his narrative. Hard to disagree with that. Jang joins distinguished company. Previous winners include Hirokazu Kore-eda, Lee Chang-Dong and Jia Zhangke, now established figures in modern Asian film-making.

An honourable mention went to the Bakal Boys, the directing debut of Ralston Jover, known until now as a scriptwriter for Filipino wunderkind Brillante Mendoza though I thought that the other really meritorious work was Sasaki Omoi’s Left Out, an enigmatic off-kilter romance involving a team of junk collectors, the mysterious woman who joins the group and a flamboyant gangster. It was in some ways reminiscent of the more contemplative side of Kitano Takeshi and his early work like A Scene at the Sea. Silence and looks create sub-texts and understated desire fills in the background.

Strangely Sasaki tried to be dismissive about the film, an odd look for a director trying to pursue a commercial career and especially so as many were quite impressed with what the film achieves.

Elsewhere in the remaining thirty plus films that constituted the East Asian selection big and appreciative crowds streamed in for selections ranging from Sai Yoichi’s eye-popping ninja movie adaptation of the popular manga Kamui to Pema Tseden’s Kiarostami-like, The Search. Shifting the action to Tibet’s backblocks but otherwise following the same trajectory as the master’s Through the Olive Trees, Tseden’s gently lyrical work about a director searching high and low for the cast of a forthcoming film took us through village life, colourful communities and much reticence.

"the sex toy who comes to life"

Another master Hirokazu Kore-eda has recut his Cannes entrant Air Doll and observers thought that the film stood up better shorn of ten minutes or so. The ravishing Korean actress Bae Doo-Na who plays the sex toy who comes to life, and leads an independent life of her own when her master isn’t looking, provides a couple of positive new developments for the director, notably a gentle sense of humour and some quite erotic moments. Lee Hey-Jun’s Castaway on the Moon should also be noted as the funny first solo effort of the director after his job co-directing the wonderful gay comedy Like a Virgin.

Most of these directors and films don’t or won’t get on the local radar but they do fulfil VIFF’s self-imposed mandate as one of the key portals out of Asia and into the west. It would be nice to say expect to hear more but further circulation remains unreliable.

Otherwise let me mention just one other movie that seemingly came out of nowhere thanks to VIFF’s smart program strand of films which have won awards at other festivals. (Cedar Boys was selected to screen at VIFF after it won the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival.)

"the best and smartest private eye/crime/war/love story/thriller/comedy made "

Vinko Bresan’s Croatian/Serbian film Will Not Stop There (Nije Kraj) won prizes at Karlovy Vary and at Pula before screening at Vancouver and it proved to be just about the best and smartest private eye/crime/war/love story/thriller/comedy made since, well, since Jean-Luc Godard started gleefully mixing up the genres. An investigator rescues a prostitute porn actress (the delectable Nada Sargin) from her drunken, drug-addled fate. He’s assisted by a generously endowed Gypsy porn star whose wife thinks he’s a professional musician. The film delves back into Serbo Croat hostilities in a way worthy of Ross Macdonald or maybe even Chandler himself might have used such material. It’s directed with complete assurance by Bresan and that makes you wonder whether we should have been paying far more attention to the work of a director who has now made four movies over the last decade all of which may have got under the radar of all but the SBS scheduler. We’ll have to check.

Published October 15, 2009

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Eighteen – big winner

Will Not Stop There – an award winner from Karlovy Vary; “the best and smartest private eye/crime/war/love story/thriller/comedy made since, well, since Jean-Luc Godard…”

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