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Several now well-established Asian directors return to Vancouver (Sept. 28 – Oct. 14, 2011) for the annual Dragons and Tigers section, curated by the likes of Tony Rayns, reports an eager Geoff Gardner who can’t wait to get to the Festival.

In many ways, the Vancouver International Film Festival simply runs as a model of what the best community-based film festivals can achieve. Its programs go out all day and night for over two weeks on up to ten screens simultaneously, it sells around 150,000 admission tickets and screens three hundred new films. Its core selection of international features and docos is largely culled from the offerings at the major film festivals in Berlin, Rotterdam, Cannes and Locarno that have preceded it during the year. All of that is managed with good-natured efficiency, excellent projection and seriously aided by a quality program book and website (www.viff.org) that provide plenty of information about the films and the film-makers.

"the largest and best-attended program of Canadian cinema"

An additional attraction for locals is the effort VIFF puts into its Canadian Images, a programming strand that VIFF claims may be the largest and best-attended program of Canadian cinema in the world. That section (last year it comprised 27 features and 38 shorts) is further elevated by prizes for best feature film, best short and best documentary awarded by an international jury. Considering that nowadays more films than ever get made and fewer independent productions than ever get screened in theatres, it’s quite likely that the VIFF outings are for many of the films on show are the only time a local film is screened to a live audience and the only time for the film-maker to actually engage in an always polite discussion with real and interested people. There’s a model for someone in there.

The Vancouver program strand that draws people into the country from overseas festivals and international critical journals is its program of films from East Asia. They are collected under the rubric of Dragons and Tigers and VIFF’s commitment to it stretches back two decades. In that time the audience has grown solidly and the mixture of big budget studio productions, especially from South Korea and indie work from all over the region proves a regular winner. Like most of the Australian capital cities Vancouver has large Asian communities and the festival does the hard yards of getting those groups to its programs. 

This year there are some forty six features and a couple of dozen shorts assembled under this banner. The movers and shakers for the section are imported specialist curators Tony Rayns and Shelley Kraicer. They could hardly be more different in personality and indeed in taste but the films gathered together form an organic snapshot of just what is happening outside the mainstream of European and American art movies. 
Kraicer, the meticulous academic with the complete records of everything he’s seen stashed in his iPod, all there for ready reference in case you have the temerity to ask why any particular film isn’t in the program, has become the Beijing go-to man for any Chinese film-maker big or small who wants to get his film screened internationally. He chooses the Chinese and Chinese-language movies. 

"the flamboyant provocateur"

Rayns remains as ever, the flamboyant provocateur, assembling indie work from Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Tibet, Thailand and Vietnam. He also selects the eight debut features to compete for the Dragons and Tigers award and its accompanying cash prize. This year three of the eight are from the Philippines, an indication of the flowering independent film-making spirit in ever greater evidence in that country. 

The prize is presented on a usually riotous night before a packed house there to see one of the more popular and box office friendly movies from the region. Last year it was the Chinese blockbuster (and Asia Pacific Screen Awards winner, Aftershock). This year the jury of producer Simon Field, Chinese director Ann Hui and Korean director Yang Ikjune will announce the winner prior to the world premiere screening of Ishii Yuya’s Mitsuko Delivers, described by Rayns as “another knockout comic drama about a girl asserting herself when all around her are floundering”. And… “a film with a brio and originality which transcends satire. (it) confirms that Ishii has become a major figure in Japanese cinema.” We’ll see.

A large number of the films in the Dragons and Tigers are having their international premiere at VIFF. Many will go on to other festivals while for more than a few it will be the only exposure they get outside their home country. Still the film-makers themselves love the whole concentrated experience, and the final night dinner which in recent years has featured much soju drinking. Most of them usually vow to bring another film back. 

Which is what happens. Among those who did get an early start at VIFF and who are doing it the honour of getting films back this year are several now well-established directors including Hirokazu Kore-eda (I Wish) , Hong Sang-soo (The Day He Arrives), Pema Tseden (Old Dog) and Miike Takashi (Harakiri, in 3D!). Miike’s leap from a director labouring in the backblocks of Japanese video production to everyone’s favourite purveyor of Japanese violence and spectacle started back in the 90s when Rayns brought an early handful of the director’s extraordinarily prolific output of hard-edged yakuza thrillers to the VIFF program. 

"a product of hard work and slowly building relationships"

It’s all a product of hard work and slowly building relationships and it adds an immeasurable X factor to Vancouver’s fortunes. And Vancouver’s raffish Granville Street and environs, including Charlie’s legendary second hand DVD store near the Empire theatre, make the whole experience just that bit more exciting. Can’t wait.

Published September 29, 2011

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Mitsuko Delivers

Tony Rayns – noirish in Hong Kong

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Old Dog

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