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Jury member Geoff Gardner discovers a droll Anatomy Of A Paper Clip and other splendid surprises at Vancouver’s 20th edition.

The Vancouver International Film Festival gave out its Dragons & Tigers Award for the twentieth time on Thursday October 3, 2013. I was a member of the jury which awarded the prize to Anatomy of a Paper Clip by Ikeda Akira from Japan. The Jury Citation noted that Ikeda fashioned a singularly droll and profound comedy from minimal means – a handful of actors, five or six main locations, a story of drudgery and repetition. 

"an unpredictable comic vision"

Yet the filmmaker’s precision and control is married to an unpredictable comic vision that will delight and surprise audiences. It was in many respects the regulation film that wins prizes in Vancouver’s competition for young and independently spirited film-makers from East Asia – a worthy successor to the films by a now well known roster of previous winners including Hirokazu Kore-eda, Lee Chang-dong and Jia Zhangke.

Vancouver’s role as a unique festival portal into the west and in particular the festivals of the US, Europe and Australia has been increasingly challenged over time. There is now hardly a major film event that is not sending its representatives trawling round Asia for films by both new and established talent. Large numbers are now uncovered, responding to the ever-increasing independent production in China and its diaspora nations as well as in Japan and South Korea. 

Still, Tony Rayns’ selection of the seven films in competition managed to give Vancouver two world premieres and two others having their first screening outside their home country.

The toughest decision for the Jury was to separate the winner from the Runner-up, Vivian Qu’s Chinese indy Trap Street. Qu is already known as a producer including for the master Jia Zhangke, and her debut feature as a director is a tightly controlled drama which probes into China’s secret society where institutions exist but are kept from public view, their location so secret that the street is left off the map. 

Into this enigmatic environment comes a young lovestruck surveyor who moonlights by installing hidden cameras in bars and other places where business itself wants to keep silent tabs on the populace. The Jury Citation noted that the film tells a story that asks us as viewers, with considerable dramatic skill, to engage with the new realities of state surveillance, control and ‘order’. 

Qu seems to be a natural story teller, her narrative being perhaps the most assured of all the competition entrants. It made me wonder whether she had made any study of the classic noirs, a query which brought the response that her favourite film-maker was in fact the intensely spiritual French master, Robert Bresson.

"visually extravagant and adventurous spiritual pilgrimage"

A final citation went to Chai Chunya’s visually extravagant and adventurous spiritual pilgrimage, Four Ways to Die in My Hometown, a Hindu meditation on life and death with a striking approach to its images and its characters. The Citation described the film as a transcendent, surrealistic elegy for the director’s birthplace, the rural province of Gansu, near Tibet, where tradition is rapidly succumbing to the forces of modernity. Chai was the least experienced of any of the film-makers in competition and the one whom you wonder just what he might do next to keep us excited. You feel he hasn’t used up all his surprises.

Finally mention should be made of two other competition films that will almost certainly go on to positive responses on the international festival circuit. 

Tsuruoka Keiko’s My First Love had its world premiere at VIFF after beginning life as a rather conservative student film exercise set by Japanese master Kurosawa Kiyoshi. His students at Tokyo University of the Arts were asked to script an adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s novella My First Love. The winner, along with fellow students heading up the production departments, would get to make a low-budget feature movie. 

Tsuruoka’s script updated the setting to 1995 and slimmed the story down to the memories of one young man. It’s a classical narrative, maybe a little more conservative from the start than you would want a student production to be but perfectly performed by an unknown cast and superbly photographed. She’s a talent you would hope would get more opportunity to bring her personality to her subjects.

Then there was Jason Paul Laxamana’s full of surprises story about lowlifes in the Phillipine backblocks inventing Facebook scams via pages devoted to handsome people seeking love and connection. Giving away the plot, involving so many multiple personalities, would spoil things. Laxamana’s very detailed study is smart, very funny and just lets itself down a little by telegraphing its ending. He made it for $36,000 and that sort of tells a tale on its own of just where energy, imagination and a good dash of talent can take you, at least in the Third World.

All in all, a twentieth anniversary where the standards were well and truly maintained.

Published October 10, 2013

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Anatomy of a Paperclip

Trap Street

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