Discoveries From The Pan Asia Film Festival 2014

First published by Grolsch FilmWorks

new maps for Asian identity: Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy

It’s not like the others. Where, say, the London Korean Film Festival and the Japan Foundation Touring Programme confine themselves to a single nation’s cinematic output, and even the Terracotta Film Festival does not venture beyond the South-East Asian region, the Pan Asia Film Festival expands its outlook – and its notion of Asian identity – way beyond these borders, while remaining a programme small and intimate enough in scale for the very extremity of its eclecticism to become one of its defining features. As its title suggests, the Pan Asia Film Festival aims to find an all-encompassing vision of Asian experience – which typically involves exploring the ever-shifting boundaries between East and West, as well as tradition and modernity.

So a film like Ravi Kumar’s A Prayer for Rain (2013) – a multi-perspective dramatisation of the circumstances leading up to the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India – is not just an impassioned, increasingly enraged attempt to set the record straight (if not quite settle the accounts), but also a broader staging of the sometimes well-intentioned but no doubt exploitative relationship that did, and still does, exist between the developing and developed worlds. Similarly Shan Khan’s thriller Honour (2013) may focus on so-called ‘honour killings’ within the Islamic community, but its West London setting, and the prominence it gives to an English nationalist bounty hunter (played by Paddy Considine), introduce some compelling parallels between imported and homegrown brands of bigotry.

Two other films in this year’s programme opened up their dialogue between East and West  by reimagining originally non-Asian works in Asian settings. Festival opener Unforgiven (Yurasarezaru Mono, 2013) is a fairly close remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist oater, but for its relocation to Japan’s northern frontier of Hokkaido in the early Meiji era, as Jubei (Watanabe Ken), a one-time Shogun assassin turned farmer, is persuaded to avenge a local prostitute for a reward. Not unlike Miike Takashi’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) before it, Unforgiven reclaims the debt that westerns (including ones like the Eastwood-starring A Fistful of Dollars, closely adapted from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) owed to the whole jidai-geki genre. At the same time, its direction by the ethnically Korean Zainichi Lee Sang-il, and its concern with the cruel repression of Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu (here made the rough equivalent of a western’s Native Americans), ensure that Unforgiven casts an unforgiving eye, from both insider and outsider perspectives, on the brutalities and hypocrisies of an ‘enlightened’ nation’s Restoration period.

Meanwhile Hur Jin-ho’s Dangerous Liaisons (2012) transplants Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ oft-filmed novel to Shanghai in the early 1930s, where the members of the monied élites carry on their cruel sexual intrigues largely oblivious to the inequalities and political ferment all around. Luxuriating in the very opulence and excess that it also implicitly condemns, Hur’s film is an elegantly crafted feast of rampant sensuality – but it also shows just how easily the pre-Revolutionary decadence of 18th century France can be mapped onto China before the Communists took over, while more subversively drawing implicit parallels between the cocooned superrich of pre- and post-Maoist China. Despite its period setting, Dangerous Liaisons is equally a cautionary tale for – and of – present-day China.

If Dangerous Liasions includes scenes of letter-writing in acknowledgement of the epistolary nature of de Laclos’ novel, then other films in the Pan Asia line-up are even more experimental in their form. In The Missing Picture (2013), Rithy Panh sets real (but entirely deceitful) propaganda footage from the Khmer Rouge against clay-model reconstructions of the period, in an attempt both to revisit his own trauma and to honour the memories of the regime’s countless victims. Not unlike Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (2008) and Marc Wiese’s Camp 14: Total Control Zone (2012) with their animated sequences, or Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) with its grotesque restagings, Panh’s film uses the most plastic, fictive of forms to disinter well-buried historical truths.

Equally inventive are the first two features of Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit – a real discovery for the festival and, at the age of just 30, someone from whom lovers of profound and poetic yet playful cinema are likely to be hearing a lot in future. His debut 36 (2012) confines itself to 36 fixed-camera shots, each coming with its own cryptic title, and gradually unfolding an elliptical narrative of deep loss and creative recovery. Two years after meeting – and photographing – set designer Oom (Wanlop Rungkamjad) on a preproduction foray, location scout Sai (Vajrasthira Koramit) is asked to find a proxy for a particular place, now demolished, but redolent with personal childhood nostalgia for her latest director. Returning to her photographs, Sai discovers that her digital files have been corrupted, erasing all trace of the previous location (and of Oom), and leading Sai to revisit the actual locations of her own fading memories in order to replace those of her director. All at once an exploration of the relationship between photographic records, memory and fiction, and a melancholic elegy for the irrecoverable past (including film itself), 36 shows the way that abandoned, empty spaces – whether in a city or on screen – can become haunted with real emotions (one’s own or borrowed). In an economic 68 minutes and relatively few sequences, it has more to say about time’s passage than many films over double its length.

Though showing similar formal rigour, and a similar concern with time, change and loss, Thamrongrattanarit’s follow-up Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy (2013) is a longer, more expansive experiment in reconstruction. The director punctuates his film with 410 consecutive tweets from a Thai teenager named Mary Malony (@marylony), imaginatively extrapolating a life that exemplifies and embodies all those 140-or-less-character aphorisms, aspirations and occasional inanities. His Mary (Patcha Poonpiriya) spends her final year in high school hanging out with her best friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui), obsessing over a guy known as M., and taking magic-hour photographs of her fellow students for an ambitiously artful Yearbook (which, like Mary’s diary written on receipts, becomes a reflex for the film’s own brand of scattergun portraiture). While at times Thamrongrattanarit is extremely literal in his staging of the tweets, at others he deviates into surreal digressions (exploding cellphones, a fascistic school regime, bakery holdups), imitating the hyperbole and arbitrariness of a twitter stream of consciousness. The results are a wild fiction, but grounded in digitised fact and always, despite some madcap excursions, true to the feelings and confusions of adolescence – and for all the broad comedy, the film is utterly serious in its dealings with free will and determinism, depression and death (even the insistently upbeat title comes tinged with a grim irony). For Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy reveals the multi-faceted nature of post-millennial identity and virtual life in an offbeat yet entirely palatable feed of contradictory insights.

The surrealism of Tsuta Tetsuichiro’s The Tale of Iya (2013) takes far longer to emerge. For most of its near three-hour duration, this ecological allegory unfolds with a steady, studied naturalism, as it follows the seasonal rhythms of the Iya valley in Tokushima Prefecture – one of Japan’s last relatively unspoilt mountain regions. As an alliance of (mostly foreign) hippies and environmentalists vainly protests the construction of a tunnel that will open up the area to increased trade and development, Kudo (Ohnishi Shima) arrives as a refugee from the city, determined to live off the land. He starts farming a plot near the traditional hillside cottage of mute old man (Tanaka Min) and his foundling ‘granddaughter’ Haruna (Takeda Rina), only to learn, as winter sets in, that the idyllic life is harder than it looks. Riffing off elements from Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003), The Ballad of Narayama (1983), Princess Mononoke (1997) and – in a lengthy urban coda – Bright Future (2003), Tsuta tells a cyclical tale of the green-grey areas between modernity and tradition, city and country, secularism and animism, technology and nature, while occasionally admitting the odd irruption of the oneiric and the irrational.

The Pan Asia Film Festival will also show Ali Ahmadzadeh’s story of Iran’s upper class Kami’s Party (2013), and a revival of Noboru Nakamura’s The Shape of Night (1964). For the full programme, head over here.

Anton Bitel