Tag Archives: Asian cinema

L’Etrange Festival 2011

The Unjust

L’Etrange Festival

2-11 September 2011, Forum des Images, Paris

L’Etrange Festival website

The 17th edition of the Etrange Festival celebrated psychotronic and gore cinema with two nights devoted respectively to grindhouse and the Sushi Typhoon label. The geeky atmosphere was summed up by the screening of Jun Tsugita’s Horny House of Horror (2010), which must be seen for the sequence in which a penis is prepared sushi-style. The film was presented by the director and special-effects expert Yoshihiro Nishimura, a hilarious pixie who leapt onto the stage and ended his speech with ‘I’m bald because of radioactivity’. The festival lived up to its reputation, with the diversity of the programming remaining one of its strengths, especially thanks to its policy of ‘carte blanche’ (given to Julien Temple and Jean-Pierre Mocky this year) and its unique selection of filmic gems. Nicolas Guichard

The Unjust (Bu-dang-geo-rae, 2011, dir Ryoo Seung-wan)

An honest cop is forced to resort to the worse methods (including joining forces with a criminal) in order to make progress as he investigates a series of children’s murders. This dark crime thriller follows in the footsteps of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, but despite a script penned by Park Hoon-jung (writer of Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil), and director Ryoo Seung-wan’s talent for action scenes, it is not as inspired as its predecessor, nor does it share its sense of the absurd and its delirious ‘realism’. The main idea of the central character’s betrayal (of his principles and of his team) and his voluntary degradation to solve the case (the end justifies the means) is weakened by some longueurs and verbose scenes that tend to water down the dénouement. NG

The Unjust is the closing film of the London Korean Film Festival on November 17. The festival runs from November 3 to 17 and includes a Ryoo Seung-wan retrospective.

Meat (2010, dir Victor Nieuwenhuijs & Maartje Seyferth)

Surreal Dutch neo-noir Meat, a film concerned with the flesh in all its forms, owes its existence in part to the generosity of a local butcher with a passion for cinema, and to that of lead actor Titus Muizelaar. A famous TV actor in his native Netherlands, Muizelaar gave up his holiday time for three consecutive summers to play a part that has since won him a lead actor gong at the Deboshir film festival in St Petersburg. The former provided the lamb, beef and pork – as well as the hands that chop it on screen. The latter plays both a lugubrious detective, coping dispassionately with the sudden suicide of his former partner, and a butcher, grunting and rutting amid the hanging carcasses of his own cold storage like a randy bull. In between the two, Nellie Benner plays Roxy, a young girl seduced, abused and abandoned by seemingly every man she meets. But the real star is undoubtedly the meat itself: chops, steaks and cubed beef heart, filmed in loving close-up, as erotic as any living flesh on the screen. The narrative unfolds with the logic of a dream, drifting wantonly and waywardly into abrupt changes of time, pace and style. A carnal film, both literally and viscerally, with its heart not so much on its sleeve, as on its plate. Robert Barry

Salue le diable de ma part (Saluda al diablo de mi parte, 2011, dir Juan Felipe Orozco)

In this thriller that deftly exploits Columbia’s political reality (the amnesty offered by the state to the guerilleros who have put down their weapons), director Juan Felipe Orozco focuses on Angel (nicknamed ‘El Diablo’), a repentant revolutionary who is having difficulty reintegrating into society. He lives with his daughter in a somewhat shabby flat until one day one of his former victims kidnaps his daughter and gives him three days to eliminate the members of his ex-group. The contrast between Angel’s ghostly appearance and the stylised violence of the action scenes is not unoriginal, but the revenge set-up, in which the victim forces their torturer to avenge them, sadly soon loses momentum because of the plot’s strict linear structure. NG

Alone in the Dark (1982, dir Jack Sholder)

Sometimes the border is the best vantage point for viewing territories on either side. Jack Sholder’s 1982 psycho-shocker Alone in the Dark is just such a liminal case, poised at the very moment when the more politicised, sociological horror films of the 1970s (Dawn of the Dead, The Fury, Scanners, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) turn into the supernatural psycho-on-the-loose slashers of the 1980s (typified by the extensive sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th). Alone in the Dark, the first film produced by New Line Cinema (A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.) might have begun in the 70s, but from the entrance of Lee Taylor-Ann (in the role of nyctophobe Toni Potter) in her pink and black ra-ra skirt, inviting the other characters to go out and see a really cool band downtown (The Sic Fucks, as themselves), it is clear that we could be in no other decade than the 80s. In one particular scene we can see the crossover quite precisely. In the midst of a blackout, ordinary citizens are spontaneously looting and running amok. The blackout has caused the sophisticated electronic locking system of the psychiatric hospital to break down and release four homicidal lunatics who walk into this chaos, one of them wearing a hockey mask. It is as though Jason from Friday the 13th had wandered onto the set of Dawn of the Dead (Friday the 13th part III, the first of the series in which we see Jason Vorhees in a hockey mask, was released just three months before Alone in the Dark, so we can probably rule out any deliberate reference on either part). ‘Sure, they’re crazy,’ says Donald Pleasance’s pot-smoking shrink (based on R.D. Laing), ‘but isn’t everybody?’ It is perhaps a shame that the rest of the 1980s slasher films would tend to forget this second clause. RB

Viva la muerte (1971, dir Fernando Arrabal)

This film was presented as part of Jean-Pierre Mocky’s ‘carte blanche’. In his introduction to the screening, Mocky enthusiastically congratulated the organisers because he’d realised, after choosing the films, how difficult it would be to find copies (in particular John Ford’s The Last Hurrah).

Viva la muerte is one of the key works of Panic, the ‘movement’ founded nine years earlier by Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor. This autobiographical evocation of Arrabal’s childhood (based on his novel Baal Babylon) and of his memories of the Spanish Civil War moves between the ‘real’ life of Fando (whose father was denounced to the fascists by his mother) and his fantasies (in sequences filmed in coloured filters). But the boundary gradually becomes blurred and porous, as if the unconscious was pouring into reality. Even though Viva la muerte is not as impressive as Jodorowsky’s work, Arrabal recaptures the freshness of Buñuel’s surrealist imagery (Un chien andalou). Thanks to his sense of the baroque and his interest in confusion (a Panic key word), Arrabal invites us to a sort of orgiastic ritual that conjures the mythological figures of the sacrificial victim (the absent father) and the cruel ‘virgin’, both Eros and Thanatos (the mother, doubling up in the character of the aunt). NG

Super (2010, dir James Gunn)

This, perhaps, is what happens when Troma directors grow up – or rather, fail to: they make films in which grown men cry (and then brutally murder various inconsequential characters and cop off with girls half their age). Gunn broke into movie-making in his mid-20s, taking the director’s chair for Tromeo and Juliet. Following the success of this ‘no holds bard’ Shakespeare adaptation for the low-budget schlock stable (home of The Toxic Avenger), Gunn hit the big league with screenplays for two Scoobie Doo films and a big-budget Dawn of the Dead remake. Now he’s back doing his own thing, shooting his own original screenplay, and clearly having a whale of a time. Super follows the comic book life ‘between the panels’ of the world’s most pathetic super-hero, The Crimson Bolt. The film has all the yucks and irreverence you’d expect from a former Troma man – he even finds room to give his old boss, Lloyd Kaufman, a cameo – and it rattles along at a fine old pace. In truth, there’s little not to like here, as long as you weren’t expecting Tarkovsky – and if you were, then, my god, what were you thinking? Where the film falls down is in the moments where it tries to be a little more grown-up. The sentiment is weak and somewhat tacked on. In the end, it’s the bits where the film ‘exposes its real feelings’ that are the true mask, hiding the gleeful, anarchic face underneath. RB

Piscine sans eau (A Pool without Water/Mizu no nai puuru, 1982, dir Kôji Wakamatsu)

An outwardly dull man (played by the impressive Yûya Uchida) enters the house of young women at night, then chloroforms and rapes them. From this premise Wakamatsu creates a strange, oneiric film, a poetic parable on the relationship to the other in a fossilised society. The originality of the film lies in the manner in which the director uses the conventions of the erotic genre and the references to childhood (games with insects and dolls) to compose an ode to the common man’s quest for freedom. It is a freedom that is negative, just like the waterless swimming pool that gives the film its title, as if the relationships between men and women could only be created through transgression. A true moralist, Wakamatsu paints the picture of a man-child who has found the way to literally touch the object of his desire and liberate himself by giving free rein to his erotic madness. NG

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir Panos Cosmatos)

My pick of the festival by a country mile. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a highly stylised and oppressively atmospheric take on the kind of weird dystopian science fiction the 1970s did so well – Logan’s Run, Scanners, THX-1138, The Andromeda Strain, etc. – from which it picks up and exaggerates elements to the point of parody in a world of coloured lights and modernist set designs. The music is pitched somewhere between the mid-70s synths of John Carpenter and the ‘spectral’ sound of such recent electronic acts as The Focus Group and Boards of Canada. The story is set in a health-resort-cum-religious-community ‘in a beautiful place out in the country’, to quote the BoC track whose mood comes closest to capturing the spirit of this film. Indeed, it could be said that with its coloristic compositions and repetitive scenic plan, the film’s structure is more musical than novelistic, dovetailing neatly with the ‘hauntological’ moment in contemporary music pinpointed by critics such as Mark Fisher, Adam Harper and Simon Reynolds. What is perhaps most intriguing – and indeed most hauntological – about the film is its apt demonstration that, today, in order to present a future that is genuinely ‘other’ one must set one’s narrative not in the world ‘of tomorrow’, but in the recent past. RB

Beyond the Black Rainbow screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011.

Dementia (1955, dir John Parker)

Dementia is a true oddity, cited in Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films. Shot in the mid-50s, it is a black and white film with no dialogue, in fact no synch sound whatsoever (a voice-over was added later for the re-release under a different title), just an eerie, creepy score by one-time ‘bad boy’ of new music George Antheil. Tonight, Antheil’s score has been replaced (although ghostly traces of it remain, as distorted loops, somewhere in the mix) by a live soundtrack performed by Church of Satan councilman and occasional white supremacist pin-up Boyd Rice, along with Dwid Hellion from US hardcore group Integrity. Hellion and Rice make use of a bizarre selection of instruments, from the double bass harmonica (apparently recommended by Addams Family composer Vic Mizzy) and a curious brass-pronged device called a waterphone, whose sound is immediately recognisable from a thousand horror films. These instruments are then sampled and looped, punctuated by occasional bursts of distortion pedal guitar noise, in accompaniment to the oneiric narrative on screen. A woman wakes up, wanders the streets, meets a man, murders him, and runs away from the police – only to wake once more, the waves crashing over her dreams like ill-repressed memories. Dementia is usually credited to producer John Parker, but Wikipedia claims it was actually directed by actor Bruno Ve Sota (who plays the Rich Man, and also directed such classic 50s Bs as The Brain Eaters and Invasion of the Star Creatures). Most famous for being the film showing in the cinema sequence in Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958). RB

Take Shelter (2011, dir Jeff Nichols)

In the rural American south, a miner starts having dreams of a terrible storm coming. When the dreams start spilling out into his waking hours he begins obsessively taking precautions against what he is sure is a real storm to come. The second feature from Jeff Nichols makes more than a passing reference to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, though thankfully with the magical-native-folk clichés excised. Instead, we are offered one of the more harrowing cinematic portraits of mental collapse since Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, with which Nichols’s film also shares more than a passing acquaintance. Curiously, the more I found myself nerve-wracked and devastated by the unfolding domestic catastrophe on screen, the more the rest of the audience in Paris started laughing. Actually, now I come to think of it, when I saw Bigger Than Life at the same cinema a few months back, everyone else was laughing too. Maybe Parisians just enjoy watching ordinary Americans lose their mind. Either way, as torment or farce, Take Shelter is stylishly shot and convincingly performed by its two leads, Michael Shannon (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) and Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life). RB

Flesh+Blood (1985, dir Paul Verhoeven)

Before Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Trooper, Paul Verhoeven spent his first American film on an extended jaunt around the medieval castles of Spain, bringing along a few old friends from his native Netherlands – Rutger Hauer, Jan De Bont – for the ride. Flesh+Blood is a knights-on-a-quest epic with all the carnage and carnal knowledge one would expect from Verhoeven, playing fast and loose with accents and anachronism, and not a ‘forsooth’ or a ‘hey nonny nonny’ in sight. In a sense, the film is a kind of Once upon a Time in the West for the romance, an elegy for the end of the medieval era. All three of its principal characters represent the rise of a new order against the old feudal ties: Rutger Hauer’s Martin is the ruthless capitalist, who promises his fellows equality only to assume noble airs and graces when the opportunity arises; Tom Burlinson’s Steven could be the contemporary of Francis Bacon, turning science into technology subjugated to the war machine. They are of course one and the same, as Agnes (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a scheming opportunist, the very prototype of the modern footballer’s wife) realises only too well. One of the grimiest films about the era, Flesh+Blood is also one of the most insightful. RB

The Hitcher (1986, dir Robert Harmon)

The Hitcher has a great premise, and it knows it, exploiting some very basic fears that have doubtless been felt by any motorist who has ever seen an outstretched thumb on a lonely road at night. With that, the film has a confidence, an assurance that prevents it from taking too many wrong steps. The taut structure keeps the tension high when it needs to be, and always knows when best to diffuse it with a well-timed gag (a severed finger with your chips, sir?). The film’s star Rutger Hauer said in introducing the film at the screening that this is not just a horror film, but also a love story: from the moment his John Ryder thrusts his hand into C. Thomas Howell’s crotch, an erotic power play unfolds with several layers of complexity. One final thought on this film: towards the end, sitting in the back of a police van, Hauer’s hitcher is seen humming to himself the tune to ‘Daisy’, the song Arthur C. Clarke heard a computer sing at Bell Labs and decided to appropriate for Hal in 2001. At this point in the film, we have just discovered that this man has no records on any computer, no place of origin, and is almost impossible to kill. Might he, in fact, be reprising his role from Blade Runner, made four years earlier? RB

The Oregonian (2011, dir Calvin Reeder)

Of course, every festival has to have at least one real stinker, and The Oregonian, sad to say, is really, truly, irredeemably awful in every possible sense. The acting is pathetic, the shooting laughable, the script (there’s a script?!) even worse. The best I can say is that there is nice furniture in one scene. According to writer/director Calvin Reeder’s smug-as-chips IMDB page, he has been named one of Filmmaker magazine’s ’25 new faces of independent film’ – I can only presume they mean faces to run and hide from, faces not to trust with your production money, faces that seriously deserve a good kicking. How this film got accepted into this festival – let alone Sundance earlier in the year – is beyond me. I’d assume the people who made it were taking the piss, that this was some grand spoof on the pseudo-surreal, except this was probably the only film I saw at this festival at which nobody laughed once. I felt pity for the rest of the audience as we grimly endured this useless mess of a motion picture. I sincerely hope that no one involved in this production – from exec producer to set runner – is ever allowed to work in film again. RB

Decapoda Shock

Courts Métrages

Sudd, a short film by Swede Erik Rosenlund, shows a world of elegant black and white cinematography, gradually being eaten by a disease of animated scribbles. With the rise of high-quality computer animation software packages available off the shelf and capable of turning any laptop into a professional cartoon suite, the narrative of this film could be the narrative of shorts programmes at film festivals the world over, with the increasingly prevalent drawn-not-ray-traced style a kind of compulsory supplement, as much a product of the slick digi-style it seeks to countermand as anything else.

Paths of Glory, shown as part of the fifth shorts package, is little more than a boy’s own adventure dogfight story with some demons and lame-ass heavy metal tacked on the end, etched in the style of the contemporary comic shop. Condamné &#224 vie is more bande dessinée than Marvel Universe and at least raises a few laughs, but still uses the hand-drawn style as a sort of ideological screen to conceal its mode of production. Much better is the somewhat relentless Dutch fantasia Get Real! Here, the scribble is less a self-reflexive imitation pencil than the gleeful mouse-squiggle of a first-time Paint user, a chip-tune-soundtracked story about puppy love and arcade obsessiveness that takes every opportunity to emphasise its own cybernetic provenance.

Elsewhere, big-budget Brit animation A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation starts off like a mournful, cautionary tale in a vaguely Hilaire Belloc sort of way and ends up as a car advert – it does, however, boast a voice-over by Ian McKellen, which is enough to redeem almost anything. Putain Lapin simultaneously satirises Jean Eustache and Donnie Darko, in a surreal take on the grainy 16mm of the nouvelle vague. As the title suggests, a prostitute meets a giant fuzzy bear, mistakes him for a rabbit, they fall in love. It’s all rather sweet.

The other British offering, Endless, steals from Antichrist and Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho installation with a super slo-mo bathroom murder story with a score that sounds suspiciously like the Handel aria used by von Trier (no prizes for guessing what their temp track was). A hint to Matt Bloom, director of this one: if you’re going to subject your images to the in-depth examination that slow motion inevitably induces, you’d better make sure you’ve got a good image, and not a rather clumsily lit home movie out-take.

The best films on the shorts programme I saw were Sudd (already mentioned) and Decapoda Shock, both of which mixed an inventive and articulate use of ‘real’ cinematography with the freedom of expression afforded by occasional intrusions of animation. The latter, a Spanish sci-fi movie with a man with a lobster’s head for a hero, got my vote for the audience prize in the festival’s ‘competition courts-métrages’. RB

Decapoda Shock screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011 and is curated by some of the people behind L’Etrange Festival. The programme includes scientific and literary talks, exhibitions, video games and films. The film selection includes premieres of Tarsem Singh’s Immortals and Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial, screenings of Richard Stanley’s Hardware, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and Ren&#e Laloux’s Fantastic Planet + short films, documentaries and a conference on Satoshi Kon.

Nicolas Guichard and Robert Barry

Poetry: Interview with Lee Chang-dong


Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 July 2011

Venues: key cities

Distributor: ICO/Arrow

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Writer: Lee Chang-dong

Original title: Shi

Cast: Yun Jung-hee, Ahn Nae-sang, Kim Hira

South Korea 2010

139 mins

Lee Chang-dong is a Korean novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker and even a former Minister of Culture and Tourism. Poetry, his fifth film, is about an ageing woman who must cope with the distress of discovering that her grandson is implicated in a horrific crime, and its fallout.

Sarah Cronin interviewed Lee Chang-dong by email and asked him about the death of poetry, the beauty of small things and the importance of ‘seeing well’.

SC: Where did your inspiration for the story come from? Was it the rape and suicide of the young girl, or the character of this older woman facing dementia?

LCD:It started with a sexual assault case that had actually happened in a small town in South Korea, which was committed by a group of juveniles. But the real case was a bit different from the film; the girl, the victim, didn’t commit suicide. However, this case had penetrated into my mind and did not leave. And although I wanted to talk about this issue through my film, I was not sure about the means. Of course, there would be easy ways that I can think of. For instance, have the victim fight for justice with difficulty, or have a journalist or a police detective, or a third person striving to search for the hidden truth, etc. However, I didn’t want to adopt those conventional ways. This case eventually became the story for my film when I came across the main character, a woman in her 60s wishing to write a poem for the first time in her life, who faces Alzheimer’s disease. To sum up, this story was finally born from a combination of different elements: the sexual assault case, the suicide of a girl, and the lady in her 60s writing a poem.

Why did you choose to build the film around the central theme of poetry?

While I was trying to figure out a way to deal with this sexual assault case in a film, I was travelling in Japan when I happened to watch a TV programme intended for the sleepless tourists in my hotel room one night. Watching the typical landscape visuals with meditation music-type sounds of peaceful rivers, flying birds, fishermen throwing their nets, it suddenly occurred to me that the title of the film dealing with this cruel case should be Poetry. The film character and plot came to my mind at the same time, along with the title. All these things didn’t come through logical thinking but instinctively and intuitively. But perhaps my old questions and thoughts suddenly found their small resolution at that moment. Questions of what? Questions like, why do I write novels and make films; and to what extent my writings or films can affect the world. Art is a pursuit for beauty and there is the question of how it is related to the filth and vice of the world. The question is similar to what Theodor Adorno had asked: is it possible to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz? The character Mija in the film asks those questions instead of me. She may be old, but she is naive enough to ask them. Like all beginners are naive.

One of the poets that Mija meets says that ‘Poetry deserves to die’ – is there some truth in that? And why do you think film and poetry are dying?

People nowadays do not read or write poetry. Do you see any young people who write poems around you? Students learn poetry as if they are learning archaic words. People would ask back, ‘Can you make a living by writing poetry?’ They’re right. Poetry doesn’t guarantee anything. It doesn’t guarantee any pleasure or desire. It has no value economically. Maybe it exists only in a form of advertisement copy. Poetry is dying. If poetry is an act of pursuing hidden beauty or truth, an act of questioning our lives, it can also be another form of art, it can be cinema. In this regard, cinema is also dying. While some films are massively consumed as ever, other films, films that I’d like to create, films I’d like to see, are becoming more difficult to find. Films that make people observe the world with different eyes, to feel invisible beauty and to question life. Do those films still exist? Do you wish for those films to exist? These are the questions that I want to ask.

What appealed to you the most about Mija’s character, and also Yun Jung-hee? Mija is this very feminine older woman, who also seems very enigmatic. You never explain anything about why her daughter left, or what happened to her husband.

When I first thought of the character Mija I wrote her down as ‘Wearing a hat and a fancy scarf, she looks like a girl going on a picnic’. The description ‘like a girl’ was important in showing her character. She may be an old lady, but she is like a little girl inside. She is innocent and naive, like a child who wonders about everything that the child sees for the first time. A beauty that goes against time, like a dried flower. An unrealistic character who still feels and talks like an immature girl, despite her age. Which are also the characteristics of the actress Yun Jung-hee. I named the character Mija because I couldn’t think of any alternatives. Though the name Mija is old-fashioned and it is not common nowadays, it has the meaning of ‘beauty’ in it. Anyway, Yun Jung-hee’s real name turned out to be Mija. I didn’t think it was coincidence, but fate. Mija’s past life might not have been easy. Maybe she has been abandoned by a man. Maybe her daughter was following in her footsteps. However, I didn’t want to describe their backgrounds directly to the audience. Rather I wanted the audience to feel and understand them through their present.

The poetry teacher stresses that the ‘important thing in life is seeing’ and ‘to see well’. Do you feel the same as a filmmaker – that it’s your duty to see what’s around you, and reveal it on film?

That comment made by the poetry teacher represents my thoughts to some extent. ‘To see well’ is a fundamental aspect in writing poetry or making films. Films show the world on behalf of the audience’s eyes. However, the films that we make, what kind of eyes are they in showing the world to the audience? Some films make us see the world differently, while some make us see only what we want to see. And some films do not let us see anything.

Do you believe that it’s important to always find beauty in small things – the apricot that’s fallen to the ground, for example? Is that something you also try to express in your films?

To discover hidden beauty and meaning in small and trivial things is the fundamental element, not only for film, but also for all art genres. The problem is, beauty doesn’t exist per se. Like the light and shadow, whether it’s visible or not, beauty co-exists with pain, filth, and ugliness. Apricots need to fall down to earth to create a new life. Therefore, art is an irony as itself. As so are our lives.

Your films often feature characters who are disabled – in this case it’s a man who’s had a stroke. Why is his relationship with Mija central to the film?

They are mostly characters with communication barriers, rather than being physically disabled. I always dream of communicating with audiences through my films. So, those characters in my films, in a way, represent the part of me that is not communicated, that longs to communicate. However, the old man character in the film having a fit of apoplexy represents disabled masculinity. That is, the macho man’s sexual desire, which makes him beg to ‘be a man’ for one last time after becoming ill and helpless, despite the money and power that he achieved in the past. And when Mija accepts that desire, she defiles her own body like the dead girl.

It’s very disturbing that the fathers care so little about the gang rape and death of the girl. Is this attitude – pay off the mother, the school, newspapers – common in Korea? Are you trying to make a wider comment on corruption?

I admit that parents in South Korea tend to be overprotective of their children. However, I believe that all societies have similar attitudes to sexual violence, although there are variations. People, especially men, think revealing the problem never helps anyone, even the victims. That is why they do not seem to feel guilty in covering up the problem.

Mija’s poem, ‘Agnes’s Song’, turns out to be a beautiful, poetic suicide note, written from the young girl’s point of view. When you started the script, did you already know that was the form the poem would take? It’s an incredible moment in the film, when the young girl’s voice takes over the narration.

Agnes is the Christian name of the dead girl. Mija is eventually able to write a poem after she accepted the pain of Agnes as her own, the life of the girl as her own. Therefore, the one poem that Mija leaves in the world is the one that she wrote on behalf of the girl. Mija speaks out with the voice that the girl would have wanted to leave behind. The two become one through the poem. When Mija’s voice changes into Hee-jin’s, the audience can feel that the destinies of Mija and the girl are overlapping, and that the two characters are united as one.

Why did you choose to close the film with a shot of Agnes turning to look at the camera, rather than a scene with Mija, or Wook? It’s a very powerful, but also very open-ended conclusion.

I wanted the audience to face her directly at the end of the film. I wanted people to remember her faintly smiling face and expression directly looking into the camera, and to accept her emotions along with Mija’s poem. Mija has gone after she has finished writing the poem. I wanted to make people feel Mija’s absence while listening to her poem. Where did she go? I left the answer up to the audience. I pictured the film to have much space, as poems do. Blanks that the audiences could fill in. In that sense it can be seen as an ‘open’ film. The conclusion will be in the audience’s mind.

Interview by Sarah Cronin

Terracotta Festival 2011

Revenge: A Love Story

Terracotta Far East Film Festival

5-8 May 2011

Prince Charles Cinema, London

Terracotta website

Now that the fascination with extreme horror films from the East has died down – the focus for sick thrills seems to have shifted to Europe (see The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film) – this year’s Terracotta Festival felt like a much more chilled affair. It was less about landing big blockbusters and controversial titles and more about simply having fun, with Festival Director Joey Leung lining up 14 movies that showed the lighter side of the East while revelling in its illustrious filmmaking history.

While last year’s fest opened big with a Jackie Chan action movie, this year premiered Donnie Yen’s latest historical biopic The Lost Bladesman. Although Yen isn’t a huge international star, he’s gathered a healthy cult following in the West thanks to his work with Wilson Yip, especially in his portrayal of Wing Chun master Ip Man. Martial arts and film was one of the main themes of the festival, with several movies paying homage to old kung fu movies and others ditching CGI-enhanced acrobatics for more impressive old-school antics.

The action comedy Gallants saw two veteran Shaw Brothers stars, Leung Siu Lung and Chen Kuan Tai, return to the big screen for a well-received spoof of 70s martial arts movies while legendary fight choreographer Sammo Hung starred alongside his son Timmy in Choy Lee Fut. It’s great fun to see the pros at work but Terracotta has always been about showcasing new talent. When the festival began back in 2009 it screened High Kick Girl, featuring upcoming martial arts sensation Rina Takeda, and this year she returned with Karate Girl, which puts her up against another rising star, Hina Tobimatsu. No blood, no gore, just wholesome family entertainment about a girl kicking ass to protect her family name. As an added bonus, Takeda was in attendance at the festival to prove her high kicks don’t need any digital assistance.

The festival was keen to show that Asian films don’t always take themselves too seriously. Helldriver was a crazy splatter-fest through a Japan plagued by zombies; if you think you’ve seen every zombie possibility on screen then you haven’t seen Helldriver. Also taking the grindhouse approach was Yakuza Weapon, in which a feared gangster is rebuilt with a machine gun for an arm and a rocket launcher for his leg.

But what really got audiences laughing were the sublime comedies on offer. On the surface, Kim Joung-hoon’s Petty Romance looked like it could be any gimmicky rom-com from Hollywood: a comic artist and a sex column writer team up to win some cash – will they fall for each other? It’s got a sassy, Sex and the City air, but it’s distinctly South Korean with Kim weaving in imaginative ‘manwha’ animation to offer something much more than a girl-meets-boy tale. The deserved winner of the Terracotta audience award was China’s Red Light Revolution. The story of a bumbling guy trying to run a sex shop in a conservative community, it has plenty of gags but it’s also a timely story of a changing China, a society becoming enamoured with consumerism and self-gratification.

No festival of Asian cinema would be complete without a hard-hitting tale of vengeance and that came in the form of Revenge: A Love Story. Viewers may wonder how brutal it can be when it features a pop star (Juno Mak) and a porn actress (Sola Aoi), but its opening proved to be very grisly and unpleasant, the story revolving around a killer who murders and dissects pregnant women. But just as you begin to wonder why you’re watching it flashes back to a heartbreaking tale of innocent love that descends into an inescapable cycle of violence. Although it never quite says anything new about the hopelessness of revenge, director Wong Ching Po has created something that sticks with the viewer; his slow, subdued scenes leave a stark impression.

Revenge: A Love Story is released on 25 November by Terracotta Distribution.

Of course, there was one out-and-out horror movie, Child’s Eye from the Pang Brothers, but compared to the sheer variety of the rest of the programme it seemed a bit old hat. Audiences have moved past the cliché of Asian horror and Terracotta provided a wonderful glimpse of what filmmakers are getting up to over there.

Richard Badley

Nippon Connection 2011

Heaven's Story

Nippon Connection

Frankfurt, Germany

April 24 – May 1, 2011

Nippon Connection website

With last year’s Icelandic volcano and this year’s colossal earthquake in Japan, it seems Frankfurt’s annual Nippon Connection is perennially haunted by natural disasters. It was even announced that the festival team had toyed with the idea of cancelling the event in response to the recent tragedy, yet the woe at the opening remarks was soon dissipated thanks to the festival staff’s infectious enthusiasm and glowing spirit. With an assorted programme ranging between commercial blockbusters, such as the sci-fi manga adaptation Gantz (Sato Shinsuke, 2011), congenial comedies of the likes of Permanent Nobara (Yoshida Daihachi, 2010) and voices of the independent art scene represented in the appropriately renamed section Nippon Visions, which this report will focus on, Nippon Connection had at least one film to fit our every mood.

Heaven’s Story (Takahisa Zeze, 2010)
The best feature from Japan in recent years, and the FIPRESCI award-winner at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Zeze’s latest offering from his post-pink period clocks out at an epic four and a half hours. An intricately woven tale of revenge and redemption, trauma and forgiveness, crime and punishment, Heaven’s Story threads multiple characters into its embellished spiralling narrative. The metaphor involving monsters announced in the opening underpins the film’s meditation on the ethics of human encounters, a contemplation that is bookmarked by haunting performance-art footage of puppetry troupe Yumehine and dancer Hyakkidondoro. With stunning photography, the controlled balance of urgency and patience propels Zeze’s characters down their destined paths, which seem designed to cross, each encounter instigating new sparks.

Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)
Although on a much quieter scale, Studio Ghibli’s latest release, Arrietty, also dwells on the ethics of self-and-other relationships in its adaptation of Mary Norton’s tales, The Borrowers. The predictable winner of the festival’s Audience Award, the story paints the chance meeting of sickly youth Sho and tiny Arrietty, also a teenager, but from a different race of little people who reside underneath rural households. A child of an endangered species, Arrietty is initially wary of her neighbour’s presence, yet soon warms to his tender care and yearning for amity. Though entirely forgettable compared to Ghibli’s previous output, from which it ‘borrows’ quite heavily, Arrietty may be remembered for its serene animation that sees the directing debut of young animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi. But let us all forget the theme song.

Midori-ko (Keita Kurosaka, 2010) / Still in Cosmos (Makino Takashi, 2009)
A double bill that would be hard to come by at any other festival, Midori-ko and Still in Cosmos may at first seem an odd couple, but screened together represented the cutting edge of non-commercial filmmaking in Japan.

Midori-ko is Kurosaka’s lovechild and took 10 years to nurture, a hand-drawn parable that borrows its pale aesthetics from Yuriy Norshteyn. Midori is a young, impoverished scientist who discovers a strange vegetable that has landed in her room as if it were a fallen star. Though rather simplistic and oddly paced, the skewered fairy tale is at times thought-provoking, and the subtle shades and tonal moderations of the drawings are captivating.

One of experimental filmmaker Makino’s latest collaborations with Jim O’Rourke, which fuse sound and moving image, Still in Cosmos shatters the screen surface in a composed piece of sustained tension and controlled ambience. Words prove inefficient to describe the experience of Makino’s experiments, where he transfers film into crepitant digital layers that vibrate into each other in pulsed drones.

The Duckling (Sayaka Ono, 2005-10)
It is no surprise that Kazuo Hara, a pioneering voice of personal documentaries in Japan, is said to have overseen the production of The Duckling, for Ono’s debut feature is steeped in his style of storytelling. Ono’s autobiographical documentary feels like a therapy session as she visits each member of her family to unravel the childhood traumas that have led her to the brink of suicide. Though the film succeeds in exuding a dense intensity that pushes the boundaries of its genre, it feels too much like an uncomfortable continuation of her self-harm. One question remains – at such a young age, what will Ono do now that she has exhausted her entire life within one project?

Teto (Hiroshi Gokan, 2010)
Part of the Tokyo University of Arts special programme, Teto is a feature-length graduation piece by Hiroshi Gokan and was the surprise triumph of the festival. Utterly unique, the film weaves together different generic codes from espionage thrillers and post-apocalypse dread to period set-pieces, performed by the characters, who run a theatre troupe of orphans. Teto sustains its despondent aura and a foreboding gloom with committed control, never caving in to spell out its own mysteries. The ability to conjure intensity from its spectral narrative evokes another recent East Asian debut, End of Animal (2010), yet Teto‘s chaos is more simmering and muted.

Julian Ross

Terracotta Festival 2011: Preview

Terracotta 2011

Terracotta Far East Film Festival

5-8 May 2011

Prince Charles Cinema, London

Terracotta website

Our friends at Terracotta Festival have put together a great selection of film treats from the Far East. They will be opening with The Lost Bladesman, an epic tale about Three Kingdoms character Guan Yu starring Donnie Yen and we’re particularly looking forward to Revenge: A Love Story, a serial killer story told from an unusual angle from Hong Kong, and Milocrorze, a Technicolor, multi-stranded, time-travelling fantasy from Japan.

Actors and directors from Asia will be attending, including Tak Sakaguchi (Versus), Clement Cheng (Gallants), Rina Takeda (Karate Girl), Sam Voutas (Red Light Revolution) and Kim Kkobbi (Breathless). There will also be masterclasses with directors, the Terracotta Cafe to chill out, and a festival party.

For more details and to book tickets, go to the Terracotta website.

Watch the promo reel:

I Saw the Devil: Interview with Kim Jee-woon

I Saw the Devil

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 April 2011

Venues: tbc

DVD, Bluray + EST release: 9 May 2011

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Writer: Park Hoon-jung

Original title: Akmareul boatda

Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Jeon Gook-hwan

South Korea 2010

141 mins

Kim Jee-woon’s follow-up to The Good, the Bad and the Weird is a vicious, diabolically twisted tale of murder and revenge that pushes the serial killer thriller to compelling new levels of extreme pain and philosophical depth. Staring Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik in the role of a dangerous psychopath killing for pleasure, the film starts when, one night, he hatchets the pretty fiancée of National Intelligence Service agent Soo-hyun (The Good, the Bad and the Weird‘s Lee Byung-hung). Instead of letting the police deal with the crime, Soo-hyun goes after the murderer himself in order to put him through the same pain his deceased lover has suffered and, ultimately, much more than that. Displaying every detail of the gruesome horrors perpetrated by both lead characters during their fast-paced, exhausting cat-and-mouse chase, I Saw the Devil is a disturbing yet witty and enjoyable take on the genre. Featuring stunning visuals, it builds up to an utterly unexpected ending.

Pamela Jahn caught up with director Kim Jee-woon after the premiere of the film at the London Korean Film Festival in October 2010 to talk about lucky coincidences, Nietzsche and the dilemma of ultimate revenge.

Pamela Jahn: You mentioned last night at the Q&A that you never watch your own films once they are finished. Why is that?

Kim Jee-woon: First of all, I get a bit bored after the whole editing process, so the technical screening is usually the last time that I see the film. But mainly it’s because otherwise you see all the little mistakes coming up on the big screen and it sort of hurts to sit all the way through them. The films I make without pressure and without grief, like short films, are not a problem, but my feature films I do find very difficult to watch again.

This is the first time you are adapting a script from someone else rather than writing your own. How did the collaboration with Choi Min-sik come about?

When Choi first approached me with this project I was working on a different film, but it got delayed for a year and I thought I couldn’t just rest and do nothing. I needed a script because it would have taken too long to develop something new from scratch. So I was in a bit of a dilemma when exactly at this moment Choi, who plays the serial killer in the film, came to me with this script, and suddenly everything fell into place.

When I first read the script it felt very new and powerful but at the same time it had a brutal and tough side to it, which got me interested. I thought one of the most important things to make it work was to find the right antagonist for Choi Min-sik’s character. Luckily, at the same time I met Lee Byung-hung, who I thought had gone to the US to shoot G.I. Joe 2. When we sat next to each other at a premiere he told me that his project had got delayed for a year too, just like mine, so I adjusted the script and he instantly liked it. It was all very fortunate for us, especially because the film is Choi’s comeback after three years off screen, and it is a very strong comeback, I think.

Despite being a gory revenge thriller, I Saw the Devil sometimes seems like a twisted examination of human emotions and their ties to antiquated moral notions of sin and justice.

Revenge films normally follow the same dramatic structure: you torture the criminal and, in the end, the protagonist gets his or her revenge, and the audience finds some sort of justice in that. But I thought that sort of ending is a lie because the question I kept asking myself was whether it was actually possible to carry out ultimate revenge without destroying yourself. This is what I tried to portray here.

Nietzsche said anything done out of love is beyond good and evil. Do you see this as the moral behind the film?

Nietzsche is giving a warning that in order to kill the devil you have to become the devil yourself, and it is exactly this dilemma that I have tried to express in my film. In other words, the film is not about the sadness about the person who dies but it’s about the torture for the ones who live and are left behind. Soo-hyun realises that physical pain is no longer significant and he carries out revenge through psychological violence. And although he knows that what he’s doing is morally wrong, it is an inevitable decision on his part. But his choice in revenge methods shows the relationship between revenge and success in that, in order to succeed, you have to become the devil. It is a reflection of the endless suffering within the character. The audience experiences the different methods and levels of revenge through the violence but actually, at its heart, the film deals more with the emotions behind the revenge.

Lee Byung-hung’s character not only feels the pain about having lost his fiancée but, working as a NIS agent, he also suffers from the guilt and inner turmoil that he wasn’t there for her when she needed him. It almost seems that the latter becomes the stronger motif for his revenge.

Because he works for a national security team and because his job is obviously to protect others, the fact that he wasn’t able to protect the one he loves brings a false irony into play. Of course, he wants the killer to feel the pain he feels, but he actually dreams of ultimate revenge. So in that sense it is a very narcissistic kind of revenge. But at one point in this process he becomes dangerously obsessive and soon he starts making mistakes and he also abuses others along the way. This is shown at its most extreme in the last act of revenge and the way he inflicts pain on others.

You don’t provide much back story about Choi’s character or clues as to why he becomes a serial killer in the first place. What is it that motivates him to murder women?

His family is seen in one scene when Soo-hyun goes to their house and you realise through their dialogue that Kyung-chul left his son and that the relationship between his parents and him was not harmonious either. So there are a few hints about his personal history. But for me the question was more, ‘how is he going to kill next?’ and not why. The focus was primarily how, and not why, he becomes a serial killer.

What struck me is the use of classical music, especially the opening sequence as the wife’s head is found in the river. Is there a special link for you between classical music and killing?

I wanted the film to start with a very sentimental feel and to make a huge impact through the thriller action opening because this is the moment Soo-hyun feels the most emotional pain and rage, and I tried to intensify these emotions through the use of very passionate operatic music, which becomes like the surface of his inner turmoil. But having said that, when we first started to discuss the possible background music for the film we were actually tending towards more minimalistic music. It was only after having seen the energy of the actors and the strength of the visuals and the performances that we realised we needed something more powerful to go with it. The minimal music simply didn’t work.

You also employ a very morbid sense of humour. How much of this was in the original script? Or did it come naturally while you were shooting?

There was only one funny scene in the original script, which is the scene when the car full of soldiers drives up to Choi. The rest of the humour that is used in the film simply came through the production. Some of these moments came to me like sparks and I used them to develop a pattern of tension and relief within the film in order to create some sort of rhythm and a unique style.

Despite its level of violence, the film received a 14+ rating when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival, whereas the Korea Media Rating Board initially gave it an R rating, which effectively banned the film from theatres in South Korea. What was your feeling about the audience in Toronto?

Screening the film at the Toronto Film Festival gave us the opportunity to have a more liberal forum and I felt that the audience were looking at the film within its genre rather then focusing simply on the violence. I think they understood that the violence was just one characteristic of the genre, which helped to contextualise it. I hope that people here will watch it in this way too.

How much of a relationship is there between you and other Korean directors like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho?

Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and I are friends and we sometimes see films together and we look at each other’s scripts and give feedback to each other. But the most important thing for me is that we have a similar taste in films. As for I Saw the Devil, Park recently expressed his desire to work together with us on the commentary for the DVD release of the film, which is great. So watch out for that.

Read the review of I Saw the Devil.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

7th China Independent Film Festival

Perfect Life (Image provided by CIFF)

7th China Independent Film Festival

21-25 October 2010, Nanjing, China

CIFF website

Compared to the film festivals that are held regularly in Beijing and Shanghai, the annual China Independent Film Festival is a relatively low-key affair. Largely organised by volunteer staff, screenings take place at the two main campuses of Nanjing University, the Gulou campus in the downtown area of the city, and the more recently developed Xinlin campus located on its outskirts, with related gatherings at nearby art galleries and eateries. As not every film in the line-up has received the stamp of approval from the Film Bureau of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), this celebration of Chinese cinema occurs under the political radar, and the lack of the promotion means that many students of Nanjing University are not aware that an important film festival is taking place on their campus until a few banners appear in the days leading up to the event. However, the festival organisers somehow manage to make this ‘invisible’ festival sufficiently noticeable and 2010 screenings were well-attended, leading to a series of productive Q&A sessions with the filmmakers in attendance and valuable networking events.

Although the festival programme split the selected titles into the two distinct strands of feature films and documentaries, three films almost defied such categorisation. Emily Tang’s spellbinding Perfect Life (2008) juxtaposes the fictional narrative of a woman working in a somewhat seedy business hotel in Shenyang with documentary footage of a Hong Kong resident who is undergoing a messy divorce and struggling to support herself as a dancer-for-hire in a tacky club. Jia Zhangke served as the executive producer of Perfect Life, and the fusion of fact and fiction recalls his masterpieces Platform (2000) and 24 City (2008), but Tang steps out of the shadow of her financial benefactor by imbuing proceedings with an element of magical realism as the real and the imagined eventually come to co-exist. Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (2010) features Dian Qiu, a real-life prison guard and ‘trash poet’ who insists that prisoners read his verses aloud as a means of raising their spirits, but does so within the context of a fiction narrative. This recreation of the artistically inclined prison guard’s routine serves to bookend an entirely fictional mid-section about a small-time scam artist who runs a fake employment agency and seeks meaning through the opera routine that he performs on his rooftop. The behaviour of the inhabitants of the crowded city slum in which The High Life is located is as morally questionable as it is economically desperate, but Zhao also finds evidence of the human spirit amid the urban squalor. Li Luo’s Rivers and My Father (2010) is beautifully shot in black and white and echoes the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the director weaves together a series of family recollections of childhood. The final third of this meditative experience consists of comments and criticism that Li’s father made about the film after seeing an early cut, a lovely touch that emphasises the manner in which memory is altered when filtered through the medium of cinema.

The other features were more clearly defined in terms of narrative, but were no less innovative or insightful. Liu Jian’s edgy animation Piercing (2009) takes place in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and follows the misfortune of a young man who loses his factory job and is then beaten up by supermarket guards after being mistaken for a thief. Although overly bleak at times, Piercing creates a credible world where bribery, poverty and police brutality work in tandem, and no good deed goes unpunished. Some much-needed humour was provided by Hao Jie’s hilarious Single Man (2010), which episodically explores the sexual activities of the bachelors of a small village. Hao works wonders with amateur actors and a scene in which the villagers gang up on a pair of tight-fisted watermelon buyers serves as both a comedic set-piece and a commentary on village mentality in situations of conflict. The only disappointment in the feature strand was Liu Yonghong’s Tangle (2009), a drab drama about a small-town traffic cop dealing with familial responsibilities. Yongshong served as cameraman on Li Yang’s Blind Shaft (2003), arguably one of the best films from mainland China in the past decade, but Tangle was less aesthetically and thematically sure-footed.

The documentary strand found filmmakers adopting a variety of perspectives – communal, environmental, individual and institutional – to examine modern China. Zhou Hao’s Cop Shop (2010) was at once remarkable and mundane; the filmmaker had managed to secure permission to shoot for 15 days in a police station in Guangzhou Railway Station, but the audience becomes as hardened to the daily grind as the officers that Zhou is documenting as they deal with petty disputes and repeatedly explain that they cannot help to secure train tickets. Chen Xinzhong’s deeply moving Red White (2009) chronicles the efforts of the survivors of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to overcome personal grief and rebuild their community; Chen picks up on personal approaches to dealing with tragedy (a Taoist worshipper tries to prevent another earthquake by comforting the spirits of the dead, an elderly man cuts hair in a makeshift salon to avoid dwelling on the loss of his grandson) but also considers how the town has been failed by the state in terms of preparing for such a disaster. Yang Yishu’s On the Road (2010) was filmed during the snowstorm that swept through Southern China in early 2009 and follows two truck drivers as they set off from Nantong to make a delivery in Guizhou, only to find that one road after another is closed due to treacherous weather conditions. A compelling study of how friendship is tested under pressure, On the Road captures the alternately dangerous and tedious nature of the drivers’ predicament as they navigate an increasingly risky route or take refuge from the storm in cheap motels. While each of these documentaries dealt with a microcosm of contemporary Chinese society, Guo Xiaolu’s superbly realised Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) is a comparatively sweeping state-of-the-nation study; 12 vignettes, including an old peasant who has lost his land, a weapon factory worker who wishes that Mao was still in charge, and a disillusioned flower-arranger in a high-class hotel, form a mosaic of modern China that considers the impact of economic reform on the individual.

The 7th China Independent Film Festival served to emphasise that alternative production in China is very much in a state of transition, moving from an ideologically charged ‘underground’ movement to a self-sustained ‘independent’ sector. Although still politicised, the sector is not only showing signs of the formation of its own industrial networks but an awareness of how to work around the state, rather than to stubbornly work against it. This is evident in the manner in which a wider political context was absent from many of the films and documentaries in the festival, although this presumptive measure to side-step the restrictions of SARFT is also a political statement in itself. Some of the films at CIFF had already secured DVD and VOD distribution in the United States, while Single Man was reportedly warmly received at San Sebastian in September and could be a contender for crossover success, but other titles are less likely to find screen time beyond the festival circuit. As such, it may seem perfectly reasonable to wish that this particular festival was able to enjoy more exposure, but in order to maintain the quality of the 2010 event, to continue to hide in plain sight seems like the more suitable strategy.

John Berra

The High Life: Interview with Zhao Dayong

The High Life (Image provided by CIFF)

Format: Cinema

Director: Zhao Dayong

Writer: Zhao Dayong

Cast: Xiu Hong, Liu Yanfei, Dian Qiu

China, 2010

93 mins

For more information on the film go to the Lantern Films website.

Screening as part of: 7th China Independent Film Festival

21-25 October 2010, Nanjing, China

For more information go to the CIFF website.

Zhao Dayong’s The High Life is an unflinching portrait of the human condition in the city streets and prison cells of Guangzhou, China, and it marks the director’s move into narrative cinema following two acclaimed documentaries, Street Life (2006) and Ghost Town (2008). Although the intersecting narratives of The High Life are entirely fictional, the casting of real-life prison guard and aspiring poet Dian Qiu as himself serves as a reminder of Zhao’s documentary roots, while Dian’s world-weary presence effectively bookends the film with a combination of authority and humanity. The mid-section is devoted to the story of Jian Ming, a small-time scam artist who takes advantage of migrant workers via his fake employment agency, creating a collage with the photos from their application forms on his apartment wall. Jian Ming’s life begins to unravel when he develops feelings for Xiao Ya, a young woman from the countryside who he has placed in a sleazy hair salon, and makes the mistake of becoming involved in an ill-fated pyramid scheme. The narrative strands inform, but do not necessarily impact on, one another, creating an authentic representation of one of Guangzhou’s most dilapidated districts. Zhao Dayong spoke to John Berra at the 7th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing.

JB: As you have a background in documentary filmmaking, why did you choose to feature the prison guard and poet Dian Qiu as a character in a fiction narrative rather than documenting his daily routine?

ZD: I chose to make a narrative feature because documentary is restrictive in that it has to respect reality. With fiction, you have the freedom of representation and can be more subjective. Because the prison guard is a symbol of power, it is more powerful to represent this character through fiction. Dian Qiu and I have been friends for a long time, I know him very well. Therefore, his real life gave me lots of inspiration. I combined his life with my original story about the slum and they became one movie. I originally had a story in which an outsider comes to this environment to find work and tries to survive. Although this story was in my mind for a long time, I decided that if the movie only told this story, it would not be interesting enough.

The film features two living spaces, the slum and the prison, and you make cultural and institutional comparisons between them.

Yes, they have similarities. Because this old slum is almost like a prison; it’s surrounded by high-rise buildings, which are like a prison wall. Within this space, the people are free, but it’s a superficial freedom because they have to deal with lots of invisible control. On the other hand, the prison is an enclosed space, too. The people within it, both the prisoners and the guards, are also oppressed. Dian Qiu tries to find ways to resolve his oppression; poetry is one way, conversation with the female prisoner is another.

The character of Jian Ming runs a fake employment agency and becomes involved in a pyramid scheme. How did you research this kind of illegal activity?

I was actually involved with MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) when I first came to Guangzhou, more specifically with Amway, which was a very famous MLM network back then. This was around 1995, in the early days of MLM. My friend invited me to a meeting and I saw some Westerners on the stage talking about ‘the legend of Amway’. I was told that I could earn millions within a year but I immediately said that it was all bullshit. However, I have since been fascinated by these events and I would later look for opportunities to go to them because I am always interested in the people who attend. They always look very serious, thinking that they will become millionaires the following day. The actor who plays Jian Ming has also been involved in MLM before, but he is now a chef in real life.

Did the police ever raid a meeting that you attended, as seen in The High Life?

I was involved when everything was legal. MLM was a pyramid scheme for selling real goods in 1995, so the police were not paying any attention to it. In recent years, MLM has become a scam. Therefore, the government has declared that MLM is no longer legal and sometimes the police will arrest people for engaging in such activities. However, they have managed to continue operating by changing their business description to ‘Direct Selling’, which is essentially the same activity, but considered legal.

I was wondering why Jian Ming puts the photos up on the wall of his apartment. Is it because of feelings of guilt from tricking these migrant workers? It seems that he could help these people to find jobs if he really applied himself as he recognises their potential and has a connection with them on some level.

You are too involved in the story! You can interpret this in many ways; you can interpret this as his achievement, you can also interpret this as his understanding of human beings. There are many storylines in the film, so it is also intended to mislead you.

The High Life is reflective of reality in that it does not have a big climax and certain stories, such as Jian Ming’s burgeoning relationship with Xiao Ya, are dropped just as they seem to become significant.

This is more real, because life is just like this, absurd, disordered and without reason. This film has four storylines and each story is an individual story. If I followed the Hollywood style, The High Life could be separated into four movies. But at some point, each storyline stops and transforms into another storyline, then a surprise ending appears. This represents the real world. The film also shows the goodness that is in the world, but the characters can never get hold of it. For example, Jian Ming and his lover are one step away from being happy together, but that storyline ends with separation. Jian Ming also looks for hope through his relationship with the girl in the salon.

But they are both on the bottom rung of the social-economic ladder, so they cannot help each other.

Yes, happiness always slips away. But misfortune can come at any time.

The character of Jian Ming evokes the film noir archetype of the small-time criminal on a downward spiral. Were you influenced by any Western genre films when writing the screenplay?

Not really. I watch very few films because my background is painting and I have not had any training in the field of filmmaking. The film is based on my life experiences and my observations of the world. I do not borrow from, or imitate, other filmmakers because I believe that my life experiences are sufficient for creative inspiration. It is important that a director is instinctive and intuitive; if someone has no instinct, he is not suited to being a director. Narrative filmmaking is very much related to documentary filmmaking. When you make a documentary, you observe and capture people in order to make a story from reality; you have to train yourself to unconsciously observe reality. I have always said that, if you want to make a feature film, you must make a documentary first.

The High Life has a richly textured aesthetic. How did you achieve such a striking visual style on a relatively low budget?

My background is in advertising and I work with a very good team. This film has cost 800,000 Chinese yuan. However, in order to achieve the same level of quality, other directors might need three or even five times that budget. People who have good resources are rather rare within the independent filmmaking sector in China. All my productions follow professional procedures. Although the budget is low, everything from the camerawork to the lighting, the set dressing, the editing and sound recording are all up to the same standard as a blockbuster so that the film can be shown in the cinema. But I am open-minded. If anyone asked me to make a commercial movie, either domestically or abroad, I would go for it as I would like to make commercial movies as well.

Interview by John Berra

Zipangu Fest

Man-Eater Mountain (Ero Guro anime)

Zipangu Fest

23-28 November 2010

London and Bristol

Zipangu Fest website

We are very excited about the forthcoming Zipangu Fest, a UK festival devoted to Japanese cinema curated by Jasper Sharp.

Here’s what they have on offer:

Zipangu Fest begins on Tuesday 23 November with a special event entitled Nippon Year Zero: Japanese Experimental Film from the 1960s-1970s, presented in collaboration with Close-Up at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. This retrospective programme will introduce audiences to the early Japanese avant-garde filmmaking scene with rare screenings of works by three landmark figures, Donald Richie, Motoharu Jonouchi and Masanori Oe, who captured the period they were an intrinsic part of, articulating themselves in ways that range from the poetic to the abrasive.

The festival officially gets underway on Wednesday 24 with the Zipangu Fest Opening Party at Café 1001 on Brick Lane, featuring the UK premiere of Pyuupiru 2001 – 2008, Daishi Matsunaga’s moving documentary charting the physical, psychological and artistic metamorphosis of the flamboyant transgender artist Pyuupiru. The evening will also feature a selection of shorts and a screening of Rackgaki: Japanese Graffiti, a documentary examining Japan’s explosive graffiti scene, and concludes with a set from London’s top Japanese DJ Tomoki Tamura + SUPERMETHOD.

The following evening, on Thursday 25, Zipangu Fest will continue at Café 1001 with the Live Tape ‘Live’ Night at Café 1001, a music-themed evening that sees the UK premiere of Rock Tanjo: The Movement 70s, a documentary looking at the birth of ‘New Rock’ in 1970s Japan featuring interviews and performances from bands including the Flower Travellin’ Band, and the UK premiere of Live Tape, the award-winning one-take concert film featuring singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno that has been making waves at festivals around the world. The festival’s special guest, Live Tape director Tetsuaki Matsue, will be in attendance to introduce his film, which will be followed by a live set by Maeno accompanied by Yuki Yoshida on the Chinese harp.

Friday 26 November sees Zipangu Fest moving to Genesis Cinema in Mile End where the main festival programme begins with Yuriko’s Aroma, Kota Yoshida’s humorous portrait of an aromatherapist besotted by the scent of a sweaty high‐schooler, and ends with the UK premiere of Gen Takahashi’s epic Confessions of a Dog, a gripping indictment of corruption within the Japanese police, as the closing film on Sunday 28th November.

Other UK premieres include Annyong Yumika, an innovative documentary homage to legendary Japanese pink film actress Yumika Hayashi who was mysteriously found dead after returning home from her 35th birthday celebrations, and the second title by Zipangu Fest special guest Tetsuaki Matsue, Love & Loathing & Lulu & Ayano, a revealing drama about exploitation and abuse in Japan’s Adult Video industry, directed by the infamous Hisayasu Sato, who will be in attendance to introduce the film; the all new Mutant Girls Squad, from Noboru Iguchi, director of the hits The Machine Girl and RoboGeisha; and Footed Tadpoles, a quirky coming-of-age drama from Tomoya Maeno.

Zipangu Fest is also proud to be presenting a selection of some of the finest in Japanese independent animation. The Zipangu Fest Ero Guro Mash Up Night features three nightmarishly morbid works in the ‘erotic grotesque’ tradition from the underground animators Hiroshi Harada and Naoyuki Niiya, while the Beyond Anime: CALF Animation programme features recent envelope-pushing works from Mirai Mizue, Kei Oyama, Atsushi Wada and TOCHKA.

Also featuring as part of the main programme are the Zipangu Retro screenings of two classic but very different titles rarely shown in the UK, Children of the Beehive (1948) and NN-891102 (1999). Directed by one of the masters of Japanese cinema, Hiroshi Shimizu, Children of the Beehive relates the journey of a group of war orphans (in real life all orphans taken in and raised by the director) as they are taken under the wing of a nameless soldier and set out across a shattered, postwar landscape in search of a more certain future. NN-891102, the debut feature by cult hero Go Shibata, depicts a traumatised Nagasaki survivor’s obsession with recreating the sound of the atomic bomb.

Following the festival, a selection of titles from the programme will be screened at the Arnolfini in Bristol, from Thursday 16 to Sunday 19 December. The Arnolfini programme consists of Annyong Kimchee, Children of the Beehive, Footed Tadpoles, Live Tape, NN-891102, Confessions of a Dog and a selection of shorts.

Full details and descriptions of the films and other events can be found on the Zipangu Fest website .

Raindance 2010: Japanese Strand


18th Raindance Film Festival

Sept 29 – Oct 10 2010, Apollo, London

Raindance website

Sarah Cronin reviews the Japanese strand of the 2010 Raindance festival. The review of Symbol is by Alex Pashby.

In past years, Raindance has always been a good place to discover independent, offbeat Japanese films, with highlights including films like Love Exposure, Kakera, Lalapipo, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers and Fine, Totally Fine. But in 2010, the Japanese strand proved to be something of a disappointment, the films – with a few exceptions – lacking imagination and flair. It’s difficult to know if this has merely been a bad year for Japanese films: Tony Rayns, in his preview for Sawako Decides, which showed at the London Film Festival, describes 2010 as ‘a year in which the creativity in Japanese mainstream cinema all but curled up and died’. The same might be true for independent cinema.

There was something quite sentimental about many of the films; one of the more watchable was Lost and Found, in which the ensemble cast learn a series of lessons about love and life as their paths cross at a train station’s lost and found department. It was a tender, warm-hearted film, if a little trite. Less successful was Lunar Child. Told in three parts, it’s a film about troubled women all seeking love in some form. Despite a promising, visually interesting first sequence, in which a lonely, unhappy woman finds shelter for the night in the home of an enigmatic man with a debilitating illness, the rest of the film lacked style and creativity. Interesting stories could have been taken further: Mizuki betrays her girlfriend for a meaningless fling; Hikari, dissatisfied with her married life, provides a home and money for a boy barely out of his teens, who prefers men to girls. But the film lacked any sense of style, the storytelling was flat and lethargic, the tone, again, mawkish. This seemed to be a common problem with several of the films: a failure to match style and technical skill with ideas.

Another film that suffered from a similar problem was Yellow Kid. Although it was one of the better films in the strand, and worth seeing, it just didn’t quite hold together as a whole. The paths of a nerdy, timid comic-book artist and one of his fans, a bullied and lonely young man, cross at a boxing gym, their lives becoming intertwined, until the boxer blurs the boundaries between real life and the comic-book world of his favourite super-hero, Yellow Kid. It was a compelling story about frustration, anger and revenge, not to mention love and obsession, but there was almost too much going on, leaving the film feeling jumbled and incoherent (although it’s a good idea to watch until the very end of the credits). While it had a fantastic animated title sequence, the mix of manga and live action never quite lived up to expectations.

There was something else that struck me when watching these films – an over-reliance on a certain type of male character that seems to litter Japanese cinema. Similar to the comic-book artist, Tanishi in Boys on the Run is painfully geeky, utterly timid and a total failure with women – the only ones he really comes into contact with are prostitutes. He is the quintessential Japanese nerd, and his object of desire the usual pretty, timid young woman, who falls for the wrong man – a smooth-talking salesman at a rival company that also sells vending machine toys. The film started off feeling like a sex comedy (although women will be scratching their heads at men’s mind-boggling stupidity), but it lost its way when it turned into a coming-of-age film as Tanishi, vainly, tries to stand up for himself.

One of the more likeable films was Lost Girl, a very low-key short film that slowly draws the viewer into the story of a once-successful chef suffering from bulimia after she poisons someone at her restaurant. Instead of the gourmet French food she once prepared, she stuffs her face full of junk food, while her husband, also a chef, does everything in his power to tempt her to eat more refined fare. It was an unusual melodrama, with something charmingly subversive to it, despite its flaws.

Three very different films really stood out at the festival: Autumn Adagio, USB and Symbol. Autumn Adagio was the more grown-up of the three; a nun, on the verge of menopause, rediscovers her sense of self and the world around her when she starts to play piano at a ballet academy. It was an intimate, elegant and lovingly told (if sentimental) story, with a terrific performance from the musician Rei Shibakusa.

USB opens with a loud, incessant buzzing sound, as white light flickers on a black background. Yuichiro, a slacker in his mid-20s, decides to go to medical school after the death of his father, a doctor; a submissive girlfriend needs more attention than he’s willing to give; a demented friend goes on the run with the daughter of a local gangster, who also has a chilling hold over Yuichiro. Meanwhile, warnings of low-level radiation are broadcast to the public after an accident at a nearby nuclear power site, and soon people are being paid large sums of money for mysterious clinical trials at the local hospital, and the source of the buzzing becomes clear. It was a great mix of drama tinged with sci-fi, and a subtle re-imagining of a post-nuclear disaster.

In Symbol, a Japanese man (actor/director Hitoshi Matsumoto) in clown-like pyjamas wakes up in a big white room with no discernable exit. Meanwhile an out-of-shape Mexican wrestler prepares for a match his family fears will leave him injured. Could the two be related? After railing against his captors for a bit, the Japanese man discovers a knob in the wall, presses it and is suddenly swarmed by thousands of CGI cupids. As the cupids recede, it turns out that the knob and the now thousands just like it are in fact stylised cupid genitalia. With nothing else to do, the man presses another cupid penis, a hatch opens in an opposite wall and a random object falls out. Hundreds of presses and objects later, a door appears in a wall before disappearing again quickly. Hilarious scenes ensue, including one that gives the audience an insight into the man’s thought processes in the style of a manga (for some reason in English), as he tries to use the various objects now at his disposal to press the right penis, reach the door in time and escape. Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s plays, Symbol is a very cheeky film with a great payoff, which makes the point that when it comes to what’s signified, one sign is as good as another. A definite highlight of the festival.

Read about the highlights of Raindance.

Sarah Cronin and Alex Pashby