SFIFF54 New Directors Program – Asian Cinema Edition

The following article showcases the Asian films that were ‘in competition’ and ‘out of competition’ for the 54th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival New Directors Prize awarded to ‘first and second-time directors emerging on the international scene.’  The sole omission from this article is Aamir Bashir’s Autumn (2010) whose screenings we were not able to attend.  In all, this year’s filmmakers are an excellent crop of first-timers and up-and-coming second-timers who offered up a great variety of genres, themes, and moods. 

In Competition

The High Life (2010)

Survival is the name of the game in Zhao Dayong’s The High Life.  Effectively two stories set in the parallel worlds of the Guangzhou province slums and a prison, the film looks at those on the lower rungs of Chinese society.  Jian Ming (Liu Yanfei) is a one-bit hustler who swindles rural migrants looking for work.  He lives in a small dank apartment with his girlfriend in a broken down area of the city where many dream of  upward mobility into “the high life”.  One such person is Little Ya, an 18 year old woman who Jian takes a liking to, but whom is also admired by the local mob boss.  Jian becomes swept up in a police raid of an “advanced product forces” seminar, a thinly veiled euphemism for a pyramid scheme which segues into the second part of the film, set in a prison in which one guard’s (Dian Qiu) idea of prisoner rehabilitation involves the reading of his “trash poetry.”

The High Life is an interesting film in its combination of gritty realism and artier sensibilities, a combination that sometimes succeeds and other times fails.  The films that came to my mind, albeit probably on a tonal level, were Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher series (1996, 2004, 2005) with their effective use of seedy locales and locals (Dian Qiu, for example,  is essentially playing himself) to push the realism.  In fact, much as Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver was a documentary of ’70s New York City, The High Life is also a picture of  Guangzhou in an era past; the city has since undergone mass redevelopment and gentrification projects.   Zhao’s background as a documentary director is evident by these points, but he also shows his artistic influence through keen use of lighting.  In this respect, the luxuriously neon pink lighting of the beauty salon where Jian sends Little Ya to work is particularly noteworthy.

Though the two story threads in The High Life at times feel at odds with each other in both tone and style, Zhao’s tale of urban redemption makes him, at the very least, a name to keep an eye on.

Check out this interview with The High Life director Zhao Dayong conducted by our very own John Berra on Electric Sheep.

The Journals of Musan (2010)

Park Jung-bum’s The Journals of Musan shares its themes of redemption with Zhao Dayong’s work, but uses a completely different perspective.  Seung-chul, played by the director himself, is a North Korean defector who is escaping a dark past and struggling with his new life in Seoul.   He gains employment sticking up posters for what appears to be a porno company, but owners of businesses on which he sticks posters are constantly running him off.  His affection for Sook-young (Kang Eun-jin), a woman who attends the same church, leads him to find employment at a karaoke booth she also works at.  Meanwhile his roommate and fellow North Korean Gyoung-chul (Jin On-yok) starts a brokerage with his uncle, transporting cash back to North Korean families.  When Gyoung-chul’s uncle is captured in China with the money, both Gyoung-chul and Seung-chul are forced on the run.

The Journals of Musan continues along the line of stories whose protagonists are voices previously unheard by voices.  Though many audiences will point out that the film is not unlike the immigrant experiences in their own countries, e.g. the Mexican and South American experience in the United States, it’s important to note some cultural differences.  The “125” in Seung-chul’s, as well as other defectors’, national identification number is like a scarlet letter, marking the holder nearly unemployable for all but the most menial of tasks.  Also of cultural note is the mention of Hanawon, a South Korean resettlement and rehabilitation program set up for North Korean defectors to help their integration into South Korean society.

Cultural notes aside, The Journals of Musan is a fascinating film, but one whose downbeat tone may be a little oppressive to some.  Based on a true story about a friend of the director’s (his intimacy with the character led to the decision to cast himself as the beleaguered Seung-chul), the film really pulls no punches as to how immigrant life can be in a country of otherwise privilege.

(Editor’s note: As of 05/04/11, we are happy to report that Park Jung-bum’s The Journals of Musan was the winner of this year’s New Directors prize.  Congratulations to Mr. Park who won $15,000 for his effort)

Out of Competition

End of Animal (2010)

Jo Sung-Hee’s End of Animal takes an interesting “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to its story.  The film immediately brought to mind Takuya Fukushima’s Our Brief Eternity (2009) for its modern day, post-apocalyptic setting and themes of societal breakdown and its ability to present all of this to the viewer with a seemingly modest budget.  End of Animal follows the trials and tribulations of  Soon-young (Lee Min-Ji), a young pregnant woman, who has left personal tragedy behind to give birth and raise her child.  On a shared cab ride back to her parents’, the other passenger turns out to have some sort of supernatural powers that throw the entire world into peril.  Soon-young is then forced to discover how her shattered past can help her traverse this new world she’s been forced into.  End of Animal of is a confounding, genre-jumping feature that throws dark humor, scares, thrills at its audience with only its languid pacing at fault.  At first, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of its seemingly brainy themes, but it’s best to just let the film happen and enjoy the ride Jo’s film gives you.

Year Without a Summer (2010)

“I want to go to Malaysia,” was the first thing I thought while watching Year Without a Summer, so strong and beautiful were the images that second-time feature director Tan Chui Mui (Love Conquers All, 2006) and cinematographer Teo Gay-hian captured for the film.  A seemingly nostalgic piece, Year Without a Summer involves the reunion of two long time friends who grew up in a small Malaysian fishing town together.  Azam, one of the two men, has returned from a career in Kuala Lumpur and confides in his old friends Ali and his wife Minah about his past and what has been lost from the past.  The friends’ lives are intertwined with the natural and boyhood fantasy world around them.  Year Without a Summer is an very meditative, peaceful film, but like all meditation sessions I’ve ever had, there’s a chance of being lulled to sleep.  At least you will have lucid dreams about the beautiful tropics of Malaysia, though.

All stills courtesy of The San Francisco Film Society