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Digital grit: SAPFF translations

Kirsten Krauth


Devils on the Doorstep Devils on the Doorstep
At the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival (SAPFF), at a seminar on digital filmmaking in Asia, an older man was getting increasingly agitated in front of me. As filmmakers Garin Nugroho (Indonesia), Im Sang Soo (Korea) and Richard Harris (Australian Screen Directors Association) debated the technical merits of digicam, he suddenly charged out into the aisle and yelled “Asia’s killing off people all over the place. You don’t give a damn!” as he left. Harris quickly quipped “he’s our resident performance artist” but it did remind us of the racism and sense of anger directed at certain groups in our community that has overflowed in the last month. Why was he there? What answers did he want? He certainly missed the point of the forum; many of the participating filmmakers at the festival do give a damn—about the lingering effects of wars and violence—in Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, China.
The wonderful thing about SAPFF is its insistence on showing films from as many countries in the Asia-Pacific region as possible. Not content with just Hong Kong action genre, the screenings this year exploded the notion of ‘Asian cinema.’ It just doesn’t exist. There was as much variety amongst these films as any other cinema around the world: comedy, chaos and martial arts in Shaolin Soccer (Hong Kong), newly restored The Man From Hong Kong (Australia) and Chicken Rice War (Singapore); black comedies Devils on the Doorstep (China) and Space Travellers (Japan); reflections on passions and violence in Mirror Image (Taiwan), Tears (Korea), A Poet (Indonesia), This Is My Moon (Sri Lanka), Wharf of Widows (Vietnam) and Woman on a Tin Roof (Philippines); and a documentary on laying high speed internet cable in the Cambodian Land of Wandering Souls. A new entrée on the menu was Short Soup, a competition open to short films made by or about Asian-Australians; the winning films screened on
SBS’s Eat Carpet.

The difficulties and joys of translation permeated the festival’s films and seminars. At the seminar, both Nugroho and Soo had translators (who incidentally weren’t acknowledged—should they always be invisible?). It was a long, often tedious, sometimes unexpected, sometimes funny Q & A; you can translate words but not necessarily meaning in our technology driven world. The translators often didn’t seem to understand the technical terms associated with digital filmmaking and cinema theory. It was a subtle game of give and take with more questions than answers. It was great to hear those who understood Korean exclaim in joy at Im Sang Soo’s answers while the rest of us sat waiting (this happened throughout the screenings too when the subtitles were dodgy). Soo is a cool dude, laid-back, sunglasses, in rebel pose. He says that his film Tears was aimed as revenge at all the producers who’d knocked him back for financing—he put more graphic sex and violence in. His translator at this point is hesitant about talking dirty: “it’s his word, not my
word” she emphasises.

Tears uses 3 digicams to capture the spontaneity of life on the streets for homeless teenagers in Seoul. The cameras were often hidden from the performers, waiting, ready to pounce. This sense of the unexpected gives life to a gutsy film reminiscent of Larry Clarke’s Kids. Use of non-actors (kids picked up at a local nightclub) adds to the grit. Soo argues that the digital camera is so small that “no-one thinks ‘this is a camera…I have to be an actor.’ On the street no-one realises you’re making a film, you get free extras.” General audience reaction to Tears was poor in Korea; its target market, teenagers, were restricted from seeing it, but the ones who snuck in, not surprisingly, loved it.

Nugroho sees the digital format as more democratic, economical and flexible, but believes there needs to be greater discipline because of the ease of getting footage. He explained that Indonesian cinemas screen digital/local films because Hollywood films have become too expensive to import. Cinemas are closing everywhere due to lack of choice. It’s hard to imagine his film A Poet having a screening there. Based on the writings of Ibrahim Kadir, a didong poet from Gayo, Central Aceh, the film was shot in 6 days in long takes, recreating events of 1965 when the Indonesian military imprisoned suspected members of the Communist Party. Non-actors—Kadir and villagers who actually experienced the terror—appear in the film which is set in one location, the interior of a prison. An estimated half a million (probably more) people were murdered. The film is shot in eloquent black and white, gliding from closeup to closeup of prisoners’ faces as they wait for their names to be called. There’s remarkable use of language and chanting as the camera captures rituals from above—encircled clapping and singing about meeting first loves, a wedding song and dance repeated—stories told and heard many times, enriched by the re-telling. The men and women are separated but can make each other out through a tiny peephole. Women prepare meals for the men in front of the prison bars. We never see the torture or death but it’s made real in the calling of names, the cries at night, the gradually emptying prison cell and Kadir’s daily duty of tying the ropes to close the sacks over people’s heads, as they are led out into darkness to be “hacked up like banana logs.” Kadir wrote the film’s poem-songs in prison. He was later told he had been mistakenly incarcerated, one of the few surviving witnesses.

Prisoners in sacks are also a feature of another stunner, Devils on the Doorstep (Jiang Wen), which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000. It is an unforgettable blend of farce, sly humour, ethical dilemmas and jaw-clenching violence packed into 139 minutes in crisp black and white. It’s 1945 and children in a northern Chinese village line up for sweets from a man on horseback leading an army band playing a jaunty tune of Japanese invasion. This tune will come back to haunt us later. The opening 5 minutes—shots of feet twisting during love-making, a gun in the mouth, knives thrust through paper thin bedroom walls—reveal Devils to be not the usual ‘Red Sorghum-Chinese Lantern’ softcore Chinese film we’re used to seeing. An anonymous messenger delivers 2 sacks with the instructions that they will be collected in a few days. The sacks contain 2 men, a Japanese army officer and his translator (who is Chinese). If anything happens to them, the entire village will be killed. So, we are introduced to an eccentric mix of beautifully moulded characters. Again, the notion of translation is at the heart of the film’s success with exquisite, finely tuned dialogue. The Japanese officer wants to die and screams abuse at his gentle captors, saying that he will rape and murder their women. His companion wisely translates everything he says as a plea for mercy. The officer wants to learn swear words that he can hurl. The translator teaches him “you are my grandfather I am your son happy new year” which the officer then screams repeatedly to the bemused villagers who appreciate the words but can’t quite understand the delivery. The translator explains that Japanese sound the same whether they are angry or happy. The film is full of such delicate balancing acts in a world that gradually disintegrates into madness. The final half hour is one of the most shocking 30 minutes I’ve experienced in cinema, a surreal, gruesome parallel to films like Apocalypse Now, revealing just how far the minds of men can bend to unimaginable actions during war.

SAPFF is one of the rare festivals that manages to successfully balance popular hits like Shaolin Soccer with the real treasures touched upon above. Overall the quality of films was outstanding and it was a shame that some, like A Poet, didn’t manage to get the audiences they deserved. Its portrayal of a peaceful Islamic community caught up in the violence of an extremist military is particularly relevant right now as a message to those in our community who are braying for blood and targeting Muslims with their hatred. Festivals like SAPFF contribute to an awareness that it’s useless to use blanket terms to define people who live in other countries, let alone simply characterising them as ‘Asian’ or ‘Middle Eastern’. I wish the agitated man in the opening paragraph had stuck around to see A Poet. He might have learned something.


Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival, directors Juanita Kwok & Paul de Carvalho, Reading Cinemas, Sydney, August 9-18; Center Cinema, Canberra, August 23-26

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 20

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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