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cinemas of possibility

dan edwards on new asian films in aff


Please Vote for Me Please Vote for Me
IT’S BECOME SOMETHING OF A CLICHÉ TO SAY THE MOST INTERESTING CINEMA IN THE PAST 15 YEARS HAS COME FROM ASIAN FILMMAKERS, BUT JUDGING BY THE SELECTION AT THIS YEAR’S ADELAIDE FILM FESTIVAL (AFF) THE WELLSPRING OF FERTILE IDEAS, INNOVATIVE STYLES AND DISTINCT SENSIBILITIES SHOWS NO SIGNS OF ABATING. KEY AUTEURS OF THE 1990S SUCH AS TSAI MING-LIANG GO FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH, WHILE A STEADY STREAM OF NEW DIRECTORS WORKING IN BOTH FEATURES AND DOCUMENTARIES PROVIDE INSIGHT INTO CULTURES MANY OF US STILL KNOW LITTLE ABOUT, WHILE CONTINUALLY PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES OF CINEMATIC FORM. AS THE SMALL SAMPLE OF THE AFF PROGRAM REVIEWED HERE SHOWS, IT’S NOT THE SENSE OF ANY COHERENT MOVEMENT THAT MAKES THESE FILMS SO EXCITING, BUT RATHER THE PLETHORA OF STYLES AND APPROACHES ON OFFER.

please vote for me

This extraordinary one-hour observational documentary by Chen Weijun looks at the introduction of democracy into a primary school classroom in Wuhan, central China. For the first time, the eight-year-old children are given a choice of three nominees for their class monitor, a position previously appointed by teacher’s decree.

The most charismatic of the three nominees is the chubby Cheng Cheng. By turns underhand, attractively roguish and endearingly vulnerable, he appears to be leading the race for most of the campaign. His main threat is Luo Lei, the son of a local police chief and a former class monitor with a reputation for violence and dictatorial rule that puts most of the children off. His parents aren’t going to let that stop him however, and when his campaign is going badly his father arranges for the entire class to take a free ride on the town’s new monorail, conveniently administered by the local police. The sweetest of the three candidates is Xu Xiaofei, the daughter of a single mother. Annihilated in pubic debates with the more aggressive boys, Xu is reduced to tears when Cheng’s supporters heckle during her first speech.

After a fortnight of speech-making, plotting, free monorail rides and constantly shifting alliances, the candidates make their final statements. Cheng delivers an outstanding performance and looks a shoe-in. In contrast, Luo’s speech is short, abrupt and distinctly unconvincing. But in a stunningly savvy political move reminscent of our own Prime Minister’s Machiavellian cunning, Luo ends by giving individual gifts (provided by his parents) to every child in the class, ostensibly for the following day’s Autumn festival. As an appalled Cheng looks on, Luo is swept to power in a landslide minutes later.

It would be comforting to think Please Vote for Me is about the birth pangs of democracy in a nation that has never known such a concept, and the film does reveal much about the changing face of Chinese society. Cheng sells himself, for instance, as “a manager, not a dictator.” The immense pressure placed on the kids also reflects the repercussions of the one-child policy for a generation of Chinese children. But Chen’s film is so funny and frightening for viewers in the West primarily because it correlates so closely with our own experience of democracy. The blatant manipulation of political players and voters alike is laid bare, and made all the more disturbing for being enacted by children unselfconsciously taking their cues from adults. Please Vote for Me is a small gem which will hopefully get exposure well beyond the AFF.

i don’t want to sleep alone

On the drama front, the AFF was fortunate to have all seven of the films commissioned by Peter Sellars in his role as director of Vienna’s New Crowned Hope Festival. Several of these films were by key Asian auteurs.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone sees Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang working in his birthplace of Malaysia for the first time, but retaining his trademark narrative minimalism, long takes and fixed frames. The film traces the quietly intense emotional ties that develop between a Chinese-Malay domestic helper and two labourers (one Malay, the other Bangladeshi) living in Kuala Lumpur. Tsai’s stories demand a particular kind of meditative engagement, developing through subtle shifts in the interpersonal relations between characters, and the characters’ relationship to their environment. What initially feels like narrative inertia becomes a slow build towards a breathtakingly moving finale. Tsai’s earlier films such as The River saw his characters trapped in a prison of alienation, but I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone holds out the possibility that meaningful connections are possible—even if they are always fraught with emotional risks.

syndromes and a century

Quite different in style and tone, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century represented one of the AFF’s most startling experiences. The film begins in a rural Thai hospital, tracing various relationships and emotional cross-currents through a meandering narrative as languid as the tropical setting. After a time, the story unexpectedly starts again, this time in an urban environment. Reflecting the more nervous, dispersive energy of the city, this time the tale takes a more fragmentary course involving many more characters, culminating in a series of puzzling final shots in which the narrative disappears altogether.

Weerasethakul constantly undercuts any sense of forward motion, evacuating all narrative drive with a creeping entropy that sees his characters drifting apart almost as soon as they meet. Yet Syndromes and a Century also displays a distinct lightness of touch and an attractively good-natured quality, creating a unique combination of narrative dispersal with a strangely uplifting tone. The result is so unlike anything I’ve seen before it’s hard to say more after only one look, except to concur with the Special Mention afforded the film by the AFF Jury for its “sheer beauty and radical approach to cinema.” An intriguing work that demands multiple viewings.

feet unbound

Two films at the AFF that were flawed but deserving of mention were Feet Unbound, the debut documentary by Perth-based Singaporean Khee-jin Ng, and How is Your Fish Today?, directed by the UK-based Chinese novelist and filmmaker Guo Xiaolu.
Feet Unbound sees director Ng tracking down six women who took part in the Chinese Communist’s Long March of the mid-1930s, contrasting their stories with a present day retracing of their steps by a young Beijing journalist named Elly. Unfortunately Elly’s presence is somewhat detrimental to the film: we never really get a sense of her investment in the Long March and she comes across as a somewhat superficial character. But the vigour of the ageing women is truly inspiring. It’s a moving testament to their toughness and will to survive that they have managed to outlive their tormentors—‘friends’ and foes alike—and tell their stories with such vitality and force.

how is your fish today?

How is Your Fish Today? is a strange, Pirandello-like work focussing on the rather banal life of Beijing scriptwriting Hui Rao, who ‘plays’ himself on screen. All of his film scripts have been banned by the censor, so Hui makes a living writing TV soaps. He escapes his solitary existence by living vicariously through one of his characters, who is fleeing across China in a script inspired by long-running TV series, The Fugitive. How is Your Fish Today? is an odd mix of documentary, hesitant drama and essayistic self-reflection, although it’s unclear how much of the scriptwriter’s situation is based on his real life. The film is certainly intriguing, but undermined by the fact that Hui ultimately seems to have very little to say, other than expressing a rather common place desire to escape his mundane daily routine. But perhaps this is the film’s point—more than anything it seems to be about the frustration of longing for transcendence through art, but remaining firmly grounded through sheer lack of talent.

The films mentioned here represent only a fraction of the quality works on offer in Adelaide this year. Over the course of three festivals, director Katrina Sedgwick and her team have built one of the most innovative film programs in the country—a selection that places unusual, eye-opening works by emerging talents alongside the latest features from cinema’s contemporary masters. On both counts, the endlessly diverse works coming from Asia continue to challenge audiences’ conceptions of what cinema can be.


Adelaide Film Festival, director Katrina Sedgwick; Adelaide, various venues,
Feb 22-March 4

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 17

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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