2001 Vancouver International Film Festival

If youÕre looking for a film festival where you can schmooze and party, Cannes and Toronto are good bets. If you simply want a preview of the next few monthsÕ arthouse releases, New YorkÕs very own festival should suffice. The Vancouver International Film Festival offers something much different from either model: a 16-day extravaganza featuring hundreds of films, with a concentration on documentaries, Canadian and East Asian cinema. (Competitions are held in all three categories. Last yearÕs winner of the Dragons and Tigers competition for best first or second film by an Asian director, TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER, went on to play Cannes and get acquired by Miramax.) Refreshingly, the VIFF treats the U.S. as just another element in a cosmopolitan, multicultural mixture, rather than padding its line-up with Sundance also-rans and bad Hollywood premieres.

A little more than a month after the World Trade Center attack, the air quality in New York is still foul, so the fresh air of Vancouver was refreshing, although I didn't see much of the city beyond the downtown area where my hotel and four of the screening rooms were located. (The other screening room I made it to was in a mall on the edge of Chinatown, a really bizarre place to see a Takashi Miike film or documentary about Jang Sun-woo.) The absence of flags in every window and storefront was also a relief.

Notable differences between Manhattan and Vancouver:
1)No one jaywalks or disobeys pedestrian traffic signs. Not even at 2 AM with no cars in sight for three blocks.
2)I'm not admitting anything, but it sure is easy to get a free ride on the SkyTrain system with no one noticing.
3)Every street hot dog vendor sells veggie dogs in addition to turkey and beef, an innovation I'd like to see in New York.

However, the fabled Canadian politeness melts away at the baggage claim carousel, where it was every man (and woman) for himself.

The complete list of films I saw:

SUDDENLY NAKED (Anne Wheeler, Canada) **
THE ROAD TO THE RACETRACK (Jang Sun-woo, South Korea, 1991)
SEAFOOD (Zhu Wen, China) ***
JUST DO IT (Park Dae-Young, South Korea) ***
VISITOR Q (Takashi Miike, Japan) *1/2
THE OPRHAN OF ANYANG (Wang Chao, China) **1/2
CYBERMAN (Peter Lynch, Canada) ***
THE JANG SUN-WOO VARIATIONS (Tony Rayns, South Korea) ***1/4
GOAT'S LOVER (Shin Han-so, South Korea) {S}
SERIOUS BATTLE (Boo Sung-Chul, South Korea) {S}
THE LAND OF LOOK BEHIND (Alan Greenblatt, USA/Jamaica, 1982)
THE BANK (Robert Connelly, Australia) ***
WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France) ***1/4
A SKIN TOO FEW - THE DAYS OF NICK DRAKE (Jeroen Berlevens, the Netherlands) {M} **1/2
SONIC CINEMA: SPARKLEHORSE (Guy Maddin, Cariné Tarossian, Danny Clinch, Braden King, Grant Gee, Jem Cohen, Peter Ortell, the Brothers Quay, Rodney Asher and Scott Minor, USA/UK/Canada) ***
KICK THE MOON (Kim Sang-jin, South Korea) ***1/2
PARALLEL WORLDS (Petr Vaclav, Czech Republic) ***
BANG RAJAN (Thanit Jitnukul, Thailand) **
/TIME OUT/ (Laurent Cantet, France) ****

Programmed by British critic Tony Rayns, this yearÕs Asian selection was particularly strong. The best film I saw for the first time at the festival, Korean director Kim Sang-JinÕs KICK THE MOON, mined a vein of gleeful excess. As in ATTACK THE GAS STATION, Kim has a real knack for staging massive brawls of comically excessive proportions. (D-12 should have hired him to direct their WARRIORS homage/rip-off "Fight Music" video.) In between the fights that open and close KICK THE MOON, there's a touching love triangle between a tough teen-turned-teacher, a geek-cum-gangster boss and the noodle shop owner they're both attracted to. Through a fight for control over four of the teacher's students, he and the gangster develop a symbiotic, borderline-homoerotic connection. Like ATTACK THE GAS STATION, KISS THE MOON functions both as a raucous comedy and an allegory suggesting that Korean society is a gigantic bullies' pissing contest. In this case, Kim's the winner: it's the best of the many recent Korean films I've seen in 2001. In much the same spirit, JUST DO IT applied a razor's edge to family life, combining broad laughs with a careful eye for composition and a lacerating view of what economic desperation can do to morality.

Rayns himself contributed an estimable  documentary. Intended for DVD release (and already divided into chapter headings), THE JANG SUN-WOO VARIATIONS is an admirably thorough treatment of the Korean directorÕs work. Interviewing a wide variety of people (from critics, filmmakers to a Buddhist monk and street passers-by who've seen LIES), Rayns' film lives up to its title, proposing a view of the man and his films as essentially contradictory. THE JANG SUN-WOO VARIATIONS is itself dialectical, filling the screen with CD-ROM-style boxes. Examining Jang's attitudes towards sex (including much discussion of the rape scenes in A PETAL and TIMELESS, BOTTOMLESS BAD MOVIE), politics and religion, THE JANG SUN-WOO VARIATIONS is an excellent example of film criticism made in the same medium, rather than an ordinary DVD-supplement puff piece.

A documentary about inventor, University of Toronto teacher and self-proclaimed cyborg Steve Mann, CYBERMAN shares Errol Morris' fascination with eccentric tinkerers, although its style (incorporating split screens and views from Mann's "eye-tap" camera) is quite different. Essentially, Mann walks around viewing the world through a pair of glasses that filter it through computer images. While Lynch rarely passes overt judgment on Mann's anti-surveillance theorizing or rants about the liberating potential of his own uses of technology, CYBERMAN ultimately raises a troubling set of questions. In an overmediated world where advertising and surveillance cameras are everywhere, is it possible to escape? Or should one fight the Panopticon with its own tools? At times, Mann's use of his cameras is genuinely creative and progressive, as when he and his students observe police brutality at a political protest and instantly broadcast the footage on the Internet. At others, his reliance on them - especially when with his family or in nature - seems pathetic. Lynch could have gone a bit further in exploring these conundrums, as well as the paradox of filming a man who films his entire life himself, but CYBERMAN remains a memorable character study.

A SKIN TOO FEW - THE DAYS OF NICK DRAKE, a Dutch biography of the brilliant English singer/songwriter who became a legend by overdosing (probably intentionally) on antidepressants at age 26  and recently found posthumous fame via VW ads' use of his song "Pink Moon", offers some moving interviews with his sister and late parents, along with a revealing look at the arrangements and mixing of his albums. However, it adds little to the Drake legend: if he ever had a love life or any happy moments in his final 3 years, we don't hear about it in this film. His family and friends simply confirm that he was intensely depressed, as if anyone who's heard PINK MOON couldn't tell you that. Additionally, the lack of footage available from  Drake's lifetime - he only toured once - means that Berlevens often scrambles to find images to match Drake's songs or accompany the interview soundtrack.

I caught two very different would-be cult films: THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT and TEENAGE HOOKER BECAME KILLING MACHINE IN DAEHAKNO. THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT isn't bad, but it wastes the promise of its first few reels, which literally dramatize the concept that men are from Mars and women from Venus (actually, if memory serves, men are from Jupiter or the asteroid belt). Full of incidental pleasures and amusing musical numbers, it never quite adds up to a satisfying feature. Still, "They're soft and round. Go back to work." is a .sig line for the ages. TEENAGE HOOKER felt even more padded, even at a scant hour's length. Sure, the English-language title suggests a a Japanese B-movie along the lines of WHEN THE FETUS GOES POACHING or GO! GO! SECOND-TIME VIRGIN. The film itself offers little titillation unless you're fond of endless scenes of girls walking around posing to Massive Attack. (The so-hip-it-hurts soundtrack also includes lots of opera, Sun Ra and Primal Scream.) Frustratingly, TEENAGE HOOKER is full of pleasurable elements - shot and shown on video, it makes gorgeous use of the medium's tendency to distort bright colors by using lighting to create glowing pools of yellow, green or red - but even at an hour, it feels like a distended music video. Until Nam learns something about storytelling, he would be better off sticking to shorts.

Far from concentrating only on art films, the festival also offered some examples of bad commercial cinema. (JUST DO IT and KICK THE MOON were examples of good commercial cinema.)  Hometown heroine Anne Wheeler's Vancouver-shot SUDDENLY NAKED probably deserves some credit for depicting a May/December romance from the point of view of a middle-aged, hard-drinking female writer. However, while the script has moments of wit, Wheeler's film is less cinematic than the average SEX AND THE CITY episode, while her characters are equally insufferable. BANG RAJAN proved that Thais can make numbing action movies just as badly as Americans. Coming a few days after the bombing of Afghanistan, its nationalism and endless violence really rubbed me the wrong way.

This year, the festival offered three films from the prolific Takashi Miike: DEAD OR ALIVE 2, ICHI THE KILLER and VISITOR Q. Unfortunately, I was only able to see VISITOR Q. If I hadn't seen AUDITION first, I would've been absolutely baffled by the buzz around Miike, but any director who makes 3 or 4 films a year is bound to screw up sometimes. A witless exercise in bad taste, VISITOR Q takes inspiration from TEOREMA, showing a mysterious stranger - with a penchant for hitting people in the head with rocks - liberating a family through transgressive acts ranging from the harmless - lactation and female ejaculation - to the utterly repulsive. Suffice it to say that heroin and necrophilia play their role in maintaining family togetherness. As satire, this paled next to JUST DO IT. As fi...actually, videomaking, it was incredibly ugly, full of bleeding colors  and so much grain that I wondered if my glasses needed washing. In general, the Tinseltown theater's video projection looked abysmal, but this was by far the worst.

Adapted from a novel by its director, the much-lauded THE OPRHAN OF ANYANG is something close to a generic 6th-Generation Chinese film, complete with lots of master shots, little camera movement, socially marginal characters (gangsters, a street bicycle repairman, a hooker) and mood of sullen depression. Wang offers a fairly well-crafted version of all this, but if you've been to many film festivals, you've probably seen the same basic material before. Weirdly, I kept thinking that it was the Chinese equivalent of an American film like THE SCORE: a well-executed but rather bland genre exercise. I'm probably alone in this, but I preferred SEAFOOD,  whose major merit is its unpredictability. My opinion of it kept shifting every reel, and not until the end - when I realized exactly what it was trying to accomplish - did I finally decide I liked it. Starting off as an exercise in could-be Taiwanese alienation shot in a Dogme style, it then morphs into a minimalist romantic comedy between a suicidal prostitute and the equally fucked-up cop who thinks he can save her. Then he rapes her, cutting the laughter short. Yet the film shies away from complete nihilism, daring to veer towards optimism in the long run. For once, the side effects of its video origin  actually help SEAFOOD: the bleached colors are utterly evocative of its location, a resort filmed in dead winter.

I saw THE MAD SONGS OF FERNANDA HUSSEIN the day before the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, and while it seemed quite politically relevant beforehand, it looked  all the more valuable in retrospect. Six months ago, its montage of Gulf War memorabilia and war toys might have been funny;  now that flagwaving and "these colors don't run" T-shirts are ubiquitous, it was maddening.  Like a lot of genuinely independent American films, MAD SONGS is often amateurishly acted and written, although it's beautifully shot. While Harvard Film Archive programmer Gianvito has quite an eye, he's not much of a director of actors, and the less he  likes a character, the more grating their dialogue becomes. (It would help if he introduced a pro-war character who's not a complete idiot.) Weaving together several stories (a Latina woman who was married to an Arab man discovers that her children have disappeared, a teenager winds up homeless because of his anti-war activism and then joins a peace group, a Gulf War vet returns home to a life of menial labor and endless questions about "How many Iraqis did you kill?"), it never quite comes together or resolves the tension between its narrative and non-narrative elements, but the fragments ultimately build towards a gesture of hope, compassion and community. For all its flaws, this is the kind of politically and formally daring work that American indie cinema ought to stand for, rather than vapid Hollywood calling cards. It says a lot about the VIFF's strengths that they could pluck a worthwhile, unheralded film even from my own backyard.