PIFFing Around – 2008 Pusan International Film Festival

In a previous post on the Cannes Film Festival, I had written a similar preview. I wrote of the films that I would most probably watch given a free pass to the event itself. This time, for the 13th edition of the Pusan International Film Festival, I will do almost exactly the same thing. The only difference is, I will actually be going to the film fest itself, and have a realistic chance of catching the movies that I am about to write of here. Hopefully, time-permitting and with the grace of Allah, I will be able to write some updates while I’m at the festival itself. However, it is also far more likely that I will spend the days and the nights trawling around town, taking in as many movies as I can while enjoying the general festival itself.

Not unlike the Cannes posts, as I trawl through the entire list of films, I realise that whittling them down to a handful of films is tricky. After all, there is a total of roughly 300 films on offer. Not making things easier is the decision to lump all of the films here together: feature, short, documentary, animation, music videos, and what have you.

Useful, then, to explain the guidelines first. For this preview, I have limited myself to only 20 films, though it is not ordered in any order of preference. In an attempt to make it easier, I have removed the films that I had also profiled in the Cannes posts, which meant that though they’re not here, I am still keen on ‘Parking’ and ‘My Magic’.

I will also not include Malaysian films in this particular post. Don’t think that I am not interested, however; if anything, I am most keenly anticipating both Yasmin Ahmad’s ‘Muallaf’ and Azharr Rudin’s ‘Punggok Rindukan Bulan’. ‘SELL OUT!’ have also won some awards, and I’ve heard of good things of Charlotte Lim, so I’ll be looking forward to these as well. I’ll write a special review on the Malaysians in Pusan later on.

Hanks's wait for Zeta-Jones continues.
Hanks’s wait for Zeta-Jones continues.

Beginning with in comfortable surroundings, Make Yourself at Home has the distinction, out of all the films here, to be the closing film of the festival. That alone caught my attention, but it is also its subject matter (that of cultural differences and similarities) that sealed the deal for me. I am not overly familiar with Sohn Soo-pum, whose works have been shown at previous Pusan as well as Cannes festivals as well. I am, however, far more familiar with Song Hye-kyo. This admiration, though, is based more on her beauty rather than her acting chops. Though I am not criticising her straight away with this, I am conscious that her roles thus far has not stretched her too much, beyond the bread-and-butter of TV dramas and a sprinkling of stereotypical movie roles. This is the first role that sounds like it would challenge her (a mysterious bride who wants to avoid shamanism), and, being set in America (the tale is one of Koreans in America), it shows how expanding her horizons are. Whether the results are as interesting will be one to watch out for.

The same thing can’t quite be said for Adela, the story of Adela who celebrates her 80th birthday alone. While, on the face of it, there is nothing too special about the particular synopsis, it does bring to mind a project I am (sort of) working on, which deals with the theme of loneliness and old age. In fact, one could say that it is a relatively common theme amongst a lot of the ‘indie’ fares that is on offer, both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, when it is well done, it remains one of the most compelling themes on offer, and for me at least, this is one ‘lonely’ film to watch out for.

From the one woman show to the one man show. However, Captain Abu Raed sounds anything but lonely. It tells of a janitor who works at an international airport. With one swoop of someone’s pen (presumably), the skies changed, the birds chirped, and everyone else thought that the janitor is a pilot. Instead of mopping the floor dry, he now has the chance to live out his dream and travel to see the world. This film caught my attention some time ago, having won at at the Sundance festival way back when (and if you check out the poster, there are so many of the leafy logos of various international festivals that it had attended that you’d be mistaken it for a snapshot of Eden). With such pedigree, and an interesting plot, I reckon that it’ll be a big winner with the Korean audiences as well.

Boogie hit Van Damme a little late.
Boogie hit Van Damme a little late.

Taiwan can also be classified as a staple at Pusan as well. Each year sees a smattering of entries from China’s perpetual missile target, and Edward Yang has been honoured at Pusan posthumously. Orz Boys! sounds like it will carry on the tradition just fine. When two young boys are punished for their behaviour and sent to work at the library after school, they…don’t. Instead, a turn of events sees them discovering a portal that turns them into adults immediately. I personally like watching little kids in films, because there is always the instant ‘cute’ factor that people will definitely like. I am also interested to see how the changing into adults would be shown on-screen as well. I don’t identity Taiwanese films with too many CGIs, so perhaps a more simple approach will be taken. Time, hopefully, will tell.

I wish that I could tell you a bit more about the film Empty Chair as well. As it stands, the synopsis is consisted of merely these two sentences: “A series of directors are making each other’s movies, blurring the lines between actor and director. In the end, who is the one who ends up yelling “cut” from the “empty chair”?” This may not sound like the sort of film that many will appreciate. If anything, it sounds as abstract as any of the entries that I have read thus far. Nevertheless, having been involved in the filmmaking process myself, there is always an aspect to it that I find interesting, and am heartened by the attempt to explore this. The power relations on a set is a delicate one to balance, and it is never an easy task. I think that it will appeal more to a niche audience, rather than being much of a crowd pleaser.

Hitting much closer to home is Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly, a film that is guaranteed never to have a release in Malaysia, because the word ‘pig’ is too sensitive a word, and will be harmful to our nation’s security. 🙂 It tells of the issue of discrimination against the Indonesians of Chinese descent. We follow Linda, one such Chinese-Indonesian (or Indonesian-Chinese, whichever one floats your boat) as she deals with the trials and tribulation in the world’s biggest Muslim nation. Though offered as a fictional narrative, it could easily have passed itself of as documentary. Either way, being an issue that I think about a fair amount, the subject (and its title) catches my attention.

"My dog ate my homework, sir."
"My dog ate my homework, sir."

A Man Who Was Superman also fulfils both criteria. To those who expected a biographical look at the rise (and the what-the-heck-is-he-doing-now? fall) of Brandon Routh, you will be disappointed. Instead, it is a film that looks at a man who…calls himself Superman. The story is told through the eyes of a documentary producer, and once again, I feel that another documentary approach is in the offing. “Viewers will be absorbed in the film’s fantasy which crosses between normalcy and craziness”, it says here, and I am in the mood for such a film. I’m always in the mood for a mentally-disabled sort of film anyway, and I might get my fix here.

One that hits much closer to home, however, is Routine Holiday. The film is about a young man who spends a national holiday doing absolutely nothing. Everyone else, of course, is more than a little keen on leaving town and going away on trips, and generally to get out and about. This man, however, makes do with a little bit of TV and little else. Though it sounds like a relatively simple concept, it is one that I can relate to rather well, for I always feel like spending my holidays tucked inside my bed, armed with either a good book or a good movie (and judging from their emails, I’m betting that half of my KL friends will be looking forward to an empty city come the first day of Raya).

On such a day, then, one might be well advised to take some time out and reorganise one’s thoughts. Perhaps to filter through the work, re-list the priorities, and…to find out the meaning of life. That is the subject of $9.99, a film that offers the chance for you to do exactly that for one cent less than ten bucks. An unemployed man sees the advert hanging around, and, deciding that he has little to lose, embarks on the journey of a lifetime. In terms of the simplicity-to-interesting ratio, this one definitely takes the cake for me, and is also the winner of ‘Dammit, I wish I had thought of that idea first!’ award in this particular post.

But where does life itself comes from? Some would say monkeys, some would say God (OK, so the debate can’t exactly be accurately whittled down like this, but the thought made me laugh out loud, so sue me 🙂 ). If it does indeed come from God, why, then, is there so much suffering in the world? In the most eye-catching title of them all, Maybe God Is Ill looks at the social issues that afflicts Africa even to this very day. A documentary that tries to encompass all of the continent (and thus covering Kenya, South Africa, and Angola, amongst others), it promises to be an uncompromising attempt to better understand and further highlight the problems.

"Don't worry, dear, he'll come back for the second film."
"Don't worry, he'll come back for the second film."

At least we’ll be able to look at the issues in that film. The End of the Tunnel, however, seems like a different kettle of fish altogether. It tells the tale of a blind boy who is trapped by the darkness of his disability, but somehow discovers the ability to open his eyes through music. I am not entirely sure whether this is meant in a literal or metaphorical way, whether it’ll lean closer towards Fernando Meirelles’s ‘Blindness’ or be a completely black video altogether (now that would be really interesting). A quick online search doesn’t reveal much in this regard, so I am keen to find out how the story is told.

The same could be said for The Collectress, about a woman who, after an accident, is no longer able to feel emotion. As many actors will probably tell you, emotions are probably their strongest weapon, and in a lot of ways, their job is to express such emotions. How, then, does the actress and director express emotions within this no-emotion zone? This is a question that I am keen on answering, though several reviews of the film that I have checked out online is not very complimentary. Still, being from Lithuania, it may yet have the honour of being the first Lithuanian film I will have ever seen. Like, ever.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Nagging, on the other hand, will feel like a video or film that we have all been a part of, in our own everyday lives. No matter where we are from in the world, your mother would certainly have nagged at you. This is a part of the subject matter at hand (if you haven’t already guessed from the title). “But when she passes away,” the blurb says, “the only thing left in her son’s arms is a smiling picture of her.” Cue the tears, tissues and more tears. This, however, is really one film that may jerk at the strings of my heart.

"He loves me, he loves me...ouch."
"He loves me, he loves me...ouch."

Good news, then, that there will be The Good News to look forward to. It is one of the few period films on offer that truly caught my eye, and one that covers an era that hasn’t been much thought of, in film terms. It follows a young priest who is on his first assignment to save his flock. What luck, then, to have them directly in the path of General Franco’s military might in 1936 Spain. I haven’t seen many films from Spain lately, and this seems like a good way to catch up on it.

The same could be said for Mr Right, an interesting love story between two strange characters. One is a man whose head is seemingly forever tilted to the right. The other is a woman who works in an old theatre. Trying to overcome the man’s problematic head issues (stop that sniggering, you in the back 🙂 ), it seems like a classic case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ syndrome, for solving the problem will change things between them. I always enjoy a bit of bittersweet solutions, and am interesting to see how this one works out.

One of the most decorated films, however, is The Class. A French film that was the underdog winner at Cannes (certainly was unexpected for me, at least), it’s a back-to-basics approach with simple cinematography styles (apparently) and amateur actors (certainly). It tells the tale of a teacher and his class of students (seems obvious enough, now), which doesn’t seem particularly original (I’m thinking ‘Sister Act’ and ‘Dangerous Minds’, which I nearly typed as ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ for a moment). However, it did win at Cannes, so there must be something there worth checking out.

Megatron also won at Cannes. That is a factor, but the bigger factor is, I have to admit, my growing admiration for Romanian films. This is not just the gritty subject matters that they tend to explore; rather, their style is one that appeals to me: generally speaking, the damn-long shots, and the ‘damn-the-focus-we’re-not-Koreans!’ approach. I love it, I do. I expect the same for this story of a mother taking his kid to McDonald’s for his birthday. And the title…I can’t help but say it out loud excitedly (in a deep, guttural, evil sort of voice that can be associated to the leader of the Decepticons).

After CTU, Chloe brushed up her image.
After CTU, Chloe brushed up her image.

For once, a film that I am checking out purely because of the director is Still Walking. It is directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, who made the excellent ‘Nobody Knows’ (which we reviewed here). Once again, he explores his ideas within the realm of the family. “A typical dysfunctional family, bonded by love as well as resentments and secrets that start to unfold as they gather to commemorate the death of the eldest son who died in a terrible accident fifteen years ago.” That’s all she wrote for the synopsis, but in the hands of Koreeda-san, I expect another masterful film.

Another film I’m checking out due to one of its principal players is JCVD. Though the mind jumps to the Japanese electronics company, it actually stands for…wait for it…Jean-Claude Van Damme. One wonders what a Van Damme movie is doing here in Pusan, but a closer look at the synopsis reveals a far more interesting film. “When the life of Jean-Claude Van Damme collides with the reality of a hold-up, suddenly the huge movie star turns into an ordinary guy, filled with fears, contradictions and hopes. What can a film hero do when the gun pointed to his temple isn’t charged with blanks?” I laughed out loud at this, and immediately (and mentally) ticked it in my list of must-watch movies.

Rain might seem like a similar movie that explores the Korean superstar Rain, but believe me when I tell you that it isn’t. Rather, it looks at…well, rain. It is a documentary that interviews people about their experiences with the drops from heaven (or, as my friend Mark Neale so eloquently put it some years ago, “God’s piss.” 🙂 ). It seems the most interesting out of all the documentaries being shown, not least for its cinematography style. Really, really, pretty.

Of course, whether I actually get to watch all of these films is probably a different story. From my experience, the schedules tend to clash, sleep tends to get in the way, cinemas can be way out of the way…and that’s not to mention the parties and meet-ups with various friends that will inevitably occur (as will the ‘when-the-hell-will-our-films-get-into-a-film-festival’ heart to heart discussion on the beach at 3am in the morning).

We will see.

Fikri knows that this post is late. Sorry 🙂

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