VIFF 2012 – Dispatch 1

The Vancouver International Film Festival is one of the overlooked gems of North American film festivals. Opening weeks after Toronto, it screens over 230 features and 150 shorts over 16 days across ten theaters, all within strolling distance in downtown Vancouver. (An eleventh theater, the Park Theater across the bridge, is drafted into service for a few days of special 3D presentations; it’s easily accessible via the Tram.)

Because of its proximity to Toronto, the behemoth that launches the North American premieres of most of the award season favorites, Vancouver manages to grab some of the year’s most anticipated films: Michael Hanake’s Amour, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, Pablo Larrain’s No, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, some of them screening before their American premiere at the New York Film Festival.

But even more interesting for me is the “Dragons and Tigers” section, the biggest focus on contemporary Asian cinema in North America. The Dragons and Tigers line-up is valuable as both an introduction to new films from young filmmakers and a snapshot of commercial cinemas of the Asia, from South Korea and Japan to China and the Philippines. 45 features, a handful of mid-length (under an hour) films, and dozens of shorts. Too many to do anything more than sample. Armed with a catalogue, a few recommendations, and my own instinct and tastes, that’s what I did.

Nameless Gangster

South Korea in particular arrives in force: 11 features (including three in competition for the Dragons and Tigers award) and two “Special Presentation” screenings: Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (dir: Yoon Jong-bin) and A Werewolf Boy (dir: Jo Sung-hee), both bright, energetic, soundly commercial films.

Nameless Gangster is an organized crime drama that is more character piece and offbeat drama than action thriller. It plays on the definition of daebu – godfather – in Korean culture, meaning both an elder member of a clan and a crime boss. Choi Ik-hyun (played by Choi Min-sik of Oldboy), a petty customs officer on the docks who pads his income with bribes, discovers that he is related to a yakuza-connected gangster when he stumbles across contraband heroine and decides to sell it himself. But establishing himself as a clan elder to a genuine gangster isn’t the same as being an actual mob godfather, as he finds out when he tries to flex his power over the men working for his “partner.” Choi isn’t quite a clown and he’s savvy in the ways of bureaucratic bribery and clan affiliations, but he’s out of his depth when it comes to flexing gang muscles in the power games as he greases the rails in a plan to get into the Seoul casino business.

Set in 1990, during the big government crackdown on organized crime, with flashbacks to Choi’s almost (but not quite) comic rise to power, Yoon Jong-bin offers something that straddles social satire and comedy of errors with dire consequences, but also traffics in the blithe corruption at all levels of government, with the clan favoritism as the most insidious form of corruption. This neither gangland war spectacle (though there are a few beat-downs and gang riots) nor Johnnie To-style power politics in underworld business, and the satire is more wry than funny. But I admire the way the satire walks such a fine line, drawing Choi into criminal enterprise with such deliberation that it’s only when he’s deep inside that we realize how improbable his rise was and how ill-equipped he is to play on this level.

A Werewolf Boy

A Werewolf Boy is a lighter, sweeter piece. In many ways it plays like a South Korean redo of Edward Scissorhands, with a feral boy who may or may not be a werewolf (but is clearly the offspring of a mad scientist of sorts) adopted by a protective single mother and her two daughters. It’s not quite a romance between the eldest daughter Kim Shun and the werewolf boy, who soon becomes very attached to her as she civilizes him (with the help of a dog training manual), and his loyalty and protectiveness (not to mention the way he loves to get his head stroked) suggests evolved pet as much as wild child orphan. The largely unmotivated bad behavior and malicious scheming of the entitled and spoiled family benefactor, who has marked the teenage Kim Shun as his property and future bride, is more fairy tale villain than melodrama rival. The ultimate involvement of a genetic scientist and military intelligence only dumbs down the science fiction aspects, complicating what is at best a contemporary fable with a fairy tale heart. And on that level, it’s as sweet as it is charmingly naively.

Helpless

Helpless (dir: Byun Youngjoo), based on a bestselling Korean thriller, is the South Korean equivalent to a contemporary American mystery. When a woman goes missing at a highway rest stop on a trip with her fiancée to meet his parents, my first thought was The Vanishing, George Sluizer’s mindgame of a missing persons movie, but this has another story in mind involving hidden pasts, identity theft, and quite possibly murder. “You don’t know her,” yells the fiancé Munho, a nice guy veterinarian who fills the role of the desperate boyfriend by reflexively jumping to her defense at every damaging revelation of her secret history. It gets tired the third or forth time around and it leaves him without much dimension. More interesting his cousin Jong-geun, a cop who left the force when he became to blatant in his bribe-taking (again with that idea that corruption is tolerated in moderation) and shows his skills as a detective in tracking down leads. He begins the film bitter about  the way he’s been hung out to dry by his department and angry at Munho for being snubbed a wedding invitation, but the very act of investigation brings out his sense of self-worth, which the film handles with more subtlety than Munho’s melodramatic outbursts.

For American audiences, the outpouring of information becomes a blur of untranslated documents and a flurry of complicated names that run together without solid identities to hang them on. The flashbacks get confusing as they illustrate possible scenarios rather than actual events, which leaves a few ambiguous threads still hanging by the end, and even with the momentum that Byun generates, it gets a little bogged down in details. Byun doesn’t seem to have a facility for organizing clues in a narratively efficient manner. If you can let all that go and simply trust in their conclusions, it’s a nifty little mystery (if overly convoluted) with some interesting turns and an unexpected detour into the devastation of the sex trafficking industry, which becomes the key motivating factor to the entire story. Given director Byun Youngjoo’s background as a documentary filmmaker with special interest in the Korean sex trade, it’s no surprise that, as brief a detour as this is, it gives renewed weight to the story and a whole new perspective on the motivations and the broken character of our enigmatic missing person.

Romance Joe

Romance Joe (dir: Lee Kwang-kuk) is the only debut of this quartet and it’s a fine one, though stronger on screenwriting than direction. Both are by Lee Kwang-kuk, a former assistant director to Hong Sang-soo (among others) who, like one of the characters in this film, decided it was time to make his own film. This one borrows a few motifs from Hong, notably a blocked filmmaker who would rather fool around than get to work and few drunken nights and hungover days, but Lee goes its own way in a film about stories and storytelling (and substitutes coffee as the beverage of choice for many of the scenes). There’s a frustrated assistant director who goes missing as his parents arrive for a surprise visit, a blocked film director dumped into a hotel in the middle of nowhere by his exasperated producer, and a coffee-service call-girl who is a storyteller in her own right. And storytelling is front and center throughout. “Why do we have to tell stories?” asks one character, and late into the film our call girl tries to explain to her sluggish partner that all customers want a story, you just have to figure out what they want and tailor it to them.

The stories, all nestled within and swirling around one another, all occupy a delicate state between character autobiography and concocted year, the narrative equivalent of Schroedinger’s cat. Within the terms of this narrative, they are at once “true stories” and fictional concoctions. Characters from one story cross into others, one character’s fiction is another’s experience, and our absent hero, never known as anything but the nickname Romance Joe, is constantly redefined by every narrator. Lee’s screenplay is deviously clever and more nuanced than it first appears, filled with suggestions and clues  rather than direct connections and certainties, and he provides enough ambiguity to allow – nay, invite – the viewer to be a part of the storytelling process. How we put the pieces together may say as much about what we desire in a story as what Lee offers up as character journey. What Lee lacks is a visual equivalent to his narrative cleverness: motifs or cues or even key phrases that connect, even tangentially, one narrative fragment to the next and carriers over the otherwise abrupt jumps between stories. He’s a more gifted writer than a director at this point, but his imagination and ingenuity and sheer delight in stories and storytelling reveal a great talent that I look forward to seeing develop.

A Mere Life (dir: Park Sang-hun) is the only competition film I squeezed into my initial five-day stay (I’m hoping for a return trip). And while it is moderately accomplished for a first feature, it’s a one-note portrait of one man’s spiral into utter misery. The protagonist is unfortunately a far-too-familiar figure in South Korean cinema: angry, selfish, petulant, turning every conflict into confrontation and then drowning his failure in drink. It’s hard to pity a guy who already has so much self-pity, and his systematic self-destruction seems extreme even for this self-made loser, who spends the final act of the film sobbing to himself.

Kristin Thompson, a friend and colleague, has posted her first report from VIFF at the blog she and David Bordwell built, Observations on film art.