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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.

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