Asian Class Gets Eclectic (TIFF ‘96 The Best of Asian Films)

Thursday, October 10, 1996

It is testimony to the rise of Asian cinema on the world scene that sections like The Best of Asian Films at the 1996 Tokyo International Film Festival no longer need to play the role of exclusively spotlighting the neglected cinemas of the East.

With this year’s International Competition and the Young Cinema Competition already featuring a number of powerful works from China, Korea, Taiwan, and Iran, it seems as if the Asian cinema section was free to program a more eclectic selection of films than in the past. Yet while this not unenviable situation offered viewers a number of stellar productions, it could also be blamed for the rather uneven, hodge-podge quality of the program overall.

Arguably the best of The Best of Asian Films (if not the festival itself) were the new works by the two Taiwanese masters: Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye marks an eye-opening break from the sad, nostalgic style of his history films. The flowing camera, the subjective shots, and industrial music in this tale of Taiwanese gangsters bring his world closer to the age of technological thrills while paradoxically rendering it colder–still sad, but now owing to a more modern form of alienation.

Yang’s Mahjong, as the title suggests, is itself an intricate series of plays and bluffs, a both compelling and entertaining tightrope walk between the tragic and comic games played by Taiwanese and European youth in contemporary Taipei.

Definitely the find of this year’s Asian section were the three films by the Iranian director Abolfazl Jalili. While inheriting the neorealist tradition prominent in Iranian cinema, Scabies (“Gale,” 1987) and Det, Means Girl (“Det, Yani Dokhtar,” 1994) both reveal Jalili’s talent for digesting narrative into short, intimate episodes which are arranged into a precise and often circular structure that itself comes to embody the institutional oppression suffered by Jalili’s child heroes. Almost questioning his own cinematic strictness, his recent A True Story (“Yek Dastan-e Vaghe’i,” 1996) impressively depicts in documentary form the problems Jalili’s child actor must face, which are more real than any offered in fiction film.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (“Nun o Goldun,” 1996), another film about film, also verified the strength of Iranian cinema. With a comic yet gentle touch, the film deftly depicts Makhmalbaf’s own efforts to recreate an incident from his youth using actual participants who don’t always share his vision of reality-based cinema.

It is a credit to the organizers that as a group Chinpira/Two Punks, Closing Time (dir: Kobayashi Masahiro), and Innocent Hearts (“Kawaki no machi,” dir: Enokido Koji) were (with the exception of the delightful DANGAN Runner (“Dangan ranna,” dir: Sabu) in the Fantastic Festival) the best new Japanese fiction films screened at the TIFF. While all focused on men at society’s margins, Aoyama Shinji’s Chinpira was the more contemporary and dynamic of the three, boldly presenting within a complex temporal structure the shifting relationship of two unruly punks through a larger contrast between city and country.

Viewing the other films in the selection, however, one wonders if this was the best program possible. There must to have been better Hong Kong films to present than Lee Chi-ngai’s Lost & Found, a mildly entertaining but ultimately shallow piece of Asian pop angst. Sakay from 1993 was a commendable but unfortunately conventional rewriting of Philippine history by Raymond Red. The Accused Uncle Shangang (1994) by Fan Yuan, a late addition, was a melodramatic lecture about moral dilemmas that was not worth the effort.

As with the inclusion of Iranian films, the definition of “Asian” in the program extended beyond East Asia to allow the screening of Sergei Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains (“Kavkazsky Plennik,1996), a tale of war in Chechnya that, while not original, was brought to life by Bodrov’s talent for evoking the humanity of his characters through sketches from everyday life. Israel’s Saint Clara (“Clara Hakdosha,” dir: Ari Folman and Uri Sivan, 1996), however, while blessed with talented child actors, was too fashionable for its own good.

The broader definition was questionable, however. I’m still mystified why the German A Trick of the Light was included in “The Best of Asian Films.” Its place, and those taken by Conrad Rooks’s 1966 Chappaqua and 1972 Siddhartha, interesting mainly as historical footnotes, should have been taken by new films from unrepresented regions of Asia.

By Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 10 October 1996, p. 10.

Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow