Festival raises the curtain on emerging Asian filmmakers
For casual observers, this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival was mostly noted for its star-studded premieres of local productions such as Johnnie To Kei-fung's rom-com Don't Go Breaking My Heart, and sold-out screenings of art-house favourites such as Wim Wenders' Pina.
But the festival, which ended on Tuesday, was more than a showcase of red-carpet glamour and established auteurs. While the local presence wasn't as strong as last year's in quantity and quality (this year yielded uneven productions such as Don't Go; Hi, Fidelity and Cheung King-wai's documentary One Nation, Two Cities) the event once again provided a platform for cutting-edge work from emerging Asian filmmakers.
So it's no coincidence that the most heart-rending screen moment was a scene shot on digital video, featuring just an old man and his dog on a barren plateau.
The sequence unfolds towards the end of Tibetan director Pema Tsedan's third feature, Old Dog. It is the devastating conclusion to his story about an elderly herder, Drakpa (played by amateur actor Lochey), struggling to hold onto his beloved dog. It is a nomad mastiff, a breed that has become valuable as a sought-after pet for affluent Han city folks and therefore prone to theft.
Drakpa nearly loses the dog on several occasions - when a thief makes off with the animal in the night, and when his slacker son-in-law sells it to a trader in town - and he only retrieves it with the help of his nephew, a police officer.
Continuously harassed by a dog-trader to sell his dog, Drakpa decides to end his relationship with his canine friend in the most brutal way, rather than hand it over to become a rich man's disposable plaything.
Never resorting to melodrama, Tsedan's film is at once a moving ode to Drakpa's affection for the mastiff and a mirror to the corruption and erosion of traditional values on the Tibetan plateau as mainstream consumerist values take hold.
Tsedan doesn't pander to audiences seeking cultural exotica by delivering other-worldly spiritualism. While the film features some poetic scenes, Old Dog is built on no-nonsense grit.
Old Dog was the winner in the festival's Asian Digital Competition, which comprised several gems. Tsedan's cinematographer, Songthar Gyal, made a refreshing directorial debut with The Sun Beaten Path. The film follows a young man's pilgrimage to Lhasa and back - a self-imposed punishment to absolve his part in his mother's accidental death.
Jeon Kyu-hwan's Dance Town is - similar to another entry in the festival, The Journals of Musan - a look at the life of a North Korean political refugee in Seoul, with Ra Mir-an delivering a nuanced turn as her character struggles to adapt to her new surroundings while awaiting news of her husband who is stranded in the North.
At the other end of the spectrum is Eternity by Sivaroj Kongsakul, the latest in a line of Thai films meditating on the meaning of human existence and relationships across time and space. Divided into three chapters, the film begins with a dead man revisiting his childhood haunts as a ghostly presence. His younger self appears in a segment that charts his courtship of his future wife. The film ends with his wife and children's life after his death.
Sivaroj is among prominent Thai talents featured at the festival. Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul had an entry in the Quattro Hong Kong 2 omnibus.
Overlooked this year, however, was Aditya Assarat, whose Hi-So gives a new twist to his explorations of schisms in Thai society by looking at how two women try to fit into different social classes.
Hi-So's central character seems to be a foreign-educated actor called Ananda (Thai-Australian actor Ananda Everingham), and the main protagonists are his two girlfriends. The film begins with San Francisco native Zoe (Cerise Leang) visiting Ananda on set in a remote resort and finding herself ill at ease in his world. In the second half, the publicist May (Sajee Apiwong) has taken Zoe's place. But, having grown up in a provincial town in the north, May too feels at odds with the actor's affluent, Westernised existence - the 'high-society life' to which the film's title alludes.
Although there is no hint of the class-based conflicts that have divided Thai society over the past few years, Hi-So illustrates such schisms through veiled metaphors and subtle gestures. Working-class distress surfaces when a receptionist tells Zoe about his dashed hopes of relocating to the US; and when May engages in a tortured conversation with Ananda's aunt, who is clearly derisive when she finds out the young woman is from the poor north of the country.
Japanese independent cinema was also very much present at the festival this year, ranging from Zeze Takahisa's hit-and-miss Heaven's Story - a 4 1/2-hour revenge thriller undermined by moments of tedium and sporadic, nausea-inducing handheld camerawork - to Soda Kazuhiro's 1?hour documentary Peace, which follows the director's father-in-law as he works as a volunteer driver for pensioners and the disabled in his town.
As Kazuhiro's film veers away from hard politics, it is the Japanese-born American subtitlist-turned-filmmaker Linda Hoaglund who delves headlong into the country's history, with her ANPO: Art X War exploring how artists (and the public) have reacted against the continuous American military presence in Japan since 1960.
The festival's most multi-layered Asian film is probably Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's Nader and Simin, A Separation. It begins with a couple on the verge of divorce: bank manager Nader (Peyman Moadi) and teacher Simin (Leila Hatami). As Simin moves out of the family home, Nader recuits a pious and destitute woman Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of the housework and attend to his senile father. What follows is a spiral of ever-unfortunate incidents, which results in Nader and Simin battling in court against Razieh and her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini).
The story reveals the many kinds of oppression permeating Iranian society, as the bourgeoisie connive against the helpless working class, while women are forced to suffer - physically, economically and spiritually - to abide by the rules made by men.
Different from the approach taken by Jafar Panahi, Bahman Ghobadi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Farhadi's film does not engage with the authorities directly. Instead, Nader and Simin indicts the whole social system by illustrating how political and religious dogma bring about tragedy and separation of people within and between social groups.
What is even more poignant is how such a cynical social climate can eventually affect the development of the younger generation - a conclusion brought to focus in the distressing final scene.