Postcard: Vladivostok

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 3:22pm

It's the elephant in the room: did Vladivostok's 11th Pacific Meridian International Film Festival of Asian Pacific Countries suffer a backlash from Moscow's sweeping and offensive anti-gay "propaganda" law? After all, St Petersburg's festival lost Hollywood actor-writer Wentworth Miller just a few weeks before Pacific Meridian - which took place recently - for that reason.

"Are you kidding, that's half the reason I said yes," says Chilean director Mauricio López Fernández, whose short film The Blessed hinges on an intersex girl playing the Virgin Mary in a village rite. "If you can't take the film to difficult places and talk about it, then what's the point of making it?"

Pacific Meridian programmer and curator Andrey Vasilenko agrees. "Sure, we were a little nervous about what the reaction would be," he says about the festival's decision to also screen Alain Guiraudie's explicit gay thriller Stranger by the Lake.

"We can't worry about that stuff … it's absolutely terrible, a stupid law," he says. "This is a space for directors, producers, everyone to engage in conversation and hopefully change opinion. This is a place of freedom."

Vladivostok is a long way from Moscow - physically (more than 9,000 kilometres) and spiritually. "We're quite distinct from the central part of Russia," Vasilenko says.

There is a relaxed coastal town vibe, despite the presence of the Pacific Fleet; it is more Asian (less than 1,000 kilometres to Osaka) than European, as evidenced by Putonghua and Korean peppering conversations more than English and Italian.

Pacific Meridian's organisers made good use of the city's warm days and cool nights: taking a page from Busan's playbook, they launched a festival village on the waterfront, the aim being to cultivate more local interaction. Its 140-odd films are a manageable number for attendees, too.

"This is great. It's intimate, everyone's really nice to you. At Cannes you can't walk down the street at night, you can't get a table at a restaurant," says Melbourne-based director Rodd Rathjen, whose Small Yellow Field screened at both.

After a decade of scratching and clawing, Vladivostok took some major steps towards raising its profile in 2013. French star Isabelle Huppert (who made a sly comment about film being a great way to break down prejudices), French filmmaker Pierre Richard and American actor Michael Madsen were featured in audience meet-and-greet sessions.

Programmers loaded up on panel discussions - including a well-attended one on film censorship - industry workshops and satellite fine art exhibitions.

Ultimately, however, the festival was about the films. "We are a local festival. We need to promote young directors and bring good alternatives to local audiences," Vasilenko says.

The line-up featured special presentations from India and - a highlight - Laos, as well as new films from Chinese director Jia Zhangke, South Korea's Hong Sang-soo, Japan's Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Ukraine-born documentarian Vitaliy Manskiy and Russia's Viktor Shamirov, whose nostalgic buddy dramedy The Game of Truth won the Audience Award in Vancouver.

The short film competition included New Zealand filmmaker Adam Gunser's Killing Phillip, about a young boy violently jettisoning an imaginary friend. But Gunser, Fernández and Rathjen were beaten by Beijing-born Hu Wei's Butter Lamp, a richly photographed and moving elegy to dying traditions.

But it was the outstanding feature competition section that left the most vivid impressions. Anthony Chen's Seashell award winner Ilo Ilo, which also won the Camera d'Or at Cannes, is a deceptively simple drama about the impact a new Filipino helper has on a Singapore family. The film is anchored by pitch-perfect performances from Malaysian-born Yeo Yann Yann (who was the festival's best actress) and the Philippines' Angeli Bayani.

Russian helmer Yury Bykov's stirring corruption thriller, The Major, is a study in rising tension.

These films were joined by stellar films from South America (particularly Peruvian writer-director Adrian Saba's bittersweet plague drama The Cleaner), New Zealand, China and South Korea.