Smorgasbord: Dogs, etc. in Deauville

There were two big controversies during the recently concluded Festival du Film Asiatique de Deauville. Both provided interesting glimpses behind the scenes of the “cross-cultural exchange” mission that is always the avowed raison d’etre of any self-respecting film-fest these days.

The first occurred when the Chinese competing entry, Fathers, had to be withdrawn from the festival. There was nothing controversial about the film’s content, but a functionary of the Chinese embassy protested against the fact that the Taiwanese flag was flown outside the main screening venue, together with the flags of all other countries that were represented in the fest. A demand was made to the festival organisers to take down the flag. This demand was refused. So when the audience turned up for the Fathers screening, the producer had to go on stage and read out a letter drafted for her by the bureaucrat. She was compelled to use phrases like “There is only one China” and “Taiwan belongs to China” to boos and hisses from some of the more agitated members of the hall. We couldn’t help feeling sorry for her as she was not even using her own words. The incident was then broadcast on French TV later that night. As one of the festival delegates said to me, “What else does the Chinese government want? They’ve already got the Olympics and the WTO, why do they need to be a cultural bully as well?”            ·

The second controversy occurred when a right-wing group headed by Brigitte Bardot noisily protested against a Korean film, Address Unknown. This is because the film includes, as one of its themes, dog-eating. I am not sure if Bardot herself was present but several of her lackeys were. They distributed pamphlets and disrupted press conferences to announce how barbaric Korean culture was. A Korean journalist said to me, in what I assumed was a jokey tone, “I don’t know what the fuss is. We like dogs in Korea. That’s why we eat them.”

With such a build-up, I couldn’t of course resist watching “Address Unknown”. The screening was guarded by the police to make sure no one tried to disrupt it. I wonder if the protesters had even bothered to watch the film aside from reading the synopsis. It’s a very powerful, if bleak, portrait of a small community near a US army base.

There is violence galore (torture, rape, the mutilation of various-body parts) but, as a cheerfully greeted disclaimer stated at the start of the film, no animals were harmed during its making. The way the characters treat their dogs is a startling metaphor for the worse ways in which they treat each other. Not one of the most comfortable things I have seen but it had an undeniable impact and was very well-made.

My favourite among the eight films that I managed to catch was actually the Filipino Deathrow. It begins with an accidental killing, followed quickly by a 16-year old boy being sentenced to that eponymous section of prison. Aside from some ingenious, surrealistic flashbacks, almost the whole film takes place in prison. It was gritty, melodramatic and manipulative in the grand tradition of Filipino cinema. The happy ending may have seemed a bit contrived but it came as a welcome relief to the misery of what had gone before. It succeeds not only as an indictment of a flawed legal system but an examination of how an oppressed minority will always arrange itself into a self-destructive hierarchy: The victims become the victimisers.

I was the only rep from Malaysia. The Indonesian contingent that came with Pasir Berbisik included its screenwriter Rayya Makarim and actress Dian Sastrowardoyo. It turns out that although Rayya had not been to Malaysia in years, we have several friends in common. She is the film curator at Utan Kayu. the arts community founded by the prominent writer Goenawan Mohamad. Halfway throughout our stay she announced: “I just had a brainwave!” Her idea was to bring all six of the digital-video features showing in Deauville to screen in Utan Kayu. I enthusiastically agreed and once again pondered on the fact that we Asians had to travel halfway across the world to make such connections.

This is the fourth edition of the Deauville Asian film fest, and the first in which DV features are included. I think   it’s apposite for a festival that seeks to acknowledge what’s happening in this part of the world to have such a section. Among the videos that I saw, the best was undeniably Tokyo Trash Baby from Japan. I tried to have a conversation with the director (we could not find an interpreter), and he said that the movie cost US$ 70,000. That’s so high! But the production quality, particularly the lighting and framing, was very impressive. This tale of a girl who is so obsessed with a musician that she starts collecting his garbage has a charming, semi-improvised quality that uses the medium to best advantage.

Deauville, which is two hours out of Paris, by the Normandy coast, is definitely the poshest film festival I have ever been to. The hotels we stayed in (the Scribe in Paris and the Normandy in Deauville) could never have been afforded by me during normal times. At the very least, it represented the first time that I slept in a room that had a chandelier. There were so many receptions, excursions and cocktail parties that I was lucky to sneak in as many screenings as I did. The festival director, Alain Patel, and programmer Jeremy Segay proved to be wonderful hosts. The press section was also frighteningly well-organised and I gave several interviews for the print media and even TV. Sadly, but not inexplicably, one of the main questions usually asked was: “Is there a film industry in Malaysia?”

One person who understood how film is developing in Malaysia is Pierre Rissient. He is on the Board of Directors for the fest and is also the gentleman who brought U-Wei’s “Kaki Bakar” to Cannes in 1995. He asked me what U-Wei has been up to and was not happy to learn that he has not made any new features in five years. “Tell U-Wei when you see him,” he intoned, “that he is undeniably a talented director, but also one of the least organised people I have ever met!”

I was nervous when the screening of “Lips to Lips” was about to start. But they seemed to like it although I must make sure that my next feature does not have so many in-jokes. At the very least, no one walked out!

On to the other films: “Pasir Berbisik” was slow in a self-consciously exotic style, but with fine performances and striking if over-pretty cinematography. It’s about the passive-aggressive relationship between a mother (Christine Hakim) and daughter (Dian) set in a remote and, of course, very sandy part of Java. The Malay-speaking contingent in the fest was thrilled when Dian nabbed the Best Actress Award. When accepting the trophy, she just gushed, ”Thank you, thank you and thank you!”

The Korean blockbuster Musa had impressive battle scenes and beautiful stars (including Zhang Yiyi) but became monotonous. During a lunch, Dian told Patel: “If Zhang Yiyi were here in person, I would be so excited!” Patel responded: “Me too!” Much more entertaining to me was another Korean entry, “The Man Who Watched Too Much,” a low-budget video that lacked production values but was a sharply funny satire about a murderer who becomes the ultimate film geek. This one had the audience screaming in mirth.

The Singaporean video, Hype had, in its best moments, a Woody Allen-ish quality, but it was let down by some inexperienced actors and some too-generic romantic scenes. This trip marked not only the first festival for its director Vincent Wong but his first time out of Singapore! I was not the only one to tell him: “Don’t expect all festivals to be as fancy as this.”

I was bummed that I didn’t manage to catch Failan, the Korean film that won the main prize. Maybe I will have a chance at another festival. But I hope to someday see Deauville again. Maybe by that time I will have a bit more to say than a few well-placed utterances of “Merci.”

NOTE: My trip to Deauville was made possible by a grant from the Asia-Europe Foundation.


First Published: 19.03.2002 on Kakiseni

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