By Benjamin McKay
The head of jury for the 50th Asia Pacific Film Festival, Datuk Johan Jaaffar of Malaysia, in his remarks at the Closing Awards Night, likened the mammoth task of sifting through the 27 films submitted for competition as having “too many apples to compare with oranges.”
Indeed the films submitted at this festival (including 17 short films, animations and documentaries) are done so at a national level, by the state, rather than by individual filmmakers and producers, and certainly not by way of curatorial selection. Some countries like Taiwan and Indonesia submitted films worthy of selection at the major festivals of the world, and other countries like Hong Kong and Japan decided to submit very commercially driven mainstream fare. Datuk Johan Jaafar went on to implore member countries, in the future, to only submit the very best of their cinematic output. He also noted, rather amusingly that “in this industry even trash glitters.” It may have been the golden anniversary of this Festival, but clearly all that glittered on screen was not gold.
The Asia Pacific Film Festival began all those 50 years ago as an attempt to focus global attention on to the cinematic output of the region. It is therefore an event worthy of another 50 years, even if at a competition level it needs to be taken far more seriously by the member countries. This year, a well displayed and curated exhibition of the history of the Festival was launched with some considerable fanfare and panache at the National Museum. If the dancers at the Istana Budaya on the lavish opening night were not enough to evoke the atmosphere of Malaysia Truly Asia, then the next day at the Museum, we were welcomed by not only more beautifully costumed dancers, but a couple of well dressed elephants as well.
Towards International Success
The theme of this anniversary festival (28 September – 1 October, 2005) was “Towards International Success”. In addition to the interesting exhibition, the highlight of the program for me was the Symposium held at the Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman on Thursday morning. Organised by director Shuhaimi Baba, the symposium addressed this theme through several presentations. On matters to do with international distribution, Tiara Jacquelina, star and producer of the Malaysian nominated film Puteri Gunung Ledang (2004), gave a spirited first hand account of the struggles to make the film and to then get it distributed in an overseas market place. Part of the struggles for the filmmakers was whether to make an art film or a commercial film, and the compromise was that they would make both.
Also speaking at the Symposium was art director Desmond Crowe of Alexander (2004) and Band Of Brothers (2001) fame. Mr Crowe believes that good production values will put a film in good stead internationally. So he regaled us with how he came to spend $US40 million of a total $US120 million budget on art direction for his efforts on the Oliver Stone film Alexander. The Malaysian filmmakers in the audience, whose art direction budget would not pay for tea and coffee on Mr Crowe’s films, were left wondering what all this meant. Mr Crowe also told us how on Band Of Brothers he had built entire cities and then destroyed them and if you need a river you just go out with bulldozers and create one. Some of us were left with the idea that perhaps Malaysian filmmakers should hook up with property developers and shoot their films in association with the latest rising condo or theme park. Perhaps everything is relative, but clearly there are some who are granted more relativity than others! Mr Crowe was a delightful speaker, even if he inspired some incredulity, whose topic made for an interesting thematic segue into a discussion of the more affordable uses of digital technology.
Director Bernard Chauly was also on hand to chair a fascinating talk by Taiwan based director Tsai Ming Liang with fellow filmmaker Ho Yuhang at the ready with his speedy translation skills. This was a great talk centred upon international co-productions and also on the manner in which a filmmaker retains the control of, and integrity of, his film in that process. Tsai Ming Liang knows he is lucky that he has a niche audience in Europe and has therefore been able to find French funding for many of his films. He has no answers for how Malaysian filmmakers will find overseas funding, but he believes that they need to find their audience first. It was also a rare opportunity to see a closed screening of a clip from Tsai Ming Liang’s festival entry film The Wayward Cloud (2004), as the film itself did not pass local censorship and was therefore not screened. We were also later given a further snippet to watch while dining at Legend Hotel (it was the Taipei Night, in honour of the festival’s next destination). I must say it felt quite subversive watching campy outtakes from a film about a porn actor and watermelon fetish while slurping on Sharks Fin Soup.
Talk is cheap
Getting to see the films that were not censored (24 of them) was just as difficult. They were screened to the public free of charge on a first come first serve basis at two venues – TGV KLCC and GSC Mid Valley. The tickets were all gone before most of us could get to the cinemas. A selection of the shorts, animated films and documentaries were eventually screened, with little fanfare however, over the weekend at the National Museum. This reviewer and his Kakiseni guest ended up watching what amounted to a private screening for just two people on the Sunday afternoon. It was a mellow end to a rather crowded week.
Nevertheless, as I have seen a few of these films before, I can offer some comments (you lucky readers!). The film awarded Best Film at the Festival was South Korea’s Tae Guk Gi (2003) while its director Kang Je-Gyu was awarded Best Director. This is a big budget historical epic of a family divided during the Korean War. If the Festival itself is about the ‘national’ and what a nation thinks is the best of its cinematic output then this film perhaps deserved the awards it received. It is a well-crafted piece of moviemaking, but I alas felt that at 120 minutes we were forced to endure it rather than enjoy it. It does however have some interesting performances and the money is clearly well spent in showing us the horror and futility of war, but I can’t help wondering if the film is not too formatted to contemporary Spielberg Hollywood war aesthetics.
A much better film and one that is a debut feature for director Mingh Nguyen-Vo is Vietnam’s Buffalo Boy (2004). This rather simple rites of passage tale of a young man in rural Vietnam during the French colonial period is an excellent example of what a filmmaker can do with a strong and grounded narrative. Buffalo Boy also captures on screen a beautiful landscape, but it is a landscape that is never exoticised. Indeed the landscape is married to the narrative in ways rarely seen on screen anymore. The interminable wet season and the constant water give a dark and sinister edge to the film that makes the struggle of our lead character, Kim, to survive in this world all the more fully realised. This unpretentious and quite beautiful film deserves to be seen widely.
I had hoped to see Yan Yan Mak’s Hong Kong feature Butterfly (2004) but its subject matter about a lesbian relationship meant it was not screened. Instead, from Hong Kong we were able to see Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Initial D (2005) and Benny Chan’s New Police Story (2004). Both of these films have a place, but I am just not sure whether it is in a list of the best that Hong Kong film has to offer. Initial D is a testosterone-laden tale of street racers that takes a cast of Hong Kong pinup stars to Japan for its totally Toyota driven action. It is fun and if I were a Jay Chou fan I would have enjoyed queuing up to grab a ticket. New Police Story is a vehicle for the sadly fading charms of Jackie Chan. While Mr Chan still has the capacity to light up the screen, this new film is really a star vehicle for the attractive new pinup boys of Hong Kong, Daniel Wu and Nicholas Tse. In the synopsis published in the Festival guide, Nicholas Tse’s character, Fung, is described as a “rebel without a pause”. The synopsis goes on to say that “talk is cheap, and no one talks cheaper than Fung.” I am rather sad that I hadn’t written that line myself, for it captures perfectly the tone and weight of the film overall!
I alas didn’t get to Mid Valley cinemas early enough to see Nia Dinata’s Janji Joni (2005) nor Rako Prijanto’s Ungu Violet (2005) from Indonesia. But if I missed Dian Sastrowardoyo in Ungu Violet, I was lucky enough to have seen her in the quirky and very enjoyable Indonesian feature Banyu Biro (2005). Directed by Teddy Soeriaat Madja, Banyu Biro is an unusually paced film for Indonesia. It is a dreamy road movie of sorts that takes our hero Banyu on a meditative and colourful search for love. The film is beautifully shot by fellow director Fauzan Rizal who captures both the landscape and the cast to perfection, and on occasions, plays with colour verging on the kitsch to great effect. This witty film builds nicely in stages. A certain magic realism pervades the narrative and I think the cast have perfectly woven themselves into the spirit of the film. Tora Sudiro as Banyu has the capacity to transfix his audience.
The Night They Crowned Tiara
Malaysia had three feature films formally submitted for the Festival, Bade Hj. Azmi’s Gangster (2003), Saw Tiong Hin’s Puteri Gunung Ledang (2004) and Raja Ahmad Alauddin’s Qaisy & Laila (2004). I will not revisit the debate about what films should have been submitted and what weren’t, nor am I going to make scathing judgments about those selected. If Hong Kong can send Initial D and if Japan can send a film called Samurai Commando – Mission 1549 (2005) then why shouldn’t Malaysia send Gangster? I had seen Qaisy & Laila on a previous occasion and did not think that a second viewing was likely to change my initial opinions of the film, but the movie did end up winning the award for Best Music. Ayob Ibrahim deserves to be congratulated for the best feature of the film for me was indeed the musical score.
You would have to be a rather jaded and tired old pundit not to be pleased for Tiara Jacquelina when she was awarded Best Actress for Puteri Gunung Ledang. The film may be long, but no one can say that it is neither luscious nor ambitiously grand. It was a brave attempt for the Malaysian film industry and perhaps a large and heavy golden gasing on a trophy is just deserts for the film and its makers. Ms Jacquelina not only sang and danced the signature tune of the film to the assembled guests at the awards show, but was later a study in serene and delighted composure as she graciously fielded questions from the media while carefully clutching her large gasing statuette. It was a very Malaysia Boleh moment. A reporter for a major KL daily looked like he might just faint with all the excitement, so in that spirit I say – rule Tiara!
But wait there is more – Malaysia also won the award for Best Short Film/Documentary with the Iban drama of Pua (2004). This sumptuously shot short film verges occasionally on the travelogue, what with postcard photography, and at times appears to over exoticise its subject matter, but I must say I was somewhat taken by it. Produced by Elyna Effendi and directed by Virginia Kennedy, the film relates the Pua Kumbu cloths of the Iban people to a tale of the search for love and independence in a distant but palpable Iban past. There are some seriously erotic and sensual moments in this film and I therefore praise the filmmakers for their courage.
The 50th Asia Pacific Film Festival has now come and gone. The exhibition on the history of the Festival is still on at the National Museum however. I agree wholeheartedly with the Head of the Jury with regard to apples and oranges-the earnest and serious films from Tehran, Mama’s Guest (2004), Stone Blossoms (2004) and Tradition of Killing Lovers (2003) seem oddly partnered on a screening schedule with teen flicks like Beat Kids (2005) from Tokyo. If the selection process is not changed then perhaps the competitive element of the Festival needs to be scrapped. But the Festival itself should remain – with or without a competition. This is an industry driven event for Producers from the region and there is clearly a place for that. This was all show and all business, and to borrow again from the good Datuk, with show business “even the trash glitters”. And this humble scribe from Kakiseni had a good time all up, what with the excellent catering, the sagacious wisdom of Tsai Ming Liang and the discovery that elephants can wear clothes.
Awards of the 50th Asia Pacific Film Festival
Special Jury Awards:
Mr Jackie Chan (Hong Kong), for lifetime achievement in cinema
Ms Yang Kuei Mei (Taipei)
Ms Dian Sastrowardoyo (Jakarta)
Paths Of Justice (Hanoi)
Beautiful, Wonderful, Perfect (Bangkok)
Best Art Director – Tsuyoshi Shimizu, Samurai Commando – Mission 1549 (Tokyo)
Best Short Film/Documentary – Pua (Kuala Lumpur)
Best Animation Film – Fireball (Taipei)
Best Editing – Yoga K. Koesprato, Janji Joni (Jakarta)
Best Sound – Sansab, Necromancer (Bangkok)
Best Music – Ayob Ibrahim, Qaisy & Laila (Kuala Lumpur)
Best Cinematography – Yves Cape, Buffalo Boy (Hanoi)
Best Screenplay – Lin Cheng Sheng, The Moon Also Rises (Taipei)
Best Supporting Actor – Anthony Wong, Initial D (Hong Kong)
Best Supporting Actress – Rima Melati, Ungu Violet (Jakarta)
Best Actor – Joo Hyun, A Family (Seoul)
Best Actress – Tiara Jacquelina, Puteri Gunung Ledang (Kuala Lumpur)
Best Director – Kang Je-Gyu, Tae Guk Gi (Seoul)
Best Film – Tae Guk Gi (Seoul)
Benjamin McKay is completing his thesis on a social history of 1950s and 1960s Singapore and Malaysia as revealed to him by the locally produced films of that era. When he is not here in Kuala Lumpur, he is at home in the northern Australian city of Darwin – a place that may well not confirm a number of the theories of its namesake, Charles Darwin.
First Published: 06.10.2005 on Kakiseni