The big first weekend of CAAMFest is over, so let's jump right in with what I saw.
I started Saturday with BEAUTIFUL 2012, a project by the Hong Kong Film Festival, they commissioned four of Asia's most acclaimed directors to make a short film (~20-25 minutes each, total running time was 92 minutes) answering the question, "What is Beautiful?" And to the eyes of this glib Westerner, apparently sadness is beautiful.
YOU ARE MORE THAN BEAUTIFUL (Kim Tae-yong): A young man hires an actress to pretend to be his fiancee and impress his dying father. But in their collaboration, they do share a moment of beauty. Oddly enough, I couldn't shake how this was the serious, melancholy version of ONE SMALL HITCH from Cinequest.
WALKER (Tsai Ming-liang): A monk walks incredibly slowly through the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. It's actually a beautiful contemplation on movement and pace of life...I fell asleep. I've fallen asleep in hundreds, perhaps thousands of movies by now. But with this one, more than any other, it seems like falling asleep and reflecting on that fact became in itself an important part of processing the experience. If art teaches you about yourself, what does it say about me that I fell asleep? Do I have insufficient patience for the monk's deliberately slow life? Or have I just not gotten enough sleep in a few months?
LONG TOU (Gu Changwei): Conversations of life, birth, death. At best, it's the philosophical beauty of the mundane dirtiness of life. Or perhaps it serves as a counterpoint, reminding us that without the constant ordinary ugliness of life, beauty means nothing at all.
MY WAY (Ann Hui): The tribulations and support group of a male-to-female transsexual, as she undergoes her surgery. Easily the most accessible of the group, which I guess means that to me the most beautiful thing is a man turning into a woman.
Next up was the Shorts Program, On Bodies.
SECRETS OF THE MONGOLIAN ARCHERS: A fascinating look at a cold, remote Mongolian village, where archery is integral to the native DNA and their best archers prepare for the Olympics.
JUDY: A love letter to an old woman (the director's grandmother, if I recall correctly) who in her advanced age taught line dancing (not lion dancing, line dancing) at her community center.
NO LONGER THERE: A beautiful story about the art of crafting perfect dentures for people who have lost their teeth through age or injury. A denture artist puts great care into his work (so much that his colleagues tease him about it) while fantasizing about the woman whose teeth these will become.
BOLLYWOOD INVASION: A fun and colorful story of an awkward kid who has to step up, join the dance team, and win the big contest in order to win the girl.
BIGGER THEY COME: Like a video-game come to life, Jynx is the kick-ass girl who has to defeat all the bad guys and avenge her grandfather's death. Lots of fun.
DILLI DREAMS: An elderly man interacts and reflects on the youth of the city in this beautiful and poetic Indian movie.
INSIDE OUR HEARTS: The touching documentary about unique (I've decided to stop using the term "disabled" but I'm no fan of "differently-abled" so I'm still looking for the right word) parents raising their little boy.
TULE LAKE: An animated story of Japanese-American internment in WWII and the sacrifices a mother will go through to provide for her family.
And then I got a unique treat, COMRADE KIM GOES FLYING is a U.K., Belgium, and North Korean co-production, filmed in North Korea. I know what you're thinking (because apparently I'm psychic?) a North Korean film must be nothing but propaganda, right? Well, maybe a little bit, but the co-producer/co-director stated that actually real North Korean propaganda films were something else. This does have a lot of references to "revolutionary spirit" and showcasing the "strength of the working class", but it is ultimately the story of one girl succeeding in pursuit of her dreams. As the opening text states, we all have dreams, no matter where we are. Well, Kim Yong Mi dream is to fly, ever since she saw a dove when she was a little girl. But she lives in a mining town, so she lives most of her life underground. But she excels at acrobatics as well as her job--frequently exceeding quota and then entertaining her fellow workers with her acrobatic skills. When she gets a plum assignment to the construction team in Pyongyang, she goes early to visit the circus and see her idol, the trapeze star. And that visit convinces her to try out for the circus. Of course, at first she doesn't succeed. But when she overhears the male trapeze star Pak Jang Phil (Pak Chung Guk) making fun of her, she is more determined to succeed just to show him up. And luckily her fellow workers are behind her in this effort. Not only are dreams universal, but apparently so is the desire to help cute, charming, plucky girls with bubbly personalities to pursue their dreams. More than a few moments in the film come off as naive or childlike to Western sensibilities, but it's a lot of fun as well as an interesting look into North Korean sensibilities (I was particularly struck by the vibrant colors used, so different than the stereotype of a bleak and colorless dictatorship.)
The Q and A afterwards was also fascinating, but I had to leave about 15 minutes into it to catch my next film.
And that was HIGH TECH, LOW LIFE, a documentary about Chinese bloggers. Specifically, about "Zola" and "Tiger Temple." We open on Zola, a young guy who is a kind of "happy warrior" (Tiger Temple's words) in the fight against official news accounts. Part citizen-reporter, part merry prankster, he pulls off borderline offensive photography/video shenanigans and posts them online using various techniques to get around the "Great Firewall" of Chinese Internet censorship. You can see he cares, and some of his playfulness is a defense mechanism ('I was just another tourist and I made this little joke that happened to be picked up as a social message.') Tiger Temple, meanwhile, is a more serious citizen-reporter who travels the countryside documenting and telling stories of the people. Stories of polluted waters, or homeless people evicted from Beijing in advance of the Olympics. Director Stephen Maing gets some pretty remarkable access to both of them, and shows their adventures in pushing the boundaries of Internet freedom in China (and the push back by the authorities.) It serves as a useful reminder both of the Internet freedoms I take for granted here (although I'm under no illusion the Internet is completely free now or will continue to be as free as it is) and the spirit of netizen activists in other parts of the world.
And finally, I ended the night with THE LAND OF HOPE, the latest from Sion Sono (LOVE EXPOSURE) and his response to the Fukushima disaster. Although not directly about Fukushima, it is referenced as a past event frequently. Instead, this takes place in the fictional prefecture of Nagashima, which has a similar nuclear power plant and suffers a similar earthquake. This leads to the utterly ridiculous but perfectly believable premise that the government would declare an evacuation zone so precise that the border is placed between neighboring houses. Officials tell one family they must move, it's too dangerous for them to stay while simultaneously telling the neighbors just outside the evacuation zone that it's perfectly safe for them to stay. It becomes a contemplation on nuclear energy, nuclear paranoia, facing the end of life gracefully (or not), governmental insanity, and...well a heck of a lot more. Because it's Sion Sono it's beautiful and it pushes a heck of a lot of buttons. It just sort of...overwhelmed me to a point where I can't sum it up nicely. I can say, as a physicist, that love does not beat radiation. I can also say, as a viewer, I think the title is ironic (unless there's some hidden hope I missed.) Also, the fire was freakin' beautiful.
Total Running Time: 478 minutes
My Total Minutes: 321,867