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Between East and West : Vancouver International Film Festival

Organizing a major film festival in Vancouver may seem an impossible task. Two of the very best film festivals in North America take place in Toronto and Montreal, and if one thinks of major Canadian film festivals, Vancouver will not be the first one to spring to mind.
North American film festivals, however, tend to cater for the most important ethnic minorities present in their location. Vancouver has the great advantage of being home to minorities that happen to come from those countries (Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea) that have produced the most exciting films in the last few years. The festival was lucky that as good European films were in increasingly short supply, the films from these countries became more and more exciting and valuable artistically.
It is no surprise, then, that the Vancouver International Film Festival recently reinvented itself as the film festival that represents films from Asia. This was a natural path to take, given that this city has the largest percentage of Chinese, Japanese and Korean inhabitants of any North American city, and that some parts of greater Vancouver have distinctive Asian ambience.
And the best films at the festival were indeed from China, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. Only the most distinguished film festivals can afford to show weaker works by great directors, but this is exactly what the Vancouver film festival did. Tsai Ming-Liang is one of the greatest living directors of our time, and his new feature film, I don’t want to sleep alone was one of the best films screened here this year. But the festival had the courage also to show a recent television feature by Tsai, work of a kind he had not touched for more than ten years.
The film, My stinking kid, has the same format as Tsai’s early television works, but it was co-directed by Lee Kang-Sheng, the actor in all his film and the director of The Missing. This collaboration is not new. Lee’s The Missing and Tsai’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn were shot at the same time and many of their characters are the same. Their original titles (Bu Jian and Bu San, respectively) are also supposed to be read together. It is not difficult to spot some of the recurring themes of Tsai’s films in My stinking kid (for example, the motif of a mysterious illness and the way he filmed interiors), but Lee’s influence is also palpable in the (relative) sentimentality of some of the scenes. It would be interesting to see how Tsai and Lee would collaborate on a feature film that is not made for television.
Jia Zhang-Ke is another great among living directors. His newest opus, Still life, winner in Venice this year, was also shown at the Vancouver festival. In addition, the festival screened a documentary by him, shot at the same locations and even using some of the same material as the feature film. This film, Dong, will probably not be considered one of the director’s masterpieces, and it never aspires to be one. It is a documentary about an artist, Liu Xiao-Dong, and the way he paints. It does not want to be more than that. It carries the distinctive features of Jia Zhang-Ke’s films, and it is as difficult to identify with the painter as it is in Xiao Wu to identify with the pickpocket. In a documentary about a high-profile artist, this is very surprising, to say the least. Even if the film lacks the artistic perfection of some of Zhang-Ke’s feature films, it offers an absorbing view into the way a Chinese artist lives through the country’s, and the wider region’s, changes.
A third major Asian film director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is in residence in Vancouver for the entire film festival, as he is on one of the many juries. His new film, Syndromes and a century is as complex, but perhaps not as dark as his previous films. The structure is less serene and more playful, but it is perhaps even more difficult to find the links between the two parts of the film than in Weerasethakul’s previous work, Tropical Malady, which is in itself quite an achievement.
It would be a mistake to think, however, that the Vancouver International Film Festival became a regional film festival for Asian films. It also offers new works by seminal (non-mainstream) European directors, such as Manoel de Oliveira, Aki Kaurismaki or Jan Svankmajer. There are also follow-ups of big festival-hits of the last couple of years by young directors, such as Los Muertos or Distant. Unfortunately, few of these films are as artistically exciting as previous works by the same directors.
But perhaps the most important event at the film festival was the screening of a film made (and, with very few exceptions, last screened) thirty-five years ago: Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour opus, Noli me tangere, which features everybody who was anybody in the history of the French Nouvelle Vague. Surprisingly easy to watch, this film cannot even be compared to the widely distributed four-hour version. The importance of the event is clearly indicated by the fact that perhaps the number one Rivette-expert, Jonathan Rosenbaum introduced the film.
While Toronto may have more films and Montreal may have more glamour, Vancouver is a festival for the real film snobs.

Bence Nanay

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