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From Rotterdam to Sundance Vancouver International Film Festival

A couple of years ago, the Vancouver International Film Festival (October 1 – 16, 2009) used to be one of the best film festivals, not just in North America, but in the world. This is a very strong claim and it is not just the usual rhetoric exaggeration of the film critic. But this is no longer the case. It is still a very good film festival, but, alas, it has lost the bold and unconventional flavour that used to make it absolutely exceptional.

The reason why the Vancouver International Film Festival used to be such a great film festival is simple. Some time in the late nineties, the festival 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. In short, 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.

And, fittingly, the Vancouver International Film Festival is known to most film buffs as the place where the next generation of Asian filmmakers is being discovered. The Festival’s Dragons & Tigers Award is one of the most prestigious awards for Asian films. Most of the Asian directors who are considered to be the most significant contemporary figures of world cinema, including Hong Sang-Soo, Zhang Ming, Lee Chang-Dong, Wisit Sasanatieng and Jia Zhangke were awarded this prize early in their career. The high profile of this Award is reflected in the composition of its jury: three years ago the president was Apichatpong Weerasethakul, perhaps the most original and unconventional film directors alive today.
It would be a mistake to think, however, that the Vancouver International Film Festival became a regional film festival for Asian films. It managed to keep a balance between films from the Far East and films from other parts of the world. Just one example: three years ago, perhaps the most important event at the film festival was the screening of Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour opus, Noli me tangere, which features everybody who was anybody in the history of the French Nouvelle Vague – a film made (and, with very few exceptions, last screened) thirty-five years ago. 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 most discerning North American film critic and number one Rivette-expert, Jonathan Rosenbaum introduced the film.

In short, Vancouver used to be the Rotterdam Film Festival of North America: experimental or even avant-garde, showing films that are in the forefront of the innovation of the language of cinema. It used to be a place where one could count on seeing films with complex narrative and formal sophistication.

But that is over. This year, Vancouver could be more appropriately described as the Sundance Film Festival of Canada: very many content-driven films without any distinguishing stylistic features. The Dragons & Tigers Award still exists, but it seems that the films this year were not primarily picked for their formal qualities or for their experimental or innovative style, as it used to be the case. They were often picked for the themes they were dealing with, with little attention to their stylistic merit. One couldn’t help feeling that the programmers were sometimes going for films that depict important social issues (regardless of the way they depict them) and that they sometimes somewhat mechanistically pick the current films of those directors who were (rightly) celebrated on the festival circuit about five (or more) years ago.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang, for example, is represented this year by his Nymph, which is not a bad film, but feels more like a pastiche of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Maladies as well as of Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s own films. Although Nymph does not quite reach even the sophistication of Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s last film, Invisible Waves, let alone his truly remarkable Last Life in the Universe, it does have a certain narrative complexity that makes it worthwhile to watch. But it is difficult to find an excuse for showing Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt’s J’Accuse: a static piece of art historical argument that the director desperately tries to liven up with moving frames within frames, highlighting techniques reminiscent of powerpoint presentations and amateurish enactments of supposed historical scenes. The failure of this film is especially ironic in the light of Greenaway’s repeated statements about how films should not be based on texts. Well, he is right: and they should not be based on texts about pictures either. Greenaway made very exciting and innovative films in the 1980s. But that was long ago. Choosing this film on the strength of his earlier works is a paradigmatic example for a dangerous direction the selection of films has been taking at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

But there are some excellent picks. Tsai Ming-Liang’s Face is as good as any of the master’s earlier pieces, but much more challenging: it is full of subtle (and some not so subtle) allusions to Truffaut’s films and there is very little narrative cohesion in its 141 long minutes of pretty much nothing happening. Interestingly, in spite of all the reference to Truffaut’s both here and in Tsai Ming-Liang’s earlier films, it is clearer than ever that the real connection is with Godard’s late films, not Truffaut’s. Many people will hate Tsai Ming-Liang’s Face, but those who like films with no or very little narrative, amazing compositions, a delicate sense of irony will love it. And the aging Jean-Pierre Leaud’s parody of himself is priceless. His non-conversation with Lee Kang-Sheng, the main actor of Tsai Ming-Liang’s films and the director of The Missing, is a scene that lovers of the classics of cinematic modernism will always remember. The Vancouver International Film Festival deserves praise for taking the risk to show this controversial film.

In the past, there was a good balance between Asian and European/Latin American/Middle Eastern films. This year, besides the Asian films, there were a deluge of Canadian and American independent films. Only three from Iran, only two from Argentina – the two countries that have given us some of the most innovative waves of films in the last decade. But there is a real masterpiece among the non-Asian art films that were screened at the Festival this year: Elia Suleiman’s The Time that Remains. Like the director’s previous film, Divine Intervention, this film is also a quiet, ironic and contemplative study of repetitions and pure formalist compositions. The Time that Remains, however, unlike the previous film, pretends to be a historical epic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a pretense that quickly becomes apparent), which nontheless makes the film more accessible to wider audiences, without at the same time compromising its formal and narrative complexity – a rare virtue in contemporary cinema.

Three years ago in my coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival, I wrote that while Toronto and Montreal may have more films and more glamour, Vancouver is a festival for the real film snobs. This year, I would not say this. Film snobs will still find some gems. But the Vancouver International Film Festival is, alas, no longer the Rotterdam of North America.

Bence Nanay

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