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APRIL 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 15 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Asiaweek Pictures
Rush combines a touch of Altman with rock sensibilities in its look at youthful frustration in South Korea

Asian Film Gets A Rush
Youth themes fire up regional productions at Hong Kong's cinematic festival
By ANDREW SUN

It has little of the partying and celebrity hoopla that defines other cine-fests. Case in point: This year's most prominent guest isn't a People magazine regular like, say, Leonardo DiCaprio but German art-film director Wim Wenders. Even so, Hong Kong's film festival, now in its 24th year, continues to stake its place among the elite of international movie showcases in Asia. In a way, this is symbolic of the event. It is short on sizzle, but generous with the steak. Particularly, it offers one of the most thorough looks at contemporary Asian cinema, and the line-up this year is more diverse and youthful in appeal than ever.

"There is a lot of energy in the commercial cinema of Asia -- the kind that people used to associate with Hong Kong films," says Jacob Wong, who drew up the regional program. "Now it's very apparent all over Asia." And not a few films target twentysomething audiences. Korean director Kim Sang Jin's adrenaline-driven Attack Of The Gas Station is one. Others like Singapore's Eating Air and 6ixtynin9 from

Thailand have good commercial potential. The latter is a particularly fun, if macabre look at what it takes to survive in the Crisis-struck nation. And the festival closes with A Chance To Die, a rare gangster movie from Taiwan, which seems to have specialized in brooding art movies over the past decade. "Taiwan hasn't made genre films in years," notes Wong.

Hong Kong contributions to the youth theme includes Spacked Out. The festival-opening film made by Lawrence Ah Mon is a slice-of-life look at kids in the neon-lit mean streets, from the perspective of four teenage girls. Rising director Fruit Chan offers a different take on the same milieu with Durian, Durian, in which he probes Hong Kong's blue-collar psyche through a character study of mainland immigrants. Chan tackled the same subject in the third of his Handover films, Little Cheung, which was released at the end of last year, and some of the characters re-appear in Durian, a sort of addendum to the trilogy. Of those films, Little Cheung carried the strongest emotional thread. The movie has a Dickensian narrative (a young boy befriends a girl who has entered the SAR illegally) and the images are startling in their resonance. It may not be as profitable as conventional Hong Kong movies, but Chan conveys more poetry in one shot than recent shoot-em-ups like Gen-X Cops manage to in two hours.

Equally poetic is indie auteur Bryan Chang's Among The Stars. His first feature, After The Crescent, was overshadowed by Chan's award-winning debut Made In Hong Kong in 1997. A study of loneliness and regret, Stars features the quietest depiction in film history of Causeway Bay, arguably the city's most frenetic commercial district.

But it's South Korea that has the greatest buzz in Asian cinema. Its emergence in the late 1990s has been fueled by young guns with sharply observed perspectives. From Hong Sang Soo's defiantly minimalist studies like The Power of Kangwon Province to Hur Jin Ho's heart-tugging Christmas In August to tales of modern alienation such as Park Ki Yong's Motel Cactus (shot by Chris Doyle), Seoul moviemakers are attracting more attention than ever before.

Partly, this is because the world has already "discovered" the other Asian countries with developed cinema traditions. But the ripple of interest grew into a wave when the action epic Shiri received wide regional distribution after cleaning up at its domestic box office last year. And the three-year-old Pusan film festival has risen in tandem: it is beginning to challenge Hong Kong.

"Things are really happening," Wong says. Critics and industry observers had been predicting a growing appetite for Korean movies since 1996. "After China, after Hong Kong, people were looking for new cinemas in Asia. Korea was next," he explains. Then came the economic crisis.

Fortunately, there were a few backers still willing to invest in movies. The results include Rush, which represents the continuing merger of director Lee Sang In's indie esthetics with his MTV-commercial impulses. Imagine Robert Altman meeting Kurt Cobain. Rush splices together the tales of several young people in search of meaning in their lives: a female rocker, an aimless delinquent, a stressed-out university hopeful, a dutiful day-jobber and his sister who secretly moonlights as a bar hostess. Sometimes the result is more style than substance but the characters are invested with sincerity and honest empathy. Rage, self-disgust and post-adolescence uncertainty are packed into its 100 or so minutes and the movie rocks as Quadrophenia did about 20 years ago.

An Iranian showcase focuses on movies featuring children, which define virtually 90% of the country's output. Wong admits the choice was in response to the surprising commercial success of Majid Majidi's Children Of Heaven, which ran for months in the SAR. The most interesting works in the selection, though, are those about older kids. Rassul Sadr Ameli's The Girl In The Sneakers examines the generation gap in Tehran. A boy and girl are in a park, talking about their dreams for the future when they are stopped by the police. The teenagers have violated the Muslim prohibition on unmarried people being alone together. This is not a critique of Islamic rigidity but an exploration of teenage angst. The embarrassed parents admonish the 15 year-old-girl and she runs away from home with such universal complaints as "they don't like the clothes I buy." The dangers for a runaway girl are the same everywhere too, and Girl In The Sneakers is a fascinating, restrained work.

Japan's eclectic cinema continues to be strongly represented. Hysteric, Takahisa Zeze's discomfiting look at a couple's crime spree, is compared to Bonnie And Clyde and Natural Born Killers. The film resembles neither. Unease stems not from the random violence (which is never very explicit) but from the young lovers' psychological dependence on each other and the empathy they rouse despite their callousness.

The most curious Japanese titles this year, though, are documentaries. To make The New God, the leftist filmmaker Yutaka Tsuchiya handed his camera to a right-wing female punk rocker and the result is a confessional diary, with filmmaker and his polar opposite subject now apparently dating each other. Katsuyuki Hirano's The White chronicles his own journey to Hokkaido's northernmost tip in the depths of winter -- on a bicycle.

"Japan makes really interesting documentaries," says Wong. "In India, there are a lot of activist films which address social problems. But Japan always deals with subjects that others ignore." Maybe that's because so many young people want to be filmmakers, he says. The Japanese, he murmurs, like to joke that they have a surfeit of filmmakers and not enough audiences.

Several other entries stand out in the documentary section. Anne Goldson's Punitive Damage follows a New Zealand-Malaysian mother's quest for justice after her son is killed by the Indonesian military in an East Timor protest. Roko Belic's heartwarming Genghis Blues purports to be about a blind American bluesman who travels to Tuva in Central Asia to enter a throat-singing contest, but it is as much about how flaky San Franciscans really are.

The most salacious is a film about a Singapore-born adult-film actress. Sex: The Annabel Chong Story traces the rise of Grace Quek, a Women's Studies major who changed her name while in the U.S., and briefly held the record for having sex with the most men in 10 hours. The film, which premiered at Sundance, is generally panned as more exploitation than exposť. Regardless, screenings at the Hong Kong festival are sold out. This is one production unlikely to play in Singapore, even within a film-festival setting. Quek, who has since found a new career as a porn director, is banned from entering the Lion City.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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