Hookers, Panthers, Dragons, Tigers

Identity confusion—both national and psychic—dominated this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. In Saafa Fathy's absorbing documentary Derrida's Elsewhere, the charismatic French philosopher offers an existential and political sense of being haunted—by other times, cultures, lives. In Jan Svankmajer's Little Otik, a tree trunk is mistaken for a human baby and responds to the attention. And in John Gianvito's The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, the landscape of New Mexico, home to various American underclasses, echoes that which was laid waste during the Gulf War.

The element of provocation was largely confined to the generous East Asian selection. Nam Gee-Woong's Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in Daehakno, a lurid, scrappy, savagely experimental piece stretched to barely 60 minutes, serves up a plot that crosses Ms. 45 and Robocop, and bathes it in blinding primary colors. Nam's film is closer in spirit to George Kuchar or Jon Moritsugu than recently anointed cult figure Takashi Miike, whose tiresome Ichi the Killer squanders the promise of his breakthrough psycho-thriller, Audition.

The digital boom continues, with decidedly mixed results. Zu Wen's Seafood is a typical example of DV sloppiness: shapeless scenes of a fraught couple in hotel rooms, in cars, on the street, with a handheld camera doggedly struggling, Dogme-style, to capture every nuance of performance. Moon Seung-Wook's lightly futuristic Nabi—The Butterfly at least showed that the old-fashioned ideal of mise-en-scène is not entirely dead. Spike Lee's remarkable A Huey P. Newton Story reveals other possibilities for digital creativity. Lee does not so much "open up" Roger Guenveur Smith's astonishing monologue—a portrait of the Black Panther theorist suspended and raving in some indeterminate moment of his existence—as burrow into it, matching the micro-rhythms of the actor's speech with inserts and "windows" of deftly edited archival imagery. This is theater-cinema hybrid at its impurest—and finest.

The Dragons and Tigers jury (which I served on this year) commended three films—Teenage Hooker; Wang Chao's severely realist The Orphan of Anyang; and Horie Kei's mind-boggling meditation on teen male friendship and death cults in Japan, Glowing, Growing—and awarded its prize to Hsiao Ya-chuan's Mirror Image. This altogether disarming low-key comedy takes material familiar from Wong Kar-wai's movies (childlike twentysomethings killing time, searching for love, tempting fate) but adopts an amusedly detached style. It makes displacement, for a change, feel like fun.

 
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