VANCOUVER, CANADAAmong its numerous idiosyncratic highlights, last month's Vancouver Film Festival featured a sidebar of L.A. movies inspired by Thom Andersen's video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself, a cinephile's City of Quartz that probes the paradoxical existence of the filmmaker's hometown as the most photographed place on earth and also the most misrepresented. The irony is obvious: Self-effacing location for countless Hollywood shoots, Vancouver almost never plays itself (as the fest unspooled, Catwoman Halle Berry was blowing through town). But the city's expansive and reliably quality-controlled festival, low-key as it is, suffers no invisibility complexthird largest on the North American circuit, with the biggest showcase of Pacific Rim cinema outside Asia.
Special events in this year's East Asian sectionthe Dragons and Tigers, programmed by Tony Rayns with his usual keen eye for new talentincluded Kim Hong-Joon's My Korean Cinema, a series of meditative vignettes that refracts local film history through a personal lens, and the Japanese cult phenomenon Cop Festival, an omnibus of jokey police-detective shorts (in some cases, tossed off in a single afternoon). As for the D&T competition for first and second features, it's hard not to applaud a slate broad-minded enough to accommodate 17-year-old Yusuke Sasaki's Letter, a Japanese DV drama told through cell-phone text messages, and Jang Jun-Hwan's Save the Green Planet, a seismic psychotronic regurgitation that inverts every trope it steals (Misery, 2001, MiB, etc.) and rips through a dozen midnight movies' worth of torture techniques and paranoid conspiracies before alighting on an improbable note of keening pathos.
A standout amid an atypically subdued Japanese contingent, Ryuichi Hiroki's Vibrator is a miniaturist, serenely bittersweet take on the intimate- strangers genre recently fetishized in Friday Night and Lost in Translation. The director is a veteran of pinku erotica, and the setup is softcore-ripe: A withdrawn thirtyish woman locks eyes with a hot bleach-blond trucker (Nao Omori, Ichi the Killer himself, showing a much gentler side) and hops aboard his 18-wheeler. . . . But the film has more on its mind than titillation, nestling deep into the self-aware sorrow of its bulimic, insomniac female protagonist.
A pair of debut features by American directors were likewise powered by the intense yearning of young women. Bradley Rust Gray's Iceland-set Salt is a teen movie with a DV Dogme aesthetic and a most un-Dogme-like sensibilityi.e., a heart. As a close-quarters character portrait, it resembles the Dardennes' Rosetta. Piggie, directed by Buffalo '66 co-writer Alison Bagnall, sends an unstable rural teen in pursuit of a dreamboat drifter, reprising the earlier film's Gallo-Ricci dynamic with a higher humiliation quotient. Luna/Galaxie 500 frontman Dean Wareham delivers a terrifically eccentric performance as the cranky object of desire. (Department of indie-rock crossovers: Vancouver also featured commendable directing debuts from dEUS's Tom Barman and the Skids' Richard Jobson.) Perhaps the best non-Asian entry, No Rest for the Brave is called a live-action Waking Life in the programwhich only begins to hint at the ingenious lunacy of French director Alain Guiraudie's deadpan Oulipian odyssey. Its sleep-deprived young hero traverses increasingly alien topographyfrom bucolic villages to an alt-reality utopia of punk bands and man-boy love to a slapstick nightmare populated by Godardian gangsters.
Mainland China again proved the most fertile site for underground discoveries. Gan Xiao'er's The Only Sons is a wrenching account of poverty and fake salvation in a southern Chinese village. And Diao Yinan (star of Yu Lik-wai's gorgeous Ballardian mood-soak, All Tomorrow's Parties) deservedly won the top prize for his first feature, Uniform, in which a young tailor gets his hands on the titular garment and takes to impersonating a policeman. An accomplished piece of Jia Zhangke-style precision realism, it doubles as a potent allegory of a spiritually uprooted generation's identity quest.
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