The sun barely put in a cameo appearance at last month’s Vancouver International Film Festival, which made it all the more conducive to spending days on end in darkened rooms. Easily the most hospitable and cinephilic pit stop on the North American fest circuit, Vancouver forgoes the studio product placements, celebrity clamor, and reviewer tantrums of Toronto for the programming equivalent of an inspired, intimate DJ set. The highlights of this year’s 21st edition were typically sundry: from a social history of the Bowery to a sleuthing Thomas Pynchon doc; from Jon Moritsugu’s aging-disgracefully artfuck satire, the infectious Hi-8 Scumrock, to the North American premiere of Olivier Assayas’s brilliant conspiracy anti-thriller, Demonlover—an icy, caustic vision of the society of the spectacle (booed at Cannes, appropriately enough).
Still, Vancouver’s main course has always been its sumptuous East Asian buffet, catered with expansive expertise by longtime programmer Tony Rayns. The outré limits of recent Korean and Japanese cinema have been amply showcased in the past, but an almost beatific calm prevailed this year. Splatter king Takashi Miike (whose international cult owes much to his early exposure in Vancouver) was represented by two entries (measly by his workhorse standards): the trilogy-capping Dead or Alive: Final (out here this week, see review above) and the rollicking DV comedy caper Shangri-la, his most benevolent movie yet. A depressed novelist and a bankrupt printer fall in with a squatter community, and the misfit gang goes on to plot an elaborate stock market scam. The film’s subtitle: Japan Goes Bust.
The Far East economic crisis loomed unavoidably large, from Korea’s Roadmovie, where it facilitates a tortured homo-buddy jaunt, to Tsai Ming-liang’s exquisite short The Skywalk Is Gone, where the Taipei overpass in What Time Is It There? has been torn down and the Hsiao-kang character is trying his hand at porn, to Japanese director Nobuhiro Yamashita’s ruefully morose, note-perfect No-one’s Ark. The laconic slackerdom of Yamashita’s Hazy Life shades further into despair—the broke protagonist, prone to “dreaming and not thinking,” heads for his sleepy hometown with his touchingly game girlfriend to peddle a putrid health drink he’s invented. (By the end, the refrain “But the nutritional value is high!” is enough to reduce the viewer to tears.)
Youthful entropy is also the subject of Chang Tso-chi’s The Best of Times, a pensive Taiwanese ballad redolent of early Hou Hsiao-hsien but in a nostalgic minor key. No movie was gentler, though, than the improbable Doing Time, in which Japan’s Yoichi Sai brings more than a touch of Zen to the exhausted genre of Shawshank redemptions. Focusing on the sensory deprivations and intensifications of confinement (prison food has never looked this enticing), the film observes the perversely tranquilizing routines of life behind bars with the heedful equanimity of a Buddhist Beau Travail.
Vancouver has a knack for identifying Asian next big things (see 2000’s Thai New Wave), and this year’s hot subculture was unquestionably the Chinese mainland’s queer underground. Cui Zi’en’s no-budget Enter the Clowns begins with a young man granting a final sexual request to his dying father (who insists on being called mom), ends with an evangelical sci-fi story recited to camera, and commits numerous acts of gender sedition in between. The director, who cameos as the pink-lipsticked, middlesexed parent, inadvertently extended the tease beyond his movie’s ramshackle narrative when a Q&A translation glitch left the impression that he himself had undergone at least one gender reassignment surgery (a theory that persisted for a good few hours). Awarded the Dragons & Tigers prize for first or second Asian feature, Andrew Y.S. Cheng’s Shanghai Panic offers an alternately raw and soapy account of sex, drugs, and disease in the big city, zeroing in on bored, privileged kids dripping with over-it ‘tude. A muddle of familiar poses in nominally alien contexts, wobbling between ethnography and cynical nihilist chic (Kids is an obvious reference point), Cheng’s postcard from the edge, at the very least, has crossover potential.