Cinematic riches of the Pacific Rim

Brian D. Johnson September 21 1987

Cinematic riches of the Pacific Rim

Brian D. Johnson September 21 1987

Cinematic riches of the Pacific Rim


The recent blitz of Vietnam war movies on North American screens—from Platoon to Hamburger Hill—have at least one thing in common: none were filmed where the war took place. But now Vietnam has produced its own dramatic commentary on the conflict: Karma, a story of two Vietnamese lovers divided by the war. A modest $400,000 melodrama filmed in black and white, it cannot compete with the bigbudget firepower of Western movies, but its locations are undeniably authentic. And it portrays the war from a viewpoint that is fresh and fascinating.

Karma is one of 39 films that make up Eastern Horizons, an ambitious program of Asian-Pacific cinema being shown this week by Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. Representing five countries —South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Vietnam—the program takes Western viewers on a privileged excursion into the new world of Eastern cinema: many of the movies have never been seen outside their countries of origin.

The Toronto film festival, now in its 12th year, is well-known for drawing Hollywood stars to its glittering premières and parties: expected this year are Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Diane Keaton. But it has also developed an international reputation for showcasing works of moviemakers who live beyond the boundaries of Europe and North America. Last year the festival mounted the largest retrospective of Latin American cinema ever assembled, a program of close to 100 films. The Asian-Pacific program includes fewer titles, but is even more audacious. While introducing Eastern movies to festival regulars, organizers are also hoping to lure members of Toronto’s large Asian community to screenings.

The influence of the West is a prevalent theme in Asian films. Im-

ages of Western culture, reflected back through the East, are strangely jarring to the Westerners—from boorish Gis in Korean brothels to snobbish matrons in Manila suburbs. Meanwhile, the onscreen action often unfolds with an intensity rarely

found in Western movies. Melodramas like Korea’s Fire Women Village have roots in dramatic traditions much older than cinema. Said David Oberbey, the Paris-based programmer who put together Eastern Horizons: “All of these countries share a great love of melodrama. At the same time, the films often deal with serious social issues—and the result is popular art of the highest order.” Oberbey spent six months travelling through Asia to assemble Eastern Horizons. He omitted China, India and Japan because each country is large enough to warrant separate treatment at future festivals. The countries he did focus on have each seen the emergence of a new generation of talented film-makers in the past decade. South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong are leading examples of capitalism’s self-proclaimed economic miracle on the Pacific Rim.

And their movies, which tend to be robustly commercial, are well produced.

The Winter Wayfarers, South Korea’s 1986 box-office hit, is a lushly filmed romance, a tragedy told in sweeping strokes. Despite the movie’s pop soundtrack and new-age gloss, the characters are trapped by strong traditions and rigid class codes of an ancient society. Winter Wayfarers is about a college student who falls in love, then falls from grace, tumbling into Seoul’s underworld in an attempt to investigate his mother’s past as a prostitute.

Prostitution is a recurrent theme in the Asian movies. A Korean drama, Ticket, is the true story of one of the country’s tea-shop waitresses, whose range of takeout services includes sex. A 1980 Philippine movie, Manila By Night, is a crudely made but telling portrait of the city’s commercial subculture of sex and drugs. Banned by thenPhilippine president Ferdinand Marcos, it takes a satirical look at the hypocrisy of affluence, portraying middle-class pretension as a more serious foible than promiscuity. “In the Philippines,” said Oberbey, “being a prostitute or a call boy is not necessarily something to be despised. A lot of escapist films have been based on the myth of the girl from the slums who makes good.”

Manila’s slums have often served as a setting for Lino Brocka, a Filipino director who has won an international reputation —largely through repeated exposure at the Toronto festival with such films as Jaguar and Bona. Although brazenly commercial, his movies are rich with social criticism. When Marcos was in power, Brocka even had the courage to put an anti-Marcos demonstation on screen.

In Korea, censorship makes those scenes impossible. Instead, moviemakers

tend to practise discreet subversion by making period dramas that resonate with current issues. Last year director Lee Doo-yong, a veteran of 49 movies, delved into the politics of the 17th century with Eunuch—a bloody saga of palace murder, castration and execution—a veiled comment on Korea’s current instability.

Asian movies set in the present tend to be less overtly political, but often explore personal trauma arising from rampant urbanization and the destruction of the nuclear family. With Dust in the Wind, Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-hsien creates a slow-moving but poignant drama about a young couple who leave their rural families for the

capital of Taipei, only to find disillusionment. Hou also stars as a young merchant in Taipei Story, fellow filmmaker Edward Yang’s austere portrait of middle-class life in Taiwan’s capital. Yang turns Taipei’s alien cityscapes into a linear world of discotheques, expressways and wide-screen waves of neon.

Like Dust in the Wind, Taipei Story is a romance about two distanced lovers who never make physical or emotional contact. Not once do they kiss. When one talks, the other looks away. Between them lie telephone answering machines, designer art and a video machine playing tapes of American baseball games. They cling to two futile hopes: marriage and immigration to America. But both are dismissed as “fleeting illusions giving you hope that you can start all over again.”

Dust in the Wind and Taipei Story portray Taiwan with frozen elegance. By contrast, Hong Kong, that overheated cauldron of commerce, is famous for its fast-paced movies. Tsui Hark’s slapstick farce, Peking Opera Blues, is a rapid-fire montage of cartoon-like violence. And John Woo’s box-office smash, A Better Tomorrow, is a modern gangster movie that owes its style to the Kung Fu tradition of relentless action. Still, it offsets that frenetic tone with interludes of sincere compassion.

While commercial moviemakers try to reconcile art with escapism, Karma, the single Vietnamese film in the festival, stands apart. Surprisingly, Viet-

nam’s first major film about the war deals with the tragedy of the South Vietnamese Army rather than the heroism of the Viet Cong. Set in Saigon, it is an antiwar movie about lost love between a soldier and a prostitute. In that, it shares the spirit, if not the design, of the West’s antiwar films.

Skimming the surface of a vast industry, the festival program spotlights a new generation of Asian moviemakers who are conducting a revolution in popular culture. Largely invisible to the West, they work in a parallel universe with their own stars, directors, distributors and fans. But as their visions begin to creep across national borders, the light on cinema’s eastern horizon will slowly but surely begin to illuminate Western screens.