The prizes have been awarded in Berlin, deals have been clinched and thousands of journalists and film fans have returned exhausted to their respective homes to get ready for the next round in Cannes. This includes several Asian directors who presented their latest works to a hungry audience.
There’s no doubt about it. The biggest Asian hit at Berlin’s 58th Film Festival was a product of Bollywood. Indian star Shahrukh Khan was the crowd-puller -- fans came from all over the world to greet him, as he presented the big-budget “Om Shanti Om”, which has broken box office records in India already.
But Bollywood was not the only Asian cinema showcased this year -- there were several more low-key productions than “Om Shanti Om” to be seen in Berlin, from documentaries to features, with the subject matter ranging from war to love, via tsunamis and petty crime.
The Chinese director Li Ying presented his powerful documentary about the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to Japan’s war-dead. With great care and tact, his film explores the legacy of the Second World War in Japanese society and more specifically the shrine, which is a site of pilgrimage for veterans, conservative politicians and somewhat misguided tourists.
Li Ying treats the sensitive matter of memory with the help of the last Yasukuni sword-maker -- an ageing, forgetful man, who becomes a symbol of memory and oblivion for Japanese society as a whole. But the director is also careful to allow Japanese opponents to the shrine to express their views on how Japan should deal with its wartime history.
In the end, the director successfully creates a balanced film, which provides a fascinating insight into a past that still weighs heavily on the present in Japan, China and Asia as a whole.
Jim Libiran, the first-time director of “Tribu”, has chosen another subject matter, which threatens to engulf Asia today -- slums and gangs. He worked with mainly non-professional actors to produce a Philippines equivalent of the popular Brazilian gang drama “City of God” directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund.
“Tribu” is a brutal depiction of gang-life to the sounds of poetic rap music in the slums of Tondo, on the outskirts of the capital Manila, which ends in a bloodbath.
Whereas the gang scenes already seemed very familiar, what differentiates “Tribu” to a certain extent is the sympathetic portrayal of ordinary citizens trying to lead as "ordinary" a life as possible.
These are the poor, the unwitting parents of gang members, whose ill-fated struggle to keep their children in order and to provide a grain of warmth, as they go about their daily working lives, is treated with much compassion by the director.
However, the brutal bloodbath at the end of the film puts paid to all hope and leaves the viewer with a very bitter taste. One would have hoped that the struggle to remain dignified in extremely adverse circumstances would have been rewarded instead of sensationalist violence being succumbed to for special effect.
A wonderful town?
The sensationalism of violence is what the Thai director of “Wonderful Town”, Aditya Assarat, also succumbs to at the end of his poetic film about a non-descript coastal town, which was ravaged by the 2005 tsunami.
This is a shame because his slow-paced telling of a love story between a bored hotel employee and a visiting architect, who in the end is battered to death by a bunch of local good-for-nothings, stands alone without the brutal final scene.
“Wonderful Town” revisits the post-tsunami town with simplicity -- his depiction of an ordinary love affair is sensitive and the images of the unremarkable townscape juxtaposed with the natural beauty of the nearby beaches, where the luxury resort hotels are being rebuilt, speak for themselves.
The tsunami brought enough devastation without the artifice of man-made brutality being necessary in this film.
Judging by his earlier films, one might have expected a great deal more of man-made brutality from Johnnie To’s “Man Jeuk” (“Sparrow”) but his film was actually reasonably tame.
Indeed, it was a delight to watch. His focus is on four very agile pickpockets, who seem content with lifting a few wallets a day and pursuing their individual hobbies, such as black-and-white photography or cycling, until one day the sparrow (a slang term for pickpocket), and a beautiful woman enter their lives and they find themselves entangled in a spat with a leading underworld boss -- a master pickpocket himself -- the sparrow of the title.
Funny, quirky and enchanting, “Man Jeuk” is also pleasure for the eye -- the subdued colours are soothing and the use of light is stunning.
From Seoul to Paris
The same, to a certain extent, can be said of the South Korean “Bam Gua Nat” (“Night and Day”) by Hong Sangsoo -- at least for the first half of the film.
On the run from the police in his home country for the minor crime of cannabis smoking, a South Korean finds himself in Paris -- a Mecca for all painters. Far from his beloved wife, he slowly adapts to his new transitory life in the mythical city.
Quickly, he becomes acquainted with the expatriate South Korean community and starts to fall in love again. The episodes of his early days in alien surroundings are touching and amusing to begin with -- they strike a chord with every person who has ever been abroad (and Paris is always enchanting).
However, after a while the film begins to drag and the director introduces various unexplained dream sequences that begin to grate.
And this is when the viewer gets distracted, starts thinking about other films, about more entertaining, faster-paced productions, from Bollywood perhaps?
Which takes us back to the beginning, in this fast-paced world, perhaps Bollywood’s success can be attributed simply to the fact that people want rapid entertainment -- a song and a dance and maybe also some eye candy in the form of Sharukh Khan…