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Asian films at the Berlinale reflect variety of a continent on the rise

February 18, 2011

In terms of quality, form and content, Asian cinema at this year’s Berlinale has been as varied as the continent is vast. Anne Thomas has seen quite a few films in the past week and found out what the experts think.

Asian films are becoming more and more of a regular in Berlinale's vast programme
Asian films are becoming more and more of a regular in Berlinale's vast programmeImage: AP

Every year, as the ice-cold winter draws slowly to a close, the cinemas on Potsdamer Platz in the center of Germany’s capital provide some warmth for the actors, directors, producers, journalists and cineastes who have gathered for the 10-day Berlinale. When they are not in important meetings, they rush from one screening to the next, often relying on word-of-mouth for recommendations.

And every year, more and more Asian faces can be seen on and off-screen in Berlin. Asian films are now “ubiquitous at festivals worldwide,” Christoph Terhechte, the head of the prestigious Forum of New Cinema section, told Deutsche Welle between films and interviews.

“It is very clear that the strongest contingent is from South Korea, which is also where the only Asian film in competition is from,” explained Paolo Bertolin, a specialist in Asian cinema and consultant at the international Venice film festival.

Maker of "The Terrorists" shows an impassioned statement against the Thai government
Maker of "The Terrorists" shows an impassioned statement against the Thai governmentImage: Internationale FIlmfestspiele Berlin

“There is also quite a relevant Japanese participation, as well as some important Bollywood films. One can notice a relevantly strong participation from Thailand, with two features and one short film in competition. Compared to previous years there are not that many Chinese films,” he pointed out, adding that because of the “vastness and variety of the continent” he preferred to talk of “Asian cinemas.”

Asian cinemas in the plural

“You can talk about East Asian cinema, you can talk about Southeast Asian cinema – those are the areas where you could draw some comparisons because the markets actually are compatible in film,” Terhechte agreed.

“Films made in China will of course try to have a certain market share in Japan and in Korea too. The same goes for Southeast Asia where the filmmakers are networked and relate to each other. Philippine cinema, for example, and Malay cinema have certain similarities and people really are talking to each other, also through the festivals that exist in those regions.”

Full of self-contradiction

One of this year’s films is called Jagadangchak – this means self-contradiction in Korean. Kim Sun, the director of this irreverent satire and outspoken indictment of Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s government, said he wanted his film to embody all the contradictions in Korea. The term can perhaps be applied to all the Asian films at the festival.

Jagadangchak: Korean for self-contradiction
Jagadangchak: Korean for self-contradictionImage: Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin

They generally depict a continent in transition and societies coming to terms with globalization, political transformations and economic challenges, as well as clinging on to certain traditions.

This can be said of Yoshida Koki’s “Household X” about the disintegration of an ordinary Japanese family that makes a subtle comment on the challenges facing the “salarymen” and the crisis that Japan’s economy has undergone.

It is also true, in a very different way, of Thunska’s “The Terrorists” in which the filmmaker makes a very personal and impassioned statement against the Thai government by juxtaposing homoerotic scenes with brutal scenes of police violence in the 1970s and footage of last year’s protests in Bangkok.

“Cheonggyecheon Medley” by Kelvin Kyung Kun Park, meanwhile, examines the impact of modernization on an area of Seoul, where the war metalworkers have traditionally carried out their work. Apart from a monotonous voiceover with poorly-translated subtitles, the film successfully portrays the lives of men who have spent decades earning their living side-by-side, drinking and eating together, making jokes and remaining oblivious to economic development.

Cheonggyecheon Medley shows the life of men who spend their lives together, isolated from economic development
"Cheonggyecheon Medley" from South KoreaImage: Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin

Aditya Assarat’s “Hi-So” examines what happens when people have a foot in more than one culture, as is increasingly the case. It tries to bridge the gap between East and West, highlighting the problems one man encounters trying to fit into both Thai and American society and the clashes of culture he experiences.

Sheer entertainment

There have also been some purely entertaining movies at this year’s festival, such as “The Stool Pigeon,” by Dante Lam. This fast-paced thriller set in Hong Kong culminates in a brutal bloodbath after a series of car chases, robberies and fistfights.

Kelvin Kyung Kun Park examines the impact of modernization in Seoul in his film Cheonggyecheon Medley
Filmmaker Kelvin Kyung Kun Park examines the impact of modernization in Seoul in his film Cheonggyecheon MedleyImage: Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin

“Manchu” or “Late Autumn” by Kim Tae-yong is a remake of a 1960s classic about a young Chinese prisoner who is allowed three days of leave to go to her mother’s funeral in Seattle. On the bus from Tulsa, she meets a young Korean with whom she ends up spending most of her time, since she feels alienated from her family. There are some delightful scenes as the two very different protagonists learn to trust and love each other. The film movingly conveys the feeling of isolation and loneliness any prisoner has to deal with. Used to being addressed as a number, the main character has to relearn how to say her name, how to smile, how to talk to people, and all the while she knows that soon she will be back in her cell. There are some inconsistencies and some scenes which could have been edited out but it is a welcome depiction of the American-Asian communities in the United States.

For despite its economic rise, especially China’s, Asia remains a continent that people leave and the United States is still a favored destination.

Future of Asian cinema

For those interested in the old Asian continent, the Forum has showcased the works of Shibuya Minoru who has an ironic but tender take on post-war Japanese society.

“He’s one of the forgotten Japanese directors who never got to fame outside Japan although he’s a very prominent figure in Japanese film history. He really embodies the spirit of the middle-classes in 1950s and 60s Japan, touching on a lot of issues that were important to them, such as morality,” explained Terhechte.

With Asian directors playing an increasingly important role in world cinema and on the festival scene, some might be tempted to say they might dominate the 21st century but the Forum head was reluctant to go this far.

ARCHIV - Ein goldener Berlinale-Bär steht am 08.02.2010 in der Bildgießerei Noack in Berlin auf einer Aluminiumplatte. Seit 1951 ist der Berlinale-Bär Symbol und begehrte Trophäe der Internationalen Filmfestspiele Berlin. Unter der silbernen bzw. goldenen Haut der etwa vier Kilo schweren Figur verbirgt sich ein Bronzekörper, der in einem Sandbett gegossen wird. Der wichtigste Preis, der Goldene Bär, ehrt den besten Film im Wettbewerb der Festspiele. Foto: Soeren Stache dpa/lbn (zu dpa 4141 vom 19.02.2010) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Asian cinema is making waves at this year’s BerlinaleImage: AP

“Cultures are always different in the world and wherever you are you will have your own particular styles and audiences will have their own particular interests,” he said. “I’m not really convinced that Asian cinema will take the place of Hollywood cinema so soon.”

Venice consultant Bertolin was equally hesitant to make such a sweeping generalization but he did concede that “some of the most creative and exciting directors active in world cinema are from Asia and more and more their contribution to the art of cinema is relevant to the future generation of filmmakers.”

So at next year’s Berlinale, we can expect a whole new set of exciting, challenging films from Asia to help us forget the biting cold outside.

Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Sarah Berning