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The Good and the Not So Good
Deauville Asian Film Festival 2007
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Korean Movie King and the Clown

There are a million film festivals through the year, but there are some that sparkle. The Deauville Asian Film Festival on the French Atlantic coast in Normandy is one, and this year it gave in its recent ninth edition some interesting strips of celluloid.

My favourite was a South Korean movie by Lee Yoon-ki, "Ad Lib Night." Shot in 10 days and in a chronological order to mark a single night, this film conveys the anguish of a young girl (played with remarkable sensitivity by television star Han Hyo-joo) when two men pick her up on a crowded Seoul street and take her to a dying man with a plea that she act his daughter. The girl hesitates in the beginning, but later relents, and the journey helps her in the end to understand who she herself is, and come closer to her mother.

"Ad Lib Night" is obviously a series of night scenes created to produce an effect of a sombre tragedy — of a man dying alone without his family. Yet, Lee does not resort to any melodrama or mood pulls to tell the story. In an extremely restrained way, he structures his narrative to portray the dilemma of the girl, who finds herself in a situation that can be right or wrong, depending on the way one looks at it.

"Ad Lib Night" won the International Critics Prize as the best feature in the nine-entry Competition section.

The main jury at Deauville had other ideas of what constituted the best. It gave the top Grand Prize to a Thai movie, "Syndromes and a Century" by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Part of the Venice Competition in 2006, the film meanders in a magical way, and focuses on two doctors (based on the director's parents) working in a hospital. Weerasethakul does not make his work a depressing report of disease and death. Rather, he takes us on a journey of herbal cures, holistic healing techniques, hospital romance and the quirky private lives of monks.

(I am told that two scenes among a few more – of doctors drinking on the hospital campus and a doctor kissing his girlfriend in the locker-room – were points of objection in Thailand, where the medical fraternity and the government felt that such sequences seemed improper in the context. The helmer was asked to excise the offending parts, but he refused. The picture's release has been delayed: it was to open in two Bangkok screens on April 19, 2007.)

Funded by the city of Vienna as part of the celebration marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, "Syndromes and a Century" blurs the line between the past and present, and has been compared to a Harold Pinter play exploring the subjectivity of memory. Based on the director's memory of his doctor parents before they fell in love, "Syndromes and a Century," like his earlier "Tropical Malady" (which won a Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004) is divided into two parts, set 40 years apart.

Just like the way our memory plays with us, "Syndromes and a Century" often appears like snippets and keeps wandering from one slot to another, though the path it takes is often witty. Here are some examples. A dentist wants to become a singer and takes an interest in one of his patients. A Buddhist monk dreams of becoming a disc jockey. A doctor fumbles before proclaiming his passionate love for a fellow doctor, when she tells him about her infatuation for an orchid expert. A woman doctor hides a pint of liquor inside a prosthetic limb. A monk tells a doctor of some bad dreams he has been having about chickens. A young patient with carbon monoxide poisoning bats tennis balls down a long hospital corridor.

Such images can confuse a viewer, but that best thing is to let the movie sink in, particularly when it speeds from the real to the surreal. However, in the final analysis, "Syndromes and a Century" leaves you in a trance.

The Jury's Prize went to South Korea's "King and the Clown" by Lee Jun-ik. Set in the 1500s Korea during the Chosun dynasty, the film is an opulence of colour and glitz that underlines a deep political message. Two clowns are arrested by the king when they stage a satire on him, a satire that can be interpreted as downright vulgar in modern times, but which passed for humour then. The jesters make a deal with the king. If they can make him laugh, they should be freed, but the plot slips into a couple of alleys of jealousy and homosexuality, somewhat diluting the theme.

"King and the Clown" was South Korea's official entry for the Oscars this year.

Besides these award winners, there were a few more movies in Competition that caught my attention for the right and the wrong reason. A trend I noticed this year at Deauville was the inclusion of entries that dealt with para-normal phenomenon. Songyos Sugmakanan's "Dorm" (Thailand) runs like a ghost story seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, who feels that his school hostel swimming pool is haunted by the spirit of a student who drowned there. It may catch the fancy of a teenager, but I found it quiet juvenile for adult viewing.

"Route 225" (Japan, Nakamura Yoshihiro) is another bizarre tale of two schoolchildren who find that they have been pushed into the nether world of their dead parents. A confusing film at best, it is, though, extremely well paced and well acted out by its two child artists, Tabe Mikako (as Eriko) and Iwata Chikara (Daigo).

Two movies from China: Yuxin Zhuang's "Teeth of Love" chronicles the love affairs of a young Chinese woman as she moves though the country's turbulent decade from 1977. The director often juxtaposes her mental turmoil with that of China's. Although no patch on China's "Summer Palace" (part of the 2006 Cannes Competition) by Lou Ye (where two lovers play out their erotic love/hate relationship in the backdrop of the nation's intense political unrest), "Teeth of Love" touched me by its intimacy and uncomplicated way of story telling.

Zhang Yang's "Getting Home," was also a simple and straight narrative of a man who carries his dead friend, often on his back, across China to his home in Three Georges. Seemingly a film about commitment and honour, "Getting Home" had a hidden agenda. It was propagandist to the core, where the director played PR to the administration by painting a goody-goody picture of his country. Here are some examples. A highway gangster returns the money he robs from the man when he realises his mission. A schoolgirl offers her share of water to the man. A priest embalms the body free of charge. A policeman escorts the man to the dead guy's home. Well, what a fairytale of a China!

Not the best of selection in the three years that I have been to Deauville, but, nonetheless, the effort to showcase Asian cinema in an essentially French city — and which is very well patronised by the locals — is commendable.

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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.






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