The 18th Annual Vancouver International Film Festival

Reviewers: Ed Farolan & Ross Pink

Split Wide Open

This provocative film from India explores the underside of life in Bombay. Essentially it is a morality play about exploitation: financial, moral, sexual that is part of life in Bombay which serves as a metaphor for life the world over.

The characters are realistic: the flower seller, aged 12, who sells herself to wealthy older men; the young hustler, played with emotion by Rahul Bose (see interview below), who taps water pipes in the slums to make a living then double crosses his mafia bosses, the bitter slum woman who has no joy in life, the glamorous yet shallow televison queen.

As the title suggests, the film is an attempt by Benegal to split open the hypocracy and exploitation of Bombay. And there are no shortage of tragic scenarios to explore.

The film attempts a social commentary on the perception of rampant sexual exploitation in Bombay. It is no secret that the city has a massive prostitution problem and many of the working prostitutes, from the slums, are under age.

The wealthy businessman who dotes on his daughter and sends her off to college in the United States feels no hesitation about keeping a 12 year old girl in his luxurious apartment. Respectable on the outside, rotten on the inside.

The disappointment of this film is that it tackled an important theme in a disjointed manner. Too much was attempted, thus leaving less impact. There also seemed to be a vacillation in the mind of Director Dev Benegal between entertainment on the one hand and making a socially relevant film on the other. Unfortunately, the latter was not fully realized.--Ross Pink

Woman on a Tin Roof
( Babae sa Bubungang Lata)

At first, this film appears to be another rough and tumble action yearn depicting the sadness and tougnness of life on the underside of another big city slum, in this case, Manila.

Yet, Director Maro O'Hara's film is one with layers of meaning and takes the viewer on a destination that is well worth the ride.

The cleverness is in his slow and firm manner of unrolling this film, without judgement, revealing a rich coterie of characters who live just beyond the respectability of society. The characters evoke realism.

The main character, Maldo, (played by Mike Magat) is a young, tough and sexual stuntman who is trying to prove himself to the big bosses so that he can get better parts and finally make a decent living . Yet poor Maldo, a metaphor for so many decent and hardworking poor, is exploited all the way. Part of the sadness of Maldo is that he keeps trying so sincerely.

When his young wife announces that their baby needs an operation for an hernia, Maldo approaches his boss to ask for a pay raise. The boss is a young, macho tough who enjoys fighting and offers Maldo more money if he will do a few rounds in the boxing ring. Maldo does, and predictably takes a horrible beating by his sadistic boss. Like the legend of Sisyphus, Maldo keeps trudging uphill only to fall back again. There are some small victories: Maldo does earn enough money from the beating to pay for his infant daughter's operation.

The veteran actress Anita Linda plays a washed up actress who lives in a comfortable little hut in the cemetary grounds where her husband is buried. Many others live in the cemetary grounds and together they form a loose knit family of assorted characters.

The symbolism is powerful and a clear statement on the tragedy of so many poor in the Philippines. Yet there is great warmth and camaraderie among the people, helping them rise above their circumstances. The character of Anita Linda, who, many years earlier avenged her sister's death by killing the womanizing movie star responsible, is a lonely and poignant character, superbly played . She is full of kindness and compassion for those around her. She also displays a quiet dignity, despite her meagre circumstances, which is an ode to the poor and desperate.

Maldo's sporadic and low earnings finally force his young and pretty wife, played with innocence and vulnerability by Aya Medel, to satisfy various men in the area to make some extra money for food and clothing. When Maldo uncovers the truth, he is angry but not surprised, because of his inability to provide enough income, thus forcing his wife into the action. Another blow for poor Maldo.

Overall, despite a low budget, Woman on a Tin Roof is a rich character study of people, mostly decent, who struggle on the fringes of a 'so called' civilized society. The place is Manila, but the story is universal. --RP

The Cu
(
Phörpa)

Tibet/Bhutan, 1999, 93 minutes

This delightful Opening Gala encompasses the theme of this year's festival:  Same Planet, Different Worlds. No longer are buddhist monasteries as secluded as they used to be.  With our worlds coming closer each day --jets, television, and more recently, internet-- we get an insight into what is going on in every nook and nanny of our world.  

This film is based on a true story about the life of  young monks who have escaped from Tibet after the Chinese takeover, and sent to India by their parents to receive dharma education. However, religion isn't always in the minds of these adolescents as they  clandestinely escape to the village to watch soccer on TV.

Director Khyentse Norbu is a teacher and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and is recognized as a reincarnation of Buddha.  He learned filmmaking techniques assisting Bernardo Bertolucci in Little Buddha, as well as other shorts.

To meet demand, an additional screening will be held on Saturday, Oct. 2, 9:30 pm at the Paradise.--Ed Farolan

The Other Conquest
(
La Otra Conquista)

Mexico, 1998, 105 minutes

Parallel to this year's festival theme, I would refer to this feature as "Different Religions, Same God".  This Canadian Premiere, presented in cooperation with Nations, Pollinations, and Dislocations: Americas on the Verge Society, is a powerful and brutal rendition of man's cruelty to man in the name of Christianity. Writer-director Salvador Carrasco's insight into the infamous massacre of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortes in 1520 is well-presented in this  historical film, as he blends fact, fiction and imagery in this production. Associate Producer is Tenor Placido Domingo who sings an aria he specially composed for this film. Three screenings: Mon., Sept. 27, 12:30 pm at Robson Square; Sat., Oct. 2, 7 pm at the Ridge; and Fri., Oct. 8, 7 pm aat the Vancouver East Cinema.--EF

Yerma

Spain, 1998, 111 minutes

This film, directed by Pilar Tavora,  is based on the play of  Andalusian poet, playwright and songwriter Federico Garcia Lorca. It tells the story of a young woman in a small village in Southern Spain who is resigned to a loveless marriage yet hopes to be a mother. With feminism on the rampage, the theme of the play is a bit passé, because the modern woman no longer is bound to subjugation, particularly in contemporary Spain.  Caveat to the viewer: the film is in Spanish with French subtitles.  So, if you don't know either language, you may miss a lot of Lorca's lyrical and powerful script.  Last show on Sun., Sept. 26, 4:45 pm at Vancouver Cinema 2.--EF

I.D.
(Pieces d´identités)

Belgium-Congo-France, 1998, 96 minutes

I heard someone in the audience comment, after the show, that this was an enjoyable "modern day fairytale".  And I agree. This modern-day commedia dell'arte reminds one of Moliere's and shakespeare's plays about the lost and the found.  In this particular film, a king from a village in the Congo, visiting in Belgium, leaves his eight-year old daughter in a convent there for an education.  After some time, he loses contact with her, and he decides to return after many years to look for her.  Through fate and coincidence, reminiscent of the commedia, he finds her (this is a moving scene: some audience members were sniffling), and the picture comes to a merry close as he takes her back to Africa with her innamorato.  This is a must-see show for lovers of modern-day fairy tales.  Sun., Sept. 26, 7 pm, VC1 & Wed., Sept. 29, 7:30 pm.--EF

Cairo Station
(
Bab el-Hadid)

Egypt, 1958, 90 minutes

This is one of the earlier films in VIFF's tribute to Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, awarded a Lifetime Achievement award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. The tribute includes the screening of nine of his more popular films from 1957 to 1999.

This particular film I found artistically interesting.  Chahine is eclectic in his approach, using a screwball slapstick approach in some scenes, and then going into Bergmanesque psychodramatic close-up shots in others. This play with cinematic genres influenced perhaps by the French New Wavers is Chahinesqueley unique in this black and white comedic film noir.--EF

Thug Life in D.C.

USA, 1998, 70 minutes

Another expose of the urban underclass from gritty documentary director Marc Levin. This documentary leaves one filled with sorrow and anger. Anger at a nation that has created a massive ghetto system of violence and poverty, where young black males, even those in the pre-teen years, feel life is worthless. And sorrow for the doomed trajectory that many black youth in America face.

The opening of the film reveals startling statistics: 50% of black men in Washington , DC between 18-35 are in prison, just out of prision, on parole or wanted by the police. The viewer is then walked through life in a major prison in DC. One inmate declares " I do what I need to survive and and will kill again if I have to." Bold talk from an eighteen year old.

The film focuses on a tough, indifferent and yet curiously vulnerable seventeen year old named Bruno who is facing a 115 year sentence for murder and the attempted murder of a police officer. Bruno talks of a rough childhood and his first gun. " It was the high point of my life," `he recalls with a laugh.

But for all Bruno's misplaced bravado and tough veneer, he is a walking metaphor for the awful tragedy and waste of so many young black lives in America. The United States is a nation that has never made reparations for the crime of slavery which still scars and undermines the black community to this day.

Why can the US rebuild Europe after WW2 with the grand Marshall plan, a great international success, yet be so indifferent to the black problem which it created? Slavery still exists in America today; the chains are economics and discrimination.

No generation should be confronted with the problems of so many black youth in America today, yet the reality is there and painful to see. Levin's film, though not easy to watch, is a necessary prod to those who think America is a shining city upon a hill. Mon., Sept. 27, 7 pm, Vancouver East Cinema & Wed. Sept. 29, 12:30 pm, Robson Square.--RP

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story

USA, 1999, 86 minutes

On January 19, 1995 porn star Annabel Chong hits the tabloid headlines by setting a world record of having sex with 251 men in ten hours at "The World's Biggest Gang Bang."  A documentary directed by Gough Lewis who shot the footage for close to three years, we see the transformation of Grace Quek (her real name), a 22-year old University of Southern California undergraduate student in gender studies, brought up in a strict Singaporian Protestant family, from a quiet, reserved Asian to a sex queen.

The film is voyeuristic and on the wild side at first, but after watching the last segment where she discloses to her mother what she does for a living, I was moved, particularly by her determination: "I will restore the dignity of the family", a very Asiatic concept. We see here the personal and lonely side of Grace's personality, the contradiction between her brash persona as Annabel Chong, and the innocent, confused Grace Quek with whom we sympathize. The film concludes, however, with her returning back to porn films in LA.  It's a sad and moving documentary of another lost human in this planet of different worlds in search of self-dignity. Two shows: Fri., Oct. 8, 9:30 pm Ridge & Sat., Oct. 9, Midnight, Pacific Cinematheque.--EF 

Speaking in Strings

USA, 1999, 73 minutes

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is the focus of this documentary. Another autobiography of an artist, we see another struggling artist and the personal price she pays for her artistic achievement.  Again, we see powerful contradictions of Sonnenberg's persona captured in film by director Paola di Florio--from the laughing, vibrant and intense personality of this artist, to the darker, suicidal, chain-smoking Nadja.  Just as we see a special relationship between Grace and her mother in the documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, we see Nadja and her mother captured together, singing Italian carols, as they walk the suburban streets of New York. A must-film for artists who all go through their dark periods of creativity. Sun., Sept. 26, 10 pm at Vancouver Cinema 2.--EF

Life is to Whistle
(
La vida es silbar)

Cuba, 1999, 106 minutes

This internationally multi-awarded film  by writer/director Fernando Perez was not as good as I expected it to be.  It was trying too hard to be "noveau" in its approach, using different techniques into surrealism and humor that doesn't depict the Cuban character.  I had seen better Cuban films in the past VIFFs, and I was hoping this was going to be another down-to-earth funny Cuban film, but it was not.  I found the humour dry, and some scenes repetitive.  Luis Alberto Garcia (see interview below), was not a good actor I expected him to be.  His father is a well-known Cuban actor, but I didn't see that in him.  He was flat and lacadaisical in his acting technique. Claudia Rojas who plays the oversexed ballerina somewhat overacted in many of her scenes, and again produced a character that was flat and dry.  Perez's earlier films like Hello Hemingway (1990) which I reviewed for the 16th VIFF two years ago was a much better film.--EF

Gregory's Two Girls

Great Britain, 1999, 105 minutes

Director/writer Bill Forsyth's attempt to resurrect Gregory in this film is a disaster.  His earlier film 19 years ago may have been a success, but reviving him as a teacher returning to the school where he was a teenager 20 years ago and romancing with a 15 year old is perhaps Forsyth's Freudian, menopausal urge to dream of sex a la Lolita.  Besides, I had to intently listen to the dialogue of the actors because they spoke with a strong Scottish accent, and I understood them half of the time.  Forsyth, who was present during the screening, quipped that the film should have been dubbed to English.  I found the film silly, although it did get a few laughs from the comic antics of the main character, Gregory, played by John Gordon Sinclair.--EF

The Long Winter
(
Quand je serai parti...vous vivirez encore)

Quebec, 1999, 123 minutes

This film by veteran filmmaker Michel Brault was a bit too long. I also don't understand why the English title is far removed from the original French "When I will leave, you will live again".  Perhaps it just sounds corny when translated to English, that's why.  The story was good, though.  It gives us a historical perspective of what happened to the French Patriots who rebelled unsuccessfully against the British in Quebec (Lower Canada) in 1838, were court martialled in a mock trial, and hanged in February 1839.  Only one patriot, Francois-Xavier Bouchard, escaped the noose.  And he narrates this story.  Memoirs of the French Revolution's "Vive la liberté, egalité, fraternité!" are echoed in this film through the leader of the unsuccessful rebellion, DeLorimier, who dies at the end writing his Last Farewell (which sounds so much like Jose Rizal's Ultimo Adios before this Filipino patriot was shot before a firing squad in 1896 by the Spaniards after also undergoing a mock trial).

All in all, the film gives us a better understanding of why the French in Quebec want a separate country from the rest of English Canada, and this black page in Quebec history, through Brault's film, tells us why.--EF

Interviews

Director interview: Nonzee Nimibutr (Thailand)

Film: Nang Nak

Nang Nak is a beautiful, lush and haunting film. It concerns a 100 year old legend in Thailand about a young woman who died in childbirth while her husband was away serving in the army. When the husband, Mak, returns , the wife, Nak, is there with their infant and all appears normal to the husband until he finds out that his wife and infant are ghosts.

The film is both a pychological and spiritual thriller and assures director Nonzee Nimibutr a commanding place in Thai cinema for the depth and beauty of his film.

Nonzee grew up in a military family in the town of Nonthaburi. " It was strict, " he recalls, " there were many rules and I didn't have a lot of freedom nor many friends. Then I went to art school at age eighteen and it was a place to explore my emotions."

" At first I wanted to be a painter and studied at this, then I took visual communication and drifted toward music videos and made a few while in university. From there I moved toward film, my first work was a gangster film, a true story."

Nang Nak is a popular legend in Thailand and there are twenty versions of the legend. "I wrote my own version," says Nonzee," because I wanted to focus on the love between Mak and Nak instead of the frightening elements of the legend which all the previous versions have focused upon."

Nonzee also set his film in the late 1890s, during the King Rama 4 period, when the legend was born.

" The film is also an examination of the Thai buddhist look at the cycles of life: birth, growing up, illness and death," says Nonzee.

"This is the experience common to all people."

The film has played to full houses in Thailand and been accepted into several Film festivals including Vancouver, Tokyo, London, Stockholm and Bombay.--Ross Pink

Actor Interview: Luis Alberto Garcia (Cuba)

Film: Life is to Whistle

Life is to Whistle is a reflective and interesting film from Cuba that won the best picture and best director prizes at the Havana film festival and is attracting applause in international circles.

For Garcia, the star of the film, acting comes naturally being the son of Cuba's most distinguished film actor.

" I have been acting for twenty years and grew up around actors . I was always interested since childhood," recalls Garcia.

" This is my 32nd film. I do love theatre also but had to stop because the roles and opportunites for theatre in Cuba are few. My favorite plays were Shakespeare and Chekov, the Russian influence came from Russian professors I had in university. With cinema though, you can reach a wide audience."

Garcia is enthusiatic about his new film and feels it is his best work, " something proud to leave my daughter!"

"I immediately connected with the character I play and even felt that it was written the way I would have written it.The story is about the search for happiness in a difficult place, Cuba, but is universal in its theme. This search is also a search for liberty. Though my character had liberty, he was condemned and judged by others. "

Garcia keeps busy, he has just finished another film and is also editing a film in Spain that is a Spanish-Cuban co-production.--RP

Actor interview:    Rahul Bose (India)

Film: SPLIT WIDE OPEN

Rahul Bose is an energetic young actor and an emerging face of nouveau Indian cinema. Split Wide Open, represents his third film.

Born in Calcutta to a business class family, and raised in Bombay, he had little exposure to the arts as a child until he reached high school. " In high school, " Bose recalls, " I did theatre every year and loved it."

"My family was pressuring me to go to business school and that was the course I would take except I didnt get accepted into business school in the united states. So then I went to business college in Bombay and studied commerce."

" After college I took a job in advertising but one day it hit me, what am I doing? I want to act."

Bose 's first film was English August , followed by Bombay Boys. " I try to approach each role as a biography, " explains Bose.

" I am an instinctive actor but do my research."

" The role of the street man and water tapper in this film attracted me. Also it was a role far different than the other two. It broadened my range."

"The character I play has to survive and move each day and that is the way it is for alot of poor people in India. No matter how difficult their life, or how they are feeling, they must get up and work hard each day in order to survive."

"The film message, like its title, is trying to split open the divisions in Bombay: rich and poor, east and west, sexual permissiveness and sexual repression. In fact, the film has alot to say about the sexual repression in India. And I think in a society of extremes, you tend to get more perversions."--RP

Director interview: Yu Lik -Wai (Hong Kong)

Film: Tian Shang Renjian (Love Will tear Us Apart)

New director Yu Lik Wai is struggling to sustain Hong Kong cinema with his debut film, Love Will Tear Us Apart, a moody and evocative work about young migrants from China who venture to Hong Kong in search of better lives.

Yu was born and raised in Hong Kong and later studied cinema at INSAS in Belgium.

" I started work in advertising", recalls Yu, " but became quite bored with the work and wanted to change. "

"I decided to study in Belgium because I always had an interest in European films. Well, I didnt know that I would direct one day, shooting films as a camaraman and meeting people were enjoyable for me."

The film is quite moody due in part to the effective use of lighting. Yu has captured the feeling of lonliness and separation that all migrants feel in a new place, misunderstood and often looked upon with contempt.

"Color and lighting for me is instinctive, " says Yu.

" Basically, this story is about human relationships. Some peope have more courage and honesty in their relationships. The prostitute, Ah Ying (played by newcomer Ning Wong) was honest with her life. The story is also about the relationship between Hong Kong and China. China is marching in, economically and socially, so we should think about what that means for Hong Kong and our identity. "

The work of Yu and other filmmakers is currently at a critical juncture as the film industry in Hong Kong is suffering a deep slump.

Production of films is down from 200 five years ago to 40 film in 1998. Moreover, film and cultural globalization is evident in Hong Kong as audiences are demanding more international films and stories. It is a challenge that newcomers like Yu and oldtimers like Stanley Kwan will have to meet in order to stay relevant.--RP

Director interview: Marielle Nitoslawska (Quebec, Canada)

Film: Sky Bones

First time director Nitoslawska has explored the work of Mexican artist Domingo Cisneros in this documentary film. It is an esoteric film and one that deserves credit for its artistic exploration.

Cisneros lives, works and exhibits his work in the wilderness of Quebec. In opposition to a dominant culture of urbanism, Cisneros's sculptures reflect pristine nature, and the materials he uses are composed of bleached bones and fur.

"This film," says Nitoslawska, " is questioning what are relationship to nature is and ought to be."

"Cisneros is well known in Europe and Poland where I studied film. I met him in 1994 and feel that he is an important figure in Canadian art. "

" We shot the film in three languages: French, English and Spanish. The point is to not only capture his work but to share the idea that art can often be best seen in nature," says Nitoslawska.

"Domingo has the view that rural environments are rich with art yet cities seem to dominate art."

As a record of his work, the documentary was extremely timely. As Nitoslawska relates sadly, " Shortly after finishing the film, lightening struck the home where Domingo stored 95% of his sculpture and they were incinerated in the fire which also took the house. This occurred in 1996."

Nitoslawska, a resident of Montreal, is now busy with a new project that will explore the relationship of women to sexuality.--RP