Peanut Butter Knife

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Film Fest Wrap Up

I took Friday off to catch 2 movies at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Unlike last year when we made a few bad choices, this year we saw two great films.

The Bow, Directed by Kim Ki-Duk This film is destined to make any list of my all time favorite movies for years to come. It's five days later and I'm still thinking about it. The story centers around an old fisherman and a young girl he kidnapped ten years ago. He's kept her on the boat all 10 years and is counting down the days until she turns 17, when he plans to marry her. Throughout the film, the two main characters do not speak any words. What you know about their relationship comes entirely from body language and facial expressions. If this sounds inaccessible, it's not. Stylistically, The Bow is similar to the other Kim Ki-Duk movie I've seen, Spring Summer Fall Winter...And Spring which showed Kim's absolute mastery of communicating with images, the essence of what film is. In addition to the body language, Kim also uses symbols like the Korean flag and Buddhist images in an iconoclastic fashion that speaks to the film's underlying theme of modern and traditional worlds colliding.

Kim portrays this relationship in a way that might seem surprising in that he does not turn the characters into hero and martyr, oppressor and victim. Instead you understand that the girl is being held against her will, but as the fisherman makes his living by chartering fishing expeditions for mainland fishermen, you also see him defend the girl from some potentially dangerous situations and you are never led to believe that he has compromised her physically in any way. The girl has also learned a great deal from the old man as you see her defend herself with his bow & arrow, as well as play music with the bow when he is away. The two entertain their boat guests by telling fortunes in a strange way that involves the girl swinging off the side of the boat while the old man shoots arrows at her and hits various parts of a Buddhist painting.


Inevitably, a teenage boy comes aboard the boat and falls in love with the girl, and she reciprocates. The boy introduces her to modern culture giving her an iPod and taking her picture with a cell phone. He wants to take her off the boat to see Seoul and to reconnect with her parents, who he discovered are still looking for her on the internet. Obviously this sets up a confrontation between the boy and the old man resulting in an ending that will have you questioning the nature of what it means to love and trust someone, to belong to someone else. I highly recommend this movie, should it ever receive a proper release theatrically or on DVD in the states.

Li Yu's Dam Street also deals with the fallout that's taking place in Asian society as it opens itself up to the modern West. Beginning in a small Sichuan town during the 80s, a young girl gets pregnant and is told by her mother that the baby died, when it was actually given up for adoption at the hospital. She is expelled from school and her boyfriend forced to leave town. Ten years later, Xiao Yun still lives in the town and performs with a Sichuan opera troupe where she becomes friends with a young boy who has a similarly irreverent attitude about life as she does. Of course, the boy is her son and the journey that takes her to learning this will have profound consequences on her life.

Li Yu is a rare female voice in the world of Asian film and made waves a few years back with her movie, Fish and Elephant, the first Chinese film to explore lesbian themes. Dam Street took home the award for best film at the highly regarded Asian film festival thats held annually in Deauville, France.

Asian cinema is so alive and exciting right now. I can only imagine that this must be what it was like in the 60s when each new movie from France or Sweden held new discoveries. The main difference, to me anyway, is while the triumph of European cinema was largely stylistic, taking chances on telling different types of stories that were more real than their American counterparts; Today's Asian cinema (especially right now from China and Korea) is not only finding ways to tell us new stories, but is also chronicling a major shift in world culture as these once closed societies stretch their feet and wake up to become dominate players on the world stage. Never before has film been able to chronicle such a shift as it happens, and as such these movies are likely to be studied for a long time as we enter the Asian century.

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