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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001

All under the sun

Asian films shine at Hawaii Film Festival

The Japanese, my barber once told me, "don't really think of Hawaii as America -- for us, it's more like part of Japan." But after Sept. 11, many Japanese who might have otherwise booked a wedding in Honolulu or a golf holiday in Maui suddenly realized that Hawaii really was part of the United States -- remember Pearl Harbor? -- and thus, a potential terrorist target. Flying there on Oct. 31, I gazed out at row after row of empty seats, not what I would ordinarily expect to see at the start of the peak tourist season.

I have always been a nervous flier, but the thought of turning down my invitation to the Hawaii International Film Festival did not occur. OK, it occurred, but I never seriously considered bailing. Hawaii is one of my favorite places and HIFF one of my favorite festivals. Launched in 1981, HIFF was a pioneer in bringing the films of Asia to the West. Although other, bigger festivals with more media buzz have since surpassed HIFF as venues for Asian cinema, the festival still has a strong Asian focus, with 58 features and six documentaries from the region on the 2001 program.

I had already reviewed several, including Koki Mitani's "All About Our House," Shinobu Yaguchi's "Waterboys," Masato Harada's "Inugami" and John Williams' excellent "Firefly Dreams," for this paper (the last, by Tokyo resident John Williams, won the Golden Maile Award in the HIFF competition). I had also caught a few at other festivals, including two Korean blockbusters, "The Foul King" and "JSA (Joint Security Area)."

As a member of the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) jury, however, I had to cover all the Asian films by first- or second-time directors -- a list long enough to make me wonder if I would ever see the sun. I shouldn't have worried -- even seeing four films a day, I had plenty of time for schmoozing and shopping.

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Jia Zhangke's "Platform"

The best on the NETPAC list was "Platform," Jia Zhangke's study of China in transition in the late '70s and '80s, as viewed through the lives and loves of a troupe of provincial entertainers. As the film begins, the members of the Theater Company of Minliang are singing the praises of Chairman Mao. As it ends they are break dancing to Western pop music. With a nod to Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia presents a carefully nuanced, atmospheric mediation on not only social change, but the inexorable passage of time and the evanescence of life. There is a seamless quality to this film that feels natural and true, without being tiresomely quotidian. While shooting mostly from a neutral middle distance, Jia varies his angle of approach enough to keep us off balance, interested and even amused.

Another film taking inspiration from a social issue -- but going in quite a different direction -- was Jagmohan's "Sandstorm." Based on a true incident, the film tells the story of a lower-caste woman whose work for Saathin, a governmental organization dedicated to advancing women's rights, draws the wrath of village leaders. Offended by her opposition to child marriage and other oppressive feudal practices, several leaders end up beating and raping her, while her husband looks on helplessly. Seeking justice, she takes her case to the highest reaches of government, while her rapists connive with corrupt local officials to quash her charges. Though its framing device of a British woman reporter seeking out the heroine's story is awkward and contrived, "Sandstorm" presents a vivid and detailed picture of Indian society, from top to bottom. This sort of ambition and energy is rare in Japan, where young directors all too often make enervated films about people very much like themselves.

The Japanese films at the festival, however, tended more toward the populist than the self-consciously arty. Among those in the former category was Shingo Yamashiro's "Closed (Again)," a drama about an eccentric doctor in early postwar Kyoto that demands the adjective "heartwarming." With its colorful demimonde characters, salty humor and moments of "touching" pathos, this is the kind of just-folks entertainment the Japanese studios used to churn out by the dozen, but is now largely confined to the small screen. That is where "Closed (Again)" will also find its true home.

On the art side of the spectrum was Yosuke Nakagawa's "Departure," a sort of "American Graffiti" set in present-day Naha, Okinawa. Centering on three boyhood friends about to go their separate ways, as they edge, reluctantly, into adulthood, the film indulges in all the Minimalist cliches. One is the use of a single master shot for long, dimly lit scenes, in which the characters move about in the murk. Another is ineffective performances by the three male principals, whose characters are passing through their various adolescent crises in, not a fever, but a haze. The only characters exhibiting signs of life are the women being left behind, including a slinky cabaret singer who gives the film a much needed erotic charge. The men, however, are zeroes, who take "Departure" exactly nowhere.

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Yoshimasa Ishibashi's "Color of Life"

My favorite among the Japanese films up for the NETPAC prize was Yoshimasa Ishibashi's "Color of Life." Though hardly a work of cinematic art -- it's more like a series of blackout sketches in the Monty Python mode -- "Color" is a delight. Presenting selections from Ishibashi's late-night TV show "Vermilion Pleasure Night," which became a cult sensation, it offers a seriously skewed look at the dysfunctions of modern Japanese society. Imagine accordion-playing geisha. Imagine a zombie sitcom. Imagine an all-Japanese family of laughing department-store mannequins, with gags revolving around sudden death. The humor is black, black and black -- and nearly made me squirt mineral water out my nose.

I wanted to give a nod of recognition to Ishibashi, but the other judges were level-headed types who voted for bestowing the NETPAC award on Jian Wen's "Devils on the Doorstep," the winner of Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes last year. Set in wartime China, the film depicts the comically inept efforts of Chinese villagers to hide a fanatic Japanese prisoner and his terrified Chinese interpreter from their Japanese masters -- efforts that have disastrous consequences.

While finding "Devils" technically accomplished and even groundbreaking, I disliked its gross stereotyping of both victims and oppressors. A parallel would be a Holocaust film that portrays both Gestapo and Jews as buffoons, right up to the moment when the machinegun bullets start slamming into men, women and children lined up on the edge of a ditch. But my fellow jurors, a Chinese film scholar and Vietnamese director, didn't agree. Maybe I'll have better luck next year -- but NETPAC jury or no, HIFF is always a winner.

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