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BUSAN, South Korea — As with all festivals, PIFF’s opening film gets most of the limelight. With a huge budget set aside, there is much sound and fury in the war epic “Assembly,” but ultimately it showed that Feng Xiaogang’s strength still lies within the realm of intimate human drama. The result is competent, but not astounding.
Another film that deals with the legacy of war in Asia deserves far more attention and kudos. “Yasukuni,” a documentary by Li Ying, provides a multi-angled take on the controversial Japanese shrine for “heroic souls” who died in World War II. Not only is the subject of high relevance in Asia, Li’s style is unobtrusive and subtle when tracing the meaning of national symbols like the sword and the chrysanthemum, and making thought-provoking links to Japan’s history in war and in peace. The film ignited passionate response from the audience on the first day of screening.
The film that generated the most buzz in the industry but left viewers lost for words to describe their responses is “M.” Brilliantly conceived with visual razzmatazz, “extended MTV” is the prevailing comment.
Among the strongest films in the lineup this year were the Ian Curtis biopic “Control,” the “real-time” digital feature “Boxing Day” from Australia and Baltasar Kormakur’s “Jar City.”
In New Currents, the film that took people’s breath away was Aditya Assarat’s “Wonderful Town,” a mesmerizing and poignant film set in a Thai town hit by the 2004 tsunami. The film gently immerses you in the ebb and flow of its own internal rhythm and poetry. It has received a lot of interest from European festivals.
The father-son melodrama “The Red Awn,” directed by Cai Shangjun, who scripted Zhang Yang’s best-known films, wooed an older audience, who preferred the traditional fare of solid characterization and conventional linear narrative.
Another father-and-son number, “Flower in the Pocket,” takes a more refreshing, and more mischievous, approach to problems of communication, and it is the most lighthearted charmer in this section.
The divisive “Endless Night” was pretentious festival nonsense to some and a creepy social examination for others, but it was memorable either way.
For films that embody the attitude of fun, nothing beats Takashi Miike’s “Crows Episode 0” — a rip-roaring high school gangster action fest that shows brains and brawn in both the acting and directing departments. “881” — Singaporean applicant to the European Song Fest (oops, I mean Oscars) — is cinema karaoke with drag-queen couture.
For a little elevation of the soul, “Piano Forest” is a beautifully drawn and mellifluously scored Japanese animation with joie de vivre. In effect a “Mozart and Salieri” story, it pitches a poor child prodigy against a well-groomed goody-two-shoes in a piano competition.
From Korea, highlights included “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” about a victim of school bullying that finally gets revenge, and the imperfect but visually arresting “Written,” a film that blurs the line between fantasy and reality through one man’s search for identity. Another standout was the Busan-set “Dodari,” about three friends at turning points in their lives.
Not everything lives up to expectations. Premiering at PIFF were two Korean features that had the potential to be notable. But both “Drawing Paper” — about an all-girl band from one of nation’s few women directors — and the wannabe action spectacular “Spare” fell flat. However, “Solos” probably goes down this year as the film people loved to hate, with “A Bao A Qu” as a close contender. They give a whole new meaning to the word “pretentious.”
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