Over about 27 years, the Vancouver International Film Festival's "Gateway" section (previously the "Dragons and Tigers" competition) has developed a reputation as one of the most notable selections of East Asian films outside of Asia. With long-standing relationships with directors such as Jia Zhangke and Hong Sang-soo (going back to before either were international festival mainstays), the section started in 1989 as a series titled "Cinema of the Pacific Rim," and has long since been notable within VIFF's larger international programming. Previously helmed by film critic and scholar Tony Rayns (who retired from his role in 2016), the section is now mainly curated by film critics Shelly Kraicer and Maggie Lee. And while diminished in volume in comparison to previous years, the 2018 edition does still offer a chance for directors who may otherwise get lost in the festival shuffle to make their mark apart from internationally-lauded selections such as Ash Is Purest White, Burning and A Family Tour (all ably covered elsewhere). The following is a report on three notable titles.
Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s Father to Son opens in high-contrast black-and-white, with a series of shots observing a man packing his bags and leaving home. He meets another figure, shrouded in silhouette, and the two walk off into the distance before a shot change occasions a switch to color and a title card drop. The scene is one that Hsiao will return to later on, although the way he does so—with an over-emphatic reveal—is emblematic of his approach, which often disguises schlocky twists under a patina of epiphanic revelation. Presented in an irksome, involuted chronology that incorporates multiple black-and-white flashbacks, the story charts two intersecting trajectories: after a terminal pancreatic diagnosis, 60-year-old Van Pao-Te (Michael Jq Huang) travels with his son (Fu Meng-Po) from Taiwan to Japan to look for the father who left him more than 50 years prior; meanwhile, a young man (Aria Wang), handsome, shrouded in an air of mystery, and vaguely connected to Van’s past, arrives from Hong Kong.
Given that Hsiao started out as the assistant director of Hou Hsiao-hsien (who holds an executive producer credit here, as in Hsiao’s previous films), it’s understandable that Father to Son would, at least superficially, evince some of the director’s recurring concerns and methods—in particular, Taiwan’s history and the way narrative containers are used to interrogate identity and fractured nationhood. As signaled by Van’s abandonment by a father thought to be merely “following the money,” Hsiao's interest here is Taiwan’s economic relationship with Japan. As in something like Hou's Daughter of the Nile (1987), much of the action unfolds in recurring physical spaces—a laundromat, a hardware store and a local motel—with the characters often borne into the annals of memory by stray, febrile textures: the drift of cigarette smoke, or a faint trickle of water. Hsiao also demonstrates a clear grasp of the lineage he's working in, deploying explicit call-backs to well-known Taiwanese films: A father-son bathhouse scene tenderly reworks its horrific analogue in Tsai Ming-liang’s masterpiece The River (1997). The latter comparison is instructive, though, since both The River and Father to Son could be accurately be described as explorations of generational familial alienation. But while Tsai’s dark vision ultimately allows for hope to emerge from genuine despair, Hsiao’s cyclical orchestrations and plot parallelisms come across mainly as superficial flourishes, with none of the necessary emotional heft. By the end of Father to Son, the supposed optimism that emerges from the strenuous plot machinations registers mainly as cynical, writerly flourish.
On the surface, Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined, the Golden Leopard-winner at the 2018 Locarno Festival, would seem to fall neatly alongside a recent spate of moody neo-noirs emerging from Asia, something like the Singaporean counterpart to Diao Yinan’s Golden Bear-winner Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014). But the young director sets his film apart almost immediately with his methodical, at times Antonioni-esque spatial construction of his chosen milieu: Singapore's vast land reclamation industry. Avoiding the glamorous, Crazy Rich Asians view of Singapore as an economic oasis, Yeo explores the nation's considerable migrant worker population, sourced, like the sand that they work with, from nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, among others. Into this world arrives Lok (Peter Yu), a haggard police detective tasked with investigating the disappearance of Wang Bi Cheng (Liu Xiaoyi), a Chinese worker who's been missing for over a week. Of course, the missing worker is of little concern to his employers; the machinery churns on and the Singaporean coastline expands inexorably.
It’s a pro forma plotline, to be sure, but one that has a forceful undertow, an uncanny verisimilitude that owes something to the numerous non-actors that took part in the production. Yeo fragments the story in a vague timeline of pre- and post-disappearance, mainly following Lok and Wang's nocturnal excursions into a 24-hour cyber-café run by Mindy (Luna Kwok, a.k.a. Guo Yue, the star of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues). Catering to a clientele of workers looking for cheap sex videos, online encounters, or endless rounds of Counter-Strike and the like—anything to while away the sleepless nights—the Internet café becomes the locus of the film’s varied, somnambulistic peregrinations, with its twinned, soul-sick protagonists drawn to the seedy, neon-pink space like moths to a flame. Story resolution isn’t really Yeo’s endgame here, though. Indeed, he ups ambiguity with details and clues that seem, for a time, suspended between dream-logic and procedural reality, which is a beguiling approach on its own, but plays especially well against Lok’s daytime wanderings across industrial sites captured in compositions of predominantly slate and grey. The film’s final scene does provide some cause for suspicion since it both places too fine a point on its calculated ambiguity and slips into the increasingly clichéd (but still pleasurable) tendency for festival fare to end on a liberating dance scene. But A Land Imagined clearly marks a director to watch.
Pema Tseden's Jinpa has both the structure and feel of a moral fable—a tranquil tale (with a mystical edge) that nonetheless contains a flash of wisdom. The plot is appropriately spare: a Tibetan trucker (Jinpa, the title character as well as the actor's moniker) runs over a sheep on his way to a far-flung village, then later picks up hitchhiker (also called Jinpa, played by Genden Phuntsok) on his way to kill a man in a neighboring area. He drops the stranger off at a literal fork in the road, but is haunted by both the killing of the sheep and the other Jinpa's murderous intention, so he sets out to find the other man. Produced by Wong Kar-wai, Jinpa is, by most accounts, a departure for the Tibetan writer-director. Its boxy Academy-ratio compositions of the Kekexili Plateau (elevation: roughly 16,000 feet), courtesy of cinematographer Lu Songye, have a forceful pictorial beauty; its narrative dynamics are so slight that the film proceeds almost exclusively on a meditative mood; and its laconic, wryly humorous exchanges of dialogue take a backseat to the purely elemental aspects of the harsh landscape (so its Best Screenplay award in Venice's Orrizonti program is likely due to its structured symmetry, appropriate for a film adapted from two sources: “The Killer,” by Tsering Norbu, and Tseden’s own short story, “I Ran Over a Sheep”). It's something of a backhanded compliment to say that the film invites contemplation, but such is nature of Tseden's stripped-down approach, which drains the story of its expected dynamics and resolution (mainly rooted in the western genre) and allows the structure and visual-aural repetition to generate tension and resonance through what goes unseen. The finale recalls, oddly enough, the penultimate scene of Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66 (1998), but where that film used an imagined scenario to push into perfect happiness, Tseden employs beautiful sepia-toned "flashback" to close the film's timeline in an impossible circularity.