In a city with an abundance of film festivals offering selections curated on every possible theme, region or genre imaginable, it is easy to wonder whether London needs another film festival, let alone one devoted to East Asian films. Yet next year will see the launch of a significant new one with the London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF).
Helmed by Hye-jung Jeon, former director of the Korean Film Festival and programmed by Chris Fujiwara, former Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival the LEAFF has significant pedigree behind it. The festival pre-launched this weekend with the slightly unusual format of a zeroth edition, a taster offering of the sorts of fare the full edition might contain. Judging by the three titles examined below, the festival proper will offer enough in the way of quality and variety to make a mark.
Kaili Blues, the mightily impressive first film from Chinese director Bi Gan kicked off a trilogy of films about dream states. A confident, challenging film that builds slowly towards a satisfying finale, Kaili Blues is likely to get most attention for the bravura, thirty five minute long take thats sits as a compelling centrepiece to the elliptical narrative spun around it. Shot with a wide angle lens that billows into distortion at the edges, Wang Tianxing’s hallucinatory camera follows lead Chen Sheng (Chen Yongzhong) around a provincial Chinese town on a motorbike, leaving him to duck down a side-alley occasionally to oversee some other minor occurrence in the village before meeting him again to resume his story. A elaborately choreographed moment of cinematic excess, Bi Gan draws viewer attention to the artifice of filmmaking whilst simultaneously celebrating it, widening his perspective to take in the lush mountainous terrains of the surrounding landscapes, and his focus to the peripheral stories of those that exist in the milieu around his lead character.
This dreamy interlude proves somehow both a languorous distraction and the crux of a narrative which to this point had been largely circumstantial, winding up Chen Sheng’s search for his nephew through an encounter with a character who serves as a kind of alternate or future reality version of him. Tying up Bi Gan’s emphasis on the looseness of time displayed by repeated clock imagery and a narrative with a slippery sense of chronology, place and time, the hyper-extended take gives context to the scenes that surround it, turning a gimmick into a necessity and making Bi Gan’s film seem less like a number of meandering, unrelated stylised moments and more of a cohesive, layered whole.
A new director with a keen visual sense, Bi Gan’s visual style is textured with reference points from his East Asian contemporaries. In the film’s first half he uses a number of dark, evocative interior locations with crumbling or dripping walls like those seen in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, and in the latter, more expansive part of the film he contrasts decaying man-made infrastructures with lush green natural landscapes in a fashion that brings to mind compatriot Jia Zhangke. Kaili Blues fits neatly in the East Asian ‘slow cinema’ mould, but offers enough that is unique to confirm Bi Gan as one to watch.
A much more established, but frequently misunderstood director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Tokyo Sonata), whose recent work has been unjustly absent from London cinemas and festivals, UK-premiered his latest film Journey to the Shore at the LEAFF. A gently manipulative, deeply moving ghost romance from a director with a fixation with the spirit world, in Journey to the Shore Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) is visited by her husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano) three years after his death. Together they travel across Japan, him guiding her A Christmas Carol style through three scenarios where other ghosts exist in union with the living, places he had spent time since dying. Each begins harmoniously, a strange and disquieting cohabitation of the living and dead, before fading and crumbling.
During these visitations, there are several moments of intensely heightened emotion, namely a cross-dimensional piano recital and the final resting of an old man unable to accept his own misgivings and pass on. As well as the strength of the performances, all in a minor key but hugely affecting regardless, these are heightened by the restraint and precision shown by Kurosawa in the lead up to them, a combination of tightly controlled camera movements, a precision in narrative construction and the considered use of indoor lighting that shifts evocatively mid-scene to isolate and intensify aspects of the frame. As in last feature Real, Kurosawa creates a film that shifts between tones and genres seamlessly, mixing horror elements with moments of lightness and comedy, all the while maintaining a pervasive sense of melancholy that rests behind the joy of reunion. Though he wavers occasionally and wanders slightly into the maudlin, the overall control is commendable.
Chris Fujiwara called it a film about “remarriage,” about a couple learning again how to love each other anew, unburdened of the wearying toll of long term marriage; but it is also a potent, if obvious, metaphor for the grieving process and the challenge of closure amidst a deluge of unanswered questions and unknowable possibilities. Journey to the Shore is a fairly traditional, easily digestible film by Kurosawa’s standards, reminiscent of one of Hirokazu Koreeda’s more sentimental, backward-looking films in some ways; but its also a heartbreaking one, bringing moments of great trauma that hit with an unannounced, profound immediacy.
Lastly, from Philippine critic-turned-director Dodo Dayao was Violator, a film that shifts with similar imperceptibility between the imagined and real, and questions constantly the possibility of other worlds in the face of the inscrutability of the horrors of this one. A hyper-referential, largely nonsensical genre/art-film hybrid, Violator begins with a female police officer atop a Manila tower block, who, at the end of smoke break, inexplicably strips naked and hurls herself over the edge. Throughout the similarly unexplained, increasingly violent abstractions that follow, there is the sense of a seasoned cinephile mentally laying out all of his influences and picking them at will, eschewing any responsibility to logic or meaning; favouring instead a bombardment of abstract, violent imagery interspersed with meandering, inconsequential dialogue exchanges.
Amongst these hellish interludes, two friends who exchange pleasantries before self-immolating, a teacher met with a blood-soaked pig-headed pupil, and a police chief who sees the devil in empty windows. Most interesting though, the out of nowhere transition to 1:1 ratio VHS footage, believably creepy mock found footage of a suicide cult that culminates with a legion of white hooded bodies sprawled out in a drained swimming pool. Completely unexpected and genuinely unsettling, in a film with no regard for exposition the abstractions may as well be shockingly aestheticised.
To Dayao’s credit, he is a very capable image-maker. The denouement of these mounting horrors is his most well staged non sequitur, capturing a showdown between a sarcastic miscreant ,psychotic enough to be believed possessed, and police captors in a series of strobing, disorientating shots that sees the captive turn his captors against each other. In an apocalyptic film of steadily mounting dread, this stunning sequence finalises Dayao’s descendence into chaotic absolution. Largely an aesthetic pleasure, with Violator Dayao does show a propensity for visual abstraction and a desire to innovate formally, if not always successfully.
In these three samplings, wittingly or otherwise the LEAFF shows three variations on a theme. Three visions of ghostliness, of dreamscapes that blend into nightmares, from three different nations, styles and perspectives, that all in a way speak to each other whilst displaying the merits of the specific filmmaker. If the full programme can show a similar commitment to idiosyncrasy, to exhibiting works from neglected or new directors amidst more populist, wide-audience fare, then it should find a place amongst London’s crowded small festival circuit.