It was a unique admixture of features, documentaries and docu-dramas selected by Christoph Terhechte and his team that made up the package of films (including Asian films) in Berlinale's Forum. More than the other films at the festival, the Forum films generally focus on new trends in global cinema as well as on fresh narrative forms. They include, as we are told, "unconventional essayistic films, long-term observational documentaries, political documentaries" and works by unknown or little-known filmmakers. The Forum is where everything outside the mainstream is brought together.
The 18 Asian films selected for the NETPAC award were from this section, which had a total of 48 international films. From narratives daringly handled in their structures to political thrillers, from personal stories to political ones, the choice was wide, leading us - in the words of Terhechte - "to parallels, connectivities and inspiring contradictions, into a wild garden full of suprises."
Five films from Korea, no less, were wildly different in theme and intent. So Yong-kim's second feature, Treeless Mountain (which has already won two awards in Dubai and Pusan and garnered a third - Prize of the Ecumenical Jury from the Forum) is about two little sisters who are suddenly displaced when their single mother decides to leave them with an aunt and go in search of her estranged husband. Beautifully shot (the camera has many tight close-ups of the little ones), this heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking film elicits disarmingly natural performances yet never grows maudlin.
Lee Yoon-ki's My Dear Enemy (Meotjin haru) encapsulates many moods. A young woman seeks out her former boyfriend to try and recover a goodly sum of money she had lent him. Taken by surprise at her sudden appearance, the penniless young man who is mostly a loveable rouge, drops in to meet his assorted girlfriends who might help him out with some cash. The film takes us through this one-day journey, eliciting anger, frustration, humour, sympathy, charm and resignation as the bewildered girl runs around with this somewhat guileless fellow who appears to skim the surface of life even as he enjoys himself more than she does. Lee calls his work a "realistic fairy tale about grown-ups," a film about the "small hopes you can have."
Lee Suk-gyung's The Day After (Eoddeon gaien nal) won the NETPAC Award, together with Dr Ma's Country Clinic, for depicting "a complex human condition through a small fragment of a woman's life and for its belief in the strength and beauty of the cinematic mise-en-scene." The Day After is the story of a tense and frustrated working woman trying to bring up her daughter, but unable to cope with her life, her child and her daily grind. But a chance encounter with another woman in a training institute sows the seeds of transformation. In a difficult and intelligent piece of filmmaking, Lee shoots this encounter in a single room for nearly forty minutes and turns it into the film's fulcrum, its heartbeat
The unlikely, isolated characters, each with a dream, people Land of Scarecrows (Heosuabideuleui ddang): a lesbian transvestite; an amateur sculptor who earns her living by washing corpses; Rain, a young Filipina who dreams of going to Korea; and Loi Tan, an adopted young Filipino. Director Roh Gyeong-tae continues in the surrealist vein of his earlier film, The Last Dining Table (winner of the NETPAC Award in Pusan 2006), exploring, yet again, environmental problems such as pollution - in fact, the transvestite blames the polluted wasteland where she grew up for her condition. The characters' ambiguous lifestyles and the weird spaces of the film - dilapidated interiors and unrecognisable outer ones portend a strange future for the human race.
In Baek Seung-bin's first feature, Members of the Funeral (Jangryesigeui member), a young girl, also obsessed with death, also washes corpses. She and her parents have gathered for the funeral of seventeen year-old Hee-joon. They are also the leading characters of an eponymous novel that the young boy was writing before he died. The story shifts continuously between the novel and the film in a complex structure and ends as a subtle family drama. "Frankly," writes Baek, "of all my secrets, the most complicated one is my family." A delicately shot film, much of it in sepia, Members of the Funeral is yet another Korean film that spells loneliness, disintegration of the family unit and the dark secrets of the soul.
In his long, compassionate documentary, Dr Ma's Country Clinic (Ma dai fu de zhen suo), Chinese director Cong Feng evokes the atmosphere of neglect in Huangyangchuan, a small town in the northwest of his country. This patiently crafted film shared the NETPAC award for its "deeply humanistic and sympathetic portrayal of a stoic community that has largely remained at the periphery of change." The clinic is where patients gather to openly discuss their ailments, their daily lives, the weather, the harvest (or the lack of it), family matters, unemployment, runaway brides, traditions and practices, poverty, life and death and old age; and Dr Ma takes their pulse and asks a couple of questions. Just that. But he is near-godlike. What emerges - through the use of a subtle yet unobtrusive camera - is a microcosm of large swathes of China, a picture of neglect but not of dire pessimism.
Another long documentary, this one from Japan, also has a doctor at its heart, but is totally different in tone and texture. Soda Kazuhiro's Mental (Seishin) is set in Dr Yamamoto Masatomo's clinic where people of all ages come to discuss their psychiatric problems that are still regarded as taboo in Japan: eating and personality disorders, schizophrenia, suicidal tendencies and so on. The seemingly superficial way in which the doctor questions his patients (each patient, unlike in the above film, carrying his own suffering secretly and meeting the doctor alone) makes you suspect his qualifications and his ability. Yet, at the end, you submit before his methods that connect him subconsciously to his patients. Indeed, they compare him to the Buddha. This clinic, too, is a microcosm where fundamental questions of our times are asked.
Clearly, long documentaries were in vogue at the Forum. Sono Sion's nearly four-hour long Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi) drags the viewer into a torrent of sights and sounds. The film won the 24th annual Caligari Award (in cooperation with the film journal filmdienst) for a thematically innovative and stylistically creative film. The story of a young boy who is perversely forced to confess by his father, a Catholic priest, for sins he did not commit, the plot turns topsy-turvy when a woman who falls in love with the father leaves him. The boy is literally - and vindictively - pushed into ‘sinning'. The jury commended the film for its use of the formal languages of cinema, notably from the opera and film history. Love Exposure, even when it pushes a variety of symbols together pell-mell, is refreshingly and ingeniously original.
How do you reconcile amnesia and healing, asks Simon El Habre in his gentle documentary The One Man Village (Semaan Bil Day'ia)? The Lebanese director's uncle, Semaan El Habre was the only inhabitant to have returned to his village in the mountains near Beirut after a bloody civil war (1983) and years after an official reconciliation was declared in 1994. In this snow-bound, abandoned village, Seeman lives alone in apparent contentment, caring for his animals and with only memories for companionship. Gradually, through carefully composed shots, we learn of his past, of his family and of the scars of history. Slow-paced, like the protagonist's life, the film is a testament to the resilience of one man who has dared - against all odds - to return and confront and reconcile with a painful past.
In 2006, a young Buddhist schoolteacher - Juling Pongkunmul - from northern Thailand who had travelled to the southern Muslim region of the country to teach was kidnapped and beaten mercilessly into a coma from which she never recovered. Her death galvanised directors Kraisak Choonhavan, Manit Sriwanchipoom and Ing K to travel to make Citizen Juling (Polamuang Juling), a "non-fiction, cinema verite documentary without embellishments," as the directors call it. This long, free-wheeling film probes the many issues that have divided Thai society and led to protests, demonstrations and extra-judicial killings.
Yoav Shamir's documentary Defamation (Hashmatsa, Israel-Austria) looks at what anti-Semitism means today. Where, how and when does it erupt? How prevalent is it? What is its history? Shamir follows a bunch of Israeli high school students on a visit to Auschwitz; he follows American Jewish leaders of the Anti-Defamation League (ADM) who travel the world warning governments of the rising threat of anti-Semitism; he talks to Jewish intellectuals who posit themselves against the League. As a Jew with no direct experience of anti-Semitism (as he himself claims), the director does recognise, though, that the anti-Semitism (a word with many connotations which manifests itself at various levels) discourse clings to the Jews of Israel like a shadow.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadjari's A History of Israeli Cinema (Israel-France) uses interviews with producers, directors, researchers, film critics as well as excerpts from films to tell a three and a half hour story of Israeli cinema - its beginnings and growth. The country's political convulsions have always impacted its cinema and Nadjari's film which, he says, is an unfinished story, draws you into a fascinating debate on both personal and political narratives and on the fundamental questions this cinema asks. An invaluable tool for understanding the nature of films that were made in the country and the course its cinema has taken over 60 years of complex, ethnic, religious, cultural and political tensions.
In My Only Sunshine (Hayat Var) by Turkish director Reha Erdem, fourteen year-old Hayat lives on an island off the coast of Istanbul with her fisherman father (who is also involved in unsavoury deals, procuring women and alcohol for big ships anchored near his home) and her ailing asthmatic grandfather. This coming-of-age story of an emotionally turbulent girl who is awakening to her own sexuality and clearly longs for understanding and motherly affection is told through haunting images of the sea which has a personality as strong as Hayat's.
From Japan came Deep in the Valley (Yanaka Boshoku), the third feature by Funahashi Atsushi, and his first shot in Japan. It places the non-existent five storey pagoda at the centre of the drama. Weaving a tale of a young romance in Yanaka, an old part of Tokyo, with another tale narrated in a work of fiction (Five Storey Pagoda) by renowned late 19th century writer Rohan Koda, Deep in the Valley marshals seamlessly memory, cultural symbols, their physical manifestations, generational differences, to create a black-and-white chef d'oeuvre that is as gentle as it is persuasive.
Another film from Japan was Naked of Defences (Mubobi) is, in many ways, a film of contrasts: between a pastoral countryside and a plastics factory set within it where human beings work mechanically, rhythmically; between the introverted Ritsuko whose marriage has crumbled after her miscarriage and her co-worker, the extroverted Chinatsu, pregnant with her first child; between the hatred and destructive feelings she harbours and the life-affirming ones that pervade her in the end.
Two very different films from Hong Kong held a mirror to the city's restlessness, energy and life on the edge: Kit Hung's Soundless Wind Chimes (Wu Sheng feng ling), a somewhat thin story of a gay couple - Pascal and Ricky, and the ups and downs of their lives; and Dante Lam's The Beast Stalker (Ching yan), in the genre of a thriller, the kind that we have come to expect from Hong Kong. This is a virtuoso piece of work where the narrative grows increasingly complex while the emotion remains irrelevant.
Garin Nugroho's commitment to raising social and political issues in Indonesia through the medium of popular culture continues in his latest film The Blue Generation (Generasi biru), co-directed with John de Rantau and Dosy Omar. The Blue Generation is about a rock band known as Slank which has, over 25 years, moulded an entire generation thanks to its socio-political lyrics. The film is a daring mix of mime, musical, animation and stylised, choreographed pieces. Does it work? It seems that this unusual style could disorient the viewer unless he is familiar with the country's political and cultural ethos and its social aspirations.