The Bucheon International Film Festival (BIFAN), into its 21st edition this year, showcases genre films, and gives its burgeoning audience a wide range of shorts and features. The World Fantastic Cinema section has two divisions: Red and Blue. The Red section, as is easy to guess, is all about "blood-splattering action, creepy horror and heart-pumping thrillers." The Blue, on the other hand, includes "science-fiction, fantasy, comedy and drama genres that even those who are allergic to haemoglobin can enjoy." But the festival caters to the entire family, not just warm-blooded youngsters. There are other sections as well: Family Zone (for children and adolescents), Forbidden Zone (“extreme and dangerous films that challenge taboos and pose a problem for the freedom of expression"); Bucheon Choice (features and shorts that focus on discovering new trends and talents; and then there are spotlights on directors and countries.
The eleven films competing for the NETPAC Award were from the "softer" Blue category - in no way blood-curdling, but some did have the usual choreographed violence, while others were delicate tales of romance , some with and some without a sci-fi twist, gentle takes, rather, on the unusual and the different.
The Japanese film My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday by Miki Takashiro, for instance, was an exceptionally gentle film, in fact so gentle that you began wondering why it belonged here at all. Boy meets girl, love at first sight, and all smooth sailing with no conflict of any kind in the offing. None, at least for over 45 minutes. And then the story opens up, and we learn that the girl is from a parallel universe, and – most crucially and consequentially - time for her moves backwards, not ahead. The two can only live together for the moment, but soon he will be growing older and she, younger. Once that moment comes and flashes by, there will be nothing left to share any more. Two shy, reticent individuals in love, yet unable to decide on how to proceed. The ambiguous lighting every now and the, only deepens the mystery.
Parks (dir Seta Natsuki, Japan), too, is gentle. Made for the centenary year of the Inokashira Park in Tokyo - a gorgeous sylvan cocoon, the film makes its sheer beauty come alive with some wonderful shots of trees that fold you in their embrace. A relatively simple story of the search by young people for an old woman who had lived near the park (she has passed away) who had once penned a lovely song; the youngsters now want to revive it and sing it at the music festival in the park. Almost imperceptibly, though, the films steps out of reality at the end, as questions of friendship and the loss of it take over.
In a coming-of- age story, two young school girls are inseparable friends in Derek Tsang's Soul Mate (China-Hong Kong). As little schoolgirls, they laugh and play pranks; as they reach puberty, they are curious about each other's bodies; as young adults their emotional ties deepen. But inevitably, ways must separate, a boy enters the picture, conflicts set in, both fall in love with him. But while the actors have been beautifully directed, the story flounders. The neurosis that grips the girls is somewhat forced, a shade too constructed for the story to go on. By the age of 27, the two are exhausted, one drifting through life, the other home-bound.
The Japanese film Snow Woman (dir Kiki Sugino) has a few murders but nothing gory. The Snow Woman is supposedly a monster drawn from Japanese fables, but she is not always terrifying. She may kill with the help of the icy breath she blows into her victims’ faces, but she also spares some. She marries a mortal and has a daughter, and it is only when her non-human side is revealed towards the end of the film that her thus-far expressionless if sad, face assumes an expression. And she walks out of the screen, out of the story and, likely, out of the world.
From Taiwan-China came a wonderfully energetic film, The Village of No Return by Chen Yu-Hsun. This NETPAC Award-winner, set in an isolated village in China some time before the pre-modern age, shows a gullible, innocent, impulsive, obscurantist people clinging to their traditions. An 'outsider' walks into their world and begins to gradually 'control' them with the help of a helmet-like 'machine' called Worry Ridder and Soul Restorer, depending on its use. In this small society are manipulators, cowards and some hungry for power. The NETPAC citation stated that the film "paints a vibrant portrait of life in a remote village even as it makes an ironic and humorous comment on prevailing manipulative practices." The punch and power of the script and direction were offset by hidden satire masked as credulity.
The Journey of the Tortoise (dir Nagayama Tadashi, Japan) was at once a road movie and a family drama, into which was woven the metaphor of a tortoise, A deep rooted conflict exists between a father and an adolescent son (the mother has died in a road accident), and another between a father's brother and his fiancée. The tortoise is a pet that the father and son have kept for some fifteen years, and when the four characters travel together in a car, ostensibly for the second couple to get married on an island, the creature travels with them. But the boy, secretly and in a fit of rage, releases the tortoise, little realising that the release will eventually spell the release of the father and son too. A real loss turns into an emotional gain, even if the signs of the coming change are only partially visible.
And a comedy too. Fist and Faith by Chinese director Jiang Zhouyuan was not just a comedy but a spoof on comedies as well. There are young men full of energy who fight needlessly in a school in Manchuria which has both Chinese students and a few Japanese, and – no surprises - a gorgeous female teacher. Hats off, though to the fight choreographer who provides the viewer with wide-ranging fist fights, brawls and tussles, partially through animation, partially through yells and shrieks.
And now for some 'violent' ones. It is 2025, science has taken a quantum leap ahead, and it is possible to delete surgically (as against the crude contraption in The Village of No Return) selective memories, store them in a chip and even retrieve them late if necessary - but only once. In Battle of Memories, Chinese director Leste Chen takes up the case of a man with a restored memory. A science fiction crime thriller, this complex film may not be scary in itself, but certainly holds the potential of a scary future, were medical science to move this way.
Two Malaysian-Indonesian films were in the NETPAC competition: At Stake by Khristo Damar Alam amd Interchange by Dain Iskandar Said. At Stake was the story of four young men (one still a schoolboy) and a father who works as a security guard, growing up without any particular aim or ambition. Their relations with the father are cool and distant at best, and they spend their time gambling, drinking, chasing girls and working if work comes their way. One day, the father falls seriously ill, and that is their day of reckoning as they try out different ways of getting money for his treatment. And even as they discover – disastrously, as it turns out - the selfish ways of the world, the father discovers how little affection he had showed them in their years of growing up.
Interchange, on the other hand, is a grim tale of corpses found by the police, corpses drained of blood. Lying near them, every time, are old photography plates. Are these cases of sorcery, shamanism or is there a sociological issue here? Tribes living in the forests are averse to photographers taking pictures. They curse the intruders, but how do they turn into witches and turn their victims into bird-like creatures? How do they sprout wings and take to the skies? Fantasy and magic realism merge to give you film of beauty and intelligence.
Vampire Clean up Department by directors Yan Pak Wing and Chin Hang of Hong Kong was a thriller about eliminating vampires (which have for long been a menace to mankind) from the face of the earth, or at least from the face of Hong Kong. Blood, gore, contortion, creepiness, monstrosity, live burials and viruses that make corpses move - you have it all- and a little love story set within, but you leave the hall as you entered it - unaffected.
Some eleven awards were given away, including an award by a Children’s Jury. Topping the list (Best of Bucheon Prize) was The Endless by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, an American sci-fi horror film. In the Korean Fantastic: Features, the LG Hitech Best Korean Fantastic Film Award went to Behind the Dark Night by Korean director Shim Chanyang.
The genre industry is growing and drawing more and more viewers, and Bucheon is set for a wider and technically challenging future. And judging by the audience response, films that were once regarded as B grade have come into their own. And with a business side to the festival and the pitching of projects, BIFAN has spread its wings and taken to the skies.
-- by Latika Padgaonkar