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The glamour! The awards! Asian cinema showed off at this year’s AFI Fest even though it never truly arrived.
Let me start with something I wrote regarding last year's AFI Festival
This year there are several films popularized by other festivals that I want to see very much, such as Seijun Suzuki's Princess Racoon, Wang Xiaoshuai's Cannes entry Shanghai Dreams, Wilson Yip's Sammo Hung/Donnie Yen thriller SPL, and Zhang Yang's Sunflower. On the other hand, the fact there's only one film from India (Amu) and one from South Korea (The Red Shoes) and none from Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, or Indonesia says that the AFI Festival isn't trying too hard to draw attention to cinemas that aren't "hot" in the American commercial arthouse market. As for Asian-American films, there're only two, although neither are classically Asian-American per se.
In 2006, it feels like Asian cinema had more visibility at the AFI Fest. Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower held its world premiere at the festival, where it was the closing night film. Meanwhile, an Asian-themed film Buddha's Lost Children won the award for best documentary. And yet, in some ways that visibility hides the fact that the Asian film selection was just as Sino-centric as last year's: seven Chinese-language films, three Korean, one Japanese, one Indian, one Pakistani, and still nothing from Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, or Indonesia. As for Asian Americans films, there were none, which is especially disappointing given what a great year it's been for Asian American cinema. The cynic in me says they should rename the "Asian New Classics" sidebar into "Chinese New Classics."
Worse yet, of the 13 Asian films, six already have some kind of American distribution deal, meaning they are films that cinephiles in Los Angeles will be able to see anyway. Once again, the impression is that the programmers are interested primarily in publicizing upcoming releases, which is fine, but when it comes at the expense of drawing attention to unknown or art-house unfriendly films, or when it comes at the expense of national cinemas that have yet to have market value, there is a problem.
And it's not that the programmers don't have taste. The Korean film Family Ties is one of those rare finds that transcends its generic title and synopsis to impress with unexpected humor and vision. It hasn't had very much press at other festivals and a botched marketing job in Korea led to weak domestic box office. Yet it's precisely the kind of film that AFI Fest should be programming in order to give new life to a smart, well-crafted film.
If they must program films that already have distribution deals, I'd prefer they do it with some purpose. The double feature of Election and Triad Election (aka Election 2) is an example of a smart "hook" to get audiences to see two interrelated films together on the big screen. Both have American distribution deals, but only the second will be shown theatrically. However, by pairing the films, the programmers are building an audience which sees the mafia saga as a big-screen event rather than as one film and its sequel. As the festival did a few years ago by programming the entire Infernal Affairs trilogy, here the AFI Fest delivers an alternative way to experience films that will be available later.
I think it's safe to say that we can't rely on the AFI Fest to deliver the cutting edge of Asian art cinema. Wang Chao's Luxury Car and Kim Ki-duk's Time definitely count as art films, but most of the others are either typical art-house melodramas or are horror or action films. The list of more aesthetically-daring films that have yet to play L.A. is long (Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century, Katsuhito Ishii's Funky Forest, and Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life come immediately to mind), but while I was disappointed by their omissions, I was hardly surprised. I was thoroughly surprised though by the action films the programmers brought to L.A.: Bong Joon-ho's The Host, the Pang Brothers's Re-cycle, Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet, Johnnie To's Election films. Could this be the niche the AFI Fest should further pursue? Or will it continue to play it safe with Asian films that will get commercial releases anyway? Bad habits and economic interests have a way of repeating themselves, so I'm not optimistic.
Date Posted: 11/15/2006