Cho Min-Sik gets an award
Cho Min-sik gets an award

Review of Asiexpo 2008 by Leung Wing-Fai

In years to come, I’ll be asked where I was when Obama was elected the first African-American president of the US and I shall recall Asiexpo (4-9 November 2008). I did hope that was not the only reason I would remember the festival. Asiexpo is a small collection of films, documentaries and other cultural activities in Lyon that celebrates all things Asian (given this is France, Asia doesn’t just mean the Indian subcontinent). This year was its 14th edition. Most of the films in competition were independent, rarely seen and edgy titles. They were complemented with anime, the odd commercial features and retrospectives. This year saw ‘Bollywood Story: Panorama of Indian Cinema 1949-2008’ and ‘Homage to Choi Min-sik’, the Korean actor most known for his role as the lead in Old Boy. Before you get excited, I missed Mr. Choi as he arrived the day I left. However, the loss was compensated by smaller gems.

US trained Lee Sang-woo’s debut feature Tropical Manila (South Korea/Philippines 2008) shows great promise. Set in a slum in Manila, a Korean fugitive waits for the day he can return to his native country especially since his mother is dying from cancer. The interconnected yet strained lives of the man, his Filipino wife and ‘Kopino’ son Philip are fascinating. The visceral, sexually charged and violent film is repulsive and poetic at the same time. Lee’s aesthetics are clean but vibrant: you can almost smell the Philippines through the images. It comes to no surprise that Lee was apprentice to Kim Ki-duk.

Tropical Manila
Tropical Manila

Feast of Villains (Pan Jianlin 2008, China) is a realist depiction of a poor young man from Beijing duped by an illegal organ donation ring. Technically naïve though socially significant, the film can be accused of perpetuating the stereotypes of the evil ‘Southerners’ that are often seen in the popular imagery of mainland literature and cinema. Vermillion Souls (Iwana Masaki 2008) is an oddity. Debut direction by a 63 year-old Butoh master now settled in France, the film is more experiential than narrative, and a philosophical contemplation about death, weaving between dream and reality and witnessed by a seven year-old boy. The actors are fellow Butoh dancers and their performance is often physical and lyrical, betraying the theatrical origin of the filmmakers.

It was great to revisit such a Bollywood classic as Mangala (Mehboob Khan 1952) not least because of it glamorous lead Nadira. Nadira was an Iraq-born actress of Jewish descent (at the time, it was still quite a taboo for Indian women to appear onscreen). Her rise to fame was due to her depiction of unusually strong female roles. Dil Se (Mani Ratnam 1998) proved to be more popular amongst the diaspora (such as in the UK) than in India perhaps due to its unconventional subject matter (separatist movement, terrorism) and ending. It now gets regular screenings on Channel 4 late at night and is well worth checking out.

You can imagine my relief to see Tokyo Gore Police (Nishimura Yoshihiro 2008) after several days of heavy subjects including human rights, sex tourism, suicide bombing and organ trade. TGP is what it says on the tin: wall to wall gore, a so-called police force led by Eihi Shiina from Audition, set in futuristic Tokyo. You don’t get murder weapons as subtle as needles here though: we are talking about severed limbs turning into chain saws and giant claws, and geysers of blood. I can’t wait for the sequel!

Asiexpo is small, bijoux and Francophile. Apart from one or two titles, all the films were subtitled in French only, hence the slight lack of international presence. One small gripe I had was the disorganisation, especially long queues and problems with subtitles. Considering the festival was run by volunteers (who were all trés gentils by the way), we had to make allowances. I met someone in Lyon who asked if Obama would really make a difference. Has Asiexpo got a part to play in the Asian cinema landscape? Well, it is more like one small step towards change . . .

Thanks to Asiexpo, Lee Sang-woo and Iwana san.