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VIFF: Dragons & Tigers make noise on the big screen

This year’s crop of East Asian cinema is young, bold and wickedly funny


Dragons & Tigers

The Cinema of East Asia

Part of the Vancouver International Film Festival

Now until October 14

Tickets and info: www.viff.org

VANCOUVER — They’re big. They’re blazing. They’re films from across the Pacific.

With 45 features and 16 shorts, the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Dragons & Tigers series is the largest Asian film program outside Asia.

“That’s true,” confirms Shelly Kraicer, a Canadian film scholar living in Beijing who selected half of the 2011 titles. “The only bigger program looking at Asian cinema is Busan’s festival in South Korea.”

From Japan comes this year’s gala screening, Mitsuko Delivers. By twenty-something director Ishii Yuya, the film stands out as Japan’s answer to Diablo Cody’s award-winning comic drama Juno. A brash pregnant girl in her final trimester follows a cloud back to the underclass laneway where she grew up. Ignoring her empty pockets and enormous baby bump, Mitsuko is determined to solve her neighbours’ quirky problems.

With fresh films like Mitsuko Delivers, the Dragons & Tigers program has established itself as a stepping stone for up-and-coming filmmakers from Japan, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

“In Vancouver, we try to be the most important place that introduces East Asian film to Western audiences,” Kraicer says. “We introduce new voices — sometimes independent or alternative film — to North America and the Western world.”

This year, many of those voices are young women, telling optimistic and sharp-tongued stories about life in the city. Hong Kong director Heiward Mak captures this youthful urban sensibility in her mid-length drama Beside(s,) Happiness. With bright lights often twinkling in the background, a rhinestone-encrusted iPhone takes on a likely supporting role.

Mak’s sophomore film is screening alongside two similar female narratives. Both 1+1 and The Other Side feature debut directors and exciting indie soundtracks.

In 2011, Dragons & Tigers also brings fresh stories from contemporary Tibet. The Sun-Beaten Path is a directorial debut from Tibetan cinematographer Sonthar Gyal. “Looking at his film, it’s a spiritual odyssey — a pilgrimage,” Kraicer says. “It’s not directly political, but the film certainly talks about Tibetan religious identity.”

While The Sun-Beaten Path slid past China’s censorship laws, other selections in this year’s Dragons & Tigers series were not given the Communist Party’s stamp of approval.

Old Dog is a slow-burning film about a rural sheep herder and his sought-after dog: a Tibetan mastiff. The movie is banned from commercial screening in China for its political undertones.

“Chinese collectors want to buy the dog from him, but doesn’t want to sell it,” explains Kraicer. Dialing back the pace to an understated rural crawl, accomplished Tibetan director Pema Tseden explores the subtle tensions between national identity, tradition and progress. “It becomes more of a conflict between rural Tibetan farmers and urbanized Chinese,” Kraicer says.

Though he personally prefers experimental material, Kraicer says he and co-programmer Tony Rayns like to show off the range of East Asian filmmakers — which includes huge commercial heavyweights like Seediq Bale.

“From Taiwan we have the epic blockbuster Seediq Bale,” Kraicer says, adding that the film used thousands of extras to recreate an important 1930s battle. “It’s a historical film about Chinese aboriginals resisting the Japanese.”

Another critical success from Taiwan is Honey Pupu, which explores the fast-paced lives of young people in Taipei. The film extends inside digital worlds using advanced computer animation sequences. At Taipei’s international film fest, Honey Pupu picked up awards for best film, best director, best actress and best cinematography.

“I was on the jury,” Kraicer admits. “We loved it.”

Special to The Sun

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