AFTER SEVERAL YEARS with special sections devoted to Asia or some Asian countries in particular, the focus of the 2012 festival belonged to Mexico and Africa. Nonetheless and although their number was limited, the Asian films selected for the festival covered a broad range of topics, often courageously touching upon the most sensitive issues. That was the case with When Night Falls for which China was awarded the Golden Leopard for best director, as well best leading actress for its leading character An Nai. Shot by the young director Liang Ying, the film recounts the true story of Yang Jia, a man arrested and interrogated by Shanghai police for driving an unlicensed bicycle, and subsequently said to have murdered six police officers. As a consequence, and within a few days, Yang Jia found himself sentenced to death before a proper investigation could take place and with the isolation during the time of the trial of key witnesses. His mother was arrested and brought into a state mental institution under a false name to make sure she would have no chance to give her evidence and meet the deadline for a possible appeal.
Back in 2007, the story triggered a great deal of public sympathy in China, and the international media condemned the obvious shortages of China’s legal system. Throughout the film, director Liang Ying emphasises how the young man’s mother is forced to take up a fight similar to David versus Goliath. Although she tries with all the means at her disposal to interrupt or reverse the outcome of the procedure, she is facing a powerful machinery crushing everything that resembes contradiction, or opposition. The government crowns Yang Jia’s execution by sending his mother a large bouquet of flowers with a banner saying ‘sincere condolences’. Using original images and footage as they appeared in newspapers and on television, Liang Ying shows how fast one ends up being caught in a legal system which even if it contradicts its own laws, always has the final word. Premiered at the Jeonju Film Festival in South Korea, the Chinese government attempted, but failed, to buy the copyright of the film, and Liang Ying himself, presently teaching in Hong Kong, has been threatened with arrest should he go back to China.
Another poignant film shot as a documentary is Camp 14 - Total Control Zone, based on the true story of Shin Dong-huyk. Director Marc Wiese intelligently avoided sensationalism, but let Shin Dong-huyk in the course of several conversations recount, in his own words, his unusual journey. Born as a political prisoner in a North Korean reeducation camp, Shin Dong-huyk has no notion of the outside world and is left to believe that everyone leads the same life as his. Encouraged and trained to denounce anyone and anything that steps out of the ordinary, Shin Dong-huyk, then as a young boy, sees his elder brother at home telling his mother that he has fled from the factory to which he was attached. He then denounces his brother and mother to his teacher the next day. Subsequently, he himself is arrested and transferred to the camp’s prison where he is interrogated and beaten and then set free.
As Shin Dong-huyk grows older, he discovers the life people lead outside of the camp in North Korea through a friend. Together with his friend, Shin finally decides to flee, his fellow prisoner ends up being electrocuted on the barbed wire, however, he successfully manages to reach the nearest town. After several months on the run through North Korea and China, he arrives in South Korea where he was granted political asylum.Following the initial enthusiasm of being a free man, he finds it difficult to get used to his life outside the camp. He eventually decides that he wants to go back to the place where he was born (the camp), where he led an organized and structured life.
Besides the earlier films from China based on a traditional story or the more recent political documentaries, young Chinese directors are presently becoming more and more interested in ‘existential’ films, reflecting on their present lives. Memories Look at Me is a good example of that trend and which also received the Golden Leopard for a first feature film. As opposed to the documentaries shot by her fellow directors, this film follows Fang, the film’s main character as she comes back home to Nanjing to visit and stay with her parents. Torn between her desire to act like a modern women, being independent and not tied to any social conventions and her longing for her teens with a regulated and protected life, Fang feels unable to influence the course of her life or to protect her parents from getting older. The film is driven by a certain nostalgia which never leaves our leading character who seems very conscious of the feelings she experiences.
Nevertheless, not all films from Asia were as difficult, dark, or grim as some of the ones above. People’s Park, for example, directed by Libbie Dina Cohn and J.P Sniadecki, choose an unusual approach towards taking the viewer into one of the largest parks in the city of Chengdu. Using just the camera, and deliberately avoiding any dialogues in order to catch on the noises and casual conversations in the park, the film introduces us to the life that goes on day by day in a park, which thousands of people visit. With no precise script, the film keeps a good rhythm, and never feels annoying or dull.
Inori, a film describing the life of a mountain community in Japan, was awarded the Golden Leopard in the category ‘Cineasts of the Present’. Shot in Kannogawa, a small mountain city mostly deserted by its younger generation for larger cities, the film follows the life of the ones remaining, how they go about their daily duties and tradition. The Mexican director, Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio has placed great emphasis on the landscape and the sound in order to properly immerse the viewer into the community.
Within the 2012 Locarno International Film Festival, the strongest contenders remained China, Korea, and Japan. The 2012 edition was also – as it was announced after the Festival – the last one taking place under the artistic directorship of Olivier Père, who was appointed to lead Arte France Cinema. His replacement is the Italian Carlo Chatrian (b. 1971), who has been active in the world of cinema as a journalist, curator, jury member, consultant, and has been working with the Film Festival in Locarno since 2002.
BY OLIVIA SAND
More information on the festival’s website: www.pardolive.ch. Next year’s festival runs from 7 to 17 August, 2013.