VIFF 2012 – Mapping Memories of Past Ghosts

Images: Gotthard Schuh: A Sensual Vision of the World directed by Villi Hermann, Mekong Hotel directed by Apichatpong Weeresethakul, The Great Northwest directed by Matt McCormick, A Última Vez Que Vi Macau directed by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, Parts of the Heart – Love Shapes Who We Are directed by Paul Agusta, and Valley of Saints directed by Musa Syeed.
What is cinema if not a visual expression of memory, nostalgia and fragments of the past? Beneath the clouds over idle container ships near the South China Sea, Portuguese filmmakers João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata explore these connections channeling Guerra da Mata’s memories growing up in Macau. Their film A Última Vez Que Vi Macau (The Last Time I Saw Macau) is a dreamy candy-jar color tribute to the city embellished with a labyrinthine mix of past reflections and old ghosts from a neon-tinged post-colonial urban demimonde and a sensual exoticism.
A Última Vez Que Vi Macau unfolds with its noir-imbued narrative as Guerra da Mata intones like a hard-boiled detective. He tells of how his old friend Candy — starring transgendered Cindy Scrash in the role — is in Macau and has recently fallen in trouble with the “wrong men” after a friend was murdered. Macau, Candy explains, is where “strange and scary things” were happening. Her situation prompts Guerra da Mata to leave Portugal to find her there and his search also doubles as a personal return to the Vegas of the East after 30 years. Guerra da Mata and Rodrigues describe their mysterious story tinged with off-camera intrigue as an augmented counter-point to the real-life Macau pulsing to its own rhythm near the city’s harbor.
Their genre-defying film also acknowledges Josef von Sternberg’s 1952 movie Macau shot at RKO Studios in Hollywood starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. In the opening scenes of A Última Vez Que Vi Macau Candy lip-syncs behind shadows to Jane Russell’s flirtatious jazz number “You Kill Me” wearing a low-cut Chinese dress in front of tigers fenced-off behind her. Establishing an angle with von Sternberg’s film Macau – which itself is an embellishment of the port city’s location and a form of exoticized cinematic Chinoiserie — Guerra da Mata and Rodrigues unveil a dramatic narrative combining fictionalized memoir, romanticized artifice and a deconstructed urban profile. “This is Macao,” Rodrigues reports in voice-over, “. . . the fascinating Las Vegas of the East is the friendliest and cruelest of cities where nothing is what it seems.”
Rodrigues is representing both A Última Vez Que Vi Macau and the short film Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day at  this year’s 31st Vancouver International Film Festival. He is also a juror on the panel with filmmaker Shinozaki Makoto and film writer Chuck Stephens for the $5,000 Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema, an annual prize at VIFF, to be awarded during the fest.
The festival’s Dragons & Tigers: The Cinemas of East Asia series has been one of VIFF’s estimable marqueed programs drawing a variety of new cinema and young talent to Vancouver. It’s also crowned with its own awards gala. The Dragons & Tigers series is the largest annual exhibition of East Asian films outside of Asia, featuring established and emerging filmmaking talents from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand (“VIFF brings a world of film to Vancouver screens,” The Canadian PressVancouver Sun, September 27, 2012). VIFF Programmer and film scholar Tony Rayns has been curating the Dragons & Tigers series since its inception in 1994 and organizes the Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema. He has selected films from Japan, South Korea, The Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand for this year’s fest. Co-curator Shelly Kraicer who has been programming VIFF’s Dragons & Tigers for four years has selected a combined total of 16 Chinese language films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia in addition to documentaries and features from China.
As one of Canada’s largest film festivals, VIFF has often been compared with TIFF in Toronto which happens earlier in September just weeks before Vancouver’s fest opens. Although both have much in common and scope as international film festivals, VIFF’s distinguished Dragons & Tigers program acknowledges the creative range of Asian-Pacific cinema in Vancouver. Festival Director Alan Franey explains to Marsha Lederman of The Globe and Mail about what sets VIFF apart from other festivals, “I really think it’s distinctively (because) of this city, which is so multicultural and so oriented towards the Pacific and Asia. And a mark of pride is that for a city that is on the periphery of a lot of things we punch beyond our weight class in terms of how large a festival and how vibrant the audience is.” (VIFF’s director reflects on must-see films and the mistakes that eat him up, The Globe and Mail, September 23, 2012).
Many other films opening this weekend at the fest also draw connections that resonate between the past and present, often leading filmmakers and their viewers on a journey stitched together and mapping memories with past ghosts. Photography and archived collections serve as spring boards for the films Gotthard Schuh: A Sensual Vision of the World  and The Great Northwest that share common threads.
Villi Hermann’s documentary Gotthard Schuh: A Sensual Vision of the World follows Hermann retracing the steps of Swiss Photographer Gotthard Schuh (1897 – 1969) whose legacy influenced many post-World War II photographers. With photos in hand, Hermann visits the Ticino region of Malcantone and to Bali noting contrasts with Schuh’s early work and the passage of time.
Similarly, Filmmaker Matt McCormick from Portland, Oregon, retraces the steps of four young friends from Seattle whose thrift store scrapbook discovery formed inspiration for his photography project and experimental road film The Great Northwest. The four women whose road-trip travels around Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana in 1958 are documented in their scrapbook with faded photos, postcards, brochures and other ephemera on yellowed pages. As a kind of treasure map from a previous era, McCormick recreates their travels and offers a contemporary perspective comparing notes with their time-capsule archive in The Great Northwest.
The intimate space between relationships and the environment haunt characters in both Mekong Hotel and Valley of Saints — two films that generously allow their setting to fill the screen. Cannes award-winning filmmaker Apichatpong Weeresethakul’s latest film Mekong Hotel is set in the Thai-Laotian border region near the Mekong River in northeast Thailand. Originally inspired by an initial script for Weeresethakul’s Ecstasy GardenMekong Hotel offers a meditative reflection on last year’s flooding in the Mekong River region and in Bangkok. Here at this remote hotel a mother reveals herself to her daughter as a Pob ghost, an “infected” person who has a vampiric appetite for eating raw flesh as described in Thai-Lao culture. The afternoon’s soft light and gentle current of the Mekong River is inverted from her disruptive spirit.
Political unrest and a military curfew in Kashmir disrupts the mountainous valley region of Dal Lake in Musa Syeed’s striking film Valley of Saints. Two young friends whose plans to leave find themselves back in town during the military crackdown, but are ultimately drawn to recognize the environmental beauty of Dal Lake through the eyes of a researcher studying it. Dal Lake has been a locally-esteemed setting, however, from years of development, Syeed’s film underscores the lake’s threatened fragility. Elevating exposure to their locations — the Mekong River in Mekong Hotel and Dal Lake in Valley of Saints — both films reveal their risks for ongoing degradation from engineering projects and development.
Past memories of youthful desire linger for Peter whose coming-of-age as a gay man is the focus of Paul Agusta’s third film Parts of the Heart – Love Shapes Who We Are. As a young gay man from Jakarta, Peter’s life unfolds with adolescent awakening and desire. Chronicled in eight-part vignettes, Parts of the Heart reveals Peter at different points in time falling in and out of relationships beginning with a first kiss to render a rich portrait of one man’s quest for love.
The Vancouver International Film Festival runs for another two weeks, from September 27 to October 12, in the Yaletown-Granville corridor at several venues in downtown Vancouver. This year’s Dragons & Tigers Awards Gala on October 4 coincides with the North American Premiere of Lou Ye’s 2012 film Mystery marking his return to filmmaking following an official five-year ban. Lou Ye’s Suzhou River from 2000 was a critically-acclaimed international debut but his focus on sexual and poltical themes in his later work had breached China’s censors. For further film festival information, ticketing and venue details, visit VIFF’s web site at or download the free mobile iPhone app from iTunes.

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