JIMFF 2012 Review: ABBA

Seen at the 8th Jecheon International Music & Film Festival (JIMFF).

Though not always convinced by the films, the Jecheon Intl. Music & Film Festival was definitely a period of musical discovery for me. It reawakened my love for Tropicalia and Serge Gainsbourg, made me wish I had more time to play my guitar (Jason Becker: I'm Not Dead Yet) and introduced me to flamenco singing (Morente). On the flipside I also discovered that I am not too keen on Thai country music (The Moon). The Taiwanese documentary Abba (which features a number of flashback scenes) led me to more uncharted territory as it immersed me in Taiwan's pop music scene.
 
This doc's subject is Hong Yi-feng, the late King of Taiwanese Pop. Much of the proceedings involve the staging of a tribute concert being put on by his three sons (themselves successful artists) following his death. It's a tribute film that commemorates his achievements as a pioneering musician in Taiwan but it is also a portrait of a deeply flawed man who was a strict father, an adulterer and ultimately an absentee family man. Most of the film is told from the viewpoint of his sons, all of whom are grown up with their own families.
 
I liked a number of the songs and was indifferent to some but this particular work isn't really about its subject's music. Don't get me wrong, much of the running time is devoted to his songs and talking heads ruminating on the legacy of his work but the lasting impression of the film is as a family portrait. Hong's songs amplify the tone, which is nostalgic and whimsical. They serve as an aid to the crux of the documentary's narrative, rather than being the be all and end all, as they are in most music documentaries.
 
It's a novel approach and one that actually works quite well. Aided by some well-staged flashback scenes and the razzle-dazzle of the modern Taiwan music industry in full swing during the tribute concert, Abba almost succeeds but then the it shoots itself in the foot. The third act goes full-tearjerker as the extended finale revolves around Hong's death, which the film's team was present to document. It is saccharine and cloying to such a degree that it almost torpedoed the whole film. It's a real shame and though I wouldn't say the rest of the film had been balanced and objective before that (far from it), it was just enough on the right side of sweet that it could have won me over with some judicious editing and a steady hand in the film's most emotional moments.
 
Still, Abba was a well-put together documentary that mixes a number of different styles to a satisfying degree all the while taking a slightly different approach to its subject than we are used to. It's just a real shame about the last half hour, drawn-out and mawkish, it derails the film.
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