VIFF 2012 Wrap-Up: All Apologies, A Mere Life, and In the Name of Love
Emily Tang's beautiful, smart, and moving Perfect Life is not only one of my favorite VIFF films of 2008, but one of my favorite films period (I don't keep a list, I just know that the memorable ones must be the ones I like most), and as far as I can tell, it has received no semblance of a North American release since then. So her 2012 outing, All Apologies, was, needless to say, highly anticipated for me. There are several reasons why this competent, well-directed drama fails to achieve that "memorable" status that is so coveted during a festival wherein goers are seeing upwards of five films a day. At its core, All Apologies--the story of a man who rapes and (successfully) impregnates his sister-in-law, and the implications of them keeping the child--is woefully plot-oriented, leaving it little room to breathe or explore any subtexts or byproducts of its central story. As good as the actors and direction are, this story has been done nearly identically (and with superior results) in another recent mainland Chinese festival-friendly film (Li Yu's Lost In Beijing). The passion are vitriol of Perfect Life is all but absent here, as is the feminist angle--with the female protagonist, while nicely portrayed, all but a passive piece of fertilized furniture. If I sound too harsh here, it's the let-down of anticipation and expectations unmet speaking more than a knock to Tang's talents. All Apologies was a commissioned work, and I will continue to feverishly anticipate the next project Tang selects for herself.
In a year where VIFF's Dragons & Tigers section seemed to have an unusual abundance of Korean fare, A Mere Life was a film that broke, in intriguing ways, from the signifiers its national cinema is typically known for. There is no revenge, talky-ness, or delicious looking mini-banquets of food in sight. Instead, A Mere Life is--perhaps purposefully--an inverted mirror image of all these things. Following the tragic outcome of a poverty-stricken family whose patriarch opts for a drastic measure to end the family's meagre existence, the film deals with the chilling reality of violence and the absence of reassuring conversations (with plenty of isolation instead); and earthly pleasures are revealed to be misleading comforts. Director Park Sanghun borrows a bit from Kim Ki-duk's philosophically tortured protagonists, but rejects his surreal and comedic flourishes. The result is rigorous and deeply bleak, but perhaps not without a glimmer of hope--if only that hope is merely saying "living is better than not".
Though I consider myself quite well-versed in East Asian cinema, I can only think of two Vietnamese films I've seen prior to In the Name of Love--though they were stellar (Adrift, which I reviewed here on Twitch) and quite good (Don't Be Afraid, Bi!) respectively. Based on these two films, I succumbed to that cinephilic tendency to spot a trend, or an emergence, and had decided than any recent Vietnamese film was worth seeing, and would be a good representation of a country on the filmic rise. I was not entirely wrong, and Luu Huyhn's In the Name of Love certainly has merit and looks gorgeous, but it favors style over just about anything else, and falls short of that desirable trait of memorability I mentioned earlier. Sumptuously shot in CinemaScope, the movie makes great use of its location (a floating village populated with folksy fisherman), and manages to ratchet up Cape Fear-levels of tension as it nears towards its inevitable finale. The problem is that the lead characters we're supposed to root for are naive idiots, and the villain is a horrifying scumbag, devoid of the dark charm found in Mitchum or De Niro.