Web Only | Books Around: Here’s to Friends

By Olaf Möller

Just when I’d concluded that having a fat wad of cash on me at festivals to hit the book stores in style was useless, I came to Udine’s Far East Film Festival where I suddenly found myself lacking the money necessary to buy all the interesting-looking works on offer there. Due to the FEFF’s focus, the books were all on East and South-East Asian cinemas—not that I would mind! Five editions ago, FEFF started publishing bilingual books to accompany its retrospectives, all of them pioneering studies on their subjects: Chor Yuen, Nikkatsu Action (now also available in a scrawnier-looking English-only edition from FAB Press), Asian Musical Films, and Patrick Tam Kar Ming, respectively. This year’s tome, Far East: dieci anni di cinema (1999-2008) (Far East: Ten Years of Cinema, 1998-2008) (eds. Sabrina Baracetti, Thomas Bertacche, and Giorgio Placereani, Udine: FEEF, 2008), celebrating FEFF’s tenth anniversary, takes stock of the last decade in the main film cultures/industries of the region: one larger overview essay on cinematography written by the festival’s consultants for each of the respective regions, plus in some cases additional pieces on subjects like HK’s new breed of actors, Pinoy thespians as politicos, or a historical overview of Taiwanese cinema, the latter being the most useless piece in the book (a note in passing: I dearly miss Noel Vera as the man laying down the law on all things sine for FEFF’s catalogues—it was certainly fun to read his scathing comments on the local film industry even when I didn’t agree with him). As FEFF is devoted to popular cinema, the pieces tend to make for an informative as well as inspiring read, as they quite often talk about films and directors essentially ignored by most other festivals. A nice finishing touch is provided by Alberto Pezzotta’s bibliographical guide through ten years of writing-cum-publishing on East and South-East Asian cinemas; not everything published gets mentioned, but the range of works referenced is surprisingly wide. Paolo Bertolin, the only consultant taking (good) care of several countries for FEFF (Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam), pointed out a small volume to me I might have otherwise missed: Le cinema vietnamien (Vietnamese Cinema) (eds. Philipp Dumont, and Kirstie Gormley, Lyon: Asiexpo Edition, 2007). Now, that’s certainly something sensible to publish considering how shamefully little there is on the subject! (I guard my copy of an early ‘70s, Cologne-published, hectographed-and-taped Vietnam Support Committee magazine dedicated to the nascent nation’s revolutionary cinema like others would the Holy Grail.) As with the FEEF tome, this is another bilingual collection whose subjects range far and wide: from colonial images to overviews on documentary cinema and public service filmmaking, to more recent developments like the sudden emergence of a commercial cinema (with Le Hoang’s bar-girl flicks epitomizing the trend) or the viet kieu-views from the likes of Tran Anh Hung or Ho Quang Minh, to an auteurist appreciation of master Dang Nhat Minh. A highly useful starting point! In contrast, sad to say, to Ngo Phuong Lan’s Modernity and Nationality in Vietnamese Cinema (Boralesgamuwa: NETPAC, 2007). The initiative behind this translation—the first in a series jointly edited by NETPAC and JAFF, if everything works out well—is, no doubt, most laudable: it tries to make heard a local voice making sense of its own film culture. Problem is, the book strives very hard to be like a Western academic text and simply fails on all levels in comparison to its model. As is so often the case, a few nuggets of information can be found here and there, but on the whole, the book’s pretty disappointing. True believers in Vietnamese cinema like Paolo (who had a spare copy for me) or myself certainly need it (every bit counts), while others can easily stick with the afore-feted tomette. And while we’re with good people providing me with books: One of the worthiest additions to writing on cinema in recent times found its way to me thanks to Alexis Tioseco, who at some festival (probably Isola) gave me a copy of Jonathan Beller’s Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle, and the World Media System (Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006). Yes, it’s an academic text, but of a rare breed: low on pedantic reverence, high on intelligent, politically conscious kick-ass. Finally, a work in which the term Socialist Realism is used proudly—and a hearty Rotfront! to that. The last time I was similarly excited about such a designation was when a wave of late ‘70s/early ‘80s Taiwanese exploitation films with a cause or two attached was quasi-officially dubbed “Social Realistic Movie”—and yes, there is a difference between the genius of Lino Brocka and the casual savvy of Yang Chia-yun, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love both in the manner best becoming them and us. Acquiring Eyes deals only in part with Philippine cinema, mainly the two maestros Brocka and Ishmael Bernal; painting—the works of Hernando R. Ocampo and Emmanuel Garibay specifically—is of equal importance. In the way Beller structures his argument, the Socialist Realism of masterpieces like Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980) or Brocka’s Orapronobis (1989) becomes something like a semi-permeable membrane between two/three moments in painting and Philippine history represented by Ocampo and Garibay. Ocampo started out as a master of Social Realism but turned towards Abstraction in the late ‘40s, a move often interpreted as a farewell to art as a medium of political engagement—brilliantly challenged by Beller, for whom it is a reconceptualization of ideas for a changed environment and thus, possibly, a step forward in Ocampo’s aesthetic politics (to oversimplify a complex argument). Garibay’s decidedly post-EDSA “Syncretic Realism,” as Beller calls it, tries to weave the experiences of Abstraction and Socialist Realism together, the latter’s urgency with the former’s sense of structure. (Thinking this through further, on to the works of Lav Diaz and Raya Martin and Khavn, might be an interesting step in this ebolusyon. . .) Acquiring Eyes does for the Philippines something similar to what Eric Cazdyn’s The Flash of Capital does for Japan—if that isn’t praise enough, what is? Let’s round this up with summary review of a whole series of monographs which found its way to Cologne thanks to Paolo Bertolin’s kind liaising. Up till now, ten studies on nine auteurs have been published by KOFIC’s Korean Film Directors series, with Park Chan-wook having the honour of being the subject of two works: an earlier one downloadable from KOFIC’s website (where one can order all the other tomes—trying to get them from other sources might prove complicated) and a recent, more extensive one covering his oeuvre till I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), thus quite a bit on that utterly unpleasant subject. The first books in the series, on Ryoo Seung-wan and Bong Joon-ho, are published in a splendidly designed A4’ish format, are bilingual, and are both edited by Lim Youn-hui; the later tomes, on Hong Sang-soo (ed. Huh Moonyung), Im Kwon-taek (ed. Chung Sung-ill), Jang Sun-woo (ed. Tony Rayns), Kim Dong-won (ed. Jung Han-seok), Kim Ki-young (ed. Kim Hong-joon), Lee Chang-dong (ed. Kim Young-jin), and Park Chan-wook (ed. Kim Young-jin), have received a less visually splendid A5’ish black-wand-white treatment, and are solely in English. The choice of subjects isn’t exactly surprising, save for documentary master Kim Dong-won (and for those missing Kim Ki-duk, that’s an excusable omission as there are already several books on him easily available). It will be interesting to see which directors get selected for such a monograph next; a sensible place to start might be with Im Sang-soo, Kang Je-gyu, Jang Jin, and the Kim Twins (to round up a panorama of what’s recent and important, if not always meaningful), and then work backwards with Park Kwang-su, Lee Myung-se, Jung Ji-young, and on into history, so as to keep up an interest in Korean cinema beyond the realms of the recent. While there doesn’t seem to be a master pattern to which all the books are tailored, they’re all structured similarly: career profile/auteurist appreciation, interview(s), maybe texts by the director himself, biography, filmography, etc.—sometimes the editor does it all by himself, sometimes they are collaborative efforts. In general, disregarding the varying quality of translations as well as the sometimes cavalier mix of transliterations, the books are fine introductions to their directors—with only the Im tome proving to be disappointing, for one would have wished to read more about his earlier genre works. See, now there’s a book in dire need of writing!

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