Three films from three different Asian countries: Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan. All showed in the native language with English subtitles. They were “same but different” in large and small ways. For example, the actors balanced on walls and ledges or climbed over fences to reach a certain point. There was a connection to water, whether standing on a river bank, swimming or drowning. Everyone was drinking alcohol much more seriously than in films from western countries. All three films focused on men and their problems with money, each other, and politics (sterilizations, land-grabbing and unemployment). In the end I was never quite sure that I understood the direction of the plot, although I did understand the subtitles. All of the actors were good looking and happy to be in Berlin for the introduction of their film, although it will be interesting to see if any of them ever show in German cinemas – perhaps another good reason to go to the Berlinale.
The two biggest similarities, which caused me to speculate on an upcoming trend in Asian films were: all three featured conflicts with one or both parents and all three featured at least one gay character, a matter-of-fact homosexual as a part of society – not as an outcast, not as characters in a specifically gay film.
Big Father, Small Father and other Stories (Cha vàcon và) showed as the first Vietnam film ever in competition at the Berlinale. Vu is a photography student. He doesn’t actually have conflicts with his father. In fact, his father presents him with an expensive camera. But, still he strives for independence and hangs out in the night life of Saigon drug dealers, gamblers, and prostitutes. Then he is forced to take shelter on the father’s boat on the Mekong River. He more or less ignores his father’s girlfriend, until he becomes jealous when his own boyfriend, Thang, flirts with her.
Director Phan Dang Di discussed one theme in the film: vasectomies for men. He said that after the Vietnamese War there was a big population boom and men were encouraged to come in for sterilization, for which they were paid. Now, overpopulation is no longer a problem in Vietnam and therefore, there is no longer an incentive to participate. Phan Dang Di was happy to be in Berlin, but rather peeved that his film was not shown prime time, but early morning, noon, afternoon—never during the evening with wild and exciting red-carpet publicity. He said this while we were all standing on the second floor of the Audi Berlinale Lounge watching, through the full-length windows, the hysterical red-carpet reception of Cate Blanchett and the crew from Cinderella right below us. We divided our attention between watching black limos delivering stars and waiting for the Vietnam film discussion to be translated into English.
It was a treat to meet actress Do Thi Hai Yen, who is Vietnam’s top actress, known for her role in The Quiet American (2002). Here she played a night-club singer named Van. She said that her director made her dig up her ballet talents of 15 years prior and lose five to seven pounds in six weeks, although the film had been in the planning stage for five years. Real vodka was on hand for the drinking scenes and they literally got tipsy, if not a bit drunk. Le Cong Hoang, the young boy who plays Vu, experienced an often-told story: he studied financing and banking, but agreed to accompany his sister to a casting session. Naturally, he got a main role, while she got nothing. The film will be censored before showing in Vietnam. Le Cong Hoang said that his family would be shocked to see it.
In the Thai film The Blue Hour (Onthakan) Tam struggles all around, especially against his mother. She obviously prefers his older brother, who does everything right, while Tam does everything wrong. Is it always his fault, or must he take the blame for his brother’s mistakes. His only friend is Phum - a kind of alternative parent– a straw to clutch, someone to follow, but also a bad influence. He has sex with Phum. Death is the final answer.
In Thanatos, Drunk (Zui Sheng Meng Si) from Taiwan, the mother is once again the center of conflict. Here, too, she prefers the other son, the one who went off to the U.S. In flash-backs we see that the mother has died, but her body remains undisturbed until finally found. The sons are reunited and share an apartment with Shuo who seems to be a part-time call boy for both men and women. Here, too, there are visits to a night club; there is no father. This is director Chang Tso-Chi’s second Berlinale presentation; in 2008 he came with Soul of a Demon (Hu-tieh).