28 August 2008

At the Gates of Dragons & Tigers

Seit er Mitte der 1970er Jahre entdeckt hatte, dass in der westlichen Filmgeschichtsschreibung Asien fast gar nicht vorkommt, hat sich der britische Filmjournalist Tony Rayns daran gemacht, dieses Missverhältnis zu ändern. Seitdem hat er Unmengen von Artikeln (eine Auswahl findet sich unten) und einige Bücher zu asiatischen Filmen, Genres und Regisseuren geschrieben, die mittlerweile zum Standard gehören. Wichtiger noch als Rayns Arbeit als Autor war jedoch sein 1988 begonnener Job als Kurator der asiatischen Sektion "Dragons & Tigers" auf dem Filmfestival von Vancouver, das dieses Jahr vom 25. September bis 10. Oktober stattfindet. Dort liefen erstmals Filme von heutzutage so bekannten Regisseuren wie Takeshi Kitano, Tsai Ming-liang, Kim Ki-duk und Jia Zhang-ke vor westlichem Publikum. Auch auf den Filmfestivals von London und Rotterdam betreute Rayns lange Jahre die asiatische Filmauswahl und war damit einer der entscheidenden Wegbereiter des asiatischen Kinos im Westen.

2005, ein Jahr, bevor er seine Arbeit in Vancouver beendete, sprach The Wayward Cloud mit Tony Rayns über seine kuratorische Arbeit, über die radikalen Wandlungen der Rezeption asiatischer Filme im Westen in den letzten Jahren, über seine Abneigung gegen die Filme von Kim Ki-duk und Park Chan-wook und warum er Tsai Ming-liangs The Wayward Cloud nicht zeigen konnte.

Tony Rayns

Interview mit Tony Rayns

The Wayward Cloud: Most people not associated with film festivals only have a vague notion of what a curator’s work consists of. Mainly they see him as a kind of selector, who watches a lot of movies and than says yes or no. How would you describe your work?

Tony Rayns: When Vancouver's Festival Director Alan Franey approached me and asked if I would like to do some programming for an Asian section for the Vancouver International Film Festival, we first had to agree on the geographical area. We decided on Pacific Asia, which includes all Asian countries on the edge of the Pacific, from Korea in the north to Indonesia in the south. The first reason I did agree to do this job is because I had a high degree of freedom. My starting point for thinking about my curative work was that I wanted to offer a kind of inclusive panorama of East Asian cinema. I took it as my job to go to these countries, look what’s happening in these film cultures and try to represent it in Vancouver. That included mainstream commercial films, arthouse titles, independent works, documentaries, animation, avantgarde. I see my final selection as a kind of bulletin, a report from the region that notes interesting developments. This could be the emergence or breakthrough of an individual filmmaker, a generic shift, the resurgence of a certain style or genre. Part of my job is to report that, to simply acknowledge: This is happening. But I have to qualify this by saying that when we started this, more than 15 years ago, Asian cinema was little known in Western countries. It was a time when other festivals here were not clamoring to show the new film by Shunichi Nagasaki or Takeshi Kitano. Now they are, there has been a dramatic shift in recent years. I wouldn’t say that Asian cinema has become mainstream but at least vastly more visible than before. The amount of Asian films you can find in any DVD store around the corner nowadays would have been unimaginable even ten years ago. My job as a curator has been changed by this. When we started we presented exceptionally rare films and tried to get attention for them. Now it’s rather the opposite, there are films which are refused to this festival because the sales agents deem them to be too popular to throw away on a non-market festival. My curatorial response to this situation is to focus on next generation talent. If you look at the evolution of the program you’ll notice an increasing shift toward the indie sector. That’s the area where discoveries still are to be made, because mainstream and arthouse titles are already very much present in other festivals and the minds of the distributors.

Let’s talk a little bit about the practical side of discovering new talent in such a large region. How do you get to know about new films, where do you see them?

First of all this a question of financial resources. When Alan Franey first approached me he was very upfront about the situation. He told me there’s no budget to send me on research trips. He was aware that my work took me to this region anyhow and his hope was that I would be able to do the research for the programming work on the back of my other work in those countries. On the outset that’s what happened. I would learn about and see films at festivals I was visiting, people would tell me about films, friends and film-makers would send me tapes which allowed me to gradually put together a program. After a few years we found ourselves premiering a lot of work that had not be screened anywhere else outside its home country. We were the first to show films by Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike and quite a number of other filmmakers who have become big names since then. And also we were the first festival which these directors actually visited, we even had an exhibition of Kitano’s paintings and did a lot of things which were ahead of the curve. Because of the section’s increasingly high profile Alan Franey wanted to give it a name and we decided on "Dragons & Tigers", far before people began to talk about the economic crash of the Tiger states or Ang Lee made his famous film. Also in 1994 we introduced a competition section, with a jury and a cash award, for films of young directors who haven’t won significant international recognition. That changed the pressures on me because it meant that I actually had to come up with discoveries every year. And that meant that I had to go on specific research trips. This led to a difficult situation for me because I was starting to spend my salary on being able to do my job, i.e. air fares and hotels. I ended up with nothing for myself effectively. To avoid going bankrupt I approached Alan. His response was a raised salary since he wasn’t able to come up with a specific research budget. That’s the situation at the moment, one I don’t find very comfortable, but that’s the way it works. I still do most of my work on the back of other assignments. There are five festivals that are fixed points in my calendar and where I see most of the films: Jeonju, Puchon and Pusan in South Korea, the Hong Kong Film Festival and Tokyo FILMeX. I use these visits as starting points for other research, for example I will spend some time in Seoul, visiting the Korean Film Council. As I said my approach is inclusive, so often I spend days looking at student films or shorts.

Does the research for a film go beyond seeing the film and talking to the director? Do you for example visit certain regions in which a film takes place?

Oh no. I’ve been doing this work for a long time and as you will have noticed, I’m a very old man so I have a achieved something which the English would call "form". Over many years I have built up a network of connections and a certain amount of knowledge about the countries that I’m working in. So when I see a new film I am usually kind of prepared for it, I am familiar with the director’s background, we’ve usually met before. When you look back at the feature films we screened in Vancouver you’ll quite often find that we screened shorts by their directors in previous years. We have quite a good track in discovering interesting talent even at student stage and following their careers. We built up a lasting relationship with a number of people. "Research" is a too grand term for this kind of networking. Only occasionally there’s a film that comes out of nowhere, as it happened this year with Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide. That was a very unexpected film for me. But more often films come out of somewhere that you are familiar with.

Most festival visitors do not have the same knowledge you have, so for them directors or styles which for you are utterly familiar can be something new and fresh. Do you try to find a balance between the audience’ and your own curiosity and sense of wonder?

Well, it depends. Take a film like Park Chan-wooks Oldboy for example. Some people accused me for not showing it but it doesn’t matter because the film is widely available, you can buy the DVD one block from here. The festival doesn’t need me to bring Oldboy here, and Oldboy certainly doesn’t need me to promote it. Also, I was never part of any fanclub for Park Chan-wook. I’ve showed only one of his films in this festival, a short called Never Ending Peace and Love which was part of the original If You Were Me-project which deals with problems faced by immigrant workers in Korea. I haven’t shown his features because I did not like them very much, but again I’m old enough to have seen his early films which he made before the political change in Korea. He then went on to become an industry figure who made two completely undistiguished feature films in the nineties before he reinvented himself and made a very conscious bit to make a reputation for himself. Because I have seen his old stuff I was not so impressed by this and decided not to show his new films. That kind of decision, which was looked upon by some people as kind of odd I guess, was based on the fact that I’ve been around that long. Sorry, I know this guy, I think he’s a phony.

Do you make decisions like that alone or do you have a team which partakes of the selection process?

I am afraid it’s only me, sorry. That may sound idiosyncratic but I think there is a balance between objective and subjective decisions. As I said before, I see my job as presenting a kind of report from the region. If in Taiwan there is new wave of independent video work then I will cover it, that is the objective part. At the same time there are always things that I am in interested in and things that I am not interested in, like the work of Park Chan-wook.

Or the films of Kim Ki-duk on whom you wrote a rather negative article called "Sexual Terrorism" in Film Comment

Sorry, but the first festival in the world that Kim Ki-duk came to was this one. I was his first supporter. I met him when he was a totally despised figure in Korea because he didn’t go to film school and wasn’t very well educated. At that time he gave me a copy of his first film Crocodile and asked me to look at it. I thought the first five minutes were fairly extraordinary, I thought the last five minutes were fairly extraordinary, I thought the middle 90 minutes were not so extraordinary and rather offensive in terms of their sexism and their endorsement of rape. Another problem was that the film was atrociously subtitled so I told Kim that some aspects of his film are very interesting but that it cannot be shown with those subtitles. The audience would have lynched me. He didn’t believe me and thought I was only looking for an excuse for not showing it. But he came back to me with his second film Wild Animals which he made in Paris. Again I thought there were some extraordinary scenes in it so I said: "Ok, I’ll do it, I’ll show this film." And we did, he came, that was his first ever trip to a film festival and the first time he stood before a foreign audience. So I don’t have any apologies to make to Kim Ki-duk. What happened was that in later years he became extremely self-important, after The Isle had been invited to Venice and become a scandal which in my view had been rather cynically engineered by the festival. Suddenly Kim Ki-duk’s sense of ego dramatically expanded and also his films began to change. His earlier works were all metaphorical autobiography, based on his own experiences and projections. Wild Animals is a kind of imagined autobiography about his time in Paris, when he was living as a struggling street artist. The style and themes of his early films was firmly rooted in his own imagination and consciousness, whereas the later films are rooted in his DVD collection. Bin-Jip clearly is a rip-off of Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’amour. To me that is a bit disappointing. I think he’s run out of aspects of his own life to explore.

What are the main problems that you face in putting together the best of all possible programs?

One thing that is not really a problem but a source of resentment is that some films are unavailable because distributors and sales agents don’t want you to see them yet. One of the things that is important for me is to show films of directors whom we have supported for a long time. If the audience is nurtured on a particular filmmaker there is a kind of contract with it and the people should be able to see this director’s new work. Take Tsai Ming-liang for example: I think we are the only festival in the world who have shown his early TV works. Subsequently we have shown everything he has made, so it would have been logical to present his film The Wayward Cloud in Vancouver. Unfortunately its sales agent Wild Bunch didn’t want it shown because they screened it in Toronto, which is a market-festival, and they were looking for a deal. They decided not to play it in Vancouver because they thought the screening in two Canadian festivals would damage their chances of selling it. Tsai Ming-liang himself contacted them and told them he would like his film to play here because of his long connection with the festival, but they were unmoved by this.

Are you in any way involved with the financial side of bringing Asian films to Western screens?

A number of sales agents have asked me over the years to work with them in various ways, some filmmakers even asked me to become sales agents for them. I always said no because I think I’m more useful as an independent voice.

In the article "Berlin Blues" on the Asian films at the Forum of the Berlin Film Festival 2005 you talked about its problems in adjusting to "modern programming". Could you describe what you mean by that?

In the late sixties and early seventies when the Forum was founded, along with the Quinzaine in Cannes and the Rotterdam Film Festival, there was a movement to present a certain kind of cinema that was not shown at the major festivals. It was seen as an alternative to the mainstream. At that time it was really easy to define what fit in and what didn’t. This has drastically changed. Today someone like Park Chan-wook can win a major price in Cannes with Oldboy which shows that the mainstream arthouse competition sections have adapted to embrace and acclaim genre cinema. That has taken away one area of responsibility for the alternatives. But the shift is even deeper. In the late sixties there was a pretty clear line between what was considered commercial and alternative cinema. Today it would be very difficult to draw that line. Today the sense of what is actively interesting in film culture needs to be nurtured and discussed much more intensely. So I think modern programming has to be in touch with the needs of the moment. I am sure that there still are issues which are not being tackled by the big mainstream events like the film festivals in Cannes or Berlin and that remain for the fringe events to deal with. Some of them do it sucessfully and others don’t.

Are there criteria for judging the success of a program, apart from the size of the audience?

In "Berlin Blues" I was writing about a consistent failure over many years on the part of the Forum programming team to deal with the realities of Japanese cinema. In a way the Kim Ki-duk problem is related to this. Though there has been great progress in the reception of Asian cinema there exists still a great deal of ignorance and naivete towards these cultures. And it seems to me that the failure to imaginatively engage with these countries is sometimes reflected in dubious distribution and programming decisions. And also in criticism, of which I read a lot. I do not wish to cast the first stone here, when I started writing about Hong Kong cinema back in the seventies I made a huge number of mistakes based on my ignorance of the culture out of which the films came. I had no idea how a film fitted into a particular kind of genre tradition. However, I think today there is less excuse for such kinds of mistake because there is so much material available. In the seventies there were absolutely no reference books, there was nothing on Asian cinema in any western language. I scoured the library for any information I could find but there was pathetically little. David Robinson published a book called World Cinema around that time. He was a fine and decent critic and this work was a doorstopper of a book but you could only find one mention of Chinese cinema and even that was in brackets. Thai, Korean, Indonesian cinema didn’t even get a passing mention. For Robinson Asian cinema meant India and Japan which were the only Asian countries at the time from where some films had been exported. Now the situation has completely changed, there are many books and articles on the subject, there are filmmakers who are constantly traveling and promoting their work. So there is less excuse for ignorance. You can no longer justify to exoticize East Asian cultures and films. Things like "Oh, it’s so beautiful" or "How buddhist" or "How transcendent" or "That must be mono no aware" are no longer defensible. We have moved on from that.

Some articles by Tony Rayns:

> Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life
> Wong Kar-wai’s 2046
> Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times
> Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Blissfully Yours, Syndromes and a Century
> Takeshi Kitano: Kids Return, Hana-Bi, Kikujiro, Dolls, Zatoichi
> Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is it There?