Narratives of genre in the current Asian cinema

A talk with Ángel Sala

Director of the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival

by Menene Gras Balaguer


This talk has taken place a few days alter the closing of the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia, run by Ángel Sala, in which the Asian production has undergone a major role and has been awarded in several areas: Best Direction Award for “Train to Busan” by Yeong Sang-ho, who with this film has made the jump to real image animation; Best Special Effects Award to Jung Hwang-Su; Best Photography to Hong Kyung-pyo for “The Wailing” and Audience’s Grand Award for “The Handmaiden” by Park Chan-wook, which will feature next December 2nd in commercial cinemas. The New Visions Award has been given to “Under the Shadow”, by Iranian Bavak Anvari, and the Focus Asia Award has been given to “The Wailing” by Na Hong-jin. The Korean “Train to Busan”, has received a well-deserved award and it’s an awesome movie that for Ángel Sala reminds him of “The Host” (2006) by Bong Joon-ho, which was also screened in Sitges and got the Best Special Effects Award, without ceasing to be the most grossing film in its own country. In this conversation, Ángel Sala makes a brief evaluation of the Asian cinema and its international successes that he attributes to their narratives and a way of understanding a cinema that doesn’t give up its local precedence, despite being global for its structure, language and elective affinities. It has also been possible to watch the last film of Filipino Khuan de la Cruz, “Alipato – The Very Brief Life Of An Ember”, in the New Visions Plus section, and the Indonesian film “Headshot” by Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel, who studied in Australia, in the Orbit Section. Even though most of the Asian films that were screened in the festival came from Japan and Korea as well as other cinemas like the mentioned ones; and other geographies through urban or rural landscapes from countries like Kazakhstan in “Hunger Diaries” by Anuar Doss and Gabriel Rahbani or from Thailand, Malaysia, Iran, Singapore and Indonesia. The corresponding suggestions have discovered us a significant potential in the genre cinema field, along their contributions to the multiculturality of the festival.

Menene Gras. The weight of the Asian cinema in the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival is a phenomenon that can’t be compared with the presence that it can have in any other Spanish festival. How did all this begin? From long ago, Sitges is the festival that has been the most sensitive to the discovery of non-western cinematographies and particularly those that come from the Asian continent.

Ángel Sala. 16 years ago, the explosion of the Asian cinema emerged in the festival’s programme. It was impossible to keep indifferent to the changes that were happening in the international scenery and overall to the interest that raised their narratives in festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Locarno, Rotterdam or Venice. In that moment, this cinema identified itself with Korea and Japan. It was a new cinema that arose from the economical transformation of these countries and the growth that the cultural industries who had made possible its production were experimenting, with a huge difference in relation with others of the same region. Although at the same time appeared other waves like the one of the Thai cinema –with a commercial cinema as well as an author one– and the transformation of a country like China, lead by Hong-Kong. We had to male an offer that integrated these cinematographies that we couldn’t ignore and for this reason we proposed ourselves to canalize what was interesting for the festival, that is, the fantastic, the horror and the action thriller. From Hong Kong we brought films like “Three” by Johnnie To, who is an unavoidable name, “SPL 2: A Time for Consequences” by Soi Cheang, “While the Women are sleeping” by Wayne Wang and “Trivisa” by Frank Hui, Jevons Au and Vicky Wong. I always say that the festival, however, is made by the audience and its reaction.

M.G. Initially, the successive discoveries that Sitges managed to transmit to the audience in general favoured the interest for cinematographies that little by little stopped being marginal to adopt a main role and reaching an unexpected popularity among the public of the festival. To what do we owe this interest, which has also been present in other European festivals in a very straight way?

A.S. With time Sitges has become one of the festivals of reference in the world, concerning the presence of the genre Asian cinema. Indeed, a lot of factors have made it possible, besides the decisions taken these years. The existence of a myth that has consecrated actors, actresses and directors has, without a doubt, helped creating the hobby. To give you an idea, the space that the Asian cinema occupies in the festival is above 30% of the programme, among the fantasy cinema, the author cinema and animation. Sitges got ahead of what later became the BAFF. In 1992, when Xavier Catafalch was the director, I was part of the programming team with Carolina López, who runs from years ago the Anime festival in Lleida, we introduced the Japanese animation, even before Berlin did it. It was a first step that opened the doors to the presence that has reached the Asian cinema in the festival.

M.G. Nevertheless, we talk about a cinema that barely gets any presence in within the circuits of the commercial cinema. There are some Spanish distributors that supported this cinema but without any guarantee. There’s a great ignorance regarding the contribution of these new cinematographies and not so new, whose narratives identify with those cultures that get close to us and end up being familiar despite the distances. As opposed to other countries like France, Germany and England, the Asian cinema in Spain doesn’t have the audience that it has in these countries, who unsurprisingly have an important presence in Asia. How can this keep happening, when there are symptoms of the existence of an audience more and more interested or in appearance keen to the esthetic and narratives of this cinema?

A.S. The ignorante of the Asian cinema in Catalonia and Spain in general is well-known, excluding followers and fans like the ones who fill the halls in Sitges. The Asian cinema barely circulates despite some distributors have achieved and keep introducing them relying on the festival platforms like the ones we have mentioned –Cannes, Berlín and even Sitges– although at the moment of truth the commercial successes are few. The positive and enthusiast answer is massive in festivals, but when it reaches the theathers, it doesn’t obtain the effect that it should have, as it happens in lots of cases with the author cinema. For instance, the cinema of Hirozaku Koreeda (“Our little sister”, 2015) or Naomi Kawase (“Still Water”, 2014; “Sweet Bean”, 2015), which seems to guarantee box-office success because both directors have lots of followers, but then, when they reach the cinemas they turn out to be baffling failures.

M.G. You’ve put two examples that correspond to the most popular Asian cinema, not only because Japanese cinema already has a presence in the west from decades ago and a tradition but because they are intimate films but with a very close theme and thus, it was easy to foresee that the success these films have had abroad would reproduce in Spain and it’s not the case. There are other cases that show it even more radically.

A.S. In this sense, an even clearer example is the “The Assassin” (2015) by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, an action drama from the IX C. where martial arts played an important role. Even though it got the Best Director Award in the Cannes Festival, the press’ answer was full of controversy. Not to mention the failure it had in commercial theatres. While some critics highlight the overwhelming beauty of the film, others regretted its slowness or aestheticism and didn’t want to support it. The film had a good distribution here but didn’t get for one bit the expected response and was a commercial failure. Fifteen years ago, this wouldn’t have happened. The passion to explore and know other cinematographies was amazing.

M.G. For what reason? What happened before that doesn’t happen now? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, coinciding with the most knowledge ever had about Asian cinema?

A.S. I mean the time when the first Films by Wong Kar-Wai appear, “Days of being wild” (1991), “Happy Together” (1997) or “In the Mood for Love” (2000) to the most recent one “The Grand Master” (2013); or the ones from Yang Zimou like “Red Sorghum” (1987), “Ju-Dou” (1990), “The Red Lantern” (1991), “Live” (1994) or Happy Time (2000), and the following –“The flowers of War” (2011) y “Coming Home” (2014). I also think of the South Korean director Kim Ki-duk and what did signify some of his films such as “Spring, summer, autumn, winter… and spring/ Life Seasons” (2003), “For love or for Desire” (2004), “Time” (2006) or “Amen” (2006). What occurred with them is difficult to happen again. They produced a unique experience: suddenly there was a cinema that opened new horizons and maintained an expectant audience that looked forward to the new productions that were released in all European cities. All this has been lost. The only cinema that works is good vibes, such as the films I named before from Naomi Kawase or Hirozaku Koreeda.

M.G. However, I insist there is an Asian Cinema that is more present in the commercial cinemas and upon which there is great curiosity and increasing interest. The fact is that a great amount of time is required until this cinema reaches general audience and the benefits obtained compensate the investment of the distributors, without which this cinema would never have got this far.

A.S. Asian Cinema, such as cult cinema or genre cinema reaches good results in festivals, yet not in the commercial sphere: the distributors support this cinema, but the response of the audience leaves much to be desired. For instance, in France anime films can raise 4 million Euros, when in Spain it is not even a quarter. We cannot compete with this data.

M.G. I would like to have your opinion about Indian Cinema, because the current picture is very controversial and wide in all its aspects. What would you point out in particular of all the genres of film production of this country and what you find most interesting?

A.S. The cinematography of this country is unmanageable. On the one hand, it has the acceptance of wide local audiences, or comparable to the local of other countries in Europe. In Great Britain and EEUU is very demanded, and not only because of the emigrations of Indian populations to these countries. The phenomenon of Indian Cinema is adopting new dimensions that are unknown due to the emergence of a new wave of young directors more opened to the exterior. It is a cinema that always gives responses with a high production level. I follow some of them and try to be updated. There are always surprises. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that they have done a lot to regulate the system of distribution and fight against piracy. This year, the last film of Anurak Kashiap has been screened, the director of the two sequels of the “Gang of Wasseypur” (2011-2014), in which a virus turns human beings into non feeling beasts with great hunger, of Shakti Soundar Raja, one of the most representative directors of Kollywood, similar to the Bollywood industry but in Tamil. It is also important to mention Rohit Mittal’s “Autohead”, whose main character, Narayan, works with a cycletaxi, until the apparent normality of his life turns into a uncontrolled violence when he is rejected by his girlfriend and receives the visit of his mother.

M.G. But, how do you position yourself regarding the production categorized as Bollywood Phenomenon and what future do you foresee for its development? For a lot of people only Bollywood exists and most ignore not only the existence of a realist Indian Cinema but also Satiajyt Ray or Mrinal Sen and the production of this new wave of directors, that you identify with the new directors you refer to.

A.S. The film industry known as Bollywood is a brilliant invention, as it has connected with the great audience and turned into a mass-appeal cinema. To occidental perception it might seem unusual or ironic. Yet it is a cinema with an important emotional potential, very commercial. Its popularity does not mean it is a plain cinema, because frequently it incorporates big productions in which the musical element cannot be randomly introduced as it contains an important role in the narration. There tends to be in the origin an extraordinary romantic history I name methalinguistic, as it is the case of “Sairat” (2016) of Nagraj Manjule, although there are many titles we could comment. I try to follow this director, because we should consider all surprises that might occur.

M.G. What do you think about Australian cinema? I think the promotion in Spain is scarce although there are some titles which have made history, but it’s hard to watch contemporary Australian cinema in commercial theatres. It usually is a very narrative cinema and in some way, epic, without ceasing to be an open cinema.

A.S. I’m an enthusiast of Australian cinema, starting from the 70s and 80s cinema, due to the way of narrating and the topics that are dealt with. Even only thinking about the fantastic, the influence of a film such as “MAD MAX” (1979), directed by George Miller, who became the model of a dystopian society, with no future, who was followed by “MAD MAX 2 (The Road Warrior)” in 1981, “MAD MAX Beyond the Thunderdome”, and “MAD MAX: Fury Road” in 2015, was decisive to lead the gaze to a cinema that was emerging strongly in the international scene. The sceneries of destruction belong to this isolated territory found in the edges of the world and which is one of the less populated countries on the planet like Australia. In contrast, there is a director who has been one of the greatest founders of what was the new Australian cinema that cannot be omitted, as is the case of Peter Weir, with “Gallipoli” (1981), “The year of living dangerously” (1982) or “Dead Poets Society” (1985). But before all this there is a film that still fascinates me which I consider a masterpiece like “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975), which not long ago I showed my students in class.

M.G. What could you add regarding New Zealand cinema? In the 90s, with the film “The Piano” (1993) by Jane Champion, coinciding with the rise of the audiovisual industry and the localizations that have been done in the country of films like “The Lord of the Rings” or the trilogy “The Hobbit” and “The Last Samurai”, the cinema of this country has reached a spectacular development.

A.S. Unfortunately, no importance has been given to New Zealand cinema neither has been valued as it should. Obviously, it is a great cinema in the different genres it is produced but here it has not had neither the diffusion nor the distribution it could have had. Some festivals have shown sensitivity for incorporating this cinema in the different specialties and genre, as the Sundance Festival, yet this is not enough. In Sitges arrived a fake documentary on vampires, from this country, that was delusional. We should be alert in order to always be aware of what occurs. Last year we screened “Restoration” (2015), a short film on a psychological drama of the New Zealand director Tim Tsiklauri, based on the fact that all paintings conceal their secrets. It was such a surprise.

M.G. The most peripheral cinematographies also occur in Sitges; and actually Asian Cinema is present in all the sections of the festival, regarding its contents and genre, and in fact the European festivals have never ceased to explore them. In this sense, Cannes has opened new horizons to cult cinema or to minority authors that a few years ago would never have had a response, followed by La Berlinale, Rotterdam, Locarno, Venice and why not Sitges, considered by many the first world festival devoted to the fantastic genre. Among its discoveries, I would highlight Thai Cinema.

A.S. One of the filmmakers I follow is the director and screenwriter Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, graduated in Pratt Institute in New York who in a short period of time has developed into one of the main representatives of the “New Wave” of Thai Cinema along with Vivi Sasa nateng. Ratanaruang is a good director, with a long career since he produced “Last Life in the Universe” (2003), preceded by his successful debut film “Fun Bar Karaoke” (1997). This film counted on the participation of Takashi Miike and the Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano who interpreted a member of Yakuza. Ratanaruang has presented his cinema in Venice, Berlin, Cannes, Rotterdam and other festivals, obtaining different awards. His documentary “Total Bangkok” (2006), censored in Thailand for its sex scenes, was presented in San Sebastián and the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs de Cannes. On the other hand, “Nymph” (2009), worldwide released in Toronto and then in the section Un certain Regard de Cannes along with “Headshot” (2011), an adaptation of a crime novel of Win Lyovarin, twice awarded with the Southeast Asian Writers Award, which we have screened this year, culminates a worldwide trajectory.

M.G. Nevertheless, there is another cinema in Thailand that you also promoted from the platform of the festival that I think is important to remark, the figure of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, architect, plastic artist, director, producer and screenwriter, who in 1999 founded the company Kick the Machine, devoted to experimental and independent cinema. In 2010, he won the Gold Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival and in the same year he obtained in Seoul the Asian Arts Award for his artistic trajectory. In Sitges, he is also one of the most repeated names.

A.S. In 2004, we presented “Tropical Malady” in Sitges. It obtained the Jury Award in Cannes and was a discovery for our audience. He is considered a cult director and the greatest exponent of very differentiated narrative textures, that characterize his entire trajectory. With “Uncle Boomnee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010), awarded with the Golden Palm and the Critics Award, in Sitges, this director and artist was acknowledged as one of the representatives of the New Wave of independent cinema of the region. Then, he produced “Mekong Hotel”in 2012, a 60’s film also screened in Cannes, in the Special Section, and in other festivals such as Rotterdam, Göteborg, Buenos Aires, Taipei and Fukuoka. His most recent film, “Cemetery of Splendour” (2015), was also screened last year in the Auditori. In this film, the hallucinations and strange dreams of the protagonist are recreated in a dreamlike atmosphere, where we perceive the fascination of the filmmaker for science fiction and for a kind of phantasmagoria that copes with reality and memory. Apichatpong is a cult director that has undoubtedly contributed to place Thai Cinema in an international scenario and to promote the poetic side of fantastic experimental and independent cinema, whose career goes beyond those films previously named.

M.G. Filipino Cinema is neither disregarded in Sitges. You have always shown interest for the least commercial cinema of this country and for directors as Brillante Mendoza, Lino Brocka, or Ismael Bernal and Mike de Leon, just to cite a few names, that have contributed to the development of an experimental and independent cinema that has been presented worldwide in international festivals, away from a more commercial and local cinema that has not achieved equal distribution.

A.S. Obviously, I am interested in the Filipino Cinema you mention and the tradition this independent cinema has generated presenting itself worldwide as cult cinema from the 70’s and the 80’s of the last century. Yet if we refer to the last wave of the Filipino Cinema, there is a director I specially point out for her contribution to an individual understanding and conception of cinematographic language. I am referring to Raya Martin, who in a short period of time has achieved a stellar career since “Island at the End of the World” was screened in 2004, a work that combines documentary and fiction, for narrating the isolation of the indigenous community of Itbayat, in one of the northern islands of the Filipino archipelago, that continues to be held by its colonial past and social structure up to the XIX century. To this film “Autohystoria”(2007), other hits such as “Independencia” (2009) or “Manila” (2010), where he pays tribute to Lino Brocka’s “Jaguar” and Ishmael Bernal’s “Manila by Night”, its predecessors. Martin incorporates narratives that belong to the history of his country and explore the heritage of the contemporaneous Filipino society. His dominance of the cinematographic language has allowed him to make the more experimental films of his career with “Track Projections”, “Ars Colonia” and “Buenas Noches España”, the three of them from 2011. This last film screened in Spain contains the most common elements that constitute the imaginary that reconstructs the postcolonial relationships between Spain and Philippines from 1898. For me, he is one of the young directors we need to pay close attention to because he can give many more surprises.

M.G. Malaysia and Indonesia are two countries that do not either stay out from Sitges, even though to a lesser extent than Japan or Korea do, whose presence in the festival is overwhelming. When we check the programme of this year and we see the number of Japanese and Korean films, we cannot believe the number of titles presented and directors such as etsuya Nakashima (“Confessions”), Kyoshi Kurosawa (“Creepy”), Takashi Miike (“Crows Zero”), Na Hong-Jin (“The Wailing”), Akira Nagai (“If Cats disappeared from the World”), Hiroaki Miyamoto (“One Piece Film Gold”), Yeong Sang-ho (“Seoul Station”), Kim Seung-hun (“Tunnel”), Johnnie To (“Three), Kinji Fukasaku (“Los invasores del espacio”), y Kim Sang-chan (“Karaoke Crazies”), among others. Your passion for the cinema takes you to discover cinematographies of certain countries the audience is not very accustomed to and to turn them into proposals for Sitges that never reach other festivals.

A.S. Obviously, my incursions in, so to speak, more marginal cinematographies always bring me surprises. Yet, Indonesia as well as Malaysia, are giving interesting results that can be omitted. Indonesia, for instance, has experimented an extraordinary change in the last few years and Malaysia, on the other hand, has also experimented a change that does not go unnoticed. This explains the presence of some paradigms of the growth of the cinematographic industry in both countries, in Sitges, as it is the case of the film “Interchange” (2015) of the director Dain Iskandar Said, in the Fantasy Official Section for Competiton. The argument begins with the investigation of several murders that perform a detective and a photographer, who will end up discovering that there is a secret city within the city, inhabited by shamans and supernatural creatures from centuries ago. Asian Cinema belongs to the future of cinema, and is impossible that it is not taken into account, as it has been proved from almost two decades in all Asian festivals – Hong Kong, Busan, Tokyo, to name just a few – and occidental – Cannes, Sitges, Locarno, Rotterdam, Berlin and Venice.