Getting underway tonight, the Sundance Film Festival is now known primarily as a place for new independent American films to be discovered. In recent times, festival programmers have placed more emphasis on world cinema. While a few non-American films may be able to gain good press, it will be interesting to see if any true “discoveries” emerge, beyond the films that have already made a splash at film festivals last fall but are just now receiving their U.S./North American premieres. Films are listed by festival section.
** Frontier **
THE MISSING (North American premiere)
One day, in the park, a grandmother loses her grandson sending her into a tailspin of anxiety. That same day, a teenager learns his grandfather is missing. (Taiwan)
DIRECTOR & WRITER: Kang-sheng Lee
CAST: Yi-ching Lu, Tien Miao
Comment: This drama seems ideally suited to festival play; it’s already played Pusan and Tokyo. Early reviews have been positive, but it’s hard to see any commercial possibilities for this first feature from Kang-sheng Lee, probably known primarily as an actor in films by Tsai Ming-Liang (who also served as executive producer). And its English title would probably have to be changed, now that Ron Howard used it for his film a couple of months ago. No U.S. distributor yet in place.
** Premieres **
SKY BLUE (North American premiere)
A futuristic animated feature of the war and love which threatens to tear humanity apart. With civilization destroyed by war, conflict erupts when one man seeks to create a new utopia whilst regaining the heart of a woman lost to his mortal enemy.
DIRECTORS & WRITERS: Moon-saeng Kim, Sunmin Park (English version)
Comment: A revised version of WONDERFUL DAYS, which woefully underperformed at the Korean box office this past summer after debuting at Cannes. With the recent success of TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, might arthouse audiences be in the mood for another unusual animation feature? A very good U.S.-based sales agent has been secured.
The adventures of a blind masseur/swordsman.
DIRECTOR: Takeshi Kitano
CAST: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Ogusu, Yui Natsukawa, Guadalcanal Taka
Comment: When Miramax acquired distribution rights last fall, the collective whole of Asian fandom started cursing and then sucked in their breath. Nearly all reviews have been positive so far, but Miramax lately has become a slave to test screenings and could easily bury another highly anticipated title. Here’s one note that may not mean anything: the Santa Barbara Film Festival (which starts at the end of January) initially announced that it would be playing ZATOICHI. But the latest schedule does not list the title.
** Midnight **
AZUMI (world premiere)
In war torn Japan, the Tokugawa Shogun, desperate to restore peace, orders the assassination of hostile warlords. A master trains abandoned children to become the ultimate assassins and Azumi becomes the star pupil. (Japan)
DIRECTOR: Ryuhei Kitamura
CAST: Aya Ueto, Joe Odagiri, Yoshio Harada
Comment: Divided opinions about the latest feature from the director of VERSUS have surfaced on the Internet. Yet it’s Japanese swordplay action, Toho has an experienced Hollywood publicist on board, and it would very surprising if a small (boutique) distributor did *not* pick this one up for limited play dates, midnight showings, and further festival exposure.
THE PARK (U.S. premiere)
A young man searches the former site of an amusement park for a missing border. In 3-D. (Hong Kong)
DIRECTOR: Andrew Lau; WRITERS: Lo yiu Fai, Sam Lung
CAST: Bobo Chan, Tiffany Lee, Derek Tsang, Kwok-Cheung
Comment: Did not receive very good notices during its run in Hong Kong cinemas a while back. Then again, festival programmers can only choose from among the films that are made available to them. Perhaps they wanted an Asian horror title and this was the best they could come up with? On the other hand, maybe Americans who haven’t been over-exposed to the genre will respond very differently. No U.S. distributor yet in place.
** World Documentary **
THE BIG DURIAN
On October 18, 1987, a solider ran amok with an M-16 in Kuala Lumpur. Twenty-three Malaysians talk about his rampage, which triggered a nationwide panic and rumors of racial riots. (Malaysia)
DIRECTOR: Amir Muhammad
Comment: Potentially interesting mixture of fact and fiction. Runs just 75 minutes and sounds like it’s worth a look. If it’s good, likely to show up at more specialty fests; it’s already played at a handful in Asia and at the Hawaii Film Festival. No U.S. distributor yet in place.
JOURNEYINGS AND CONVERSATIONS (North American premiere)
This film is about the many faces and facets of Calcutta’s Howrah Train Station, one of the biggest and busiest stations in the world. (India)
DIRECTOR: Arvind Sinha
Comment: Unless it’s truly awesome, it’s hard to imaging sitting through 88 minutes without dialogue in a train station, even if it is in people-packed India. No U.S. distributor yet in place.
REPATRIATION (North American premiere)
The story of North Korean spies, who spent 30 years in prison, and their eventual repatriation to North Korea. (South Korea)
DIRECTOR: Kim Dong-won
Comment: 149 minutes. The length is a big obstacle for a documentary to overcome. It takes place over a 10-year period, and the director is a veteran filmmaker, so perhaps this is the exception to the rule. No U.S. distributor yet in place.
** World Cinema **
15 (U.S. premiere)
A searingly honest look at the trials and tribulations of five disaffected teenagers, perched precariously on the fringe of Singaporean society. (Singapore)
DIRECTOR & WRITER: Royston Tan
CAST: Shaun Tan, Melvin Chen, Erick, Vynh Soh, Melvin Lee
Comment: A debut film from a 27-year-old director, 15 sounds fascinating. It’s already received extensive festival play (Venice, Montreal, Vancouver, Pusan, London, Stockholm), though, without picking up traction. Even with overwhelmingly positive reviews, it will be hard pressed to find a U.S. distributor.
A GOOD LAWYER’S WIFE (U.S. premiere)
Both a young-at-heart housewife and her hard-working lawyer husband have taken lovers. But when tragedy unexpectedly strikes, the family is never the same. (South Korea)
DIRECTOR & WRITER: Sangsoo Im
CAST: So-Ri Moon, Jeong-Min Hwang, Yeo-Jeong Yun, In-Moon Kim
Comment: Kino International, a boutique distributor, will try to press the case for this drama, which has been generally well reviewed (at Venice and Toronto), but unless the sex scenes are hotter than initially reported, this one will have a hard road to travel.
LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (U.S. premiere)
Thrown together by this common twist of fate, a suicide-obsessed Japanese man and a Thai working girl hide out together, hoping to find love and redemption. (Thailand)
DIRECTOR: Pen-ek Ratanaruang; WRITER: Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Prabda Yoon
CAST: Asano Tadanobu, Sinitta Boonyasak, Matsushige Yutaka, Takeuchi Riki, Miike Takashi, Laila Boonyasak, Tanaka Yohji, Sato Sakichi
Comment: Early reviews have painted this drama (from the director of MONRAK TRANSISTOR) as glacially-paced yet rewarding view. Picked up by Palm Pictures, which already has a handful of challenging Asian dramas (DOLLS and BRIGHT FUTURE among them) awaiting release. I wonder if Palm is picking up more films than it can handle — or get into cinemas. May be placed on the fast track if it picks up an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
SILENCE OF THE SEA
An Iranian ex-patriot visits a neutral island off the coast of Iran in an attempt to reunite with his past and reclaim his identity. (Iran)
DIRECTOR & WRITER: Vahid Mousaian
CAST: Masoud Rayegan, Hossein Sheydai
Comment: Here is festival director Geoff Gilmore’s description: “This lyrical examination of an expatriate’s quest is delicately conceived and sometimes narratively elusive and meandering.” Translation: ‘We loved this film, especially compared to the other films we had to choose from.’ Most likely of interest only for hard-core festival buffs and film students who love dabbling in experimental cinema. No U.S. distributor yet in place.
SILENT WATERS (North American premiere)
Based on actual events, “Silent Waters” recounts the complex fate of a woman and her son during the political changes in Pakistan when the country became a Muslim state in 1947, and marshal law was imposed in 1979. (Pakistan)
DIRECTOR & WRITER: Sabiha Sumar
CAST: Kirron Kher, Aamir Malik, Arsad Mahmud, Salman Shahid
Comment: A documentary filmmaker used non-actors for her first feature. On the plus side: shot entirely in Pakistan. On the down side: could be dry. Premiered at Locarno last August; no U.S. distributor yet in place.
SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN, WINTER AND…SPRING (U.S. premiere)
Against the dreamlike background of a monastery floating on a pond in a forest, panoramic portraits of life flow by in accordance with the four seasons. (South Korea)
DIRECTOR: Kim Ki-duk; WRITERS: Kim Ki-duk, Baek Dong-Hyeon
CAST: Young-Soo Oh, Jong-Ho Kim, Jae-Kyung Seo, Young-Min Kim
Comment: After debuting at Locarno and winning immediate acclaim, Sony Pictures Classics snapped this one up at Toronto. This is their first Korean release, but expect them to do it right with a limited release in major markets, preceded by a few festival play dates. Kim Ki-duk is a master filmmaker and the restraint he reportedly demonstrates here should win him many new converts.
(Blurbs, credits, and pictures courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.)