The Great Es­cape

Prestige Hong Kong - - AGENDA -

Film writer MATHEW SCOTT talks about the es­capist na­ture of cin­ema – and how re­al­ity some­times poops the party

MANY YEARS AGO I had some­thing of a rep­u­ta­tion as a young man who didn’t take mat­ters se­ri­ously enough.

I had long thought it un­fair, though ad­mit now there were a few (scat­tered!) mo­ments when you could say I was guilty as charged. Most ob­vi­ous was the time – pre­mo­bile phones – when my brother suf­fered a rather hor­rific arm break while play­ing foot­ball and af­ter the game I re­turned home to shower and get ready for a night out on the town, then left a note for my par­ents in­form­ing them that An­drew, their cher­ished first born, had “been taken to the horsepid­dle”. I added no fur­ther in­for­ma­tion.

I thought it all hi­lar­i­ous un­til met by my fa­ther, belt off and ready for war, when I re­turned drunk at about 2am. He’d spent hours not know­ing what was go­ing on. Imag­ine.

For­tu­nately, in those days, I was nim­ble of foot and es­caped his wrath.

But the trait seems to have stuck and it reared its head again dur­ing the last Bu­san In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val (BIFF), the largest and most im­por­tant events of its kind in the re­gion.

In fact it was there in South Korea that I started to re­alise that per­haps this habit was one of the rea­sons I grav­i­tated to­wards writ­ing about cin­ema. Hard news was not for me. The top­ics you face up on screen are of­ten fright­en­ingly real, as are the peo­ple you meet, of course, but the fact that they are over “there”

(on screen, in an in­ter­view) al­lows a cer­tain dis­con­nect from re­al­ity for those who’d rather not face it.

It’s also, of course, one of the great things about cin­ema – the fact that through it we are able to es­cape – and it was why on the fi­nal morn­ing of BIFF’s 10 days I was tucked away in the dark­ness watch­ing Ja­panese mav­er­ick Takashi Mi­ike’s samu­rai mash-up Blade of the Im­mor­tal.

It’s his 100th film, it’s based on a fa­mous manga se­ries and it’s pre­pos­ter­ous.

To grab the at­ten­tion of the younger crowd, Mi­ike had cast some noo­dle-armed J-pop stars in roles where once the genre gave us ac­tors you could re­ally be­lieve were hard-nut killers, among them the force of na­ture that was Toshiro Mi­fune. Pre-act­ing, Mi­fune had spent time dur­ing the sec­ond world war train­ing kamikaze pi­lots, be­fore send­ing these young kids off to their doom. That kind of ex­pe­ri­ence tends to add a bit of grav­i­tas to what­ever you do af­ter­wards.

But Blade of the Im­mor­tal is pure won­der­ful es­capism and per­fect

– at the ex­act time of watch­ing – be­cause the re­al­i­ties of the mod­ern world weighed heav­ily on BIFF this past Oc­to­ber, as they have for the past three years.

Po­lit­i­cal med­dling in the arts has be­come fright­en­ingly com­mon­place ev­ery­where – Hong Kong in­cluded – and the fes­ti­val has been hit since 2014 by fund­ing cuts, and ac­cu­sa­tions of mal­prac­tice that brought down a few of the peo­ple who had toiled for years to make the event as im­por­tant as it is. The rea­son was that BIFF had screened a doc­u­men­tary about the Se­wol ferry dis­as­ter that claimed more than 300 lives in 2014 – one that was crit­i­cal of the then govern­ment of the nowdis­graced Park Geun Hye and its han­dling of the tragedy – de­spite be­ing warned not to.

BIFF has strug­gled to es­cape the po­lit­i­cal shadow cast by Park and her co­horts but its back­room staff have – some­how – re­mained stead­fast in their mis­sion to present a plat­form for the emerg­ing stars of in­de­pen­dent Asian cin­ema, and they’ve pretty much suc­ceeded, too, de­spite the odds be­ing stacked against them.

BIFF’s pro­gramme has con­tin­ued to present po­lit­i­cally charged films all the while, and in Oc­to­ber sen­si­tive, con­tro­ver­sial top­ics tack­led in­cluded a doc­u­men­tary about as­bestos poi­son­ing in

Ja­pan (Kazuo Hara’s Sen­nan As­bestos Dis­as­ter) and the state of moral­ity in mod­ern China in Chi­nese direc­tor Li Xiaofeng’s bleak thriller Ash.

And there was good news by fes­ti­val’s end – and a les­son to those among us who pre­fer to hide away rather than face up to re­al­ity, my­self in­cluded.

New South Korean pres­i­dent Moon Jae In made a very pub­lic ap­pear­ance at BIFF that was widely in­ter­preted by lo­cal press as a sign he would be throw­ing the govern­ment’s full weight be­hind the fes­ti­val once again. It was a brave move when Moon could have sim­ply stayed quiet – hid­den away even and pre­tended it was some­one else’s prob­lem.

The hope now is that full artis­tic free­dom will re­sume and the BIFF’s fu­ture will be as­sured.

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