REALITY CHECKED: Strange views from Korea's PiFan Film Fest
by Chris Chang
The e-mail message from South Korea was not exactly reassuring: “Missiles or not, the fest will go on!” The event in question, the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, aka PiFan, marked its 10th anniversary this July—at a time when the real world was testing out new forms of old-school chaos. The press had just revealed that Iranian observers were present at the recent North Korean missile tests, Israel was shelling Lebanon in retaliation for the Hezbollah attack, torrential floods were causing massive evacuations and innumerable deaths throughout Asia, and a heat wave in NYC had caused a power outage that left over 100,000 people in the dark—some for over a week. All in all, a pretty good time for a guy from Brooklyn to fly to the Far East and check out some of the 250 oddball films the festival had on offer. For consideration, here’s an abbreviated three-course tasting menu.
From the vast array of ridiculous titles Meatball Machine takes the cake. It turned out to be an industrial sci-fi splatterfest by Japanese directors Yudai Yamaguchi and Junichi Yamamoto. The quick pitch would be: Tetsuo meets The Transformers on (cliché alert) really bad acid. It begins with a blistering mano a mano battle sequence, quickly introduces a young human introvert and his equally mum object of desire, and then, to round out the main cast, produces a mad-scientist figure and his alluring daughter who sports an eyepatch and a bandage on her neck that throbs with eerie come-hither palpability. The film proceeds to shred the screen with continuous jaw-to-the-floor cyborg carnage. Particularly compelling are the metallic softball-shaped parasites attached to each creature. Periodically the camera cuts to each orb’s interior to reveal a gooey, multi-pronged, biological whatsit. By observing their quivering “body” language it becomes apparent that these slimy creatures are puppet masters controlling the moves of the hapless host bodies upon which they ride around. Eventually the narrative strands of mute amour fou and mutant mayhem coagulate into a screaming, overwrought battle of the sex-starved. This one’s definitely for geek-grade aficionados of the kind of gags found in Carpenter’s The Thing and Cronenberg’s The Fly—in other words, it’s a film for anyone who likes their B-genre sustenance served up with gorily inventive gusto. (That it was done for a fraction of the cost only adds to the appeal.)
Genre, or the concept of genre, is one of the elements that makes Philippine director Rico Maria Ilarde’s Beneath the Cogon so intriguing—i.e., what the devil is it? The very title makes you reach for your Webster’s and find, “co-gon: any of several tall grasses of southeastern Asia used especially for thatching, fodder, and erosion control.” At first glance the story seems to be a riff on the gritty grift-gone-bad motif, but it mutates into a gangster-on-the-run-meets-his-love-at-first-site pastoral. The dreams-come-true part of the film has several truly poetic moments, one of which involves a seemingly senseless yet undeniably sensual frolic in a stagnant swimming pool. Throughout, there’s effective use of decrepit, off-the-beaten-track (even for the Philippines) locations and, even more impressive, authentically decrepit characters. Consider the greasy, treacherous roughneck whose dying words are: “Tell me—do Indonesians have big dicks?” At about the film’s midpoint, from out of nowhere, large fetal things in jars turn up, and the whole shebang goes into hybrid overdrive. Call it Philippine magical-realist noir with an, er, undergrowth subplot (the director claims the film is heavily influenced by Don Siegel).
In an even further deformation of genre, Lin Tay Jou’s Bardo takes the idea of “particular style” and throws it out the window—of an airplane. Contra that, every frame undeniably belongs to the director. The film could be read as a vivid (albeit allegorical) depiction of North Korea’s threatened “nuclear sea of fire.” An apocalyptic, visual tone-poem, it borrows equally from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Biblical Judgment Day, and Dante—among other things. (Both the movie and its director are, by the way, Taiwanese.) Nonnarrative, yet utterly engrossing, it spews forth a nonstop visceral stream of human misery, bad sex, and death—yet, at its theoretical heart beats the perpetual possibility for life regained. Needless to say, this is a hard one to describe: the first of three sections presents (and dwells upon) a vast social canvas in a state of tumult, its struggling populace apparently engaged in an uprising with veiled allusions to Tiananmen Square and tongue-protruded idol worship. The second centers on dying people revisiting (in surreal flashbacks) the personal follies and failures of their lives. And the third, final, and most recondite section synthesizes communal death, individual malaise, and—I think—the director’s own conciliatory worldview. The Buddhist term bardo signifies the murky interval between death and rebirth. The film’s visuals, appropriately enough, are rendered with amniotic fuzziness and an often-miasmal sallow color. If you can imagine the vision of a humorless Guy Maddin adapting something with the tone of an Asian Patrick McGrath, you’re in the right ballpark.
In the pedestrian traffic outside the theater, I slowly digested the experience of this unsettling film, and had a somewhat ominous thought: everyone around me seemed somehow separated from reality—specifically, the reality of the nearby North Korean missiles and their destructive potential. I suppose it was the paranoid New Yorker in me speaking, but isn’t this place, this city, this country, itself a veritable bardo? An in-between space balanced betwixt death and rebirth? I shuddered, shrugged it off, and checked the schedule for the next film.