This year, the Asian Film Awards were presented at BIFF for the first time. Of course, the organizers hoped to have a real ceremony with a real audience, so transferring the awards to Asia’s biggest film festival made sense, since there is already a built-in audience on hand and, from what I understand, the Asian Film Awards need all the publicity they can get. But this year they had to settle for a YouTube presentation and shoutouts on the Asian Contents & Film Market website. Not many surprises here. Parasite, of course, won Best Picture, as well as Best Screenplay and two technical awards, well after its sell-by date. The Chinese Best Director is someone I’m not familiar with, and while I know the Best New Director, Japanese filmmaker Hikari, I haven’t seen her film, 37 Seconds. Lee Byung-hun predictably won Best Actor for The Man Standing Next, which, I hear, is also South Korea’s official submission for the next Best Foreign Film Oscar, so I’m doubly discouraged that the print they’re showing on the BIFF screening platform doesn’t have English subtitles. I also don’t know the Chinese Best Actress winner, though I’m very familiar with Ryo Kase, who won the Best Supporting Actor prize for To the Ends of the Earth, which feels as if it came out a decade ago, so much has happened since it was first released in Japan in the summer of 2019.
At the Inzai branch of BIFF, I watched the world premiere of the South Korean drama Fighter, another example of a very plain, descriptive English title. One thing you can say about South Korean movies: You know what you’re getting with the title. The fighter in this instance is a North Korean defector named Ree Jina (Lim Seong-mi), a bitter, frustrated young woman who would prefer being left to herself in Seoul but has to make a living, not only for herself, but also to save money to get her father out of China, where he’s presumably at the mercy of brokers who helped him get out. Jina’s “fights” are against South Korean prejudice and government functionaries who demand special kinds of thanks for their assistance. It’s all very predictable, though director Yun Jero, who’s made a bunch of documentaries and a debut feature, Beautiful Days, that was selected as the opening film at BIFF in 2018, keeps things real with a low-key style that allows the characters to come through fully. As Jina, Lim is a real find. Her sudden vocal tonal shifts and the way she conveys rage and frustration through only her eyes justifies Yun’s preference for tight closeups.
Jina channels her frustrations into boxing, a sport she takes up at the insistence of the owner and head trainer of the gym where she works as a janitor. Though they’re initially intrigued by her military training in hand-to-hand combat (“Why do South Koreans think North Koreans are all commandos,” she snarls), they also sense that her fighting spirit isn’t the same as that of the rich women who patronize their establishment to look cool. As a “North Korean refugee” Jina attracts some low-level media attention, and so she’s able to gain traction on a possible pro career, but the movie mostly hovers just above ground level and never falls into the usual sport movie cliches. It’s a character study that just happens to be about boxing, and while I wish Yun has been a bit bolder with the story, he lets his lead actor tell it, and she carries it off admirably.
If Fighter feels slightly empty of substance, the China-Germany documentary Hong Kong Moments seems stretched beyond its capabilities. An attempt to get at the gist of the riots that gripped the city in the fall of last year during the campaign for city council elections in November, the movie does a good job of showing the native qualities that make Hong Kong such a unique metropolis, but fails to explain the basis of the conflict. Having resulted from Beijing’s unilateral insistence on forcing an extradition law on the territory, the battle is over self-determination, but very little mention is made about the form this particular government has taken. There’s a lot of talk about democracy, with several people who support Beijing asserting that Hong Kong, even now, is, as one taxi driver puts it, the “most democratic place in the world.”
Director Zhou Bing isolates half a dozen people, including a pro-Beijing teahouse owner, a pro-demonstrator EMS nurse, an incognito hardcore demonstrator who condones violence because he knows the communist regime is implacable, a young police officer, and two council candidates representing the two sides of the conflict. The fact that Zhou has more success explaining the sense of place that all these Hongkongers have in common than he does forming a coherent narrative of what went on during the three months covered is probably a function of the chaotic circumstances themselves. There’s some truly stunning footage of the violence as perpetrated by both the demonstrators and the police, as well as breathtaking drone shots from above the action. Typical of Zhou’s approach is a scene on the night of the election when the pro-democracy side gets shut out of the counting station, followed by a scuffle that makes you wonder if the pro-Beijing side is up to no good; but the brouhaha quickly calms and things go smoothly. Alongside horrific shots of the effects of rubber bullets and police losing their shit for no reason there are scenes showing couples playing badminton and workers getting boisterously drunk, as if to show that life goes on amidst all this turmoil, but that really tells us nothing about the conflict itself. Zhou is an impressive technician but he has a shaky grasp of the journalism part.