Asia in the movies

The 2013 Pan-Asia Film Festival.

The Pan-Asia Film Festival, now in its fifth year, starts this Wednesday (6 March). The festival seeks to showcase Asia’s most exciting new cinematic productions, spanning countries from Japan to Iran. 

There are 12 films competing for the Inaugural Best Film Award. From satires and horror films, shorts to animation, festival director Sumantro Ghose, along with guest judges Nikki Bedi and Hardeep Singh Kohli, will have a challenging decision on their hands.

Some highlights

Taiwanese director Yang Ya-Che takes the all too familiar love triangle in a new direction in his 105 minute film GF*BF(2012). Set in Taiwan, and focusing on the democracy movement of the 1980s and 1990s - a period of immense social and political transformation - protagonists Mabel, Aaron and Liam’s shifting emotional loyalties form the basis of a complex and ambitious plot. GF*BF transports us to selected chunks of this decade in an attempt to convey the entanglement of political transformation and personal development. GF*BF  has been chosen for the opening night gala held at Cineworld Haymarket in London (Wednesday 6 March, 6.30pm).  

From Iran comes Nahid Ghobadi and Bijan Zamanpira’s satirical debut feature 111 Girls (2012) which describes the journey of an Iranian diplomat to Kurdistan after receiving a letter threatening the suicide of 111 young women in protest at conditions in their village which have rendered them spinsters. With their fathers and brothers having either died or disappeared, and suitable men hard to come by, these women address the president with a four-day ultimatum stating they will jump to their death unless provided with an eligible suitor. The eccentric premise of this film is inspired by Kurdistan’s present situation. It is characterised by notably powerful visual imagery, shifting from dreamlike sequences to Beckett-esque dark humour. 111 Girls will premiere at Cine Lumiere in London on Wednesday 13 March at 8.30pm.

Thailand’s  Pen-ek Ratnaruang has devised a unique fusion of spirituality and film noir thriller in his film Headshot (2011). Based on the story of an honest policeman turned angel of vengeance, the film follows his quest to balance society’s moral compass. An accident during an altercation leaves the protagonist literally seeing the world upside down. The unique camera positioning used to elucidate the result of the accident is an effective vehicle for combining Buddhist themes of karma, rebirth and redemption with stylistic film noir tropes of spatial disorientation and a stark contrast between light and shadow.  Headshot is showing at  the ICA in London on Tuesday 12 March at 8.30pm.

A selection of short films from Hong Kong’s Fresh Wave Film Festival – a centre for cutting-edge film production – will also be shown for the first time on London’s screens under the title Fresh Wave Shorts. Fresh Wave Shorts will be screened at the ICA on Thursday14  March at 6.30pm.

Taiwanese director Yang Ya-Che (Photo: Getty Images)
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear