The 13th edition of the Jeonju Digital Project, commissioning three of Asia’s more adventurous young filmmakers — Raya Martin, Vimukthi Jayasundara and Ying Liang — includes two entries that could qualify as features. But the longer-than-usual 174-minute total running time rewards auds with the omnibus’ diversity of subject, tone and style, with each of the directors delivering their distinctly individual voices. The collection will likely follow recent patterns, traveling to major world fests (Locarno traditionally repping its Euro preem). North American exposure, alas, appears limited.
The overriding subject coursing through Martin’s works (“A Short History of the Indio Nacional,” “Autohystoria,” “Independencia”) are the 20th-century wars fought in his native Philippines, and the theme of war opens his “The Great Cinema Party,” with a silent section comprising archival black-and-white footage of the Japanese invasion of the archipelago, and the U.S.-led Allied response repelling the occupiers. While many of the director’s films include extensive vintage war footage, it’s usually of the Spanish-American war, when Yanks were the heavies in the drama; here, U.S. soldiers play a heroic role.
A sudden thrust from history into the present is a signature of Martin’s work, and here he abruptly shifts to a contempo international group of cinephiles (including French critic Antoine Thirion and Cinema Scope magazine editor-programmer Mark Peranson, alongside Filipino filmmakers including Lav Diaz, John Torres, Brilliante Mendoza, Adolfo Alix Jr. and actor Tiffany Limos). Casually shot as if in homemovie mode, the camera captures the group exploring WWII ruins at Corregidor, and then gathering in the grand old Casa San Miguel in Manila, which contains its own history of silent film and TV production. The pic’s inviting looseness allows viewers to feel like they’re partying with the guests into the wee hours.
A starkly different manner is established in Jayasundara’s “Light in the Yellow Breathing Space.” A kind of spiritual surrealist who creates worlds where the laws of nature and physics don’t apply, the helmer focuses on his late father, Reginold, a science teacher who began to develop a theory linking evolutionary analysis with reincarnation. The pic, the shortest of the three at 32 minutes, nevertheless features the essential characteristics in the director’s larger, epic-scaled films, such as “The Forgotten Land” and “Between Two Worlds,” both of which are recalled here.
Jayasundara uses a spare autobiographical summary in service of a wild and improbable staging that begins in a style close to that of a period film, with the director as a boy recalling being with his father on his dying day. Gradually, the action shifts almost invisibly into the fantastic, with bodies changing shape, humans becoming animals (even dinosaurs) and an inset frame-within-a-frame movie on Reginold’s life emerging over a gorgeous landscape. It’s a death-defying treatment of a film about death.
Ying’s “When Night Falls” stands as perhaps the most purely satisfying section of this project from a storytelling standpoint, and in fact will compete separately at Locarno, while the project in full unspools outside of competition. The director delivers an achingly powerful dramatization of a recent, true-life case involving a mother, Wang Jingmei (Nai An) and her stoic and determined efforts to free her son, Yang Jia, condemned to death for the murders of several policemen. Told in a sustained mood of patient quietude and staged with masterly control, the film shows Wang’s myriad travails, not least of which is a gaggle of well-intentioned but annoying young attorneys trying to press her case.
Ying continues to demonstrate a disciplined knack for finding the small details that express his larger ideas, as he did in films like “Good Cats” and “Condolences.” Here, the specter of a heartless justice system turns the pic into a brave political drama, but when Wang faces this coldness directly in a climactic courtroom sequence, the terrible nature of things is almost too much to bear. Nai’s stunning performance, managing a subdued sadness that carries great poignancy, is the film’s anchor. Ryuji Otsuka’s vid lensing is marinated with somber beauty.