Venice gets the international media attention. Vancouver's Asian indie programming gets what passes for street cred. But it's at a third 'V' film festival, where glamour is truly reinforced by robust programming. Vladivostok is Russia's most eastern city; a port town notorious for its 'wild west' reputation but with the respectable veneer that comes with hosting the 2012 APEC conference. The festival widely known as 'Pacific Meridian' was in its 11th year and as per my previous visits in 2007 and 2009, it showed no shortage of glitz.
The most feted star this year was Isabelle Huppert. From a distance, she seemed as graceful as one would expect, but very few people, even other guests, could not get near her. More accessible was Mr. Blonde himself, Michael Madsen, who indulged every request for photographs. While sharing with Madsen (and other festival guests) a clipper boat voyage around Vladivostok's harbour, I introduced myself as we both were scheduled to be on a panel on censorship that night. When he said, “Pleased to meet you,” I mentioned that I had actually interviewed him for Reservoir Dogs at the Toronto Festival in 1992. “Was I loaded?” he asked. Fortunately, while I considered my options for a diplomatic response (“…as Rockefeller” would have been the most accurate answer), he moved on to other distractions.
That evening, when Madsen and I sat down for the panel, he surprised our audience and our fellow commentators, Indonesia director Riri Riza, Russian film critic Boris Nelepo and Bina Paul Venugopal from India's Kerala Film Festival, with his unexpected emphasis on the dangers of the internet and the inappropriate images it indiscriminately offers up. The primary reason for the censorship panel's existence was that the gay-themed Stranger by the Lake (pictured) was scheduled to screen at the festival. Sort of. In fact, the film was not listed in the program, but was an open secret that everyone—except the festival director—seemed to know about. Given Vladimir Putin's laws on homosexuality that had recently caused international controversy and talks of Olympic boycotts, even the showing of the film's poster depicting two men kissing at our panel was an act of defiance.
At the actual late night screening, the French film's often unsimulated gay sex was greeted by an audience who tittered nervously. This prompted one festival guest to suggest that perhaps mainstream Russian audiences were not quite mature enough to have their censorship rules relaxed.
I noted a similar tendency in the audience watching the sexual explorations of the Russian film Intimate Parts, but that film had the advantage of being a dark comedy. While the film mainly dealt with heterosexual themes—the Brunhildian actress Julia Org playing a censorship official frequently looking for opportunities to insert a large anatomically detailed vibrator into her (unseen) vagina—the film also dealt with homosexual fantasy. It made me wonder why a non-explicit, but unmistakeable fantasy of a man being penetrated by another man was not taboo for the festival, while the excesses of Stranger by the Lake was the film that could not be named.
Though Intimate Parts is stylishly presented and intriguingly plotted, I wasn't quite as amused as the locals. However, we all guffawed as one when the film reached its climax with an unprecedented image that was poignant, pointed, hilarious and truly unforgettable, where—without giving anything away—liberation triumphs over misanthropy.
The strongest feature of Vladivostok this year was the main competition. With scarcely a dud on offer (even the dullest, Yusup Razykov's Shame, was well-acted and exquisitely photographed), the competition injected the festival with vibrant energy. Some films I had previously admired elsewhere, such as Adrian Saba's The Cleaner from Sydney's Latin American Film Festival and the Russian corrupt cop drama, The Major, which I had seen at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It also gave me the opportunity to catch Shopping, a New Zealand film about a Maori youth who begins flirting with a criminal, which I had missed at the Sydney Film Festival in June.
But the two highlights of the competition came on one gut-wrenching day. In the morning, I watched Singapore's Oscar contender Ilo Ilo. The winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes and the debut film of writer/director Anthony Chen, Ilo Ilo is quite simply the best Singaporean film ever. In many ways, this film barely differs from many Singaporean films that depict hard done-by maids working with troublesome children. Where it does differ, is that even within the familiar framework, it dares to look inside the Singaporean soul and unflinchingly peels back the ugly side of the city's population and its middle class addiction to servants.
Thirty minutes after that film finished, I was thrown into the potent drama of Chinese film All Apologies. When a rural man overturns his motorised grocery cart, he in addition to severely damaging his legs, also kills the young son of his neighbours. Not having enough savings to pay for a limb saving operation and pay the government decreed compensation, the driver's wife is forced to pay her neighbours for their son's death. However, enraged by grief, the dead boy's father returns the money and rapes the neighbour's wife in the hope of impregnating her and securing a replacement child. Raw, powerful, and as astute in its use of coincidence as Thomas Hardy, this well-crafted melodrama was equally excruciating and compelling.
The closing night was an elegant affair complete with long-legged Russian models presenting each winner with the heavy blown glass award, a certificate and a substantial posey of flowers. Prizes went to The Major (Best Actor) and to Chinese director Hu Wei for Butter Lamp (Best Short), but the coup of three prizes for Ilo Ilo (Best Actress – Yeo, Grand Prix and the ubiquitous NETPAC award) ensured that the two actresses Yeo Yann Yann and Angeli Bayani were showered with attention for the rest of the closing night.
For a festival with big dreams and deep pockets, it seems odd that this year it chose to overlap dates with Venice and Toronto. Almost begging to be overlooked, Vladivostok's festival is likely to remain an undiscovered gem until it moves to another time of the month or year. But frankly, anything that is off the beaten festival track is okay with me. So, don't tell anyone I told you, but the Pacific Meridian is one of the most rewarding film festivals around.