EAFFI 2024 Report | An Essential Event for Those Looking to Broaden Their Cultural Horizons

Criticism is, of necessity, partial. To engage with anything is to land on one side or another, where an ambiguous response is productive of further reflection (or else more telling than a straight answer). The critic is a constitutive component of any healthy cinema culture. Film is too important to leave to accountants and marketing teams. Criticism is also partial insofar as the critic – and cinemagoers generally – can only discuss what can be seen. A cursory glance at Irish cinema listings reveals a thorough offering of Hollywood and other Western studio productions (including those passing themselves off as independent). You can see anything you like, so long as it is assimilable to an Anglo-European outlook and comes with a cardboard cut-out for the lobby. We are offered a narrow band of world cinema. The East Asia Film Festival Ireland (EAFFI), which recently completed its 8th edition, is one palliative against an otherwise monotonous cinema.

My festival began when Kazuhiro Soda, as part of a tour of Irish universities, attended a Q&A at Maynooth. While I missed most of his talk, I arrived in time to catch a slide on the inspiration for his method of Observational Filmmaking. Under “Direct Cinema” were D.A. Pannebaker and the Maysles brothers, unsurprising given the handheld immediacy of Soda’s visual syntax. More instructive was the name at the top of the list: Frederick Wiseman. I’ve written of Wiseman as the cinéaste of institutions, whose work illustrates the dense machinery of the modern social and cultural apparatus. Though its point of departure is modest, Soda’s most recent film, The Cats of Gokogo Shrine, vividly reveals the interconnectedness of all things in a manner not dissimilar to Wiseman. As the opening film [7 March], Cats served both as a people-pleaser and as a statement of purpose. The former was readily judged by the atmosphere in the auditorium. From the opening image, of a cat playing with the microphone attached to Soda’s camera, the film plays out what is suggested in its title. The Cats of Gokugo Shrine documents the stray cats making their home in Honmachi, Ushimado on the Inland Sea. As with Wiseman, however, that initial impulse grows into an examination of what keeps a village ticking.

Soda keeps our eyes on the ground. His camera looks down at cats and insects and the soil itself. A community of volunteers orbit the shrine. Among these are a Cat Association, members of which we meet catching cats to be spayed and neutered. Through this deft introduction, Soda widens the scope of his observations. The cats are a source of comfort for some, but a logistical problem for many. The Cats of Gokugo Shrine expands into a portrait of a community grappling with life among “all living beings.” One grows old and passes into death, though life continues. We seek order, closing ourselves off from chance. The spaying and neutering of cats improves sanitation – that is, fewer cats taking fewer shits in fewer gardens – but, pursued to its end, proves disastrous to feline existence. Soda’s method, in his expressed desire to be present in the moment, is alive to the transience of things. He photographs what appears to him, finding the structure only later. To write a plan, Soda expressed in the post-screening Q&A, is to get stuck. Imposing order on what you film shuts out chance, closing oneself off from possibility. The simplicity with which Soda approaches his subject, and of the means employed, sets a standard by which to measure the new films on the programme.

Soda’s method, and his return to Japan after 27 years in New York, arises from a critique of the ceaseless drive towards material progress. From this grew an unexpected resonance between the Soda and A Confucian Confusion, which opened the Edward Yang retrospective. Yang is one of the central figures of the New Taiwan Cinema. His is a cinema of urban alienation, examining a rapidly modernising Taipei. This feeling for alienation, alongside a cool visual style and deep understanding of architecture, reveals the influence of Michaelangelo Antonioni. The comparison is illustrative, though, where Antonioni orchestrates an affected ennui, Yang’s images are among the loneliest I’ve encountered. His characters are dwarfed by the space they inhabit, windows and mirrors reflecting the mise-en-scene back onto itself. Taipei as a series of atomised interior spaces. Bearing this in mind, and having seen a handful of his features, A Confucian Confusion confounds expectations. Released three years after A Brighter Summer Day, Yang’s fifth feature does not fit with any neat summation of the director’s style. It is a satire of economic progress, shot through with screwball wit.


Yang finds a city struggling to reconcile traditional virtues with modern conveniences. The purest expression of this is Akeem’s engagement to Molly. He is young and wealthy, she is young and ambitious. While on the mainland for business, he cannot bear the thought that she might be seeing someone else, though he, of course, strays during the runtime. That Akeem resembles a child trying on his father’s suits only adds to the humour, particularly after he gets it in his head that he wants to go into the arts. The pursuit of modernity is often portrayed through American pop cultural iconography. T.G.I Fridays plays a central role, as do loan words and sports apparel. A Confucian Confusion comes from a proposed novel by a character in the film, wherein Confucius is confronted by a Taiwan purportedly founded on his teaching. He would find Lakers jackets and model American fighter jets. This is all shot through with a mastery of the frame, Yang mining visual space for moments of comedy both broad and precise.

That visual intelligence is present already in his debut feature, That Day, On the Beach, which opened day two [8 March] of the festival. Taiwanese producer Chuti Chang, who introduced each of the features on the Yang retrospective, described it as a soap opera, but serious. This may well hold for many of his features, circling, as they often do, around the nearness of love and death. It also suggests something about the novelistic quality of Yang’s scenarios. His best films are long enough and complex enough to warrant this comparison (one too readily thrown at any film showing the slightest erudition). That Day, On the Beach best demonstrates this trait in its structure. The action of the film is the meeting, after many years apart, of two people who were close in youth. What follows is a series of nested recollections, bringing the spectator back to the present moment. Developing the novelistic quality of his work, the debut is the modernist experiment. Allowing multiple narrators affirms the adage that unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

Yang’s first film already shows him tackling the concerns he would further develop in his later films (including each of the three on the programme). Dewei launches into his work, alienating himself from his wife, Chia-li (filmmaker Sylvia Chang). As he burns out, his boss and old friend Ah-tsai tells him to not let the personal interfere with the professional. The world being competitive, Ah-tsai prescribes living with one eye closed and one hand behind the back. Scruples hinder progress. There is not so much a tension between the traditional and the modern as there is an obliteration of the former by the latter. What happened that day, on the beach, the event towards which this meeting seems to lead, is never resolved. Both the characters and Yang generate a gap in our understanding. What happened cannot be known by the spectator because it is not pursued by our interlocutors. Much like the backs of our heads, there are things of which we can neither attain complete knowledge nor experience directly. There is no understanding where there is no reflection.

The programme of new films continued on the second day with Wei Shujun’s Only the River Flows. Based on a novel by Yu Hua (who appears in Jia Zhang-ke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, which screened at EAFFI 2020), Shujun’s third feature is an atmospheric, noir-soaked murder mystery. To see an example of genre filmmaking from another cinema culture is always valuable. Most immediately noticeable is the texture and/of the setting. Shot primarily on 16mm, the texture of the image is a stunning testimony to the enduring aesthetic potential of film itself. Only the River Flows not only looks great but feels great. Despite the generic stylisation, the image bears an immediate material quality. This is aided by the texture of the setting. John Maguire, in his introduction, invoked Se7en, the release of which roughly corresponds to the setting. More to the point might be the films Jia Zhang-ke made during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. There is a shot in the opening sequence where a door at the end of a corridor opens onto the demolished exterior of a crumbling concrete building. From this we get a sense of time and place, moreover, of economic collapse. One might also pick up a whiff of the urban decay and empty warehouses that characterise Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s best work.

The narrative, however, is less than compelling. Ma Zhe (Zhu Yilong, delivering an impressive performance) is the lead on an investigation into a growing series of murders. Shujun’s film is not procedural, but he does take the time to lead the spectator through Ma Zhe’s unorthodox methodology. As the investigation proceeds, Ma’s hold on reality grows tenuous. This is subtly introduced through a missing citation and compounded by pressures in the home. Only the River Flows turns on an overdetermined dream sequence. While there is room for things to get weird, there are pieces missing in the escalation.

Yi Yi, among the finest films released this century, saw us through Saturday afternoon [9 March]. The prior two screenings on the Edward Yang retrospective were major events, both being practically unseeable. While Yi Yi and A Brigher Summer Day are available on disc, the chance to see them projected is a highlight on any cinema programme. Yi Yi is a family chronicle, opening with a marriage and ending with a funeral. Chuti Chang introduced it as Yang’s most tender film. Saccharine, fortunately, it is not. That tender quality is drawn from an openness to what we miss out on in life. NJ (Wu Nien-jen, who wrote Yang’s debut) recalls an early date with the woman he jilted as, in an elegant crosscut, his daughter, Ting-Ting, takes hesitant steps into a love we know is doomed. Yang is too intelligent, and too careful, to simply allow the sequence to build as to a crescendo. Both NJ and Ting-Ting walk away from their encounters having experienced an acute deflation. This ties the two more closely than any other bond and it is one in which they cannot share. Living, from one generation to the next and despite whatever material progress has been made, does not much alter through time. Yet, to think we can get a handle on it remains folly.

Yang’s closing gesture suggests that we can only speak, let alone act, after the fact. We are missing something crucial. Yang-Yang, NJ’s young son, intuitively grasps this. After being gifted a camera, he can be caught taking photos of the mosquitos outside the family’s apartment. How else, he argues, will anyone else believe they are there? The most enduring images in Yi Yi are a series of photographs of the backs of people’s heads. We cannot know this part of ourselves except through reflection. As such, Yang-Yang recognises his photography as a service – that is, to show us more than we can see of ourselves. Cinema is nothing if it cannot accomplish this. That which cannot be resolved, which is absent from our experience, is central to the only living available to us.

It is worth dissolving into Sunday afternoon [10 March] to consider the final film on the Yang retrospective. A Brighter Summer Day is every bit as essential as Yi Yi. Moreover, it is one of the supreme masterworks of Taiwanese cinema. Based on a historical incident of juvenile homicide, A Brighter Summer Day is Yang’s only period piece. In its setting and oblique narrative strategies, it calls to mind another supreme masterwork, namely Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness. (Echoes, then, of Made in Taiwan [2017], EAFFI’s inaugural edition.) The lifting of martial law in 1987 allowed Taiwanese filmmakers to look back into the nation’s recent history. Hou’s film, in part, depicts the February 28th Incident. The historical scope of Yang’s film is less momentous, though he captures a dense portrait of Taipei at mid-century.

A run-through of the scenario reads like The Godfather played by delinquents. The manoeuvrings of night school students provide a complicated background against which a study of violence is made. An opening title card tells us that children formed street gangs to combat the uncertainty endured by their parents. What begins as reckless posturing and petty fights matures into two incidents of extreme violence. The first, a night raid on a rival gang under the cover of a typhoon, is a bravura sequence of alternating light and shade. We hear the struggle more than we see it, glimpses caught in torch – or candlelight. Our protagonist, Xiao Si’r (Chang Chen), stands guard by the exit. Examining the scene following the fray, he surveys a series of bloody corpses. Mute bodies slump into pools of blood. While this is occurring, Xiao Si’r’s father (Chang Kuo-chu) is arrested. Here Yang displays his mastery of isolating people within the frame. We see the father ushered into a series of large, empty rooms where he is questioned about his past associations.

The sequence is striking for how unprepared we are for the shift in focus. Juvenile gangsters give way to secret police. The father is suddenly vulnerable, beaten, not physically, but spiritually. That his life and his family could be so easily disrupted, plucked, as he is, from his house in the middle of the night, demonstrates the pervasive violence securing military rule. These two narrative strands feed one another, without one answering for the other.

After Xiao Si’r’s father is returned home, he awakes one night convinced there is a thief in the house. With this, we can fade back to Saturday and pick up our programme with Wang Bing’s Man in Black. One way to write about the film is as a biographical documentary about Chinese composer Wang Xilin. Directly addressing the camera, Wang narrates his life and work, both intersecting at key stages with the Communist Party. He recounts a period of persistent nightmares, the result of beatings received during the Cultural Revolution. This, after A Brighter Summer Day, created another unexpected resonance within the festival. Writing about Man in Black in these terms does it an injustice. Before Wang addresses us, Caroline Champetier’s camera frames a naked Wang as he moves about the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. Calling it a performance is as close as I can get to capturing these astonishing sequences. What is immediately, materially present is the sheer vulnerability of flesh. Every inch of Wang’s body is projected onto the screen. In baring his skin, he bares his soul, both inscribed with the barbarity of the twentieth century.

Wang joined the People’s Liberation Army when it passed through the village of his youth. While he seems to have seen the promise inherent in communism, he would be confronted throughout his life with the realities of Mao Zedong Thought. As a composer, Wang sought to perfect his technique. This led to conflicts with a Party preferring to put its artists to work in its own name. His music is allowed to bleed into, and sometimes overwhelm, his narration. That I heard the influence of Schönberg suggests something of the breadth of Wang’s musical reach. This is anathema to a political organisation seeking to force material conditions without concomitant personal development. In politicising the aesthetic, the Party demanded an aesthetics without politics. Wang is a student, as well as a practitioner, of music. To be a student, to tune oneself towards an activity takes concerted effort. It takes time. The twentieth century measured time in lost lives, through brutalised bodies. Wang Bing’s Man in Black gives us the testimony of one such life, one such body.

You can read my review of Snow Leopard, which followed Man in Black. While there is nothing I would alter in that original position, seeing the film twice provided an opportunity to reflect on the conditions in which I see films. The response in the auditorium was more positive than my own. Tseden’s film struck a chord with the audience that failed to sound within me. Cinema is communal; to experience it fully is to experience it with others. Despite not being moved to reconsider my original review, seeing it in a well-attended screening room was a far richer experience than was my own solitary preview.

Saturday was capped by Patiparn Boontarig’s Solids by the Seashore. An impressive debut, Boontarig tackles an array of ideas in a few simple strokes. Shati works in a gallery in which Fon will present an exhibition based around the artificial seawalls dotting Thailand’s coast. Shati, a young woman from a conservative Muslim family, is being prepared for an arranged marriage to the son of a local religious leader. Fon, setting out from under an oppressive artistic and personal shadow, is preparing a show once conceived under the title of Solids by the Seashore. The solids in question are the various ineffectual interventions designed to prevent the further erosion of Thailand’s coastal beaches. Time and tide are hard on these beaches, washing sand out into the ocean during stormier seasons. However, the natural rhythm of these tides carries much of that sand back as the currents calm. A rapidly deteriorating climate has disrupted this rhythm.

The eponymous solids are both ineffectual and disruptive. Not only are the concrete blocks lining some beaches an eye sore, but they also fail to prevent further erosion. A more telling strategy involves importing sand from other parts of the country. Different types of sand, we learn, cannot mix. This unnatural use of nature exacerbates erosion and generates an absurd excess of rough dunes. These manmade seawalls articulate the traditions through which we erode the inner self. As Shati and Fon grow closer, the oppressive nature of tradition grows ever more apparent. Shati’s arranged marriage limits the scope of her own potential actualisation. Her relationship with Fon, in a country where hard-fought LGTBQ+ rights are only recently liberalising, is an otherwise unthinkable act of free self-expression. Fon seeks to make art from objects which otherwise fail in their intended purpose.

Each thematic strand is concerned with how human interventions disrupt and destroy the potential of beings in the world. Artificial seawalls erode the coasts they are meant to protect in the same way traditions erode the people they are intended to support. This works because Boontarig trusts the audience. The whole of Solids by the Seashorespeaks through its parts. I hope to see more of Patiparn Boontarig in festivals to come.

The supreme pleasure of Ann Hui’s Elegies, which screened after A Brighter Summer Day on Sunday, is peering into a literary culture not your own. My thinking about the film echoes my thinking about the festival: there are other literatures, just as there are other cinemas. Working, as I do, in books, one quickly realises the degree to which publishers valorise the familiar. Readers, like cinemagoers, are fed what they know from recognisable markets. The aspect of this that can be explained is that of language. We are trapped within the language(s) we understand. This is all the more apparent in poetry, the subject of Ann Hui’s documentary. Having studied literature at university, she has long wanted to make a film about the Hong Kong poetry scene. The result combines interviews with poets, with readings from their works. Each of Hui’s subjects were an introduction to me. Peering through the veil of difference, however, revealed the persistence of certain literary types.

While several authors appear throughout Elegies, Huang Canran and Liu Waiting emerge as our primary interlocutors. Huang is the more conventionally bohemian of the two. Alongside his poetry, he has undertaken work as a journalist and as a translator. This he colours as the dirty work one does, if only to afford to continue patching and repairing his jeans. Crucially, we do not see him work. His days take him to cafes, where he shares a table with his assistant. He goes on a hike with his daughter, leading to a short reflection on tattoos. If you close your eyes and imagine a poet, it may just be Huang Canran. Liu Waiting, on the other hand, is deliberately multi-hyphenate. Ann Hui first encountered him as a photographer assigned to take publicity shots of the director. He also has experience as a radio host. Most significantly, we see him lecturing remotely (the production coincided with COVID lockdown measures) on poetry for a university in Taiwan, where he now lives. Both Huang and Liu provide a cross-section of poetic worldviews. (And they are views of the world, Liu’s lectures taking in both Brecht and Szymborska, alongside his own poetic practice.) While both are types we may recognise, they arise from a tradition apart from our own.

Since 2005, Hong Sang-soo has been making films under the banner of his own Jeonwonsa Film Co. A selection of these have screened at the festival in recent years. It is not unheard of that independent productions face difficulty finding their way into international exhibition. Despite regular invites to the major European festivals, and champions in New York and Paris, Hong’s films are rarely screened (and barely available on disc) in the UK and Ireland. This is shameful, as his body of work is one of the most vital contributions to contemporary cinema. Walk Up, which closed the 8th East Asia Film Festival Ireland, is no exception. Hong wears many hats in his productions; alongside the writing, producing, and directing we usually attribute to independent filmmakers, he has taken to editing, composing the score, and operating the camera. There is then a parallel between the closing and opening films. While Soda and Hong work towards different ends, their radical reduction of means speak to the possibility of a cinema to come.

Walk Up is constructed around a set of familiar circumstances. There is the sharing of food and drink, alongside the concomitant awkward chatter filling the empty spaces. Hong understands that simple pleasures are seldom simple. Here, the differences and repetitions that characterise the structure of his works are organised around the eponymous walk up. Byung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) arrives at the building to reconnect with Ms. Kim (Lee Hye-young), who owns the building. Through the runtime, Byung-soo will occupy the room on each of the floors. We can take it that this is always the same Byung-soo, though he takes on new guises as he progresses upwards. In one room, he ditches cigarettes and eats salad for the good of his health. In the next, he smokes and eats meat. Byung-soo first professes that he is better off alone before allowing himself to be coddled.

These sequences can be read as following one another, Byung-soo changing rooms and changing relationships after taking up Ms. Kim’s offer of residence. This would be in line with the more pared down structure Hong has pursued in recent years. Hong, however, masterfully confounds any simple readings. His best films are characterised by subtle shifts in ontology. We dream with his characters, fantasies failing to announce themselves. Shifts are achieved through straight cuts. Walk Up is as likely about the absence of Byung-soo – exiting and returning, as he is, during the opening and closing sequences – as it is about his residing in a series of flats. With the simplest gesture, any linearity is tied into knots. The walk up as microcosmos, Hong again articulating that there are infinite worlds possible.

EAFFI 2024 gave us a strong slate of films which otherwise would never have found a screen in Ireland. From the generic to the unclassifiable, I came away convinced that cinema is an ongoing project. Festivals such as this excel at introducing spectators to filmmakers who work beyond the reach of Western fanfare. My own reflections are left only partially formed by my incomplete engagement with and understanding of the cultures out of which these films arise. There then comes with the festival the pleasure of seeing other places and of hearing other languages. Viewing films made with someone else in mind is a valuable part of any cinema worthy of the name. This is echoed in the bi-monthly EAFFI Discoveries programme, which brings new films and old to Irish screens. Though I am partial.

The East Asia Film Festival Ireland (EAFFI) 2024 took place at The Irish Film Institute from 5-10 March.

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