Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
Ounie Lecomte’s autobiographical “A Brand New Life”
Getting personal: TFF’s international selections
Spanish, Asian films range from the surreal to the sublime
BY ELENA MANCINI
With cherry blossoms abloom and sidewalk restaurants manifesting a slow but steady reawakening to the “see and be-seen” sun-starved masses, there’s no denying that spring has sprung in New York. Promising to add a distinct cosmopolitan flavor to the charms of the season is the ninth annual Tribeca Film Festival.
The foreign language titles at this year’s festival transcend the bounds of cultural and cinematic provincialism with films from 38 countries on topics that span the range from historic themes to global issues to international icons (including Leon Trotsky, Pablo Escobar and Brazilian versions of Elvis and Madonna). Among the 85 feature-length films that will be screened, 44 are world premieres (films that have never been screened anywhere else before) and seven, international premieres (films screened outside of their country of origin for the first time).
According to David Kwok — TFF’s director of programming — the feature film selection process is conducted by a programming team that consists of 10 people; and the choices are influenced by the thematic, geographic and genre interests held by the various members of the programming team.
The final selection of the films, Kwok says, is overseen by senior programmer Genna Terranova and himself — who spend the bulk of their time scouting films by attending international film festivals and markets and traveling to certain national cinemas.
Kwok described the criteria for the selection of American and non-American feature film titles as having a New York premiere as their only requirement. For the films considered for the competition, Kwok explained “the requirement is at least a North American premiere.” Kwok, who focuses on Asian and Scandinavian films, explained his own approach to the selection as follows: “I do like to see the cross section of national cinemas. So it’s great for us to see the commercial films that are made in various countries as well as the auteur and art-house films.”
A common feature within the exciting line up of films drawn from the Asian and Spanish language titles — international regions with languages that boast the highest populations of speakers —is the treatment of cultural and linguistic hybridity; the physical and psychological condition of straddling two cultures and insightful commentary on transnational identity and multilingual sensibilities.
The themes represented in this year’s array of Asian offerings range from an emotionally gripping perspective on transnational adoption (“A Brand New Life,” Ounie Lecomte, France and South Korea) to the urban housing crisis and cutthroat real estate market in Hong Kong (“Dream Home,” Pang Ho-Cheung, Hong Kong) to kidnapping, gang violence and high stakes psychological mind games (“Clash,” Bay Rong Vietnam) to a glimpse at how Manilla’s torrential rains provide a dramatic backdrop to feminine valor in the face of the murder of loved ones (“Lola,” Brillante Mendoza, Philippines and France).
Of the feature films in this category, three of them hail from South Korea, and all three of them are directed by women. South Korean and French director Ounie Lecomte’s autobiographically-inspired feature film, “A Brand New Life” tells the story of Jin hee, a nine-year-old Korean girl who is abandoned by her father at a Catholic orphanage and adopted by foreigners.
In this directorial debut which was met with wide acclaim at the Cannes and Berlin festivals, Lecomte depicts a journey from loss to starting anew that is based on her own emotional experiences. “I’ve been myself abandoned and adopted when I was a child,” Lecomte shared. “But it’s a fiction, not autobiographical. I used some elements of my own story to relate the film to some reality that happened in Korean society, but sometimes I had to ‘lie’ about the real facts in order to get closer to the emotions.” What Lecomte aimed to communicate with this film is the point of view of a child faced with abandonment. “Behind every adoption, there’s a story of separation and loss, but also a struggle to accept that fate. I wanted to show the child’s inner strength to overcome that fate and grow beyond the wounds.”
Interesting to note about “A Brand New Life” is the role of language and the evolution of Lecomte’s relationship to her lost native tongue of Korean. Lecomte says that she began to lose her Korean at the age of 10, when she was transplanted from her native country of South Korea to France. She was never able to successfully reacquire it. Thus, she wrote the first draft of her script in French. The script was later translated, adapted and re-written with Korean director and one of the film’s producers, Lee Chang-dong.
Lecomte describes the process as having fostered the emergence of a language that is disconnected from conventional linguistic and geographical bounds throughout the process. “During production, my team and I used our ‘broken English’ to communicate and translate into Korean for those, like kids, who couldn’t directly communicate with me. But as cinema is a language in itself, I never felt my handicap of not speaking Korean would be a problem. On the contrary, I always had faith that something else, something more subconscious would happen to overcome this handicap. And it became part of the meaning of the project: How this film can overcome the barrier of language and how, on a very personal level, it could help me to find the “music” of my lost mother tongue back.”
The themes of conflict, familial transgression and alienation are also strongly represented in “Paju” — a film by South Korean director Chan-ok Park (who debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival with her feature film “Jealousy is My Middle Name” in 2003). Finally, Lee Yong-Ju’s “Possessed” is a directorial debut that deploys familiar horror imagery in imaginatively new ways to furnish an unsetting plot centered upon the disappearance of young girl and a tangled web of connections between car accident victims and the missing girl that is part horror and part detective mystery.
The themes of language and cultural and linguistic in-betweenness also figure prominently in the Spanish language titles. Categories of genre, gender, language and national identity are also boldly defied in Omar Rodriguez’s “The Sentimental Engine Slayer” (Mexico and USA). Set in the US-Mexico border town of El Paso, Texas, both the plot and the aesthetics of this third feature film by Rodriguez (and the first to be released to the public) shine a light on the blurry boundaries. Confused twenty-something grocery-bagger Barlan’s clumsy stagger toward manhood takes him through a complicated, borderline incestuous relationship with his drug-addict sister, Nati, an obsession with a masculine role model who defies all conventional notions of masculinity, and a descent into a narcotic underworld in which fantasy and reality are no longer discernible. The psychic and emotional dislocation is punctuated by the film’s constant shuttling between English and Spanish, psychedelic sound design and fluorescent colors of the American Southwestern landscape.
Rodriguez describes the use of Spanish in the film as “a natural force in the film. It has to be there to offer color and the metaphor of in-betweeness and to express the search of who am I.” For Puerto-Rican born Rodriguez, who spent many of his formative years in El Paso, Texas and South Carolina, “the very rich languages of places like New York and L.A.” and of places where many stories are such as Southern California, Phoenix and El Paso are not adequately reflected in independent American cinema. He notes that while immigration and multiethnic nature of European countries is reflected in the languages of their films, much of American independent cinema remains monolingual.
American-born, Emmy-nominated writers, editors and directors Michael Zimbalist and Jeff Zimbalist describe the use of Spanish in their documentary, “The Two Escobars” (Colombia and USA) on the cultural and historical parallelisms and symbolisms surrounding the murders of Colombian soccer legend, Andres Escobar and drug baron, Pablo Escobar as essential. The brother directorial team mined 46 archival sources and conducted many interviews both in Spanish and in English with drug cartel people, people from the government and the soccer team as well as American drug enforcement agents to gain first-hand testimonials and a range of perspectives on the 15-year reign of the drug cartel in Colombia.
According to Michael Zimbalist, “You can’t really understand the complexities of the story without speaking Spanish. You might get it in small fragments, but you’re not going to the subtleties.” The directors explained that speaking Spanish allowed them intimate and insider access into conversations about what is still considered a “taboo and dangerous topic and a traumatic time period to live through.”
Artistically, Michael explained, the use of Spanish allowed him to tap into another part of his personality and an exotic creative place that “animates you and adds a bit of excitement to the process.”