To be completely honest I am quite astonished at some of the things I hear at the London Film Festival. Today I heard one person say that she had seen 15 films which were all dreadful except 3; how unlucky is that? I have seen 26 and only 3 were unsatisfactory. Another person complained about the venues. Well, I admit that the Vue Complex in Leicester Square is quite old, and today there was a huge flood, so coming out of Screen 3 we found water pouring through the ceiling! But hey! By the time we went back 2 hours later all the escalators were working again and everything had been mopped up. The Staff are bright, helpful and pleasant and if there are occasionally queues because a screen is not available the information is delivered in a decent and helpful manner. The seats are comfortable (if not always immaculately clean – and whose fault is that? The scumbags who spill their drinks and ice-creams not, I venture to point out, the staff). There are plenty of toilets and they are kept clean. I am not sure what more one could ask.
Today was really outstanding, in a year of exceptional films (or my lucky choices) today was perfect. I saw two films from the Far East for which I have only praise, there was nothing about either of them that I could criticize, they were utterly faultless.
The Sun-Beaten Path comes from Tibet, one of only two in the Festival this year. A directorial debut by Sonthar Gyal this film is based on true events, if not precisely a true story.
After a terrible accident a young man sets off to Lhasa in the Buddhist tradition of total prostration all the way. (In the Q&A we learned that this can be a journey of anything up to 2000 miles.) We only know he has been on this prostrating journey because we first meet Nyma returning, and we see the traditional wooden clappers attached to his extremely dilapidated backpack. On his return journey, still suffering through grief and guilt, he meets a old man who looks out for him and cares for him at different points along his route. The mystical relationship between these two is never explained or examined – it simply is.
Nyma has walked in the sun and wind for many miles; he sleeps out in the cold; he rejects most of the offers of help and lifts from lorries and cars along the way, though he has accepted food from the lorry drivers. He has abandonned the bus because he says “it travels too fast”, thus we are given a strong indication that Nyma still has unresolved issues surrounding his purpose in making this journey.
During the film, we discover the details of the accident which has resulted in the death of his mother and we have an idea of other family relationships, but it is the old man and the young man who figure throughout the film. The old man gives the young man advice, largely through quoting Buddhist philosophies and from his own experiences of life and his ideas about what this might tell one, the young man is nearly completely silent – but his face, his actions and his lack of communication speak volumes.
In the Q&A the director explained that there was no such thing as a Tibetan Drama School and that Yeshe Lhadruk and Lo Kyi, Tibetans who acted in the film had no professional training whatsoever, so this makes it even more remarkable. The other marvellous thing about this viewing was that neither the Director nor the Producer had been able to attend the premiere owing to a bureaucratic muddle (ho hum!) over their visas. They were so delighted to be able to be at this showing and so thrilled to be in London it made it all the more wonderful to have shared this completed and accomplished masterpiece with them.
A Simple Life, made by Ann Hui, is also about a relationship this time between a old woman and a young man who go on a journey of a different sort. Ah Tao has been the family servant of the Leung family for 60 years. When we first see her she is making a meal for Roger Leung. (The rest of the family have emigrated to America, we only meet them briefly – but wonderfully simple vignettes give us a complete understanding of their connection to each other and to Ah Tao). As Ah Tao lays the food before Roger he simply gobbles it up (there is no other word for it). There is no eye contact, no thanks, no comment. She clears it away again and the first time there is anything remotely like communication, Roger Leung (Andy Lau) is asking for ox tongue. Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) doesn’t want him to have it because he has had a heart operation and ox tongue is not good for him.
Roger Leung is away on business (it becomes evident that he is away a lot) and when he returns he finds that Ah Tao has had a stroke, all is well however and she is taken to hospital. She wants to go into an old people’s home and so Roger makes some enquiries, once satisfied and helped by the fact he knows the manager, Roger delivers her to the home. It is clear that some of the residents are actors, but many of them are, and must be, really elderly and the facility must really be a Chinese Old People’s Home.
Surprisingly (for him at least) as she gets older and more frail Roger develops a tender relationship of love and respect for Ah Tao, this is exquisitely demonstrated in a nuanced and gradual change in the way he looks at her, and indeed in the fact that he conceals from the nursing home the true nature of their relationship (that of servant and master) to protect her.
There was nothing about this film that I would want to change, not a single minute more or less, not a single thing I needed explained or expanded. A film of surpassing delicacy, matchless acting and brilliant photography, made with reverence and love: a privilege to watch.