16th Pacific Meridian, Vladivostok

Originally published in ArtReview, December 2018.

A 79-minute film with no dialogue, almost no music and hardly any plot to speak of is an unexpected highlight of Pacific Meridian, the annual international film festival of Vladivostok. The festival was the occasion of the Russian premiere of The Night I Swam (2017), a Franco-Japanese collaboration between directors Damien Manivel and Kdhei Igarashi. The film follows a six-year-old boy, woken by his fisherman father heading off to market in the middle of the night and unable to get back to sleep. Exhausted, the boy skips school and wanders the snowy streets of a nameless city, boards a train, eats an orange, loses a glove and periodically falls asleep – in a heap of snow, on the back seat of a stranger’s car. The result is strange, funny, beguiling and ultimately – in the implication that working life will continue to thwart the possibility of a meaningful father-son relationship – crushingly forlorn.

Films from Vladivostok’s neighbour across the East Sea feature prominently throughout the weeklong festival, with an especially strong selection of shorts and animated works. The diverse programme ranges from Koji Yamamura’s 2002 classic Mount Head about a cherry tree growing from the head of a miser to more recent works such as Kazuki Sekiguchi’s tale of Day-Glo bunnies, Self-Honest Me (2017), and the hand-drawn love stories of Honami Yano’s Chromosome Sweetheart (2017). Russian animation is also well represented, in particular by Nina Bisyarina’s Bus Stop (2016) and Roman Sokolov’s The Theory of Sunset (2017). Both enact very different explorations of human conceptions of time. In the former, an impatient young woman and an impassive man (and his dog) wait for their bus against skies of darkly delicate watercolour. In the latter, Time is personified as a stick-man cyclist pedalling through the day from sunrise to sunset. The film contains some glorious images: a long-limbed Sun sidling out to sea or Death kneeling to help repair a puncture to the tyre of Time’s bicycle.

As the largest naval base of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok – along with other cities of strategic significance – was completely closed to foreigners during the Soviet years. Since the collapse of the USSR, something of the city’s old cosmopolitan confidence has returned, and initiatives like Pacific Meridian, now in its 16th year, are valued drivers of international cultural exchange. Recent major infrastructure investment into Vladivostok has also underscored the city’s increasing importance as a centre not only of military but also economic power in the region. China, Japan and South Korea are Vladivostok’s major trading partners, so it is not surprising to see Pacific Meridian showcasing the filmmaking creativity of the Asia-Pacific region. More surprising is the openness of political discussion, both in the programming and among attendees. But Vladivostok has always been a long way from Moscow’s eagle eyes.

Among some well-made, if straightforward cinema such as Spike Lee’s 1970s African-American detective movie BlacKkKlansman, Vera Glagoleva’s cheerless family drama Clay Pit and Viktor Alferov’s brilliantly acted Seabuckthorn Summer about Russian playwright Aleksandr Vampilov (all 2018), the experimental uneasiness of Extinction (2018) makes it one of the standouts of the festival. The work of Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas, the film follows the convoluted border-crossings of a young man who identifies as a national of Transnistria, an unrecognised state whose territory lies within Moldova on the border with Ukraine. Part road movie, part documentary, part essay film, Extinction combines documentary footage and surreptitiously recorded audio with carefully composed, black-and-white shots of crumbling Soviet architecture and eye-to-eye closeups with the central character. An anxious, dreamlike probing of the violence of constructed bureaucratic realties, Extinction continually teeters on the brink of collapse. The film’s form therefore provides adroit echoes of its subject matter: the potency and fragility of identities and nationalities, and the powers that police them.

16th Pacific Meridian at various venues, Vladivostok, 21–27 September