Film: Frugal films

Major distributors tried to muscle in on the indie Houston Film Festival. So it was time to get tough
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The Independent Culture
"SMALL IS beautiful" was the boast at the streamlined 32nd WorldFest- Houston International Film Festival earlier this month. Pointedly eschewing the glitz and hyperbole of Hollywood, this laid-back annual event (where Steven Spielberg and George Lucas both collected their first awards) focused on the independent sector, where credit cards and the goodwill of friends often drive the film-making process.

You'd think that downsizing a festival dedicated to struggling auteurs would be counter-productive. But WorldFest's ebullient director and founder, Hunter Todd, said that it was a necessary response to the acquisition of many of the leading independent production companies by Hollywood studios. As a result, the festival had in recent years become little more than a free "sneak preview" venue for the major distributors. In order to return WorldFest to its roots, therefore, Todd restricted its Feature Film Competition section to independently financed films without an American distributor.

The 40 feature films (around 500 were submitted for consideration) selected for screenings at a small multiplex in one of Houston's many anonymous shopping precincts came from around the world and ranged from a well-meaning but heavy-handed examination of the modern Native American experience (Naturally Native), to a baffling, Eraserhead-inspired psycho-sexual thriller (Pure Killjoy).

Despite the fiercely independent tenor of WorldFest, a special dispensation was given to a past winner of the short film section (and this year's Sundance victor), Tony Bui, to open the event with his October Films- financed first feature, Three Seasons. A sensuous and haunting collage of interconnecting stories of hope and redemption set in contemporary Saigon, the film represents the California-based director's lyrical response to a visit to the country of his birth - 17 years after his military officer father was forced to flee Vietnam following the collapse of the south. While it is somewhat contrived in its plotting and a little rose-tinted, Bui's elegant craftsmanship belies his age (he's still only 26) and inexperience, making Three Seasons appear like the work of a more seasoned artist.

Another Asian-American director making a splash was VV Dachin Hsu, whose My American Vacation topped the drama section. Like a Zen version of Daytrippers, the film exudes warmth and charm as it good-naturedly idles its way across scenic Midwestern locations.

The same cannot be said for Cleopatra's Second Husband, a disturbing black comedy in which two men's claustrophobic relationship becomes a twisted parody of an abusive marriage. The film's tactful direction and deadpan humour recall Spanking the Monkey, and there are echoes of The Collector, The Vanishing and Zed & Two Noughts. But, ultimately, this is a unique and unsettling genre-bender which, aside from a sign-posted pay-off, keeps viewers guessing. All that is certain is that its writer/director, Jon Reiss, has a very sick mind indeed.

Finally, the Uruguayan film The Life Jacket is Under Your Seat proved hard to beat for energy. According to its director, Leonardo Ricagni, this tale of a Frank Zappa lookalike (played by Jorge Esmoris) who takes on a Christ-like significance when he and his band help save a holy shrine, reflects issues relevant to his country today. Quite what those issues were is hard to say as Ricagni dispenses with narrative coherence in favour of an onslaught of hyper-stylised images and an ear-assaulting soundtrack. The effect is wearyingly thrilling.