Five prams fought for wheel space by the carriage doors. A teenage girl made baby eyes at an infant boy. His big, eighteen month old eyes looked at her briefly, then re-focused back intently on his father’s iPhone. Curiously he tapped an icon, then another. His father, a strapping fellow in a navy-blue T-shirt and a week’s stubble of whiskers, surveyed the carriage proudly. It was a motley crowd in a very crowded space. There were grandmothers with puffy blotched skin, crop-dusted over with thick makeup. Overfed young women in synthetic miniskirts, their arms and legs already disfigured by the skid marks of wannabe prison tattoos, picked at their nails. Noisy clumps of teenage boys poking each other in the ribs. At Central Station the loudspeakers advised passengers not to forget their belongings including their children. The masses streamed through the turnstiles, a river joining a flood joining an ocean of bodies. Wtf? Then I remembered something called Riverfire. It was apparently the grand finale to Brisbane’s week of festival, and half a million people were heading for Queen Street river bridge to watch a few buckets of fireworks, and say oooohh when a couple of jet fighter planes did a low fly-past.
Me? I was going to see a Korean film at the Tribal Theatre, and down by Roma Street Station the town was almost empty. In the theatre foyer, a gaggle of young Koreans in frog green T-shirts tried to be helpful. A sweet girl pointed me to the box office. The attendant put down his coffee and looked surprised when I asked for a ticket. “We do stamps” he said, putting a quick kiss of ink on my wrist. We lounged around the foyer, maybe a dozen patrons, until thirty seconds before show-time. The girl at the cinema door had kept us out. “They are preparing a forum”, she declared importantly. Allowed in at last, I held up my wrist to pass. “Yo bro!” said the girl by the door, slapping her palm to mine. The patrons scattered thinly amongst the seats. Three people sat on kitchen chairs, down in front of the big screen. A pale, plump young man introduced himself as a lecturer in film, and woodenly read a long, long introduction to the two other kitchen chair dwellers. One, a scraggy Australian of indefinite age had apparently mentioned a Korean film in his blog once. He finally admitted that it was the only Korean film he had ever seen. The lecturer said wasn’t it marvelous that Australia had all these foreign film festivals, and he had once brought some DVDs back from Seoul in his suitcase. The real live Korean film maker parked between these two glitterati was a rather pretty Korean woman in her thirties. Casting around for something, anything to say, she noted that the Australian art film scene was rather closed and conservative, while New Zealand was much more welcoming. The cultural differences from Korea had been much greater than she expected. Korean culture, she noted, was focused on pleasing people, and some of the very violent films in the festival weren’t like Korea at all… The panel looked about hopefully for audience participation. A voice from the back said that, well, his wife was Korean. We finally got around to watching the film.
The film was gentle and wistful. “Christmas in August”, 8월의 크리스마스 , it was called, a melodrama and love story. A thirty-something photographer finds a quirky and very pretty traffic inspector dropping into his studio frequently. He lets the relationship develop happily, is kind to his customers, and quietly anguished in his heart. She doesn’t know he is dying of an incurable disease, until one day the studio fails to open. It is quintessentially Korean, circa 1998, sunshine and shadows, and somehow an aeon from the hedonistic consumer culture of South Korea’s last decade. Brisbane is awash with young Koreans but the cinema crew apart, they were hardly to be seen at this showing.
Back out on the mean streets, I headed up to the CBD mall. The lemming tide of humanity was still streaming towards the bridge. This crowd, an engulfing blaze, sucked oxygen and bodies into its maw. Separated from their TV sets for an hour or two, these tens of thousands of flickering minds came to find meaning in a mass greater than themselves. I bought a chocolate bar and skirted through back streets, back to the Central Station. Settled down in a now quiet subway carriage to flick though some foreign vocabulary on my smart phone, it took a while to notice that the train wasn’t actually moving. After ten minutes, a laconic voice came over the loudspeaker. “We are looking for the driver”, it announced. “When we can find him, we’ll leave.” Five minutes later the update announced, “We are still looking for the driver. If we can’t find him we’ll get you another one”. A while later, the train bumped into motion, with or without a driver. Only in Brisbane.