Every year since 1999, a festival in a northern Italian town has played host to a week’s worth of the most popular films from East Asia. Although this focus is a recent preoccupation, the festival’s shell is close to two decades old, when it had initially programmed popular films from Europe. Then, because an initial edition of Hong Kong cinema proved so successful, objectives swung in order to purvey cinemas from other countries in the Far East. Called the Udineincontri Cinema since inception, the festival is now better known as the Udine Far East Film Festival. In its sixth edition this year, it is vying to be the mainstay of a band of (Western) film festivals worldwide whose foci involve nothing less than a fetish for images of Asia – institutionalised Orientalism for this age.
I’ll get to my observations of Udine shortly, but for now a net needs to be cast over some hype. At Cannes 2004, the New York Times had noted the strong presence of Asian films in competition, stating “…not just movies from different Asian countries, but the sense that Asia is really where it’s happening now; what Europe was 30 years ago.” Time Magazine too, by sensationalist habit, found it hard to resist some inane carry-on when boasting that “Asian film has not simply arrived at the world’s largest and most prestigious movie bash; it has conquered. The Asian Invasion of world cinema is complete. Now comes the occupation.”
Something bothers me about this loose canon that is “Asian cinema”. The way the media sprinkles it around like cinnamon seems to sweeten the illusion that all films from Asia share a certain common ground. If its use is to facilitate categorisation by geography, that’s not good enough reason. What the stockpile of oversimplifications fails to point out is the legitimacy in perpetuating this manufactured sense of unity the Asian continent must necessarily share when only a handful of national cinemas are constantly being celebrated. When the New York Times asserts that Asia is “where it’s happening now”, they’re really only referring to trendsetting East Asia: veterans Hong Kong and Japan, and the ascendency of South Korea and mainland China. Taken together, these three countries cannot possibly begin to represent with authority the world’s largest continent, which has over 15 times as many countries in its holding.
I also have misgivings when Quentin Tarantino, regarded laughably as the stateside deliverer of “Asian films”, talks about his pseudo-feminist Pinkerton complex. In an interview with the New York Daily News on the inspiration behind his Kill Bill diptych, he has remarked with his brand of naïve Americentrism: “It’s what I think of as the badass chick genre, which is a staple of Asian cinema, one I really love. I’m kind of secretly hoping that Kill Bill inspires some 13-year-old girl to put up a poster of Uma Thurman in her Day-Glo track suit, or maybe causes some Asian teenager who doesn’t have any role models to look up at Lucy Liu on the screen and feel empowered.”
Now, while “badass chicks” may turn up on screen now and again at the movies (as in Chor Yuen’s Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan ), I know for a fact that such a genre is not a staple of any particular cinema in Asia, any more than bad-ass attorneys are a staple of American movies. From a cultural perspective, here’s where the problem starts, because for Tarantino, “Asian cinema” means the familiar East Asian archetypes of deaths by samurai swords, vigilantes flaunting their kung fu agilities, and anonymous swordsmen who may or may not be treacherous – all of which are specific Chinese and Japanese exploits. It’s one thing to say the man is passionate about these fashionable elements and entirely another to say that he loves “Asian cinema” so much that by imitating its influences and by being “its” self-appointed spokesman, he has therefore “done justice to Asian cinema” – to cite yet another silly platitude. What makes, for instance, the intense political dramas of Sri Lankan films or the hellish displacement between rural and urban values evident in Filipino and Indian cinema less “Asian” than martial arts and pugilism? Or is chivalric violence popularity’s ultimate alibi?
Back to Udine, which has justified its programming emphasis on East Asia as an alternative to American dominance in Europe – a decision based not merely on cultural preference but on political expediency. In the festival catalogue foreword by Udine’s organisers, the Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche (CEC) has observed that since the cinema industries of the Far East are the only ones that have the ability to compete with Hollywood in the production of genre films, they would thus be ideal partners in cultural exchange and a welcome intermediary to supplant the resistance to America’s cultural hegemony in Europe. According to the CEC, by defending the Continental tradition of “arthouse films”, “Europe has allowed the ‘loathed’ US to maintain its leadership of mainstream cinema, and has reduced its cultural horizons solely to the Western world.” It adds: “In this way, we have hampered the development of European cinema. Because we are blind to other alternatives we have appointed the USA as our entertainment leader by default.”
Udine’s mission is remarkable at this point in time, if only because it draws attention away from what it sees as Western cultural tyranny. However, it’s open to speculation what the implications will be for it if the Far East looks poised to level with or displace America as the centre of filmmaking might. There’s an interesting paradox concerning South Korea for instance, presently at the crest of its phenomenal film production streak – thanks no doubt to its famed (but increasingly frustrated) screen quota system which locks out inordinate numbers of Hollywood films each year. But then consider this: despite the sense of national pride, there’s the feeling that mainstream South Korean cinema – especially the big-budget and “sophisticated” ones – can’t resist the urge to flatter the very institution it opposes. My first reaction to Tae Guk Gi (2004) was that this was too similar to Saving Private Ryan (1998) for comfort, a feeling that has not changed. Set during the Korean War, the film takes its title from the name of the South Korean national flag and is the tale of two brothers who are drafted into the service but who part ideological ways in the process. Porcelain doll Won Bin plays the younger sibling, a raw angel of conscience just as Matt Damon was as Private Ryan. Its director is Kang Je-gyu, who helmed the landmark Shiri (1999), which, along with Tae Guk Gi, has sealed his position as the defending champion of the chartbuster in South Korea. Like Steven Spielberg, Kang tells his story by way of one massive flashback, and as with any polished war film out of Hollywood today, the experience is deluged and necessarily compromised by the numbing incessant violence and fireworks.
On the same note, I’m also reminded of the criticisms aimed at Hollywood for continually fabricating grand but improbable myths of America and American life and, likewise, I’m wondering if the noise surrounding “Asian cinema” today isn’t similarly geared towards selling an image of Asia as some kitschy, homogenised domicile. Above all, if popular, mainstream films are Udine’s programming prerequisite to fuel interest in the cinemas of East Asia, then it would seem that the festival is in an inimitable position to adopt a self-reflexive stance via programming to critique popular notions of (East) Asia at a time when this region of the world has never figured more prominently in current affairs and in the production of mass-marketed culture.
Presently, China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea hold the fort of Udine’s programming content. In past editions North Korea, the Philippines and Thailand have had strong showings, while Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam have made brief appearances. Malaysia and Indonesia, both emerging filmmaking hotspots known of late for their independent filmmaking movements, have yet to be adequately represented. For Udine, the most rewarding discovery yet may be Southeast Asia – a subregion of the Far East, home to some underrated voices as well as a wealth of memories endangered alas by ignorance and neglect.
Among the highlights at Udine this year were the cream of East Asia’s box office hits from the past year. From mainland China, whose affluence continues to be an irrefutable motif in its contemporary cinema, two films stood out: Feng Xiao-gang’s intriguing Cell Phone (2004) and Xie Dong’s The Coldest Day (2003), both intense observations on adultery; the former ostensibly an ironic comment on the massive communication breakdown between humans despite their dependence on a contrivance as spectacular as cellular technology, and the latter a cluster of heavy emotions making plain the wintry perils of infidelity – its title almost a caveat.
Japan, rarely one to disappoint, offered customary albeit refreshing formulas, among them: Inudo Isshin’s charming dirge, Josee, The Tiger and The Fish (2003), sung by extremely lovable characters, along with Shinohara Tetsuo’s Showa Kayo Daizenshu (Big Collection of Showa Era Songs) (2003), an absurd and memorable revenge tale about young men and middle-aged women who plot to murder one another off to the tunes of ’60s Japanese pop.
South Korea’s relatively mainstream selection demonstrated – as the festival has observed of East Asia in general – an ability to produce genre films across the board: biopics (Hong Ki-seon’s The Road Taken , based on the life of the world’s longest-serving political prisoner), comedies (Kwon Chil-in’s chirpy Singles ), coming-of-age tales (Yoo Ha’s testosterone-drenched Once Upon A Time In High School: Spirit of Jeet Kune Do ), cop dramas (Kim Yoo-jin’s entertaining Wild Card ), costume epics (Lee Kwang-hoon’s tedious The Legend of Evil Lake ), creepers (Lee Su-yeon’s flawed but effective The Uninvited ), and erotica (Bong Man-dae’s meandering Sweet Sex & Love , where everything but gratuitous fucking does not get fully fleshed out).
But of the programme’s 56 films, some of the most captivating experiences weren’t these newer and popular contemporary hits, but the retrospectives featuring Hong Kong’s Chor Yuen and Japan’s Ichikawa Jun, plus a smaller exhibit by China’s Zhang Yuan. By and large, it’s rare today to witness retrospectives of past filmmakers in their entirety owing to the complexities surrounding issues of availability, budget, logistics, restoration and rights. Although none of Udine’s showcases were complete, film festivals are perhaps inappropriate venues for the tracings of one’s career highs and lows, especially when one’s lifetime achievements are as epic as Chor Yuen’s; even if his corpus of some 120 films could have been procured, a museum or cinémathèque showcase would have been the ideal shrine of choice for their worship.
One of Hong Kong’s most industrious filmmakers during the 1950s and ’60s, Chor Yuen had witnessed the rise and fall of Cantonese cinema, when rich and powerful film studios such as Cathay and Shaw Brothers specialising in Mandarin films had coerced it into extinction. Despite being an advocate for the former, Chor was eventually forced to sleep with the enemy, even though he never fully abandoned his pride in Cantonese cinema. He had the knack for juggling genres well, eliciting laughter, tears, thrills and fear. Occasionally, he managed all. Unlike Stanley Kubrick and Wong Kar-wai, Chor mostly wrote his screenplays in days, realised them in weeks and chalked up bills that could be paid for with shoestrings. And unlike Chang Cheh, King Hu and Lau Kar-leung, Chor wasn’t an obsessive director of martial arts films and wuxia pian (the genre of “chivalric martial arts films”), even though his examples of the latter are marvellous – a firm salute to Gu Long, the late Chinese author whose swordplay novels Chor’s colourful and spectacular wuxia films were adapted from.
The retrospective featured 11 of Chor’s films, demonstrating his talent in working across genres as well as within them. Incredibly, this was hardly a tenth of his output. These were: The Great Devotion (1960), Tear-Laden Rose (1963), In My Dream Last Night (1963), A Mad Woman (1964), The Black Rose (1965), Winter Love (1968), Young, Pregnant And Unmarried (1968), The Prodigal (1969), Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan (1972), The House Of 72 Tenants (1973) and Killer Clans (1976).
In his films Chor is known as much for his compassion as he is for his critical observations of social spaces. In engaging these strategies, he is rarely subtle; characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, sometimes to the point of unnerving self-consciousness. He is forward with his empathy for the marginalised and oppressed (in particular women, whom he pickets for with affection).
As The Great Devotion opens, a title flashes Chor’s dedication to all parents before a tale of a family saddled with mounting economic strife unfolds; in The Bastard, the educated class take a beating for being foolish and unscrupulous despite their privileged existence; in the horror-like melodrama A Mad Woman, Chor’s breathtaking invective against patriarchy and a plea for sexual egalitarianism, a son is compelled to attack his father’s irrational prejudices against women, reminding him that “without women, there wouldn’t be a single man”; and in Killer Clans, a powerful clan lord, having witnessed perfidy time and again by those close to him, laments that “dealing with one’s enemy isn’t the most difficult task; coming to terms with a friend’s betrayal is”.
For myself, a Chor Yuen film is most pleasing when it’s in the vicinity of tragedy and not comedy. In light-hearted films such as The Black Rose, Young, Pregnant and Unmarried and The House of 72 Tenants, Chor directs great ensemble casts to somewhat meagre effect. In The Black Rose, two socialite sisters (Nam Hung and Connie Chan Po-chu) are the vigilantes of the overbearing corruption in high society – full of the dark intrigue of The Green Hornet and Kato coupled with the witty escapades of Batman and Robin. In The House of 72 Tenants, a massive hit when first released theatrically, a community of neighbourly folks living in a ghetto precinct are pitted against their mercenary landlords whom are portrayed as wholesale caricatures of comedy villains so much so that it’s easy to guess their climatic fates. And Young, Pregnant and Unmarried, cited questionably as one of Chor’s greats, is such an annoying experience that one must feel vindictive that a comedy would plot to exact the reverse of pleasure. When a sister discovers that her sibling is pregnant, she volunteers to help hide the news from their parents by secluding her and pretending to be the pregnant one. There’s no relief from this clumsy premise involving a host of lame, farcical antics and a lamer subplot where a male neighbour and his friend try to figure out the identity of the baby’s father.
But observe Chor’s tragedies, in which the fatalist in him obsesses over the vagaries of destiny: in Tear-Laden Rose, Patrick Tse is an eminent but humble painter who returns from abroad to discover that the sweetheart (Nam Hung) he had left behind has died and that her younger sister (Nam Hung also) is now nursing his unsuccessful painter friend and alcoholic (Wu Fung in a terrific role). He further learns that in his absence, the elder sister had fallen for his friend and that before her death, had made her younger sister promise to take care of him. To this love triangle portrait, Chor highlights how the milk of human kindness can sometimes be the most injurious endeavour humans can commit. Winter Love, one of the lot’s best, sees Patrick Tse playing a tragic hero again. He is Chim Kei, a writer who meets a lass, Mimi (the elegantly cat-like Josephine Siao Fong-fong), at his favourite restaurant one Christmas eve. When he discovers she is a call girl, Chim Kei makes a gesture that forms the basis of an undying melodramatic convention: he proposes marriage, only to tempt providence into delivering him an extremely unpleasant shock in the process. “This world is too cold”, he confesses, and we see how Chor has allowed for bitter irony, having set the film’s dramatic highs over several Christmases. And as a prologue to the magnificent Killer Clans, whose Chinese title reads “Meteor · Butterfly · Sword”, a narrator analogises that “assassins in the pugilistic world are like meteors; they appear emitting brilliant light but are then gone in a flash. Further, they are anonymous.” But what Chor unfolds before us is a story that assassinates the hallowed myth of hired killers by arguing the premise that despite the promise of riches, the life of an assassin is ultimately unrewarding.
In a much smaller tribute, Ichikawa Jun was represented by his feature debut BU*SU (1987), Dying at a Hospital (1993), Tadon and Chikuwa (1998), Tokyo Marigold (2001), and best of all, himself. A highly regarded director of commercials in Japan, Ichikawa has since the late ’80s made a name for himself as an acute observer of contemporary Japanese sensibilities, not unlike Yasujiro Ozu, but hardly like him either, even as the man and his works remain inspiration.
While Dying at a Hospital has occasionally been cited as Ichikawa’s masterpiece, that may be a premature assertion. Mortality being the eternal whore of the archetypal art film, it’s tempting to be led to believe that works dealing seriously with such themes necessarily imbue themselves with mellowness and thus validate their candidacy as masterworks. Much has been remarked on the apparent objectivity of Ichikawa’s stationary camera in keeping its distance from the subject and characters in an attempt to move away from the sentiment and melodrama of the hospital genre. Yet, the ironic effect of this strategy is that it feels too obviously stagy, and to little surprise, the theatrics that play out towards its end attest to this. I think despite the best intentions – and the nod to Ozu’s quietude is certainly one of them – Dying can’t help but succumb to a sense of overt melodrama it can do without.
Tokyo Marigold is a subtler work, bursting at the seams with sensual currents. Ichikawa has never succeeded in making solitude and despair look more beautiful. Tanaka Rena, an actress with an alluring yet naïve and childlike countenance, plays recently single Eriko, aimless and without purpose, who falls for a man whom she later learns is waiting for his girlfriend’s return from abroad. A romance develops nonetheless and at Eriko’s request the two agree to remain together till the second party’s homecoming. As the tragedy develops, Ichikawa intersperses scenic images of urban Tokyo in between; the result is paradoxical: that the gleaming beauty of city and community can be used to underscore alienation and vulnerability. I’m reminded of a similar device Chang Tso-chi uses in Darkness And Light (1999), where establishing shots are employed to extraordinarily poignant effect.
Then, in retrospect, it’s hard to get over the madness of Tadon and Chikuwa, a diptych of stories concerning a taxi driver and a novelist played by the always-reliable Yakusho Koji and Sanada Hiroyuki respectively. Tadon and chikuwa refer to the titles of the two stories; tadon are powdered charcoal balls while chikuwa are tube-shaped cakes made from fish paste, both items of which are referenced correspondingly. As each of their lives unfolds with languor, we see that both individuals are wandering through the wilderness of their city environments, finding them increasingly hostile and alienating to the point that they are compelled to react in order to release their caged devils. Inspired by the waves of enmity in Japanese society – specifically the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s terrorism in Japan – Ichikawa invites us to partake in two unique freefalls which, while brutal, are amusing all the same.
And on that note, I’d best explain how I came close to dying in Udine, an incidence that has nothing to do with malice or misfortune. The metaphor refers to the upshot that the festival gauntlet’s daily dose of seven films and one seminar for over a week has on the average person. It sounds bizarre, but this was time agreeably spent despite catching exactly four hours of sleep each morning before waking up to breakfast and the disconsolation that all the espresso in Italy would be useless against the body’s biological devices. Yet, this is the kind of self-abuse people willingly put themselves through when an idea such as binging at the movies completely razes the brain’s vestiges of rational thought. But, had I for some reason died for real while sitting in the perennially packed screening venue, let me venture quite irrationally that I might have likewise done so with a smile.