April 21–29, 2006
“No to Chinese Goods”, howled a cluster of Lega Nord-campaign posters from a downtown Udine wall when on the 21st of April the 8th Far East Film Festival opened in Friuli’s main city. The election was already over and decided – even if Berlusconi was frantically trying to pull a Bush on Prodi… – but that change needed for Italy had yet still to begin. Still, a poster like that has only so much to do with Italy, that shit’s bigger, times are ugly. A poster like that fits snug in with a Yesilcam-blockbuster cashing in on anti-Western, -semitic, -Christian sentiments – obviously, some people are fed up with being the Untermenschen of the Lalaland-Blockbuster-ideology – as well as with the People’s Republic of China’s recent ban on Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), not for reasons of it being a vile piece of orientalist boredom but for featuring Chinese superstars as Japanese (although one of those Chinese is actually Malaysian).
Countering that zeitgeist, the Far East Film Festival could establish itself as a major force in the international culture of Western festivals specialised in Asian cinema(s). The reason for that becomes obvious once one studies the program: FEFF with its focus on “popular cinema” shows the kind of films most other festivals as well as cinémathèques nowadays tend to ignore; meaning, it sure ain’t the place for folks looking for Jia-clones, -copyists, and some such, i.e. curators and programmers trying to find stuff that easily fits in with the dominant discourses – in its narrow-mindedness rather orientalistic… – notions about Asian cinema. While the dominant discourses are pretty (up)tight (some might say: rigorous and decisive in its aesthetics), FEFF is mighty generous: its soul extends from the benign lampoonacy of Joyce Bernal’s broad, bonkers, and above all Vhong Navarro-starring D’Anothers (2005); to the cozy-cutsy artsyness of Khomkrit Treewimol’s super-middlebrowish Puensanit (Dear Dakanda, 2005); to the furiously naturalistic latest work of Yang Yazhou, Niqiu ye shi yu (Loach Is Fish Too, 2005), an auteur deeply loved by the PRChinese audience but barely known outside the country; to the sensitivity and carefulness of Yamashita Nobuhiro’s positively populist Linda Linda Linda (2005), the most canon-compatible work on offer here; to the genius of Meike Mitsuru whose pink-double feature Bitter Sweet (2004) cum Hanai Sachiko no karei no shogai (The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai, 2005) – the former an extremely tender, moving and wise slice of adult life; the latter an extraordinary polito-philosophical farce – was among the highlights of this year’s editions. The international community that gathers at FEFF therefore consists mainly of serious specialists and academics as well as journalists, a fact the festival has started to honour in recent editions by seriously expanding its retrospective section. While in the first years FEFF only staged small tributes to very recent auteurs, they now mount somewhat bigger historical programs, this edition a rather awkward but in parts pleasantly enlightening and all the way through mighty, mighty entertaining survey of musical films from the region.
One of the strengths/weaknesses of FEFF is its heterogenous programming. There’s nothing like a clear aesthetic concept in evidence; each production culture has its own agenda, sure – the choice of films depends on each country’s programmer – although it would be interesting to know who actually allots the number of slots open for each country. Some – in particular Mark Schilling for Japan and Tim Youngs for Hong Kong (SAR) – seem to strive for a more diverse cross-selection of “their” country’s annual production, while others – like Darcy Paquet for the Republic of Korea and Anchalee Chaiworaporn for Thailand – seem hell-bent on pleasing the shit out of everybody with tons of industrial edelwaste (there’s certainly more going on in Korea and Thailand!); the selection of works from the People’s Republic of China – done by the trio of Maria Barbieri, Shelley Kraicer and Maria Ruggieri – tends to be the least foreseeable and was surprisingly small this year, while the one for the Philippines – courtesy of Roger Garcia – is per se too small in comparison with the other countries, considering the importance of the Pinoy-film industry. Taiwan and Singapore, last and somewhat least, aren’t really fixtures of the festival; that there’s always an annual report on them in the – extremely useful – catalogue doesn’t mean that there’s also a film from there or there in the program. Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, finally, are program- and catalogue-wise basically ignored by FEFF, give or take an exception or two, probably because none of them has a film industry as such (but neither do Taiwan or Singapore; they all make a few films per year) which is something of a missed opportunity: Having a film (or two or three) from these countries in the program would certainly enrich the event: e.g. up till now, the region’s Islamic side has not been reflected in FEFF – this would heighten people’s understanding of the region’s complexities, as well as draw new audiences to the festival (as the example of the small, consistently interesting CineAsia festival in Cologne shows which in its last edition radically expanded its scope resulting in an unprecedented success, as it didn’t only cater to the fan-boys and -girls – the least reliable audience segment imaginable due to their notorious indifference towards the movie house-experience – but also to people with a broader cultural interest in Asia).
While the FEFF’s policy of leaving things up to each country’s programmer might work for current cinema, it created some problems in this year’s retrospective section. For example, Mark Schilling abused the opportunity to dish up a second helping of Nikkatsu Action Films (last year’s FEFF-retrospective) disguised as an homage to Inoue Umetsugu who was presented as a master of Musicals (well, not all Inoue-films at FEFF were part of the Musical program, but still…). Now, there’s nothing per se to be said against an Inoue-homage – except that he isn’t a remarkable director. He’s a consummate professional who made a dozen or so rather okay films, some of which have a certain genre-historical relevance – so do a bunch of films by Leslie Selander – particularly as Inoue’s still alive and was also able to come. But, considering that several major Japanese Musical directors weren’t represented in the program – Sugie Toshio, Sugawa Eizo, kayo eiga-meisterkatsudoya Sasaki Yasushi… – the same way that certain rather important subgenres/trends/fads were completely ignored – like the sannin musume eiga – such a stress on Inoue feels like things were overdone more than a bit. That grumbled, this probably had as much to do with Schilling’s passions as with the fact that a lot of the stuff missing was produced by Toho (which to the initiate reads dabitch-to-deal-with-plus-superexpensive), that is to say sticking to Nikkatsu (and Shochiku, another studio somewhat easier to deal with) meant running up the path of least resistance.
Another problem was that only three of the FEFF’s core countries had actually something like a Musical culture: Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines; the others – particularly the Chinas – had other cultures of musical cinemas – if at all. One had the impression that the productions from Thailand, Korea and Taiwan were featured more out of some sense of duty than a cinema-historical necessity, while the Philippines were fobbed off with one measly film. Cue to the usual print problems, with five films being beamed (cf. the Torino ’05 report for everything that needs to be said on this). And so, one could go on and on – even the neophytes, thanks to the feisty, highly informative, Roger Garcia-edited tome “Asia canta! / Asia Sings!”, published by the festival to accompany the retrospective, could put the finger on most of these… awkwardnesses.
In the end, there was a program of 17 films in which people sung at times. Three of which are serious masterpieces: Above all, Makino Masahiro’s Oshidori utagassen (Singing Lovebirds, 1939), a spunky, vivacious, realist jidai-musical with a funky score by Jazz-maître Okubo Tokujiro and some serious political lip; then, Wang Tianlin’s head-strong, noir-fueled Carmen-paraphrase Ye meigui zhi lian (The Wild Wild Rose, 1960) whose I-am-the-Mandarin-Musical-to-end-all-Mandarin-Musicals swagger could impress the shit out of the naggiest skeptic; and finally, the dark horse, Liu Qiong’s Ashima (1964), an “ethnic minority” faux-folklore sort-of-opera whose elegant, subtle, Shanghaian ‘30s-left-wing-Modernism-inspired direction – spiked with sudden experimental stabs – made the most of its eye-popping location shots – magisterial movements through epic landscapes – and its wildly inspired studio-sets. Lovers of communist popular culture also fell for a pair of echt Maoist beauties, Su Li’s Liu Sanjie (Third Sister Liu, 1961), an often-remade paragon of Main-Melody-entertainment, and Xie Tian and Chen Fangqian and Xu Feng’s Honghu chiwei dui (The Red Guards of Hong Lake, 1961), an early model for a cinema that would, via Wang Ping’s Mother-of-all-Mao-kitsch-spectacles-cum-“Peasant, Worker, Soldier”-climax Dongfang hong (The East Is Red, 1965), find a final shape in the Yang ban xi adaptations of the Cultural Revolution-years – works people – ranging from the New Left to the Neoliberist Nostagia-Wizards of Amnesia – got recently again interested in as expressions of something like Maoist Pop Art, with tightrope walkers like Zhang Yimou doing Hongse niangzi jun (The Red Detachment of Women) and Liu Sanjie on stage and Zhang Yuan adapting Zhang Jie (2004) for the screen: a slice of history gets reclaimed and dis-/re-remembered, -imagined…
But there were also treasures to dig up from the heap of current films. Well, there were quite a few rather satisfying works around – let’s just mention: the ever-reliable Horror-auteur Cheang Po-soi’s moving if a bit uneven Gwai mut (Home Sweet Home, 2005); Miike Takashi’s too-violent-for-the-US-TV-it-was-made-for gusto move-through-the-ero-gro-nonsens-motions, Imprint (2005); Edmond Pang Ho-cheung’s Berlinale-competition-known, finely crafted evocation of an only recent Macao gone, Yi sai bui lai (Isabella, 2006); Otani Kentaro’s lovely Nana (2005); Wai Ka-fai’s more persuasive than convincing exercise in hysterical social criticism, Jeui ngoi lui yan gau mut kwong (The Shopaholics, 2006); PIA-shooting star Fukagawa Yoshihiro’s lively but gender-politics-wise somewhat questionable professional debut, Okami shojo (When the Show Tent Came to My Town, 2005); and Kobayashi Masaki and Mashima Richiro’s mockumentary Sky Jumping Pairs – Road to Torino 2006 (2006); but only a select few, besides the already-mentioned masterpieces by maître Meike Mitsuru, really had that spark of brilliance that makes all the difference.
The biggest surprise was probably Law Wing-cheong’s Tin san yat deui (2 Become 1, 2005), an honestly heart-warming, positively didactic romantic comedy about breast cancer! Sounds too peculiar to imagine? Well, Law, editor of several films by Johnnie To Kei-fung (as well as the occasional co-direction-cog in the Milkyway machine) pulls it off with relish, tact and an impeccable sense of motion: how to balance-then-mix ostensibly antagonistic tones and registers, how to navigate this violent excess of emotions, how to argue the politics of an illness, how to be educational without making a fuss, etc.? Tin san yat deui is the kind of masterpiece only film cultures like Hong Kong are capable of bringing forth: for its still essentially undivided, art, entertainment, and social concerns belong into the same space.
Which is something a film like Huang Jianxin’s Qiuqiu ni, biaoyang wo (Gimme Kudos, 2005) keeps insisting on even if PRC’s film culture seems ever more bent on splitting up, thereby following the Western model as part of the country’s economic/cultural redevelopment towards privatisation and consumerism. Huang, a Fifth Generation-member-by-association (he came to cinema, via his Chin.Lit.-studies, as a scriptwriter at Xi’an Film Studio) and a master in dire need of re-evaluation, was, after an early success with his debut Heipao shijian (The Black Cannon Incident, 1985), hastily crossed out of the West’s directors-to-watch roster when it became clear that his films couldn’t be subsumed into the Zhang-Chen-discourse of melodramatic spectacle which became the Main Melody for the market here – for Huang’s forte is satire, one of the rarest beasts to chance upon in Chinese film history (by the way, his sole certifiable failure was his one attempt at making something Zhangesque). While his first films had a certain casalinga proto-Kafkaesque tone spiced with a few touches of wackiness – his knack for stylisation gave them something wildly unique, intellectually exuberant – his latter works became ever more pronouncedly characterised by a sense of melancholia. Something essential was gradually vanishing, something people instinctively remembered but which, by now, had degenerated from a moral impetus to a form followed without any conviction. In this, his latest film, a journalist gradually comes to realise this sense of loss as a result of an investigation without a real result – as the film, on one of his levels, deals with an everyday culture of role playing, the case in question keeps opaque as one gradually loses all sense of whether somebody’s saying the truth or putting on a spiel. While honouring the truth is at the core of all happenings here, nobody seems to be trustworthy. There are cracks of idiosyncrasies and absurdities running through the smooth realist surface of the film – in the end, the shards are all that glues the cracks together, making the journalist make a break with his life.
In a certain way, Rico Maria Ilarde’s masterpiece Sa ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon, 2005) is the companion-piece-by-opposition to Huang’s show of force: it’s a film that’s all cracks which, by the sheer brilliance of its auteur, find a particular inner harmony. Sa ilalim ng Cogon is a heist-caper-as-polit-pulp becoming an old-dark-house-tale with Moreau’ian dimensions becoming a monster movie becoming a love story becoming – the story of a glance askew. It’s a film made up of genre-pieces, -topoi, -memories alone, used with the humble, high modernist seriousness of the true believer, connoisseur and lover. There’s no reality to the film: it’s all a mind-/soul-scape of thoughts, dreams and visions one floats through, calmly, even when the going gets tough or the dreamily plastery monster pops up. Sa ilalim ng Cogon is part Roger Corman, part Lucio Fulci, part Gerardo de Leon, and in that it’s unique and strikingly original.
The best example of all Udine is about came, in the end, from Japan, the richest and most diverse film culture of the region, maybe the world. Ranpo jigoku (Rampo Noir, 2005), an omnibus project dedicated to the writings of Edogawa Rampo, sporting a dazzling range of filmmakers: a hot shot of the music video– and commercial-world, Takeuchi Suguru (“Kasei no unga” / “Mars Canal”), an old maverick-eclectic ever-synching the S&M-pleasures of the flesh with the demands of Buddhist thought, Jissoji Akio (“Kagami jigoku” / “Mirror Hell”), pinku eiga’s answer to David Cronenberg cum Atom Egoyan, an obsessive all his own, shitenno Sato Hisayasu (“Imomushi” / “Caterpillar”), and last and least a mangaka giving his debut as a director, Kaneko Atsushi (“Mushi” / “Crawling Bugs”). For three episodes, Ranpo jigoku is a 100% top-ten-affair: the way the first three films work with each other while being completely true to the particular visions of their respective directors is absolutely stunning. It’s not only the particular cosmos of Edogawa Rampo’s themes and images which weaves everything automatically together – as “Mushi” demonstrates – and it’s not only the similar textures and hues used from film to film – suggesting a unifying vision somewhere in the background (Jissoji’s, in fact, who originated the project) – it’s above all the way these archetypal Rampo-images move and are made to evolve through the three films, with the extremely short, experimental “Kasei no unga” functioning as a kind of primal scene, “Kagami jigoku”, then, spinning an exemplary narrative from those Rampo-images which spells out Rampo’s theme – the violent fusion of Western and Japanese notions that makes up the Taisho-era’s culture – all reaching a critical mass in “Imomushi”, total shura, with Sato crafting an ideascape from about half a dozen Rampo-tales into a pandemonium-as-master-narrative of Japan’s modernism. And maybe there is even a way to argue “Mushi” in its garish campness: as the postmodern hereafter of Rampo – but nevertheless, the last episode feels like a let-down.
Especially after the glories of Jissoji: “Kagami jigoku” feels like the apotheosis of Jissoji’s cinema, the way it condenses so much of him, images as well as topoi, into this one short work – FEFF should have dedicated a retrospective to him (and not Inoue) instead of just showing his two earlier, equally masterly Rampo-adaptations, Edogawa Rampo monogatari – Yaneura no sanposha (A Watcher in the Attic, 1994) – a fine exercise in sound-cinema – and D-zaka no satsujin jiken (Murder on D-Street, 1997)… but, well, Jissoji is a master who’ll never get out of fashion because he’ll never get in in the first place. His art of the useless and the empty, of mirrorings into eternity, of vanity and extinction, keeps a wilful distance to all trends past and present – there’s always time for the scion of a family of Buddhist priests.