18–26 April 2008
Udine’s Far East Film Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary in the only style honourable and becoming: by simply performing its function as fine as ever, resulting in a program generally speaking superior to its recent editions, yet without any true revelations. The feting was mainly done by way of an auteur-done trailer – Edmond Pang Ho Cheung gave the German “Fick die ins Knie!” a perversely positive tongue-in-hollow of the knee-spin (certainly without knowing it) – plus a nice book, Far East: dieci anni di cinema (1999-2008) (Far East: Ten Years of Cinema [1998-2008]), (1) looking back on a stormy decade of filmmaking in East and South-East Asia’s (main) film cultures. Which from this edition on should also – and finally! – include Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam on a regular basis: the book includes texts on their production culture (all by Paolo Bertolin who’s doing his best to help establish these cinematographies at the festival). More importantly, the program featured films from all the countries – Zombi kampung pisang and When the Moon Rises (Kala malam bulan mengambang, 2007), both by Mamat Khalid; Quickie Express by Dimas Djayadiningrat; Dòng Máu Anh Hùng (The Rebel) by Trực Nguyễn – none of which, it’s true, delivered, but for the moment that feels less important than the fact that an effort was made to integrate them into FEFF. In contrast to the first four books published by FEFF, this one didn’t accompany a retrospective; this year, and this is the one massive malus item to note, FEFF didn’t organise a bigger historical program. Let’s hope this was a 2008-only lapsus!
True, there was a four-film homage to Korean master Shin Sang-ok that focused on his filmmaking in the ‘50s. However this narrow focus did not do justice to the man and his art: for those films are really early works that might shine in a grander oeuvre-encompassing context but here they looked and felt somewhat lacking on their own; like the Republic of Korea itself, a rather poor while eagerly emerging country at that time (remember, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was at that time the more prosperous and developed Korea). Shown and seen like this, these technically often rough, and in an interesting way accidentally stylish, early films of Shin – save for Jiok-hwa (A Flower in Hell, 1958) – work best as documents of a time and place. They are much more, no doubt about that, but the FEFF homage’s construction failed to show this.
The Republic of Korea also provided the only film at FEFF that pissed me off no end: Uri saengae choego-ui sun-gan (Forever the Moment) by Yim Soon-rye. Okay, I have to admit that my anger at the film has a personal association. Forever the Moment is set within the world of handball, and that is the one sport I know inside out due to a youth spent well between handball fields and the local cinematheque. The film’s problem is that of many a narrative features dealing with sport: actors more often than not aren’t athletes. This fact is painfully obvious here, especially as the last 20 minutes or so of the film features almost non-stop handball with little else happening, and the actresses face a team played by real players from Århus. The actresses portraying several of Republic of Korea’s greatest in women’s handball surely went through some training and all that, but when push comes to shove they simply don’t have the body language – all the ticks and particularities you can see in every athlete at work – and they certainly don’t have the skills. Just watching the way they pass the ball is painful especially in comparison to the Danes, who possess a hard, cunning grace. Now, the problem is not with the actresses who probably did their best; the problem is with director Yim for she misjudged the subject’s “physical aspects”. Put simply, as she seems to be more concerned with the players’ private lives she should have stuck with that, no need to show them playing the game. Even if one considers sport to be a matter less than trivial: there’s something ennobling in a human being doing something particularly well, even if it’s throwing a ball into a goal. It’s this noblesse director Yim takes away from her characters by making them look so poor on the pitch. It’s a pity that these players – who one can see in action in the stills accompanying the end titles – weren’t honoured more sensibly: for, like all sports-women and -men great in their field they’re also most uncommon human beings.
Beyond this – and let’s admit that Yim Soon-rye is among the few ever-interesting contemporary directors from the Republic of Korea – the recent finds from the Republic were a little better than usual. The films selected felt grosso modo less crass than usual in their will to entertain and create cash – could that be the sign of all crises: rehumblement? Hong Kong, on the other hand, had confusingly few surprises on offer, but nevertheless came up with three really fine works which – in contrast to the last two Johnnie Tos also presented – haven’t yet played the festival circuit too much: Adam Wong Sau-Ping’s Mo Shuet Llam (Magic Boy), a wondrously intelligent essay on the illusory nature of cinema, therefore life playfully argued along the joys, travails and mishaps of two teenage magicians, one of them in love; Samson Chiu Leung Chun’s Lo Gong Jing Chuen (Mr Cinema), a grass roots-level history of a left-wing Hong Kong told through some 40 years in the life of a projectionist – four decades in which quite a lot of things happened in the city’s political life, not all of which are shown in the film but are felt nevertheless (the film IS pretty tricky on that level…); and Edmond Pang Ho Cheung’s Por see yee (Trivial Matters), an offbeat mix of vignettes adding up to a Hong Kong less ordinary (the episode with the guy telling the girl in some club about his public service, pissing away the remains of other people’s shit, has an almost Farrelly’an wisdom to it).
(Thailand: Let’s skip that subject.)
The three countries that delivered even beyond their usual bliss-levels were Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and the Philippines. The latter tends to be the most under-programmed film culture at FEFF: the pinoy rarely chalk up more than three entries, which, not surprisingly, tend to be among the most refreshing pieces of cinema to enjoy there. Syncretistic iconoclasm rules way okay on the archipelago, as Resiklo by Mark A. Reyes and Altar by Rico Maria Ilarde showed this year. Resiklo is more a master-gestalt than a film, really: it’s the Philippines full frontal, and the Filippinos will save us. For in the future imagined by Reyes, a cool old school jack-of-all-genres in film and TV, the good people of the Philippines prove to be the true survivors and warriors after an alien invasion, due to their ability to recycle, make-do and create with just about everything. Congenially, the film itself is a lovely recycle-freak tinkered together work, using bits and pieces from every science-fiction film known to buffs and nerds with a belly-laugh gusto that’s totally enchanting. A somewhat more serious example of pinoy-genius came once again from Rico Maria Ilarde. Altar, his latest masterpiece, is an ultra-compact exploration of pinoy spirituality done in the most concise horror film terms possible. Ilarde uses the tropes of genre cinema – the images and symbols, the settings and story trappings, their materiality essentially – in a way similar to that of grand masters like Terence Fisher or Vittorio Cottafavi: unalienated, genuinely believing in that particular language of images and sounds, its possibilities. That a maverick like Ilarde is still so little known outside certain circles says quite a lot about contemporary film culture’s relationship to genre cinema.
Japan shone brightly like no other of the bigger film cultures at FEFF thanks mainly to its industry’s enormous versatility – make that: the fringes, with smaller companies as well as the indies providing the more moving, intelligent cum simply humane kind of popular. Blessed is the production context that can provide such varied bliss: Crows Zero (Crows – Episode 0) by Miike Takashi, decidedly a minor, mainly craftsmanly work for the master while still frying the brain big time past bed time – decent genre-ass kicking, that (with discernible hints at a political more that remains Miike-untypically underdeveloped); Funuke domo, kanashimi no ai o misero (Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers) by Yoshida Daihachi, a strange riff on all moves and signifiers shomin-geki and furusato which finds its harmonies in ways wacky while wistful; Gachi Boy (Gachi Boy – Wrestling with a Memory) by Koizumi Norihiro, another variation on the loser overcoming all obstacles to master something the-mundaner-the-better (wrestling here), but with an interesting twist: the protagonist is incapable of remembering anything from before an accident, lives therefore locked in a past more meaningful to him than anybody else who had a part in it; Team Batista no eiko (The Glorious Team Batista) by Nakamura Yoshihiro, a fine slice of echt Japanese crime fiction done just right; Makiguri no ana (Peeping Tom) by Fukagawa Yoshihiro, who, with this brilliant exercise in ero-gro-nonses – accent mainly on the grotesque and fantastic – becomes an auteur to watch (2); Tasogare (The Tender Throbbing Twilight), the latest show of genius by pink eiga-maestro Imaoka Shinji: a spunky meditation on ageing and dying, which is gentle, and funny, and wicked, and honest, and at times plainly outrageous (only Imaoka would do flashbacks with his 60-something protagonists wearing wigs to suggest that they’re in their teens again – so ridiculous, so moving); and finally the monumental Kimi no tomodachi (Your Friends) by Hiroki Ryuichi, who tells this decade-spanning story about a friendship between schoolgirls – one with a kidney disease, the other with a permanent limp after an accident – with a degree of discretion, restrain and sensitivity rare in cinema, and whose almost throw-away sense of poetry conveys an intimation of life’s finiteness so precise it hurts, in a good sense. Quite a few of these films may not be too special, but taken as a whole they’re a powerful embodiment of what popular cinema can be and do.
Something similar could be said about the films Maria Barbieri, Maria Ruggieri and Shelly Kraicer found in the People’s Republic of China. The PRC-selection alone is usually worth the trip to Udine as FEFF tends to show the kind of films that fall between all the cracks in contemporary film (festival) culture’s system of pigeonholes. Normally this spells: adventurous and officially cleared, like Xiao Jiang’s visually stunning, mezzo-pop mezzo-expressionism reconsidered mind- cum soul-scape of teenage dreams lost, PK.COM.CN. This year, there were some problems: for instance, the screening of ever-reliable Zhang Yibai’s remarkable Mi guo (Lost, Indulgence) had to be cancelled as the film hadn’t received its certificate for presentations abroad in time – the weeks following the Summer Olympics will probably tell whether we have to talk about a case of censorship here or about, let’s say… a classical case of bureaucratic cover-thy-ass’ness. Fact is: The State Bureau for Film etc. is in a state of turmoil after the scandal around Li An’s (Ang Lee’s) Si, jie (Lust, Caution) followed by the furious critique certain parties in the PRC nomenclature voiced a propos Feng Xiaogang’s massive meditation on war and loss, Jijie hao (Assembly) (not to mention all things Tibet), so that for the moment – ie till after the Beijing Summer Olympics – their main concern lies in risk management. God knows what kind of risk Lost, Indulgence might pose.
Assembly, also shown at FEFF, was one of last year’s must-sees back home: a blockbustery while brainy war film by one of the country’s most popular directors. It’s a work of two halves and, to a certain degree, of (at least) two minds: part one is a combat picture shot in the style made de rigeur by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and – in the region – Kang Je-gyu’s Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo (Taegukki, 2004) ie the impact-is-all school which reduces warfare to a spectacle of material human or man-made getting wasted; part two is an attempt to find some truth in said miasma. The trouble, of course, wasn’t caused by the wrong-headed direction of the combat scenes – folks, the terror of violence is never to be found in its physical aspects which are horrible yet in the end nothing but torn/shredded/destroyed material including human bodies therewith souls: it’s always the sense these acts are supposed to create that are frightening to consider; no, the trouble lies in the – direction-wise extremely moving, epic while humble – second part, its portrayal of the army, its bureaucracy as being far from perfect, capable of mistakes and willing to gloss them over. Nothing new here, and in the end, every wrong is righted, it’s just that a lot of people high up in the hierarchy of the armed services don’t like to hear this. Feng’s – as well as Lee’s – main problem might have been the size of the production: something mid-size might get away with much more disturbing insights, yet is also more prone to just vanish, which won’t too easily happen to a big-budget affair by a big-name director.
The finest finds of FEEF 08, Erduo da you fu (Lucky Dog) by Zhang Meng and Ta Pu by Wang Wei, both prime examples of realist filmmaking at its most poignant, came from that ever more uncertain, almost elusive realm of the mid-size production too often ignored by too many festivals (and let’s not even mention entities like buyers, distributors etc.) who tend to go for big or small, prestige or indie. Lucky Dog, for all its jolly good-naturedness and casual comedy, paints a disturbingly bleak picture of today’s PRC – its lack of solidarity, its disregard for socialist values – as experienced by a retired railroad worker, a true child of the People’s Republic and just-about as old. Ta Pu revisits the countryside of 1978/79 – something never stated explicitly but obvious to a local viewer – when the first university entry exams were held after the Cultural Revolution and its shut-down of established educational institutions. People who were denied any formal learning for, in extremis, a decade grabbed at their chance to make something out of their lives. Wang Wei looks at this classical – socialist – realist, subgenre rural school melodrama scenario with a distanced, cautiously modernist eye: there’s something impenetrable to the film and its characters, a strange darkness ripe with shame and a potential for violence which never gets to the fore but is felled by everybody. There’s a serenity to Ta Pu rooted in loss and sorrow similar to the common touch-pain that explodes at the end of Lucky Dog, and they both suggest that: there’s but waste to this world.
Udine Far East Film website: http://www.fareastfilm.com
- Sabrina Baracetti, Thomas Bertacche, Giorgio Placereani (eds), Far East: dieci anni di cinema (1999-2008), FEFF, Udine, 2008.
- His FEFF-programmed feature debut Okami shojo (When the Show Tent Came to My Town, 2005) was, despite certain “gender-problems”, a promise he keeps with this small masterpiece.