“Hong Kong Calling!” Europe’s leading festival of Asian popular cinema, the Far East Film Festival (FEFF) in Udine, Italy, announced the theme for its 16th edition with this press release strapline in early March of 2014. It went on to proclaim: “In the 16 years since the handover to China, Hong Kong has never been more Hongkongese. The same can be said of HK cinema!” In the face of Hong Kong cinema’s perilous decline and absorption into People’s Republic of China filmmaking, this is a remarkable statement of defiance – denial even. Yet, it also seems apt for FEFF, because the festival is itself defiantly hanging on in there, despite diminished circumstances. In this report, I will consider the circumstances of the festival itself first, then report on the very mixed bag of Hong Kong films presented, and finally cover the awards and the other films in the festival.
Don’t get me wrong. Despite cutbacks, FEFF remains a wonderful experience and a unique opportunity to get a round-up of the best Asian popular cinema of the year. Held in the huge Teatro Nuovo Giovanni de Udine, screenings start at nine every morning and continue until well after midnight. With one huge screen and plenty of seats, there are no difficult choices about what to see or carefully calibrated decisions about whether you can rush across town from one venue to the next in time. Nor do you have to worry whether you are important enough to get a ticket. The result is friendly, relatively relaxed, and – as it should be – focused on the films. What’s not to like? Yet, there is less of it than there used to be.
FEFF has suffered from the fallout of the financial crisis, and seen its funding cut back. I heard rumours that this year there was also a change in the main commercial sponsor and further financial struggles. I noticed the belt-tightening in two main areas. First, and most important, after a significant contraction in scope over the last few years, the retrospective section seems to have been abandoned completely. It has been replaced with a selection of restored archival classics, such as Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light, 1975) and Ozu’s Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959).
I caught two of the archival restoration series. Bu Wancang’s orphan drama, Ku’er Liulang Ji (Nobody’s Child, 1960), launched Josephine Siao Fong-fong as a child star, much as happened with Bruce Lee in the same era. A Mandarin-language film made in Hong Kong but set in mainland China, it expresses both the nostalgia for home felt by refugees from Communism who had taken up residence in Hong Kong and also their awful memories of flight in the scenes set in snowy winter and shot in Hokkaido, Japan. Siao sings cheerily and plays the tearjerking orphan who never complains, and I confess I tired of her quickly.
More satisfying was Bae Chang-ho’s Kkobang-dongne Saramdeul (People of the Slums, 1980). This debut film is based on a novel about a woman struggling to bring up a child by herself on the outskirts of Seoul. The film version gives equal weight to the character of her first husband, a man she did not know was a pickpocket when she married him, and whom she has to leave behind in order to survive when he is imprisoned. A very young Ahn Sung-ki is cast in this role and all eyes are on him whenever he appears on screen. We are told that the protagonist must face a choice between him and her second husband, a character nicknamed “Mr Pig.” I think you can guess which one she picks. But the use of handheld camerawork weaving through the slums and Bae’s determination to avoid depicting any of the characters as evil, not even “Mr Pig”, makes the film truly remarkable.
Although such archival classics are of course welcome, it is sad that the pioneering work of the retrospectives has had to go. Because of its focus on popular cinema, FEFF’s retrospectives have always been more than just another opportunity to see the work of already known auteurs. They have challenged audiences and archives alike to value old genre films normally overlooked on the auteur-focused festival circuit. Therefore, FEFF’s genre film retrospectives have played an important role in establishing new canons and re-writing Asian film history. For those of us not based in the Udine region, they were also a major reason to travel there. Because many of the contemporary films at FEFF will pop up in other festivals, the abandonment of the retrospectives does, sadly, diminish the magnetism of the festival.
When I spoke to an Italian friend about FEFF’s straitened circumstances, she was less anxious than me. She insisted that festivals in Italy go up and down with the fortunes of local government funding. I hope that she is right. And I hope that, as the economy bounces back, so too FEFF’s funding will recover. And when it does, I also hope FEFF will not forget to bring back the retrospectives.
The second area I saw evidence of dwindling resources was in the book accompanying the focus on Hong Kong. In the past, such publications have usually been brought out in bilingual editions. This year’s Il Nuovo Cinema di Hong Kong: Voci e Sguardi Oltre L’Handover by Stefano Locati and Emanuele Sacchi is only in Italian. (The main catalogue remains bilingual, I am pleased to report.) Of course, FEFF is in Italy, but nevertheless its previous custom of publishing bilingual editions of such volumes contributed globally to research on Asian popular cinema in a way that this volume is less able to do. Furthermore, because these valuable bilingual editions were hard to get unless you attended the festival, they were also a draw-card for visitors. Without them, there is one less reason to make the journey to Italy. Again, let us hope that funding will be restored and, with it, the bilingual editions.
Moving on to the Hong Kong films in this year’s FEFF, those that I was able to see were very much a mixed bag. Although some of those by younger directors were promising, overall they left me less confident of the future of Hong Kong cinema than the FEFF curators. In their press release for the focus on Hong Kong, Sabrina Baracetti and Tomas Bertecche proclaimed that an affinity between the genre-defying, low-budget and madcap quality of Hong Kong cinema and the Italian cinema of the 1950s had first drawn them to Hong Kong and to launch FEFF around the time of the Handover in 1997. Touching though this is, the handover was a long time ago now. However nostalgically enjoyable, too much of the Hong Kong cinema screened in FEFF suggested not so much a commitment to a certain Hong Kong form as being stuck in a rut and backward-looking. Even the best of it is so locally specific that it stands little chance of recovering that lost regional and international market that looked forward to the latest Hong Kong films in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fruit Chan’s much-awaited Nah Yeh Ling Sun, Ngoh joh Seung Liu Wong Kok Hoi Wohng Dai Bou Dik Hung Van (The Midnight After) is a case in point. The film is a mix of comedy and horror, focused on a red minivan of passengers taking the late night trip from Mongkok through the iconic Hong Kong landmark, the Lion Rock Tunnel, to Tai Po. The whole film is full of Hong Kong local culture. The red minivan itself is a form of public transport that few outsiders take, because you need to be able to communicate with the driver and to do that you need to speak Cantonese – not English and not the Mandarin of the incoming mainlanders. Once through the tunnel, the passengers find that they have gone through some kind of time warp or disaster, because Tai Po – normally jammed with people 24/7 – is eerily empty. The metaphor for anxiety about a disappearing culture is clear, and the film is also full of fast and furious humour. Addressing very local concerns in a popular way helps to explain why the film has apparently been a box office success in Hong Kong. But the narrative is ramschackle, to say the least, with many plot points that make no sense and an inability to wrap it up that leads to at least 40 minutes of excess material at the end. In the glory days of Hong Kong cinema when productions were financed on a plot outline and signed-up star, directors often made it up as they went along. But Fruit Chan had plenty of time to work on this film, and so the absence of a coherent script is less forgivable.
Another film that had its moments of fun but overstayed its welcome was Gam Gai SSS (Golden Chickensss), the latest in the Hong Kong hooker franchise starring Sandra Ng as “Boobie Kam”. By now, the golden chicken is a tough old bird, and the jokes about blow jobs and sagging tits are as tired as the old tart herself. The film starts out well enough, showing how Boobie is now surviving as a madam in today’s Hong Kong, and what she and her girls get up to make a living. But then, the whole thing takes a turn for the tired and nostalgic worse when Boobie’s old boyfriend Brother Gordon is released from jail. Incarcerated at the time of the Handover, the character embodies lost values and culture, and the remainder of the film is a depressing trudge through reminders of all that has been lost.
The saving grace of The Midnight After and Golden Chickensss is that they are indeed very specifically about Hong Kong. This is a time when anxiety about the future has never been higher in Hong Kong, and along with it, resentment of mainlander tourists and residents. One incident and outrage after another fills the local press. People protest busloads of “locusts” pouring over the border and sweeping up all the baby formula from the shops because of their conviction that supplies in Hong Kong are safer than in the mainland. Outraged citizens post snapshots on the web of mainland children being encouraged to urinate in the street, which, in turn, leads to counter-accusations that the photographer must have been some sort of paedophile. Hong Kong cinema has itself become part of this anxiety. Having lost its Southeast Asian market to South Korean and Hollywood cinema in the 1990s, Hong Kong filmmakers have increasingly turned to co-productions with the People’s Republic proper, looking to the audience there to make up the loss. Of course, the mainland market is many, many times larger than that of Hong Kong itself, and so Hong Kong disappears from most of these co-productions.
An example of the kind of pandering to the mainland that I mean is veteran Hong Kong director Wong Jing’s latest offering, Dou Cheung Fung Wan (From Vegas to Macau). Admittedly, it does star Chow Yun Fat — another very tough old bird! — and Nicholas Tse, both very specifically Hong Kong stars, and the film is set in Hong Kong and Macau. Nevertheless, From Vegas to Macau illustrates the perils of a commitment to reach the mainland market that The Midnight After and Golden Chickensss presumably know is closed to them because of their content. A gambling heist film, From Vegas to Macau loses any critical edge because of its smarmy commitment to make the Chinese police heroes and ensure that the bad guys are arrested in the end. The festival included a number of other very slick but equally safe features aimed at the mainland market at least as much as at the Hong Kong market.
In the face of these circumstances, the continued production of films like Golden Chickensss and The Midnight After that address Hong Kong audiences is important, whatever their shortcoming. Their success at the box office is also heartening. I was unable to see the opening night film, Pang Ho Cheung’s Heung Gong jai (Aberdeen). But Pang is a post-1997 phenomenon, and his films are far from the cheap and outmoded humour of The Midnight After and Golden Chickensss. Although less successful at the box office, perhaps they do suggest that there are other possibilities for Hong Kong cinema’s future.
However, how much longer local Hong Kong cinema can exist on the whiff of nostalgia alone is doubtful. The audiences who enjoy remembering when Sandra Ng really was a babe and Chow Yun Fat was hot are quickly dying out. Perennial favourite Johnnie To did not have a film at this year’s festival. But we were reminded of his power as the big fish in the ever-shrinking bowl that is the local film industry by Ferris Lin’s documentary Mou Ngai: To Kei-fung Dik Dihn Ying Sai Gaai (Boundless). To its credit, the film focuses almost entirely, albeit sometimes repetitively, on Johnnie To at work, and we get some insights into his practice. We see that his presence is ubiquitous, not only on set but also at the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, the Hong Kong International Film Festival and elsewhere. Various interviewees tell us this is because he sacrifices every last bit of energy he has to Hong Kong’s film culture. But what else could they say? We also see him as an angry bully, demeaning his workers and shouting at them. We are told that this is a sign of his high standards and professionalism.
One of To’s many ventures via the Hong Kong Arts Development Council is the Fresh Wave initiative, which promotes young filmmakers by giving them the chance to make shorts. In the past, I have sometimes felt the quality of the work has been damaged by a determination to be populist, but this year’s collection really did include some exciting work. It was here rather than with the old familiar faces that I felt more optimistic. Wong Yee-lam’s The Fall was the best of the bunch. Wong is also a novelist, and her film was supported by a very sophisticated script. The film follows a girl who is the “other woman”, constantly manipulated and used by her boyfriend, into a cult that claims it will build her confidence and help her to succeed but in fact only rips her off even further. We keep wondering when the penny is going to drop and when she is going to break free, but to its credit, the film resists the temptation to deliver redemption. Also very strong was Wang King-fai’s Guilty, about a young woman who has taken part in one of the numerous demonstrations protesting the efforts of the unelected government to impose various mainland-inspired directives on Hong Kong. A year later, she discovers that she is going to be taken to court for disturbing the peace or some similar concocted charge. Again, rather than going for the easy drama of a court case, the film demands more of us as it traces her growing realisation that there is little or nothing she can do to protect herself from getting a criminal record. Ho Cheuk-tin’s Mrs. Pong is an effort at a comic response to bullyboy tactics of developers pushing people out of their homes by imagining the eponymous Mrs. Pong as a housewife superhero. But, in the absence of real kung fu skills or CGI, its success is limited. Finally, The Tide by Yim Sheung-man follows a music band that has to face the fact that it is going nowhere. None of these films were exactly upbeat, but the talent displayed in the first two alone left me walking out of the Teatro Nuovo in higher spirits than I was able to muster for the full-length features.
Finally, on Hong Kong, I should also mention the unusual feature Mei Gao Siu Neui (May We Chat) by the young director, Phillip Yung. On the surface a teen exploitation film, it revealed unexpected depths. Its three main characters are all walking tabloid press stories. Wai-ying is a deaf-mute girl living with her grandmother and making money with “compensated dating”, as it is known in Hong Kong, or in other words, by prostituting herself. Poor little rich girl Wing-yan takes drugs and wants to commit suicide. And Wai-wai is busy trying to survive her desperately dysfunctional family. The girls communicate endlessly with breathless text messages and glamorised selfies. But, as we see, in reality they are barely communicating at all and each of them is desperately lonely. By the time real crisis hits, it is almost too late for them to help each other. Added poignancy — and aesthetic originality — comes from the casting of Irene Wan as Wing-yan’s mother. Wan appeared in a 1982 troubled-teen film, David Lai Dai-wai’s Leng Mooi Jai (Lonely Fifteen), which allows Yung to insert flashbacks in the form of clips from the older film, begging the question of how much has really changed. Here is a more hard-nosed looking back than the sentimental nostalgia of films like Golden Chickensss and The Midnight After. However, like them, its themes mean that it is unlikely it will ever be released in the mainland.
Johnnie To, the subject of Ferris Lin’s Boundless, was the winner of last year’s Golden Mulberry Lifetime Achievement Award at FEFF. What about this year’s award winners? Michael Werner of Hong Kong-based Fortissimo Films, which has produced and acted as sales agent for Asian festival films over so many years, was honoured with the Golden Mulberry Lifetime Achievement Award for his company’s commitment, and he accepted on behalf of himself and his colleagues, including the late lamented Wouter Barendrecht. Turning to the film awards, all of which are based on the audience vote, it is striking that all three of this year’s winners are based on the interrogation of national history. The Golden Mulberry for Best Film, chosen by audience vote, went to the Japanese kamikaze drama, Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero), directed by Yamazaku Takashi. A megahit at home, it came trailing words of praise from Japan’s right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Abe. I gave it a miss, but I do not doubt that it is well-made.
In second place with the general audience and first place among the votes for those who bought a Black Dragon pass for the whole festival was Korea’s Byeonho-in (The Attorney). This directorial debut from Yang Woo-seok is the only Korean first feature so far to register over 10 million admissions at the domestic box office. The film is based loosely on the early life of former President Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide some years after retiring when he was tainted by the corruption of a relative. Played by the ever popular Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, JSA, and so many more), the protagonist starts out determined to avoid politics and make money during the political dictatorship of the 1980s. But all that changes when the young son of a client is kidnapped and tortured. He has to find courage and skills he did not know he had to fight the dictatorship in the courts. I was particularly amused by the scene where he flourishes a letter from the British embassy, explaining that the historian E.H. Carr, whose books the boy has been arrested for reading, was living in Stalin’s Russia not because he was a commie but because he was the British ambassador to Soviet Union.
The Attorney seemed to follow on from one of my favourite films from last year’s FEFF, Namyeong-dong 1985 (National Security). Another surprise hit about the Korean dictatorship era and made in the contemporary era when the dictator’s daughter has been elected president of the country, National Security powerfully inoculated me against accepting torture or violence as entertainment. The Attorney is a very satisfying and dramatic courtroom drama that develops huge momentum as it barrels along. But it also reinforced my objection to gratuitous violence. So, when I saw Gareth Huw Evans’s Il Raid 2: Berendal (The Raid 2: Berendal) from Indonesia, I could not accept it. Although I was impressed by the martial arts skills, I was disgusted not only by the film but also the audience response. The more brutal, bloody and thuggish the film became, the more cheers and applause they offered. For some people this is pure cinema, and they extol the kicks, punches and spurting blood in terms of kinetics and so forth. But I find this to be little more than an excuse for a modern day version of the public execution as entertainment.
The third prize in the audience vote went to Jun Robles Lana’s remarkable film, Mga Kuwentong Barbero (Barber’s Tales). From the Philippines and set in the Marcos era, the film gives huge star Eugene Domingo, who is usually known for broad comedy roles, a chance to shine in a much more subtle role. Her stunning success even led the Italian reviewer in the festival catalogue to give her the ultimate compliment of comparing her to Anna Magnani! A put-upon wife of the village barber, who cheats on her at the local whorehouse, Marilou finds having to take bold steps to survive when she is suddenly widowed. Despite all local scepticism that a woman could be a barber, she dares to do the job and excels. But then she is challenged to be even more courageous, when her village is caught up in the national emergency and the communist rebellion against Marcos and she has to decide whether to shelter wounded rebels or ignore them. It did not escape my attention that both this film and The Attorney are tales of political and moral awakening, and I wondered about what it says that these historical films about the dark days of dictatorship are being produced and finding favour now in South Korea and the Philippines, just as I also wondered about the success of The Eternal Zero in Japan.
Looking at the festival overall, two of the three countries the prize winners came from are consistent suppliers of the bulk of the best films at FEFF, and South Korea and Japan continued to take those roles this year. But the Philippines has had a more chequered history, and so it was good to see as many as 6 films at FEFF this year. As well as Barber’s Tales, I caught Badil (Dynamite Fishing), directed by Chito S. Rono. The title refers to a practice used to corrupt democracy by paying supporters of one’s opponent not to vote. Both Dynamite Fishing and Barber’s Tales seemed like a return to an older style of national cinema, the latter a sort of leftist social realist drama and the former a social issue movie. Both of them worked well, although Barber’s Tale clearly soared above its genre.
In addition to the Philippines films themselves, FEFF also screened a remarkable documentary about Philippines cinema history that is bound to appear widely on the festival circuit. If it comes anywhere near you, do not miss Andrew Leavold’s Searching for Weng Weng. Like Barber’s Tales, this film also takes us back to the seventies, in search of the dwarf star Weng Weng. Manila’s diminutive answer to James Bond and the star of such cult film classics as For Y’ur Height Only (Eddie Nicart, 1981), Weng Weng shot to global fame at Imelda Marcos’s 1982 Manila International Film Festival. Leavold sets out to discover whatever happened to Weng Weng. The story, perhaps unsurprisingly, is sad. But along the way there are many fascinating insights in film history as well as quite a few bizarre moments. These include an encounter with Imelda herself. Leavold happens to arrive when she is holding a huge — and hugely tacky — birthday party, where she is waited on hand and foot like a queen by her subjects. To his credit, Leavold adds depth to what could otherwise have been a sensationalist piece by including interviews with Filipino critics who speak about their discomfort at the Western world’s fascination with Weng Weng and what it says about their imagination of the Philippines.
Turning to the mainstays of the festival, both South Korea and Japan continued as the most reliable sources of quality popular cinema in the region. As ever, a ruthless refusal of the happy ending distinguishes South Korean genre cinema from its saccharine Hollywood counterparts. Among the films I caught this year, Kim Byung-woo’s Deo Tereo Raibiu (The Terror Live) is as gripping as its title sounds. When a live radio show host gets a call from someone threatening to blow up a bridge, he is too ambitious to resist the temptation to try for an exclusive. But then he gets more than he bargained for. Kim’s direction expertly ramps up the tension and drives it relentlessly to the bleakest conclusion possible. Han Jae-rim’s Gwansang (The Face Reader) was another hit brimming with cruelty and despair. A costume drama starring Song Kang-ho from The Attorney as the face reader himself, its protagonist’s fate and that of everyone around him is sealed when he gets drawn into the intrigues of the Joseon Dynasty court. In a battle between an innocent child crown prince and his evil uncle (dressed all in black), it comes as no surprise to find out who wins. The only real question is just how cruel he will be and what form it will take. Neither film left you feeling good, but both are unexpectedly satisfying entertainment.
On the lighter side of the equation, one Korean comedy I saw worked and the other did not. Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Susanghan Geunyeo (Miss Granny) is about a tough old lady living with her son and daughter-in-law, and driving them and their children insane. Suddenly reborn into the body of a twenty-year-old, the film depends heavily on the magnificent performance of the young actress Shim Eun-gyeong. She not only plays it for laughs but also for pathos, when the young/old woman enters a singing contest and wows the audience with her renderings of heart-breaking ballads from the good old days. On the other hand, Roh Deok’s Yeonae-ui Ondo (Very Ordinary Couple) tries to be deeper than a simple romantic comedy and falls flat on its face as a result. The film tells the tale of a couple of that breaks up, gets together again, and breaks up again. Seeing them going through all the same problems second time around might be true-to-life, but it is too repetitive to make for good cinema. I found myself checking my watch every five minutes.
If South Korean cinema delivers reliable genre pieces, Japanese contemporary cinema tends to be a bit more innovative. However, for some time, being innovative has been equated with quirky comedy in Japanese cinema. I have become very wary of if not actually allergic to such films. However, this year I saw a number of very effective films in other genres. Nakamura Yoshihiro’s Shurayuki Hime Satsujin Jiken (The Snow White Murder Case) can be linked to the Hong Kong film May We Chat, which explored how social media is changing relationships and communication amongst friends, and the Korean film The Terror Live’s interrogation of media ethics. When a young woman’s body is found, a young TV reporter discovers his ex-girlfriend worked in the same company. Just as in The Terror Live, the potential career boost is too tempting. And, just as in May We Chat, a frenzy of texts, Facebook messages and other forms of instant communication drive a tornado of unconsidered rumour and speculation to the point where it becomes accepted fact, with damaging consequences. Entertaining, critical and intelligent, The Snow White Murder Case gives popular cinema a good name.
Also full of unexpected pleasures was One Hitoshi’s second film, Koi No Uzo (Be My Baby), which examines the dating mores of young Japanese. At first, the characters appear deeply unappealing as they flatter, lie, and betray each other left, right, and centre. Once again, contemporary media plays a crucial role, in particular in the form of the text message and the Facebook photo. At first, the film seems to be setting them up for laughs, as we see how they pretend to have better jobs than they do and play one girlfriend or boyfriend off against another. But soon, and much to the credit of both the script and the acting, their failings start to become weaknesses born of vulnerability and desperation, and you start to feel for them.
Another film focused on the predicament of the young in Japan is Yamashita Nobuhiro’s Moratorium Tamako (Tamako in Moratorium). The film is a vehicle for idol Maeda Atsuko, former member of the girl group AKB48. But it transcends that mould very quickly and Maeda acquits herself well. She plays a young university graduate who seemingly returns home to hang out with her divorced dad, who runs a sporting goods shop, and sponge off him, doing nothing very much. The film plays out quietly as the long days of summer stretch to weeks and even months, until eventually unexpected events prod out of her slump and force her to face the difficult search for a job and a career in a country struggling with two decades of a flatlining economy. Quietly observant, Tamoko has unexpected depths.
Finally, among the Japanese films, I also caught a gothic horror film called Bilocation, which was directed ably by experienced director Asato Mari. The premise is that in the face of enormous psychological contradiction some people split and generate a second, ghostly self. These two selves are initially unaware of their mutual existence, until their lives intersect. For example, the protagonist is arrested for passing off a forged banknote that in fact her bilocation used. The result is as much psychological as ghostly, and both thoughtful and a chill fest.
Also supposed thrilling was one of the two Taiwanese films I saw, Shi Hun (Soul), directed by Chung Mong-hong. The film depends upon carefully controlled perspective, which deliberately creates confusion among the audience. A chef called Chuan collapses at work and is taken home to the mountain orchid plantation run by his father, who is played by 1960s martial arts star Jimmy Wang Yu. When he finds his daughter killed, it seems his son has committed the crime, and the father then starts to take more and more extreme measures to cover up for the son. As the film goes on, it becomes less and less clear who the real monster is and who is sane and who is insane. But this promising idea is compromised when the director gets distracted by the beautiful visuals offered by the orchid plantation. Much though I treasure every moment of Jimmy Wang Yu on screen, the whole film drags horribly.
Also unsatisfying from Taiwan was the supposed police comedy, Tianmi Shaji (Sweet Alibis). The film is set in Kaohsiung police department and features a policeman, whose commitment to health and safety regulations compromises his ability to catch the bad guys. He is paired up with an over-eager rookie. The film does not know whether it wants to be a seriously suspenseful police drama or an over-the-top laugh-out-loud comedy. As a result, it ends up being neither. The same problem of trying to be too clever with genre is also the core of Soul’s problems, because it does not know if it wants to be a psychological suspense piece or a gory horror film, and again, ends up being neither. There were two other Taiwan films at this year’s FEFF, but on the basis of what I was able to catch, I ended up hoping for better things next year and giving them a miss.
Finally, there were six Chinese films at FEFF, and I saw five of them. Last year, I wrote in my FEFF report for Senses of Cinema that mainland China was making effective rom-coms and caper comedies at last. This year, the range was wider with only one rom-com, so I did not really have a chance to see if the trend is lasting. Most hotly awaited among this year’s Chinese line-up was probably the Berlin Golden Bear winner Bairi Yanhuo (Black Coal, Thin Ice). There are two mysteries about this old-fashioned but endearing whodunit. First, why did it win Berlin? The film is indeed very well made and acted and has plenty of appeal. But it is difficult to see it as a global masterpiece of cinematic innovation.
Second, why was Black Coal, Thin Ice at Udine? Director Diao Yinan’s previous two films, Zhifu (Uniform, 2003) and Yeche (Night Train, 2007), are both typical examples of the kind of Chinese independent art film normally eschewed by FEFF. But the important news about Black Coal, Thin Ice is that it passed the censors and was released in China. Not only that, but, partly on the back of its Berlin win, it was a box office success. This makes it qualify as a commercial film. Its success has also inspired hope that it might open up a new market for more sophisticated, medium budget films in a country where the “M”-shaped market split between ultra-high budget CGI-driven blockbusters and ultra-low budget indie features that no one gets to see has been extreme.
The film itself is set in frozen Harbin city in China’s far Northeast, on the edges of Siberia. Shot mostly at night, when the streets are deserted and the neon glints off the snow, Black Coal, Thin Ice has an eerie and surreal quality. It echoes the classic hardboiled detective genre, as it follows a cop who has been suspended from the police force but is still haunted by an unsolved murder case involving dismembered bodies. Yes, there is a doppelganger theme between the cop and the criminal, and, yes, there is a femme fatale. As the plot unravels, Black Coal, Thin Ice becomes a film about the extremes people will go to when they do not trust the police or the justice system. In this way, it echoes Jia Zhangke’s ill-fated Tian Zhu Ding (A Touch of Sin, 2013), which is much more in-your-face about blaming the system for anger-driven crimes, and has yet to be released in China.
If Black Coal, Thin Ice was an old-fashioned but effective whodunit, Beijing Aiqing Gushi (Beijing Love Story) is an old-fashioned family drama that just about works, but teeters on — and sometimes over — the edge of sentimentality. This is the debut film of Chen Sicheng, who has previously acted in Lou Ye’s Chunfeng Chenzui de Yewan (Spring Fever, 2009), and he also wrote the script. For a first film, it is an impressive achievement. Beijing Love Story intertwines the stories of three couples, one young, one middle-aged, and the other elderly. It features major stars like Carina Lau, Siqin Gaowa and Tony Leung Ka-fai. The message is that love is always worth all the heartache in the end. But, in a coda that appears in the credits, Yu Nan, who plays Leung’s former mistress, delivers a rather more cynical on-set message that gives the film a much-needed little bit of edge. So, if you do see it, stay through the credits.
The other three Chinese features were less satisfying. Feng Xiaogang’s Siren Dingzhuang (Personal Tailor) was yet another cynical comedy released for Chinese New Year, and written by one-time so-called “hooligan” author, Wang Shuo. The central conceit is a company that satisfies its clients’ otherwise impossible fantasies. The chauffeur for numerous corrupt officials dreams of living as an incorruptible official, and so on. Ten or fifteen years ago, a satire on the impossibility of finding an incorruptible official in China might have been funny. But at this point the mood is much more desperate. Feng’s cynicism runs the risk of accepting the status quo as inevitable rather than challenge it.
Even more disappointing — in fact, truly appalling — is Ning Ying’s Jingcha Riji (To Live and Die in Ordos). Ning is a long time festival favourite and someone whose earlier films I have admired a lot. But this film is a ghastly propaganda piece that harks back to Maoist tales of self-sacrificing heroes like Lei Feng. In this case, the protagonist is a real-life policeman from Ordos, the Inner Mongolian nowheresville transformed in a Dubai-in-the-Gobi thanks to its coal reserves. After years of overwork – and what appears in the film as a chain-smoking habit, heavy drinking, and a poor diet – he dies of a heart attack at the age of forty. The film depicts him as precisely the sort in incorruptible figure who dedicates his whole life to the welfare of the people, the non-existence of which is the premise upon which Feng Xiaogang’s Personal Tailor depends. Some people have tried to reclaim this hagiography, claiming that the film provokes debate by showing the hero as an absent father and husband. But in China, the idea of the family as failing to see the larger picture and selfishly demanding that a hero abandon his mission for them has a long pedigree, and there is nothing in this film to suggest any real challenge to those values.
Finally, the most notorious among the Chinese films, and therefore also long awaited in its own way, was Xiao Shidai (Tiny Times), directed by Guo Jingming and based on his own novel. Set in Shanghai, this is a Chinese Sex in the City, but without the sex. Shot like one long commercial, it breathless romps around the with a group of four cardboard cut-out pretty women – the rich one, the artist, the tomboy and the other one – and their cardboard cut-out cute boyfriends. They rotate through a series of stock emotions such as sadness, delight, angst and more as they consume life in the same way they consume high-end brands. The film fanned up a storm of anger in China, and was also a huge hit among the young. Quite possibly both responses were provoked by the film’s unashamed materialism. Tiny Times 2 has already done equally well at the Chinese box office, and Tiny Times 3 is on the way.
Perhaps Tiny Times 2 and Tiny Times 3 will make a double-feature at FEFF 17? Only time will tell. Despite straightened circumstances, FEFF remains the best way for Europeans to get a fairly extensive round-up of East Asian popular cinema, and I am already looking forward to the next edition.
Far East Film Festival
25 April – 3 May 2014
Festival website: http://www.fareastfilm.com/