The general mood at the Far East Film Festival (FEFF) in Udine this year was tearful – but in a good way. First, there were tears of joys at the festival’s health and prosperity. FEFF has ridden out the storm of the financial crisis and the funding cuts that followed it, threatening its survival just a few years ago. In 2015, a total audience of 60,000 and a revenue increase of 20 per cent over 2014 has given the festival confidence and a sense of enhanced stability. The presence as opening night guests of the granddaddy of Hong Kong action Jackie Chan and the film composer Joe Hisaishi, who scored many Miyazaki and Kitano films, confirmed FEFF’s global recognition, status and pull. As well as winning this year’s Golden Mulberry Lifetime Achievement award, Chan also starred in Daniel Lee’s opening night film, Tian Jiang Xiong Shi (Dragon Blade, 2015).
Hong Kong action might be like motherhood and apple pie for FEFF, but the big winner this year with audiences was South Korean cinema, and, even more strikingly, South Korean melodrama. This was the second river of tears! For the first time, South Korean films swept the audience polls at FEFF. The Golden Mulberry went to J.K. Youn’s Gukje Sijang (Ode to My Father, 2014), with Lee Won-suk’s Sanguiwon (The Royal Tailor, 2014) in second place, followed by Dugeundugeun Nae Insaeng (My Brilliant Life) by E J-yong. In a festival focused on commercial cinema, this not only confirms the consistent strength of South Korean cinema. It also confirms a gradual shift in Udine’s balance of taste away from “Asia extreme” gore fests and slug-it-out gangster flicks towards melodrama.
Other important and positive trends at this year’s FEFF and that I will consider further in this report included a very welcome sprinkling of surprisingly arty films, some of them from Southeast Asia truly excellent. Of course, genre cinema was not neglected, including horror. There was a welcome diversification of Japanese cinema away from tiresome quirky dramas. The retrospective focused on Hong Kong martial arts classics, but archive restorations were also integrated into the main program. And the festival tried out a “Sitges Reloaded” cooperation with the Catalonian fantastic film festival, showcasing a few European fantastic films in the late night slots. Because FEFF’s whole raison d’être is East Asian films, this move mystified many visitors, including me. Chinese-language cinema was featured heavily, as always, but was a rather a mixed bag of strong locally focused Hong Kong and Taiwan productions and interesting disappointments from the People’s Republic.
South Korea: Mainstay of Asian Genre Cinema
But first, the triumph of tears and the South Korean melodrama. Ode to My Father pulls all the stops out. It starts with a heart-rending Korean War scene as a desperate family tries to scramble aboard the last boat out of a northern port before the Chinese soldiers arrive. The little sister falls, the father goes back after her, and the family is divided. The rest of the film follows the young son who takes over prematurely as head of the family and is the father of the title. Sacrificing everything in his efforts to keep his family together, he never forgets to stay close to where his father said they should rendezvous in the south should they be separated. Without giving the plot away, a whole series of too little, too soon, too much and too late moments conspired to squeeze tears out of even the most cynical viewers at 11:00 on a Sunday morning, and soon the entire audience of 600 plus in the massive Youth Theatre was sniffling and blubbing, me included. However, it should be noted that this has been a hugely controversial film in South Korea, where progressive critics have denounced it for glossing over the violence and compulsory modernisation of the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship, making it look as though the father’s choice was purely voluntary rather than structured into a system that stripped the people of everything and demanded complete submission. The lead character goes to Vietnam, where he is represented as trying to save innocent villagers from the Viet Cong. As one South Korean critic told me, everyone knows that is not quite what happened.
My Brilliant Life was another morning screening where the tears flowed. Areum is a 16 year-old suffering from progeria, the condition that causes premature aging and all the diseases that go with it. Nearing the end of his life, as he lies in his hospital bed, he reflects on everything his parents have gone through and their lives together. On the surface, this is a long way from director E J-yong’s earlier work, such as Seukandeul – Joseon Namnyeo Sang’yeoljisa (Untold Scandal), his 2003 South Korean remake of Les Liaison Dangereuses (Roger Vadim, 1959). But, in a much more gentle way, the film is equally aware of human foibles and doesn’t hesitate to show how Areum’s Dad happily seizes the X-Box sent by sympathisers the minute his son hesitates to show interest in it. The emotional impact of the inevitable unhappy ending is even greater as a result of how believable the characters are.
For me, it was a real surprise that The Royal Tailor made it into the audience favourites. First, it seemed too ridiculous to think that dynastic Korea was full of competing fashion designers, let alone that their costumes could play a major role in international relations, as the film pretends. Second, although the fabrics were wonderful to look at, there is a limit to how much of it an audience wants to see, and after 127 minutes, I had more than enough. As is almost a formula with South Korean cinema, The Royal Tailor has an unhappy ending and plenty of physical suffering along the way – much more than the odd needle-stick injury. So, perhaps other people’s tears flowed for this film, even if mine did not.
The audience awards at FEFF 2015 confirmed South Korea cinema’s status as the most consistent supplier of high quality genre cinema in East Asia at the moment. In addition to the audience favourite melodramas and a couple of romances and horror films I missed, I caught Gangnam (Gangnam Blues, directed by Yoo Ho, 2015). This slick gangster film centres on two young friends from the orphanage who are destined to become gang rivals. Adding to its interest and giving it a stylish look was the setting in the 1970s, when the farmland south of the Han River in Seoul (Gangnam) really was being bought up in anticipation of development opportunity. Gambling and gangsters were slickly and stylishly combined in Tajja – Sinui Son (Tazza: The Hidden Card, directed by Kang Hyoung-chul, 2014). The lead role of the young card sharp was taken by boy band rapper Choi Seung-hyun, a.k.a. T.O.P., who made a real impact in the North Korean undercover agent film Dong-chang-saeng (Commitment, directed by Park Hong-soo, 2013).
One of the most interesting trends in recent South Korean cinema has been the box office success of films that revisit and interrogate recent history. In previous FEFFs, we were lucky enough to see Yang Woo-seuk’s Byeon Ho-in (The Attorney, 2013) and Chung Ji-yung’s Namyeong-dong 1985 (National Security, 2012). Both are set during the days of the military dictatorship. This year, Kateu (Cart, 2014), took us into the contemporary era of democracy and neoliberalism. The historical event it is based on occurred in director Boo Ji-young’s neighbourhood, when the women workers in a supermarket went on strike in protest against changes to their contracts that casualised their labour and reduced their pay. The film is all the stronger for not pretending that they won all their demands, no matter how just they were.
Southeast Asian Art Movies and More
If South Korean cinema was confirmed in its now well-established role as the most consistent source of well-crafted genre films in the East Asian region, the surprise story of FEFF 2015 was that the best art films came from Southeast Asia. Somehow, despite its focus on commercial cinema, a couple of outstanding art movies make it into FEFF every year. Perhaps, now that mainstream festivals regularly program Asian genre cinema, FEFF is no longer unique and can afford to diversity.
Despite the numerical domination of South Korea, Japan and the Chinese-language cinemas in the festival, it was striking that, after a long fallow period, Thai cinema produced two wonderful films at FEFF this year. Directed by Korean American Josh Kim, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) from 2015 was this year’s best movie for me. Subtly moving and surprising, it is a coming of age film about an 11 year-old boy observing what happens to his brother when the conscription lottery comes round. The film is set during the time that Thailand was having trouble with locals fighting for secession in its southern provinces, making being a soldier genuinely dangerous. Oat’s elder brother has a boyfriend from a rich family, but in the end the film is more interested in class than in sexuality, with the gay relationship seemingly widely accepted. When time for the lottery comes round, inevitably the boyfriend’s family cannot resist using their money and power to save their son. Oat’s brother cannot save himself. The lesson Oat draws from what follows is not the importance of staying honest but the necessity of ruthlessness in order to survive. Bleak but beautiful, the film stayed with me long after the festival.
How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) had some interesting resonances with the new dominance of the military in Thailand again since the coup that overthrew democracy last year. The other Thai film that caught my eye and was also a bit arty for FEFF was Tom Waller’s Phaeht Cha Khaat (The Last Executioner, 2014), a biopic based on real-life executioner Chavoret Jaruboon’s story. At a time when Thailand was still executing by gunshot, it depicts him as a decent man trying to behave honourably in a hopelessly corrupt system and with a job that will certainly store up lots of bad karma for him. Efficiently and effectively told in 96 minutes in a year when far too many films outstayed their welcome, again the film derived some extra resonance from Thailand’s current situation.
Rounding up the good news about Southeast Asian cinema were the only films from Cambodia and Indonesia at this year’s event. Siti (Eddie Cahyono, 2014) combined sensuous black-and-white photography with its focus on the lower depths to make comparisons with Italian neorealism both inevitable and not unmerited. A stoical young woman has to shoulder the burden of her family when her fisherman husband is confined to bed after a work accident. She moves between selling snacks on the beach, looking after her family, and moonlighting at a karaoke club. Possibly because of the implications of her night job, her husband gives her the silent treatment. The film’s observation of her admirable endurance also echoes the best of neorealism.
More of an audience pleaser than Siti but also ambitious is Sotho Kulikar’s Dom Fill Chong Krauey (The Last Reel, 2014) from Cambodia. The film includes art film touches, with its cinephilic story elements that foreground the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of the Golden Age of Cambodian cinema from before their nightmare rule. But it manages to mix these with high melodrama, as the main story follows a young woman figuring out her mother’s movie star background, how she met her father, and her survival of the killing fields. Animated by the older generation’s reticence about what happened and the younger generation’s need to know, the film does not pull any punches in its refusal to apportion guilt and innocence in any simple way. It is all the more satisfying as a result.
As well as a small selection of Southeast Asian films, this year’s FEFF also included a documentary on the now veteran auteurs of the region’s New Wave, Il Cinema del Sudest Asiatico – Quando il Gallo Canta (Southeast Asian Cinema – When the Rooster Crows, Leonardo Cinieri Lombroso, 2014). Interviewing Pen-ek Ratanaruang from Thailand, Brillante Mendoza from the Philippines, Garin Nugroho from Indonesia, and Singapore’s Eric Khoo, as well as their associates and local critics, the film will be required viewing for anyone interested in this phenomenon. Two things bothered me. First, although the interviews looked great, the quality of the film clips was dire. Second, although the director mentioned during his in-person introduction at FEFF that the entire Southeast Asian New Wave would not have happened without digital, this topic was not really explored in the film. It certainly should have been, not least because someone speculated to me afterwards that the poor quality clips might have had something to do with the digital equipment available a decade or two back.
Finally on Southeast Asia, the two example of that other FEFF favourite genre, the horror flick, that I saw this year, were also from the region. Most successful was Tran Ham’s Ruoto Doat Hoan (Hollow, 2014). Vietnamese cinema is on the rise, so I was sorry to see this was the only Vietnamese film at FEFF this year. However, it certainly confirmed that, as in the People’s Republic of China, communism no longer precludes full-on entertainment cinema. Indeed, it seems the Vietnamese have gone one step further in relaxing the rules than their Chinese comrades. Ghosts and other supernatural beings remain banned in China, in the name of eliminating feudal superstition. But Hollow has no such qualms. Instead of the more usual idea of unhappy ghosts taking over the living as they seek revenge, in Hollow they take over the recently dead and bring them back to life, tricking their overjoyed loved ones in the process. The nouveau riche father of one drowned little girl turns out to have a murky past, revealed by his stepdaughter as the film ramps it up by adding social horror of top of ghostly fantasy.
Less satisfactory was the Thai film Fak-way-nai-guy-ther (The Swimmers, Sophon Sakdapisit, 2014). Starting with a high school love triangle composed of two boys who are rivals in the pool and for the same girl, the shimmering blue pool waters rapidly turn red with blood after the girl dies in what appears to be a diving accident. Somehow one of the boys even thinks he has become pregnant and produces symptoms to match (although I forget how he manages all this). However, what are meant to be scary and gory episodes elicited laughter from the FEFF audience for all the wrong reasons, and the endless plot twists became tiresome rather than suspenseful.
If I was slightly surprised by the South Korean sweep of the audience awards at FEFF, it was not because of the quality of the art films, because they never attract the audience votes. Rather, it was because of the immense anticipation that preceded Japanese blockbuster director Yamazaki Takashi’s Kiseiju I and II (Parasite I and II, 2014 and 2015). Yamazaki won the audience awards last year with his controversial kamikaze tribute, Eien no 0 (The Eternal Zero, 2013) and the crowds lining up for both parts of Parasyte were huge. With local critics in their home countries attacking both Zero and Ode as right-wing, Udine audiences are risking getting a reputation for conservativeness!
Furthermore, the Parasyte films do not disappoint. Sci-fi horror adapted from a manga, they are thrilling, moving, and disturbing, as exploit the fears generated by SARS, MERS, HIV, Ebola and more. Paying due tribute to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), the plot concerns aliens who take over humans by infiltrating their bodies as viruses. However, for teenager Shinichi, the virus is unable to take over the whole of him and ends up lodged in his right hand, which transforms itself in a sometimes cute and sometimes fearsome life form Shinichi calls Migi. Cute comedy aside, Migi has to accept that his life depends on defending Shinichi rather than destroying him, and from here the films take a series of interesting turns. Where conventional Hollywood sci-fi is about eliminating the alien – just as westerns are about eliminating the native Americans – Parasyte oscillates between a fight to the death and the question of learning to live together. I was blown away and the audience seemed to be, too, so I am surprised the Parasyte films did not make it onto the audience favourite list.
Beyond the Parasyte films, the Japanese movies on display at FEFF 2015 shone with variety, going beyond the cute and quirky comedies that dominated many recent editions of FEFF. That was a huge relief for me, and I avoided those possibly quirky pieces that remained. However, the gentrification of Tokyo’s red-light districts triggered two ultimately problematic films that are nevertheless worth seeing because they are so unusual. Ryuichi Hiroki’s Sayonara Kubukicho (Kabukicho Love Hotel, 2014) is an ensemble cast piece that follows the intersecting stories of various characters who work or stay at a love hotel. The premise is that without a special reason, ranging from adultery to needing money fast or even being on the run from the police, everyone would avoid a love hotel. Deftly told, with sterling performances, the film nevertheless betrays the director’s porn background in two ways. First, the sex scenes feature porn bodies and lots of enthusiastic but rather too professional moaning. Second, Hiroki seems unable to abandon the porn genre’s requirement for a happy ending. Given the size of the cast, this went from endearing to feeling forced quite quickly.
Also interesting but in the end less successful from my perspective was Morikawa Kei’s Meikurumu (Make Room, 2015). The title is Japanese argot for a make-up room on a location set, in this case for a porn shoot. We spend the day there as the models come and go and chat while waiting for their scenes, getting some sense of what happens when the extraordinary and weird for the general public becomes just a job for the people involved. Originally produced as a stage play, and casting real porn models, the film seemed to do little more than record the stage play, but with dingy lighting appropriate to a basement. Despite some comic and some moving moments, visually, it was like watching wallpaper, and the failure to do enough to adapt it for cinema lets the film down.
Ando Sakura, the star of a quirky female boxing comedy that I avoided, Hayaku Yen no Koi (100 Yen Love, Take Masaharu, 2014), also starred in 0.5 Miri (0.5mm, 2014), directed by her sister Ando Momoko. This quiet road movie was another notable art film at FEFF. After a particularly difficult experience with one of her clients, a young woman finds herself wandering without money. Her journey takes her through a Japan composed of old people, where she relies on their generosity in return for her care to get through. Each episode features impressive performances from both Ando and the not-so-loveable old folks she helps. We not only get some real insights how wrenchingly awful and lonely old age can be, but also a metaphorical portrait of Japan as it still grapples with the legacy of the last century. The high point of the film comes when we encounter a straight-to-camera monologue about memories of being a young soldier in World War II. However much though I loved this film, I felt 196 minutes was about 96 minutes too long. I was not the only one, and in the days that followed I found myself engaged in a series of conversations about how Ando could have edited the whole thing down. As one of my friends pointed out, by the time we got the final long, long, long take of Ando driving off across a beautiful but somehow empty landscape, we had got the idea already, and the director could have let us out a couple of minutes earlier.
“Endless Regret” from China
Road journeys as featured in films such as 0.5mm also featured in the films from mainland China this year. If 0.5mm is clearly a metaphor for the contemporary Japanese condition, mega-popular blogger and author Han Han’s debut film, Houhui Wuqi (The Continent, 2014) is clearly his vision of China. Starting on an island that is the easternmost Chinese territory, three friends decide to drive one of their number across the country to his new teaching job at the westernmost point of the country, encountering various eccentric characters along the way. What is striking about the film is the image of China that Han Han gives us. The journey does not take them through any of the megacities that have sprung up around the country or into any of its burgeoning industrial and trading regions, nor is any iconic tourist scenery evident. Instead, we pass through sparsely populated country, down empty roads, seemingly far from the nationalist triumphalism of the Communist Party and mainstream culture. At times, it looks more like the American West than our stereotypes of China. Although the film lacks an engaging narrative or structure and has none of the stunningly composed long takes and bravura performances found in 0.5mm, Han Han’s trademark scepticism and wry reserve still shine through in his first directorial effort.
The literal translation of the title of Han Han’s film is “endless regret”, and that could have been the title for so many of the Chinese films in this year’s festival. King of the caper pics Ning Hao’s last film, Xin Hua Lu Fang (Break-up Buddies, 2015) was another road movie. It teams up comedy kings Huang Bo and Xu Zheng, last seen together in the 2012 megahit directed by Xu, Ren Zai Jiongtu zhi Taijiong (Lost in Thailand), as a cynical pleasure-seeker taking his newly divorced friend across country in an effort to show him a good time full of alcohol and babes, and in the process cure him of the blues. Supposedly funny, the film seemed more misogynistic than anything else, and left a sour taste. In fact, a focus on failed relationships and mistrust between the sexes as displayed in Break-up Buddies seemed to be the dominant source for the mood of “endless regret” emanating from the Chinese films on screen at FEFF this year. By now, we are used to the idea that mainland China can made effective commercial genre films, but none of this year’s crop really delivered. Most of them disappointed in one way or another – but at least they often disappointed interestingly as they revealed that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus in China, too.
Top of the list of interesting disappointments was Hong Kong director Pang Ho-Cheung’s mainland Chinese comedy, Sajiao Nüren Zui Haoming (Women Who Flirt, 2014). Pushed a bit further, it could have become a powerful critique of Chinese men’s ideas about the perfect woman. But instead it remained complicit with those very problematic ideals. The set-up has Zhou Xun as a professional woman unable to get the attention of the colleague she is in love with, because he sees her as what is known in Chinese as a “nü hanzi,” or “female dude.” In fact, she does not look or act masculine at all, but the film never suggests that he is the one with the problem rather than her. When she loses him to a Taiwanese flirt, her Shanghai friends decide their city’s honour is at stake. They mobilise what the subtitles call their – I kid you not – “Barbie army”, and set out to teach her how to flirt back. Zhou has nothing much to do in the film, and the would-be boyfriend even less. But the character of her best friend, acted by Xie Yilin, is cynically brilliant and outrageously funny. She shows Zhou how to drop things and then use the opportunity of picking them up to flash cleavage; the importance of appearing completely moronic and helpless to attract men; and the need to get the tone just right when you whine like a spoilt child. Ironically, Xie is originally from Taiwan, not Shanghai, but she has the potential to become China’s answer to Melissa McCarthy. The ideal woman for a Chinese man, Women Who Flirt implies, should be an impossible combination of minimal IQ, virginality and sexual virtuosity. Unfortunately, the film’s force is undermined by its continuing adherence to the message that the only thing that really matters for a woman is finding Mr Right.
By coincidence, the one Filipino film I saw in this year’s FEFF, Chris Martinez’s The Gifted (2014) also tries to have it both ways on gender values. A much cruder vehicle, this supposed comedy asks “what would you rather be, brainy or beautiful?” In theory, the answer is “both”, but I was not convinced. The film spends two hours encouraging us to laugh at the most appalling images of women fighting each other and having radical plastic surgery in their pursuit of the ideal man plus lots of money and fame, but then delivering an unbelievable twist at the end in a forlorn effort to redeem itself.
Returning to the Chinese films in this year’s FEFF, even though Women Who Flirt did not deliver in the end, it was powerful enough to colour my perception of everything that followed. For example, Frant Gwo’s Tongzhuo de Ni (My Old Classmate, 2014) joins the current rash of Chinese nostalgia for the ‘80s and ‘90s films, with a tale about a Chinese man working in New York who flies home for the wedding when he discovers his former classmate and former girlfriend is about to get married. Flashbacks galore follow. She turns out to be precisely the sort of infantile child-woman Women Who Flirt mocks. Acted by Zhou Dongyu, who was discovered by Zhang Yimou for Shanzhashu Zhi Lian (Under the Hawthorn Tree, 2010), where she epitomised this virginal but supposedly sexy image, she still comes across as about 12 years old in My Old Classmate. On the one hand, she is so uptight that she only allots him a few minutes a day in which he is allowed to be her boyfriend, but then it turns out that those few minutes are enough to get her pregnant.
Just like Break-Up Buddies, My Old Classmate is full of sour regret, told from a male perspective and the time after everything has gone wrong. The twist with Wu Bai’s Tuogui Shidai (The Old Cinderella, 2014) is that it takes the divorced single mother’s perspective. The Chinese title means “going off the rails”, and as she juggles her job, her child, and the weekends when he visits his father, it is evident that her life cannot go on this way. The film ends seeming to suggest that her only options are to hook up with one of two men, again reconfirming the notion that a woman cannot function without a man. Unsurprisingly, the director is a man, and having taken the interesting decision to follow his female protagonist, he seems unable to grasp her motivations at all.
Like the other Chinese films in this year’s selection, The Old Cinderella shows people who are materially well off, but deeply unhappy and unable to figure out where it all went wrong. Perhaps a clue to the culture that is engendering so much disappointment could be gleaned from Fan Lixin’s compelling documentary, Wo Jiu Shi Wo (I Am Here, 2014). FEFF rarely shows documentaries, and this film is far from the nitty-gritty observational mode preferred by China’s independent documentarists. But I am still very glad the film was included. It focuses on a TV reality show called Super Boy, which is part Big Brother House and part singing contest for young men. We see a microcosm of a society where the pressure to compete repeatedly breaks down the mutually supportive friendships the young men form in the house where they live and train for the competition every week. The winner finds success, but how can anyone find happiness in such a psychically destructive environment? And, of course, this competitive culture driven by materialism and fame is far from unique to China. However, again, despite all that it reveals, the film is far from a critique. Its Chinese title means “I am me!” and is an assertion of the individualism that underwrites the competitive culture it displays.
Although divorce so-called comedies dominated the Chinese films at FEFF this year, there were of course other genres on offer. Highest profile guest Jackie Chan’s latest action film opened the festival, and Tsui Hark’s CGI action film Zhi Qu Weihushan (The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D, 2014) closed it. To Tsui’s credit, he pays tribute to his source, by wrapping his retelling of the story in a frame that has a young filmmaker discovering the original revolutionary opera film from the Cultural Revolution era. Much though I appreciated Tsui’s ingenious use of CGI, I would rather watch the original any day. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but the eye-popping choreography and authentic acrobatic skills of the actors in the original triumph over any amount of computerized wizardry.
Finally from China there was also Zhang Meng’s Shengli (Uncle Victory, 2014), best understood as in-the-style of his 2010 surprise hit, Gang de Qin: Yige Shidai de Wange (The Piano in a Factory). But as is so often the case with follow-up films, despite showing lots of promise at the start, it does not work. Again, we have the devastated landscape of socialist industrialism in north China, with Uncle Victory trying to carve out a new life for himself as a kindergarten headmaster after his release from jail. The scenes of him wandering around in panda suit recruiting students are visually striking, but having produced a great set-up, Zhang Meng does not know what to do with it this time. The kindergarten scheme is not as captivating as the scheme to build a piano in his earlier film, and Uncle Victory becomes ever more pompous as it staggers about trying to discover a plot and reach an ending. Once again, I found myself desperate for an editor.
Hong Kong and Taiwan Local Authenticity
For the most part, film production in Asia remains clearly divided by language and territory, and so it still makes sense to report on FEFF country by country. Slightly muddying the waters is the situation of Chinese-language cinema. The old clear divisions between Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China have disappeared. Beijing is now well-established as the centre of transborder mega-budget Chinese filmmaking. Hong Konger Pang Ho-Cheung’s direction of Women Who Flirt and Taiwanese Leste Chen’s direction of Chongfan Ershisui (20, Once Again, 2014), the remake of last year’s Korean comedy hit, Susanghan Geunyeo (Miss Granny, Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2014), confirms the ability of the Beijing industry to attract talent from around the Chinese-speaking world. There is not much to say about 20, Once Again, except that, like most remakes, it is OK but not as good as the original. The film depends on the comedy generated by a sharp-tongued old lady being suddenly rejuvenated. Where such old ladies are seen as feisty and strangely charming in Korean culture, Chinese culture is not quite so tolerant. As a result, although quite amusing, the old lady in the remake either comes across as too sweet in some scenes or simply an old bitch in others.
With so much Chinese-language cinema now transborder cinema, it is no surprise that if films are specifically marked as Hong Kong or Taiwan productions, they tend to be very local indeed these days. They are at their best when they combine gripping cinema with a willingness to tackle local issues. Yee Chih-yen’s Xingdong Daihao Sun Zhongshan (Meeting Dr. Sun, 2014) does just that. Possibly best known for Lanse Damen (Blue Gate Crossing, 2002), Yee seems to specialise in delicate depictions of the challenges facing teenagers as they come into contact with the corruption of the adult world. In Meeting Dr. Sun, a bunch of high school students finds themselves unable to pay for extras at school because their parents are unemployed. In this way, the film subtly touches upon an emergent problem in many middle-class developed countries, where the flight of manufacturing has produced a new underclass. When they come up with an ingenious plan to hijack an old metal statue of the so-called father of the nation, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, and sell it for scrap, the film moves into magical night-time comedy, but never quite loses its social edge.
Less successful but also interesting from Taiwan was Kung Wen-Yan’s Nizhuang Sheng (Second Chance, 2014). Notable for music star Monster Wen’s appearance as an alcoholic former billiards champion who gets a second chance when he is made his niece’s guardian after her father’s death, the film is at its best filming the sport itself. To my surprise, Kung comes up with a hundred ways to make the infinitely tedious so-called sport of billiards look cool and exciting. The plot, on the other hand, is predictable, and the politically correct idea of the niece learning to become a billiards champion in her own right did not quite work for me, either. The fundamental problem was that, unlike Meeting Dr. Sun, it appeared totally ungrounded in any off-screen reality.
The two purely Hong Kong features that I caught were thoroughly local. The title of Dai Cha Faan (Gangster Pay Day, Lee Po-cheung, 2014) might produce genre expectations, but it is more of a character piece than the “triad drama” the FEFF catalogue proclaimed. The ever-engaging Anthony Wong stars as an aging local mobster called Ghost who runs protection rackets. The set-up is classic Hong Kong gangster, with the new kids not respecting the old ways and a sense of nostalgia and doom pervading the film. But instead of moving rapidly to an orgy of shooting and stabbing, the film takes a different direction when Wong’s character is drawn to a young woman. Played by Charlene Choi, Mei is struggling to keep alive a traditional restaurant that he owns and she has inherited the lease on. The film focuses on their relationship, with her seeing him as a sort of uncle and him interested in a bit more than that, until he figures out she and his young apprentice have formed an attraction for each other. In the background are issues of neighbourhood change and gentrification. And then, just when you think it has left the gangster flick behind completely, the violence returns with an unexpected and devastating twist. Because we have got to know the characters and develop hopes for them, instead of the conventional thrills of violence, we are devastated by it and feel its consequences for those left behind.
Herman Yau never fears to touch tabloid issues, and his focus on a tabloid reporter in his latest film seemed self-referential. In Choh Gei (Sara, 2015), also starring Charlene Choi, he films the biography of a woman who climbs out of a background of sexual abuse by her father and homelessness. She manages to do so thanks to an affair with a highly placed education official, who puts her through college. After becoming an investigative journalist, she finds herself unable to maintain a professional distance when she stumbles across child prostitution and trafficking on a trip to Thailand. There is something quite queasy about her relationship with the education official, who both exploits and helps her, and I felt equally uncomfortable about Yau’s long display of her rape by her father at the beginning of them. On one hand, it communicates how desperate her plight is. On the other hand, it seemed exploitative.
In what has now become a FEFF tradition, a selection from the Fresh Wave shorts program supported by Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Arts Development Committee were screened. As ever, they reassured that if the local industry can give them opportunities, the talent is there to keep Hong Kong cinema alive. Cai Jiahao’s Loushang, Louxia (Neighbors, 2014) gave us a welcome twist on Hong Kong localness. Deploying the conventions of the horror genre, the film follows the paranoia and fear of a young mainland student’s first hours in her Hong Kong apartment, and her difficulties communicating with her Cantonese-speaking neighbours, who shut the door in her face. As tensions mount, life is becoming more difficult for mainlanders in Hong Kong, and this is a timely reminder of how they might be experiencing the situation. Equally compelling as a projection of Hong Kong’s fears was Chan Tze-woon’s quasi-documentary, Zuowei Yushui: Biaoxiang ji Yizhi (Being Rain: Representation and Will, 2014), which supposedly investigates the possibility that Beijing may be manipulating the weather in Hong Kong to make it rain whenever a major protest demonstration is scheduled.
Also in the Fresh Wave selection was Louis Wong’s Shaonian Ah Lang (iPhone Thieves, 2014), in which a mugger shows signs of developing a conscience when he realises the impact of his crime on one of his victims. Unfortunately, the young director spoils a very nicely balanced work by spelling out what his character’s decision is at the very end of the film. Bad from the start, I am sorry to say, is Anastasia Tsang Hin’s Marryland (2014), a sort of fantasy performance piece protesting the local culture’s expectation that women should marry by thirty. Certainly, this is an important issue, but it deserves better than this clumsy and gauche effort at parody, which was more embarrassing than funny.
Finally on Hong Kong films and also finally for this year’s report, Sonny Luk and Longman Leung’s Chek Dou (Helios, 2015) was possibly the biggest disappointment of the festival. Perhaps the fact that is in fact not a purely local Hong Kong film but a co-production with the mainland should have tipped me off on what to expect. Last year at FEFF, with Han Zhan (Cold War, 2013) they delivered an edge-of-the-seat action thriller with dark political dimensions capturing Hong Kong people’s fears that their city is being eaten alive by the mainland. Helios starts down the same road, with a stolen South Korean secret weapon being defused in Hong Kong and then detained there due to the intervention of Beijing officials and despite the desire of local officials to follow international conventions and return it. But when we are asked to believe that those Beijing officials are the good guys and the anti-nuclear activists are terrorists, I could hear the whole film deflating rapidly despite all the directors’ efforts to ramp up the tension. Then, worse still, it suddenly stops in mid-stream, and we are told to wait for part two. Usually, most things are wrapped up but something is left open for the sequel, but Helios does not even make an effort. It was unsatisfying in every way, a rare failure in what was otherwise a very strong year for FEFF.
Udine Far East Film Festival
23 April – 2 May 2015
Festival website: http://www.fareastfilm.com