Looking back at my review of the 17th Far East Film Festival (Senses of Cinema no.75), most of my themes from last year extend into this year. There were strong archive and retrospective sidebars again, with restored Bruce Lee films, a tribute to Japanese maverick sci-fi director Obayashi Nobuhiko, a quartet of Chinese indie films and more this year. Southeast Asia remains underrepresented, with nothing from Indonesia, only one film each from the burgeoning Vietnamese industry and Malaysia, and a smattering from Thailand and the Philippines. This is something to remedy in the future. Meanwhile, South Korean and Japanese films remain the mainstay of Udine’s genre cinema offerings. More on them later. The big story in 2016 was the China impact, which was more strongly felt than ever before.
Sabrina Baracetti, Artistic Director and face of FEFF, launched the 18th FEFF with an unusually sobering message. In the name of freedom, she dedicated this year’s edition to the organisers of the Brussels Fantastic Film Festival – who bravely persisted only days after the bombings – and the Busan International Film Festival – who were in turmoil, facing cuts and right-wing government pressure because of a film they screened in 2015, until former Chairman Kim Dong-ho took up his position again recently.
Strong words indeed. But later that evening a friend asked why, if freedom was so important, the European premiere of Hong Kong omnibus film Sahp Nihn (Ten Years) was relegated to a 09:15 weekday slot, minimising attendance, and “informational screening” status, meaning that no one could vote for it as Best Film. Was the festival scared of offending the People’s Republic? Festival insiders insisted not; as an independent and omnibus film, Ten Years is not the kind of movie FEFF usually screens and it had to be specially accommodated, as are the “Hong Kong Fresh Wave” shorts each year. However, even if this is true, an unfortunate impression was created.
Ten Years received the most sustained, fervent and emotional audience applause of any of the films I saw at FEFF this year. Made for only US$64,000, the five short films imagine a bleak Hong Kong a decade from now. The word “local” is banned and policed by “Youth Guard” ideological vigilantes; the Cantonese language is marginalised and Mandarin is required for jobs and in schools; mainland politicians organise terrorist attacks to stampede the population to accept a draconian National Security Law; and Tibetan-style self-immolation has begun.
All of this might seem far-fetched, were it not for the response of the mainland comrades to Ten Years. After the film started selling out screenings in Hong Kong in late 2015, furious editorials appeared in Beijing-controlled newspapers. Suddenly pre-booking of slots for Chinese New Year meant no commercial venues were available anymore. And when Ten Years won Best Film in the Hong Kong Film Awards, mainland television stations dropped their usual coverage of the event. This over-the-top reaction both confirms the fears expressed in the film and explains the suspicions voiced at Udine. Although not the most aesthetically sophisticated film at the 18th FEFF, Ten Years was certainly the most significant.
Many of the other Hong Kong films at this year’s event also displayed the continuing fall-out from the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movements of 2014. For example, Dim Ngh Bouh (Weeds on Fire, Chan Chi-fat) is a conventional high school baseball film in which the no-hopers win after many setbacks. But it is set in the 1980s and bookended with the now grown up protagonist wandering among the tents of Occupy Central, remembering a time when he too was young and also did not want to lose. He then proclaims the 1980s, before Beijing took over, to have been Hong Kong’s golden era.
The Johnnie To-produced gangster flick Shu Daaih Jiu Fung (Trivisa) was directed by Frank Hui, Vicky Wong and Jevons Au, who also directed one of the Ten Years shorts. Framed by the announcement of the Sino-British Agreement about Hong Kong’s fate in 1984 and the 1997 handover, it follows three irredeemably vicious Hong Kong gangsters. However, they are trumped when they try to deal with the mainland and discover their Chinese counterparts are even worse. Even Herman Yau’s Syun Louh Ding (Mobfathers), while exploiting the mindless violence and sexual abuse of women it pretends to critique, also levered in a scene where the ordinary mob members rise up and demand real democracy in the vote for a new leader.
Outside the screenings and in the cafes, an anti-PRC hostility I have not experienced before made itself felt. Overhearing me talking with a colleague about a mainland film I had been disappointed in, a man at another table joined in. He angrily denounced the festival for, he believed, kow-towing to Chinese pressure by showing so few new Taiwanese films and so many, he felt, low quality mainland films. Later on, a friend who loves Hong Kong films vehemently insisted that none of the mainland films could have been shown if selection was being made on quality grounds alone.
Perhaps those opinions are going too far. But there is no doubt that FEFF faces a dilemma. The People’s Republic of China is by far the largest producer of films in East Asia and the largest market in dollar terms and audience numbers. It is already producing ten times as many features per year as Hong Kong or Taiwan. Yet, on the basis of what we see at Udine, the industry is still struggling to produce outstanding cinema. FEFF is caught between the duty to represent the most important trend in the region – the rise of China – and the need to highlight quality.
The People’s Republic aspires to become a new global player. It is rapidly assimilating all the industry practices and production standards of Hollywood, as well as establishing global investments. People are already speaking of “Chollywood”. But even the strongest Chinese films I saw at FEFF this year were workmanlike rather than virtuoso pieces. Huoguo Yingxiong (Chongqing Hot Pot, Yang Qing) is an efficient and entertaining mix of the buddy movie and the heist film. It captures the local qualities of the city, with the former air raid shelters and the dialect highlighted. Shifu (The Master, Xu Haofeng) is an effective martial arts film, set in Tianjin a century ago, with the outsider taking on one local champion after another. The motivations are somewhat mysterious, but the action is impressive. And Jiejiu Wu Xiansheng (Saving Mr. Wu, Ding Sheng) is a gripping kidnap film, with Andy Lau in the title role, and the interesting premise that kidnappers can con their victims into going with them by pretending to be cops. All three films are brutally violent, which is noteworthy because China has no classification system and a film that passes censorship can be seen by children. Although effective genre pieces, none of these three has an extra dimension of significance.
Dividing opinions at the festival was Xu Zheng’s follow-up to the hugely successful Ren zai Jiongtu zhi Tai Jiong (Lost in Thailand, 2012), Gang Jiong (Lost in Hong Kong). Another frantic caper comedy, the slapstick won some audience members over while it turned others off. But there was consensus that the comic genius of Huang Bo and Wang Baoqiang in the original was not made up for by the participation of Vicky Zhao in the new film.
The other Chinese films I saw were flawed, even laughable at times. Gui Chui Deng zhi Xun Long Jue (Mojin: The Lost Legend, Wuershan) was a massive box office hit in China. But like the Transformers series, which also did well there, that does not mean it is worth watching. Three tomb raiders who have retired in New York return to China for one last caper, and all manner of CGI ridiculousness follows. Shu Qi looks great as always, but Huang Bo looked bloated and sluggish. Amidst all the zombies, 1980s star Liu Xiaoqing pops up in a Cruella de Vil wig, her face frozen with botox – sorry, in horror. Equally silly was the supposedly poignant Zuo Er (The Left Ear, Alec Su). The conceit driving this teen romance is the idea that the heroine is deaf in her left ear. So – plot spoiler alert – when she finally agrees to reveal her best friend’s dying words, she has to confess that she could not hear them. The audience in Udine howled with laughter, then groaned when the narrative lurched on for another twenty minutes.
Equally fragmented but more deserving marks for effort was Lie Ri Zhou Xin (The Dead End). Introducing the film, director Cao Baoping said it was more about psychology than action. But it was the action set pieces like the vertiginous scene on the top of a skyscraper that worked, and the psychology – however well intended – did not. A cop stumbles across the men who committed an unsolved rape and murder case several years ago. There are rumours the men are gay, although we never learn why gay men would have been raping a female victim. Comedy star and aspiring heart throb Deng Chao daringly takes on the supposedly gay criminal role, and the exchanges of glances let us know the cop is hot for him. The gay subplot is both a censorship breakthrough and handled well: as it pans out much makes sense retrospectively. However, other things do not add up, including why the upstairs neighbour is spying on the criminals, or why the cop’s sister falls madly in love with an elderly taxi driver. Such elementary errors suggest Hollywood has nothing to fear right now.
The China factor extended beyond Chinese-speaking cinema to also appear in a number of the South Korean films at this year’s FEFF. With companies like CJ Entertainment investing heavily in Chinese movies and movie theatre chains, naturally they also have their eye on the China market. South Korean pop culture, from music to television formats, is welcomed in China at the moment, so why not movies, too?
The most obvious example of the China impact in South Korean cinema was Cho Jin-mo’s Meiking Paemilli (Making Family) about a boy who discovers that his sperm donor biological father is in fact Chinese, and then sets out alone to find him. Nearly all the story takes place in China and most of the characters other than the precocious brat and his unlucky mother are also Chinese. Given the target market, perhaps it is no surprise that that they are also super-rich, producing a supposedly flattering image of China’s wealth and power. Chinese involvement in other South Korean films was evident in the credits, as for example with the opening night film, Tiger. This historical drama about the efforts of the Japanese to kill the last Korean tiger in the mountains at the beginning of the colonial era had obvious symbolic meaning. Its period detail and acting were impressive. But it was too long, and the tigers were excessively anthropomorphised. Worst of all, poor CGI made it seem like we were about to be mauled by a robo-toy.
Perhaps it is pure coincidence that the two least satisfying South Korean films I saw were the ones where the China factor was most obviously at work. The others were reliable and satisfying genre films. Just like last year, the audience award went to a South Korean historical weepie. The concept for Oppa Saenggak (A Melody to Remember, Lee Han) seems to involve inserting an angelic children’s choir into Saving Private Ryan and seeing how many survive. This being a full-on South Korean rather than Hollywood melodrama, even the main protagonist is not safe. Supposedly based on a true story, there was not a dry eye in the house at FEFF, and the votes demonstrate that Udine still believes in tears. The runner-up, Robot, Sori (Sori: Voice from the Heart, Lee Ho-Jae) is a more original if contrived story about an intelligent US surveillance satellite that rebels against guiding drone strikes to help a Korean man searching for his daughter.
Also effective was Gyeongseong-hakkyo: Sarajin Sonyeo-deul (The Silenced, Lee Hae-Young), a gothic horror film set in a girls’ sanatorium outside Seoul. Like Tiger, it took placed during the Japanese colonial era. Also choosing this period was Amsal (The Assassination, Choi Dong-hoon), a comedy espionage film, presumably riffing off Tarantino, and following the machinations of Korean independence fighters. Given the impact of the China factor, it was no surprise that their efforts also took them to Shanghai. Misseu Waipeu (Wonderful Nightmare, Kang Hyo-Jin) looked like an obnoxious taming of the shrew story, in which a “feminist” lawyer who hates men is given the chance to return to earth as a housewife after dying in a car accident, and learns to love her new role. However, fortunately, she does not forget either her assertiveness or boxing training altogether and puts them to good use when her new teenage daughter is sexually abused by the bullies at school. Much to my surprise, Wonderful Nightmare also eschewed the frequent South Korean preference for limitless tragedy and hinted at a happy ending.
However, the most impressive South Korean and Japanese films in FEFF 2016 for me were by women directors and not genre flicks at all. Uri-deul (The World of Us, Yoon Ga-eun) also takes up the school bullying theme of Wonderful Nightmare, but sticks to the schoolgirl victim’s perspective. The film quietly observes how she learns to cope and also how the class-based snobbery underneath the bullying is echoed in the adult world. Her working class family, who support each other despite all manner of difficulties and prejudice, is quietly encouraging. Similar in its observational tone and close alignment with the subjectivity and experience of its female protagonist is Romance (Round Trip Heart, Tanada Yuki), in which a railway worker and a film producer she has caught shoplifting end up going on a road trip. The film avoids being quirky by being unsentimentally frank about its characters’ unlikeable traits, of which there are quite a few.
Another eye-catching pair of films was the Japanese Bakuman (One Hitoshi), about the efforts of schoolboys to break in to the world of manga, and the Thai film Freelance Harm Puay Harm Pak Harm Rak Mar (Heart Attack, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit). The latter is gentle romance, but both films feature core narratives about the exploitation of creative labour in the cultural industries to the point of injury to health, with remarkably similar scenes of physical collapse for their protagonists.
Last but certainly not least, and surprisingly neglected in the awards, the most accomplished film in the festival was Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Kuripi Itsuwari no Rinjin (Creepy). The title, referring to the villain in this serial murder thriller, is an understatement. In an age when Japanese fear the consequences of unravelling of close community bonds, this film may make you think twice about trying to get to know your neighbours. An audience of hundreds on the edge of their seats in the massive Udine Youth Theatre, all silently screaming at the protagonist “don’t knock on that door!” is what FEFF is all about!
Far East Film Festival Udine
22-30 April 2016
Festival website: http://www.fareastfilm.com/easyne2/eng/homepage.aspx