By Moira Sullivan.
The Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy is an outstanding annual showcase of popular, mainstream films from Asia. For the 13th edition of the festival (April 29 – May 7) there were 50 films in the program. Several experts for the festival who live in or travel to Asia keep an eye open for the very best new films each year in different countries. A visit from several of the directors at the festival is one of the highlights of the event. The center aisle of Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine lights up when the guests are seated followed by short introductions on the stage. Generous opportunities exist to meet the directors in seminars with carefully and provocatively arranged themes. The festival catalogue is one of the best I know, with overviews of the annual production of the countries represented at the festival and detailed film analyses. The countries include China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan and this year for the first time a film from Mongolia. It was great fun to see a Mongolian film about a bank robbery, Operation Tatar by Baatar BAT-ULZII (Mongolia 2010).
This year Udine featured a special section of historical comedy films entitled “Asia Laughs”, a follow-up from the 2006 special section on musicals, “Asia Sings”.
A “Pink” section of Japanese erotic films was the other special program, a genre of films getting more and more attention outside of Japan. The event included the guest appearance of a major producer of Pink films who has been at it quite a while: Pink Wink – A Tribute to Asakura Daisuke.
The Veneto region includes Venice and Udine, a hotspot for the screenings of quality Asian films. There is a productive relationship between the Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche that produces the festival, and the Venice Film Festival.
Venice president Marco Müller is one of Italy’s leading experts in Chinese literature and his choices are usually excellent art pieces, complementing the mainstream films chosen by Udine.
The festival this year opened with an epic Samurai film from China: The Lost Bladesman, directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong. It stars Donnie Yen but was a little on the less spectacular side. The screening was followed by Night Fishing by Park Chan-wook and his brother Park Chan- kyong, otherwise known as PARKing CHANce. Night Fishing is a short film about the undead and an unusual catch. Included in the film is a South Korean ritual to drive the spirits back to their homes, most likely Muism with a mudang, a female shaman who helps spirits go back to their rightful home. The film was shot on eight iPhones with telescopic lenses, and a good budget and crew and it was fun to see what an iPhone can do.
Here are some of other films that stood out this year:
Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorne Tree based on a true story is about a young couple, Jing Qiu and Lao San, who fall in love during the Cultural Revolution. The narrative is told with intertitles, which surprisingly works very well, for Yimou is an excellent storyteller. The class differences of the time and other aspects of the Cultural Revolution are portrayed in this moving drama. The film won second place for the “Audience Award” announced on May 7.
Tetsuya Nakashima who made the cult classic Kamikaze Girls (Japan, 2004) won best director, screenplay and film of the year at the National Japanese Film Awards this year for his latest film Confessions. It was also short-listed for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards. Based on a bestseller by Kanae Minato, the film has an inventive choice of cinematography that captures the uniformity of Japanese middle school students who do more and more to get a thrill. When the child of their middle school teacher is murdered she singles out the two young killers in her classroom. Takako Matsu plays the teacher (Tetsuya would have no other) and her calm voice is used throughout the film to chronicle what is going on despite the increasing violence. The way the teacher confronts her two students contributes to an amazing narrative.
Confessions won the “Black Dragon” and “My Movies” audience awards at the festival.
Voted the most popular film of the festival, Aftershock from China is based on a novel by Zhang Ling from 2006. The story is set during the July 1976 Tangshan earthquake that claimed the lives of over 240,000 people in China. When Xu Fan and her husband return from a brief getaway in the courtyard they find their two children trapped in the apartment house. Her husband loses his life trying to rescue them. According to the rescue workers Xu Fan can only choose to save one of her children in the aftermath. Her decision has personal consequences for three decades. The depiction of the earthquake does not take up the bulk of the film and the relationships of Xu Fan and her children are the focus. Director Feng Xiaougang cast his wife Yuan Ni, as Xu Fan. The film chronicles the end of the Cultural Revolution and the emergence of New China.
Fright night, which used to be an all-day event in Udine, was scaled down to an evening of horror. The Japanese version of Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night certainly is an improvement over the American version. Directed by Nagae Toshikazu a brother is asked by his father to look after his sister Haruka, played by Noriko Aoyama. Their father is always away on business. Haruka’s legs were broken in a car crash in California so she is dependent on Koichi (Aoi Nakamura). He decides to document her return to Japan and see where the strange sounds in her bedroom at night come from. The inventive use of the camera in this pursuit also surpasses the American version. The story includes a Japanese exorcist who tries to get rid of the evil spirit in the Yamano house that leaves bite marks. The sounds of the enthusiastic Udine audience added to the suspense and surprises of the film.
The Lady Shogun and Her Men directed by Fuminori Kaneko, is an atypical samurai film set in the Edo period and based on a successful manga. Women are the rulers of the country because most men are dying of a mysterious illness. Families marry off their sons at an early age to contribute to the household. Some of them join an order called O’Oku – the inner chamber. These men must serve the Lady Shogun. Unoshin Mizuno (Kazunari Ninomiya) decides to help out his family and enter O’Oku, a homosocial society where men learn to service the Shogun. There are many intrigues in this enclave where the samurai must be both beautiful and skilled at the sword. Lady Shogun, Yoshimune Tokugawa (Kou Shibasaki), becomes the new ruler and is smart with a heart. The art direction and costumes are magnificent.
Another film that did well at the box office in China is a remake of What Women Want (2000). Andy Lau fills Mel Gibson’s shoes quiet well as Sun Yi Gang and the glamorous and talented Gong Li does a great job as the advertising executive Long Li Yi (played by Helen Hunt in the original). Director Chen Daming was present at the screening on the final day of the festival.
The Far East Film Festival is held in Udine, a charming city over a thousand years old laced with tiny canals. Located close to the Italian Alps and the borders of Slovenia and Austria, Udine is the capital city of the region called Friuli and has its own dialect (Friulan).
Moira Sullivan has a PhD in Cinema Studies from Stockholm University. She is a freelance film critic based in Stockholm and San Francisco and a member of FIPRESCI (International Critics Association) and the European Critics Association.
Images courtesy of Far East Film Festival.