Ong Bak 224 April – 2 May 2009

It’s always nice, though rare to see a festival go from strength to strength, re-inventing itself on the way, edition by edition. The Far East Film Festival in Udine, as regulars of these here web-pages know, has done so now for years, and did it again this spring. Praised be the reliables, for they are few and far apart.

That said, FEFF’S beauty and elegance was cut from a somewhat different cloth this time. Two mainstays of excellence, the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines, disappointed a bit. More on the former later, while the latter simply had no masterpieces on offer, neither of the serious nor the extravagant kind, just three very decent films worth the while but little more. Thailand and the Republic of Korea, on the other hand, delivered a tad above average: the former with the festival’s biggest surprise, Panna Rittikrai & Tony Jaa Panom’s Ong Bak 2, a Muay Thai-film honed down to the barest essentials – pure poetry of bodies in motion – that looks and plays like little martial arts cinema has seen since the heydays of Lau Kar Leong; the latter with a disarmingly generous essay in too-late-teen-turning-almost-midlife-crisis-realism done with digital rotoscopy, Choi Ikhwan’s Gyunyeo-neun yaeppeotta (Life Is Cool), and Lee Yongmin’s Salinma (A Bloodthirsty Killer, 1965), the only classic on Horror Day, a work so stunning and unique its delirious derangedness cries out for as full as possible Lee-retrospective… Rather nice, that.

Japan and Hong Kong (SAR), all the while, casually demonstrated who’s boss amongst the cinemas of East and Southeast Asia, both with their usual show of diversity. Whose breadth and width was defined in Hong Kong: by master Herman Yau Lai To’s latest piece of grassroots politics, Sing sung jok je 2: Ngor but maih sun, ngor maih ji gung (True Women For Sale), a fewtimes spunky and oftentimes sombre essay on love, desire, sex and the topsy-turvy economics of it all, and Cash Chin Man Kei’s Kam Ping Mui (The Forbidden Legend: Sex & Chopsticks), a J-boobs-heavy, trashy-as-can softcorefuckfest riding high on a certain Category III-nostalgia for more irresponsible days… and lot’s of other worthy works from (semi-)safe bets like Benny Chan Muk Sing, Dante Lam Chiu Yin, Law Wing Cheong and Wilson Yip Wai Shun whose professional prowess nevertheless pales beside this devil-may-care-duo from the realms of low budgets and high spirits… And in Japan: by Satō Shimako’s intelligently conceived but ultimately failed attempt to re-vamp Edogawa Rampo along high-concept familytainment lines, K-20 – Kaijin nijūmenso-den (K-20: Legend of the Mask), and Sono Shion’s mind-boggling epic on the joys of perversion, true love, pop- and youth- and low- and whatever other culture, and all that, plus plus plus, and lotsa panties, Ai no mukidashi (Love Exposure); by Nakamura Yoshihiro’s tract on the problems of Japan’s health system disguised as a mordantly humorous medical thriller, General Rouge no gaisen (The Triumphant General Rouge), and the self-same Nakamura’s Fish Story, another (whim)silly off-kilter, mangaesque mash-up of moods and genres; by TakitaYōjirō’s sincerely ultra-kitschy Academy Award-winner, Okiribito (Departures), and ever-sweet cum crypto-feminist Tajiri Yūji’s pleasingly bizarre bonk-bonanza, Irokoishi – Hōrō-hen. Kabukichō zetchō taiketsu!! (Love Master 3)…

Still, all of this is somewhere in the realm of the expectable. What’s outside was the show-stealing selection from Indonesia, a relative newcomer among the FEFF-cultures of choice, which stormed the stage with a demi-dozen works of merit, some even of excellence: two already known in the festivalworld: Joko Anwar’s astonishing fantasy mirage, Pintu Terlarang (The Forbidden Door), and Riri Riza’s lovely children’s film about education and social change, Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops); two fine discoveries, Mouly Surya’s Anwar-scripted, cleverly postmodern exercise in genre and its trapfalls, Fiksi. (Fiction), and Upi’s funky tale of love and other pains sometimes in the ass, Radit & Jani; all capped by two exceptional omnibus-adventures, the all-women Perempuan punya cerita (Chants of Love, 2007) featuring works by Fatimah T. Rony, Upi, Nia Dinata and Lasja F. Susatyo, and the Brian Yuzna-minded Takut (Takut – Faces of Fear), delivering shrieks, shocks and frights from established forces – Riri Riza and Rako Prijanto – as well as serious promises – Ray Nayoan, Robby Ertanto, Raditya Sidharta, and Kimo Stamboel & Timothy Tjahjanto [= The Mo Brothers] – all mixed in a way that makes even the lesser episodes look fine. Looks as if FEFF was onto something here, with program advisor Paolo Bertolin leading the way smartly. Let’s note on the debit-side the absence of Malaysia and Vietnam – true, the stuff FEFF had on offer from there last year was far from remarkable, still… Work your magic, Paolo!

The Forbidden DoorBut back again from the wonders of Southeast to the dids and did-nots of the East, the PRC. Whose selection usually includes quite a few extremely strong middle-ground productions of the kind that rarely make the festivals considered important: ballsy realist cinema with artistic bravado. True, there were the two films by Cao Baoping, Guangrong de fennu (Trouble Makers; 2006) and Li Mi de caixiang (The Equation of Love and Death), but they felt, compared to some well-remembered FEFF-PRC-glories… lacking, even if the former showed serious guts politically, plus the craftsmanship Cao’s kind of defiance demands. And, true again, there was also the flabbergasting, state-blessed john-job whose main locus was a variety of rural toilets and potties, many ancient and few modern… an honest weirdo, that, brimming with charms, tinkered together by a talent truly apart as it is – but maybe a bit too rough around the edges, and we all know what that can do to you on the shitter. But, hey!, those were still mighty decent works compared to Tsui Hark’s depressingly misguided attempt to kick some romantic comedy-ass the HK-‘80s way in nowadays Beijing: Nüren bu huai (All About Women). Let’s just say: he failed. Miserably – no amount of echt HK-energy and inventiveness could have saved this too clean and calculated endeavour in attitude (Might this be due to the screenplay by writer/director Kwak Jaeyong? – certainly didn’t help in recent years when RoK’eans got busy on films from cultures other than their own… pace Gu Jaemo, the fine dp. of Zhang Meng’s Erduo da you fu [Lucky Dog, 2007], one of last FEFF’s biggest surprises). Feng Xiaogang, on the other hand, after his awkward and torn while nevertheless intriguing cum memorable experiment in war and remembrance, Jijie hao (Assembly, 2007), delivered big time this time around, with Feicheng wu rao (If You Are the One): an urban comedy of manners – sometime full-frontal the Beijing way, sometimes biting in some semi-suppressed rural fashion – that indulges in genuinely quirky narrative twist and turns, Japan-wards, where in the coolness of Hokkaido something like a new self awaits the genius behind the most important invention in recent world history, the CRT2008, a guarantee of peace for all mankind…

Best thing for the end: FEFF had a retrospective again! A smaller than usual selection, it’s true, but above all a fine and worthy one: The TV Works of Ann Hui On Wah, occasioned by her most recent, originally made for television film, Tin Shui Wai dik yat yu ye (The Way We Are), which became a sleeper back home when it was given a small theatrical release. FEFF showed only about a dozen of Hui’s TV works, and only fiction films, and only from the time prior to her feature debut in 1979 – the days when she was busy creating images and stories for a rapidly changing Hong Kong, among them many minor gems and a fistful of certifiable masterpieces crafted with classical Cantonese social realist melodrama on her mind and a different cinema for a modern tomorrow in her eyes. Tin Shui Wai dik yat yu ye is a quiet, caring look at the ordinary mornings and evenings of some working folks in the notoriously violent satellite town of Tin Shui Wai – think late Ozu, early Chor. It harks back to Hui’s short and medium-length essays in civil rights and common humanity, of which a few proved too much for the censors, like the 1977 ICAC-episodes Nam ji hon (A Man) and Cha ngon gei (Investigation) – both deal, in different ways, with police corruption. While others became classics over the decades, like the tightly written, straight-to-the-point-directed exposé on boat people in Hong Kong, Si ji san ha: Loi hak (Below the Lion Rock: The Boy from Vietnam, 1978), or, same series, Kiu (The Bridge, 1978), an attempt to describe as exactly as possible all the different sides and factors behind a small case of communal disobedience, their reasons, usually beyond all mediation. Or Buk dau sing: Siu linh (Social Worker: Boy, 1976), a brilliant, down-to-earth variation on Ōshima’s Shōnen (Boy, 1969) done without ever having the seen the film (Hui only knew the story from a review). Or the (titleless) 6th episode of the thriller-series Lung Fung Pau (Dragon, Tiger, Panther, 1976), the reconstruction of a crime told from various angles leading towards one quite surprising question… Unlike the TV works of Patrick Tam Kar Ming shown two years ago at FEFF as part of a major tribute to the master (a program whose success probably suggested this year’s season…), this survey on Hui’s small screen-apprenticeship in big-screen maturity didn’t produce any exercises in stylishness and elegance, masterpieces of an ever-precarious Hong Kong modernism – that’s something Hui was never really interested in. What she cares about is people: her people, their struggles, of which there are many in Hong Kong.

If one wants to learn about the Hong Kong of the last 30+ years, the city’s problems, its changing face, there is the cinema of Ann Hui On Wah and that of Herman Yau Lai To, and little else, but that’s quite enough. Two mavericks at heart with a commendable Stahanovist work ethic, both underrated in their very own ways, both unpredictable in their aesthetics while politically reliable like few others in this line of art. Good people.

Udine Far East Film Festival website: