I have a confession to make. I have known about Udine’s Far East Film Festival (FEFF) since its inception in 1999. But somehow I had never made it until this year. After a shamefully short flying visit, I know I am going to be back for more. Yes, FEFF emphasises popular cinema. But, no, FEFF is not all fanboy fantasies of ultra-violence and Asia as mondo bizarre, no matter what the acid-coloured clichés of its publicity might suggest. FEFF takes Asian popular cinema seriously. That’s what’s good about it, and it’s also the source of its happily few limitations. As well as its regular round-up of the region’s hits, this year’s FEFF included two retrospectives. First, there was a selection of Japanese pink eiga, or soft-porn. Under the title Pink Wink and curated by Roland Domenig, it was a tribute to producer Asakura Daisuke, who was present. Also in town was veteran Hong Kong comedian Michael Hui, for a survey of Asian comedy films, called Asia Laughs and accompanied by a substantial catalogue of its own.

FEFF combines its excellent range of cinematic offerings with easy access to screenings and the relaxed atmosphere of a charming and historic small city between Venice and the Alps. No wonder more and more Asian film fans based in Europe are making FEFF their top priority destination. Not only is it cheaper to get there than flying over to Asia itself. At some of the major Asian festivals, arcane hierarchy, small venues and extremely high demand for tickets means you might go all that way and still not see much. At FEFF, various season ticket and accreditation packages are readily available and affordable. The only risk in Udine comes from conflicting scheduling. For the first time this year, FEFF’s plate was so full that it had to run parallel sessions in venues on different sides of town. Of course, that is another mark of its success. But in a city as small as Udine “the other side of town” is just a short walk away.

Although I am a FEFF fan now, the emphasis on the popular is not without danger. The opening film, Juezhan Shamazhen (d. Li Weiran) was translated as Welcome to Shama Town. I understand it did good business in China, and so it was logical to screen it at FEFF. But it might have been better to call it Shama Town and You Are Welcome to It. Shama Town is a Chinese Nowheresville. To promote tourism, the mayor publicises a local legend about buried treasure. But he gets more than he bargained for when people take the story for real. I tried to laugh, not least because it is director Li Weiran’s debut, he was in attendance, and he seemed like a nice guy. But it just isn’t that funny. The gags are obvious, the actors hammed it up, and although the budget might have been quite high for all I know, it looked cheap and tacky. Apart from the fact that Chinese people are as greedy as the rest of us, I didn’t get any great social insights, either. Films like Shama Town reveal that the risk of going for the popular is getting the mediocre, too. We all know that big box office does not always equate to excellence, and often it’s just a question of what’s in the multiplexes and easily accessible to the public. People eat a lot of McDonalds but that doesn’t mean it is good food.

However, I must concede that my opinion about mainstream films like Shama Town might be in the minority at FEFF. Two other Chinese films took the number one and two spots in the audience award poll: Feng Xiaogang’s Tangshan Dizhen (Aftershock), and Zhang Yimou’s Shanzhashu zhi Lian (Under the Hawthorn Tree). But although the production values were much higher than Shama Town, both seemed as uninteresting as Welcome to Shama Town to me. Aftershock is an earthquake film. After the special effects opener, it quickly turns to melodrama and steals from Sophie’s Choice when a mother has to choose which of her children to save from the rubble. Aftershock’s topicality derives from the recent Sichuan earthquake, but by choosing to set his film in the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, Feng is able to avoid all the controversies about corruption, poor construction, and more that surrounded the more recent disaster. Under the Hawthorn Tree could also have been a risk taker, because it is set during the Cultural Revolution period (1966-76). Officially classified as a decade of chaos and errors, it is usually off limits for Chinese filmmakers today. But Zhang just uses it as a backdrop for a chocolate box love story that is strictly soft centre.

In contrast to these middlebrow and middle of the road films, FEFF is at its best when it sticks with popular genre films but gets a bit more edgy. Chinese censorship conditions make edginess in mainstream films unlikely. Chinese indie films do not go through the Chinese censorship process. Unreleased in local cinemas, they can never qualify as popular and therefore fall outside FEFF’s remit. However, these conditions are peculiar to China, and other popular cinema can be more exciting. For example, I went along to Kim Kwang-sik’s debut film, Nae Kkangpae Gateun Aein (My Dear Desperado), without high expectations but got a pleasant surprise. In this hybrid romantic comedy and gangster movie, the laughs are generated by an odd couple combination of an ambitious career girl and a down at heel gangster. When her employer goes bankrupt and she is out of a job, she is forced to move into a cheap basement flat where she discovers the gangster is her neighbour. Veteran star Park Joong-Hoon has been doing double-act humour since Chilsu and Mansu in 1988, so the excellent timing and the chemistry between the leads should have come as no surprise. But generating a lot of the laughs from a sharp look at Korean social reality was an eye-opener. My Dear Desperado not only punctures any glamour surrounding the idea of being a gangster, but it also shows how hard it is to get taken seriously on the Korean labour market as a woman. But it does it with outrageous humour, and so I’m not surprised it was a word-of-mouth hit in Korea.

Also taking mainstream cinema out on a limb was Akunin (Villain). Korean Japanese director Lee Sang-Il started out with the powerful short Blue Chong in 1999, and has since made a number of other successful features. Villain is a gripping psycho-thriller and unquestionably his greatest critical success so far. Working class Yuichi from a small town meets a pretty young city girl online and starts dating her, until she dumps him to drive off with a rich boy. When her body is found in a ravine the next day, it looks like the rich boy will get the blame. But Yuichi ends up as a suspect. The best moments in the film come in the unhinged relationship he develops with an equally marginalised young shopgirl while on the run from the police, communicating the desperate loneliness of isolated young people stuck in dead-end jobs. The worst moments in the film are predictable pop psychology. Yes, you guessed it — it was his mother than made him do it.

Japanese popular cinema is supposedly in a revival at the moment, and Villain wasn’t the only film bearing that out. Kaneko Fuminori’s O-oku (The Lady Shogun and Her Men) is a stylish gender reversal costume drama set in the eighteenth century when a mysterious epidemic has wiped out most of the men and women are in charge. It’s Untold Scandal by way of The King and the Clown, or Liaisons Dangereuses comes to Japan. Given that the whole premise is that natural gender relations are out of kilter, no doubt it is intended as a comment on the present. But apparently women audiences in Japan ignored all that and just got off on the idea of being serviced by legions of handsome men. I picked up a few practical household hints on new uses for clove oil (watch the film and you’ll understand). Also appealing was the omnibus comedy Sabi Otoko Sabi Onna (Sabi Sabi –Quirky Guys and Gals, directed by Fujita Yosuke, Matsunashi Tomoko, Oh Mipo, and Sekiguchi Gen). From cheerleaders who take their mission into society, to cross-dressing high school students, and a housewife who takes in stray unemployed executives during the daytime so they can hide their redundancy from their families, Sabi ♂ Sabi ♀ is fast-moving, absurd and full of good-natured satire on the contemporary Japanese condition. My favourite episode was Oh Mipo’s Kuremu Naito (Claim Night), in which a disgruntled customer’s demands for apologies, compensation and even a bit of sex from the utilities company man get completely and magnificently out of hand.

Although it was a comedy, Sabi ♂ Sabi ♀ was too contemporary to be part of the Asia Laughs survey. In fact, one of the strengths of Asia Laughs was its willingness to go so far back into black-and-white and even silent films that you felt you might be at Pordenone. Many of the films are unavailable on DVD and rarely screened, so this was an especially welcome opportunity. The line-up included China’s earliest surviving film, the 22-minute slapstick film Laogong zhi Aiqing (Labor’s Love, a.k.a. A Laborer’s Love and The Fruit Peddler’s Romance, directed by Zhang Shichuan in 1922), as well as the semi-silent gem Huashen Guniang (Tomboy, directed by Fang Peilin, 1936). Cross-dressing and gender reversals here have nothing to do with erotics or identity crisis but instead are part of the effort to satisfy a rich Confucian patriarch’s desire for a male heir. Also on show was the wonderful Taiwanese Laurel and Hardy-style comedy Wang Ge Liu Ge Liu Taiwan (Brother Wang and Brother Liu on the Road in Taiwan, directed by Lee Hsing, Fang Zhen, and Tien Feng, 1959). The pair of buddies get caught up in numerous scrapes as they pedal a tricycle cab around the island. Despite the government’s claims to all Chinese territory at the time, they are tracing the territorial limits of their homeland at the same time as they experience its delights.

I was particularly delighted to get my first chance to see Wang Xiansheng Chi Fan Nan (Mr. Wang Got a Meal Hardly, 1939). Tang Jie not only wrote and directed, but also starred in this episode from the Mr. Wang series. Like the San Mao (“Three Hairs”) orphan series, the Mr. Wang series is set in Shanghai and based on a famous newspaper cartoon strip of the time. Wang is an inept and very traditional teacher whose Confucian beliefs alienate his students and lose him his job in these more market-driven times. The film follows the Chaplinesque figure’s increasingly desperate efforts to hold down a job. Although the result is somewhat slow-paced and too reliant on full shots for a film made as late as 1939, it was a privilege to see this rare popular film from the 1930s.

Also adapted from a popular komiks story and equally rare is Jack e Jill (Jack and Jill) from the Philippines. However, it is a little more recent, having been directed by Mar. S. Torres in 1954. This turned out to be yet another cross-dressing and gender reversal comedy. But it was distinguished from the others by offering both a cross-dressing sister, Benita (“Benny”), and a cross-dressing brother, Gorio (“Gloria of the Sunset”). When her father falls ill, Benny takes over his job as a chauffeur. But when Gloria gets thrown out of the family home because he won’t butch up, somehow he manages to get adopted as the long-desired daughter by the family Benny drives for. At 161 minutes, Jack and Jill certainly moves forward in as stately and leisurely a manner as the huge American car Benny pilots her employers around in. But there are numerous hilarious set pieces, not least the song the siblings sing when they decide to be “sisters” and work together. Most interesting of all, the gender-reversal theme works out quite differently from all the other examples I stumbled across at FEFF this year. In The Lady Shogun and Her Men, Tomboy, and Sabi ♂ Sabi ♀, gender reversal signals a world upside down that needs to be set right. Jack and Jill starts out pretty much the same, and that’s why Gloria gets thrown out by her exasperated father. But Dolphy plays the unrepentant and more than flamboyant queen with such panache that by the end, she has stolen the whole movie and, beneath the veneer of a return to normality, gender anarchy rules.

Anarchy also seems to be what animates the examples of relatively early Japanese soft porn that I saw in the Pink Wink retrospective. Frankly, this was a huge relief. Somehow, I have come to over-associate pink eiga with Koji Wakamatsu’s bucket-of-blood sado epics. I know they are supposed to be political, but they just look misogynistic to me. The pink eiga I saw at FEFF were a little strange, but also strangely charming. The women in Yamatoya Atsushi’s Koya no Datchiwaifu (1967) were rather passive, but maybe the English translation explains why: Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands. Yamatoya was helping to write Suzuki Seijun’s Branded to Kill at the same time, which helps to explain the assassins and the indecipherable timeline of the plot, all layered in with various near comatose naked women.

It seems the rigid conventions of porn flicks had not been fixed at the time of Inflatable Sex Doll in 1967, but the other film I saw in the Pink Wink series was made in 1983. The sex scenes in Hentai Kazoku — Aniki no Yomesan/Oyomesan Biyori (Abnormal Family, directed by Suo Masayuki) show a full understanding of climax-driven pacing and the ascending order of perversions up to S&M. The film also displays a remarkable sure understanding of all the conventions of the later Ozu movies, from the family setting through to the tatami mat camera height and the patterns of repeating dialogue. Curator Roland Domenig assured us Abnormal Family is an homage rather than a satire. I laughed out loud, so I’m not so sure about that. Whatever the truth, now I know the perfect way to teach the Ozu system to students in the future.

Independent Asian cinema has been getting a bit predictable and arthouse cinema is simply disappearing. So, the 13th FEFF made a very refreshing change for me. Although by no means all the films where exactly discoveries, FEFF demonstrated the range and health of commercial cinema in many parts of the East Asian region and its continuing ability to surprise. The catalogues and the retrospectives take all kinds of East Asian popular cinema seriously and contribute enormously to both our knowledge and our viewing pleasure. Best of all, this takes place in a relaxed and pleasant environment where the audiences and cinephiles still come first.

Udine Far East Festival
29 April – 7 May 2011
Festival website: http://www.fareastfilm.com/

About The Author

Chris Berry teaches at King's College London. He has written widely on East Asian cinema, and in particular Chinese cinema.