The Far East Film Festival has ever-increasing audience numbers and takes place at the more prosperous end of the Italian peninsula, in the charming Friuli town of Udine. Nevertheless, it is not immune from the atmosphere of financial crisis and austerity that hangs over Euroland this year. The 14th edition of the festival’s design features a panda clinging, King Kong-style, to New York’s iconic Chrysler Building, while being buzzed by biplanes. Passionate and animated as ever, festival President Sabrina Barracetti ended her opening night address with a cry of “Save the Panda!”

We all have faith that no one will let the real panda become extinct. Let’s hope the same is true for FEFF. Its focus on commercial and popular East Asian cinema gives it a unique niche on the film festival circuit, and it makes a valuable contribution to European understanding of the sort of Asian cinema we don’t see in the other festivals. The only noticeable change from last year was the reversion to a single venue – the huge Teatro Nuovo Giovanni di Udine, with its multiple balconies – after last year’s experiment with two venues. For festival regulars, who value the sense of a collective viewing experience that builds across the week and not having to make difficult choices and last minute dashes across town, this seeming retreat may even have been a good thing.

FEFF 2012 confirmed once again the dominance of Northeast Asia, and Japan and South Korea in particular, in commercial cinema from East Asia, with a more mixed picture from the rest of the region. The Korean film, Silenced (d. Hwang Dong-hyuk), a court drama based on a real case of abuse in a home for deaf children, won both the audience award and the Black Dragon. For me, one of the most interesting elements of this year’s festival was the decision to program a number of small or independent Chinese films with a commercial edge as well as mainstream blockbusters and genre films from the mainland. The other was the remarkable retrospective of difficult-to-see Korean films from the normally reviled decade of the 1970s, when the Park Chung-hee dictatorship was at its height and ordinary people were paying the price of breakneck paced development. Both these elements indicate a healthy willingness to diversify and grow the festival beyond its core mission of presenting today’s popular East Asian cinema.

Sunny

Turning first to the main program, the opening night featured one South Korean and one Japanese film, indicating clearly where in the region a reliable output of quality genre cinema can be most readily sourced. Kang Hyung-Chul’s Sunny was a feel-bad/feel-good chick flick about a former female teen gang reunited when one member is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  As they face her death, they indulge in nostalgia for their youth and review what has happened in their lives. Three things saved it from treacly melodrama. First, if the film is to be believed, Korean teenage girls are as violent as their male counterparts, giving it an edge. Second, the beatings often tipped over into the comedy, making the audience laugh and wince at the same time. For example, the era of the women’s youth was the period when students and others were demonstrating against the military regime in its final days. Scenes in which the girls get caught in what could have been a frightening situation between the riot police and the demonstrators are played for laughs, with the girls joining the brawl, but the dissonance between the scenes and the reality it referred to could not be completely smoothed over and added a strange excess that I liked. Finally, despite some unevenness along the way, it all builds to a magnificent final scene involving a much-anticipated performance of Boney M’s “Sunny.” Despite the pouring rain, everybody walked out of the Teatro Nuovo Giovanni with a song on their lips and a lift in their step. I couldn’t make myself go back in for Gu Su-Yeon’s “dark and cruel” film from Japan, Hard Romanticker. The genre of films about violent and dysfunctional young men are designed for audiences who find such figures fascinating, but I’m afraid I usually find them stupid and repulsive.

Punch

In the days that followed, Japanese and Korean films formed part of every day’s schedule, and covered genres ranging from the war movie – for example Jang Hun’s The Front Line, which picked up an audience favourite award – to feel-good comedy – for example Ishii Yuya’s Mitsuko Delivers. There were no bad films among the South Korean and Japanese features I saw, but the stand-out was Lee Han’s Punch. The plot line could sound like a politically correct turn-off: a young man discovers that his long-lost mother is not Korean, forcing him to come to terms with multiculturalism in South Korea today. Fortunately, the film itself is not as worthy and self-righteous as this might lead you to expect. Instead, the main focus of the film is on the relationship between the young man and his seemingly cynical and exploitative high school teacher and neighbour. The chemistry between the two actors is excellent. Of course, we know that they really care about each other, but by maintaining the tension between them, the film creates plenty of comedy and avoids being mawkish. Punch does indeed pack quite a bit of a punch!

Also enjoyable was the Japanese quirky comedy, Afro Tanaka (d. Matsui Diago). Beyond the gimmick of Tanaka’s afro-style hair, this is a straightforward but well-executed coming-of-age drama crossed with romantic comedy, in which the protagonist oscillates between his loser friends and the desperate search for a girlfriend. Takeuchi Hideki’s Thermae Romae was another well-disguised romantic comedy. The Roman bath architect Lucius is sucked down the plughole of time into modern-day Japan, where he discovers various inspirations for innovative new designs that he can take back to Rome, and also a Japanese girlfriend. The basic gimmick creates plenty of laughs first time round. But as Lucius sluices back and forth between Tokyo and Rome, the narratives loses direction. Although I enjoyed the film, eventually the comedy ran out of steam. A similar problem limited the success of the otherwise very strong Japanese drama, The Woodsman and the Rain (d. Okita Shuichi). A bit like Punch, this focused on a father-son style relationship, this time between a young but lost movie director and a logger he encounters on location. Unlike Punch, the relationship between them warms too quickly, and then, like Thermae Romae, the film has nowhere left to go. Nevertheless, excellent acting and cinematography still made this a very watchable film.

Southeast Asian films were few and far between at this year’s FEFF, suggesting that perhaps the commercial industries are struggling in these territories, whereas their independent sectors continue to thrive. From Malaysia, Dain Iskandar Said’s Bunohan: Return to Murder was another of those films about dysfunctional young men. See my comments about Hard Romanticker above. This time the film revolves around the entanglements of three half-brothers. Somehow, we are led to believe that it’s all the fault of – guess who? – yes, their mother. It’s amazing how much mayhem and violence against women in general can be excused on the grounds of what-mummy-did-to-me! Nonetheless, I must acknowledge that this is a better put-together action film than anything else I’ve seen from Malaysia. Unfortunately, that’s more than I can say for the Indonesia comedy, Kentut (d. Aria Kusumadewa). The set-up is full of promise. During an election campaign that pits a vulgar and sensational local entertainer against a refined and educated woman, the woman is hospitalised and has to release a fart in order to save herself. Fart jokes may be silly, but surely you could not fail to raise a laugh with such a plot? Kentut proves it can do it. Because the female candidate would be cured as soon as she farts, the plots holds back until the very final moment. The audience in Udine held back its laughs, too, sitting in stony silence through most of the movie. I guess the revival of mainstream Indonesian cinema is going to take a little longer.

Warriors of the Rainbow

Turning to the various Chinese territories, Hong Kong and Taiwan continue to struggle against the loss of box office to Hollywood. On the basis of the selection at Udine, it appears that Taiwanese cinema is continuing to move towards more commercial cinema, and with considerable aesthetic success. In the case of Wei Te-sheng’s big budget action film, Warriors of the Rainbow, this has also been accompanied by box office triumph. The film is an alternative tale of national origins, focused on a famous uprising by the Seediq aboriginals in the mountains of Taiwan against the Japanese colonisers in 1930. The ethnic Chinese are barely present, and often caught between these two violent forces. This creates an interestingly tension between a simple identification with the heroics of the aboriginal heroes and the vulnerability of the Chinese traders in the towns. Perhaps this structure of feeling corresponds to a certain contemporary Taiwanese oscillation between local pride and anxiety in the face of bigger powers, and also a sense of looming and inevitable defeat? After nearly two hours of slick Private Ryan-style action, perhaps the most interesting moment comes at the very end. Having had to resort to aerial bombardment and chemical warfare to subdue the Seediq, the Japanese commander honours the vanquished by commenting that he has found the true spirit of Japanese bushido martial culture – long lost in overly modernised Japan itself – here in Taiwan. What does it say that the film ends on what appears to be such a note of admiration for the cultural heritage of the former colonisers, not to mention identification with them? Clearly, there is more complexity and ambivalence that might appear on the slick surface of Warriors of the Rainbow, and maybe that helped the film to gain traction in Taiwan. However, for foreign audiences less invested in the narrative, it may have more limited appeal.

Aside from Rainbows of the Warrior, You Are the Apple of My Eye (d. Giddens) is adapted by the novelist Giddens from his own work, and has been a cult hit among the young in Taiwan and other Chinese-speaking territories. A much lower budget coming-of-age teen pic than Rainbows of the Warrior, some audiences found the smutty teenage humour in this Taiwanese entry tiresome. But overall the film was enjoyable and captured nostalgia for high school days well. The young women from mainland China sitting next to me told me the film had also been a hit there and its screening in Udine was clearly a highlight of their time in Italy.

Romancing in Thin Air

As always, there were a lot of Hong Kong films at the festival. And, as so often seems to be the case these days, they were very mixed. The commercial films were disappointing, but it is hard to see how more interesting films will find audiences in the current distribution and exhibition structure in Hong Kong, where there are almost no indie theatres left. None of this bodes well for Hong Kong cinema’s struggle to survive. Johnnie To received a lifetime achievement award at the festival, for which he managed to say “thank you” but not much more. His feature film in the main program, Romancing in Thin Air, also delivered very little beyond confirming that romantic comedy is not his genre. Louis Koo stars as a Hong Kong film star (not a huge acting stretch for him, I assume) who goes off the rails after a celebrity scandal. He flees into the mountains of Yunnan, where he encounters an innkeeper played by Sammi Cheng. Returning to the screen after a hiatus, Cheng’s mugging, squealing and screaming indicates that she needs even more time off – a lot more. The whole concoction is ill-conceived and charmless. Equally contrived and tiresome, but not quite a sickly, is Derek Yee’s The Great Magician, a comedy action film set just after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Unlike Sammi Cheng, Tony Leung Chiu-wai is good in anything and helped to hold the film through to its limping conclusion. But even he wasn’t a great enough magician to make this movie sustain interest to the end.

If Hong Kong’s big budget films failed to appeal, what about Pang Ho-cheung’s middle-budget films? Three were at Udine this year: Love in a Puff, Love in the Buff and Vulgaria. The latter is as vulgar as its title promises, and I am told that if you understand Cantonese, the endless stream of foul language is very funny. The first two films follow the ups and downs of the romance between a couple of office workers in Hong Kong. The narrative is delicately handled; the acting is well-pitched and not melodramatic; the direction, the lighting, the cinematography and the sound all display high production values; and so on. The film also captures the texture of ordinary everyday life in Hong Kong. But, in the end, so what? I know what it’s like to get up, go to work, date someone, eat out at a restaurant, and so on. As sometimes before with Pang’s films, I found it hard to give a damn and kept looking at my watch.

Theoretically more promising for the future of Hong Kong cinema are some of the young filmmakers Johnnie To brought to Udine with their “Fresh New Wave” package of shorts. Inevitably, this was a mixed bag. But at its best, it displayed a thrilling sophistication. Wong Wai-kit’s The Decisive Moment tells the story of a veteran news photographer paralysed by guilt over the moral consequences of his dedication to getting the picture for his tabloid press employers. Told as a thrilling and even suspenseful nitty-gritty street-level story in the best Johnnie To action-style, it also took us into the heart of true moral dilemmas without offering easy solutions. I worry if Hong Kong cinema as it is currently operating, dominated by tired genres and limited by the lack of independent theatres, really has the room to develop talent like this. I hope I am wrong.

The picture of mainland Chinese cinema in the main program was perhaps the most interesting and controversial of the lot. We all know that the mainland box office is growing by leaps and bounds, as multiplex construction and a growing middle-class meet, and the combination has provoked a huge growth in numbers of features made. However, the quality of those films has been – to say the least – mixed so far. The mainstream People’s Republic features at FEFF confirmed this pattern. Fei Xing’s The Man Behind the Courtyard House was yet another victim of the mainland censor’s ban on horror and ghost films as “feudal superstition”, with a silly twist at the end. The film itself has a convoluted narrative with multiple parallel strands and flashbacks, which may have justified its inclusion in the festival, but lost the interest of the audience fairly quickly. Teng Huatao’s romantic comedy Love Is Not Blind is a ghastly confection of product placement and sickly cliches. The only reason to screen it is the waspishly funny performance of Zhang Wen as the gay best friend the heroine seemingly discovers is the real man in her life. At first, I found him to be an offensive stereotype. By the end of the film, he was still a stereotype, but the only thing stopping me from walking out. Everything the guy does and says is funny.

One Mile Above

Finally amongst the commercial films from the mainland, Du Jiayi’s One Mile Above rips off the formula of En Chen’s 2007 Taiwanese film, Island Etude, which followed a young man getting to know Taiwan by cycling around the island. One Mile Above moves the plot to the road from China up into Tibet and on to Lhasa. Needless to say, the Han Chinese cyclist is welcomed by friendly native Tibetans as warmly as we are told they welcomed the People’s Liberation Army when it marched into Tibet all those years ago. The whole things reeks of an orientalist idealisation of the backward-but-kind Tibetans. However, the local audience loved it, and gave it an audience award for reasons completely beyond my comprehension.

The production values of all these mainland mainstream films and also others that I have seen recently is high and constantly improving. But their narratives are uninteresting if not plain dull. The reasons for this situation are beyond this festival report. But the persistent weakness of mainstream Chinese cinema may explain the decision of the programmers to include small-budget indie films not passed by the censors in the festival. This is normally the type of cinema that Udine tries to avoid. I was told that the programmers had tried to chose Chinese indies they saw as having commercial potential. Even though these might not have been the kinds of films normally seen at FEFF, they held the audience spellbound, and so this a good decision.

Song of Silence

Particularly strong was Chen Zhuo’s Song of Silence, a story that follows a deaf-mute teenage girl’s efforts to cope with her parents’ divorce, and her move from her mother’s house to her father’s new flat, complete with his new girlfriend. Set in a provincial town, the film captures the texture of rapidly changing daily life as the country moves to industrialise and urbanise in one huge leap. The teenager’s disability licenses a strong emphasis on visual storytelling. For example, in one scene we see how her brother catches fish by passing an electric current through the water. Several scenes later, her father returns home to find all his tropical fish floating in their tank. To its credit, the film avoids melodrama and enables us to understand the emotions and motivations of all the characters as they work through this difficult but increasingly common situation in China. Especially astute was the decision to put the focus equally on the daughter and the father’s young girlfriend. At first, they are hostile to each other, but they are closer to each other in age than the girlfriend is to the father, and slowly a sisterly relationship develops between two young women struggling to survive in a lonely world. The Udine audience is supposed to like being entertained. Song of Silence does not have the long, long takes that one sometimes associated with Chinese indie films. But it isn’t an easy crowd pleaser, and character-driven drama is hardly fashionable nowadays. Nonetheless, it held everyone spellbound. Along with Punch, it was my second standout film at Udine 2012.

Another strong indie film from China was Jin Rui’s The Cockfighters. A small-town film, it tells the tale of one man’s struggle against the corrupt and sadistic son of the local mine owner, who is used to getting his own way. The children of the new rich in China must be the most unpopular class there today, and the depiction of them in this film is singularly unflattering. Predictably, The Cockfighters is also quite a violent film, which was made incongruous by the director’s appearance in person. Jin greeted the audience Thai-style, pressing his hands together and bowing, He told us that he was a Buddhist now and wanted to avoid violence in his future films. Nevertheless, as a metaphor for China today, The Cockfighters is a pacey, compelling and troubling film that works much better than any of the bigger budget films castrated by the censors for mass consumption in China.

Although I was very happy with the range and depth of the main program at Udine, the real treat for me was the annual retrospective, which this year focused on the Korean cinema of the 1970s. Billed as the “darkest decade”, this is the height of the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship, when producers had to run up a series of Korean films in order to get a license to import one foreign film. This policy led to mass production of cheap quota quickies. Low quality production and an age of political repression have made this an overlooked decade in Korean cinema, and most of the films that were shown at Udine are extremely difficult to see. Therefore, we must all be grateful to the festival organisers and Seoul-based Darcy Paquet, the curator of the retrospective, for this rare opportunity. I had seen some before, but it was a real eye-opener for me, and suggests that there are many more unexpected treasures of Korean cinema waiting to be unearthed.

A number of the films in the retrospective used the metaphor of an innocent young man in a corrupt or distorted household or village as a national metaphor. For example, the ten-film program launched with Ha Kil-Chong’s Pollen (1972). Made soon after his own return to South Korea, the film parallels Pasolini’s Teorema with a display of how a young man from outside (and also from the other side the tracks) can wreak havoc in a wealthy household. The national metaphor is evident, the film is a chilling critique of the South Korean ruling elite’s pretensions to modernity in the prisonhouse of their own making. Two delirious Kim Ki-young features also displayed the delusions of the time, but in a spicy rather than chilly atmosphere. Iodo (1977) takes another young man to a mythical island of women, where desperation for means of continuing the species culminates in a bizarre scene involving the extraction of semen from a recently drowned man. A Woman Chasing a Killer Butterfly (1978) satirises the pretensions to rationality and science of the middle-classes with a hallucinatory and unfathomable plot about a young man who finds himself caught between a mad archaeologist and his desperate but unhinged daughter.

Kim Ki-young is widely acknowledged as one of three great directors of Korean’s 1960s and 1970s. The other two, Yu Hyun-mok and Im Kwon-taek, also had two films each in the retrospective, of which I was able to see one by each. The former’s Rainy Days (1975) is a moving Korean War drama. Set in the countryside, it displays divisions within a family as relatives from Seoul flee the fighting. But eventually the struggle reaches the village itself, and the efforts of the family to protect each other despite their ideological disagreements inevitably come under strain. Yu is known for his sensitive handling of melodrama, and this film did not disappoint. Im’s Wang Rib, My Hometown (1978) focuses on the return of a young man to his hometown after fourteen years away. He hopes he can fit in, but discovers that he is completely changed and that the town is hopelessly corrupt. All hope is placed on the figure of a self-sacrificing young prostitute. Having made the most of her throughout the film, she is then sent packing to the countryside to redeem herself (and presumably Korea).

Fortunately, more interesting and less obviously exploitative depictions of women were at the centre of two films from Kim Soo-yong: Night Journey (1977) and Splendid Outing (1978). In the former, two bank employees keep their relationship a secret, leaving the woman increasingly unfulfilled. We see how the arrangement puts her under pressure, while it takes the burden of responsibility away from him. The film also alludes to a particularly unpleasant feature of the era: the sending of Korean conscripts to fight for democracy in Vietnam, as a time when South Korea itself had none. In the second film, Kim’s eye for sexism is displayed again when a woman CEO who seems to exemplify women’s liberation in modern Korea gets lost on the road. She soon finds out what life is like for ordinary women in the villages, and how limited her social resources are as she tries to find her way back to her old life.

Finally, the retrospective offered us a chance to see what is probably the most notorious film from the era: Youngja’s Heyday (Kim Ho-sun, 1975). This hit launched what is known as the “hostess film” cycle. While most of the films in the cycle were unrelentingly exploitative, Youngja’s Heyday is a remarkably unsentimental and certainly unerotic portrayal of a young woman’s fall. She starts out as a maid, then moves to factory work in the big city. After losing an arm in a traffic accident, she ends up as a prostitute. The young worker Changsoo, who spotted her when she was a maid, never stops loving her, but she is unable to accept his love and they are unable to save each other. No Hollywood sentiment intrudes to disturb this very direct attack on the price that ordinary people have to pay in the construction of modernity.

I would have been happy with Udine just for the chance to see Youngja’s Heyday. But it was a highlight among many high points. So, long live the Panda, and let’s hope there is no need to save it at all!

Far East Film Festival, Udine
20-28 April 2012
Festival website: http://www.fareastfilm.com/