Chalking up 20 editions is a big achievement for any film festival. After surviving the 2008 financial crisis and growing to include a significant range of industry and market-related events, FEFF had a rightly celebratory feel this year. When it was launched, Asian genre films rarely appeared at international film festivals. It is a mark of FEFF’s success that everyone includes them now. While FEFF presented another strong program this year, competition with other festivals for premieres of Asian genre films and the need to offer something unique are combining to pose new challenges for the festival. To put it bluntly, now that you can see Asian genre films at other festivals and access them easily on DVD, some people might ask, why come to Udine?

From day one, programming decisions were a topic of conversation among festivalgoers. Why open with the South Korean espionage film about undercover agents from the North, Gangcheol-bi (Steel Rain, Yang Woo-seok)? It is already on Netflix And why include two other South Korean films also already available on Netflix, the thriller Gieok-wi-bum (Forgotten, Jang Hang-jun) and the geriatric detective film Bandeusi Jamneunda (The Chase, Kim Hong-sun)? Some suggested broadband is too unreliable in Italy for streaming movies, but that seemed like a weak explanation. Why give a prime evening slot to last year’s big Chinese Rambo-style hit, Zhanlang Er (Wolf Warrior II, Wu Jing), which is already out on DVD and playing on airplanes, but put the current Chinese box office hit, Dante Lam’s action hit, Honghai Xingdong (Operation Red Sea), on at ten in the evening? Anne Hui’s historical drama about smuggling people out of Hong Kong during the World War Two Japanese occupation, Ming Yuet Gei Si Jau (Our Time Will Come), has also been around for almost a year, is out on DVD, and playing on planes. Nevertheless, FEFF decided to screen it not once, but twice. It was great to see a bigger contingent of Taiwanese films than usual this year. But why program several rather weak rom coms in the selection, but not this year’s two big Taiwanese genre films, Dafo Pulasi (The Great Buddha +, Huang Hsin-yao) and Xie Guanyin (The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful, Yang Ya-che)? Both would seem to be a perfect match for Udine.

I can only speculate about FEFF’s programming logic. But if FEFF is competing for Asian genre titles with other festivals, perhaps some titles are passed over because they are no longer available as premieres. Perhaps others are picked precisely because they are available. Wolf Warrior II was billed as an “international festival premiere”. Perhaps a package has to be taken from a distributor to secure an especially desired title, or promises have to be made about screening slots. In the year of #metoo, there was an entirely appropriate commitment to showing as many films by woman directors as possible. But by the end of the week, I had regretfully realised that a premiere could be a sign that no one else wanted the film and that being a woman was no guarantee of being able to direct.

However, this year’s FEFF was not short of highlights. The audience awards demonstrated the continuing strength of South Korean cinema, which, with 16 films, was the largest national contingent in the program. The Golden Mulberry went to the South Korean political thriller 1987 (1987: When the Day Comes, Jang Joon-Hwan). Focusing on the struggle to expose the truth behind a student’s death in custody, this gripping account of a crucial true story in the overthrow of military dictatorship won a standing ovation from the Udine audience. Earlier in the morning, a smaller but equally enthusiastic audience gave another ovation to Gwon Gyung-won for his documentary, Gukga-e Daehan Ye-ui (Courtesy to the Nation) about another case of student wrongful arrest and torture. Ironically, this case happened in 1991, under the rule of Roh Tahwoo, the president who overthrew the military and whose biography formed the basis for Byeonhoin (The Attorney, Yang Woo-suk), a FEFF hit from a couple of years ago. After a shaky start with too much reliance on talking heads, the film builds to a more poetic, poignant and ultimately rousing conclusion.

The Battleship Island, Ryoo Seung-wan

The Battleship Island (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2017)

Third place went to another South Korean historical thriller, Gunhamdo (The Battleship Island, Ryoo Seung-wan). Hashima, off the coast of Nagasaki in Japan, was a fortified coalmining island operating in World War Two on forced Korean labour. The tale of the miners’ break-out carries echoes of Nazi concentration camp films right down to the musical band of prisoners entertaining the mine director. But the film saves its strongest punch to last, when it is revealed that the Japanese still refuse to acknowledge the use of Korean forced labour in the signs they put around Hashima today. A new jury-based award for best first or second film, the White Mulberry, went to yet another South Korean film, Saranam Un Ai (Last Child, Shin Dong-seok). This psychological exploration of the aftermath of one boy’s death drowning while supposedly saving another may be slow, but it still packs quite an emotional punch.

The reliable quality of South Korean genre films has made them the spine of FEFF’s programming. But this same consistency is slowly becoming predictability. As already mentioned, 1987 is one of a series of well-crafted recent political thrillers about the struggle for democracy in South Korea, including not only The Attorney, but also Taeksi Unjeongsa (A Taxi Driver, Jang Hoon) and various others. Steel Rain is also far from the first North-South espionage drama. Although the Korean films dominated FEFF again, I did not have a sense of discovery this year. The challenge now is to find something fresh in South Korean cinema.

Perhaps, for FEFF, that is where a film like Last Child fits in. After all, a Haneke-like arthouse movie seems to be the antithesis of what most people think FEFF stands for. Perhaps this kind of diversification is also a response to the competition with other festivals for the best Asian genre films. I like a varied film diet, so I was happy to see the range at this year’s FEFF go from the Japanese zombie-flick-with-a-twist, Kamera o Tomeruna (One Cut of the Dead Ueda Shinichiro), which was the runner-up in the audience awards, all the way through to Zheng Mengqi’s remarkable Zihuaxiang: Shengyu 47 Gongli (Self-Portrait: Birth in 47 km). Shown in the “China Now” indie program curated by Shelley Kraicer, it is shot almost as a series of beautiful still-lifes of a largely abandoned village. Alternating between her grandmother’s surprisingly vague memories about the birth of her seven children (or was it eight?) and a young woman who has returned from working in the city with a baby, the film shows us how China has changed – and how it has not – for rural women.

Hong Kong provided another festival highlight that was not a typical FEFF film. Chungyinggai Yathou (No. 1 Chung Ying Street, Derek Chiu) is a daring film that was not selected for this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) and has not received a release in Hong Kong. The black-and-white drama touches on two taboo topics – the 1967 Anti-British Riots and the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Both were idealistic and driven by the eager participation of young people, the first was more violent than the second, and both ended in bitter failure. To this day, the riots, which scared the colonial authorities into improving conditions for Hong Kong citizens, are controversial. Chiu tells parallel stories with the same actors in the same border village. Suggesting that the British colonial authorities can be compared to the Communists from the mainland is scandalous. But Chiu’s film is subtle, constantly calling on us to notice differences as well as similarities, and to question if the young people’s idealism is well-placed. I am told HKIFF claimed the film was rejected for quality reasons. It went on to win the Grand Prix at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. So, perhaps the dead hand of Beijing’s control in Hong Kong has reached the point where even admitting you have been censored is censored.

Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Cha-lard-games-kong (Bad Genius)

Bad Genius (Nattawut Poonpiriya, 2017)

The more mixed bag approach to programming was a big success this year. It is also one way to read this year’s festival slogan – All Genders, All Genres. But this year’s line-up was a mixed bag in more ways than one. Several films mixed genres in the same movie. Two Thai films pulled it off well. Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Cha-lard-games-kong (Bad Genius) is a high school movie about rich kids trying to get the poor scholarship kids to help them cheat and pass exams. Class tensions create sympathy for the latter, but we never confuse right and wrong. Poonpiriya’s stroke of genius is to mix the setting and characters of the high school genre with the narrative structure of the heist movie, upping the excitement several notches. Bonkod Bencharongkul’s first film, Phuen-chan-fun-salai (Sad Beauty) was promoted as a Thelma and Louise-style romp. However, although it was indeed about two women killing an abusive man and a road trip, the film riffed off other genres than the road movie. Mixing in medical melodrama – one of the women has cancer – along with horrific gore, the film’s realist style pushed the audience to experience the sweaty panic that genre films usually keep under more control. It was a risky move, but one that paid off. Another South Korean film, Cheongnyeon Gyeongchal (Midnight Runners, Jason Kim), mixed the comedy of a police cadet bromance with a violent tabloid thriller about the kidnapping of runaway teenage girls by brutal Chinese Korean gangs. It should not have worked, but it did, because Jason Kim is able to keep the two generic modes clearly demarcated.

Unfortunately, other films mixed things up in ways that made them good in parts only. Kim Dong-sun’s The Chase about two retirees tracking down a serial killer mixed comedy and gory thriller, a bit like Midnight Runners, but it did not pull it off because the line got awkwardly blurred.  Hitsuji no Ki (The Scythian Lamb) featured great acting performances in a tale about six ex-murderers resettled in a sleepy seaside town upon release. At first all seems fine, but then bodies start turning up. At this point, suspense is needed, but director Yoshida Diahachi persists with the plodding pacing of realism. There was also absolutely no suspense in the supposed thriller from Manila, Raya Martin’s Smaller and Smaller Circles. The film follows its priestly forensic pathologists with loving attention to locations and lighting, but the entire audience had figured out who the killer was long before the detectives.

Another much-hyped film from the Philippines also disappointed because of lack of genre skills, in this case farce. Si Chedeng at si Apple (Chedeng and Apple, Rae Reed and Fatrick Tabada) casts much loved veterans in a Frankie and Grace meets (once again) Thelma and Louise-style road trip. Complete with the preserved head of the abusive husband in a Louis Vuitton bag and the search for a long-lost lesbian lover, the script had plenty of jokes that must have looked good on paper, but the directors could not make most of them work on screen. Mainland Chinese director Zhang Linzi’s sci-fi Transcendent, with a replicant-style scenario set in a polluted future eerily reminiscent of Beijing today, surprised in some good ways. Both the relaxation of censorship prohibitions against any fantastic genre and the good design and CGI were unexpected delights. But some very basic narrative skills were missing: every time the plot seemed to be getting some momentum, it stalled for twenty minutes as a flashback with lots of technical detail relayed through dialogue filled in background. Screened on FEFF’s third full day, this was the first film I saw a few people walking out of this year.

Other titles at FEFF played it safer, sticking to one genre rather than mixing and matching in the one film. The results were not always exciting, but at least reliable. For example, Joko Anwar’s Pengabdi Setan (Slaves of Satan) is a remake of Sisworo Gautama Putro’s 1982 horror flick of the same name. A huge hit in its home country, it enjoyably replays all the haunted house tropes with a few Islamic twists. Feng Xiaogang’s Fang Hua (Youth) is a historical melodrama. Set in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, it is in the tradition of mainland Chinese films where romance is destroyed by politics. It works as a tearjerker, but it also confirms Feng’s slide from the ascerbic satire of his early days into sentimentality and nostalgia as he ages. The only Vietnamese film in the festival, Co Ba Saigon (Loc Ba and Kay Nguyen) was a colourful mothers-and-daughters melodrama about the fashion business that underlined Oscar Wilde’s old adage – “Women only call each other sister after they’ve called each other a lot of other things first.” And the mainland wuxia swordplay film Xiu Chun Dao Er – Xiuluo Zhanchang (Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield, Lu Yang) was full of palace intrigue and thrilling set piece fights, living up to all expectations.

Feng Xiaogang’s Fang Hua

Youth (Feng Xiaogang, 2018)

All the mainland films proved that budgets and skills are much improved now and up to international standards. The big films by big directors such as Feng Xiaogang’s Youth and Sylvia Chang’s Xiang Ai Xiang Qing (Love Education), another of the intergenerational melodramas she favours, were skillfully crafted and watchable, if not surprising. The same could be said for the two Hong Kong-China co-productions in the festival, Anne Hui’s Our Day Will Come and Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea. The discoveries amongst the mainland films came in the form of two crazy comedies no one had heard of before. Fengrenji Yuedui (City of Rock, Da Peng) is an absurd comedy about a guitarist desperate to save his small town’s reputation as the capital of China’s dwindling rock music scene. A manic caper featuring cameo appearances from all of China’s most famous rock stars, it is also surprisingly moving, no matter how ridiculous its plot seems. Equally hilarious is Xiuxiu de Tiequan (Never Say Die, Song Yang and Zhang Chiyu), mixing elements of the boxing genre into a comedy about a man and a woman who find they have swapped bodies after being struck by lightning together. The film pokes fun at all kinds of desperate money-making schemes and corruption. Although the genderbending is daring by mainland standards, international audiences will probably feel this aspect of the film is under-developed.

Never Say Die, Song Yang and Zhang Chiyu

Never Say Die (Song Yang and Zhang Chiyu, 2017)

Last but not least, a few words about the retrospective elements of the festival, including Brigitte Lin’s much-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award. For quite a few people I spoke to, her appearance to receive the award was a very good reason to come to Udine! In the second venue, a number of Lin’s films along with other restored archive classics, were screened. The commitment to restore popular classics on the part of Asian film archives is indeed very welcome and audiences should have the opportunity to see the fruits of the labour. But I still hope that FEFF will diversity its retrospective programming to show not only old favourites but also new archival discoveries. There are so many examples of older popular Asian cinema that we remain unfamiliar with. Introducing these films to its audiences will give them one more reason to keep returning to Udine in the springtime – as I intend to do again next year.

Far East Film Festival Udine
20-28 April 2018
Festival website: http://www.fareastfilm.com/eng/