Udine’s Far East Film Festival celebrated its twenty-first birthday with a vintage selection of excellent films. Despite a public funding cut of 150,000 euros, FEFF screened 77 films from East Asia with over 60,000 admissions and welcomed 200 guests. A fellow FEFF veteran joked that maybe we had such a positive impression because we can spot the duds now. However, on reflection, we both agreed that it really was a strong line-up. Apart from this year’s awkward slogan, “FEFF up your life!” FEFF did not feff up at all.

First, the awards. The Golden Mulberry Award for Outstanding Achievement went to Hong Kong veteran and crowd favourite Anthony Wong. Wong’s latest film, Leuhn Lohk Yahn (Still Human, Oliver Chan) closed the festival. In many ways, it is an inversion of the Andy Lau and Deanie Ip classic Tou Ze (A Simple Life, Ann Hui, 2011) with Wong in the role of an aging grump who takes time to warm to his Filipina carer. Clearly a crowd pleaser, Still Human picked up both the Audience Award and the Black Dragon Critic’s Award.

In second place for the Audience Award came the Chinese healthcare melodrama, Wo Bu Shi Yaoshen (Dying to Survive, Wen Muye). A true story about the import of Indian generic drugs because Chinese leukaemia patients could not afford the drugs manufactured there under license from a Western company, the businessman protagonist is jailed for selling pirate goods. But an end title makes it clear he was soon released, and the national health insurance rules were reformed to cover the drugs, leading to much better leukaemia survival rates in China. Dying to Survive pushes all the right emotional buttons, and also benefits hugely from the casting of Xu Zheng in the lead. One of China’s biggest stars, he specialises in roles that are morally ambiguous, which is spot on for a character who starts out motivated by greed alone but ends up sacrificing everything for the sick.

At first sight, Dying to Survive looks like a politically and socially critical film. But the end title makes it clear it is in line with the current Xi Jinping regime’s attempts to make its predecessors look bad, suggesting that they toadied up to foreign capitalists rather than looking after the Chinese public. The same pattern appeared in another Chinese film that appeared daring at first sight, and maybe really was. Leigu (The Rib, Zhang Wei) is China’s first transgender film to make it past the censor. Educating its audience and dripping tragedy, it will seem dated to audiences outside China, although it is indeed ground-breaking there. Again, an end title reminds us how grateful we should be to the Communist Party and the government by informing us of the official recognition of trans people, including their right to change the gender on their identification documents.

Wo Bu Shi Yaoshen (Dying to Survive, Wen Muye)

Third place in the Audience awards went to a Korean comedy gangster film, Geukhan Jigeop (Extreme Job, Lee Byoung-heon). Korean genre films have been consistent winners at FEFF. Although I missed this one, the others that I did catch confirmed that reputation. On the opening night, luminous Korean star Jeon Do-yeon picked up the Golden Mulberry Lifetime Achievement Award. Her film, Saengil (Birthday, Lee Jong-un) was the opener, and it was a masterclass in how to make an effective tearjerker without going too far or losing the audience. The film focuses on the aftermath of the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster, in which 304 people, most of them schoolchildren, drowned. The family that struggles to stay together clearly stands for Korean society as a whole. Jeon and her equally skilful co-star Sul Kyung-gu managed to ramp up the sturm and drang as the parents of a dead child without ever losing the audience. Another Korean drama with a historical background, Gukga Budo-ui Nal (Default, Choi Kook-hee), was a well-executed behind-the scenes account of the country’s experiences with the IMF during the Asian economic crisis of 1997. But, a bit like the Dick Cheney expose, Vice (Adam McKay, 2018), it lurched into conspiracy theory at times. Less freighted with historical significance, Seongnan Hwangso (Unstoppable, Kim Min-ho) was a powerful kidnapping-and-rescue drama in the style of Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008), but leavened with humour, as a king crab importer takes a no holds barred approach to freeing his wife.

FEFF’s other significant annual award is the White Mulberry for First Film. This year, it went to the Japanese gangster-ish comedy Merankorikku (Melancholic, Seiji Tanaka). Made on a shoestring, it was also the film that left the deepest impression on me, because it worked as a film but also touched on a whole series of issues that resonate not only in Japan but around the world. Kazuhiko is a graduate of the country’s top university, but jobless and living at home with his parents. They are surprised but supportive when he finds a job cleaning up at a local bathhouse. However, he stumbles across the fact that it is being used at night for yakuza executions and, threatened, finds himself not only cleaning up the blood but also facing difficult ethical issues. On one level, Melancholic is another deftly handled and even slight quirky Japanese comedy. But it clearly has another larger allegorical level that encompasses the generation gap in Japan and elsewhere, as well as debates about the price people are willing to pay for material success and even what life is all about. All of this is delivered without it ever becoming pretentious or heavy-handed.

Merankorikku (Melancholic, Seiji Tanaka)

Returning to my main question of how FEFF put together such a strong program in this difficult year, in my Senses of Cinema FEFF report last year1) I identified some of FEFF’s biggest challenges as growing out of its own success. When FEFF started, no one else was screening commercial Asian films in festivals. Now everyone else is doing the same, making it difficult for FEFF to land all the big hits. Indeed, reading the essays in this year’s catalogue, I was struck again by how many of the top box office films were not at Udine. But the programming response has been excellent. Indeed, the awarded films show that by choosing other major but perhaps less known works carefully, the result was a program of quality films the FEFF audience was unlikely to have seen before.

The festival line-up also benefited for the first time from its own Ties That Bind production lab. This year, it delivered the world premiere of Nadiah Hamzah’s Motivo, unfortunately mistranslated as Motif. Given that it is a detective film, Motive would be more accurate. A woman detective from Kuala Lumpur is sent to investigate the disappearance of the local rich man’s daughter in the small town of Tanah Merah. The film localises and feminises the detective genre by paralleling the story of the rich man’s second wife with the cop’s own difficult personal life, tapping into Malaysian debates about polygamy.

Diversification has also helped to keep FEFF’s program strong. As well as the commercial features that are its bread and butter, the festival shows smaller films and documentaries. Among the former, two Chinese films caught my attention. Guo Zhao Guan (Crossing the Border, Huo Meng) appears to be a charming kiddie pic, in which a city slicker boy is left with granddad in the countryside and learns about life. But there is more to it than that, because granddad hears one of his old buddies is ill and is determined to travel across country on his electric tricycle to visit him. Taking his grandson with him, inevitable bits of information about what happened to grandpa in the labour camps during the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution begin to leak out, and everyone gets a deeper education about modern China’s hidden history than they expected.

Also apparently a children’s movie and subtle enough to get past the censors but full of interesting implications was Diyici de Libie (A First Farewell). Director Lina Wang is a Han Chinese who grew up a village in Southern Xinjiang much like the one depicted. No Han Chinese appear on screen in the film, but the Uyghur families we follow mention Chinese neighbours. The main character is a young boy called Isa whose brother is going to university, and who has to care for his ill mother and look after the sheep. Life for Isa seems to be a long series of heart-rending farewells, as it is transformed by modernisation. At the moment, Xinjiang is in the news for the alleged incarceration of over one million Uyghurs and various programs judged by some to constitute a cultural genocide. So, although this is a quiet and charming film that never touches directly on Han-Uyghur relations, it is difficult not to think about the larger context. That is especially true when parents in the film talk about the necessity for their children of learning Chinese, if they want to have any future.

Diyici de Libie (A First Farewell, Lina Wang)

Also interesting from China but in the end less satisfactory was Guo Chuntian (The Crossing, Bai Xue). The premise was promising: a teenager living in Shenzhen but going to school across the border in Hong Kong gets involved in smuggling iPhones to make money on the side. But in the end the story does not go anywhere, because Chinese censorship rules mean you know the ending from the start – all criminals will be apprehended. All that is left is the question of how many times she will go back and forth before the inevitable denouement happens. The same constraints hamstring so many Chinese films, so that even if the production quality is high, it is difficult to see any of them realising the Chinese film industry’s global ambitions. At FEFF this year, the minute the high budget child kidnap drama Zhaodao Ni (Lost, Found, Lue Yue) begins you know all the policemen will be helpful, all the hospitals will be clean, the crime will be solved, and the child will be rescued. The sardonic humour that makes Korean films like Unstoppable so engaging is simply off-limits for their Chinese equivalents like the flat-footed gangster comedy Wuming Zhi Bei (A Cool Fish, Rao Xiaozhi) that was screened just before it.

As well as diversifying with less mainstream films, FEFF has also extended its remit over the years to include documentaries. This year’s contributions included Kanpai! Nihonshu ni Koi Shita Onna-tachi (Kampai! Sake Sisters, Konishi Mirai), about women entering the sake industry in Japan; People’s Republic of Desire (Wu Hao), about the livestreaming industry in China and the risks and rewards of becoming a star; and BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry (Thamrongrattanarit Nawapol) about the Thai sister group of Japanese girl band AKB48, which reveals a similarly competitive and perhaps exploitative system as for the Chinese livestreamers. All these documentaries were welcome additions to the program, although it must be acknowledged that none were innovative as documentaries.

A final strand that always enriches and diversifies the FEFF program is the retrospectives and screenings of restored classics. This year, two films stood out for me. One was in the small season of restored classics from the years of Korean military dictatorship. Maverick genius Kim Ki-young’s Yukchae-ui Yaksok (Promise of the Flesh, 1975) divided the audience down the middle. It is indeed like watching someone else’s nightmare, as the film throws violent and disturbed flashbacks and fantasies of a woman prisoner on furlough at the audience. The late director Kim read far too much Freud, but the film works because its psychodrama resonates with the hothouse “state of emergency” atmosphere that prevailed during the military dictatorship decades. Other films in the mini-season included Geomeun Meori (Black Hair, Lee Man-hee, 1964); Yukche-ui Gobaek (The Body Confession, Jo Keung-ha, 1964); Hyuil (A Day Off, Lee Man-hee, 1968); Jjagko (Jagko, Im Kwon-taek, 1980); Choehu-ui Jeungin (The Last Witness, Lee Doo-yong, 1980); Ti-ket (Ticket, Im Kwon-taek, 1986); and Umukbaemi-iu Sarang (Lovers in Woomukbaemi, Jang Sun-woo, 1990) – a stellar selection indeed.

Yukche-ui Gobaek (The Body Confession, Jo Keung-ha, 1964)

The other classic that I felt privileged to see was Angie Chen’s Fa Gaai Si Doi (My Name Ain’t Suzie, 1985), in the presence of the director herself. Shot in a style reminiscent of classic 1980s Hong Kong gangster films by the likes of John Woo or Ringo Lam, the film shows the gangster world from the perspective of the women sex workers who are usually minor characters in the mainstream genre films. An obvious riposte to Richard Quine’s Butterfly-like fantasy, The World of Suzie Wong (1960), Chan’s hard-hitting exposé benefitted from Anthony Wong’s first major film role and Deanie Ip as a lesbian pimp, as well as Patricia Ha in the lead role. In a clever piece of programming called The Odd Couples, it was paired with Quine’s movie, and Ringo Lam’s classic Lung Fu Fung Won (City on Fire, 1987) was paired with Quentin Tarantino’s remake, Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Fa Gaai Si Doi (My Name Ain’t Suzie, Angie Chen, 1985)

Of course, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was a great success. But screening remakes, especially of popular films, is always risky because they rarely measure up. Lee Jae-kyo’s Wanbyeokhan Tain (Intimate Strangers) is the Korean remake of Perfetti Sconosciuti (Perfect Strangers, Paolo Genovese, 2016). In it, middle class couples play a dinner party game of revealing every incoming message on their mobile phones and putting every call on speaker phone. The result is a long list of dangerous secrets revealed. Even though they are very rich, implausibly, there is no maid or help in sight. As a result, the possibility for class criticism is blunted, and this film become a politically castrated contemporary Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972).

However, Intimate Strangers compared well to the other remakes. After great success with the original South Korean Miss Granny about an old lady who finds her body transformed to that of her youth, FEFF has been screening the remakes from around the region. This year festival president Sabrina Baracetti told the audience that Miss Nonna (Miss Granny, Joyce Bernal) from the Philippines was the funniest Miss Granny so far. By the time I walked out after an excruciating hour, it had failed to raise a single laugh from the usually jovial Udine crowd.

Even more disastrous was the Taiwanese More Than Blue (Bi Beixhang Geng Beixiang de Gushi, Gavin Lin), a remake of the Korean movie with the same English export title (Seulpeumboda Deo Seulpeun Iyagi, Won Tae-yeon, 2009). Both the original and the remake were very successful at the box office, not only in their home markets, but also elsewhere in the region. However, they are marmite films, and much though I love marmite, I hated these films. The plot concerns a love story in which the boyfriend dies beautifully but slowly before they ever have sex, but not before numerous beautiful experiences are consumed. It seemed silly and childish to me.

The most comic failure this year was the Ozu-esque Japanese comedy about an elderly couple’s marriage under strain after his retirement, Otosan Chibi ga Inaku Narimashita (Only the Cat Knows, Kobayashi Syoutarou). The Japanese title makes no reference to cats, and, as a relationship comedy, it is charming. However, with word “cat” in the English title, the film performed the unprecedented feat of packing out the huge Teatro Nuovo at nine in the morning. Unfortunately, however, the director made the elementary mistake of letting the cat go missing a few minutes into the film. The audience fidgeted and looked at the phones for the next hour or more until the reason they had come to the see the film finally reappeared!

The decision to screen the Philippines Miss Granny may also have included a component of loyalty to director Bernal, whose previous films have also screened at FEFF. Sticking with directors is as risky as screening remakes, but film festivals love to stick by “their” directors. Two other films in this category, while not standouts, performed satisfactorily. Chinese director Han Han has been to FEFF before. This year’s Feichi Rensheng (Pegasus), about a middle-aged rally car driver’s comeback attempt, contained all the cynical humour he is famous for as a star blogger for many years. The film certainly gained from Han Han’s own background as a rally car driver, and it was his biggest box office success in China so far. But, like its protagonist, although sympathetic, it felt a bit tired, dated and middle-aged.

Much the same could be said for Japanese crowd favourite Sabu’s latest film. Like most of his other films, Jam is a frenetic and absurd comedy, set in a small city, with various quirky characters. Jam steps up the game by intersecting three plots – an enka singer kidnapped by a crazed female fan; a recently released thug determined to seek revenge but also look after his grandma; and a chauffeur looking for good deeds to do because he has been told if he does enough of them, his girlfriend will wake from her coma. The result is hilarious, well-acted, and deftly knitted together. But somehow, it is also a bit too familiar.

Nevertheless, Han Han and Sabu’s films were a worthy part of this year’s outstanding line-up at FEFF. It is hard to suggest improvements to a winning formula, but perhaps steering clear of the remakes will make for not only a fresher but an even more perfect selection next year.

Far East Film Festival Udine
26 April – 4 May 2019
Festival website: http://www.fareastfilm.com/eng/

Endnotes:

  1. http://sensesofcinema.com/2018/festival-reports/new-achievements-new-challenges-the-20th-far-east-film-festival/.