Memories of Matsuko (Japan 2006) -- a "tragic comedy with a life-affirming message".
Report by Leung Wing-Fai
At Far East Film Festival, Udine, Italy this year, I was disappointed once again (see in the picture issue 54). In four days, I watched 14 films, 1 television drama, walked out of 8 screenings (a personal record) and could not finish one title. First impressions: the mainland Chinese outputs seem to be moving towards the commercial mainstream; Hong Kong cinema continues to decline; the results of effort to generate Asian blockbusters are mixed; Korean titles are steady, solid productions but fail to impress. There was only one retrospective this year, of Patrick Tam, one of the most underrated directors from the Hong Kong New Wave. I was glad to revisit his early works, as well as see After This Our Exile (2006), his first film after fifteen years. Even the general atmosphere of the festival was a little subdued: only on 25 April (Italy’s National holiday) was there a sell out (for the unfortunately lame sequel to Nana, Kentaro Otani, 2005, see below). Having said that, FEFF is still the prime promoter of Asian film culture in Europe and the debates in and around the main venue Teatro Nuovo carried on in its lively tradition. For itp readers I shall examine Asian commercial cinema, including co-productions and blockbusters, and genre films.
The national selections reflect the respective commercial health of the industries. China reportedly produced over 300 films in 2006 (153 releases). Censorship seems to have been relaxed in order to allow for more realistic and popular themes to emerge. The Matrimony (Teng Huatao, 2007) was the first officially passed story involving supernatural elements, disguised as a ‘ghost-melodrama’ where one side of the love triangle is a dead girlfriend. In China, domestic films took 55% of total box office (FEFF 2007: 25) which is a sure sign that the Chinese industry is one to watch. With the continuous decline in the number of productions from Hong Kong (50 in 2006), the film industry relies on co-productions, most notably, with China, Japan and Korea. In March, the city hosted the first Pan-Asian film awards, alongside existing ventures such as the Asian Film Financing Forum, a step closer to the dream of region-wide cinema. Confession of Pain (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2006, the team behind Infernal Affairs) is a suitably convoluted thriller though the performance lacks charisma (main cast includes Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro); its glossy, high value production does not hide the dull blockbuster formula. Apparently, Confession has already been sold to the production team behind The Departed and another inferior remake is expected. Sakuran (photographer-turned-director Ninagawa Mika, Japan, 2007) travels in the opposite direction: a Memories of Geisha cloned, deliberately colourful, inauthentic tale of an oiran (high class prostitute) set in the Edo period. The combination of good visual elements and inappropriate choice of score of cheesy western pop, J-pop, jazz does not detract from a flimsy narrative.
In 2006, Japanese films took just over half of the domestic box office; South Korea also had 60% market share (FEFF 2007: 37, 53). Apart from Hong Kong, on paper at least, East Asian cinemas seem to be relatively healthy. It is a tad worrying if the offering at this year’s festival is an accurate reflection of the commercial outputs from the various Asian film industries. The Hong Kong-China co-production Battle of Wits (Jacob Cheung 2006) turns out to be a dull CGI epic that plays (sic) like an annoying computer war game, one over which the audiences do not have any control. Death Note, a Warner Brothers release, and its sequel (based on Ohba Tsugumi manga, both directed by Shusuke Kaneko, Japan, 2006) also fall under this category of ‘joystick-less game-film monstrosity’. The story is an unnecessarily complex psychological battle between a student-killer and detective, featuring CGI egos (one of them looks like David Bowie, which freaked me out). Another spectacular failure is Dynamite Warriors (Chalerm Wongpim, Thailand, 2006). Obviously trying to capture the post-Ong Bak market, it attempts to combine far too many, annoying computer-generated fight scenes with an Indiana Jones type character (an almost entirely silent Tony Jaa clone). One lesson from all these is that computer imagery helps and enhances the narrative but does not compensate for poor script and the lack of rounded characters.
Genre films, once the speciality of industries such as Hong Kong, are now a firm tradition in South Korea. The most impressive is The Host (Bong Joon-ho 2006), about a sea monster holding a couple of children hostage, hotly pursued by an anxious, eccentric family. It has high production value, featuring the best of monster flicks from Hollywood (quality special effects) and Japan (Godzilla-style villain and the quintessential family in peril). After its disappointing cinema release in the UK, this film is now enjoying a good reception on DVD. Elsewhere, Asian horror fails to recapture the fresh surprises of several years ago. This year’s horror day featured the likes of Chermin (Zarina Abdullah, Malaysia, 2007) and The Slit-Mouthed Woman (Koji Shiraishi, Japan, 2007), low budget films with standard tropes (e.g. vengeful female ghosts) that fail to break new grounds.
The titles that I was most impressed with this year were genre-defiling drama. Soi Cheang’s Dog Bite Dog (Hong Kong, 2006), an extremely dark thriller, contains an element of male melodrama. Memories of Matsuko (Tetsuya Nakashima, Japan 2006) is the epic life story of the eponymous downtrodden, unfortunate heroine. Nakashima, a former commercial director (evident from this and his previous film Kamikaze Girls, 2004), manages to use highly stylised, technicoloured, MTV imagery to convey some very dark materials in a tragic comedy, that at the same time has a life affirming message. Cruel Winter Blues (Lee Jung-bum, Korea, 2006) turns the gangster movie, by now a familiar Korean standard, on its head when the protagonist (a great performance from Sul Kyoung-gu of Peppermint Candy and Public Enemy fame) stakes out at his rival gang member’s mother’s roadside café and develops a relationship with her. The result is a drama that grabs you quietly and questions the meaning of violence and the so called gangster ethic. As such, breaking generic iconography could be interesting but other attempts seem forced: Righteous Ties (Jang Jin, South Korea, 2006) offers a good first half gangster-prison-comedy, followed by a familiar overblown, overlong Korean finale.
2006 might not have been a vintage year for East Asian cinemas, although the film industries still held out against foreign (mainly Hollywood) films. Formulaic films in Japan turned audiences off: a good example during the festival was Nana 2 (Kentaro Otani 2006), a lukewarm manga-adapted-rom-com sequel. Despite the number of productions and good domestic market shares for China, Korea and Japan, many commercial films are too eager to repeat existing formulas and rely on technology to hide weak story and character development. Asian horror and Hallyu (Korean wave) are on the wane. Foreign sales for South Korean titles have dropped. The surprises have come from directors not afraid to stick to an uncompromising vision, engaging scripts, aided by good actors (that East Asia has plenty of) and appropriate visual style and score.
Far East Film Festival (FEFF) (2007) Catalogue Udine, Italy: CEC
Thanks to Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche for my attendance at Far East Film 9 and Ben Heal for additional ideas.