Report by Leung Wing-Fai
Mad Detective (Hong Kong 2007)
Far East Film Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. The annual fest takes place in Udine, Italy and attracts mostly European critics and fans. From a small gathering of Hong Kong films in 1998, the festival has grown steadily and this edition encompassed films from Hong Kong, China, South Korea, Japan, Thailand as well as a few titles from the small film industries in Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The opening guest was the well-known J-Horror director Nakata Hideo (Ringu, Dark Water). A side bar event, the ‘Ties That Bind Summit’, reflected the trends in Asian filmmaking in exploring collaborations between East and West (focusing on Europe) in production and distribution. These developments might be at the expense of other strands: there was only one retrospective of four early films by the South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok. The legend was that Shin and his wife, the actress Choi Eun-hee, were kidnapped by North Korean agents in Hong Kong in 1978. They were taken to Pyongyang in order to develop the film industry there. This year, I had personal reasons to be there as the book I co-edited, East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, would be present, as was an Italian collection on Johnnie To that I contributed a chapter to (yes, the inevitable plug).
In 2007, Japanese films took 47.7% of the domestic box office, down from 53.2 of the previous year; South Korea saw a fall to 50% of local market share (FEFF 2008: 27, 51). The number of film productions in Hong Kong dipped to 50 in 2007. There were signs that Asian audiences had become weary of high budget blockbusters, especially the historical costume drama that the various Asian film industries had been producing over the past few years. An example is An Empress and the Warriors, by the renowned director/martial arts choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tong (Hong Kong 2008), that fails to break new grounds. Films by big-name directors have been disappointing too. This year’s special guest Nakata Hideo presented two films, the Death Note spin off L Change the World (Japan 2008) and Kaidan (Japan 2007). Interesting enough, Death Note has just been released in the UK. It is described as a mix of cop thriller, youth movie, two-player arcade game wrapped in a stylish manga package (FEFF 2008: 167), pretty similar to my own categorisation (the joystick-less game-film monstrosity). I rest my case. Kaidan is a disappointing piece from one of the leading exponents of Japanese horror, especially when compared to the classic Kwaidan (Kobayashi Masaki, 1964): the only similarity was the titles. The film is loosely based on the work of Sanyutei Encho, a 19th Century writer, and tells the story of a poor itinerant salesman Shinkichi who meets an older woman Toyoshiga. They soon develop an obsessive love relationship. Toyoshiga dies after an injury inflicted by Shinkichi and a curse is cast over the surviving lover. There are a few good scenes but the overall power of the film is nothing like Ringu and Dark Water. What is this ‘King of J-horror’ going to try next after these failed attempts at modern thriller and historical drama?
Talking about horror films, I was once again present at the annual (unfortunately named) horror day. The programmers clearly ran out of ideas: the Korean titles (The Guard Post, Black House) were not even horror but more thrillers. It seems that the Thai film industry is still desperately trying to capitalise on the genre (perhaps after the success of The Eye which remake is hitting our screens right now). The Screen at Kamchanod (Thailand 2007) was helmed by Songsak Mongkolthong, assistant director to Pang Brothers on The Eye. The film is competently made but attempts to combine an unconvincing romance subplot only exaggerate the slim story, which is about recreating a legendary outdoor screening where ghosts, rather than humans, are supposed to have attended. Body (Paween Purijitpanya 2007) has about ten false endings, reflecting perhaps the lack of confidence of a first time director.
The Korean selection also failed to excite me. Black House (Shin Terra 2007) is about an insurance claim investigator who gets sucked into a terrible web of deception, mutilation and murder by a psychopath. The Guard Post (Kong Su-chang 2007) is firmly in the same territory as Park Chan-wook’s JSA as it examines the tension and claustrophobic world of young army recruits in the de-militarised zone between North and South Korea. The inferiority of this latest offering is clear when the narrative descends into mysterious diseases and incessant gunplay. Hellcats (Kwon Chil-in 2008) goes back to the safer realm of relationship drama about three women (two sisters and a daughter/niece). The characters are well drawn but the realist aesthetics only point to the film’s similarity to television soap.
A few titles that I enjoyed most came from three separate (geographical and generic) territories. Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers! (Yoshida Daihachi, Japan 2007) follows the tradition of the dysfunctional Japanese family plot (exemplified by Ishii Sogo’s 1984 classic The Crazy Family). It is black comedy through and through: sibling rivalry, incest, physical violence, wife beating, you name it. The dark humour will certainly make the audiences cringe and think about their own family relationships. Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai, the Milkyway filmmaking team from Hong Kong, provided Mad Detective (2007) in which the eponymous hero (played by Lau Ching Wan, one of the guests present at the festival) adopts unconventional methods to solve crimes. These include burying himself alive and claims of his ability to read the minds of the culprits. The hall-of-mirrors scene depicting the seven personae of the murderer has to be a first in Hong Kong, if not world, cinema. Lucky Dog (Xhang Meng, China/South Korea 2008) follows a day in the life of a 55-year-old man, Kangmei, who has been made redundant after working for the railway for 40 years. The eternally optimistic Kangmei is brilliantly realised by the comedian Fan Wei. The otherwise banal and occasionally bleak reality is enlightened by the wry humour and outstanding performance.
I also found the medium to low budget attempts from Hong Kong mildly enjoyable. Magic Boy (Adam Wong 2007) is a youth romance where the male protagonist does magic tricks to win the girl. Trivial Matters (Pang Ho-Cheung 2007) is a tableau of short films. Some of the segments are rather lame but there are a couple of gems, such as Ah Wai the Big Head, a story set in the early 1990s. The narrator (Kate) brushes off her classmate Ah Wai with clichéd advice. The two girls then grow apart only for Kate to find out that she has played a decisive part in the life of Ah Wai. This is set against the singing career of Danny Chan, a Canto-pop singer who died in 1993.
Far East Film always manages to reflect the latest trends from the film industries across the region. 2007 appeared to be a quiet year all round. Asian horror, Hallyu (Korean wave) and high budget blockbusters continue to disappoint; medium/low budget productions are filling the gaps but unsatisfying. I am still waiting for the next big cinematic thrills from East Asia (a bit like drip feeding when you really crave a substantive meal!). Well, I did get my Johnnie To book signed by the director, his long term collaborator Wai Ka Fai, the wonderful actors Lam Suet and Lau Ching Wan. What more would I need from a film festival?
Far East Film Festival (FEFF) (2008) Catalogue Udine, Italy: CEC
Thanks to Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche for my attendance at Far East Film 10, as well as Stefano, Emmanuel, Giampiero and Laura.