This is my favorite film festival in the world. Who knew that one of the best Asian film showcases would be located in a small, bucolic town in Northeastern Italy? The 14th edition of the Far East Film Festival (FEFF) has just concluded and it was a fine edition at that. With over a week of popular Asian cinema, unspooled at an old Opera House (Teatro Giovanni de Udine), and super enthusiastic audiences numbering in the hundreds for every screening, whether it’s for a 9am or midnight screening, this is a true Asian cinema lover’s dream vacation.
Headed by the spunky Sabrina Baracetti and the stoic Thomas Bertacche, two Udine locals who work for the local cinema organization, the FEFF was born in the late ’90s when a Hong Kong film week that they presented was wildly popular. Thus, FEFF was born, and has launched the international careers of such noted filmmakers like Johnnie To, who attended this year and was awarded a lifetime achievement award, and Pang-ho Cheung, the genre-bending Hong Kong director, who presented not one but three films at the Festival this year.
The FEFF is a yearly snapshot of the Asian region’s “popular” cinema, commercial fare that represents the current trends in said region. This is in stark contrast to other film festivals, especially in Europe, who tend to program arthouse fare from a very small pool of Asian auteurs, ranging from Hong Sang-soo of Korea, to Brilliante Mendoza of the Philippines (both are repeatedly invited to prestigious fests like Cannes and Venice). This, in turn, makes FEFF a small festival with a roguish charm and sensibility, as well as a broad spectrum of genres and presentations, ranging from coming-of-age melodramas, to Category III sex comedies, to brooding examinations of Japan post-3/11.
One of the highlights of this year was a retrospective of little seen Korean films from the 1970s. Entitled The Darkest Decade, this 10-film retrospective from Korean cinema scholar Darcy Paquet, presented a fascinating look at a South Korean film industry that was competing against the rise of television, as well as governmental control.
The decade produced interesting, genre-type films like Youngja’s Heyday from director Kim Ho-sun, that sparked the “hostesss” film genre, about an eccentric country girl who is forced into prostitution to make ends meet and the young, idealistic lad who returns from the Vietnam War, who tries to “save her” from her current situation. Not soft-core, but erotic enough to drive audiences into the cinemas.
One of the highlights of the Festival was the international premiere of Six Degrees of Separation of Lillia Cuntapay, a hilarious, yet touching mockumentary centering on perennial film extra Lillia Cuntapay, an eccentric 76-year old Filipina with long, white hair and no teeth. She is infamous to appear in dozens and dozens of low rent Filipino horror films, including the Shake, Rattle & Roll series, among others. Here’s Ms. Cuntapay greeting her adoring fans:
It’s a hilarious film that explores the making of movies in the Philippines. Another film from the Philippines with a similar theme, The Woman in the Septic Tank, is a biting take on indie filmmakers who want to make a film about a woman living in a trash dump site, because they feel “poverty porn” will get them noticed by major film festivals.
This is a pervasive theme at FEFF, even to the point that poverty porn is poked fun at in the brilliant festival trailer directed by Quark Henares:And here are my personal favorites from this year’s FEFF:
THE WOODSMAN AND THE RAIN – Rookie movie director Koichi (Shun Oguri) and his crew travels to the mountain village of Yamamura to film his next movie. The villagers are eventually enlisted to help film the movie and, in particular, 60-year-old lumberjack Katsuhiko (Koji Yakusho) helps against his will. Endearing and wickedly funny, what happens when the circus comes to town (in this case, a film crew) who is shooting a low budget zombie apocalypse movie?
THE 33D INVADER — From HK schlockmeister Cash Chin, this Category III film is an amalgam of Terminator, The Matrix, Species, Porkys, and numerous other cheezoid ’80s sex comedies that totally brought down the house when it was shown in the Midnight slot. Sexy, showcasing lots of flesh, terrible acting and worse special effects, this film is the epitome of “it’s so bad, it’s good” fare that only works with a slightly drunken and punch drunk audience, or on Skinemax. The title itself makes no sense, perhaps as a means to trick the audience that it is in 3D (it’s not) and I don’t think a 33 bra size even exists. And the story? A hot chick from the year 2046 (Wong Kar Wai riff!) named “Future” must travel back in time and find the healthy sperm of a human male to repopulate the world. In the meantime, she is being pursued by two sexy aliens, Xucker 1 and Xucker 2 from the planet, you guessed it, Xucker, who if they mate with her, will leave her barren and the future of humanity is destroyed. Yeah, just check out the trailer:
AFRO TANAKA — Based on a manga, Afro Tanaka was a pleasant surprise. Tanaka is born with an afro. He’s also a slacker who moves to Tokyo, after dropping out of high school. One of his friend’s is getting married and realizes that he made a pact with his old buddies that if anyone of them gets married first, they would bring their girlfriends to the wedding. A virgin with a clueless demeanor, Tanaka sets a personal goal to get a girlfriend by the wedding date! Darkly humorous with lots of Japanese comedic antics, Afro Tanaka presents an interesting look at the herbivore man phenomena in Japan.
THERMAE ROMAE — Another manga adaptation! In 128 AD, Lucius is a bathhouse architect in the Ancient Roman Empire. When he loses his job, a friend takes him to a bath to relax. There, he is transported to a bathhouse present-day Japan, where he is enamored by the technology of the “flat faced clan.” He then interprets what he experienced back to Ancient Rome to construct the ultimate bath houses. Starring Hiroshi Abe, the film suspends disbelief by populating the Roman characters with Japanese actors, and it totally works. Ridiculous and fun, this film was shot partly in Italy, so it totally connected with the local audiences.
SONGLAP – A gritty drama set in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, this film centers on two brothers who are deep in the underworld of the baby trafficking syndicate. One of the brother’s is at a moral crossroad, when someone close to him gets involved. This tests the two brothers, delving into deeper territories within their psyches.
Aside from film screenings, there were also great panel discussions that were broken into different Asian territories. Here’s one that spotlighted indie Japanese cinema, with the director of Afro Tanaka, Daigo Matsui (sporting similar hair to his cinematic main character) and up and coming actress Misako Renbutsu from the film, River, and experimental drama that explores the aftermath of the Akihabara massacre and the Japanese earthquake.
Overall, I had an amazing time at FEFF. Aside from the amazing films, the atmosphere was heightened with great company, awesome food, and a quaint backdrop that truly made this festival a destination event for film nerds. I also stocked up on a bunch of film criticism books that the Festival also publishes annually, and I was in film nerd heaven. Until next year, Grazie!