Where can you get sixty Far East Films in a thousand-seat auditorium, fifty leading Asian directors and producers, a dozen three-meter wide red balloons, and welcoming restaurants serving pizza and red wine at 4am?
The answer is Udine, the north-eastern Italian town that has become the unlikely European Mecca for Far Eastern Films. Though in its tenth year, this April festival is a well-kept secret for those of us in the UK, now more accessible thanks to low-cost flights to nearby Trieste and Venice.
The charm and appeal of this festival lies in its intimate setting, where, after a day’s work watching movies, you are likely to be eating in the same restaurants and drinking in the same bars as the ultra-relaxed and approachable legends Hideo Nakata and Johnnie To.
It is both astonishing and encouraging to see that every event and screening were attended predominantly by the local Italian population who have an insatiable appetite for movies ranging from the bizarre and blackly comic films of Miki Satoshi (sadly, little known or distributed here), to the serious (Mr Cinema, starring Anthony Wong) and the headline-grabbing blockbusters (Assembly, Death Note); every screening from 9am to 1am was close to packed.
The locals’ enthusiasm could be seen even in the foyer of the venue, where the audiences flocked around festival merchandise: mugs, sweatshirts, caps, DVDs of previous festival films and authoritative books in all languages on topics from Wong Kar-wai to the Shaw Brothers, from kick-ass flicks to Akira Kurosawa.
The pick of the crop for this year was Zombi kampung pisang (Zombies in Banana Village), a quirky, low-budget Malay zom-com which someone somewhere will undoubtedly label as Malaysia’s Shaun of the Dead. This is no break-out blockbuster hit, nor an instant cult classic, just a surprisingly entertaining and silly film, a hidden gem amongst an already fantastic line-up.
Another standout was Going by the Book (Bareuge salja), which stars Jeong Jae-yeong (from the feel-good Welcome to Dongmakgol) as a policeman who plays the bank robber far too zealously during a role-play training exercise, outwitting his colleagues at every turn; comic set-ups involving the hostages were exploited to their full hilarious potential.
The tenth edition of this festival was celebrated with a unique trailer by Hong Kong indie favourite, Pang Ho Cheung (Isabella, AV, Beyond our Ken), who was on hand to introduce his collection of short stories Trivial Matters (Por see yee), based on a book he wrote when he was twenty-one. Topics in these stories will be familiar to Pang Ho Cheung fans: sex (opening story is of a married couple’s visit to a shrink, recounting their dissatisfaction in bed, with their dialogue cleverly paced to a… er… climax), the male vs the female (Eason Chan convincing his live-in girlfriend to give him oral sex, since she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage – but who has the last laugh?) and friendship (Gillian Chung lying to her best friend at school, and the following guilt and long-term repercussion in her adult life).
Pang Ho Cheung is certainly a director and storyteller to watch (AV was picked up for remake by the Weinstein Company as Zack and Miri Make a Porno) and we had the pleasure of interviewing his producer Subi Liang to shine a light on his work (see below).
Sadly, the Horror Day yielded nothing fresh from the region; of course, it is hard to push the boundaries of imagination further than The Ring, Audition, and more recently, A Tale of Two Sisters. However, even the promisingly titled Sick Nurses from Thailand (with an equally promising opening) plundered the long-haired Asian ghost image to no end. This is one genre that is in need of revitalising.
Despite this, the festival is definitely a must for all international cinema lovers – flights aren’t too expensive from the UK, food is great, you’ll meet a range of fans and industry types, and some of the films will never make it to the Hollywood-dominated big screens in the UK, so catch them if you can! Don’t miss the eleventh edition next April.
A QUICK AND DIRTY WITH SUBI LIANG
Joey Leung: Describe your work as a producer.
Subi Liang: When I’m working on a project, budgeting is the most important area, to deliver a film on budget. I also like to keep things on schedule. We will be involved throughout the whole life of the film, from concept right through to after we deliver the film to distributors (to the point where they think I’m interfering sometimes!). I’m also the general fixer behind the scenes, any stuff that needs sorting out, resolving arguments, anything.
JL: A lot of films of yours have universally comic situations. Why limit yourselves to working solely in Hong Kong?
SL: Much of this depends on financing and opportunities. We have been approached by overseas companies with other projects in the past and it’s definitely something we are open to for the future. Pang Ho Cheung also likes to keep creative control to keep his own style.
JL: He looks like a fun guy to work with.
SL: He’s a workaholic! He works both the crew and the production team quite hard as he has high expectations in his mind of what the outcome should be like. He’s a Virgo!
[and on cue, Pang Ho Cheung appears playfully behind us with a prosciutto slice wrapped round a bread stick and smoking it like a Marx Brothers cigar!]
JL: Hong Kong can be quite traditional and conservative in its attitudes towards sexual topics. Has the type of comedies you’ve made (with their comical sexual situations) been accepted in Hong Kong?
SL: In general, yes, they have been well received.
JL: Do you ever get bored doing interviews?
SL: Well I’ve not done many! I usually prefer being behind the scenes. Actually, I’m quite nervous right now!