And your starter for ten? Define ‘Asian cinema’ using just five films. Struggling? Not an easy one, is it? Well, it’s no problem for Heng Khoo from Asia House. As the programmer for a new festival taking place at Curzon Cinemas this month, Heng has made a fascinatingly diverse selection: an Iranian anti-war film, a South Korean thriller, a Chinese action epic, an Indonesian art-house film and a musical from Singapore. So what’s the thinking behind this refreshingly eclectic programming? When I meet Heng in the beautiful surroundings of Asia House, he tells me that his initial aim was to provide a platform for films that probably won’t get recognition here in Britain. Indeed, all five films will be receiving their UK premieres during the festival. Despite domestic success and festival favour (the Iranian film, Night Bus, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Asia Pacific Film Awards 2007), theatrical release looks doubtful for most of them.
Asia’s dominance in the film world is clear to see in the recent glut of Hollywood remakes, and yet, there are still works which are very difficult to see here in the UK. 881, the Singaporean musical, for example, was a huge hit at home and in South East Asia but is perhaps not considered profitable enough over here by UK distributors. Likewise, The Photograph, may be seen as too culturally specific for a commercial marketing campaign. And yet, the film, which follows the relationship between Sita, a karaoke bar hostess, and her photographer landlord, Johan, is a fine example of emerging filmmaking talent from Indonesia. Night Bus is another interesting choice for the festival and reflects Asia House’s wide geographical scope, from the Gulf in the West to the Far East. The film takes place on a single night during the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s and its critical view of war should strike a chord with British audiences.
Alongside these lesser-known works, there are two slightly more populist choices, both recently acquired by Icon Film Distribution UK. The Korean thriller Seven Days is billed as a cross between 24 and Se7en and stars Yunjim Kim from Lost while the Chinese epic Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon brings together the balletic martial arts of Hero and the melodrama of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As Heng tells me, ‘even in this international world of DVDs and downloads, the best place to see films is always in the cinema’; these action-packed features will most certainly prove his point. And which film is Heng most looking forward to? It’s a toss-up between the hyperkinetic Seven Days and the idiosyncratic 881, which manages to incorporate very loud techno music and a quacking duck in one of its opening dance routines. Definitions of Asian Cinema might not be easy but who could resist a techno-loving duck!
As Heng plans to expand the festival in coming years, with more titles and an even wider choice of genres and national cinemas, this annual festival looks set to become the highlight of Asia House’s already successful film programme.