Now that the fascination with extreme horror films from the East has died down – the focus for sick thrills seems to have shifted to Europe (see The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film) – this year’s Terracotta Festival felt like a much more chilled affair. It was less about landing big blockbusters and controversial titles and more about simply having fun, with Festival Director Joey Leung lining up 14 movies that showed the lighter side of the East while revelling in its illustrious filmmaking history.
While last year’s fest opened big with a Jackie Chan action movie, this year premiered Donnie Yen’s latest historical biopic The Lost Bladesman. Although Yen isn’t a huge international star, he’s gathered a healthy cult following in the West thanks to his work with Wilson Yip, especially in his portrayal of Wing Chun master Ip Man. Martial arts and film was one of the main themes of the festival, with several movies paying homage to old kung fu movies and others ditching CGI-enhanced acrobatics for more impressive old-school antics.
The action comedy Gallants saw two veteran Shaw Brothers stars, Leung Siu Lung and Chen Kuan Tai, return to the big screen for a well-received spoof of 70s martial arts movies while legendary fight choreographer Sammo Hung starred alongside his son Timmy in Choy Lee Fut. It’s great fun to see the pros at work but Terracotta has always been about showcasing new talent. When the festival began back in 2009 it screened High Kick Girl, featuring upcoming martial arts sensation Rina Takeda, and this year she returned with Karate Girl, which puts her up against another rising star, Hina Tobimatsu. No blood, no gore, just wholesome family entertainment about a girl kicking ass to protect her family name. As an added bonus, Takeda was in attendance at the festival to prove her high kicks don’t need any digital assistance.
The festival was keen to show that Asian films don’t always take themselves too seriously. Helldriver was a crazy splatter-fest through a Japan plagued by zombies; if you think you’ve seen every zombie possibility on screen then you haven’t seen Helldriver. Also taking the grindhouse approach was Yakuza Weapon, in which a feared gangster is rebuilt with a machine gun for an arm and a rocket launcher for his leg.
But what really got audiences laughing were the sublime comedies on offer. On the surface, Kim Joung-hoon’s Petty Romance looked like it could be any gimmicky rom-com from Hollywood: a comic artist and a sex column writer team up to win some cash – will they fall for each other? It’s got a sassy, Sex and the City air, but it’s distinctly South Korean with Kim weaving in imaginative ‘manwha’ animation to offer something much more than a girl-meets-boy tale. The deserved winner of the Terracotta audience award was China’s Red Light Revolution. The story of a bumbling guy trying to run a sex shop in a conservative community, it has plenty of gags but it’s also a timely story of a changing China, a society becoming enamoured with consumerism and self-gratification.
No festival of Asian cinema would be complete without a hard-hitting tale of vengeance and that came in the form of Revenge: A Love Story. Viewers may wonder how brutal it can be when it features a pop star (Juno Mak) and a porn actress (Sola Aoi), but its opening proved to be very grisly and unpleasant, the story revolving around a killer who murders and dissects pregnant women. But just as you begin to wonder why you’re watching it flashes back to a heartbreaking tale of innocent love that descends into an inescapable cycle of violence. Although it never quite says anything new about the hopelessness of revenge, director Wong Ching Po has created something that sticks with the viewer; his slow, subdued scenes leave a stark impression.
Of course, there was one out-and-out horror movie, Child’s Eye from the Pang Brothers, but compared to the sheer variety of the rest of the programme it seemed a bit old hat. Audiences have moved past the cliché of Asian horror and Terracotta provided a wonderful glimpse of what filmmakers are getting up to over there.