Now in its 5th year, the Terracotta Far East Film Festival once again offered an exciting celebration of Asian cinema. Virginie Sélavy and Robert Makin report on their festival highlights.
Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1988)
This year’s Terracotta Festival opened with a very special treat, Stanley Kwan’s 1988 sumptuous, melancholy ghost story Rouge, in homage to its two late great leads, Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. Mui plays Fleur, a beguilingly beautiful hostess in a Hong Kong ‘flower house’ (brothel). When one night, dressed as a man and brilliantly sassy and insolent, Fleur performs a song for young heir Chan (Cheung) and his companions, it is love at first sight. But when his family objects to their union, they decide to commit suicide. Fifty years later, Fleur reappears in modern Hong Kong and tries to place a missing person ad in a paper to find Chan, who never showed up in the netherworld. Helped by the newspaper’s owner and his girlfriend, she forlornly wanders around a soulless Hong Kong, where the gorgeous theatres of the past have been replaced by ugly underpasses, trying to discover what happened to Chan. Visually exquisite, the film contrasts the splendour, elegant rituals and repressive social conventions of the past with the harsh, sordid reality of a mediocre, but less confining present, through the depiction of both the city and the characters’ lives. A superb and poignant film, it truly deserved to be seen on the big screen. VS
The Land of Hope (Sion Sono, 2012)
Within the fictional Japanese prefecture of Nagashima, an earthquake causes a nuclear meltdown at a local power plant. As a consequence the population of this small provincial district are forced to uproot. Local farmer Yusuhiko and his wife Chieko refuse to leave the contaminated area, while their son and his pregnant wife struggle to start a new life in a neighbouring town, having to face ineffectual authorities and an uncertain future. Meanwhile, a young couple, Mitsuri and Yoko, wander the devastated wasteland that was once Yoko’s hometown, desperately in search of her parents.
From horror oddities such as Exte: Hair Extension (2007), where various victims are attacked by their hairstyles, and the epic story of love, religion and panty-shot photography that is Love Exposure (2009), to the brutal dystopia of Himizu (2011), Japanese director Sion Sono has gained a formidable reputation for having an exceptionally unique approach to filmmaking. The Land of Hope is a slight departure from his usual extremes, without being completely bereft of his surreal sense of humour and the occasional excursion into overtly symbolic imagery. Throughout this poignant domestic drama, Sono succeeds in achieving a restrained and proficient balance between naturalism and the visually poetic as he tackles head on a monumental disaster and its tragic repercussions. The only problem with the film is his overbearing use of classical music, which often feels cheap and unnecessary. But skillfully avoiding spectacle, the director’s heartfelt authenticity is unquestionable, making this his most accessible and personal film to date. RM
Watch the trailer for The Land of Hope:
Cold War (Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk, 2012)
Hong Kong prides itself on being one of the safest cities in Asia, but over the course of one night, it’s about to become one of the deadliest. When a planted bomb tears the centre of the city apart, it’s initially assumed to be a terrorist attack – that is until an Emergency Unit vehicle carrying five police officers mysteriously disappears without a trace. A merciless gang of hijackers are claiming to be the culprits and demanding a hefty ransom. The race is on to hunt down the suspects and save the hostages. But it’s a perilous mission that not only poses a threat to the citizens of Hong Kong, but also begins to tear away at the hierarchical fabric of the police department.
First-time directors Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk give it everything they’ve got with Cold War, determined to prove themselves as main contenders in the Asian cinema stakes, from the majestically cinematic aerial shots of the opening scenes to the gracefully composed but nerve-shredding action sequences. Their tactics have certainly paid off, with Cold War receiving nine Hong Kong Film Awards, including best film, director, screenplay, cinematography and editing. But, unfortunately, an otherwise lucid plot loses momentum during the last half-an-hour as the film tries to establish itself as a franchise. Nevertheless, this is Hong Kong action cinema at its most slick and visceral, re-establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. RM
The Berlin File (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2013)
When an illegal arms deal in a Berlin hotel escalates into violent chaos, a surveillance team expose one of the escaped survivors as a North Korean ‘ghost agent’ (Ha Jung-woo), whose involvement remains unclear. Following on his trail, South Korean intelligence operative Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) is determined to discover the agent’s true identity and prerogative. An intense investigation gradually unveils an international conspiracy involving Middle Eastern terrorists, the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, a deadly assassin, a shady ambassador and a female translator.
Although Ryoo Seung-wan’s espionage thriller lacks the dark menace of the Len Deighton, John Le Carré and Robert Ludlum adaptations that it’s unashamedly attempting to emulate, the film has enough of its own inventive energy and stylistic verve to stand its ground. The plot is ridiculously convoluted with an abundance of clichés involving poisoned ballpoint pens, murders on speeding trains, men in trench coats meeting in parks, self-destructing messages and blatantly obvious passwords.
But among its themes of loyalty and betrayal, the film’s greatest strength is Seung-wan’s complete respect and dutiful devotion to the spy genre and action cinema. Despite its flaws, The Berlin File races along at a relentless pace, with some truly astounding and dynamic action sequences meticulously choreographed by Jung Doo-hong. There’s also an eerie sense of melancholy generated from some very believable human relationships, in between the explosions and car chases. The Berlin File is an uneven but extremely thrilling and entertaining experience. RM
Festival report by Virginie Sélavy and Robert Makin