Terracotta Festival 2011

Revenge: A Love Story

Terracotta Far East Film Festival

5-8 May 2011

Prince Charles Cinema, London

Terracotta website

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.

Revenge: A Love Story is released on 25 November by Terracotta Distribution.

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.

Richard Badley

Terracotta Festival 2010


Accident

Terracotta Far East Film Festival

6-9 May 2010

Prince Charles Cinema, London

Terracotta website

The Electric Sheep team reviews the highlights of the 2010 Terracotta Far East Film Festival.

Accident (Soi Cheang, 2009)
The term ‘high-concept’ was coined to describe Hollywood blockbusters that can be summarised in a single sentence; however, it could also be applied to Accident, a Hong Kong thriller about a team of assassins led by the intensely disciplined Brain (Louis Koo), who disguise their hits as ‘accidents’ so that nobody realises that a crime has actually been committed. Produced by the prolific Johnnie To, Accident exhibits an icy aesthetic that keeps the audience at an emotional distance but serves to maintain suspense during the sustained set-pieces. The unexpectedly romantic score by French composer Xavier Jamaux, who previously collaborated with To on Mad Detective (2007) and Sparrow (2008), aims for a tragic resonance that is undermined by the comparatively one-note characterisations of Brain’s crew, but Cheang’s psychological approach towards pulp material ensures that Accident has a meditative quality that is rarely found in upscale action cinema. JOHN BERRA

Vengeance (Fuk sau, 2009)
Vengeance marks a return to what Johnnie To does best – stripped down gangster stories with a hard-boiled edge and slickly executed stand-offs. The plot is simple – a woman barely survives the assassination of her family and demands that her father Costello (Johnny Hallyday), a French chef, take revenge on those responsible. Costello employs a trio of hitmen (played by To favourites Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Gordon Lam and Lam Suet) to track them down, but there are a number of twists and turns as the group make their way to Simon Yam’s unrepentant crime lord. As usual, To provides some memorable set-pieces that are both playful and fraught with tension. It’s their simple poetry that gives To’s films a distinctive mark, with a touch of the bizarre and the humorous that sets his work out from the crowd. RICHARD BADLEY

Antique (Min kyu-dong, 2008)
When arrogant yuppie Kim decides to open a cake shop, assuming that such establishments will offer plenty of opportunities to meet available women, his search for a pastry chef leads him to former high school classmate Min, who has become known as ‘The Gay of Demonic Charm’ after being sacked from numerous bakeries following flings with co-workers who find him irresistible. Somehow, this simple set-up serves as the springboard for multiple narrative strands to the point that there are three films competing for audience attention; Antique is ostensibly a comedy about the unusual professional relationship between Kim and Min, but it also takes a darker detour into thriller territory and flirts with the form of the musical through dizzying montages. There are some hilarious moments scattered throughout this adaptation of Fumi Yoshinaga’s popular manga, and the themes of friendship and forgiveness are effectively conveyed amid the colourful chaos. JOHN BERRA

Cow

Cow (Dou niu, 2009)
In Chinese director Guan Hu’s Cow, set in 1940, a village simpleton emerges from hiding to discover that his fortress home has been destroyed by Japanese soldiers. The narrow lanes are eerily quiet; the dirt in the square stained with blood. Confused and terrified, he discovers that the only other survivor is a ‘foreign’ cow that he’s promised to care for. Cow unfolds in a series of flashbacks, mixing humorous scenes of village life with the simpleton’s harrowing struggles to keep himself and the cow alive as his home is overrun by returning Japanese soldiers, the Kuomintang, and fellow refugees. The result is a tragic black comedy about the futility of war, told from a unique point of view in an already crowded genre. Initially curious and captivating, it’s a shame that the film starts to drift in the second half once the novelty of the plot and set-up start to wear thin. SARAH CRONIN

Summer Wars (Samâ wôzu, 2009)
This new animé from director Mamoru Hosada is more satisfying than his previous offering, The Girl Who Leapt through Time, although its promising beginning and beautiful animation are equally marred by a fairly simplistic message. The story revolves around a young boy, Kenji, who, while staying with the family of a classmate he has a crush on for the summer, accidentally helps a hacker crack the code to the ‘OZ’ network, a Second Life type of virtual world used by everyone, from private users to government and military institutions. As the mysterious attacker wreaks havoc in OZ with potentially disastrous consequences in the real world, Kenji has to find a way to stop him. The animation is excellent, with two contrasting styles used to represent real and virtual worlds, and the tone is charming and humorous. But while the story is initially captivating, it quickly descends into a basic good versus evil battle underpinned by an unsophisticated, conservative belief in traditional values. VIRGINIE S&#278LAVY

Phobia (See prang, 2008)
As with most horror anthologies, Phobia is a mixed bag. A quartet of ghost stories from Thailand that vary in stylistic tricks and genre clichés, they seem like extended 10-minute shorts hastily jammed together with no particular format. Some of the stories are linked by references to other characters but there’s no common theme or central thread, and the title itself is misleading: this isn’t an exploration of different phobias, just a straightforward play on people’s understandable and natural fear of ghosts. Last Fright is the most technically accomplished of the bunch, a slow-burning chiller that doesn’t rely on ropey effects, just old-fashioned storytelling. But the anthology’s stand-out is In the Middle, not because it’s particularly scary but because it keeps a tight, coherent plot, revolving around a group of lads on a camping holiday who are haunted by a friend after he’s drowned. RICHARD BADLEY

Read full reviews of Vengeance and Phobia, out on DVD in May 2010.

Terracotta Festival 2010: Preview

Vengeance

Terracotta Far East Film Festival

6-9 May 2010

Prince Charles Cinema, London

Terracotta website

Following the first Terracotta last year, festival director Joey Leung has once again been scouring the Far East for his second mixtape of Asian blockbusters and mysterious oddities. As before, his MO is to provide a short, yet eclectic program that demonstrates the wonders of Eastern cinema, one accessible to both film geeks and casual viewers.

Terracotta will open with Asia’s biggest name – Jackie Chan. Little Big Soldier (2010) is his latest action movie, and although it’s another buddy movie of sorts, this time set in ancient China, it’s an assured return to form for the veteran martial artist. The festival will close with another spectacular period piece, Bodyguards and Assassins (2009), a lavish crowd-pleaser that follows an assassination attempt in 1905 Hong Kong. For those tired of headache-inducing 3-D cartoons, the Far East proves there’s nothing wrong with the old-fashioned way of delivering thrills.

While Chan is a household name, Leung is keen to highlight emerging talents such as Huang Bo, star of Cow (2009), a Chinese black comedy about a peasant tasked with saving a cow’s life during World War II. ‘This little-known film has won some major awards and is set to take off internationally – we were glad we got to it early!’ explains Leung. He also uncovered Japan’s Fish Story (2009), a sci-fi comedy set in several different time frames about punk rock and meteorites: ‘These two films are must-sees for people out to discover something different.’

Leung has also acted on feedback from last year’s festival and added late-night horror screenings and documentaries to the Terracotta programme. The Thai film Meat Grinder (2009) is an Asian take on Sweeney Todd, retelling the gruesome fable with a noodle-seller who starts harvesting human meat for her legendary soup stock, while Phobia (2008), also from Thailand, is a collection of four supernatural tales. But Terracotta is also set to educate, not just entertain, with a double bill of documentaries profiling In the Mood for Love cinematographer Christopher Doyle and exploring the impact of the yakuza on Asian cinema. Director Yves Montmayeur will be on hand to talk about these films as Leung is hoping to get behind the scenes of Asian cinema: ‘The awareness of who’s who helps those new to the genre navigate the vast offering of films. What’s important to us is that we bring in the next generation of film fans and students.’

Those who have fond memories of Johnnie To’s Sparrow from last year’s festival will be pleased to hear that the director returns with another French-inflected crime tale. In Vengeance (2009), a French chef (played by musician/actor Johnny Hallyday) jumps between Macau and Hong Kong in a tough, near-wordless quest for revenge. It’s To back to his hard-boiled best, revisiting the starkness of Exiled and Election while mixing in shades of Memento.

Manga fans will be able to catch the spectacular conclusion of the 20th-Century Boys trilogy based on the award-winning series by Naoki Urasawa as well as the entertaining family adventure K-20: Legend of the Mask (2008). There’s also animé in the form of Summer Wars (2009) and the usual strangeness from South Korea with the light-hearted musical Antique (2008), so somewhere within the 15 handpicked films is a movie guaranteed to pull you into the weird and wonderful world of the Far East.

Richard Badley

Terracotta Festival 2009

The Detective

Still from: The Detective

Terracotta Far East Film Festival

21-24 May 2009

Prince Charles Cinema, London

Terracotta website

Over just four days, Joey Leung hopes to dramatically change your perception of Asian cinema. With his specially selected program of 13 films from all over the Far East, Leung’s Terracotta Festival is an ambitious attempt at breaking the stereotype that Asian films are all just about extreme horror, guns and spooky ghosts.

One recognisable name in Terracotta’s program is Oxide Pang – the Hong Kong director responsible for The Eye (2002). But the film of his that is being screened isn’t yet another sequel to that notorious horror franchise. The Detective (2007) is a much more restrained film about a young gumshoe searching for a missing girl in Bangkok’s Chinatown and shows his strength as a director without having to rely on flashy visuals.

Similarly, Johnnie To is best known for his crime thrillers but Terracotta will give audiences the chance to see the director working on a different level in the light-hearted 60s-influenced crime caper Sparrow (2008): ‘Everyone keeps saying the end is like Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)’, says Leung, ‘It didn’t do well in Hong Kong but film fans can appreciate the stylistic and artistic picture he’s trying to paint. That’s the point of a festival – to unearth films that might not be commercial.’

As well as art-house ponderings – also showing are Kim Ki-duk’s surreal Dream (2008) from Korea and Taiwan’s Keeping Watch (2007) about the strange reconnection of two childhood friends – Leung is making sure that action fans are also provided for in his intriguing cross-section. The festival is set to open with a bang thanks to Korea’s heist thriller Eye for an Eye (2008), but Legendary Assassins (2008) should be the most entertaining film on offer: ‘Jacky Wu’s first film is a throwback to 80s Hong Kong B-movie action. Li Chung Chi from Jackie Chan’s stunt team co-directs.’

The Terracotta Festival will provide the one and only opportunity to see these films in the UK. In the case of High Kick Girl (2009) – the debut of real-life teenage karate champion Rina Takeda – it’s even showing before its release in Japan. ‘Terracotta is a big push for Asian titles’, Leung explains. ‘We’re getting together with distributors such as Manga and Third Window so we can pool our resources and target the market in one go – a shot in the arm to get Asian film to the forefront of people’s minds.’

Leung’s own Terracotta Distribution will release Singing Chen’s God Man Dog (2008), a drama examining the changing social classes of Taiwanese society. A much different, and much weirder, social statement can be seen in Malaysia’s Zombies from Banana Village (2007): a comedic insight into the country’s village life, ‘it has political overtones about Malaysia and it’s giving an insight into Islamic life and its strict hierarchies’.

Other comedies such as Thailand’s Me… Myself (2007) and Japan’s caper After School (2008) are also in the mix alongside the animé update Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008) and kick-boxing actioner Muay Thai Chaiya (2007). As Leung puts it, ‘I’m trying to tread a line between being commercial and putting on an event I’d like to go to’. Terracotta looks set to be a festival where film fans of all kinds will find something to enjoy.

Richard Badley

INTERVIEW WITH JOHN WILLIAMS

Starfish Hotel

Format: DVD

Release date: 27 October 2008

Distributor: 4Digital Asia

Director: John Williams

Writer: John Williams

Cast: Koichi Sato, Tae Kimura, Kiki, Akira Emoto, Kazuyoshi Kushida

Japan 2006

98 mins

Originally from Wales, director John Williams has lived in Japan for 20 years. His 2006 film Starfish Hotel, which has just been released on DVD, was an East meets West atmospheric fairy tale that played with cultural borders as well as those between dream, fantasy and reality. In an email interview, he told Richard Badley about in-between-ness, unravelling stories, Haruki Murakami and being like a Minotaur.

Richard Badley: Western audiences are used to seeing Tokyo as all neon lights and futuristic skyscrapers but in Starfish Hotel it seems almost bland. Could you tell us about your approach to the city in the film and what you wanted to say, if anything, about its culture?

John Williams: I wanted to deliberately avoid all the clichéd shots of Tokyo, such as the blazing lights of Kabukicho from Lost in Translation and the Shibuya crossing from every commercial shoot. These two areas seem to dominate in Western images of the city, and they are the places a lot of people go to have fun, but Tokyo is a huge, sprawling city, and can be very grey and ugly. This was as much as anything about the psychology of the central character, who is trapped in a cold, geometrical maze. The present day in the film is all washed-out and cold and we chose locations to reflect his depressed state, whereas the past, represented more by Taisho period architecture, is warm and full of reds and woody browns. This was not political nostalgia, but the nostalgia of the character, but I also wanted to suggest that all the concrete, glass and sprawl represent a kind of death of the soul. This is a motif in much recent Japanese cinema too.

RB: What led you to make the film in Japan?

JW: I’ve lived and worked in Japan for 20 years and am now a Permanent Resident, though I still have a UK passport. The question always comes up, but the easy answer is ‘because it’s where I am’. A year before the shoot a UK producer tried to persuade me to reset the film in the UK. It could be done, and I did tinker with a script, but I always felt the story made more sense in Japan and the locations and the references felt very Japanese to me at least. (Strangely, many people in the audience outside Japan found the film very ‘Western’ and some people in Japan talked about the strange ‘in-between-ness’ of the film. They felt they were seeing a slightly wonked version of reality, which was the intention. In the end, the film is very personal and very much about my own first few years in Tokyo. I had lived in Nagoya for 12 years and moved to Tokyo after my first film (Firefly Dreams). Tokyo was a real shock, because Tokyo is not really representative of Japan in so many ways and I felt very isolated and alienated. The darkness of the city scared me. When you’ve got all that artificial light, you also have a lot of shadows too.

RB: After Firefly Dreams, what drew you to doing a much darker/noir story? American noir seems to be a central influence in Starfish Hotel so was it a risk doing such a film in Japan?

JW: It was a big risk to do this film. I didn’t know that at the time. A sensible choice would have been to do another Firefly Dreams with a slightly bigger budget. It was just that I had moved to Tokyo and this led to an obsession with noir and Japanese ghost stories. I really felt I wanted to blend the noirish elements in Kwaidan (traditional Japanese stories of the supernatural) with a detective fiction. Of course I was reading Murakami avidly and the strange limbo he describes seemed so accurate about my own experience and the city of Tokyo.

RB: The central plot about finding Chisato seems linear enough but it’s surrounded by many ambiguous elements. How difficult was it writing the script? Did you rearrange things in post-production?

JW: The plot is very simple. A man’s wife disappears. He goes to look for her, goes through the usual tropes of the detective quest and finds her, whilst thinking all the time about another woman. What I wanted to do though was open up big puzzling holes in the story, so that all the time you’re really wondering whether you’re putting the puzzle together or not. This ambiguity is where we live now and perhaps it’s really where we’ve always lived. We make up these stories to explain our world and our experience, and they constantly unravel. I like that unravelling. The edit is pretty close to the script. The film was supposed to have a dream logic rather than a linear plot logic, but this is hard to pull off.

RB: There are many themes at work in the film – escapism, authorship… What was it in particular that you wanted to explore?

JW: More than anything else I wanted to make a film about the importance of storytelling, both in people’s personal lives and in society at large. If stories die, then I think we are in big trouble. When commercialism takes over from art, you get a terrible sense of emptiness, hence the grey city of Tokyo described above. In this world we have to go inside to make things good again. (Sounds pretentious I know, but that is what I was trying to say.)

RB: The film’s central tension is between Arisu wanting to be a writer and Kuroda who is constantly watching him, controlling the story. Were these characters inspired by your own life as you became a filmmaker/storyteller? Or was it maybe a comment on the power of authors?

JW: When you write something you create a universe that you control, but very often, when the writing is going well and you let your unconscious work, then ‘something else’ takes over. This is both terrifying and exhilarating. I’ve had that feeling a couple of times and I know many writers who have it. This ‘something else’ can completely destroy the mask you wear everyday, so it’s not a great place to stay, but everybody wants to go there. Don’t they?

RB: You’ve cited Haruki Murakami as a major influence and the film demonstrates a similar concern about modern society. What do you respond to in his writing?

JW: I think what I respond to is his openness to his own unconscious. Murakami is a writer who lets the ‘something else’ speak through him and this is very disturbing. Perhaps this is why he is so disciplined about his writing and his running. He needs to control every other aspect of his life in order to let the big beast free at the back of his mind. I think he also thinks Japan has buried the beast too much and he’s letting it back out of the bag.

RB: Were you conscious about making the film as universal as possible by combining elements of Western and Eastern culture (Alice in Wonderland, the symbol of the Fox)? As a result have you had different reactions from Western/Eastern audiences?

JW: Yes, I always saw this film as being a kind of fox-marriage of East and West. I talked all the time with production designer Iwao Saitou about the concept of ‘Wayou-Sechu’ or a blending of East and West in art, design and story. Purists hate this and think somehow it is not ‘Japanese’ enough. Personally I don’t like purists. When cultures blend to create something new, such as in Japanese jazz or Western uses of Japanese art (Van Gogh) then you get something very exciting. I wanted the film to be like that, to take the best of both worlds. The difficulty of course is in the reception by audiences, because people who don’t know both worlds sometimes only see one side of the coin. I wasn’t trying to be clever, though. It just grew out of my own personal history, having lived half my life in the UK and then the other half in Japan. I ended up as a sort of Minotaur, and I’d like to remain that way. (PS – sounds funnier in Japanese.)

RB: You’ve been very successful in moving East, what are the challenges and benefits of working in Japan as opposed to somewhere like the UK?

JW: Of course the biggest challenge is the language. When you work in English everything is faster. On the other hand, you get this really exciting sense of always learning, which is easy to forget in the UK. I love UK cinema, but the UK film industry sometimes seems almost as inward-looking as the Japanese industry. If anything, I think the Japanese filmmakers I know are looking out more at the world these days, but their work is less known, because of the language barrier. There are more films made here every year (over 400 a year) and Japanese films have a bigger share of the domestic market (50%), but the budgets are lower, there is little soft money, and not much training. The majors dominate everything, but the indie sector is vibrant. I’d love to make a film in the UK one day, especially in Wales, where my home is.

Interview by Richard Badley

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews