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Terracotta Festival 2010


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 (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


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

Berlinale 2010: Dispatch 4


In her final dispatch from Berlin, Pamela Jahn reports on the Asian films in the programme, including new works by Zhang Yimou and Kôji Wakamatsu.

There is traditionally a strong Asian presence in the Forum section, and after last year’s inventive Korean features (including Baek Seung-bin’s debut feature Members of the Funeral) I was hoping for another batch of exciting films this year. Unfortunately, I missed the two Korean films on offer, but the most original of the four Japanese entries in the section was undoubtedly Sabu’s Kanik&#333sen. A witty, ferociously crafted screen adaptation of Takeji Kobayashi’s 1929 agitprop novel, the film mainly takes place on a battered cannery ship in imperialist Japan. The set is somewhat reminiscent of Metropolis, and the film tells a similar story, focusing on a crew of downtrodden workers who eventually rise up against their tyrannical oppressors. As one would expect from a filmmaker who is known for fast-paced action-comedies and anarchic satire, Kanik&#333sen is informed by a pitch-black sense of humour that at times turns into slapstick; yet Sabu manages to make the novel’s fundamental and still relevant critique clear by keeping the right balance between theatrical elements, brutality and idiosyncratic ingenuity. Employing an anti-realist approach to the historical context, Kanik&#333sen is a bizarre and often claustrophobic cinematic experience where Brecht meets Chaplin on the high sea.

Diving into the abyss of modern Japanese society, Isao Yukisada’s Parade is an often comical but increasingly gloomy urban tale revolving around the phenomenon of people in their mid-20s who refuse to grow up and face life. At first, the narrative is driven merely by dialogue and the infrequent actions taking place in a household of four troubled Tokyo drifters, but it sparks up the moment a homeless teenage hustler suddenly takes over the couch in the living room. The film is roughly divided into four chapters, each focusing on one of the tenants and his or her private obsession, and the dark nature of the story is emphasised by the soundtrack and sublime twists that carefully hint at the film’s surprise ending. Although Parade lacks the drive, visual subtlety and thoughtfulness that made Yukisada’s 2001 teen drama Go such a compelling watch, just following these offbeat, gentle dreamers is a pleasure, and it made this somewhat overwrought film stand out as one of the wittier and more honest works on show in the Panorama section.

Excoriated as a ‘national disgrace’ in the Japanese press at the time, Kôji Wakamatsu’s Secrets Acts behind Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto) caused a stir when it premiered at the Berlinale in 1965, which ultimately helped push the pinku eiga pioneer to fame home and abroad. Forty-five years later, Wakamatsu’s eagerly awaited new feature Caterpillar – a loose follow-up to his 2007 monstrous docu-fiction drama United Red Army (Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi) – was screening in competition, but although it confirms Wakamatsu’s credentials as one of Japan’s most fiercely independent directors/producers to date, the style and backdrop of his latest effort are quite different from his earlier work. Set in a rural village during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1940, Caterpillar tells the story of severely disabled war veteran Lieutenant Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Ohnishi) who returns home disfigured and dumb, and with no arms and legs, but highly decorated, with three medals paying tribute to his heroic deeds. For his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), however, he is less a ‘war god’ than a burden, as rude and demanding with her as he was before he was maimed, and while carrying out her duty as the docile peasant, sacrificing herself by caring for the glorified soldier and taking him out for public display, her meek patience is thinning rapidly and eventually turns into a desire for revenge. Caterpillar uses documentary war footage, radio propaganda and excessive, brutal imagery that hint at the violently, sexually and politically provocative spirit of Wakamatsu’s previous work, but the film is strongest in its meticulous depiction of the strained relationship between Kyozu and Shigeko. Overall, it makes a fitting addition to the 73-year-old director’s remarkable oeuvre, which now stands at 100 films.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)
Undeniably the most colourful entry in this year’s programme was Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop – a remake of sorts of the Coen Brothers’ 1984 debut Blood Simple. Moving the action to northern China in the imperial age, the film follows Ni Dahong, the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of the desert, who pays a killer to murder both his unfaithful wife and her squeamish lover. It’s a shame that the banal slapstick and oddball jokes that Zhang decided to employ instead of the black humour of the original inevitably turn his ambitious venture into a comic farce as the plot rolls on, and it is only in the film’s showdown that he manages to get back on solid ground. There are plenty of things wrong with this film, including the wildly varied and exaggerated acting on display, but A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is nonetheless a visual treat throughout, from the luridly coloured landscapes and floral costumes to the film’s deft cinematography that are clear reminders of Zhang’s earlier work.

Golden Slumber (Goruden Suramba)
With no more major surprises to be expected after a week of enjoying an inspiring, yet patchy festival programme, my last choice turned out to be something of a lucky draw. Golden Slumber is essentially a Japanese indie man-on-the-run conspiracy thriller that follows the conventions of the genre, but the imagery of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film is all his own. Aoyagi (Masato Sakai), a delivery-truck driver, is meeting up with his old college friend Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) when the new prime minister is assassinated in a bomb attack during a procession through the streets of the Japanese city of Sendai, and, through some far-fetched coincidences, Aoyagi becomes the prime suspect. Nakamura deftly hurls his unobtrusive hero from one hair’s breadth escape to another, filling in his background in comic-style fashion, and even though the story feels a bit longwinded in the middle, it lays the groundwork for the triumphant climax. A witty, refreshing genre treat, and arguably one of the most easily enjoyable films at the Berlinale this year.

Read Pamela Jahn’s first report , second report, and third report from the Berlinale.