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Tuesday, May 2, 2000

Festival films for real fans

Big film festivals often try to be all things to all people, offering everything from the subtitled musings of European auteurs to the latest Hollywood effects shows. Smaller festivals often specialize in arthouse or cult films, because they either reject Hollywood glitz or have resigned themselves to the fact that, unless they can arrange another tete-a-tete with President Clinton, Leonardo di Caprio is not going to show.

Though Asian films often feature at festivals, they are not usually the kind that Asian audiences pay to watch. Director Ho Hsiao-hsien may have a shelf full of festival awards, but in his native Taiwan his films are hard to find, while those of Jackie Chan and Ringo Lam are everywhere.

Three years ago, a group of film fans in Udine, a city in northern Italy, presented a week of Hong Kong commercial films at a local theater. The response was so enthusiastic that they persuaded the sponsors of UdineIncontri, a local festival that had been changing its focus every year, to screen commercial films from Hong Kong, China, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore for its 1999 edition. Dubbed Far East Film, it was a smashing success, and the festival decided to retain the Asian theme for the following year.

The 2000 UdineIncontri Far East Film program broadened to include films from Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, so the 56 films screened April 8-16 represented every important filmmaking region of East Asia, as well as North Korea, whose films had seldom been seen abroad, for obvious reasons.

Besides the expected Hong Kong action favorites (Jackie Chan's "Gorgeous," Ringo Lam's "Victim") and Korean megahit "Shuri," programmer Derek Elley included films like Chen Kuo-fu's "The Personals" and Zhang Yang's "Shower" that were more about emotions than explosions. One could quibble with the mix (why eight films from that cinematic hotbed North Korea and only five from Japan?), but it was a far more accurate barometer of Asian movie-going tastes than the usual festival selections from the minimalist cookie cutter.

The Asian guests, including Hong Kong action stalwart Simon Lam and comic Stephen Chiau, got a far warmer response from the crowd than most auteurs -- cheers, whoops and flashing cameras. One reason was the large Asian contingent, which had come to Udine from all over Europe, but another was the number of Italian fans who actually knew these stars and their films. I remember audiences in the U.S. who pattered polite applause at Asian faces they knew only from their programs, but this festival was different. Successful, too. Every evening the cavernous theater (actually an opera house) was packed to the rafters.

What were the favorites? One was "The Mission," a Hong Kong gang film by Johnnie To that uses genre cliches to amusing and hard-hitting effect. The setup is standard: an elderly Triad boss (Ko Hung) is nearly whacked by a rival gang. To protect the boss, his chief lieutenant Frank (Simon Yam) hires five bodyguards, hard guys of various persuasions from a lean, glinty-eyed disco manager (Roy Cheung) to a fat, peanut-chewing weapons expert (Lam Suet).

In a typical thriller, the bodyguards would get knocked off, one by one, until the most handsome and sympathetic survivor takes on the baddies alone. In "Mission," the bodyguards fend off attack after madly violent attack with choreographed professionalism that is cool, but never cartoonish. Several of the action sequences, including a gun battle on a moving escalator, are gems, but To and scriptwriter Yau Nai-hoi also take time to establish the characters of their heroes.

Another find was Zhang Yang's off-beat "Shower." Daming (Pu Cunxin), a prosperous businessman in the Shenzhen economic zone, returns home when he hears that his father (Zhu Xu), the owner of a Beijing bathhouse, has died. The old man, he discovers, is very much alive, and resents Daming for abandoning him and the family business to seek his fortune.

Though he resists, Daming is inevitably drawn back into the family circle, with Daming's mentally retarded younger brother Erming (Jiang Wu), and the world of the bathhouse's eccentric regulars, including a young man who always sings "O Sole Mio" in the shower. A Japanese commercial film would drench this in sentimentality, but "Shower" takes a more distanced, and at times comic, view of its principals, while letting them emerge as real individuals.

By the end, one has become not just a spectator but a member of the family, and when the family disintegrates, the impact is wrenching. I never thought I would listen to an off-key rendition of "O Sole Mio" with tears streaming down my cheeks.

Any other reasons for coming to Udine? Well, the movies are free, the people are friendly, the food is terrific, the town is full of interesting shops and sights, but blissfully free of tourists and the types who prey on them. Also, it's one hour by car from the ski slopes and the sea, amid some of the prettiest old towns in northern Italy.

Why did I get on that plane back to Narita? Well, there's always next year, isn't there?

For more information on Far East Film, visit the Web site at fareastfilm@ cecudine.org

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