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Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Crowd-pleasing in Udine

Italian festival showcases rich variety of Asian films


Given the media frenzy over "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Western interest in Asian cinema may be news, but it's hardly new. Back in 1998, the organizers of Udine Incontri Cinema, a small film festival in a quiet Italian town near the Austrian and Slovenian border, shifted their focus to commercial films from Hong Kong -- Jackie Chan instead of Wong Kar-wai. The response was encouraging (turn-away crowds at many of the screenings), and the decision to specialize in Asia was easy. A year later, the festival moved into a civic auditorium used for staging operas and filled all three of its balconies by showing films from various parts of the region, in what it was now calling its Far East Film showcase.

A street in Udine

This year, the festival used two locations, the auditorium and the festival's old digs in a theater near Udine Station, to present an eclectic program of 72 films from seven Asian film-making centers: Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. Most were released in the past year and most were aimed at mass audiences. During its 10-day run, from April 19 to 28, the festival once again drew large crowds. The screening of the new documentary "Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey" and "The Kid," a 1950 film starring Lee as a child, were so packed that organizers scheduled a second.

But many of the films getting the biggest critical buzz and rounds of applause were not the martial arts action flicks the region is best known for, but family dramas (Jung Ji-woo's "Happy End," Naoto Takenaka's "Quartet for Two"), political thrillers (Herman Yau's "From the Queen to the Chief Executive," Park Chan-wook's "Joint Security Area"), love stories (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai's "Needing You . . . ") and comedies (Sabu's "Monday" and Kim Jee-won's "The Foul King").

Among the works screened in this year's Far East Film showcase were:
"Bullets Over Summer"
"From the Queen to the Chief Executive"
"Happy End"
"Needing You . . ."

The winner of the audience award was, in fact, "The Foul King," a hilarious Korean comedy about a much-sat-upon banker who finds a new life as a pro-wrestling bad guy. Playing the hero, the rugged, boyishly handsome Song Kang-ho did his own back flips and body slams with admirable comic panache -- and cojones.

Udine has convincingly shown that Asian popular cinema is more varied than the average mall moviegoer would imagine, but it is becoming the victim of its own success. Festival programmers from Toronto to Deauville were in attendance this year and are planning similar festivals or sections of their own.

"It's becoming hard to find enough good new films for our program," said festival organizer Thomas Bertacche. "We would like to show older films as well." Next year the festival plans to schedule retrospectives, with Japanese gang films from the 1960s and 1970s being one possibility under consideration.

For this reviewer, however, even the mediocre stuff offered insights into the trends and talents of contemporary Asian film. First, despite all the talk about pan-Asian coproductions -- nearly every other Hong Kong film being made seems to have Japanese money, actors or settings -- the results on the screen are not yet impressive.

Jingle Ma's thriller "Tokyo Raiders" had star power (Tony Leung, Ekin Cheng, Kelly Chen), flawless fight choreography, silky camera moves, snazzy editing tricks and impeccably postmodern settings (including the obligatory shot of the Odaiba waterfront). But its pudding of a plot featured Leung as a Tokyo-based P.I. and Cheng as an interior designer gallantly coming to the aid of Chen, the left-at-the-altar fiancee of a Japanese businessman. It never achieved even an "MI:2" level of credibility. Meanwhile, its view of Japan was little more than an assemblage of stereotypes (growling gangsters, cutesy-cute OLs) and cliches (see the above reference to Odaiba).

Second, despite increasing interchanges among Asian economies and cultures, Japan is still a big, glaring exception to the regional rule. At a panel discussion on recent trends in Asian film, I listened to everyone else complain about rampant piracy, the Hollywood invasion and the lack of audience interest in anything resembling art. I felt a bit of a spoilsport as I explained that film fans here reject cheap knockoffs (no VCDs please, we're Japanese), prefer Miyazaki to Disney and, in Tokyo at least, dutifully line up for the latest auteurist indulgences, even the sure cures for insomnia.

Third, I found myself falling in love with Sammi Cheng, a rail-thin Hong Kong actress who can play everything from charming ditzes ("Needing You . . .") to hardcase career women ("Summer Holiday") and superpowered heroines from Chinese folklore (Wu Yen) with verve, conviction and flawless comic instincts. Though blessed with a chameleon face that can shift from gaunt stridency to melting sensuality, at times within the same scene, she never descends to the mugging that so many Japanese tarento equate with comedy.

Instead, she thoroughly inhabits her roles, even the flimsiest, with a craftman's precision, while giving the impression of effortless spontaneity. Imagine the class and control of Katherine Hepburn combined with the free-spirited sexiness of Goldie Hawn. Am I going overboard? Probably, since her films in the Udine program weren't really that good, but Sammi herself is a find.

Fourth, despite all the film-crit chat about auteurs and the industry in-talk about hot films and markets (both found in abundance in the Udine festival catalog), the local audience gave their warmest welcome to the biggest stars in attendance and the most accessible entertainment on the screen, regardless of local grosses or critical stamps of approval. Karen Mok, a diminutive Hong Kong actress of unconventional beauty and oversize talent, got a huge hand for her stage speech in passable Italian -- and her stunning red mini-dress.

The festival's opening film, Katsuyuki Motohiro's bank heist comedy "Space Travelers," got more applause and respectful attention from the crowd at Udine than it did at home, where it floundered at the box office and was trashed by the critics. At a postscreening discussion, one fan even asked the pleased, if bemused, director the symbolic significance of the getaway car.

Fifth, and finally, I found that I could stand just about anything on the screen as long as I had a few free hours to range in and around Udine. I explored everything from the local fish market (including the live eels squirming around in a crate) to the 16th-century villa of a Venetian family that produced the last Doge (and hosted, for one memorable night, Napoleon). It was, I thought, among the best of all touristic worlds for overstressed Asian film folk: no traffic, crowds or noise, but lots of brand-name shopping. Even the local wine, which I sampled on several vineyard tours, was a delight.

Kanpai -- and ciao until next year.



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