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Wednesday, May 15, 2002


Asian cinema, as it's seen in the theaters

Film festivals generally exalt Art and disdain Commerce, save when they are trying to lure the fickle media with Hollywood star power. Nicole Kidman in a clingy gown generates a heck of a lot more buzz than the director of a Bosnian war movie. Thus the large disjunct between so-called festival films and movies most people pay to see.

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"Hi, Dharma!"
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"Guns & Talk"
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"Public Enemy"

This is especially true in Japan, where younger directors commonly aim more at artistic prestige abroad than big box-office numbers at home. So foreign critics and fans get a skewed view of Japanese audiences' tastes; the latest festival sensation they hail as "representative of the Japanese new wave" is often all but ignored here. There is a parallel with the pottery Japan churns out for export, with "exotic" scenes of geisha and Mount Fuji, and the stuff they made for home consumption.

Since 1999, the Far East Film festival in Udine, Italy, has tried focused on East Asian films for general audiences. Not all their comedies from Hong Kong or cop thrillers from South Korea have been masterpieces, but they have offered European film-goers (as well as the occasional American critic) a selection of contemporary Asian cinema that is more entertaining -- and sometimes better -- than that found elsewhere.

This year, April 19-27, at a cavernous theater that doubles as a concert hall, the Udine festival presented 64 films, including special sections on Chinese animation, Japanese "pink" films and the work of Hong Kong director Patrick Leung. The festival also hosted daily panel discussions on the special sections, national cinemas and the state of Asian cinema in general.

My own impression, after my third trip to Udine, is one of rapid change, with old stereotypes giving way to new realities. Hong Kong still turns out chop-socky action flicks, just as it has for decades, but some its biggest recent hits have been high-concept romantic dramas and comedies. Meanwhile, Chinese producers still make patriotic historical epics for local audiences and minimalist human dramas for the festival circuit, but younger directors are taking more inspiration from MTV than their impeccably high-minded Fifth Generation elders.

Also, though the Japanese film industry still earns more than the rest of its East Asian competitors combined ($1.5 billion in 2001 alone), the upstart Koreans are making stronger films -- and the rest of the world is starting to take notice.

My own favorite was Kang Woo Suk's "Public Enemy," whose disheveled hero might be described as a compendium of Dirty Harry, Popeye and Columbo, but he's one of a kind. Veteran homicide detective Kang Chul Joong (Sol Kyung Gu) is casually corrupt, but usually broke and totally indifferent to appearances, personal, professional or otherwise. He takes a greater than usual interest, however, in the fatal stabbing of an elderly couple -- his own wife was murdered by a knife-wielding killer -- and begins to suspect their only son, an insufferable yuppie whose grief strikes him as fake.

Kang's one-man investigation is unorthodox (he tails the yuppie like a bad conscience and beats him like a drum) and gets him fired from the force. No surprises there. What is surprising, and delightful, is the energy and inventiveness director Kang brings to this familiar cop-on-a-mission material. Despite its headlong pace, "Public Enemy" is full of sharp observations, comic and otherwise, into the characters of its principals (one is that Kang's top desk drawer is empty save for a bent pen). Sol Kyung Gul turns in a brilliant no-frills performance as the lead, playing his rules-breaking cop as shambling everyman, but with a bullheaded rage for justice that makes Eastwood look like Kenneth Branagh in a Shakespearean snit-fit.

Also excellent was "Failan," Song Hae Sung's story of a young Chinese woman who comes to Korea to work after the death of her parents and marries a gangster, sight unseen, to get a working permit. The woman, played by Hong Kong star Cecilia Cheung, works diligently at a laundry, while naively regarding her unknown husband as a savior. The gangster, a blow-hard type played by the great Korean actor Choi Min Shik, alienates everyone in sight with his numerous screw-ups, while dreaming of returning home to a simpler life. Then he becomes aware, too late, of his wife's great love -- and his unworthiness overwhelms him. Choi's performance, with its combination of power and delicacy, is nakedly revealing but never bombastic.

Also worthy of note was the crowd-pleasing comedy "Hi, Dharma!" about a crew of fugitive gangsters who take refuge in a Buddhist monastery. Though its premise may be too clever by half, freshman director Park Chul Wan makes the ensuing cultural clash between its wise guys and wise men funny and even touching, while briskly tying the elements of Park Kyu Tae's well-written script into a coherent whole.

The audience also loved "Guns & Talk," a comedy about a gang of cool-dude hit men who pride themselves on their "humanistic" work but end up falling for one of their victims -- a pregnant beauty. I became less enthralled, however, as the cutesy gags descended to the level of a SMAP comedy skit.

Funnier -- and on a similar theme -- was Edmund Pang's "You Shoot, I Shoot," about a sybaritic hit man who, needing to rustle up business, begins offering a new service -- videos of his jobs, produced by an ambitious film student who sees himself as the next Martin Scorsese. As a satire on the Hong Kong film business, "You Shoot, I Shoot" hits its mark.

I have already reviewed most of the Japanese films at the festival, including "Laundry," "Satorare" and "Travail," in this space. Among the ones I missed, for good reason, were the "pink eiga" -- soft-core porn made for the grind-house circuit. But as awful as many of these films can be, with simulated sex as mechanical as an oil rig in overdrive, a few, by such talents as Toshiki Sato, Takahisa Zeze, Masahiro Kobayashi and Yuji Tajiri, succeed at being something more than turn-ons for dirty old men. The pick of the 10-film section was Tajiri's "Rustling in Bed (OL no Aijiru Love Juice)," whose two protagonists -- a lonely 29-year-old OL and an emotionally distant college student -- find in each other an ideal sexual match but fail to connect as human beings. An odd message for a porn flick (humping is not enough) is conveyed with heat, tenderness and a touch of real pathos.

It was one of many finds at a most extraordinary festival.

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