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Wednesday, May 14, 2003

UDINE FAR EAST FILM FESTIVAL

Asian cinema pops over to Italy


Cannes, Toronto, Sundance and other major film festivals screen hundreds of movies, far too many for anyone to see in such a short space of time -- even with the strongest will (and bladder) in the world.

News photo
The cast of "Sex is Zero" (above) and Kaho Minami and Nene Otsuka in "Laughing Frog" (below)
News photo

The Udine Far East Film festival, which was held this year from April 24 to May 1, solved this problem by unspooling its entire program of 53 films in one theater -- a cavernous modern venue that doubles as a concert hall. By soldiering through the seven daily screenings, a fan could get -- in one concentrated dose -- a good overview of recent popular cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and the rest of East Asia.

My problem in covering this festival, for the fourth time, was less a lack of Stakhanovite dedication than a blatant conflict of interest. Disclosure: I programmed the 14 Japanese films screened, including a six-film retro dedicated to the "King of Cult," Teruo Ishii.

I had naively hoped that I would thus be free to concentrate on the other films in the program. No such luck. The four Japanese guests -- Ishii, actor Shiro Sano, director Hideyuki Hirayama and his wife -- all wanted to see their films together with the Udine audience and, being the good host, I had to accompany them. Also, I wanted to find out for myself how these films played. The audience liked them well enough, as it turned out: In the Audience Award vote for films released in the past year, four of the top 10, including the second, Takashi Miike's black comedy "Togenkyo no Hitobito (Shangri-La)," were Japanese. (First was the Andrew Lau and Alan Mak cop thriller "Infernal Affairs.")

Also, I ended up accompanying the Japanese guests to most of the sumptuous lunches and dinners hosted by the festival. Located in Friuli Province, about a 90-minute drive north from the Venice airport, Udine has several good restaurants that serve northern Italian cuisine, as well as excellent regional wines. The festival wasn't all applause and popping corks, however.

Panicked by the SARS epidemic, local officials had pressured festival organizers to withdraw invitations to all guests from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. With their only alternative to cancel the festival entirely, the organizers had had no choice but to comply. Fortunately, fans still turned out in large numbers -- and there wasn't a mask in sight.

For me, the highlight of the festival was the Ishii retro. I have been a fan of Ishii's work since seeing his 1993 "comeback" film, "Gensenkan Shujin (Master of the Gensenkan Inn)," and had long wanted to screen a selection of his more than 80 films at Udine. Putting it together wasn't easy: Hardly any subtitled prints exist. Also, many of the surviving unsubbed prints were in poor condition, necessitating the making of new ones. Finally, though still healthy and active at 79, Ishii was well-known to be a reluctant flier. The last hurdle proved the easiest to overcome; Ishii, I learned, had since overcome his fear of flying and had enjoyed his first trip to Europe, for the San Sebastian film festival, last year. He quickly accepted our invitation to Udine, though he later told me he had doubts about my program, particularly the selection of "Kyofu Kihei Ningen (The Island of Malformed Men)." Released in 1969 to largely dismissive reviews, "Island" has since become a cult classic in Japan, notorious for its use of now-banned "discriminatory" language. Based on three short stories by Edogawa Rampo, this film about an island "paradise" of the deformed run by an eccentric, web-fingered tycoon (played by famed Butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata) had never been released on video in Japan or screened abroad. Packed with extravagant imagery and driven by Hijikata's bizarre, if inspired, performance, "Island" would, I thought, inspire either hoots or cheers -- there could be no middle ground. The Udine crowd opted for the latter -- the applause at the end of the film was thunderous and Ishii walked out of the theater a hero.

Three of Hideyuki Hirayama's films screened at the fest also got a favorable reaction: "Turn," "Warau Kaeru (Laughing Frog)" and "Out." Though well-regarded in Japan -- his black comedy "Out" was chosen as Japan's nomination for the Foreign Film Academy Award last year -- Hirayama is all but unknown abroad. His films mostly fall in between two stools, being neither arty enough for the high-brow festivals nor trashy enough for the low-brow ones. The Udine audience, however, embraced them, particularly "Laughing Frog" -- a comedy about a disgraced banker (Kyozo Nagatsuka) who, on the run from the police, turns to his estranged wife for refuge and ends up caged in the closet of her country villa, watching helplessly as she entertains her new lover. Reminiscent of European bedroom farce, if made with a distinctively Japanese sensibility, "Laughing Frog" got one of the bigger hands of the festival, though it didn't qualify for the Audience Award because of its 2001 release.

What about the films selected by those other guys -- my friendly programming rivals in Korea, Hong Kong and elsewhere? I tried to see as many as I could, but two of the ones that impressed me the most I could only catch on video, after their scheduled screenings. One was Kim Ki Young's "The Housemaid," a 1960 Korean film about a handsome music teacher who hires a moody, sensuous housemaid to fill in for his ailing wife -- and becomes the target of her erotic obsession. Filmed in a style that recalls the silent melodramas of D.W. Griffith and Carl Dreyer, "The Housemaid" has a dreamlike force. Another was "Prosti," Erik Matti's examination of life in a brothel in the rural Philippines. Like many Filipino directors, Matti emphasizes the strength of his female characters, but unlike most, he downplays melodrama in favor of a slice-of-life recounting of a young woman's first encounter with the sex trade.

Among the guilty pleasures of the festival was "Sex Is Zero," a Korean campus comedy in the gross-out tradition of "American Pie," but more over the top. Exuberant, inventive and totally shameless, "Sex Is Zero" was a huge hit in South Korea, selling nearly as many tickets as the second Harry Potter film. Cannes, of course, would never give it a second glance, but at Udine it had the audience gagging on its own spit.

Next year, will that same crowd be sucking wind through surgical masks? Who knows? Though the Udine fest, I think, will somehow find a way to survive, SARS or no SARS. Udinese, as well as fans from the rest of Europe and the world, love Asian pop cinema too much to stay away. Me? I'll be back for another helping of the polenta.



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