by Spank the Monkey
For those of us who love Asian cinema, the Terracotta Far East Film Festival – which has just completed its third year – is an absolute delight. Its selections aren’t tied by national boundaries or by genre: drama, comedy, martial arts and horror all happily co-exist within its four-day span. And 2011 was the year when I was going to give it the justice it deserved, investing in a festival pass and seeing all fourteen movies in one huge blowout.
This plan went all pear-shaped when my employer decided at the last minute that I really needed to be in Texas that week. After much negotiation, I managed to get it down to a four-day week and an overnight flight back to London, which would mean I’d only miss the first few films in the programme: Mak & Chong’s Donnie Yen-starring opening gala The Lost Bladesman, Herb Hsu Li-wen’s Taiwanese comedy Hotel Black Cat, and Woo Ming Jin’s Malaysian baby-selling drama The Tiger Factory.
It was only on the plane that I realised what I’d committed myself to: a nine-hour long haul flight, closely followed by eleven films crammed into a little over 48 hours. This could be less of a festival roundup, and more of a document of human endurance. A bit like “Larry Forsyth Experiments” but with more kung fu, perhaps. Let’s find out.
FRIDAY MAY 6th
5.45 Revenge: A Love Story (Wong Ching Po, Hong Kong)
You can, of course, expect the national cinemas of the various participating Asian nations to be stereotyped ruthlessly throughout this round-up. Hong Kong is the first: its movies have historically revelled in consequence-free violence, and when they try to inject a note of dark realism, it inevitably goes too far. That’s what happens in this tale of a serial killer who carves the foetuses out of pregnant women’s stomachs (told you). After one minute, we know that Chan Kit (Juno Mak) is the killer: after fifteen, he’s been captured. So the rest of the film is a brave attempt to make us feel sympathy for Chan Kit. But to do that it has to stack the narrative cards against him in an incredibly loaded way, and quickly topples over into melodrama with some ugly rapey overtones. Still, there are some interesting kinks in the narrative timeline, and a neatly ambiguous conclusion, to compensate for some of the unpleasantness. But not all of it.
7.50 Man Of Vendetta (Woo Min-ho, South Korea)
The previous film’s conclusion on the best form of revenge dovetails neatly into the opening of this one, as Pastor Young-soo (Kim Myung-min) gives an impassioned sermon on forgiving our enemies. However, it proves to be the breaking point of his faith: a man has kidnapped his young daughter, and there’s no forgiving that. Eight years on, his daughter is still missing, and his wife is still obsessively pursuing the case: meanwhile, Young-soo has left his church to run a small, financially ailing medical supplies company. And it’s at this point that the kidnapper gets back in touch. The stage is set for a beautifully played cat and mouse drama, as extortionist and extortee attempt to outwit each other. This is a pretty good example of the genre that avoids the wild excesses of, say, Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance” films. That’s not to say there aren’t some narrative flaws, especially in the way that Koreans appear to be knife-proof nowadays: stab wounds to the chest appear rarely to work, and it takes a full-on bludgeoning to properly kill someone. The Belated Birthday Girl would like to point out that given one of the turns the narrative takes towards the end, it amuses her that part of the score is performed by a Stockholm orchestra.
10.50 Helldriver (Yoshihiro Nishimura, Japan)
From the makers of Tokyo Gore Police: and if you saw the trailer for that film when it did its viral rounds, then you’ll know whether you want to bother with this one or not. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Japan, where a careless collision between abusive mother Rikka (Eihi Shiina) and a meteor results in the country being overrun with zombies. The pre-credits sequence – which appears to take up close on half the film – spends a little too long setting up the world and its rules, along the way getting in some queasily topical digs at Japan’s approach to crisis management. But once all that’s out of the way, we can follow the story of warrior daughter Kika (Yumiko Hara) and her attempts to stop her mum, with all the outrageous gore and narrative incoherence that Nishimura is famous for. The penultimate big action set piece – three intercut fights and a huge chase – is where Helldriver hits a delirious peak of invention, with one new messed-up idea in every shot. The big finale increases the scale of the effects, but feels like a step back in comparison. Still, if any movie in this festival was going to have a late night screening, this would be the one.
SATURDAY MAY 7th
1.15 Petty Romance (Kim Joung-hoon, Korea)
It’s nice that Korean cinema is slowly gaining a following in the UK, although we tend to end up with tales of stabby vengeance to the exclusion of anything else (see Man Of Vendetta above). So it’s good to see a Korean romcom on a London screen, and to see it getting so high a mark in the festival’s audience award vote. It’s not quite all sweetness and light, though: as artist Jeong Bae (Lee Sun-kyun) and girlie writer Da Rim (Choi Kag-hee) are reluctantly paired off professionally to enter an adult comic competition, they find out some murky things about each other’s sexual experiences on the way to their relationship’s inevitable non-professional turn. As with any other romcom, the obstacles placed in the path of true love are incredibly contrived, and are only there to stretch the story out to the full two hours. But the two leads have a lovely chemistry (even though Choi in particular is not afraid to make her character initially quite horrible), and there are some terrific comic set-pieces scattered throughout its length.
3.50 Choy Lee Fut (Tommy Law Wai Tak & Sam Wong Ming-Sing, China)
For fans of old-to-medium-school kung fu movies, the prospect of a new film starring Sammo Hung would have been absolute catnip. Curb that enthusiasm, though: although he gets top billing (along with the similarly-vintaged Yuen Wah), he’s only there for a handful of scenes as the absentee master of a martial arts school. The real protagonist is his character’s son Wei Yip (played by his real-life son Sammy), who’s forced to fight for the honour of the school alongside his Japanese mate Takeda (played by Kane Kosugi, son of DTV ninja master Sho Kosugi). As you can see from the casting, Choy Lee Fut does everything it can to set up parallels with the golden age of martial arts cinema, and then proceeds to piss it all away with terrible writing, an inappropriate fake R&B score, and hamfisted staging of the fights themselves. To be honest, the film lost me at its prologue set in “Thames Town, United Kingdom”, a mythical place where every house has a European-style balcony, and every pedestrian walks the streets with their head down because the budget couldn’t run to Caucasian extras.
6.00 Yakuza Weapon (Tak Sakaguchi & Yudai Yamaguchi, Japan)
Like last night’s Helldriver, another film from the schlock factory that is Sushi Typhoon, although writer/director/star Tak Sakaguchi seems to have a better-developed sense of his film’s ridiculousness. To be honest, in the first half of the film where he plays a normalish gangster, he’s already over the top – impervious to bullets and knives, and able to shrug off being hit in the back with a flying speedboat with a mere grunt of disapproval. When he’s blown to bits in a gang war, the Japanese government replaces his missing arm and leg with a machine gun and a rocket launcher, but it doesn’t make him much more destructive than he was before. As with Helldriver, it hits its peak of violent invention at roughly the three-quarter mark, with a stunningly choreographed battle shot in a single five-minute take (it took two attempts, because Sakaguchi claims he broke his neck during the first one). But either side of that, there are far too many draggy and repetitive bits to hold your interest. I remember the good old days when exploitation movies ran short, and were all the better for it. I suspect Sushi Typhoon don’t.
8.30 The Child’s Eye (Danny Pang & Oxide Pang, Hong Kong)
God bless Joey Leung, the organiser and very public face of the Terracotta Festival. Where other festival bosses would hype up the movie their audience was about to see, here’s how he summed up the career of the Pang brothers in his intro to this film: ‘The Eye was great, its sequels weren’t. This one’s all right, though.’ Personally, I’d put The Child’s Eye at the “fucking terrible” end of the “all right” spectrum. Three young Hong Kong couples are on holiday in Bangkok, and find themselves stranded when riots break out. They’re forced to stay in Bangkok’s nastiest hotel for the night, whereupon (to quote Joey again) ‘it all goes a bit Scooby-Doo’. The Pangs throw in all the usual cheap shocks – a sudden crashing chord accompanying a closeup of a small puppy, for example – and lots of things are hurled at the camera to take advantage of the 3D capability that this particular print didn’t use. But none of this can prepare you for the sheer idiocy of the plotting, best summarised by the audience voting form I saw which had the words ‘WHY DOG BABY?’ scrawled across it. (That may technically count as a spoiler.)
SUNDAY MAY 8th
12.15 Red Light Revolution (Sam Voutas, China)
A ludicrously early start for the final day of the festival, especially as most of the people in the room were at the Terracotta party the night before. (We left it just before midnight, which is apparently when Tak Sakaguchi stormed in and took over the karaoke. I’d love to have seen that.) Today’s first film has the oddity value of being directed by an Australian who’s been living in Beijing for yonks. It tells the story of Shunzi, who loses his job, car and wife in rapid succession. He’s got no idea what to do with his life, until an old school friend approaches him with a business proposition: join the fast-growing army of Beijing sex shop owners. Shunzi has to deal with the shame of his parents, the disapproval of the neighbourhood watch officer, and the wrath of the Japanese gangster who provides him with stock. It’s always nice when the odd film about contemporary Chinese life makes it over here, especially when its subject matter makes it less likely to get a screening in its home country. Not so much for its rudeness – which really comes down to a few shots of dildos – but more for its depiction of the Chinese can-do approach to the dilemmas of capitalism. Voutas handles the whole thing with a light touch, and the result is a crowd-pleasing comedy that’s as much a triumph of working outside the system as the story it tells. For example, according to Voutas, the sex toys on display throughout the film are all there as part of a product placement deal…
2.25 Karate Girl (Yoshikatsu Kimura, Japan)
The Belated Birthday Girl met 19-year-old karate black belt Rina Takeda in the ladies loos last night, and thankfully chose not to tell her “hey, my boyfriend thought your last film was shit.” But it’s true. It was a big deal when Terracotta picked up Takeda’s debut High Kick Girl! for their 2009 festival off the back of its viral teaser trailer. But the film didn’t live up to the clip’s promise: padding out its running time with endless action replays of fights, and having its heroine locked away for most of the third act so she could be rescued by a man. Her followup thankfully doesn’t suffer from either of these flaws, and isn’t even hamstrung by a digital projection glitch that turns it all black and white, resulting in what Joey delightfully calls ‘the first Nouvelle Vague karate movie’. It actually suits the monochrome nature of the story, in which Takeda and Hina Tobimatsu play the good and bad descendants of a renowned karate dynasty, dressed in white and black respectively. The film’s not without its pacing problems – it drags whenever the sisters aren’t on screen, and has a few too many flashbacks aimed at the hard of thinking. But the no-CGI-no-wires aesthetic of the fights is enhanced by the use of long steadicam takes, allowing the moves to be seen at their best. And Rina Takeda makes for a charming lead both onscreen and off, pulling open her karate uniform during her on-stage intro to reveal a Will & Kate t-shirt underneath.
4.40 Gallants (Clement Cheng & Derek Kwok, Hong Kong)
Taking Gallants and yesterday’s Choy Lee Fut as an admittedly skewed sample, it would appear that Hong Kong kung fu movies are going through a decidedly retro phase at the moment: finding ways to tart up the old stories of duelling martial arts schools, and trying to get a few of the legendary performers from the classic era to stand there and give their blessing. Except Gallants isn’t prepared to make do with that: it takes its elderly stars and makes them work for their money, rather than just swan in for three scenes like Sammo Hung did in Choy Lee Fut. It’s the story of a village martial arts school that’s gone to seed ever since its master Law (Teddy Robin) went into a coma. His students Tiger (Leung Siu Lung) and Dragon (Chen Kuan Tai) have spent the last 30 years looking after him, but it takes the threat of eviction from the school to bring Law out of his coma and come up with a plan to enter his students into a kung fu tournament. Gallants recently won several Hong Kong Film Awards, and you can see just why it would appeal so much to its home audience: it mixes the best of old and new, combining Shaw-style opening credits and traditionally filmed fights with a lot of knowing, post-modern wit. (A variant on the tradition of having an introductory caption for each character as they appear in the story got the biggest single laugh of this festival.) And its ageing cast is a delight to watch again after all this time, with Teddy Robin having tremendous fun in the sifu role.
6.55 Milocrorze, A Love Story (Yoshimasa Ishibashi, Japan)
Eleven films in, the end of the festival, and I have to admit that this has been the most dramatic cure for jetlag I’ve ever attempted. Still, it seems to have worked: on Friday and Saturday I hit the wall during the movies that started closest to 6pm (i.e. midnight Texas time), but that wasn’t the case on the Sunday. Although to be honest, drifting in and out of sleep during this closing movie might not have made much difference to its comprehensibility. It’s the sort of plot that could easily generate a WHY DOG BABY? response… but this time, in a good way. You could possibly think of it as three short films about love, linked by Takayuki Yamada playing the lead in all of them. The longest one follows a romance that travels through history in an unexpected way: it’s preceded by a sketch about the least sympathetic relationship counsellor on the planet: and bookending the whole thing is the story of Ovreneli Vreneligare and his doomed love for the beautiful Milocrorze. All three are filmed in very different styles, the most distinctive being the fairy-tale look and sound of the framing story, which gets much amusement out of how ridiculous the name Ovreneli Vreneligare sounds when you get a narrator to use it once in each sentence. You could tie yourself in knots trying to draw links between the three strands, or you could just go along with the ride and enjoy it on a purely visceral level. It took me a while to stop doing the first of those, but eventually I decided to go along with its disjointed mix of time-travelling samurai, Yakult fetishism and the use of nipple-tweaking as a seduction technique.
At this point in the experiment, I had to be subdued.
Spank the Monkey may not know which time zone he’s in, but his Unpleasant Lair is timeless.