by Spank The Monkey
Mostly Film’s coverage of the 2011 Terracotta Far East Film Festival contained more than its fair share of drama. Aside from the concentrated dose of Asian cinema that Joey Leung and his programming team reliably deliver, there was also the element of jeopardy which came out of my watching 11 movies in 50 hours, immediately after a transatlantic long haul flight. Still, I stayed awake. Unless I didn’t and dreamed all those films I wrote about, of course.
No such issues for the 2012 festival: I’ve rearranged my work schedule so that I’m not going to miss any of the films this year. However, there’s a downside to that: I’m not going to miss any of the films this year. Between Thursday night and Sunday night, I’m now committed to sixteen movies, several masterclasses and a party. What the hell was I thinking? I’ll barely have time to finish this introduction before I
THURSDAY APRIL 12th
8.35pm My Way (Kang Je-kyu, South Korea)
Now that’s how you start a pan-Asian film festival: a Korean movie, partly set in China, about how horrible the Japanese were during WW2. It’s best thought of as four very different war films jammed together, and topped off with a Chariots Of Fire-style opening. That first act introduces two marathon runners, native Korean Jun-shik and occupying Japanese Tatsuo, and their frenemyship which lasts from childhood to their service in a bewildering number of armies. The battle scenes are huge, but never lose sight of the people at their heart – at least until the final act, when the big guns are wheeled out, or at least the CG versions of same. My Way is obviously aimed at an international market, but first they’ll need to fix the subtitles, which hilariously omit the letter Z and the number 5 throughout. “You’re sending out 0 soldiers? That’s cray!”
FRIDAY APRIL 13TH
1.00pm One Mile Above (Du Jiayi, China)
A young Taiwanese man dies unexpectedly, leaving in his diary an unfulfilled plan to cycle from Yunnan in China to Lhasa in Tibet. His brother Shuhao decides to take on the challenge himself, despite his lack of cycling experience. At the level of pure travelogue, this is lovely to look at, taking advantage of the huge contrasts in the landscape. But the few bits of drama are far too spaced out, and feel incredibly forced when they come, as do the attempts to depict Shuhao’s disintegrating mental state in the later stages of the journey. Given that this is a rare example of a China/Tibet co-production, maybe the point is that virtually all the people he meets along the way are nice, but it doesn’t make for a gripping narrative. Still, it’s good to have the chance to see this on a big screen where it belongs.
2.45pm Return To Burma (Midi Z, Burma)
Wang Xing-Hong is a Burmese expat who’s been doing construction work in Taiwan for over a decade. We follow him as he returns home for New Year 2011, bearing the ashes of a dead colleague, and greeted by the sound of pop songs celebrating the election which marked the country’s first faltering steps towards democracy. Wang’s been away for so long, all he can do is talk to everyone about the state of the nation. Money and jobs are inevitably the main topics of discussion: the price of everything from cars to whores, and how the wages in Burma compare with those in Taipei, or McDonalds. The first film to make it out of Burma and into film festivals is really just a crude socio-economic study, dressed up as semi-improvised drama. But it somehow works as cinema regardless – the feeling of it being shot on the fly gives it energy.
4.25pm UFO In Her Eyes (Guo Xiaolu, China)
Guo Xiaolu gave a somewhat serious masterclass earlier in the day, so it’s a surprise to discover that the early part of her film has a lot of goofy fun in it. A Chinese peasant sees a flying saucer and rescues an American tourist on the same day: as party officials try to process exactly what’s happened, the various responses of the villagers make for wry comedy. There are fewer laughs as the film progresses, but by then we’ve realised the UFO of the title is just a MacGuffin: a way to introduce money and attention to a small part of China and observe the corrosive results, with the implication that this is a miniature version of what’s happening to the country as a whole. The film descends into chaos a little at the climax, but a whimsical final scene pulls it all together.
6.45pm From Up On Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, Japan)
A full house for a Studio Ghibli UK premiere – no surprise there. But this is a film by Goro Miyazaki, and his earlier Tales From Earthsea was a notorious misstep for the animation studio. By comparison, this film is on a much smaller scale, and feels less slapdash in its execution. Set in the year before the Tokyo Olympics, it’s another tale of a young girl’s awakening to love: in this case, Umi falls for a boy at her school who’s trying to save its threatened clubhouse. With no yokai or fish-creatures to get in the way of the human story, this cranks up the unresolved sexual tension to even higher levels than ever, and wanders briefly into some surprisingly adult areas. Great music too, with several enjoyably catchy songs rather than the usual one or two.
9.00pm The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, Japan)
Friday climaxed with the TerrorCotta horror movie triple bill – but as the first film was an old one, we chose to watch it on DVD in advance and use this slot for dinner, reducing a ludicrous seven-film day to a much more workable six. The Grudge, along with Ring, is generally accepted to be one of the films which sparked worldwide interest in J-Horror, spawning endless sequels and remakes. But where Ring relies on remorseless logic – making the ending terrifying, because it’s the only one possible – The Grudge works entirely on the logic of nightmares, getting round any narrative inconsistency with ‘because ghosts, that’s why’. What’s left beyond that is a collection of scary-kid-big-hair-scratchy-noise moments which may not have been cliches of the genre back in 2002, but sure as hell are now.
11.00pm Gyo (Takayuki Hirao, Japan)
A less benign Japanese animation than Poppy Hill, with a bulletproof premise: Japan’s fish are growing legs, coming out onto land and eating people. There’s nothing you can do to wreck a concept like that, but the filmmakers have a damn good shot at it: a messy mixture of 2D and 3D animation, several bizarre non-sequiturs in the dialogue, and unpleasant treatment of the sluttiest of the three female leads. Even the phrase ‘walking fish’ becomes hysterical through overuse, particularly when the search for a solution on a scientist’s computer leads to a desktop file called walking-fish.mov. But the central idea survives everything, and is built upon in a carefully considered manner, to the extent that a plane attempting to land on a runway covered in live fish is merely the climax to Act One.
1.00am Zombie 108 (Joe Chien, Taiwan)
It’s a 1am screening at the Prince Charles cinema, so you can probably write the script for yourselves: leak at chemical plant, collapse of society, small band of survivors who hate each other, yadda yadda yadda. Except this one’s from Taiwan. Chien adds a couple of new wrinkles to the formula, like the guy whose response to any problem is to do a bit of parkour. But there are a few hackneyed tropes that would cause our own Hankinshaw to roll his eyes and glass his telly. (They include several variants on this old favourite: ‘I know what happens when a zombie bites you, but it’s probably best if I don’t tell everyone else I’ve just been bitten.’) It’s all just-about-passable, especially for late on a Friday night, but ultimately wrecked by a gratuitous torture porn subplot that was probably responsible for more couples walking out than anything else.
SATURDAY APRIL 14TH
12.00pm Arirang (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea)
Kim Ki-duk’s previous film was Dream, which played at the first Terracotta three years ago. Traumatised by an on-set accident that nearly resulted in the death of an actress, he went into self-imposed exile in a shack in the woods. Arirang, filmed on one camera with room tone varying excruciatingly from shot to shot, is partly a video diary of his three years in isolation, and partly a way of working through his director’s block. There’s a degree of self-indulgence involved, inevitably. At one point, he films himself giving both sides of a self-criticising interview, and then films himself in the edit suite putting them together. But it sort of makes sense by the end, as his films have always focussed on people with obsessive personalities: so this shows Kim Ki-duk turning into a character from a Kim Ki-duk film, with all that entails.
1.55pm The Woodsman And The Rain (Shuichi Okita, Japan)
As an actor, Koji Yakusho’s speciality is playing people who are really, really good at their jobs: whether that job is a lawyer proving that I Just Didn’t Do It, or a samurai leading a band of 13 Assassins. Here, he’s totally believable as woodsman Katsu, whose tree-lopping work is interrupted by the arrival of a film crew. As he gets more and more involved with their production, the quiet Koichi (Shun Oguri) gradually becomes a substitute for his just-left-home son. With plenty of gags at the expense of typical Japanese family relationships, and even more at the expense of the movie industry – the slow reveal of Koichi’s role on the crew is glorious – it’s a film made for foreign festival audiences. It runs a little too long for what’s really a simple comedy, but it’s delightful for most of its running time.
4.20pm Monsters Club (Toshiaki Toyoda, Japan)
Not to be confused with the Vincent Price horror anthology from the eighties, this is the tale of Ryoichi, another loner in an isolated shack, like Kim Ki-duk earlier today. (Cabins in woods seem to be a thing right now.) Unlike Kim, though, this is a man with a serious grudge against modern society, whose only interactions with it are the parcel bombs he sends out regularly to media organisations. A short (70 minute), quickly-shot (two weeks) film, Monsters Club belies its low-budget origins with stylish photography and a stunning opening monologue in which Ryoichi sets out his manifesto. But the rest of the film sees him confronting his demons, both imaginary and otherwise, and it loses much of that earlier intensity as it goes along. Full disclosure: if I had to say I slept through part of any film today after yesterday’s six-movie marathon, it would be this one.
6.00pm Seediq Bale (Wei Te-Sheng, Taiwan)
A 150 minute Taiwanese epic, edited from an original domestic version of 250 minutes. Like Red Cliff a couple of years ago, it feels as if large swathes of exposition have been ditched to jump straight to the action. Set in a forest so outrageously green and lush you find yourself looking for traces of unobtanium, it tells the story of aboriginal Taiwanese tribes battling each other over turf, only to realise too late that the invading Japanese have taken it all from them. The Japanese are depicted as pure evil, except for the odd good one: meanwhile, the treatment of the aborigines is heroic, bordering on sentimental. Having said that, the film doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of tribal culture, notably a suicide cult even stronger than that of the invaders. The battle scenes are raucously entertaining, with more on-screen decapitations than any other film I know.
SUNDAY APRIL 15TH
12.15pm Couples (Jeong Yong-Ki, Korea)
Here’s something I didn’t realize until Joey Leung’s introduction: this is the Korean remake of a Japanese comedy, A Stranger Of Mine, which I reviewed for Europe’s Best Website a couple of months ago when it played on the Japan Foundation tour. Couples follows its inspiration closely, taking the story of a young man’s hellish day and expanding it in several unexpected directions. Happily, it keeps the narrative complexity and gags of the original, and even throws in a framing story that complicates things even more. But it feels more obviously commercial than Stranger, thanks to its dayglo colour palette and its insistence on tying everything up completely at the end. How they’ve done that without compromising or dumbing down the source material is a mystery, but all concerned have pulled it off.
2.15pm Dancing Queen (Lee Suk-Hoon, Korea)
This film, on the other hand, is much more what you’d expect in the Sunday Lunchtime Korean Fluff slot. It’s a straightforward feelgood romcom, but it has a few quirks you wouldn’t expect. For one thing, its protagonists are middle-aged, a long-married couple struggling to get by. As Jung-min gets railroaded into a political career, while Jung-hwa resumes her dream of getting into showbiz, they both encounter difficulties because of their age – he’s considered too young, while she’s treated like mutton dressed as lamb. Their two stories take ages before they collide the way you’d expect, but along the way some subtle parallels are drawn regarding the image manipulation that both professions depend on. The final scenes are pure cheese, and gloriously proud of it.
4.35pm Inseparable (Dayyan Eng, China)
The official line is that Inseparable is the first mainland Chinese film to feature a Western movie star, in this case Kevin Spacey. If they were looking to piss off Christian Bale even more than usual, they’ve probably succeeded. Here, Spacey plays the neighbour of Daniel Wu, an unhappily married man in a dead-end career. Spacey inspires Wu to make a bid for freedom, one which involves a distressing amount of vigilante-style justice. It’s the sort of buddy movie (or, at least, a common variant of the genre) that plays like a Chinese remake of something that already exists in the West: I can’t think of an exact parallel, but the storytelling has a recycled feel to it. What keeps it all afloat is Spacey’s performance, an entertaining bit of showboating (Chinese language swearing and all) which recalls the exuberance of his early career.
6.25pm Himizu (Sion Sono, Japan)
Sion Sono’s a tricky director to get a hold on. Initially known for extreme variations on exploitation genres, he came to maturity with the magnificent Love Exposure, and he’s appealed more directly to the arthouse since. Some of his more recent work has been a bit on the grim side, most notably Cold Fish, which I didn’t really like at all. But in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, I’d imagine a lot of Japanese artists have had to rethink their worldview. Himizu‘s story of a young man’s gradual isolation from society has all the black comedy, ultraviolence and ironic use of Western music we’ve come to expect. But what we also get is a message of hope, a sense that people coming together can get us through the worst the world can throw at us – a message that’s literally screamed at us at the end.
Himizu came through at the last minute to win the vote for the Terracotta audience award, and I’d certainly put it up there as one of the highlights of this year’s festival, along with From Up On Poppy Hill, The Woodsman And The Rain and Couples. I’d also suggest that as Zombie 108 was the only film I’d consider bad out of the programme, that counts as a damn good festival. All they need to do is lengthen the breaks between films so that meal times don’t require the combination of Pret sandwiches and a liquidizer, and I’ll be back next year.
Spank The Monkey had never seen six movies on the same day before Friday April 13th 2012, and isn’t sure whether to be proud of that or not.