By Spank The Monkey
I love the work that Terracotta Distribution do to support Far Eastern movies in the UK. But they can’t write hashtags for toffee. Last year, I reported on their campaign to #keepasiancinemainukcinemas in the wake of indifference from exhibitors, media and audiences. A noble cause, but accompanied by a hard-to-remember Twitter hashtag. The same could be said about the one they’re currently trying to promote. It’s such an unwieldy combination of characters, it could almost be the title of a Richard Herring podcast. AIOTM! RHLSTP! TFEFF13!
It’s actually easier to remember the full-length version: because this is the hashtag for tweets relating to the Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2013, which runs in London from June 6th to 15th. It’s the fifth year of the event, and previously – in 2011 and 2012 – Mostly Film has provided you with exhaustive post-fest reviews. This year, for a change, I’m going to give you an advance preview of the programme, so you can plan that whole 26-films-in-ten-days experience for yourself.
The structure of the 2013 TFEFF has changed a little, and it’s now more like two separate festivals running back to back. The first festival is, as in previous years, a four-day weekend affair running at the Prince Charles cinema, dedicated to the best movies from across the whole of East Asia. The second festival takes place at the ICA for the following week, and concentrates on Indonesian film. Let’s take them one at a time.
For many years in the nineties – at least among the genre fanboys in the UK – Asian cinema effectively meant Hong Kong cinema. Terracotta, as usual, has a solid collection of movies from there. The opening night highlight is Cold War, a typically glossy post-Infernal Affairs thriller that scooped the pool at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards – though it’s tempting to put that down to nostalgia, given that its leading actors are all veterans of that early 90s heyday. It shouldn’t be confused with Drug War, the film that fans of current HK cinema will have highest on their list: director Johnnie To has been building himself a reputation over the last decade as one of the safest pairs of hands in the industry. We also have a rare example of Hong Kong’s indie scene, the gay-themed romcom Love Me Not: and the more conventional The Bullet Vanishes, which shamelessly recycles the look of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films into a period detective romp.
The Hong Kong section has an additional archive component to it this year, marking the tenth anniversary of the untimely passing of two of its most popular stars, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui. It sounds like Terracotta’s choice of tributes was limited by print availability, but the three films they’ve ended up with are all solid. Both stars appear together in Stanley Kwan’s charming Rouge, although commemorating the death of two actors with a ghost story sounds a little tasteless to me. We also get the chance to see two of Cheung’s collaborations with Wong Kar-Wai on the big screen, which is always welcome: Days Of Being Wild plays a week before the festival at one of Terracotta’s monthly Film Club nights, while Happy Together is a matinee treat for anyone who can blag the Friday afternoon off.
Japan and South Korea are well represented in the programme, as ever. The Japanese portion is effectively owned by Third Window, who already have the distribution rights to all three films bagsied – though as they’re all made by directors with previous hits at Terracotta, that’s only to be expected. After the award-winning Himizu last year, Sion Sono returns to post-tsunami Japan with the more traditional family drama of The Land Of Hope. Yoshichiro ‘Fish Story’ Nakamura has See You Tomorrow, Everyone, the story of a man who’s spent his entire life trapped within the boundaries of a council estate: while Okita Shuichi follows up The Woodsman And The Rain with the Forrest Gump-style Story Of Yonosuke.
Meanwhile, over in South Korea, there’s an interesting mix of genres on display, a nice counterbalance to the traditional tales of stabby vengeance we’ve come to associate with the country over the last few years. A Werewolf Boy is a sentimental movie about a misunderstood monster, looking for all the world like some sort of Edward Scissorhands/Twilight hybrid. Young Gun In The Time is a surreal time-travelling detective movie, whose trailer piles multiple absurdities on top of each other, until the climactic revelation that our hero has a robot machine-gun arm seems almost normal. The closest thing to a traditional Korean violencefest would appear to be The Berlin File, offering the thrilling prospect of North Korean and South Korean spies beating the hell out of each other in pretty European locations.
It seems unfair to lump all the other Asian countries together into a single paragraph, particularly when the first of those countries is China. But here we are. The Assassins is being cheekily sold internationally as a kinda sorta sequel to John Woo’s Red Cliff, with Chow Yun-Fat playing Cao Cao, one of the few 3rd century warlords left standing at the end of that film. Karaoke Girl is a low-key Thai movie, straddling the line between drama and documentary in its story of a country girl working as an escort in the big city. Finally, When A Wolf Falls In Love With A Sheep is a Taiwanese film very much constructed to the quirky American indie template: pixie girl heroine, nice-but-dim hero, gratuitous use of animation.
There’s more transnational fun to be had late on the Friday night, the slot traditionally occupied by the horror strand known as TerrorCotta. This year, it’ll be a full all-nighter running from 11pm to 7am: personally, I’m more keen to see the films that they’re showing during the daytime, so they’ll have to do without me this year. Night owls, however, can look forward to five features. From Thailand, we have the blatant international appeal of Countdown, in which a group of expat students in New York have a memorable/terrifying New Year’s Eve: from Indonesia, there’s the rabbit-based mental breakdown of Belenggu. The other three movies are from Japan – the 1959 classic Ghost Story Of Yotsuya: the tragic love story Henge: and Zomvideo, because by law every country now has to make a spoof zombie film.
All that lot fits into the four day period we traditionally associate with Terracotta. But after a one-day rest gap, the festival kicks off again with a second run at the ICA, focussing specifically on Indonesian cinema. You may remember that one of Mostly Film’s best movies of 2012 [https://mostlyfilm.com/2012/12/19/mostly-film-best-of-2012-the-raid/] came from that country, even though media attention over here was more concerned with its director’s Welshness. So what sort of films do Indonesians make when they’re not elbowing each other in the face?
It turns out that I’ve already seen one of the six films in this mini-season: Garin Nugroho’s Opera Jawa played at the London Film Festival back in 2006. A gamelan opera, based on an old Sanskrit legend, and performed in a series of settings built by installation artists, it was hypnotic in the most unfortunate way possible (yes, I admit it, I nodded off), but what I saw was so bafflingly alien as to make me curious to see more. I’ve subsequently caught a later work by the same director which was bewilderingly terrible, but the subject matter of his recent The Blindfold – the stories of three young Muslims and their path to radicalisation – may make him worth another look.
The other films in the season appear to be roughly split between traditional drama (The Dancer, Lovely Man) and indie quirk (Postcards From The Zoo, What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love), with the indie quirk coming off slightly better on the evidence of the trailers. But if any part of the Terracotta programme is worth just taking a punt on this year, it has to be this, simply because Indonesian cinema is such an unknown quantity to many of us. Dive in and see what you can discover.
Terracotta gives you all this and more: we’re still waiting for the official announcement of which filmmakers are attending the masterclasses this year. These events tend to be fairly low-key and informal – last year, for example, director Toshiaki Toyoda effectively treated the whole session as a method of recovering from a hangover – but the intimacy of them makes them all the more delightful. And that applies to Terracotta as a whole, really: it may be looking to expand this year, but it’s still the product of a small number of people who are passionate about Asian cinema, and you can’t help but warm to that. Although tweeting about it may be another matter.
The Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2013 runs June 6th-9th at the Prince Charles Cinema, and June 11th-15th at the ICA. (Days Of Being Wild is a pre-festival screening at the Prince Charles on May 29th.)