Spank The Monkey previews the Terracotta Far East Film Festival, taking place in London from May 23rd to June 1st 2014.
It’s the sixth year of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival, Joey Leung’s annual shindig celebrating the best in Asian movies. And it’s the fourth year of comprehensive festival coverage by Europe’s Best Website – see also 2011, 2012 and 2013. Once again, I’ll be giving you advance warning of what to look out for when the festival hits London later this month.
Last year’s Terracotta saw a change in the format – as well as the long-established four-day festival of movies from all over Asia, there was a separate sub-festival dedicated to films from Indonesia, newly fashionable in the wake of The Raid. This year, there’s a similar focus on the cinema of the Philippines, running at the ICA May 23rd-27th. If Western viewers know anything about Filipino cinema, then it’s probably down to the country’s rampant production of exploitation movies in the 1980s. The most notorious of those movies was For Y’ur Height Only, a James Bond spoof starring Weng Weng as a two foot nine inch high private eye, with all the hilarity that entails. For Y’ur Height Only is provisionally scheduled for a pre-Festival screening as part of the regular Terracotta Film Club on May 21st, while the programme proper includes the 2007 documentary The Search For Weng Weng, about the movie’s diminutive star. Hopefully this will be more gripping than Searching For Sugar Man, which spent most of its running time asking “whatever happened to the singer Rodriguez?” before eventually revealing the answer was “he moved house”.
Based on the other choices in the programme, it looks like the Filipino trend towards exploitation hasn’t entirely gone away. Certainly a couple of the movies here sell themselves with irresistible one-line premises. On The Job imagines a corrupt government that temporarily releases inmates from its prisons to perform assassinations for them. Meanwhile, the trailer for Tuhog makes it look like a series of soap opera plots, without revealing how the three main characters are connected: in fact, they’re connected by a steel bar that’s impaled them all like a narrative kebab following a bus crash. As for A Thief, A Kid And A Killer, it’s all there in the title.
The other two films in the Filipino season are intriguing, mainly because they don’t seem to be so immediately desperate to grab an audience. Shift is a low-key drama about a female call centre worker, and the relationship she strikes up with a gay colleague. Meanwhile, How To Disappear Completely is a coming-of-age story with a dark psychological edge, given additional interest by a wub-heavy electronic soundtrack from the London-based Filipino producer Eyedress.
From there we move to the main festival itself, which this year is spread over five days – May 28th to June 1st at the Prince Charles Cinema. It’s interesting to see that this year’s Hong Kong section relies heavily on old favourite names from the classic era of the territory’s cinema. Jackie Chan goes back to the family-friendly adventure style of movies like The Armour Of God in his 2012 production Chinese Zodiac; Donnie Yen continues to kick ass and take names in fight-heavy crime thriller Special ID and Andy Lau reprises his Cop On The Edge schtick in the generic-looking Firestorm. The odd one out in this set is probably Unbeatable, the story of a former boxing champ moving onto the cagefighting circuit, starring Nick Cheung as the brilliantly named Scumbag Fai.
By comparison, the Japanese section looks to be taking a few more chances. The Snow White Murder Case has some interesting people involved – Fish Story director Yoshihiro Nakamura, and Confessions writer Kanae Minato – and promises to show how a murder investigation can get completely out of control in the age of social media. Be My Baby is part of the current wave of low-budget ‘workshop’ productions, claustrophobically putting a group of twentysomethings under the microscope in the fallout from a party. Terracotta’s closing night film Judge! is the sort of thing that’s catnip to film festival programmers, a comedy set at an actual film festival itself – more precisely, the Santa Monica Advertising Festival, allowing for some broad satire at the expense of the ad industry.
The three films from South Korea have some hefty names associated with them. Commitment will have some appeal to fans of K-Pop: its samey-sounding undercover agent plot has rapper T.O.P. from Big Bang trying his hand at an action role for the first time. Period drama The Face Reader benefits from the highly readable face of Song Kang-ho, familiar from countless Korean arthouse hits, who could be a global superstar by now if Harvey Weinstein could be bothered releasing Snowpiercer properly. And arch provocateur Kim Ki-duk is up to his usual tricks with the dialogue-free Moebius, which could be considered a bit like a Korean version of The Artist if it weren’t for all the castration.
Hong Kong, Japan and Korea tend to be the main nations represented at Terracotta, but it’s always worth looking past the big three to see what other countries have to offer. Remote Control is a rare glimpse at Mongolian cinema – it’s the tale of a teenage boy trying to strike up a relationship with an older woman by mucking up her TV reception, and has a very distinctive look all of its own. Forever Love is a period comedy harking back to the golden age of the Taiwanese movie industry, which means lots of nostalgia for its target audience but possible confusion for the rest of us. Finally, Warrior King 2 is the Thai sequel to the film known in various places as The Warrior King, The Protector, Tom Yum Goong, or That One With Tony Jaa And The Elephant. The trailer suggests that Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew have fallen for the lure of CGI-enhanced stuntwork, which shows a fundamental misunderstanding of why we all fell in love with them around the time of Ong Bak.
In the middle of that five-day stretch at the Prince Charles, there’s also the cheesily-titled TerrorCotta horror all-nighter on the night of Saturday May 31st. The films are a geographically diverse bunch, from In The Dark (a Malaysian ghost story) to Killers (an Indonesian/Japanese serial killer crossover). Following on from the Filipino strand of the festival, Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles has several things in its favour: a surreally distinctive visual style, a locally specific vampire legend, and a lead actor called Dingdong Dantes. But the one everyone will be coming to see is Takashi Miike’s Lesson Of Evil, a darkly comic thriller about a psychopathic schoolteacher. Like all recent Miike films it’s just too damn long, but if you enjoy him most when he’s in sick comedy mode, you’ll find plenty to like here.
If you can’t make it to London for this particular week, don’t worry: a few of these films (On The Job, Chinese Zodiac, Lesson Of Evil and Killers) already have UK distribution lined up, and more may make it out into the world eventually. But if you want to binge on the best of Asian cinema in a massively compressed timeframe, then you know where you need to be. See terracottafestival.com for more details.