Watching sumo, learning Japanese, travelling around China... it's all been a little bit Asiacentric here this month, hasn't it? Well, if you don't like it, tough: it is how we roll, as Ando Masahashi said in one of the few episodes of Heroes I've ever watched. And before the end of the month you'll also be getting a Spank Gold post on the 1993 London Film Festival, which included movies from Hong Kong, China and Japan.
As you may have noticed over the years, the LFF doesn't quite fulfil all my Asian cinema needs. But although the Wild Japan seasons cover the classic exploitation movies from that country, and the apparently defunct Heroic Grace did a similar job for Hong Kong, what we're really short of right now in London is a regular pan-Asian cinemafest. The Tartan Asia Extreme Festivals did a good job for the couple of years they ran, even though they were just a thinly-disguised advert for movies that Tartan would eventually release on DVD.
Happily, it looks like new company Terracotta Distribution has decided to step into Tartan's shoes: firstly by distributing new Asian movies in the UK both theatrically and on DVD, and secondly by organising a small festival over the May Bank Holiday weekend. You've already missed it, but here are some highlights for you.
The first Terracotta Far East Film Festival ran from May 21st to 24th 2009 at the Prince Charles cinema in London, showcasing 13 new films from all over Asia. The public face of the festival was organiser Joey Leung, who was everywhere - he introduced each film personally, chatted to people in the foyer afterwards, hosted a series of post-screening parties, and encouraged us to vote for our favourite movie. Unfortunately, Terracotta's web presence (including Joey's blog) appears to have collapsed since the end of the festival, but as of Sunday it looked like the upgraded anime Ghost In The Shell 2.0 was running away with the audience vote. (The Belated Birthday Girl was happy to see Japanese caper flick After School taking second place, because she was telling everyone about it a year ago.)
In less financially embuggered times, The BBG and I would have bought a pair of festival passes and made a whole weekend of it. But instead, we made four careful selections out of the 13, trying to go for a spread of countries and genres representative of the wide range in the full programme. We started with Dream, the latest film from Kim Ki-Duk, almost exactly eight years after I hid under a Hong Kong cinema seat during the grislier bits of The Isle. It's about two people coming out of failed relationships: Jin (Jo Odigiri) is still pining in dreams over the loss of his girlfriend, while Ran (Lee Na-yeong) is glad to see the back of her boyfriend. But Jin's dreams are somehow controlling the actions of Ran while she's asleep, to the extent that she finds herself sleepwalking back into the arms of the man she hates. A therapist listens to this unlikely story, and suggests the easiest solution would be for Jin and Ran to become lovers. If they'd listened to her, things might have worked out better.
It's a lovely idea, and Kim manages to quickly set it up before the title card so that he can concentrate on how it affects Jin and Ran. You could easily imagine a European arthouse director taking this story and running with it: but they'd be so enamoured with the dream/reality boundaries and the potential for slick cinematic transitions between the two, they'd almost inevitably lose sight of the people at the centre. Kim's major strength here is to make it a very human story - we get to experience the suffering of both characters, whether it's Ran tormented by the tricks her unconscious body plays on her, or Jin unable to control what he thinks about when he sleeps. For the most part, it's a quiet and thoughtful study of people struggling with their internalised desires: but as this is Kim Ki-Duk, those desires eventually manifest themselves externally in an eye-watering fashion, so be warned.
More traditional genre fare from Hong Kong next, with kung fu star Wu Jing acting and co-directing Legendary Assassin. He plays the title role, a ferociously skilled hitman who travels to one of the outlying islands and kills off a gangland boss in a busy pre-credits sequence. Stranded on the island for a few days with his suspiciously heavy hand baggage, he ends up spending time with local girl Holly (Celina Jade), and even hanging out at her workplace during the day. Which could be a problem for him, because she's a cop. Meanwhile, a gang with a headless boss is busy searching the island for strangers.
For a fanboy like myself who loved the 80s and 90s heyday of Hong Kong action cinema, there's something charmingly retro about Legendary Assassin - its action and camerawork are both CGI-free, the island locations avoid the cityscape cliches of recent HK cinema, and there's even a sweet cameo from eighties kung fu starlet Kara Hui Ying-Hang. It's all very reminiscent of the way HK films used to set themselves ludicrous story challenges and resolve them through pure hard work: such as the one at the climax of this film, which is 'can we do that bit from The Matrix Reloaded where one guy fights a hundred baddies, but actually do it for real?' And they do. Wu Jing makes for a fine action hero, with the odd vulnerable flicker behind his badass exterior: but Celina Jade is too blank a presence to make the romantic subplot work. Still, if you're just there for the action, Wu Jing and co-director/choreographer Li Chung Chi certainly deliver.
Our third film was from Malaysia, and Joey himself noted at the start that we don't get to see much Malaysian cinema over here, "mainly because it's a bit crap." So I think Zombies From Banana Village may well be the first Malay feature I've ever seen. Set in a village with more than its fair share of idiots, it tells the story of a mysterious outbreak that initially kills off a couple of the village elders, then spreads to half the population. But death is not the end - soon there are re-animated corpses stalking the streets and feeding off brains, and it's down to a small band of survivors to find a way out.
On the way out, I heard at least one woman in the audience claim "that's the worst film I've ever seen in my life", which are obviously the words of someone who hasn't sat through fucking Wolverine recently. There's no question that Mamat Khalid's zombie farce is rough-looking, but it's amateurish rather than incompetent - and that makes all the difference. It's made by a group of people with few resources and a lot of enthusiasm, and the crucial thing is that they know it. So the effects are kept low-key, and as a result they don't embarrass themselves - the one time a bit of CGI gore is used, it's presented in a context where the fact that it's unrealistic makes it even funnier. There are some cultural references that go over the head of an international audience, and a screaming queen stereotype character who just looks bizarre to modern Western eyes. But despite all of its shortcomings, I was never bored or annoyed by it.
Which is more than can be said for Fuyuhiko Nishi's High Kick Girl!, unfortunately. But fair play to Terracotta: it was a major coup for them to screen this a week before its domestic release in Japan. It's a film whose first trailer went seriously viral earlier this year - like the similarly infectious ones for Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, but selling the film in a neat one-shot, 25 second teaser. And the full-length trailer managed to build on that promise with its first-person pink girlie captions. ("That's me!") The girl of the title is Kei (Rina Takeda), a young brown belt student who beats up other karate schools for fun. Her teacher Matsumura (Tatsuya Naka) isn't impressed, and tries to show her that the black belt can only be achieved through years of dedicated training. Kei wants a faster track to success, and so joins a rival group called The Destroyers, carelessly failing to pick up on the subtle visual cue that she's moved from a dojo that dresses in white to one that dresses in black.
It's only 81 minutes long, but High Kick Girl! is ludicrously overstretched. Every shot of every fight scene is shown twice - once at normal speed, once in slo-mo. It's a complaint that people frequently make about Tony Jaa films, but in those it's a technique reserved for the most outrageous action moments: a theatrical way of replicating a home video user reaching for the rewind button. Here, it's primarily used to pad out a 45 minute DTV short into an 80 minute feature, and becomes intensely irritating. But there's an even bigger problem with the film. About halfway through, Kei undertakes an audition for The Destroyers, which is entertaining enough as an orgy of schoolgirl-on-schoolgirl violence. But after that, the focus switches away from Kei, and it becomes a film about her being rescued from The Destroyers by Matsumura. As The BBG noted, we paid to see High Kick Girl!, not High Kick Girl's Sensei Saving Her Sorry Ass! The target audience for this film falls into two camps - feminists rooting for a strong female character, and men with a more fetishistic agenda - and turning Kei into a mere woman-in-peril for half the running time is nothing less than a betrayal of that audience, regardless of their motives.
The BBG expressed a concern at the end of Terracotta that I was writing about a festival where I enjoyed the films less and less as we went through it. But that's the luck of the draw, I guess - overall, I still think it's a great idea, and Joey and his team should be praised for building this festival from scratch with virtually no promotional budget. They're hoping to do more of these in the future: and if they do, I think they can look forward to selling at least two festival passes for the full weekend next time.