Here's the thing. Back at the beginning of May, I received an invite to the press launch of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2013. I'd reviewed nearly all the films in the 2011 and 2012 festivals for Mostly Film, but this time I had the opportunity to write a preview article and let people know in advance what was worth seeing. That preview article was published in mid-May as #TFEFF13, a little under a month before the festival itself.
Having done my duty for Europe's Best Website, my plan was to attend the festival anyway under my own steam, and review it afterwards for this site. Which was okay as far as plans go, except I had to leave several hours early on the final day at the Prince Charles to fly up to Aberdeen for work. And then I had a couple of weeks working weird hours and not really having time to do much else at all, apart from that weekend when I had to travel to Aberdeen again. What with one thing another, it wasn't until six weeks after the close of the festival that I was able to sit down and beat my notes into some sort of shape (and to merge them with The Belated Birthday Girl's notes, as she graciously agreed to review three films for me while I was swanning off to Scotland).
So, several weeks after it's ceased to have any real relevance to anyone, here's my film-by-film breakdown of Terracotta 2013, or at least the bits that took place during the daytime on June 6th to 9th. I didn't do the pre-fest screening of Days Of Being Wild - I was in Helsinki. I didn't do the second week of Indonesian films at the ICA - I was in Aberdeen. And I didn't do the Terrorcotta all-nighter on the night of Friday June 7th - I was in bed. But the rest of it is documented below, and should at the very least have historical interest. Enjoy. (Sorry.)
18:05 Rouge (Stanley Kwan, Hong Kong)
As a kind of pre-festival prelude, this 1988 film was part of Terracotta's tribute strand for Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung, two Hong Kong movie stars who died ten years ago in unrelated but equally tragic circumstances. It seems a bit iffy to mark their passing with what's effectively a ghost story, but there you go. More subtle than the flying ghost comic horrors that were coming out of HK at the time, Rouge boldly jumps between the 1930s and the 1980s as Mui tries to find out why Cheung didn't follow through on the suicide pact they made together. It's got a very wobbly tone (even more so considering the fate of both stars), but the star quality of Mui holds it all together.
20:05 Cold War (Sunny Luk/Longman Leung, Hong Kong)
The official opening film of the festival was also from Hong Kong, and the winner of a huge number of local awards. Lord knows why. It's a massively overcomplicated caper involving the capture of a police van and its passengers, two rival police bosses in charge of the investigation, and the usual complications of family and departmental loyalty. The high visual style barely covers the obvious holes in the plot, and just makes you suspect there must be less obvious ones in there too. There's a much better, much more streamlined film in there somewhere, one which wouldn't include the transparent setup for a sequel in its final minute.
11:30 Gilitte Leung masterclass
Joey Leung hosted the first of two intimate interviews with directors who had work in the festival. Leung (and who could resist the temptation to sing 'the best a man can get' in response to her name?) has a background in fashion and music, which led her gradually into music video production and then into features. Her two films to date have been DIY indie affairs, which isn't an area of Hong Kong filmmaking we tend to hear about. She sees the scene as "friendly but competitive," and the filmmakers aren't necessarily supportive of each other: but it's interesting to learn that her film Love Me Not has had several screenings on the commercial Broadway circuit, matched by lots of effort on her part in terms of promotion. Leung insists she's not a control freak, she just works on her own because it allows her to save money.
12:45 Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)
Another golden oldie to mark Leslie Cheung's passing, one which I was fortunate enough to see in Hong Kong on its opening day back in 1997. Back then, it was the film's visual style that really grabbed me: the transition from the black and white opening reel to that colour shot of a waterfall just blew my mind. Now, I find it's the performances that impress the most - Leung and Cheung both completely expose themselves emotionally, with Chang Chen providing the whimsical relief we'd come to expect in WKW films. The soundtrack, from tango to Zappa, sounds instantly familiar even after a gap of several years.
14:45 Love Me Not (Gilitte Leung, Hong Kong)
Leung jokingly referred to herself as a female Wong Kar-wai in her masterclass earlier: but the turning point in her understated flatshare drama about a gay man and his lesbian former schoolmate owes more to Hong Sang-soo than anyone else. It lifts the drama to a whole other level, and magnificently turns out to be a sneaky solution to a real-life filmmaking problem. The mix of charm and ideas makes the potentially contentious ending acceptable.
16:50 When A Wolf Falls In Love With A Sheep (Hou Chi-jan, Taiwan)
Taiwanese fluff about a romance conducted over doodles made on photocopied exam papers. It has so many whimsical elements - animated sequences, ultra-contrived plotting, a Greenaway-style countdown structure - that it threatens to collapse completely. But somehow, the final flourish manages to be ridiculous enough to actually pay off.
18:50 Young Gun In The Time (Oh Young-Doo, South Korea)
This surreal detective drama drops hints early on that it takes place in a universe where time travel is possible. Once you know that, you stop caring about anybody in the story, because any plot developments have the potential to be undone again. On top of that, there are unexplained diversions like our hero's robot machine gun arm, which have no justification other than to fix one particular story problem. And the use of time travel, when it comes, is wholly inconsistent. But the film's entertaining enough despite everything.
20:45 Karaoke Girl (Visra Vichit Vadakan, Thailand)
This one's an interesting mixture of drama and documentary. Sa Sittijun plays herself, a bar hostess interacting with fictional characters and with her real family and neighbours, all of whom are interviewed about her life. It just about avoids being exploitative because Sa's a strong and interesting character, and because the utterly ravishing photography never quite obscures the grubby reality of what's going on.
11.00 Ryoo Seung-wan masterclass
Ryoo is engagingly honest about his path towards becoming a filmmaker: when he was a child he knew he wanted to be in the movies, but the only job he could think of was being a character in a story. The turning point came when he saw a photo of John Wayne and John Ford together, and realised that Ford looked more impressive. Pulling together a wide set of influences (it's possible his professed love of John Boorman's editing may be a sop to a British audience, but I could be wrong), he made his name with a series of competition shorts, the prize money from each one going towards the funding of the next. He talks about the challenges of making action cinema, particularly in Asia: in Hollywood, the director is king and everyone else does what he says, but Ryoo would rather work with a tight crew of regulars who are prepared to let him know when he makes mistakes. He also talks about how Berlin File is his biggest production to date: previously he would make the cast do all their own stunts, but now they only get to perform the most dangerous ones while the stuntmen do the rest. I do hope that wasn't a translation error.
12:15 The Assassins (Zhao Yiyang, China)
Another tale from the well-worn Chinese legend of the Three Kingdoms, rather like John Woo's Red Cliff a few years ago. Woo was canny enough to put in enough background information for those unfamiliar with the story, something The Assassins doesn't really care about: it just drops you in at the deep end with the two people trained since childhood to assassinate the most powerful man in the world. Chow Yun-fat's inate charisma makes that part of the story believable, but the rest sadly fades into a blur that becomes indistinguishable from countless other Chinese period pieces.
14:35 A Story Of Yonosuke (Okita Shuichi, Japan)
Very much the sort of film we've come to expect from distributors Third Window, coming from the director of last year's The Woodsman And The Rain, and sharing much of that film's non-judgmental delight in people. Yonosuke (Kora Kengo) isn't all that special as a character: he's more the sort of person that things happen to. But the utterly charming way in which he affects the people he meets had me on edge the whole length of the film, waiting for the moment when they'd screw it up. They didn't. And now I need to see it again, but a bit more relaxed.
17:45 Drug War (Johnnie To, Hong Kong/China)
Fans of Hong Kong action cinema in the early 90s often wondered what the impact of the 1997 handover to China would be on the territory's films. Here's a consequence I wasn't expecting: it's opened up crime movies in a whole new way, the mainland giving filmmakers a completely different physical and political landscape to explore. Johnny To handles a complex police operation on a major drug syndicate with his usual skill, nailing the procedural aspects with a clarity that very few directors have managed since the glory days of Kirk Wong. The film climaxes with a spectacularly botched face-off that's miles away from the slick slo-mo of John Woo, but equally extraordinary to watch.
20:00 The Berlin File (Ryoo Seung-wan, South Korea)
Ryoo said in his earlier masterclass that action films should be rich in emotion, which is a fine adage to work with. So in his intro to this film, he explains that the first hour of The Berlin File is largely character setup, paving the way for a second half full of action sequences. But that first hour is ridiculously convoluted, all double-crosses and betrayals, and you really don't have all that much of a handle on the relationships by the time it all kicks off. Most of the action scenes are smartly done, but the climax is a) ruined by cheap CG explosion effects and b) just padding for the bit when it strips back to two guys trying to beat each other to death with empty guns.
12:40 See You Tomorrow, Everyone (Nakamura Yoshihiro, Japan)
Another Japanese tale of social exclusion from Third Window, as a kid decides at an early age that he will never go beyond the boundaries of his council estate. For most of the film, the implications of that decision are beautifully played out, as all his old friends drift off one by one. But as the last of them departs, the story takes an unexpectedly grim turn totally out of character with everything that's come before, and despite its best efforts it never quite recovers after that.
[This is the point where I had to duck out of the rest of the festival to go to Aberdeen, so The Belated Birthday Girl takes over the reviews from here...]
15:45 A Werewolf Boy (Jo Sung-hee, South Korea)
A Werewolf Boy tells the story of Suni, a sickly but beautiful 19 year old who moves with her family to the countryside for her health in the 1960s. When they find a teenage boy living wild in their garden, who cannot speak and seems to be more animal-like than human in his behaviour, Suni decides to "train" him, and gradually starts to develop a bond. But where did the boy come from, and what is the secret behind his unnatural strength? The story of Suni and the boy is nicely played, but the presence of a cartoon cut-out baddie and the push towards melodrama stop this rising above merely entertaining.
18:15 The Bullet Vanishes (Lo Chi Leung, Hong Kong/China)
Billed as an homage to Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, The Bullet Vanishes is for most of its running time a highly entertaining romp. Set in China in the 1930s with a lot of period style, the film follows the story of Song Donglu, a former prison guard whose forensic mind has previously set right many a wrongful conviction, transferred to detective work to help prevent them in the first place. Full of clues and conspiracies, plot twists and reversals, The Bullet Vanishes is mostly great fun. However, a seemingly unnecessary sub-plot involving a convicted murderess and maybe one twist too many leave this slightly underwhelming at the end.
20:20 The Land Of Hope (Sono Sion, Japan)
The shadow of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent incident at the Fukushima nuclear plant looms large over Sion Sono's latest film. Set in an unspecified near future in the fictional prefecture of Nagashima, Land of Hope explores the consequences and implications of nuclear power in a country prone to earthquakes, through the lives of two families living either side of a 20km exclusion zone set up following an explosion at the nuclear plant. It is a very moving and emotional film, making effective and affecting use of music, with emotive performances from the cast, but also laced with black humour. If for me it just falls short of great, that is down to a couple of choices made for the characters. But Sono has made a film which shows the effects of such a disaster on many people's lives.
A good festival overall? Yes, I think so - in the main four day section at the Prince Charles cinema, nothing that I watched was actively bad, and that has to count as a fine strike rate. Of course, I didn't see any of the films in the ICA's separate Indonesian section, but it's an interesting experiment, and I hope Terracotta repeat it in future years. Mind you, I also didn't see A Werewolf Boy, the film that won the audience award this year - but based on The BBG's report and what I've seen of it so far, I refuse to believe that it was anything like as good a film as either A Story Of Yonosuke or Drug War, my two highlights of the festival.
If there's one thing I'd recommend Terracotta lo0k at before next year's festival, it's the audience award. Changing the scoring from the previous marks-out-of-ten system to a much less granular marks-out-of-four may have made the counting easier, but it lowers your confidence in the final results. It's hard to say that without sounding all 'wah wah my favourite didn't win', but The BBG and I were both concerned about it long before the results were announced - when you see a large number of films in a festival like this, only having four voting levels makes it virtually impossible to separate one movie from the next. Go back to the original system, and we may have something there. Oh, and my request from last year to allow sufficient time to eat food in between films still stands. Being a monkey, and all.