Easter Parade 2012
Simian Substitute Site For May 2012: Go Ape

MOSTLY FILM: Terracottadammerung 2012

Let's face it, the Terracotta Far East Film Festival was made for people like me. For four festivals now, they've been bringing the best movies from all over Asia to the Prince Charles cinema in London. I saw a bit of the first festival in 2009, and wrote about it here. I had to miss 2010's completely, because I was actually in Asia at the time. And then in 2011, I caught as much of the festival as I could, and did a big thing about it for Europe's Best Website.

The latest Terracotta Festival took place last weekend, and once again I've covered it for Mostly Film, in a piece I've chosen to call Terracottadammerung 2012 because the title went down well last time.  And as is usually the case, I have some bonus material for visitors to my own site. You see, as festival boss Joey Leung kept saying during his introductions, Terracotta isn't just about films. The Mostly Film piece covers the 16 feature films that were shown over the weekend: but here, I'm going to talk about the Masterclasses.

There were three Masterclass sessions at Terracotta this year, each one held upstairs at the Slug & Lettuce at the ungodly hour of 11am. Each one would feature an actor or director who had a film at the festival: beyond that, there was very little information in the programme regarding what to expect. The names of the Masterclass hosts weren't revealed until quite late, presumably because they were waiting for people to confirm their attendance.

I made it to two of the Masterclasses. I'd registered to attend all three (they're free to festival ticket holders), but getting home from the TerrorCotta horror triple at around 4am Saturday morning pretty much killed off the plan of being back in Leicester Square for a session 7 hours later. So I can't tell you how things worked out with the Masterclass for Da Ching, a Taiwanese aboriginal actor who made his debut in Seediq Bale. Given his lack of a) previous experience and b) English, I'd be curious to hear how that went. But I can report first hand on the other two sessions, both of which involved directors with a few films apiece under their belts.

Guo Xiaolu was the director of UFO In Her Eyes, and could be considered the most famous Masterclass host to a British audience: her earlier feature, She, A Chinese, had a theatrical release and has turned up on TV a couple of times. She lives in London part of the time and speaks English, so was perfectly happy to spend the first couple of minutes talking to the audience about why they were there. Of the dozen or so people in the room on that Friday morning, roughly half were in the industry, and half were freeloading bloggers like yours truly.

Her approach to this session was to focus almost exclusively on her documentary work, assuming that anyone interested in her approach to fiction could see UFO In Her Eyes later that day and talk to her about it then. She doesn't appear to be a big fan of the straight fictional film anyway, treating it as a 'lazy dream' which bypasses the intelligence of the audience. For She, A Chinese, she filmed a number of interviews with real Chinese people, planning to insert them into her story as commentary on how the Chinese view of capitalism - specifically, state capitalism - is very different from what we experience in the West. Her thinking is that an audience would see the interviews as an interruption to the narrative, but appreciate it as such.

In fact, she ended up cutting the interviews out of She, A Chinese for length, but we saw one of them as a separate short film. Nevertheless, interviewing seems to be an important part of the process for her - as a girl growing up in post-Mao society, she wasn't really allowed any degree of self-examination, and she thinks this is contributing to an overall sense of isolation in Chinese people generally. It's a point she addresses more directly in Once Upon A Time Proletarian, based around a series of interviews she filmed as part of the preparation process for She, A Chinese. It considers how the simple Maoist class system of peasants and workers exploded into something infinitely more complicated, and talks to representatives of the miscellaneous classes to allow them the self-examination she was denied as a child.

Guo appeared very serious and intense during this Masterclass, so it came as a surprise just how light-hearted UFO In Her Eyes turned out to be - although there's obviously a serious satirical core in there. As she's a prose writer who also makes films, there's an interesting tension between the two disciplines: she hates some of the practical, non-creative aspects of filmmaking, but realises that cinema allows a whole vision to be created out of its various components, in a way that literature simply can't achieve. 

Guo obviously put in a serious amount of preparation for her Masterclass, bringing film clips and a plan along with her. Toshiaki Toyoda, on the other hand, rolled up hungover on Sunday morning and was prepared to just roll with whatever the audience wanted to do. It was a dangerous approach to take, especially as he was working through a translator: my fear was that we'd end up with Japanese reticence and British reticence colliding to give us 45 minutes of people sitting quietly in a room. But gradually, both sides opened up.

Judging from the number of DVDs people brought along to be signed, this particular audience was largely made up of fans of the director's earlier films like Blue Spring and 9 Souls. Toyoda was very pragmatic about why he thinks some of his films have taken off internationally - with 9 Souls, in particular, a story about someone trying to escape from prison will work anywhere in the world. But he doesn't claim to have an eye on the international market when he chooses a film to make, suggesting only that most subcultures have their own equivalents in different countries, and those tend to be the areas he examines in films.

Pretty much everyone in the Masterclass had seen Monsters Club by then, so Toyoda could talk about that as well. It turns out that like Kim Ki-duk's situation with Arirang, Toyoda had also spent time in isolation in the woods before making a film about someone doing that - in his case, he went into hiding after being arrested for possession of drugs. He finds that as an independent filmmaker, he's got comparative freedom to make a film once he's settled on a subject: occasionally a producer will force him to use a particular actor, but he's never needed to change anything else for an audience.

Unlike Guo Xiaolu, he's not a prose writer, but a compulsive one, feeling the need to write something every day. (Currently he's finding the sound of English people talking very amusing, and wondering if he could write an international comedy where all the non-Japanese characters speak in Japanese throughout, presumably resulting in something that would be like the mirror image of Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django.) In his spare time, he has a deep interest in music (as some people here noted from his soundtracks), and does live video mixes for the band Twin Tail.

In the final minutes, Toyoda threw in a few practical hints about storyboards (better to plan the shots in your head than lock them down on paper), digital cinema (he suspects his next film will be shot digitally, simply because Japan doesn't do film any more), and general advice for young directors. "Make whatever you think is a good movie... I'd like to see it." So, a very different Masterclass from the first one, but both had their merits in terms of getting inside a filmmaker's head. Now if only we could persuade Terracotta to lay on breakfast during these things next year, for people who'd been out until four that morning coming home from a late night screening, we might be getting somewhere...


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