We had the preview last month, courtesy of Mostly Film: and then towards the end of the month we had the thing itself. I'm talking about the Terracotta Far East Film Festival, whose 2014 run took place between May 23rd and June 1st. This is the fourth year in a row that I've binged out with one of their Festival Passes, allowing you access to all of the films in their Current Asian Cinema section: if it helps, you can prepare for this one by seeing what I thought about the films in 2011, 2012 and 2013. I'll wait till you've finished.
Done that? Okay then, here's 2014. As I mentioned in the preview article, there were three major sections to Terracotta this year: Current Asian Cinema, the TerrorCotta horror all-nighter, and a separate strand dedicated to films from the Philippines. The Belated Birthday Girl and I did TerrorCotta a couple of years ago when it was only a half-nighter, and that nearly wrecked us, so we skipped it completely this time. (Besides, we'd already seen its best film, Takashi Miike's Lesson Of Evil, having picked up the Blu-ray in Hong Kong last year.) But we made a decent stab at the rest, catching all of the Current Asian Cinema and two of the six Filipino movies, plus a pre-festival bonus flick. That makes sixteen films in total, which I've chosen to cover over two separate posts: so here comes everything we saw apart from the final weekend.
21:00 For Y’ur Height Only (Eddie Nicart, Philippines)
This is the odd one out: not technically part of the festival, but screening just before it in Terracotta’s monthly Film Club residency at the Prince Charles, as the lead-in to the Spotlight On Philippines section. This 1981 Filipino film owes its reputation to a couple of generations of Western audiences watching it ironically, revelling in the idea of a James Bond spoof with a two-foot-nine actor called Weng Weng in the lead. Obviously a lot of the comedy is intentional (if a bit broad), but it’s the Soupy Norman-style English dub that pushes this all the way into so-bad-it’s-good territory. (Particularly once it gets to the love scene.) It’s a pity, because if you put your squeamishness about the exploitation of Weng Weng to one side, it might just have been possible to take this idea and make a movie which didn't make you feel ashamed of watching it. But it’s never dull, I’ll give it that.
Friday 23 May
20:40 On The Job (Erik Matti, Philippines)
Erik Matti is a lot more representative of the way Filipino cinema is heading nowadays: this film’s done the rounds of the international festivals, and is currently being developed for a Hollywood remake by Baltasar Kormákur of Contraband and 2 Guns fame. I’ll be curious to see how it travels – as Matti said in his informative Q&A afterwards, the way Filipino cinema can make its mark is by showing the world crime stories that couldn’t come from anywhere else. On The Job is certainly one of those, set in a corrupt political system where convicts are being secretly sent out on day release to perform assassinations. For me, the story didn’t quite hold together, and I’m not sure how much of that is down to assumptions being made by Matti about the viewer’s preconceptions. But he’s a fine visual stylist, and his action scenes are models of clarity that don’t rely on fast cuts and camera wobble for excitement.
Tuesday 27 May
20:40 The Search For Weng Weng (Andrew Leavold, Australia/Philippines)
Meanwhile, over 30 years after For Y’ur Height Only, Western viewers are still chuckling at the antics of shortarse secret agent Weng Weng. Australian Andrew Leavold was one of them, but took his obsession further than anyone, curious as to how an actor with such a cult following could more or less disappear after only a couple of films. Over the course of eight years, Leavold’s taken his camera across the Philippines and found out: along the way, he provides an overview of the Filipino exploitation cinema boom, and some fascinating insights into the country’s social history, eventually getting to the bottom of Weng Weng’s story. Unlike the similar Searching For Sugar Man, which whipped up an unsatisfying narrative out of virtually no facts and lots of speculation, there’s a genuinely engrossing tale here, and Leavold tells it well without making it all about him. He’s careful to leave in plenty of room for digressions from the main thrust, though, peaking with the astonishing sequence where he finds himself the guest of honour at Imelda Marcos’ 83rd birthday party.
20:30 Unbeatable (Dante Lam, Hong Kong)
I've always assumed that the audience for mixed martial arts tournaments was people who like kung fu movies, but are frustrated by not getting actual blood and sweat flying into their faces. So what's the point of an MMA movie? This one is less of a fightfest and more a story of two men's redemption: Lin (Eddie Peng), who's inspired to enter a prize tournament after his dad loses everything in a financial crash, and Scumbag Fai (Nick Cheung), a bent former boxing champion who becomes his trainer. Visually, it's as slick as all the other films coming out of HK nowadays: the Macau locations are a welcome variation on the usual cityscapes, and the fights look realistically scrappy. But there's a huge unwelcome core of sentimentality running through the whole thing: whether it's the fate of Lin's dad, or the thigh-slapping cavalcade of disasters that afflicts Fai's landlady (she loses a child halfway through the opening credits, and it's all downhill from there). The mixture of narrative mushiness and broken bones is a little hard to take, even for those of us who've seen enough HK cinema to be familiar with the combination. It’s also a bit low on humour and human warmth, but manages to squeeze a little into its final scene, when it acknowledges that once MMA fights get down to groundwork, they’re basically a hair's breadth away from bumming.
Thursday 29 May
20:45 Warrior King 2 (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand)
Franchises are repetitive things by definition: the question is, how much do they acknowledge that themselves? Warrior King 2 actually contains the line of dialogue “you lost your elephant again?”, which shows either supreme self-awareness or a supreme lack of it. Sadly, that isn't the most obvious flaw in the latest Tony Jaa vehicle. Its English-speaking actors appear to have been recruited from the first people they found walking past the studio (and that goes double for co-star RZA, who obviously wasn’t satisfied with the damage he'd caused to the genre by directing the worst martial arts film of the 21st century so far). The editing outside of the action scenes is diabolical, with major plot points being glossed over in clumsy handwaving. Most regrettable of all, the stunts show more and more signs of CGI fakery, which is ironic given that it was the realism of Jaa’s films that attracted jaded Western audiences to them in the first place. Happily, though, most of the CGI seems to be limited to money shots for use in the trailer. The one-on-one combat is still as crunchy as ever, and deserves to be seen in a room with a loudly responsive audience. And any objections are steamrolled over in the last half hour, when all pretence at maintaining a realistic story is abandoned and the whole thing goes completely batshit insane. Let’s just say that the line I quoted above is only the second most ridiculous one to contain the word ‘elephant’.
Friday 30 May
13:05 Remote Control (Byamba Sakhya, Mongolia/Germany)
We don't see much Mongolian cinema in this part of the world - my main exposure to their visual culture comes from peeking at the stream of Ulan Bator TV every couple of months, because it's the only way you can watch live sumo for free nowadays. This film tells the story of young Tsog (Baasandorj Enkhtaivan) and his alienation from society. After years of living with a family of total bastards - drunk dad, thieving stepmum, annoying little brother - he eventually cracks and runs away to the city. He lives on a rooftop, selling milk by day and spying on the people across the road by night: an older woman called Anya (Nergui Bayarmaa) gradually attracts his attention. The press notes suggest he uses a stolen TV remote control to wheedle his way into her life, which curiously isn't the case at all: rather, the remote is more a symbol for the limited amount of control he has over his own life. The writing is a little coarse, with basically everyone apart from Tsog and Anya being utterly horrible. But it's beautifully shot, and when it lets the images tell the story it's a lot more confident of itself, with a hazily pretty colour palette and some surprisingly bold framing.
15:30 Forever Love (Aozaru Shiao/Toyoharu Kitamura, Taiwan)
Forever Love is set during the late 60s heyday of Taiwanese language cinema, when they were churning out 300 or so features a year which happily mashed up genres like there was no tomorrow. Most of the time, it's telling the story of the burgeoning romance between a young scriptwriter (Blue Lan) and a lovestruck actress (Amber An), the latter being initially infatuated with the cheesy star of the fake James Bond flicks written by the former. Unashamedly lowbrow in its comedy (yes, I'm sure women's breasts used to make exactly that noise when under pressure), it's fast-moving enough to keep a daft grin on your face throughout. Where it all falls down a bit is in the present day framing story, which hurls wheelchairs and Alzheimer's at the couple in an attempt to drum up a bit more drama. The film doesn't need it: the final caption has all the tragedy you need, as it reveals that no more than a couple of hundred of those Taiwanese films still exist today.
18:25 The Face Reader (Han Jae-rim, South Korea)
If you were in the mood to wilfully misinterpret Korean movie titles, you might think this is a film where Song Kang-ho spends much of the 1980s trying to decipher Neville Brody's typography so he can work out what he should be wearing this week. But you'd be wrong. Although as The BBG pointed out, a Korean drama set in the Joseon era means you're guaranteed one thing: terrific hats. Song plays Nae-kyung, who makes a quiet living in his village as a physiognomist, to the discomfort of his teenage son. He's headhunted by the madam of a city brothel to become one of their attractions, and starts making a name for himself: but the increased attention means he's also drawn into the battle between two warring clans looking to take possession of the throne. It's beautifully paced - at 140 minutes, it was the longest film at Terracotta this year, but paradoxically also the one which gave me the fewest problems in terms of its length. It plays with a deceptively light touch at the start, but has developed astonishing dramatic force by the end, without the transition ever feeling the least bit contrived.
21:10 Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea)
The Face Reader represents the mainstream, commercial end of Korean cinema. Kim Ki-duk doesn't. I've frequently told the story of how thirteen years ago, I wandered into a Hong Kong screening of his early film The Isle, blissfully unaware of the genital mutilation with fishhooks that was in my immediate future. Kim's later films have tended to dwell more on psychological than physical damage, but Moebius is a return to peak visceral form. When a woman (Lee Eun-woo) discovers the infidelity of her husband (Cho Jae-hyun), she grabs a knife and attempts to castrate him: when that fails, she turns to her son (Seo Young-ju) and does the deed on him instead. That's just the opening reel. From there, Kim piles on the calamity in small, gradual steps, so that each subsequent act feels like a logical progression from the previous one, but a world away from what would have seemed acceptable ten minutes earlier. As such, it's more of a film that you can admire for its hyperbolically rising curve of fuckedupness, rather than enjoy. Having said that, there's genuine comedy to be found in the plot strand involving a couple of characters and their search for non-genital arousal: rather like David Cronenberg's Crash, they result in something that's such a heartless parody of human sexuality, laughter is the only possible response.
So that's the first week and a bit of TFEFF14 covered. Which just leaves the final two days, in which we saw seven films as well as attending a masterclass and a party. That'll have to wait until part two.