"Films. Directors. Actors. Parties." The tagline for the Terracotta Far East Film Festival makes it clear that it's far more than just a big pile of Asian films shown in a short space of time. So in part two of my review of the 2014 festival (here's part one if you missed it), let's start by looking at a new non-film feature introduced this year: food.
I highlighted this as a problem as long ago as the last sentence of Terracottadammerung 2012: if you’re doing lots of films back to back, there’s not enough time to eat. My suggestion was to extend the breaks between films, but Terracotta came up with the fiendish idea of allowing you to preorder dim sum baskets from the nearby Opium, the official social focus point of this year's festival. It’s still not a perfect system: my main objection is that you have to climb four fucking flights of stairs to collect your order, couldn't they lower it down to you on a bit of rope or something? Still, the package of six dumplings you get for a fiver was ready and waiting for me after a screening, tasted nice, and even left time afterwards for a pot of fancy tea that cost as much all over again. However, The Belated Birthday Girl would like to register her disapproval at the veggie basket only having four dumplings in it rather than six, and suggests that this should be looked into.
Right, let's get back to films. Here's what we saw on the final two days of TFEFF14.
12:35 Chinese Zodiac (Jackie Chan, Hong Kong/China)
Remember what Jackie Chan films used to be like in the old days? Chinese Zodiac certainly hopes that you do, as it's a big-budget throwback to the sort of slapstick adventures he was making circa Armour Of God. Back then, the big deal with Chan was the authenticity of what you saw on screen: the end credits out-takes made it clear that he was doing these crazy stunts, and occasionally crippling himself in the process. Now he's just turned 60, we can forgive him occasionally copping out and letting a stunt double do the heavy lifting, but the best parts of this film still have the thrill of real experience in there - someone, rather than some pixels, spent the pre-credits sequence careering downhill in a suit made of rollerskates, and it's not that important who it was. The worst sequences here are the huge-scale effects setpieces (an escape from an island fortress on the back of a large log is virtually incomprehensible) or dialogue-heavy statements of Chinese foreign policy. Ignore those, and the fights and physical comedy are as much of a delight as they ever were. If Jackie just scaled his ambitions back from trying to recreate his large-scale Hollywood movies for a Chinese audience, he might have at least one more masterpiece in him.
15:00 Commitment (Park Hong-soo, South Korea)
If you were in the mood to wilfully misinterpret Korean movie titles, you might think this is a film about Choi Seung-hyun pulling together a disparate bunch of musicians into an R&B tribute band, using some spiel about how the Koreans are the blacks of Asia. But you'd be wrong. Although Choi might just be able to pull that off, as he's a pop star in real life, also known as the rapper T.O.P. in K-pop supergroup Big Bang. In his big screen debut, he plays Ri, a teenager who's just moved into a new town: bullied at school for being the newcomer, and making friends with the one girl in his class who's similarly isolated. But Ri's actually a North Korean spy on a secret mission, and could murder all the bullies with his bare hands if he chose to. For the first hour or so, it's the genre mashup between high school drama and hard-edged spy thriller that makes Commitment such a joy to watch. Even in its second half, where it abandons the school setting and becomes a more straightforward teen agent flick, the intensity of Choi's lead performance - not to mention the gradually dawning significance of it being set a couple of years in the past - keeps its grip on you right to the end.
18:00 Special ID (Clarence Fok/Yiu Leung, China/Hong Kong)
As I said earlier, we find ourselves making excuses for Jackie Chan these days. He's an old man now, why shouldn't we go easy on him? Well, because we don't make the same excuses for Donnie Yen, who's still hurling himself around film sets in a manner totally unsuited to a man of, um, my age. Here, he's an undercover cop who's infiltrated the HK gangs, only to find things getting a little too close to home as his cover starts to fray at the edges. Like Drug War at last year's Festival, Special ID's action straddles both sides of the border with China, here showing off the HK-copying tower blocks of Shenzhen to stunning effect. It's less interested than Drug War in the differences between Hong Kong and the mainland, though, preferring to focus on the action and stunts. Yen (as fight choreographer as well as star) is generous enough to give his female co-star Jing Tian some terrific moments of her own, including the spectacular leap that climaxes this year's Terracotta trailer. The last couple of reels, built around a huge car chase and a staggering one-on-one scrap, are action cinema at its finest.
20:15 The Snow White Murder Case (Yoshihiro Nakamura, Japan)
A film from the writer of Confessions and the director of Fish Story was always going to be a narratively tricksy affair, but Snow White surpasses even the lofty expectations set up by its two predecessors. It starts with the death of a young woman by stabbing and fire in a forest: the TV reporter who takes an interest in the case gradually uncovers a dark web of secrets that may eventually lead to the killer. Or may not. The multiple narrative perspectives are reminiscent of everything from Rashomon to, yes, Confessions, and quietly set up a subtext about the slippery nature of absolute truth. At the same time, the film's a ruthless satire on the current state of the media: anyone who's spent any time watching Fuji News Network will recognise the pitch-perfect parody of Japanese tabloid TV depicted here. There's an additional layer of complexity added by the on-screen text contributions of a Twitter Greek chorus (many of whom have real life accounts). The result could have been a cluttered mess, but Snow White elegantly combines all these elements into an entertaining story and a gripping mystery. Of all the films in this year's festival, this is the one that deserves a wider audience.
Sunday 1 June
11:00 Yuumi Goto & Yuki Ueda Masterclass
The masterclasses at Terracotta are always an interesting idea, but they never seem to quite attract the size of audience they deserve: this one, featuring two of the actors from the next film Be My Baby (plus a bonus appearance by older co-star Sadaharu Matsushita), has no more than a dozen people in the audience. To be honest, you could get a small collection of actors from anywhere in the world and hear stories like the ones told here. They discuss their similar backgrounds (all of them started as stage actors before moving into film) and their differing approaches to acting (Matsushita dabbles in the Method, Goto does lots of research beforehand, while Ueda works with the similarities between himself and the character). The most interesting contributions come from moderator Adam Torel (the friendly giant in charge of Third Window Films), who reveals some startling facts about the Japanese acting biz in his questions. He explains the 'workshop' process used by films like Be My Baby, where a group of young actors pay to work with a director-for-hire to bash out a movie in a few days as a learning experience. If the pay-to-play idea seems a little exploitative of new actors, it turns out that even the more professional ones make next to nothing working on films, which is why all the biggest stars are doing TV commercials - it's where the real money is.
12:15 Be My Baby (Hitoshi One, Japan)
For someone who programmed Be My Baby in the festival, Adam Torel is surprisingly rude about it in his introduction. His main contribution is to suggest we view the film as the Japanese equivalent of The Only Way Is Essex, holding up a shallow and self-obsessed group of young people for our amusement. He also warns us that the first fifteen minutes or so will be hard work, and he’s not lying: it’s a party scene in which we’re introduced to the nine scumbags we’ll be following, all talking over each other as they try to pair off the least desirable male and female in their group. From that point on, it perks up enormously: director Hitoshi One cross-cuts beautifully between the four rooms the kids go back to after the party, and orchestrates their various couplings and fallings-out with enough aplomb to cover up the source material’s stage origins. The smart script by Daisuke Miura plays with our sympathies perfectly – we start out hating them all equally, but by the end we’re rooting to see how many of them can display even the smallest glimpse of humanity. We're kept guessing on that score all the way up to literally the final line.
15:10 Firestorm (Alan Yuen, Hong Kong)
This time ten years ago I was celebrating Andy Lau's career peak, playing the damaged cop in the Infernal Affairs trilogy. Infernal Affairs perfected the story of cops and robbers betraying each other, and Firestorm doesn’t get anywhere close to that. What we get instead is join-the-dots plotting connecting overwrought action sequences with liberal amounts of duff CGI applied on top: machine guns whose bullets leave trails like lasers, atrociously rendered explosions, and a climactic apocalypse that’s just way beyond the capability of the effects team. In the old days, the filmmakers would have shut down Causeway Bay for three days and attached bullet squibs to every possible surface: it wouldn’t have been as huge a climax, but it would have looked great. Worst of all for The BBG and me, Firestorm takes place in the runup to the arrival of a typhoon of similar strength to the one we were caught in last year… and then has the whole storm happen in the cut between the penultimate and final scenes. Why would you even do that?
17:25 Judge! (Akira Nagai, Japan)
Another Terracotta closing film from Japan, and the first one in three years to not mention 3/11. Compared with Be My Baby, this is a much more obviously commercial affair, but that doesn’t necessarily make it watchable. Satoshi Tsumabuki, for reasons too tortuous to explain here, has been sent to the Santa Monica Advertising Festival as a jury member, along with a female colleague who doesn’t like him but at least speaks English. His secret agenda is to ensure that the grand prize goes to one of his agency’s adverts, a terrible piece of crap made by the son of a client, who’s threatening to take their business away if his ad doesn’t win. There’s scope here for some cutting satire at the expense of the industry, and former ad director Akira Nagai achieves that with the ads we see in the competition (which he farmed out to a series of mates in agencies around the world, letting them play on their own national stereotypes). You can just about justify the cartoonish characterisation of the international jurors, particularly when Tsumabuki plays up the otaku stereotype himself to get them on his side. The rampant homophobia is less excusable, notably the subplot in which the Thai and Greek jurors spend most of the film trying to rape him. In the end, the broadness of the comedy wears down any goodwill you have towards the rest of the movie.
19:30 Closing Night Party
With all the films over, it's back to Opium for a couple of their tastiest cocktails, and the official announcement by Joey Leung of the winners of the Audience Awards. There's an award for each of the three main festival sections: so The Search For Weng Weng wins in the Filipino strand (fair enough, even though it's technically Australian), Lesson Of Evil tops the poll for the TerrorCotta all-nighter (I've seen it, it's fine, but a bit long), and Unbeatable gets the award in the Current Asian Cinema section. That last one's pretty much incomprehensible to me: presumably the MMA fans in the audience enjoyed it, but I enjoyed The Snow White Murder Case a hell of a lot more. On the whole, though, it's been another fine Terracotta, and I hope the low audience sizes for a few of the films don't have an impact on future events. I certainly intend to be back next year, ordering dim sum and everything. Being a monkey, and all.