Why go to a film festival that specializes in the sort of popular Asian genres — from Hong Kong actioners to South Korean comedies — that the other “better” sort of festivals have traditionally sniffed at?
Since 2000 I’ve been making an annual trek to the Far East Film Festival (FEFF) held in Udine, a small city in Italy’s northeast corner, as the adviser for their Japanese film selections. So my answer to the aforementioned question is both professional and personal, if hardly objective. That is, I enjoy the messy business of putting together a program the Udine audience (as opposed to the critics and media types who also attend) will actually enjoy. And, yes, I do not have to pay for my nine-day stay (if not exactly a vacation) in a picture-postcard town with some of Italy’s best white wine and most welcoming natives.
The 16th edition of the FEFF, held from April 25 to May 3 at Udine’s 1,200-seat Teatro Nuovo. In all, 62 films from Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines were presented, though perhaps I should also add Australia to that list since that is the nationality of Andrew Leavold, the director of “The Search for Weng Weng.” That film is an entertaining, obsessively researched documentary about a height-challenged Filipino actor who briefly flourished as an improbable international action star in the 1970s and ’80s.
However, the winner of this year’s first place Golden Mulberry award, voted on by the general audience, was Takashi Yamazaki’s World War II kamikaze (tokkotai or suicide squadron) drama “Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero).” This was the first time in five years — since Yojiro Takita’s “Okuribito (Departures)” — for a Japanese film to take the festival’s biggest prize. Yamazaki, busy on his latest film, sent his regrets, so I had to mount the stage and accept the award on his behalf.
Prior to the film’s screening I had imagined myself being besieged by disgruntled moviegoers for daring to program such a blatant piece of Japanese nationalist propaganda — that is, a film the opposite of Yamazaki’s antiwar intentions. Instead I found myself basking in applause for a film that had moved many in the audience to tears. I’ll spare you the acceptance speech.
The Black Dragon prize, decided by premium pass holders, went to the Yang Woo-seok drama “The Attorney,” which also took second place in the general audience vote. (The third-place vote getter was Filipino director Jun Robles Lana’s “Barber’s Tale.”) Finally, the My Movies prize, given to the film judged the best by Internet voters, was awarded to Hideki Takeuchi’s “Thermae Romae II,” a followup to his time-travel comedy smash “Thermae Romae,” which also won the same prize after its world premiere at FEFF in 2012. The normally voluble Takeuchi said simply “I never thought I’d win (the prize) twice. The film got laughs from beginning to end . . . I’m really happy.” He will be happier, I’m sure, if “Thermae Romae” is a hit after its June theatrical release in Italy, with Tucker Films, a company headed by FEFF director Sabrina Baracetti, distributing.
Given that I was playing host to our 13 Japanese guests, as well as serving as moderator for three FEFF Talks — question-and-answer events with attending talents, open to the media and public — my film viewing time was limited, which was not all that bad. I spent a memorable half hour or so with two directors fruitlessly searching the back alleys of Venice for a restaurant noted in a Japanese guidebook with a tiny red dot. But I bonded in touristic confusion with Yosuke Fujita, the director of the offbeat comedy “Fukufukuso no Fukuchan (Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats),” and Masashi Yamamoto, the guidebook owner and the producer of the brilliantly bent ensemble comedy “Koi no Uzu (Be My Baby).”
I also sang a karaoke duet of “My Heart Will Go On” with Saiji Yakumo, the director of the bittersweet teen drama “Momose, Kocchi wo Muite (My Pretend Girlfriend),” though our pose as Jack and Rose on the deck of the Titanic was mercifully brief. Mari Asato, the director of the psycho-horror “Bilocation,” wisely declined to join us, but became an instant star after her screening, with fans lining up by the dozens to have a photo taken or autograph signed. “I thought my film might be too quiet for an Italian audience to understand,” she told me later. “But they responded really well.” Not on-the-floor-in-shock well, perhaps, but certainly good enough.
The biggest name among the Japanese contingent, however, was Miyuki Oshima, member of the comedy trio Morisanchu and the star of “Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats.” Though she played a guy in the film — a shy shaven-headed house painter with a talent for kite making and a complex about women, she came to Udine outfitted like a fan of frilly Harajuku fashion and glowing with a complexion that seemingly owed more to heathy living than the ministrations of her ever-present manager.
It was certainly not helped by her rather insane schedule, which had her flying in for the “Fuku-chan” screening on April 25 and flying back to Japan the next day for a television show taping. She was, however, able to walk up the cobblestone path to Udine Castle, which that clear sunny day commanded a spectacular view of the Dolomite Mountains in nearby Slovenia. “I really like Europe, though I usually come here for variety shows,” she told me, but without, I thought, much time for the sort of dolce vita that so many laid-back Udine residents enjoy.
Thankfully, they also came in crowds to the screenings, even at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m., when the doors of the Teatro opened, and they stayed until well past midnight, when, after seven or more screenings, the doors finally closed. Admissions last year totaled about 50,000, a number this year’s edition looked sure to exceed. It wasn’t only Japanese films stirring up excitement, of course. The audience gave big hands to Dante Lam’s hyper-violent thriller “That Demon Within,” part of a mini-focus devoted to the Hong Kong action maestro, and “Venus Talk,” Korean director Kwon Chil-in’s funny, sexy take on the life and love troubles of three middle-aged women who are long-time friends.
But the non-Japanese film that may stay with me the longest is “Pee Mak,” Thai director’s Banjong Pisanthanakun’s hit comic horror about five soldiers who survive an unnamed war and return together to the riverside home of one, a naive, simple-minded guy whose gorgeous wife is strangely otherwordly. She is, we soon learn, a ghost with a grudge against the living — and able to send her husband’s four goofy pals into paroxysms of terror with one steady glare. Alternately broadly funny and skin-crawlingly scary — often in the same scene, the film may be based on an ancient Thai legend, but was giving me “Ghosbusters” flashes, with dashes of The Three Stooges. Cannes competition material it is not — but Udine loved it. See you at the Teatro.