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Udine film festival can teach Japanese directors a few things about international appeal

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

I’ve been an adviser to the Udine Far East Film Festival since 2000. The event, held in Udine, Italy, is the largest festival in Europe dedicated to popular cinema from Asia.

For its 20th edition this year, 10 new Japanese films screened in the Competition section with one, the ultra-low-budget zombie comedy “One Cut of the Dead,” scooping the second-place Audience Award. Director Shinichiro Ueda, producer Koji Ichihashi and several cast members got a raucous standing ovation from 500 fans following the film’s midnight screening — a rarity at Udine, where audiences tend to remain seated even when their applause is thunderous.

Veteran director Daihachi Yoshida, whose offbeat drama “The Scythian Lamb” also screened in competition, later emailed his congratulations to first-time feature director Ueda, adding that he had walked home alone after the “One Cut” screening “feeling envious of your success” and “determined to make a film Udine audiences will like.”

Yoshida was being modest: “The Scythian Lamb” got high marks from the audience and critics. But he did pose a question I’ve been asking myself for years: What sort of Japanese films go over with an audience like Udine’s, which may like Asian films — otherwise why would so many trek to a small city in northern Italy — but are not necessarily Asian cinephiles. My answers are still evolving, but 19 years of seeing films with Udine audiences and getting their reactions have given me a few guidelines.

For starters, a film may be based on a hit manga, star a big “idol” and earn billions of yen in Japan, but folks in Udine, for the most part, neither know nor care. They judge a film by what they see on the screen, period.

Comedies are a tough sell, especially when they rely on word play and “only in Japan” references for laughs. “One Cut of the Dead” got the Udine audience roaring with the sort of slapstick gags that had their roots in silent films.

The competition is tough and getting tougher. Udine began in 1999 with only films from Hong Kong, the East Asian movie market most familiar to Italian audiences. Now it screens films from all over East and Southeast Asia, though Japan, South Korea and China/Hong Kong are still the big three. The South Korean industry in particular has become adept at making films that can cross borders. Japanese filmmakers, by contrast, are still focused intensely (if no longer exclusively) on local audiences. No wonder Korean films have won the lion’s share of our prizes, including this year’s first-place Audience Award-winner, the political thriller “1987: When the Day Comes,” which had a Hollywood-like propulsion and pace.

But “One Cut of the Dead” was only a vote or two behind it in the rankings. A happy but frustrated Ueda vowed to do better next time: “When I come back to Udine,” he told me, “I’m going to tell everyone to vote for our film!”