Last week, a few days in the lovely Italian city of Udine (pronounced “OO-DIN-AY”), where the Far East Film Festival has just finished its 11th edition. This is a great showcase for films from Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, China, Thailand etc; and, unlike other festivals where it’s the biggest or most prestigious films on display, Udine tends to spice up the mix with films that were either local hits or overlooked in the rush. Popular films rather than arthouse fare. So you get Taiwanese comedies rubbing shoulders with Filipino social dramas while a Japanese blockbuster waits in the wings. An eclectic bill that gives a great taste of the variety and strengths of Asian popular cinema.
Every year there is a “horror day”. This one featured movies from Korea, Thailand and Indonesia, in fact, if there was a theme to the festival this year, it was Indonesia. For the first time there was a broad range of films from a country that had not really featured in the line up before in any major way. This was great news for us at Mondo Macabro as it provided a chance to link up with one of Indonesian cinema’s rising stars – and a great friend to Mondo – Joko Anwar.
I first came across Joko’s name when I was researching the recent career of Barry Prima to write the liner notes for our release of The Devil’s Sword a few years back. I was amazed to see that, after many years away from the big screen, Barry had made a new film – Joni’s Promise – in which he had a cameo as a taxi driver. The film was a hip, fun, romantic comedy and, most importantly, it was imbued with a love for and deep knowledge of popular cinema, in particular, Indonesian popular cinema – a subject close to our heart. We kept checking out the film’s writer and director, and it got more and more interesting. Not only was he scriptwriter behind one of the best recent Indonesian comedies – Quickie Express – but he was also the creator of the truly mind blowing (and unclassifiable) 2007 film called Kala: Dead Time. This was a film that showed how far Indonesian cinema had come in a few short years.
At the beginning of the decade, after years of economic mismanagement and political corruption, there really was no Indonesian cinema, let alone genre cinema. Then, in 2001, came Jelangkung and, for better or worse, the floodgates were opened for a veritable deluge of horror movies. Most of these were of the “cheap shag” variety but their success with audiences paved the way for more adventurous fare like Kala and, now, Joko’s latest film The Forbidden Door, the centrepiece of Udine’s traditional “Horror Day”.
After the film we got together with Joko, the drop dead gorgeous Marsha Timothy - the film’s female lead - and Fachry Albar, who gives a stunning performance as Gambir, the disturbed sculptor whose existential quest is at the centre of the film’s plot… Or is it? This is one of those films you’ll have to see for yourself. I don’t want to spoil it by giving too much away. And see it, you very definitely should.
Talking about movies to Joko Anwar was so much fun, it should probably be illegal. I guess we could have spent the entire festival jawing away, But sadly, he had other commitments and I had a plane to catch back to the UK. There’s not enough space here to go into the details of our discussion, but believe me there’s a whole host of great films on their way. Not just from Joko, but from the other young bloods of the new Indonesian cinema which has risen, phoenix like, from the ashes of political and commercial indifference to be one of the most vibrant and exciting cinemas in the world today.
FILMS WE SAW
A modern reinterpretation of several themes from the famous Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo. A big budget extravaganza with all the usual attributes of a summer blockbuster. I liked it a lot. It’s in the mould of the recent Batman/Zorro adaptations, so if that sounds appealing, you’ll probably like it too.
CONNECTED, Hong Kong
A high octane version of the 2004 US film Cellular. It grips from the get go and doesn’t let up. Classic Hong Kong action cinema.
MY DEAR ENEMY, Korea
A quirky and bitter sweet character study that I really liked, although I felt it outstayed its welcome by about 20 minutes – but I feel that about most every film I see these days. Great performances, particularly by Jung-woo Ha as the likeable rogue.
DESIRES OF THE HEART, China
Sort of Chinese version of Sex and the City. The stories of five women and the men in (and out of) their lives. Great performances from Qiu Yuen and Vivian Wu just about make it work. Lu Lu Li (Blood Brothers) has to be one of the most gorgeous women on the planet.
THE WAY WE ARE, Hong Kong
Perfectly directed piece of low key social realism from veteran (in the career sense, not age-wise) HK film maker Ann Hui whose TV work was the subject of a retrospective at Udine this year. Amazingly, this subtly nuanced portrayal of everyday life for a group of high rise dwellers was produced by Wong Jing of Naked Killer fame.
ROUGH CUT, Korea.
Not bad. Twenty minutes too long, but enjoyable. An actor famed for his portrayals of gangsters on film finds himself acting alongside a real life hoodlum. Based on a story by Kim Ki-duk.
FORBIDDEN LEGEND, Hong Kong
Promoted as a return to the good old days of Category 3, and an obvious cash in on the Sex and Zen franchise. Started off pretty good with some great masturbation jokes, but after about half an hour, I got a bit fed up with it. Maybe it’s just me, but the fact that the girls were all imported Japanese AV stars somehow spoiled the fun.
RULE NUMBER ONE
A slickly directed but ultimately rather annoying horror film from Singaporean director Kelvin Tong (The Maid), now relocated to Hong Kong. A sort of variation on the US film Fallen where an evil spirit is transferred from victim to victim by touch. Felt I’d seen it all before too many times. Would have been better without the tricksy ending.
RAHTREE REBORN, Thailand
Part three in the ongoing Rahtree franchise about the vengeful ghost of a dead girl. This was one of the most politically incorrect (and one of the most incoherent) films I’ve seen for a while. Some liked it a LOT… Me, I’m still unconvinced. But I did laugh more than I expected, sometimes in disbelief.
TAKUT: FACES OF FEAR, Indonesia
Brian Yuzna, now relocated to Jakarta, yokes together six recent(ish) shorts into a horror compilation. The stand out entry is the Mo Brothers’ Dara. Everyone should see this great little slice of grand guignol. The lead girl, Shareefa Daanish, has a great face for horror – and I mean that in a good way; she could be the local Barbara Steele. The good news is that the Mo Bros have now signed her up for a feature length spin off called Macabre.
FORBIDDEN DOOR, Indonesia
The new film from Joko Anwar. A complex but playful series of cinematic games that once again confirms his position in the forefront of the Indonesian new wave. Great performance by Fachry Albar is the linking thread in a movie that has more twists and turns than a runaway roller coaster. A film that truly explores the possibilities of cinema and does so with wit and style to spare.
A compendium of 4 stories (hence the title) from Thailand. All were good. The first and last being perhaps the most fun for me.
Written by the ubiquitous Joko Anwar and directed by first timer Mouly Surya, this was a superbly scripted and subtly directed story about obsession and (as with most of Joko Anwar’s work) the interplay between truth and fiction. Highly recommended.
EQUATION OF LOVE AND DEATH, China
A typical mainland Chinese melodrama. Actually started off quite well with a superb performance against type from Xun Zhou as a potty mouthed, chain smoking taxi driver. A tense carjack story ensues… and then all the good will is blown as the film limps to a feeble conclusion during its last 40 interminable minutes. A ridiculous series of coincidences strains plot credibility beyond breaking point.
THE STORY OF THE CLOSESTOOL, China
Classic Udine. Where else would you see a Chinese social drama where a flushing toilet is a metaphor for social change and the rise of the middle classes? First half good, second half poor as the metaphor runs of steam, or whatever it is metaphors are powered by.