April 23, 2005

Udine Dispatch. 1.

Koreanfilm.org contributing writer Adam Hartzell sends in his first dispatch from the 7th Udine Far East Film Festival, which opened yesterday and runs through April 29.

Udine Far East Film Festival "It sounds like a lot of South Korean films are socially conscious?" This is roughly what my good friend from Salzburg said to me. I was giving her the rundown on South Korean cinema projected from my computer onto the wall of her flat in Salzburg, just a few steps down from Mozart's birth house, where I was staying before heading to Italy to attend the 7th Far East Film Festival in the northern city of Udine. My response to my friend's comment was that rare instance of quickly ascertaining the appropriate answer: "Well, that's because you're hearing about South Korean cinema through my filter." I can definitely make it sound like South Korean films are more socially conscious than the average bearish and bullish cinemas. But if all you've seen is what the distributors have allowed in your neck of the woods, which is more than likely a Kim Ki-duk film, Oldboy or Save The Green Planet (all now at theaters near you!), that filter might lead you to believe that South Korean cinema is more violent than others. However, I'm not willing to bet that it is neither any more progressive nor any more violent. I still have many more films to see from many more cinemas of the world before I could come close to making either claim.

There are many reasons why I travel to Udine - to meet up with the fellow writers who contribute to the same websites as I, to see friends outside of my writing networks, to work on my German on the way, to eat the gelato, etc - but one of the reasons I come is because of Udine's approach. They intend to represent a wide swath of each Asian country's films from the previous year. This means films from all genres. Since I prefer the artsy, slow-paced films, Udine's inclusion of romances, comedies, and action films keeps me from developing any false beliefs about cinema fueled by the more art house fare I tend to watch.


I attended the 5th Far East Film Festival two years ago and part of what I appreciated about this particular festival was the intimacy. All the screenings were held in one theater and, even though well-attended, there always appeared to be room in the large theater for late-comers to snag tickets. All the films are subtitled in English and Italian-speakers can grab headphones for title-by-title translation. Several directors are brought over and the smaller size of the festival allows for easier access for questions, research and formal interviews. In many ways, this controlled, baby-bear-porridge of a festival (not too big, not too small, but just right) well represents the city of Udine itself. Udine lies in the shadows of the popular holiday destination of see-it-before-it-sinks Venice and its distant cousin, Trieste. Udine is the second cousin once removed. Too bad, because it offers considerable shopping and European feel to the tourist who might stumble upon it, or to the tourist who has Austrian acquaintances who have put them in the know about this Italian stop less taken just across from their border. This latter point explains why shop-owners regularly mistook me for Austrian my first time here and would speak to me in German rather than Italian or my native English. But perhaps I further encouraged this misinterpretation by all the Adidas I wore like a corporate Canadian flag on the backpack of my person to hide my nationality since my country had just invaded another country on false pretenses.

The festival has since expanded to a second theater where films run simultaneously in the morning, which now requires me to make viewing choices I didn't have to make before. Well-stocked in Chinese, South Korean and Japanese films, the festival also has a smattering of films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. This year, the up-and-coming peninsula of Malaysia is represented with Pontianak - Scent of the Tuber Rose (Shuhaimi Baba, 2004) screening on Asian Horror day, the sole theme-day that always takes place in the middle of the festival. Udine also focuses on two separate areas each year. This year we have Mark Schilling, Udine's regular curator of Japanese films, putting together a series entitled "No Borders, No Limits: The World of Nikkatsu Action." Accompanying Schilling's series is the publication of a book of the same name in which Schilling elaborates on films from Nikkatsu's catalog that have gone underappreciated, from a Red Quay (Masuda Toshio, 1958) to a Red Handkerchief (Masuda Toshio, 1964). The publication of a book along with the program is a tradition Udine inaugurated last year with the publication of Tim Young's Black Roses and Sentimental Warriors: The Cinema of Chor Yuen. The other special series this year, sans book, will focus on three respected cinematographers, from China - Gu Changwei (Red Sorghum, Farewell My Concubine), Japan - Tamra Masaki (Lady Snowblood, Desert Moon) and South Korea - Kim Hyung-Koo (Peppermint Candy, Memories of Murder).

Everybody Has Secrets
Arriving to Udine later than I'd planned, (a friendly Salzburger who shared my cabin hipped me to the fact that railroad schedules had recently changed, cutting back on the regularity of certain runs, one of which, unfortunately, was the one I intended to take to Udine), I made it in enough time to check in, shower, and catch the last two films on the first night. Both happened to be sex comedies, one from South Korea, Everybody Has Secrets (Chang Hyun-soo, 2004) and the other from Hong Kong, AV (Pang Ho-Cheung, 2005). One is for the adult who hasn't lost that legal teen spirit of experimentation. And the other is for that horny teenage boy or that man who is still grasping onto memories from his days as a member of that younger demographic.

It is no secret that the sex comedy is an escape from the diplomatic negotiations of our real life sexual selves, where playful fantasies are presented and matters are resolved without any headaches such as excommunication or STDs. However, two years ago at Udine, we had the South Korean film Sex Is Zero (Yoon Je-gyun, 2002), providing a contrarian model, a moral smackdown in the second half of the film to demand that we all agree that what we saw in the first half was "wrong." This time, Everybody Has Secrets, a film about three sisters letting their mojo flow with the same man, respects you enough to allow you to play around with gender roles and other societal constraints for awhile. Lee Byeong-heon (JSA, A Bittersweet Life) is indeed a pretty boy here. He hams it up enough to make up for the parts of this film where the comedy is off. Choo Sang-mi (Turning Gate, A Smile) once again impresses as well. Although Pang intends AV to stand for "adult video" and not "audio-visual," the entire film is still a high school, audio-visual club kid's wet dream.

You see, Pang garnered the assistance of real life Japanese porn star Amamiya Minami to play out the object of this projected onanism. Four HK young men hire her on to shoot a porno by faking their way through a legitimate illegitimate business while Minami fakes the orgasms. The film gets lost at times and evokes that 'Ugh!' response to heavy-handed humor (I guess that's with the free hand). But there are some interesting angles taken, and I don't mean the camerawork since bodies are well-positioned to prohibit the pornographic here. Pang weaves in a real life incident in 1971 where 21 protesters were arrested by the British colonial government, even bringing in Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr in ways, especially considering Parks's successful lawsuit against the hip-hop troupe Outkast, I'm sure they wouldn't appreciate. But, hey, comedy is often about pushing our comfort zones to eleven. Then there's the unique bit of product placement in AV. Perhaps just a part of the print shown for this audience, Pang dropped a major shoutout to the "Udine Film Festival" in the dialogue, which drew much appreciation from the crowd.

We'll see if Udine and I respect ourselves in the morning.

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Posted by dwhudson at April 23, 2005 7:39 AM