Tiny Italian city hosts Asia's biggest cinema showcase in West
Top Asian filmmakers and stars flock to Udine for casual, low-key interaction with fellow filmmakers, audiences
UDINE, Italy -- Udine is one of northern Italy's most elegant cities, a sleepy charmer at the foot of the Alps with Renaissance arcades and cobblestone piazzas. Every spring it undergoes a transformation, as some of the biggest names in Asian cinema -- from China, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand and beyond -- descend on its streets for the Far-East Film Festival, the biggest showcase of East Asian cinema in the West.
As a study in contrasts, it's possibly the happiest imaginable -- Old World Italian style rubbing shoulders with the latest Seoul street fashion in a week of cinematic emotion, cultural exchange and artistic debate, all washed down with the delicious local Cabernet Franc wine.
"Udine has this unique strength of being Asia seen through the eyes of Europe -- and of uniting the two as much as possible," said Japanese actor Takumi Saito, who was here with co-star Aya Ueto to present the world premiere of his movie "Hirugao: Love Affairs in the Afternoon," based on a hit television drama.
The Far East Film Festival has been growing every year since its first edition in 1999, attracting such renowned film personalities as China's Feng Xiaogang, director of "Aftershock," Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang, and Japan's Yojiro Takita, maker of the Oscar-winning "Departures." The 19th edition ended on April 29 with the Japanese transgender family drama "Close-Knit" taking the Golden Mulberry for Best Picture. The competition featured 83 movies from 12 countries, with four world premieres, including Hong Kong filmmaker Herman Yau's "Shock Wave." Big ticket films such as Feng's "I am not Madame Bovary" ran side-by-side with small productions such as "Little Sister," a psycho-thriller from Laos.
The festival also presented a major retrospective of Hong Kong cinema in the 20 years since the handover to China -- and screened the world premiere of a restored version of Seijun Suzuki's masterpiece "Branded to Kill," one of Quentin Tarantino's major influences.
Evolution of interest
In the nearly two decades since its inception, the Far East Film Festival has tracked the evolution of Western interest in Asian cinema -- from a fascination with Hong Kong cinema in the early years to a revival of interest in Japanese film through Takeshi Kitano and the "Ring" horror movies to the more recent Korean Wave of popular culture exports. The West's rising appetite for Asian film can be seen every year at Udine as audiences grow, with this year's spectator count reaching 60,000. Organizers predict a new surge in the popularity of Asian cinema around the globe, as online services such as Netflix and Amazon provide an international platform for Far East cinema, which in the past was considered too niche or obscure to market.
"Today we have a public that is less influenced by the name of the director or by some reputation," said festival co-director Thomas Bertacche. "It's an audience that just goes out in search of new stories. It's not just going to see the latest film by (Japanese director) Takashi Miike because he's a big name."
For the directors and stars, Udine provides a respite from the politics and attitude that are notorious in the movie industry, from Hollywood to Shanghai. People simply feel relaxed here. Studio bosses can afford to leave ego back home, while celebrated cineastes don't worry about being too big to talk to the twenty-something making his debut. As Feng said in an interview, "There's none of the arrogance" one finds at the top-tier festivals such as Cannes. It means Udine has become a hive of creative conversation among filmmakers, producers, performers and spectators.
"Instead of there being rivalry at Udine, there is an exchange here that is very enjoyable," Feng told the Nikkei Asian Review. "There is no sense of hierarchy or pecking order. One finds a great friendly spirit, of chatting over cocktails and wine."
Hirotsugu Usui, chief producer at Japanese entertainment behemoth Fuji Television, said he relishes the chance at Udine to leave his Tokyo industry bubble and learn something from the provocative cinema being produced in small countries such as Cambodia or Laos.
"At Udine, you have major movies like the ones we make at Fuji TV, you also have those that are more radical, that have sharper edges," he said. "And that gives me a lot of scope for thinking. These aren't the kinds of experiences you get at Cannes, Berlin or Venice."
Bertacche said Asian filmmakers find ways to interact here that would be problematic back home: "In Japan, for example, there are social structures where people are very formal, you have your own personal space and your social rules that are inviolable. But here, maybe it's because we're Italian, things are more spontaneous -- and you see things being born that are unexpected and would not have been possible in the home country."
The convivial spirit is one reason the audience is the jury at Udine -- with ballots going into a box in the theater lobby after every showing. The organizers wanted to create a festival that celebrates the popular appeal of the big screen. Festival winner "Close-Knit," Naoko Ogigami's film about an 11-year-old girl who moves in with her uncle and his transgender girlfriend, won sustained and rapturous applause in the Teatro Nuovo, many spectators in tears. "We have this relationship of closeness between the audience of Udine and the filmmakers," said Bertacche. "You feel this in the theater. The theater is buzzing, vibrating."
The festival actively promotes filmmaker-audience interaction with daily "Coffee & Talks" panels in which anybody can ask questions of stars such as Japan's Ryuhei Matsuda, who shot to fame in Nagisa Oshima's 1999 "Taboo," and directors such as Hong Kong's Yau. "Some other festivals might really close off their guests," said Tim Youngs, the festival's Hong Kong selection consultant. "Here people can come in and ask anything they want."
Such a forum where Europeans can dive deep into Asian cinema -- and the people behind it -- is the kind of thing Feng said he wished existed in China for European film: "There's the same interest that Chinese have regarding European films. But what we lack is this platform, this bridge that can link the two."
Part of the fun of Udine is that, outside the Teatro Nuovo festival hall, the city itself becomes a celebration of Asian culture. The elegant Piazza Matteotti is transformed into an Asian food bazaar, with booths hawking Filipino street food, Japanese "onigiri" rice balls and Chinese noodles. The festival organizes special events such as Chinese sword-fighting workshops, Japanese tea ceremony lessons, Tibetan bell sound therapy sessions, Chinese ink-brush tutorials, Japanese sake tastings, lectures on geisha art, Philippine dance displays, and many more.
Matsuda, of "Taboo" fame, summed up the atmosphere at Udine nicely while introducing his crowd-pleasing comedy, "My Uncle," at the Teatro Nuovo: "I am looking forward to enjoying my wine here. Grazie!"