Far East Film Festival in Udine kicks off

Asian cinema will be a strong presence at the Cannes Film Festival, underlying the region’s importance as a producer of auteur-driven cinema. However, an entirely different sort of Asian cinema is on display this week in the small Italian city of Udine, at the ninth annual Far East Film Festival. Europe’s leading showcase of commercial Asian cinema, the fest provides audiences with a taste of what young Asian auds are lining up to see from Bangkok to Busan.

Increasingly, however, mainstream Asian films are finding a small but vibrant niche in Europe, as DVDs, festivals and the Internet give young viewers more and more exposure to what is available. “When we first launched this festival, viewers were discovering a completely new world, and they were driven mostly by curiosity,” says festival coordinator Thomas Bertacche. “Now, however, a small market for Asian cinema has opened in Italy, and our audiences bring much more background knowledge to each screening.”

An increased regional interest in Asian cinema is reflected in the range of guests present in Udine, from critics and festival programmers to small buyers and distributors. Dirk Eisen, managing director of the Germany-based DVD label Asian Film Network, says he comes to Udine for the chance to watch films and to make contacts in a more personal environment than a market like Cannes. Given the 120,000 theatrical admissions for the Japanese title “Tokyo Decadence” in Germany, Eisen concedes the market for Asian cinema has surged in Europe.

Although Asian films have seen few breakout hits among the mainstream public, Eisen says specialty markets can be profitable. “There are 80 million people in Germany, so even 1% of the population represents a sizable market.”

AFN’s releases run the gamut from horror and sports-related titles to arthouse product, with most pics coming from Japan and Korea, which is winning over fans among German women.

In Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, distributors are targeting young viewers by focusing on genre, says Alessandro Faes Belgrado, a programming department manager at Sky Italia.

“The popular titles have come in waves, first Hong Kong action films, then Japanese horror, and now it seems to be Korean genre films,” he says.

For a festival like Udine, the increased interest in Asian cinema has been a welcome development, but has also pressured organizers to diversify the program beyond films that can be easily obtained on DVD. The days when the festival could premiere a new film by Johnnie To or Steven Chow are long gone. However, many guests see the atmosphere of the festival itself as one of its greatest strengths.

“It’s really not necessary for me to go to Cannes anymore, since sales companies will all send me screeners,” notes Eisen. “At the Far East Fest, there is time to really get to know the other guests, and the contacts I’ve made in Udine have been very helpful for me over the years.”

– Mark Schilling contributed to this report.

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