LONDON — Udine was born from the ashes of one event and the desire by a tiny group of people to change the way Far East cinema was perceived in the West.
The string of coincidences that led to the initial 1998 fest was long. In 1995, Italian critic Lorenzo Codelli, whom I’d known for some years, recommended me to curate a program of silent Chinese cinema for the renowned Pordenone fest. The success of that led to a second program in 1997 — and a meeting there with two people who wanted to mount a one-off celebration of 50 years of Hong Kong cinema.
Sabrina Baracetti and Thomas Bertacche ran the Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche in nearby Udine. CEC was based in an old railroad building that was once one of a string of “railroad cinemas” throughout Italy; it had a year-round calendar of repertory screenings and mini-fests, with publications attached.
The Hong Kong event was to be CEC’s first non-European event. I contributed my personal contacts and movie knowledge, Codelli came onboard as project coordinator, and a Hong Kong critic, Linda Lai, helped with local liaison. At that time, following the handover to China and the Asian financial meltdown, Hong Kong cinema was on its knees, with tumbling production and waning interest from Western fests, so we received a warm welcome from the territory and individual filmmakers.
Guests for the event, held April 18-24, 1998, included directors Peter Chan (with a mini-tribute), Johnnie To, Ringo Lam and Yim Ho, and actors Lau Ching-wan and Anita Yuen. The 40-odd titles came from all genres; To arranged for a new print of his path-breaking “The Longest Nite” (cut in Hong Kong) to preem at the fest, and we threw together a catalog (in Italian only) by the skin of our teeth.
From the success of that event, Baracetti and Bertacche had the idea of spinning off an annual Far East Cinema fest. I agreed to head it, as artistic director, on several conditions: (a) the fest should fill a yawning gap by concentrating on good-quality, mainstream Asian cinema, and not be just another showcase for a limited number of arthouse names; (b) for good or ill, I would have total control of selection; and (c) it should not be like most other fests.
There would be no juries or competitions (I hate the idea of both); no panel discussions (which serve no useful purpose except to boost the participants’ egos and air miles); a single venue, with each film shown once (so no viewing conflicts); free, walk-in entry to all movies (so no barrier to auds experimenting); and a relaxed atmosphere of screenings, lunches, dinners (and beyond) in which filmmakers could mingle with each other and the public.
In other words, the movies should be the one and only thing.
The new venue, Udine’s theater-cum-opera house Teatro Nuovo, would thus for seven days become a Virtual Far East Movie Theater, showing films watched by normal Asian auds. By showcasing the other 90% of the Asian film iceberg, we’d somehow help to balance the cockeyed view promulgated by most Western fests and many Western crix.
With the three editions I programmed — before the sheer pressure of work forced me to quit — I think we started the ball rolling. We championed many directors who have since become big-fest favorites, from Hong Kong’s To to China’s Feng Xiaogang, from local producers like Peter Loehr to regional stars like Stephen Chow and countries like South (and even North) Korea.
Most of all, I have wonderful memories of those crazy, let’s-just-do-it early years and the warmth of filmmakers who felt shut out by regular Western fests but always knew they had a welcoming home (and enthusiastic auds) in Udine.
Derek Elley is senior film critic for Variety.