SEOUL – Asian blockbusters and Italian wine may seem like an unlikely combination; however, for the past 10 years, Asian commercial cinema has found a welcoming home in the city of Udine, tucked into the northeast corner of Italy.
The Far East Film Festival was created in 1999 in the wake of a highly successful retrospective of Hong Kong cinema programmed by Variety senior critic Derek Elley. The stated goal in launching the event was to highlight the sort of Asian films that didn’t screen at other European festivals, but which played a key role in the cultural life of Asia: big-budget blockbusters, melodramas, crime thrillers, horror films, comedies. Soon, Udine became Europe’s biggest showcase of popular Asian films, helping to expand their reach beyond specialized fan magazines and imported VCDs.
The festival can rightly claim to have been the first to introduce directors like Steven Chow, Johnnie To, Feng Xiaogang and Pang Ho-cheung to the West. It was the first European festival to screen the complete “Ring” trilogy, and it hosted the international premiere of works like Kang Je-gyu’s record-breaking Korean War film “Tae Guk Gi.”
Today the FEFF draws upward of 50,000 viewers a year, including large numbers of local residents, critics, film students (who receive free accommodation from the festival), journalists and small distributors. Organized by the Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche, which operates a year-round theater in Udine devoted to specialty films, the event is centered in a single 1,200-seat theater, which helps to create the intimate, communal atmosphere for which it is famous.
But something has happened in the decade since the festival’s launch, as the kind of film once championed by Udine has been fully embraced by Cannes, Venice and Berlin.
“The single biggest change for us in recent years has been the increased level of competition from other festivals,” says FEFF president Sabrina Baracetti. “The guests who we used to regularly host at Udine have become extremely big, and all the major festivals now recognize their talent.”
Baracetti points to To as a key example: Whereas Udine was the first Western festival to host To as a guest (the helmer even shot a sequence of his “Yesterday Once More” in Udine with festival staff members cast as extras), his more recent work has opened in competition at Cannes, Venice and Berlin.
To maintain its distinctive character, Udine has been fighting to stay ahead of the curve, focusing on the discovery of new Asian talent. The festival has assembled a network of program consultants living in major cities across Asia who remain on the search for new or neglected films. Nonetheless, the task grows more difficult by the year, as more and more festivals across the world devote space to Asian commercial films, and the ambitions of Asian producers continue to rise (i.e., everyone wants to go to Cannes).
The sharp contraction of the Hong Kong film industry in the past several years has also hit the festival hard, as this is the territory where the FEFF has maintained its closest ties.
Yet frontiers in Asian cinema do still exist. Udine has taken a keen interest in mainstream cinema from China, which despite its quality is rarely screened or even discussed abroad. Mainstream hits from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are taking up an ever greater share of the program.
The festival has also placed an increased emphasis on its highly researched retrospective programs, which in recent years have covered directors Patrick Tam, Chor Yuen and Nikkatsu action films of the 1960s. Meanwhile, an unusually comprehensive festival catalog as well as stand-alone books have furthered Baracetti’s aim of “promoting research and increasing overall knowledge of Asian cinema.”
In addition to its central program, which will present mainstream Asian films from the past year, plans for this year’s 10th edition include a book highlighting the last decade in Asian cinema, a mini-conference on the international production and distribution of Asian films, and special focuses on Miki Satoshi and the early career of the late Shin Sang-ok. Hong Kong director Pang Ho-cheung (“Isabella”) has also agreed to shoot the festival trailer.
Meanwhile, in the past three years Udine has entered into a special partnership with the Venice Film Festival. Working together with festival director Marco Mueller, Baracetti, festival coordinator Thomas Bertacche and Udine’s network of consultants are helping to trawl Asia in search of new films. This year, special screenings of major commercial films from Asia will take place over two nights at Venice, presented in partnership with the FEFF.
It’s as sure a sign as anything that — in contrast to the early 1990s, when groundbreaking directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark barely registered on the European fest circuit — Asian commercial cinema has come in from the cold.
What: Far East Film Festival
When: April 18-26
Where: Udine, Italy