Richard James Havis
Italy's Udine Far East Film Festival (FEFF) made its name by bringing quality commercial films from Asia to international audiences. The 15th edition, which ended on April 27 in the charming northern Italian city that gave its name to the event, remained true to form, featuring glossy films such as China's labyrinthine historical drama The Last Supper, Hong Kong's Saving General Yang, and the surprise mainland hit Lost in Thailand.
But along with highlighting recent commercial fare, FEFF tries to position current releases in the context of film history, with retrospectives and parallel screenings. This year drew the audience's attention to two master filmmakers who are not as well known outside of Asia as they should be: Chinese director King Hu and Filipino art-house director Mario O'Hara, who died in 2012.
Hu, who made philosophical movies set in the world of martial arts, was celebrated with screenings of his masterpiece A Touch of Zen and the lesser-seen Raining in the Mountain. The screenings were augmented by the publication of King Hu in His Own Words, an informative English-language book of interviews, writings and lectures edited by Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and published by FEFF. Garcia also hosted a panel on Hu's writings.
As a tribute to the late O'Hara, FEFF screened his idiosyncratic and bleak supernatural drama Demons, and featured an equally idiosyncratic and inspired essay about the director and his career by critic Noel Vera in the festival catalogue.
"FEFF has always tried to venture deeply inside the cinematic history of each country," says festival president Sabrina Baracetti, who co-founded the festival with co-ordinator Thomas Bertacche. "King Hu is a master director, but here in Italy we don't know much about him," says Baracetti. "That's what started us thinking about the book with Roger Garcia about five years ago. We thought it would be an important contribution to cinema history, as there is no book on this topic available in English. We put a lot of effort into this publication, and we also thought it would be a great way to allow our audience to see some of King Hu's classic movies."
Rome Film Festival director Marco Mueller introduced Hu to Italy some years ago at the Torino (Turin) Film Festival, but Baracetti says she mainly learned of his genius from attendees at the FEFF: "So many Hong Kong directors who have come here have told us what a master filmmaker King Hu was. This applies to all different kinds of filmmakers, not just those who make martial arts films."
Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To Kei-fung, a regular at the FEFF since its inception, was one of them, she adds: "He would always tell us how much he admired King Hu, and the younger directors who came here as guests talked a lot about Hu as well. That inspired us, as festival directors, to want to know more about him so we could tell our audience more about his works."
FEFF has also been a champion of Filipino movies over the years, and screened many of the country's commercial films. This year saw four contemporary Filipino films, including Chris Martinez's comic I Do Bidoo Bidoo, and horror movie Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles by Erik Matti, whose bizarre superhero movie Gagamboy entertained fest audiences here in 2005.
Baracetti says that in Europe few are aware of the longstanding tradition of Filipino art-house movies, as exemplified by the work of O'Hara: "It is important for us to bring big artistic names in Filipino cinema to the attention of our audience." The Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche, the official organiser of FEFF, runs an art-house cinema in Udine, she adds.
The festival may be focused on populist, commercial cinema, but not to the exclusion of everything else, says Baracetti. "We want our audience to know about the cinematic history of the Philippines, and Asia as a whole. We felt Mario O'Hara merited a full retrospective, yet we could only show one of his works. But we feel showing that one single work is an important thing to do. It shows our audience there are many great Asian directors they have not yet encountered. There is so much left for audiences in the West to discover about the history of Asian cinema."