Hong Kong still front and centre at Italy's Far East Film Festival
Jackie Chan puts in an appearance, recent Hong Kong movies Kung Fu Jungle and Sara are shown, and Roger Garcia programmes a kung fu film retrospective at Udine event
It was raining outside, but the drizzly weather didn't dampen the enthusiasm of viewers at Italy's 17th Far East Film Festival. Moviegoers in the northern city of Udine's elegant Teatro Nuovo Giovanni opera house, which had been converted into a cinema for the occasion, clapped along with the introductory music each night, and greeted each guest with unabated glee.
The annual festival, which ran from April 23 to May 2, bills itself as a celebration of Asian popular cinema, and features hit films and celebrities from across the region. Hong Kong directors Teddy Chen Tak-sum and Herman Yau Lai-to were present, for screenings of Kung Fu Jungle and Sara respectively, while Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi appeared in a special show, conducting a symphony orchestra brought in from neighbouring Slovenia. Even Jackie Chan, still loved by action fans abroad, turned up for a screening of Dragon Blade.
Seventeen years is a long time for a film festival, especially one which started off as a fun project for Asian film fans in a small makeshift cinema. There have been problems along the way: a few years ago, the festival, like many in Europe, was hit by substantial funding cuts due to the financial crisis. But the festival's ever-resourceful organisers, president Sabrina Baracetti and co-ordinator Thomas Bertacche, worked hard to cover the shortfall with private investment and sponsorship, and this year's event was deemed by many to be one of the most enjoyable ever.
What's more, the festival's success has not gone unnoticed in Asia, says Bertacche, an amiable film fan who has acquired an expansive knowledge of popular Asian movies. "We spent 17 years building our reputation as the place to come to see popular Asian films - movies that audiences actually watch in their own countries, rather than ones that are only seen at film festivals," he says.
"That reputation has gradually spread to Asia. Filmmakers and distributors come because they realise that it is good for them and their films to be here."
Although the festival always presents a strong showing of films from South Korea, mainland China and Japan - and a Korean drama, Ode to My Father, won the audience prize, the festival's main award - Hong Kong cinema has always been at its core. This year, there was a special focus on classic Hong Kong martial arts films, programmed by Hong Kong International Film Festival director Roger Garcia.
Kung Fu Jungle was shown to provide a modern take on martial arts history, says Baracetti. "We wanted to show a new martial arts film, and this was a perfect choice. It's a tribute to the legendary kung fu stars, as well as being a homage to the entire genre of kung fu action movies," she says.
The festival screens comedies, dramas and romances, but martial arts films, as elsewhere abroad, are still the most popular with audiences. "Even now, the martial arts genre is the most well-known genre of Hong Kong cinema as far as the rest of the world is concerned," says Baracetti.
The international cut of Dragon Blade provided an extra draw for the Italian audience, as the storyline features Roman soldiers who end up far from Italy, on the Silk Road.
"The mix of Western actors and Chinese actors actually works for a change," says Bertacche, noting that Westerners don't usually put in their best performances in Hong Kong films.
The festival also presented "Fresh Wave", a selection of four short films by new Hong Kong filmmakers Chan Tze-woon, Louis Wong, Anastasia Tsang Hin and Cai Jia-hao. The young filmmakers of today are the stars of tomorrow, says Baracetti, noting that the festival always keeps in touch with filmmakers who show their films in Udine, and invites them back. The organisers have lost count of the number of times Herman Yau has attended the festival, but think it's probably five.
"We build relationships with our guests," says Baracetti, a well-known face on the Asian film festival circuit.
"We love to follow up with them and keep track of what films they're making. Directors such as Pang Ho-cheung have been coming here for years, and are as much a part of the festival as we are. It's like a big family when we all get together."