Round-up: London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF) 2017

Xin Yi Wang runs through a few films from the London East Asian Film Festival, which ran from the 19th to the 29th of October.

Names such as Akira Kurosawa, Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee might ring a few bells for cinema fans, but the truth is East Asian cinema is a vast industry unknown to most Western audiences. Of course, the lack of accessibility is a factor – Asian releases aren’t come by as easily as those from Hollywood, and language is another barrier that might diminish interest. For the second year running, the London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF) has been a welcome presence both for education and as a method for the Western world to access the gigantic archive of East Asian cinema, screening new releases from contemporary filmmakers and retrospective films.

LEAFF was a diverse array of experiences – I’ve seen quiet auteur films right before huge multi-language blockbusters, and productions scaling from minuscule to grand. In addition to screening films, LEAFF hosted plenty of Q&As, allowing for interactions both immersive and educational. The experience opened up my knowledge, and is an exciting and engaging new film festival in London to watch out for.

Phillips-Lee Best Film Award Winner: Soul Mate

Special Jury Mentions: Dancing with Jikji and Loser’s Adventure

Major films and highlights I unfortunately missed out on so won’t be able to discuss: Anarchist from the Colony, Dancing with Jikji, Loser’s Adventure, Have A Nice Day, Walking Past the Future, One Day, The Receptionist, The Table.

The Fortress

Historic Trauma

Two massive productions from South Korea were screened at the Festival, both dealing with pain and trauma in Korean history. The Fortress (Grade: 7/10) opened LEAFF with its cold and violent winter. This historical epic is set in 1636, when the invading Qing Dynasty tried to coerce the Joseon into surrendering and dropping their allegiance to the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk traps the audience with his isolated characters behind the walls of the titular fortress – and between sweeping atmospheric landscape shots and intense battle sequences, its proportions are well balanced. Watching with some knowledge of historical context, there is a larger sense of impending doom that builds up well as one anticipates the ultimate fall-out.

Its main two characters – Choi Myung-kil (Lee Byung-hun) and Kim Sang-hun (Kim Yoon-seok) shine in stand-out performances, and it’s a shame Hwang incorporates unnecessary characters to create a typical soap opera effect rather than stripping the film down to two characters of conflicting ideology. There’s much ground to explore here, as both are justified perspectives that represents the nuances of political dilemma during wartime. Though Hwang should have devoted more attention to this as the central focus of the film, the conflict as it stands still resulted in a brilliant scene of debate.

Battleship Island

While the Fortress traps its audience, Battleship Island (Grade: 7/10) suffocates. Looking to another moment of painful national history, this time we find ourselves on Hashima Island during World War II with father and daughter (among other characters – both these films contain an ensemble cast to reflect their scope), where under Japanese occupation Koreans are treated as subhuman slaves mining coal and performing other labours. Ryoo Seung-wan makes a deep impression with his direction – with hundreds of extras in many scenes all at once, it feels like watching an experienced orchestra conductor, staging and balancing several different instruments to chilling effect. The cinematography by Lee Mo-gae is equally astounding, squeezing and smothering its audience in a thrilling presentation.

Battleship Island is a predictable blockbuster that promises thrill and emotional tugs. Though there is nothing truly subtle about this film, especially with its nationalistic stance and anti-Imperial Japanese sediment, it is highly entertaining and engaging. Its lead actors, the charismatic Hwang Jung-min as Bandmaster Lee Kang-ok and Train to Busan’s Kim Su-an as his daughter Lee So-hee are wonderful as the heart of the film. Supporting actors are also brilliant, though I would argue that Song Joong-ki’s character and story are introduced too late within the film and feel too much like an afterthought for an important character.

Ryoo, however, needs to watch his use of tone. The first half is a bizarre mix of serious torture over satirical music that comes across like a weird Coen Brothers imitation, and deeply jars with the second half, a serious war film. Battleship Island is a long and flawed feature, but it definitely stood out during the festival.

Infernal Affairs

Hong Kong: Now and Then

This strand of the festival accompanies the twentieth anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, choosing four films from Hong Kong’s large catalogue. Three of them were from the world of cops and triads, the fourth a soft melodrama about a deep friendship. Other than Triad Election (2006), I managed to catch all the films under this strand. As I am from Hong Kong, it was personally not much of an education compared to other films watched during LEAFF, but the choice of these four films to represent Hong Kong was certainly interesting.

Triad Election and Infernal Affairs (Grade: 8/10) represent the “then” – Hong Kong is famous for its own genre of gangster films, and Infernal Affairs is undoubtedly one of the most famous examples of that genre to Western cinemagoers. Just four years after its 2002 release, Scorsese remade it into The Departed, very similar to the original. Perhaps it wasn’t fair to Infernal Affairs that I watched its Hollywood remake first, as I not only had a very strong idea of its plot and character complexities, but resorted to making constant comparisons between the two films. In my reading, a focus on critical comparison took over – what was changed? What were the different choices made in shooting a same scene?

The original is undoubtedly a marvel. Directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s handle of suspense and thrill stands the test of time, keeping Infernal Affairs constantly fresh and engaging. It has a strong sense of place and culture, utilising Hong Kong’s gritty urban jungle and over-crowdedness to be a player in our protagonists’ psyches, and we find ourselves constantly on rooftops for a breath of fresh air. Though – and I am making a comparison with its remake here – certain scenes fly into a more “cheesy” territory that might not have aged well, its characters and psychological intensity truly cement the film in its status.

Shockwave

Tony Leung is completely mesmerizing in his role as Chan Wing-yan, living on the edge of a breakdown and constantly risking to dangerously tip over. Even so, he maintains a charisma that makes him stand out, allowing the audience to empathise and root for him as our hero. Andy Lau as Lau Kin-ming is on par with Leung. While Leung is more hot-blooded, Lau reacts with quiet intensity, anxiety lingering in his stoic expressions. Two sides of a coin, their identities and lives interlink, sometimes even crossing over to their own, real identities. Not only are they under constant pressures as undercover individuals, their identities and sense of self are constantly in crisis – could you still consider Chan a policeman, and Lau a gangster?

Representing the “Now”, the second Andy Lau flick of the strand is screened. The weakest of the films, Shockwave (Grade: 4/10) is a modern-day popcorn movie that feels more like an unsubtle propaganda film than anything else. It is open in the way it plays with emotions and predictable in its plot, and overall is a typical blockbuster – not really fresh in any sense. A plus side is Jiang Wu giving a loud and dramatic performance as the villain; he mixes up the film with energy and should be commended for his intimidating presence. Phillip Keung’s performance as Chief Inspector Kong, conversely, goes over the top – the character is quite unnecessary to begin with, and the performance frequently dips into “too much” territory.

Credit where it’s due for an adrenaline-fueled thrilling ride and an education on different types of bombs – but other than that it’s more disturbing in its unabashed praise of the police force, very weak characters, and the use of Mandarin as the language spoken in a film set and representing Hong Kong (in a film that goes out its way introducing landmarks of the city, the total absence of spoken Cantonese makes it a very uncomfortable watch). If anything, it is representative of the influence of Mainland China in Hong Kong Cinema since the late 2000s, and the need to go around censorship for box office returns while appeasing the Chinese government makes it certainly a problematic piece post-Occupy Central.

Soul Mate

Maybe in order to examine Hong Kong cinema “now”, one does have to factor in Mainland influences. The only thing that made Soul Mate (Grade: 7.5/10) qualify to be in this strand is its director Derek Tsang, who is from Hong Kong. The winner of the Phillips-Lee Award in competition at LEAFF, it is a beautiful film about a friendship since childhood, and both an exploration in coming-of-age and a take on deep female relationships not commonly portrayed to such depth in Chinese cinema. A soft melodrama, Tsang tugs emotional strings extremely frequently, complicating character relationships in the likes of soap operas but nonetheless leaving you with a strong impression of characters Qiyue (Sandra Ma) and Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu).

It does fall into cliché grounds though – I rolled my eyes when I realised the central factor that threatens their friendship is a man. Even worse, this man isn’t as well rounded as the female protagonists, making both his character and the story arc of the love triangle boring. It is a shame, as Ma and Zhou are both excellent in their portrayals of emotion, heartbreak, support and happiness. Ansheng’s energy, personality and struggles behind her free-willed stubbornness are vivid in a tour-de-force from Zhou, and Qiyue, Ansheng’s foil, balances her wildness with restriction and nuance in Ma’s heartbreaking performance. Tsang constantly steers the film into a fresh, new take, then immediately backs into clichés of the established Chinese romance genre. Ultimately, the film is an impressive feat.

Death, Mourning, and Grief

The two other films I caught can be linked through their themes of death and grief. Blank 13 (Grade: 8.5/10) was a festival highlight – a quiet and small production from director Takumi Saito, it dives into the complexities of people, grief, and family. Set during the funeral of a deadbeat father, Saito intercuts between the now and then as son Koji (Issei Takahashi) reminiscences the past. The title sequence is placed in the middle of the film, dividing Blank 13 into two while indicating of a tonal shift. The first part is heavy, relying on Koji’s memories while showcasing his father’s abandonment of his family, and more traditional, while the second half shows another side of his father through a collection of odd acquaintances at the funeral.

Blank 13

People are complex – the father might have been terrible to his family, but he was kind to strangers and friends. Two sons grasp the concept differently, with Koji being more forgiving, while it is too much for his brother. Their mother (Misuzu Kanno), who the director claims the story is truly about, is an intensely inward character whose presence is barely seen but always felt. It is rooted in realism, containing real human emotions, struggles, and finding humour in awkward circumstances. Ending on an emotional high note, Saito has created a touching success that stays with you long after.

As part of the retrospective strand of Japanese Cinema, I saw Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest (Grade: 6.5/10), winner of 2007 Cannes Grand Prix. Focusing on the relationship between a nurse Machiko (Machiko Ono) and an old man Shigeki (Shigeki Uda) suffering from dementia at a nursing home, Kawase reveals how two individuals in grief find comfort transcending age and gender, and their relationship blossoms into something intricately built and precious.

Machiko mourns for her child while Shigeki mourns for his wife, and though Machiko never explicitly mentions her pain they reach a mutual understanding. The pace however, is at times excruciatingly slow, and can get very disengaging as Machiko and Shigeki hike in the woods. It is a hard film to watch with certain confusing scenes, but is nevertheless beautiful in its own exploration of grief.

Outrage Coda

Closing Gala: Outrage Coda

The Closing Gala of LEAFF, Outrage Coda (Grade: 7/10) is, well, outrageous in its ride. The finale of Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage yakuza trilogy, the abundance of characters and spiderweb of relationships absolutely confused me at first as I have not watched the first two films. Even so, by the end of the film I had a clear idea of its mafia world and complications, so that is a feat by Kitano. Filled with betrayals, violence and yakuza politics, its fans are in for a treat as we follow Otomo’s spree to avenge his friend after he was crossed.

Working as both director and actor, Kitano is at the centre of it all, and his Otomo is fascinating to watch. Mainly suffering in quiet rage, Otomo unleashes hell on the Japanese yakuza, completely intimidating yet brilliant to root for at the same time. Its lack of female characters is noted – this is an extremely masculine film, not surprising at all as it plays traditionally in the gangster genre, which by itself is a masculine playground. The pacing only gets more and more intense, completing the trilogy with absolute exhilaration from start to finish, closing the festival with a boiling finale.

The London East Asia Film Festival was established in 2015 as a non-profit arts organisation to champion the growing collaboration and diversity in East Asian filmmaking.

Check out the LEAFF website here: https://www.leaff.org.uk/

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