A Pinch of the 12th Five Flavours Asian Film Festival

Polish cinema Muranów is one of those cosy cinemas where you can drink your coffee whilst waiting for a screening to start or afterwards when you feel like discussing your cinematic experience. And there were a lot of experiences to discuss at this years’ Five Flavours Film Festival in Warsaw. Its 12th edition felt again friendly, comfortable and cinephilic. It featured six rich sections ranging from popular genre cinema to more radical art pieces and brought many interesting guests.

Two sections were particularly intriguing: ‘Asian Animation’ and a competition strand named ‘New Asian Cinema’. Five Flavours didn’t take the easy road of Japanese anime. They went to explore other kinds of animation, from the controversial Chinese Da hu fa (2017), cult Korean zombie item Seoul Station (2016), touching Taiwanese miracle On Happiness Road (2017) or the beautifully twisted Violence Voyager (2018). Da hu fa was especially exciting due to its phenomenal utilization of 3D with classical animation in creating wonderful depth of space. After its successful festival run, there of course had to be Have a Nice Day (2017) by Liu Jian. While watching this silly but enjoyable crime story, I noticed certain similarities with other Chinese/Taiwanese films of late. Films such as Absurd Accident (2017), Free and Easy (2016) or Godspeed (2016) tend to ridicule the absurd state of certain parts of Chinese society with irrational deadpan satire and Have a Nice Day is a good addition to this recent tendency. 

Five Flavours competition offered some very nice films as well. The latest winner of the Golden Leopard at Locarno, A Land Imagined (2018), was a bit of a disappointment. Singaporean director Yeo Siew Hua shows impressive skill of recapitulating external influences but never really wanders into a self-sufficient social commentary or embraces its neo-noir influences. At times, A Land Imagined feels somehow inspired by David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai and even Locarno sweetheart Bi Gan, but never really hits the mark. On the other hand, what other film has the most poetic sequence created by graphic glitches of Counter Strike 1.6? It was that moment when my life came full circle – from good old video games to art cinema. But seriously, though, Yeo’s directorial effort is especially exciting in moments like these, when it rips different aesthetic traditions out of their original context and builds brand new experiences on them. This transmedial defamiliarization was the film’s strongest moment for me.

I didn’t particularly like Isao Yukisada’s River’s Edge (2018) either when I saw it earlier this year at the Karlovy Vary film festival, but the rest of the Five Flavours competition was quite impressive. Derek Chiu’s No. 1 Chung Ying Street (2018) raises some important parallels between Hong Kong history and contemporary China-related issues. It is an idealistic tear-jerker but not necessarily in a bad way. Chiu pulls offs an impressive narrative trick when building his story on strong parallelism between first and second half, both set in different eras. Filipino selection Nervous Translation (2017) was especially intriguing for the way it utilized film style. Yael (Jana Agoncillo) is an eight-year old whose life has nothing much to offer therefore we must notice repetitions and slight variations in constantly reappearing scenarios.

Five Flavours showed another stylistically sophisticated work and probably my favourite film of this year’s festival. Father to Son (2018) is a light-hearted Taiwanese family drama that proves the directional skill of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s assistant Hsiao Ya-Chuan. He is not as parametric director as his teacher, but certain patterns are noticeable, especially when he demonstrates narrative parallels with vertical camera movement, links characters together with similarly composed close-ups or introduces new spaces through slow pans. Hsiao never lets any contemporary art cinema norms limit his story. He slows down to almost Hou-level calmness when he needs to but at other times his style becomes quite self-consciousness and he even throws in a few jokes as well. Father to Son was made with clear vision and directorial skill. I am looking forward to his next project.

I must also pay compliment to a wonderful debut, Girls Always Happy (2018), directed, written and edited by the talented Yang Mingming. She mentioned that her cinematographer was a documentarist and this was his first fiction film. That would partly explain the film’s television-like look created by slightly longer focal length. This flat picture with a little of depth works well with the central theme of mother and daughter living in a small hutong home. Yang often works with close-ups so the illusion of suffocating small rooms comes forward even further. While it is quite funnty, Girls Always Happy is also hard to watch. But it is a brilliant film nonetheless.

There were big Asian hits to see as well, notably the widely discussed Youth (2017). At first glance, Feng Xiaogang’s feature might seem like a propaganda picture but this Cultural Revolution melodrama couldn’t be less related to The Founding of a Party (2011) or The Founding of an Army (2017).

The film’s most sympathetic character – jack-of-all-trades Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) – creates a myth that is best articulated in his nickname, Lei Feng, referring to the legendary soldier in People’s Liberation Army. Liu Feng appears to be selfless, modest and open to everyone. Here Youth becomes subversive, as it lets its best characters suffer. This young man could become a textbook mythological figure, yet he won’t, simply because he is not allowed to die as a martyr. At one point, he admits to having feelings for fellow dancer, Lin Dingding (Yang Caiyu). As she refuses and runs away while tears stream down her face, Youth exposes the fragility of a myth. The collective wants Liu Feng to be this selfless figure and makes him pay when he chooses to think of himself for once. It is the collective that destroys young man’s life for not being as big as a legendary Lei Feng. It’s one of the small almost inconspicuous touches Feng builds up to in his subversive epic. Another moment can be seen during the celebratory march for Mao Zedong when a pig runs loose. This unmotivated and absurd sequence doesn’t make much sense in the wider narrative, but it allows Feng to thematically play with the motif of a dirty pig marching for the dear chairman. These are the moments when Youth feels more like an anti-propaganda movie cleverly hidden under the most obvious layer of political film.

Reviewers tend to refer to Feng as the “Chinese Spielberg” because his films are successful at the local box-office and have certain level of crowd-pleasing skill. This statement is plain wrong but there are some notable similarities deeply rooted in certain sets of local traditions. The first one deals with long takes, which Spielberg is well known for. Youth utilizes them in kind of a Spielbergian way. Long takes follow characters and lead its viewers’ attention where it needs to be. The camera gets closer when we need a detail, further when characters start moving. Our attention is led by smart staging as well. Feng employs the traditional Chinese construction of space only using longer takes which makes them – as with Spielberg’s in Jaws (1975) – almost invisible. The same thing might be said about his work with popular traditions and narrative patterns. Spielberg is a textbook Hollywood traditionalist but in each one of his films we can clearly see defamiliarization of a certain tradition. He is a progressive director within the tight boundaries of a national cinema. The same might be said of Feng and his work within Chinese popular (and political) film.

I want to say one last thing about Youth – Feng does a phenomenal job when working with music. In the first half, I noticed many moments when dramatic situations are underlined by touching music, but after we hear a calm piano or dramatic trumpet camera, the pans through space to expose a diegetic source. Every time we hear musical support of an on-going situation, we can play this game of locating its source somewhere in the frame. Feng plays with this quite obviously and the precision of his direction seems almost ridiculously focused. 

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Killing (2018) is another fine example of subversive genre film. It’s a story about a young Ronin Mokunoshin (Sosuke Ikematsu) who is recruited by an older master-less samurai (Tsukamoto himself) to join his group of fighters. So far, Killing sounds as a spin on Kurosawas Seven Samurai (1954) but Tsukamoto does his best in deconstructing the myth of honourable fighters. The only cause Tsukamoto’s stranger mentions is “serving under the Shogun” but we never see any real motivation behind his statement. Furthermore, we never see any other samurai in the team. Killing cares more about a brutal dialogue between the old legends who only look for a reason to spill blood in the name of honour – swordsmen such as Ogami Itto of the Lone Wolf and Cub series or mythical Zatoichi – and a younger generation related to contemporary values, killing only when there is no other way.

Cult favourite Tsukamoto is still angry and visceral but lately more focused in his directorial efforts. His films in the 1990s and early 2000s might have been hard to grasp but Killing is quite simple and effective. His unique style is still there especially when there a fight sequence. Tsukamoto tends to use his favourite rapid editing and focus more on the close-ups revealing not only bloody marks on dead bodies but most importantly the obsession with weapons. As in Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988) here iron stands for element of its own will, for young Mokunoshin there is nothing harder than holding a real sword prepared to go for his first kill while the shaking camera, loud sound effects and almost unpleasant close-ups make viewer feel the danger of ones blade. This is no Blade of Immortal (2017) so don’t expect dozens of bloody fight scenes. Tsukamoto wants you to understand that samurai sword is something dangerous and not every code of honour has the right to kill.

To return to the strongest aspect of Five Flavours, it has a friendly environment and almost home-like atmosphere. The more you get to know the festival, the more you like it. The truth is, Pięć Smaków is indeed run by bunch of friends whose sheer love for Asian cinema makes it happen annually. You can clearly see that from the line-up but it’s especially apparent in the film introductions, discussions, and galas. The competition is getting better and better and many of Asia’s latest hits are here, too. Don’t miss it next year. I won’t.

The Five Flavours Asian Film Festival was held from November 14-21.