There were a lot of great aspects to this year’s Five Flavours Asian Film Festival. Not only the exciting program but the festival itself had a unique atmosphere. Now in its 11th edition, Five Flavours felt small and homely yet it was quite a big event. Not in terms of space even though the enormous Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki) in Warsaw would beg to differ. In terms of its range, the festival featured Hong Kong classics, an Ann Hui retrospective, Bhutanese cinema, Roman Porno, and much more. And even with dozens of guests, Five Flavours never lost its family-like atmosphere.
Before discussing some of the highlights of this year’s program, first let me explain why I loved this festival. There are a few screening places but the central cinema is Kino Muranów. It’s quite a small cinema adorned with posters for recent festival favourites like The Square (2017) or the more radical likes of The Woman Who Left (2016). Here you can meet the winners of Fresh New Wave, Hong Kong producer Roger Lee, or the Bhutanese delegation. Five Flavours tore down the wall between the viewers and the guests usually found at film festivals. There is no need to wait for a ‘green light’ from festival staff or wave one’s press card before their faces.
Another thing that Five Flavours does right are the screenings. Most were introduced by the filmmakers, producers or screenwriters themselves, and sometimes guests even introduced work by one of the their fellow filmmakers. For example, Mrs K (2016) director Ho Yuhang introduced Ann Hui’s feature debut The Secret (1979). This affords the audience a better understanding of how influential these auteurs are.
I must start with the screening of the 4K restoration of Fruit Chan’s cult classic Made in Hong Kong (1997). It’s hard to add anything to what has already been written about this gem since its release, but in the year of 2017, it is surprising how relevant the movie feels. Chan really knows how to use freeze frames, slow motion, and aggressive camera movement. His story is not only one of Hong Kong and its uncertain future under China. It is a story about (not) becoming an adult. His heroes are the ones who die. Not because they are weak but because the world is mad and this might be the only conscious choice they can make. Sometimes facing death is better than facing uncertainty.
Ann Hui and “real” stories
The retrospective of Ann Hui was certainly exciting. There was a chance to see her latest film Our Time Will Come (2017) and even her first feature, The Secret. In the latter, Hui’s often-noted social realism is infected with a touch of mystery, creating an interesting genre hybrid that never stops surprising the viewer.
Roger Lee introduced Hui’s award-winning A Simple Life (2011), which dramatized his relationship with his lifelong housemaid. He wrote the script based on real-life events. The film was fascinating for many reasons and one of them was the absence of a clear turning point. It does not present a certain moment when Roger (played by Andy Lau) realizes he needs to take a better care of his elderly maid (Deanie Ip). The story evolves in small steps without saying much and flows almost effortlessly. Hui is a master of silent sensitivity here. She presents most of the emotions without words and without any call for overly expressive acting.
While watching a few Huis films in a short period of time I noticed an interesting thing – she knows which takes need to last long. In Our Time Will Come there is an important moment of resistance fighter Fang Lan (Zhou Xun) kneeling on the ground while silently crying. Hui does not cut to the detail of her face. She does not cut at all. The take is quite long and the framing is static. We can see an important and touching moment that reveals a human side of the fearless leader. There is no reason for more sophisticated editing at this point. We can observe the entire body affected by emotions in a long shot. The longer the take is the more emotional the situation gets. There is no need for expressive acting or details.
The same goes for A Simple Life’s lack of turning point and silent sadness. Roger never bursts into tears when understanding how much Ah Tao meant to him. Rather, he starts changing his actions step by step. Hui uses this slow-paced narrative quite often, except here she fills the story with almost slapstick-like gags that eventually make the film even more heartbreaking.
Depression and porn
Hui represents important social realism without being too expressive. Which is a unique approach not only in Hong Kong cinema. Yet she is not the only one.
Producer and screenwriter Heiward Mak introduced Chun Wong’s Mad World (2016), a film about a man with bipolar disorder (Shawn Yue) and his father (an incredibly subtle Eric Tsang). Mad World used this mental illness as its dominant narrative and stylistic principle. For almost two hours we watch slow, grey and in general toned-down drama. These long minutes of depression are only broken through bitter jokes and explosions of emotion. By adopting a slow-paced rhythm and deconstructing the star images of its two leads, Mad World opens a conversation about an important social stigma, mental health in Hong Kong.
Five Flavours dedicated one section to Roman Porno films. The first night was a double feature of an old pinku eiga, The Lovers Are Wet (1973), and Wet Woman in the Wind (2016), which is part of a recent genre revival. Jason Maher wrote a wonderful piece on the latter here at VCinema, but there is one thing missing in almost every text about pinku eiga. I am not talking about those filmic texts themselves but the moment and context of the screening. Allow me to elaborate. When we go see a comedy we are more likely to laugh out loud with other people. The company makes us feel more relaxed. Comfortable. But what do we do when we go see a soft-core pornographic film? Do not take this as an inductive conclusion only a personal observation. Watching erotic movies in cinema is an exciting way to “torture” the audience. There is a lot of gags in Wet Woman in the Wind thus it is easier to laugh with it. But The Lovers Are Wet is a dark and nihilist erotica. Life seems pointless and its main protagonist is alienated in every way. The film shows endless cycle of voyeurism, sex and sadness. The tension in the audience was broken only with humorous censorship of intimate body parts. But besides that? The room was silent, nobody wanted to make any sound or move. This tension made for an exciting viewing experience. We are used to laughing with films, or closing our eyes when there is too much blood. But when faced with explicit sex, we seem defenceless. Softcore porn can be interesting and I love analysing it. But it always will be extraordinary to watch it in dark room full of strangers.
I loved this year’s Five Flavours Asian Film Festival. It is not as big as the Far East Film Festival in Udine or the Busan International Film Festival but it is important. Festivals like Five Flavours bring fans, scholars, and journalists to cosy cinemas together with the filmmakers who are about to impact the industry for an event where you truly do not feel like you are working.
The 11th Five Flavours Asian Film Festival was held from November 15-22.