I had attended the East Winds Film Festival in 2012, but only for one day, so this year I had a wonderful chance to enjoy the whole experience, which ran from October 31-November 2. The festival used to host both an academic symposium and a film festival that included Q&As and meet-and-greets with directors and actors; now it is just about the films and the special guests, in a fantastic 3D cinema venue within Coventry University’s Hub Building. This allows state of the art screening facilities for the films, which also enables guests to intimately converse with the audience. The students of the university are therefore actively involved in each step of the process to keep the festival running. Perhaps most importantly, organizer Spencer Murphy’s knowledge and contacts within East Asian cinema ensure that the festival is often a premiere location for many films – either within the UK, Europe or the world. This year was no exception.
The festival opened with a stylish bang in the form of the Chang Jung-Chi’s high-school mystery drama, Partners in Crime (Taiwan, 2014). The discovery of the dead body of a schoolgirl brings together three of her classmates by chance. They did not know each other before discovering the body, but they gradually learn more about each other and their dead classmate as the narrative unfolds. Huang (Huang Teng-hui) is particularly convinced that the girl’s death was an act of murder, and gets Lin (Huang Tsai-yi) and Yeh (Ko Chia-yen) to investigate with him. But how far are they willing to go to bring those they suspect to justice?
It’s easy to pick apart Partners in Crime as a combination of archetypes already seen elsewhere: a dead girl who had been neglected by her family, whose body is stumbled upon by a recluse (Huang), a bookworm (Lin), and a troublemaker (Yeh). However, the initial revelations about the deceased Chia’s life prove engrossing despite the film’s slow pace. Further plot twists are completely unexpected, and some much-needed humour often keeps the proceedings from becoming too grim. Especially amusing are the scenes involving the boys and the school counsellor who uses a ‘one-size-fits-all’ exercise for coping with death. Tragedy and drama are supplied in equal measure, meaning that there is much to appreciate here.
The next film signified a huge contrast, and the audience were given fair warning by co-star Kim Kkobi’s introduction. Eiji Uchida’s black comedy Greatful Dead (Japan, 2013) is far bloodier, funnier, and much stranger than Partners in Crime. However, simply describing this film as a black comedy does not do it justice. Over the course of its 97 minute running time, the story covers the dysfunctional family that is responsible for the upbringing of Nami (Kumi Takiuchi); her obsessive observations of loners; the stalking of one particular elderly gentleman; and the consequences of Nami perpetuating his isolation. To say more about these consequences would spoil the film, but these are what provide Greatful Dead with its more shocking elements. Hammers, rape, murder and kidnapping all occur as a result of Nami’s stalking of the elderly man, especially when family and neighbors insist on intruding into his life. One scene even involves a dark twist on the violent traps used in the Home Alone (1990-2012) series. The plot is again completely unpredictable, but that is mainly because its premise and main character are so utterly bizarre. The ending is ambiguous in terms of whether Nami’s intentions are good or not – and it is also uncertain as to whether it will leave viewers smiling or in shock.
Nagisa Isogai’s Lust of Angels (Japan, 2014) is part of a UK DVD compilation of short films from first-time Japanese directors that is now available from Third Window Films. Isogai’s entry is especially significant because of her gender, due to the fact that female directors are rare in Japan. This is central to the story of Lust of Angels as it tackles the issue of groping on trains with four schoolgirls banding together to confront the offenders. This also leads two of the girls to address their personal demons – especially with regards to sexual desire, and the desire and violation of their bodies by others. Their actions also lead to a confrontation with a gang of male youths from another school, but expectations of a violent climax are undercut by a more open-ended sequence, which is difficult to interpret. This is a shame, as the story otherwise grips the viewer and overcomes the restrictions of the ultra-low budget that the crew were obviously working with. Hopefully, Isogai will next find financing for a feature project that will enable her to fully develop a story on-screen.
Sophon Sakdaphisit’s Laddaland (Thailand, 2011) attempts to marry two types of films – a social drama about a family and employment, and a J-horror-style ghost story. The result should, therefore, come across as similar to The Amityville Horror (1979) or Poltergeist (1982), which it does in parts, but soap opera drama uneasily lock horns with the jump scares. Thee has just bought his family a house in a new Thai suburb, found a new job, and wants them to live there together after they have been spread out in Bangkok looking for work. However, a Burmese maid’s body is found as part of a murder-suicide – and her ghost rapidly starts spooking other houses in the area.
Laddaland desperately tries to tie its spooky-goings-on to social issues – such as the suspicions of immigrants; dysfunctional family relationships; the desire for housing in rural locations; as well as the pursuit of employment in these parts of Thailand. However, the two just don’t mix. Towards the end, especially, accusations of infidelity and over-bearing parenting are simply substituted for more ghost-orientated scares, which are then blamed for a series of tragic consequences. The tragedy in the story negates the first impressions of the opening – which seems to depict the idyllic suburban scenario for laughs. Sakdaphisit has to be commended for trying to bring something original to the horror genre – but the film ends up being too long by constantly switching scenes from drama to scares. A shame, as the director was also responsible for writing Shutter (2004) and helming Coming Soon (2008).
The ghosts were then promptly ejected – along with a lot of the audience’s attention – for David Lam’s crime thriller Z Storm (Hong Kong, 2014). All this procedural has going for it is a dynamic computer-animated credits sequence and a brief shootout at the end involving a microwave! Louis Koo does his best to make his character’s financial corruption investigation look important for an hour and a half, as does Lam through use of slow-motion and stylish camera angles. But all there is to show for it is the discussion of an electronic paper trail – whose evidence is so circumstantial, that one character ends up stalking a potential suspect through various social media sites. The fact that the climactic – and sudden – gunfight relies on the outcome of a friend request being accepted does not validate the constant use of overly dramatic music. Sadly, there is little to care about in Z Storm other than the names of those involved, who are all popular in Hong Kong, and seem to be the only reason that the film was made.
A welcome contrast was then provided by Sakdaphisit’s latest feature as the screen was lit up by the international premiere of The Swimmers (Thailand, 2014). The story concerns a girl, Ice, who becomes romantically involved with two rival swimmers – Perth and Tan. At first they are friends, but when Ice commits suicide, Tan realizes she was being unfaithful and was pregnant. He vows to find out who Ice’s other lover was, and does not realize it is Perth. This sounds conventional, but because of some excellent performances, not to mention the chills from Ice’s returning ghost, there is a lot to admire here. Sakdpahisit is a serious talent to look out for, seeing as this film was a huge improvement on Laddaland. He was also happy to discuss many aspects of the film afterwards – and confirmed that he found swimming pools to be scary places, while filming underwater had been a challenge. This setting is most evocative as through its contrasts – day and night, surface and down below – it provides a suitable atmosphere for flashback sequences as well as the haunting of Perth through visions of Ice’s ghost. Marking an improvement over his overly ambitious Laddaland, Sakdaphisit effectively balances ghostly spookiness, believable characters, and some disturbing body horror.
The totally unpredictable A Record of Sweet Murder (Japan, 2014) was directed by Koji Shiraishi, who is known for such gruesome horrors, such as Grotesque (2009), which is more famous for its notoriety with the BBFC than its general quality. His latest film begins with a reporter and a cameraman being told to meet a serial killer in secret so he can confess to them. The killer has been severely affected by a childhood incident, and is determined to make things right: he claims that voices in his head are telling him what needs to be done to make the world a better place, and this has been the trigger for his crimes. After numerous threats, the reporter and cameramen document how he terrorizes his next victims.
A Record of Sweet Murder is bold in terms of its story – by asking us to question the morals behind unspeakable acts – and also through its composition. The film is presented as one continuous take, with cuts cleverly disguised until the final few scenes, which will not be spoiled here. What will be said is that the film’s ending makes you question the purpose of the killer’s preceding actions – most of which are absolutely abominable. Not only does he murder and assault people, but he also kidnaps, rapes and gropes as he sees necessary. One scene leads the killer to demand a couple to show that they are in love – and the result is not even what he was expecting. These aspects of the film do make it seem similar to Grotesque, but there is a lot more substance here, and it is not lessened by the found footage aesthetic. If you are looking for a unique horror experience, then you are likely to enjoy this one.
A change in gear was represented by Chang Shi’s comedy-drama Live @ Love (Taiwan, 2014) in which a young male assistant is hired at a small detective agency run by an eccentric lady. The plot eventually builds up to a will-they-won’t-they scenario as they attempt to solve a murder. This sub-plot is balanced between the mystery’s gradual revelations and the supporting characters that arise from the detective’s investigations. Each is introduced through a unique attempt to gather clues – many of which produce several laughs. At times, though, the drama sits uneasily with the lighter scenes. The final revelation of the mystery is actually very grim, and more characters than necessary emerge in the second half. This mainly relates to the young male assistant, and his family, and it puts the film on a completely different course from where it began. The result is an unexpected ending, which some fans of romantic dramas and comedies may appreciate. However, it also seems to be a case of too many ideas that are not developed fully. Still, the laughs are of high quality throughout, and they alone are enough to recommend the film.
The subsequent 3D creature-feature, Bugs (China, 2014) was a textbook re-tread of the recent Piranha films (2010/2012) and other monster movies. The briefest of back-stories is provided by director Yan Jia to establish a scientific experiment aboard a ship that involves mutant insects: as expected, the insects escape, kill their creator, and invade a local beach resort – where a beauty pageant just happens to have been hosted (though there is little titillation, as this is a film from mainland China). There are some decent gore effects as these smaller bugs invade the resort, and the 3D effects help to emphasize them, but the reveal that an uber-bug is controlling the others reduces Bugs into a one-trick pony in its second-half. While it is encouraging to see the Chinese film industry exploring the escapist possibilities of 3D effects, the overall quality of such features has a long way to go before they reach an exportable standard.
Fortunately, the schedule resumed with a refreshingly inventive, emotional and borderline-farcical comedy in the form of Wonder Mama (Hong Kong, 2014). Renowned actor and director Clifton Ko was on-hand to inform us that this film was his comeback following an extended period of working in the theater. He also explained that the story – after a couple in their 70s divorce, and the husband has a baby with another woman, the couple’s 50-year-old daughter and 30-year-old grandson have to try and cope with it all – was based on the experience of a relative. Wonder Mama has all the hallmarks of a social drama, but Ko is determined to play the events for laughs. This helps to emphasize the tribulations of Petrina Fung Bo’s central character, and means that the film does not end on a depressing note. Some aspects do not come across as well as others, such as the son’s narration of his mother’s perils through a blog. However, other comedic scenes shine through, as do the more heartfelt ones. The standouts are the scenes that used archive footage of the actor’s younger selves as flashbacks, thereby serving as Ko’s love letters to the enduring careers of his performers.
Closing film The Teacher’s Diary (Thailand, 2014) was similarly unpredictable, hilarious, and heart-warming. Thailand’s submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film may seem unoriginal because of its premise – a substitute male teacher in a rural location falls in love with the previous female teacher by way of her diary – but writer-director Nithiwat Tharatorn’s injects plenty of creativity into the story’s visual presentation, not to mention a healthy amount of laughs. The film is much more than its simple premise, as it is aided by some wonderful child performances and a substantial story. Equal time is given for both Song’s and Ann’s backgrounds, and this makes the audience realize how much they are made for each other. In addition, the houseboat school is a setting that is wrought with perils: storms can batter its structure at any time; dead bodies can float up unannounced; and lizards and other creatures can frequently invade it. A scene that occurs during a storm is a particular highlight because it is filmed in one take, while the rural landscape is simply breathtaking. Here’s hoping that The Teacher’s Diary makes the Academy shortlist.
Tharatorn also explained the challenges of shooting the film afterwards, such as filming certain scenes in one take, and constructing the houseboat school that was required for the rural lakeside setting. East Winds showrunner Spencer Murphy later confirmed a theme running throughout the festival that The Teacher’s Diary adapted: this was related to schools and their interlinked trials and tribulations, with Tharatorn shifting this focus from students to teachers.
The very last act of the event was the “thank you’s” – and I gave my personal congratulations to Spencer and his team afterwards. Things ran smoothly overall, as the best films were shown without a hitch – Bugs was interrupted by a fire alarm – and the schedule allowed for significant discussions with the actors and directors after screenings. Hopefully these will be posted online over the next few days, along with other coverage that was recorded. Most of all, I look forward to the festival returning next year as East Winds 2014 brought together an eclectic mix of genres and talents that are not always showcased at other Asian film events. Spencer and the Coventry East Asian Film Society have not only proved that they can host these sorts of events – but they have shown that they are willing to do so outside locations such as London, and that’s what makes them continue to stand out.