Warsaw has had a troubled history. Located in Central Europe, it has been passed between empires and dynasties, been pillaged and seen golden ages since the 16th century. Then, with liberation in sight at the end of WWII, the Polish population’s brave attempt to rise against Nazi occupying German forces was thwarted when no ally came to its rescue and in 1944, Poland’s capital city was decimated. When the war did end, Poland was given a complete face lift but also faced a new challenge: communism.
Today, Warsaw architecture combines elements from both the Soviet East and the West. This is a dynamic and very pedestrian-friendly city that seeks to define itself by its ability to embrace development and change. Its Old town area was restored as early as the 1960s and is now a UNESCO heritage site. It also has modern transport throughout the city, well-established and contemporary pop-up galleries and delicious and affordable culinary delights that range from classic Warsaw cuisine (pierogi, kielbasa and beetroot soup) to the recent vegan rage. So, it should come as no surprise that it also boasts a fantastic film festival every autumn that showcases the best of the new, independent, classic and restored films of East and Southeast Asia.
I am of course referring to the Five Flavours Film Festival (FFFF) which is celebrating its jubilee edition this year. Boasting its biggest selection so far in its decade long history and still the only one of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe, the festival took place from 16-23 November 2016 and featured over 40 film screenings between two venues in Warsaw. In its debut year, the organisers focused solely on Vietnamese cinema. Since then, it has expanded exponentially to include films from all over East and Southeast Asia, often screening the latest blockbusters and alternative visions, filmmaker retrospectives and experimental films.
In celebration of its jubilee year, festival organisers were poised to mark the event by publishing Silent Explosion, a selection of essays written by leading scholars, critics and festival organisers on the development of East and Southeast Asian cinema in recent years, particularly on films that featured in previous Five Flavours editions. Topics included in this publication are as broad as the representation of women in Japanese cinema, the rising popularity of Korean cinema and the development of the Malaysia’s New Wave and as niche as Midi Z’s observational filmmaking style and the lyrical extremes of Japanese auteur Sion Sono’s oeuvre.
In addition to the publication of Silent Explosion, this year’s organisers announced a new phase of development by joining the Network of Asian Film Festivals in Europe (NAFFE). This new membership with NAFFE provides an opportunity for FFFF to cooperate and exchange programme ideas with some of the other notable European festivals that focus on Asian cinema. This includes Udine Far East Film Festival (Italy), Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema (France), Chinese Visual Festival (U.K.) and Camera Japan Festival (Netherlands). So, while moviegoers and Asian cinéphiles slept through the mornings during the FFFF, NAFFE representatives met, presented and workshopped at the Asian Festivals Con in Warsaw before heading to the festival screenings Q&A sessions and gala events in the afternoons and evenings.
In this part of my report, I will provide a summary of a selection of films, events and special screenings that I managed to attend at this year’s FFFF and which I believe deserve special mention. So what are the major film highlights? First, I was keen to see what was trending on the international film festival circuit and I was not disappointed. The surprise Hong Kong hit this year is Ten Years (2015), a dystopian film project that is structured by five short films (made by five different filmmakers) and is set in the near future 2025. Although the style, stories and political proclivities vary widely from each other, these short films all respond to the question, ‘What will Hong Kong look like in ten years?’ This is a serious film project that was conceived by film director Ng Ka-Leung and co-produced on a shoestring budget by the filmmakers, which include Kwok Zune, Wong Fei-Pang, Jevons Au and Chow Kwun-Wai. Although each filmmaker addresses the question of Hong Kong’s future in illuminating ways, Ng Ka-Leung’s film short ‘Local Egg’ succinctly deals with the gravity of Mainland China’s powerful influence by re-enacting a possible rise of youth rebellion that bears striking resemblance to the Red Guard movement that occurred in Mainland China in the 1960s.
Two screenings were dedicated to Myanmar-born Taiwanese filmmaker Midi Z’s recent work: City of Jade (2016) and Road To Mandalay (2016). The documentary City of Jade is a follow-up to the filmmaker’s Jade Miners (2015) which was shown at last year’s FFFF and follows the illegal jade mine work in the northern Kachin State of Burma. This time, however, Midi Z follows his elder brother’s experience with the mines. What is particularly illuminating about the story is how the film seeks to bridge the memory gap between Midi-Z and his brother, whom he has not seen in over twenty years. What is also unique about the film is its method of production that required Midi Z to use handheld Go Pro cameras. Concealing the filmmaking process was necessary in this volatile region where the local Kachin Independence Army remains in conflict with the government.
Much of the film oscillates between observational documentary with accompanying traditional Burmese music and participatory filmmaking as Midi Z follows migrant labourers through their daily regime, from hammering into the hills with chisels to enjoying some leisure time at the work camp. In addition to documentary filmmaking, Midi Z premiered the narrative feature Road to Mandalay. It investigates similar themes to his documentary work such as Burmese migration, economic struggles and drug addiction. This is a heart-wrenching story and, as a work of fiction, the filmmaker is able to explore the incompatibility of romance and the disastrous effects of drug addiction within the migrant community.
Along with Road to Mandalay and Ten Years, another film in competition for the best of the latest in Asian cinema was Shanjhey Kumar Perumal’s fantastic Malaysian crime drama Jagat (2015) featuring an outstanding performance by child actor Harvind Raj who plays a boy named Appoy in a coming-of-age story about gang life. Raj is pressured into performing well in school for his father and into being tough enough to withstand local youth gangs. Behind closed doors, Raj seeks an imaginary life as an artist and entertainer. This film marks a monumental achievement for Perumal who spent ten years waiting for the opportunity to produce a politically sensitive film that takes place during the 1990s oppression of the minority Tamil community. So contentious was the film’s depiction of this minority group, that originally it was banned from the award nominee list at the Malaysia Film Festival for its use of the Tamil language. Eventually, this decision was overturned and Jagat went on to win the Best Prize at the festival.
While the new Asian cinema titles at this year’s FFFF were attended by the filmmakers themselves who received a warm welcome by engaged audience members in mostly packed cinemas, there was also a tribute to the work of prolific Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono. Sono is best known for his controversial cult hit Suicide Club (2001) in a career that spans 30 years with nearly 50 films under his belt. The festival’s portrait of the writer, poet, actor and director’s oeuvre involved a carefully curated selection of films that includes I’m Sion Sono! (1985), A Man’s Flower Road (1986), Love Exposure (2008), Guilty of Romance (2011), The Whispering Star (2015) and Antiporno (2016).
Of those that were screened at the festival, I managed to view his earliest film I’m Sion Sono! which is (as the title suggests) a self-portrait that offers a glimpse into Sono’s early fascination with experimental horror and participatory filmmaking. Skipping forward to present-day Sono, the filmmaker is now popular for pushing sexual boundaries and shocking his audiences. Unsurprisingly then, Sono was one of five filmmakers selected by Japanese film studio Nikkatsu to produce a film for the launching of the Roman Porno New Wave. There was only one requirement: a sex scene must occur every ten minutes. Therefore, what transpires is Sono’s Antiporno. This is both a fetishised film saturated in dramatic colours reminiscent of David Lynch’s mise-en-scène and a metatextual experience. It demonstrates both the dominance of patriarchal values and interrogates female exploitation by showing then denying this sexual exploitation. It is bizarre, disturbing and entertaining.
Then, just when we think Sono is no longer capable of surprising us, he defies our expectations by producing The Whispering Star, a meditative and minimalist black and white feature set in a post-apocalyptic reality. We are informed that 80% of the human population have been wiped out and the story centres around Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka), a human-like android who travels through space to random locations on Earth delivering packages that often arrive several years late. Unfortunately, the carefully articulated cinematography and set design do not make up for a film that left me with so many pointless rudimentary questions (what is contained in these packages? Why are we relying on postal service in the future when people can teleport?) and hardly any philosophical thoughts on humanity or Yoko’s mild curiosity with human things.
Finally, I had prepared myself to watch the four hour epic Love Exposure. Perhaps because of the autumnal weather though, I was instead lured in by the crystal water beaches of Mario Cornejo’s feature Apocalypse Child (2015) which went on to win in the best new Asian cinema category at FFFF. This screening was also attended by both the director and his screenwriter (and wife) Monster Jimenez who offered very direct responses to their country’s complicated and violent history with the USA. Apocalypse Child is a film that deals with the hard truths of American colonialism in the Philippines through a fictional story about a man who is rumoured to be the illegitimate child of Francis Ford Coppola who produced portions of Apocalypse Now (1979) in Baler, Philippines. It also cleverly demonstrates its sordid colonial history by including and frequently combining several languages within the film such as Tagalog, Spanish and English.
Along with special screenings, and Q&A sessions, the FFFF’s Corponight was back by popular demand. This took in a packed house on Saturday 19 November at the Muranow Cinema. This year’s programme delivered a trio of high-octane film screenings and a short intermission that included a sampling of temaki sushi cones and noodles. Corponight started with Thailand filmmaker Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s Heart Attack (2015), followed by Masaharu Take’s 100 Yen Love (2014) and finished off with Korean blockbuster zombie apocalypse hit Train to Busan (2016). Whoever was in charge of programming the event that runs until the early hours of the morning definitely understands its target audience. The three films selected for Corponight complimented each other and the whole aim of the evening, which inevitably tested the cinemagoers’ visual endurance.
First in the trio of screenings was the fantastic new Asian cinema nominee Heart Attack. Rightfully so, Heart Attack cleaned out at this year’s Thailand National Film Association Awards. This film literally speaks for and to those of us who may work long hours independently from home. This is an unassuming yet philosophical take on a 30-year-old ambitious graphic designer whose body has a physical reaction to overwork and to a lack of sleep. Leading Thai actor Sunny Suwanmethanon of I Fine..Thank You..Love You (2014) fame brings charm to the workaholic role of Yoon, a young man so obsessed with being the best in the industry that he admits he only reunites with his friends at funerals and weddings and boasts that he has not taken a Christmas holiday for five years. Yoon demonstrates this in one truly cringe worthy scene in which he attempts to complete a deadline from his laptop at a funeral held for his best friend’s father. The comic timing is impeccable here in the Buddhist temple as Yoon manages to track down a monk who provides him with his personal Wi-Fi password ‘indiansubcontinent79’. When he begins to develop an uncontrollable rash in response to his lifestyle choices (which includes a diet consisting entirely of shrimp dumplings from the local 7-11), his doctor forces him to contemplate the self-imposed isolation and the unrealistic deadlines threatening to kill him. In addition to a clever script and quirky performances by both Suwanmethanon and the junior doctor played by Mai Davika Hoorne, credit is also due to both the film’s quick rhythmic editing style and punchy jazz score that punctuate a sensation for the audience that Yoon’s life is one ticking time bomb.
The second screening at Corponight was the fabulously original and multi-award winning 100 Yen Love. 32-year-old Ichiko (Sakura Ando) lives at home with her parents and spends her days in her pyjamas, smoking and playing video games with her sister’s son. A physical altercation with this recently divorced sister Fumiko (Saori) is the impetus that forces Ichiko to fend for herself and learn how to win in life through failure. So what starts as a slacker comedy shifts into a Rocky Balboa-esque dramatically driven narrative as Ichiko aims to become a boxing champion. More than the exhilarating shots of a woman in physical training who executes realistic-looking punches, the film’s strength lies in Ichiko’s ability to venture on a journey to self-acceptance without completely conforming to the norms of society. Moreover, it is the non-conformists and marginalised within her Hiroshima community who support her through this process.
Fittingly, the final screening at Corponight belonged to the zombie apocalypse. I am of course speaking of South Korean filmmaker Yeon San-ho’s huge blockbuster thriller Train to Busan. The film delivers just enough suspense, gore and cheesy sentimentality to keep the general audience awake. I had the chance to preview it a few weeks earlier at the Printworks in Manchester, UK, and it was wonderful to note that the Warsaw audience enjoyed it so much they were willing to stay until 2:30 am to complete a marathon of a night. Overall, Corponight offers the complete package as it manages to curate a programme that appeals to both the general audience and Asian cinéphiles alike.
This could also be said about the entire film festival in general. The Five Flavours Film Festival in Warsaw is a small but well-curated event and I am already looking forward to next year’s programme!
 A smaller replica film festival takes place in Wrocław, Poland from 18-24 November 2016