The fifth Terracotta Film Festival brings London viewers a Leslie Cheung/Anita Mui retrospective (Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, Rouge), a spotlight on Indonesia, the Terror Cotta horror all-nighter, and the usual selection of the very best new films from the Far East.
But first the thrillers. Whether it is a North Korean sleeper agent and his old-school anti-Communist Southern counterpart stationed in modern, reunified Germany, or a generation of Colony-era career cops caught in the shifting power structures of post-Handover Hong Kong, both Ryoo Seung-wan’s action spyflick The Berlin File (2012) and Sunny Luk/Longman Leung’s policier Cold War (2012) are concerned with past ‘ghosts’ haunting an unaccommodating present. With these Johnnie To’s Drug War (2012) shares odd-couple pairings and devious double-crosses, but it cannot be matched by them – or by much else – for its pounding energy and relentless pace.
In To’s film, tenacious Captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) leads his East Chinese drug squad in a race to infiltrate and bring down a network of suppliers and distributors before their own cover is blown. He reluctantly works with Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a smart, connected narcotics manufacturer who, once cornered, proves willing to betray anyone and everyone to avoid the death penalty for his crimes. With Zhang and Timmy improvising their way through a convoluted series of do-or-die stings, To’s taut, bleak neo-noir hits the ground running and never pauses for breath. Deftly balancing gritty police procedural with some memorably surreal/symbolic flourishes (fugitive Timmy playing dead in a morgue; a deaf man oblivious to the gun battle waging around him; a woman who insists on dying with her boots on), Drug War shows this prolific genre master at the very top of his game.
Altogether less genre-bound is Edwin’s Postcards From The Zoo (2012). The film follows Lana (Klarysa Aurelia) – abandoned as a child in Ragunan Zoo and raised by a ragtag community of keepers, artists, animal lovers and homeless – as she steps out for her first time into the world beyond, becoming a successful masseuse in a seedy Jakarta parlour. Much like Lana herself, the film subjects humans and other animals to the same taxonomic observations, and the result is a story of a young woman’s emergence told in a manner falling midway between children’s animal fable (like the ones Lana herself tells) and anthropological study. Beautifully composed, languidly paced and dreamily plotted, Edwin’s second feature (following 2008′s Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly) makes for an interesting companion piece to Visra Vichit Vadakan’s semi-documentary Karaoke Girl (2012), also in the Terracotta programme, and is my pick of the Spotlight on Indonesia strand. Special mention, however, should also go to Upi Avianto’s Belenggu (2012), screening as part of Terror-Cotta – a heady blend of Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Cure (1997) and Indonesian Catholic guilt.
Another highlight is Nakamura Yoshihiro’s See You Tomorrow, Everyone (2013), a quirkily compelling coming-of-age story whose karate-obsessed protagonist Satoru (Hamada Gaku), an arrested individual in a changing world, goes through his adolescent rites of passage in slow motion even as his friends leave the gradually deteriorating housing estate that is all at once his haven, his fiefdom and his prison. Like Nakamura’s earlier Fish Story (2009), this film is a slyly upbeat study of eccentric heroism, hidden destiny, and the mysterious movements of time. It handles this last theme far more engagingly, not to mention coherently, than Oh Young-doo’s Young Gun In The Time (2012), despite the fact that Oh’s cheap-and-messy mash-up of comedy, action and fantasy prominently features actual time travel.
Offsetting the guarded optimism of See You Tomorrow, Everyone is the ironically titled Land of Hope (2012) from Sono Sion, cult director of Love Exposure. For this Ozu-aping drama offers a deeply pessimistic view of Japan’s future, as a close-knit (post-)nuclear family in the fictitious Nagashima Prefecture is torn apart by well-based fears of radiation leaking from the local earthquake-stricken power plant. Of course in Japanese cinema, nuclear nightmares are as old as Honda Ishiro’s Godzilla (1954) and Akira Kurosawa’s I Live In Fear (1955), and Sono himself has recently covered similar ground in the post-tsunami Himizu (2011). Unfortunately Land of Hope tends to shout from a soapbox what little new it has to say, but it does boast some fine performances (especially from Natsuyago Isao as the family patriarch) and the odd poetic touch that speaks louder than any words. Nothing, for example, better encapsulates the film’s dialectic of domestic despair and hesitant hope than the striking image of a marriage proposal delivered beneath an upended house.
My favourite Terracotta title is A Story of Yonosuke (2013), from Okita Shuichi, whose The Woodsman and the Rain (2011) featured at last year’s event. Starring Kora Kengo as the amiably awkward, clownishly named Yomokichi Yosonuke who comes as a student to Tokyo in 1987, it is a sprawling yet affectionate memoir of a provincial adapting to the metropolis and an adolescent assuming more adult form – but it is also a portrait of a genuinely good person who puts a smile on everyone’s face and in his own small way improves the world. You will be glad to have met him – but the film, adapted from Okita’s own novel, comes with a real emotional weight that prevents its understated, life-affirming humour from ever going full quirk. The same could hardly be said of Hou Chi-jan’s When a Wolf Falls in Love With a Sheep (2012), a karmic romantic comedy whose broader-than-broad characterisations and hyper-mannered stylistic tics practically define self-conscious whimsy. Fans of Amélie (2001) – which it repeatedly references – will love it.