Tim Matheson really called it last year. Days before the nominations were announced, Matheson-actor, director, and curator of the East West sidebar-called The Departed, an adaptation of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, most likely to win best film at the Oscars. Truth be told, he made the prediction to underscore the fact that Hollywood was suffering an originality deficiency. “Hollywood’s always scanned the foreign shores for talent,” he said. “And believe me, Asia’s where they’re looking today. You look at all the formulaic movies made today with their eight requisite stars, eight violent [scenes], and one requisite breast-baring scene and you wonder, where’s the reckless abandon of old? I think Asian films are where you’ll find it.”
It’s where Matheson and film fest programmer Ryan Hedge found pearls to offer fest fans. “Sometimes it comes down to what we can get our hands on,” said Hedge, a recent UCSB film grad and major cinephile, “but I think we did very well.”
Hedge’s fave three films of the mix offer humor and big action. Freesia: Bullets Over Tears (Furijia) is based on a popular manga (Japanese comic book), which Hedge described as “’70s techno noir,” set in a Japanese future where revenge has been legalized. Next he likes Death Note (Desu Noto), another comic-based live-action film wherein God’s magical death-inducing handbook comes into the hands of an avenging crime fighter. “This film was bigger than The Da Vinci Code in Japan,” he averred. Hedge also loved the Korean film Yobi the Five-Tailed Fox (Cheonnyeonnyeou Yeoubi), with animation reminiscent of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, a mixture of traditional tale and science fiction. “Korea does animation for the whole world,” said Hedge. “But this is a rare example of a full-length film Koreans did for themselves.”
And howzabout the man who once was Otter? Matheson’s three picks include Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theatre (Samgeori Geukjang), a Korean film about a little girl who wanders into an enchanted cinema; Dasepo Naughty Girls, a Korean take on the so-called pink film, Japan’s often humorous answer to the soft-core porn industry that girdles the globe (“Like Ford and Hawks in the old days, these are directors who work hard to make decent films out of what’s supposed to be schlock,” said Matheson); and finally, a coup de gr•ce for the festival, an omnibus film titled Triangle (Tie Saam Gok), comprised of three short films by Hong Kong masters Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, and the great Johnny To.
But that’s not all folks. East West also includes The Suicide Song (Densen Uta), the latest in creepy curse movies coming out of Japan. “This one is a song that if you sing it, you die,” said Hedge with ghoulish relish. China’s Blind Mountain (Mang Shan) is the latest film by Yang Li, a serious neo-neo-realist and the auteur of the stunning Blind Shaft. Then there is The Mourning Forest (Mogari No Mori), a Japanese film of great poetic beauty by that still-too-rare phenomenon, a woman director. “I don’t know that much about it,” said Hedge. “Except Roger [Durling] loves it.” Counts for something.
Only one film was available for screening at press time, the anime Vexille. It was unusual in that it’s completely computer-generated-a study of Japan as a futuristic techno-nightmare. It’s not Pixar, but moves between stunning, lyrical images and a notch above videogame graphics. “But it’s all about seeing it on the big screen,” said Hedge.