Over 20 years, the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, has been spreading the good news about Asian popular cinema.
Sabrina Baracetti raised eyebrows when she started to talk to Hong Kong filmmakers about her plans to screen their movies on the other side of the world.
“Many didn’t understand what we had in mind,” she explained.
That was back in 1998 and they know all about it now.
The Far East Film Festival (FEFF) in Udine, northern Italy, has over 20 editions established itself as the biggest and oldest European film festival focusing exclusively on popular and genre Asian cinema.
This year’s FEFF came to a close on Saturday night and reflected just how far the event has come across two decades by featuring a lineup of 81 films – of which more than 20 were debut or sophomore works.
There are now five award segments: the Golden Mulberry audience award for the film with the highest public votes; the Black Mulberry for the critics’ choice; the newly established White Mulberry for the best first or second feature; the Golden Mulberry for Lifetime Achievement, awarded this year to Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia who starred in movies such as Chungking Express (1994) and Police Story (1985), and the MyMovies award, presented in collaboration with media partner mymovies.it
This year’s top prize was awarded on Saturday night to the Jang Joon-hwan-directed and politically charged drama 1987: When The Day Comes and more than 60,000 people turned up over the festival’s nine-day run.
Baracetti also heads the Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche (CEC), the cultural association that operates FEFF as well as two venues with five screens across Udine. She explained that the festival emerged out of the experiences she had programming for the Udine Incontri Cinema, a local film festival that focused on European genre cinema before FEFF was founded, where she discovered audiences were increasingly recognizing – and wanting to witness – the cinematic output from the Far East.
So in 1998, the decision was made to include films from Asia, first from Hong Kong – partly inspired, as it happens, after witnessing Lin’s turn in director Wong Kar-wai’s acclaimed Chungking Express – and then expanding quickly to region-wide under the FEFF banner.
The 1999 edition featured 52 titles from four countries. This year’s 20th staging and its 81 films came from 11 countries and territories across Asia.
“We decided to go to Hong Kong,” Baracetti said. “Because that time in 1997, they were producing a lot of genre films but few were available in Italy. We started doing research, and we met producers, directors, companies. Many were very surprised to see our interest in trying to put together a festival about popular Hong Kong cinema, because those films were made with a local audience in mind.”
Nowadays, FEFF served as an “incubator for bright young talents from the region,” Baracetti said, “and also as a record-keeper for the development of Asian cinema.”
Festival coordinator Thomas Bertacche is also the CEO of the Tucker Film, a production and distribution company that deals primarily with Asian projects and was set up as a joint venture between the Udine’s CEC and Cinemazero, a similar cultural association based in neighboring city of Pordenone.
Such was the developing interest in Asia, he said, that FEFF had developed both as an important platform for Asian films to be seen, and a good testing ground for checking the audience response before any release deals might be reached.
“Ten, 15 years ago, the potential audience who would buy films through DVDs or VCDs and the distributors who would potentially pick up these titles was rare,” said Bertacche. “Nowadays, Asian filmmakers who wish to release in Europe are blessed, because there are more ways for them to test the markets and find collaborators.”
FEFF’s industry focus led to the formation of two platforms.
Ties That Bind, a Asia-Europe co-production workshop founded in 2009 with European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE), an organization that develops the projects and professional capabilities of filmmakers. It features two sessions to help filmmakers follow through on selected projects – the first in Udine that occurs during FEFF, and the second in Singapore in late November as part of the Southeast Asian Film Financing Forum.
Focus Asia is meanwhile a film market based in Udine and created in collaboration with the then-newly founded International Audiovisual Market of Rome in 2016. It has since developed sophisticated programmes, including a “Getting Ready for Cannes” segment at this edition where a slate of select sales agents received personalized feedback on their Cannes market strategy with potential buyers.
Twenty years and innumerable screenings since it was founded, FEFF has gone on to be a keystone event in the European cinematic calendar for both industry professionals and cinema lovers alike with its focus on popular Asian productions that may not have the artistic ambition and/or achievement to angle themselves towards the more art-house oriented European festival circuit.
By aiming to be not so much an arbiter of taste, but more a celebration of accessible Asian cinema, FEFF has achieved its goal without collapsing under the weight of its own ambition. It’s a respected cultural institution that has found the right balance between entertainment and artistic merit – and it’s made a significant impact on the filmmakers whose work it has showcased.
The 20th edition came to a close on Sunday night with a remastered version of veteran Hong Kong helmer Johnnie To Kei-fung’s martial arts drama Throw Down (2004) – and it was an early supporter of the man who has won international acclaim with the likes of the gripping and multi-award winning triad epic Election (2005).
“As a festival it has real meaning to me. It was my first festival in Europe and since then my films have screened and competed at festivals all over Europe,” said To.
“The festival has progressed tremendously and over the past 20 years we have seen the respect the festival has in the industry. It’s been really amazing for Asian cinema. I sincerely hope this is just the first 20 years.”
This is the first in a series of stories about the 20th Far East Film Festival, which took place this year from April 20-28. Alfonse Chiu was part of the FEFF Campus programme for aspiring journalists.