Udine's Far East Festival to Feature Asian Social Critique and Genre Thrills

Far East Film Festival
Lee Jong-un's 'Birthday,' produced by Lee Chang-dong, will open this year's FEFF.

Europe's leading festival devoted to commercial cinema from Asia — based in the picturesque Italian city of Udine — will kick off later this month with a competition section of 51 titles from 12 countries.

A broad selection of commercial hits and carefully curated classics will make up the lineup of the 2019 Far East Film Festival, held later this month in the picturesque northern Italian city of Udine.

The largest film festival in Europe specializing in Asian cinema, the 21st FEFF will open with first-time director Lee Jong-un's much anticipated drama Birthday, exploring the aftermath of South Korea's tragic 2014 ferry disaster.

The opening title's urgent social relevance is a theme that can be detected through much of FEFF's 2019 selection. China and Hong Kong will each have eight films in this year's sprawling 51-title competition section, including Wen Muye's blockbuster black comedy critique of China's medical system, Dying to Survive; Bai Xue's coming-of-age drama, The Crossing, about life along the Hong Kong-China border; Zhang Wei's transgender drama The Rib; and Fruit Chan's politically charged sex drama Three Husbands; among many others.

The bulk of the selection, however, is heavy on the fan-pleasing genre films that have made the Udine event so unique in Europe. Unlike most Western film festivals, which tend to highlight Asia's art house cinema, with its rarified aesthetics, Udine is foremost devoted to providing a platform for filmmaking from the Far East that actually achieves major commercial traction in its home market — thus offering festival-goers a surprisingly rare window onto the contemporary cinema that the world's most populous region is actually watching en masse.

The uniqueness of that proposition has helped the festival attract a devoted following, with over 60,000 people attending FEFF screenings and events each year, a notable achievement given that the total population in the host city of Udine is just 100,000.

FEFF's lineup this year features a total of 76 films from 12 different countries, including three world premiers and 12 international premiers. Many of the directors, stars and producers of the competing titles — including Chinese A-list star Yao Chen, Japanese innovator Sabu and Hong Kong icon Anthony Chen — will be on hand in Udine to particulate in Q&A sessions, photo ops and gala dinners with the international attendees.

Some of the successful regional genre titles that will face off in competition in Undine are: Philippine phenom Mikhail Red's ghost horror Eerie; Yuen Woo-ping's martial arts franchise installment Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy; Renny Harlin's Hong Kong pressure cooker thriller Bodies at Rest; the Chinese-language blockbuster thriller Project Gutenberg; Indonesian martial arts flick 212 Warrior; Taiwan's blockbuster romance More Than Blue; and from Korea, cop comedy Extreme Job, financial thriller Default from Korea and Kim Kwang-sik's war epic The Great Battle, among many more.

Last year, Udine's Japan selection presciently played host to the international premiere of Shinichirou Ueda's zombie movie sensation One Cut of the Dead, which went on to earn over $26 million in Japan from a budget of just $25,000. The fest is following up in 2019 with another robust survey of established and emerging filmmaking voices from the Japanese archipelago, including characteristically absurdist dramedy from Sabu, Jam; the quirky noirish drama Melancholic from Seiji Tanaka; and the bizarre family drama Lying to Mom from Katsumi Nojiri.

Outside of the competition, South Korea gets two sidebars, one focused on gritty filmmaking that pushed the boundary's during the country's period of military dictatorship and another devoted to recent indie comedies.

The pan-Asian dystopian omnibus franchise birthed by Hong Kong's sleeper hit Ten Years will screen in its entirety, including Hirokazu Kore-eda-produced Ten Years Japan, Ten Years Thailand (which features a short from Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul), and Ten Years Taiwan.

Other sidebars include restored classics, a small documentary section and the "Odd Couples" program, which pairs a Western and East Asian film that display a thematic or stylistic call and response, such as Ringo Lam's 1987 Hong Kong classic, City on Fire and Quentin Tarantino's 1992 breakthrough, Reservoir Dogs.

In recent years, FEFF has grown to encompass a modest but growing film market, an innovative mentorship program for young film writers and reviewers from around the world, gala dinners, various film competition categories and extracurricular activities like morning yoga sessions and evening Japanese tea and saké tastings. 

As previously announced, Hong Kong screen icon Anthony Wong will receive Udine's honorary Golden Mulberry Award for outstanding career achievement this year. Best known for his starring roles in Hong Kong crime classics like Johnnie To's The Mission and Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's cult classic Infernal Affairs, Wong was most recently seen in Oliver Siu Kuen Chan's Still Human, which FEFF will screen along with the actor's big screen debut, My Name Ain’t Suzie.

The 21st Far East Film Festival runs April 26-May 4.