Udine 16. Far East Film Festival: The Raid 2 and the Fighting Lolitas
The Festival in Udine is a celebration of popular cinema. For the 16th time, this small Italian town hosts the biggest blockbusters from East Asian screens – gangster films, comedies, horrors, melodramas, and a wide range of variations on those and other genres.
It is a perfect complement for other festivals, which focus on auteur, art-house and independent cinema. Though the productions shown here are generally lighter in tone, they provide an insight into the fantasies shaping the popular imagination of Asian audience.
Making sociological claims based on romantic comedies is a risky move, but the impact of cinema and series on the way the society creates its definitions of success, happiness, and good relationships, is more than significant. Festivals such as Udine allow you to see many such productions at the same time, so somewhere between an explosion, a police chase, and another scene of emotional struggles of beautiful people in beautiful interiors, appear also many serious matters related to modern mass culture, not just in Asia.
One such meeting (or, maybe, an event) was the screening of a Chinese romantic comedy Tiny Times1 and a following screening of a documentary The Road To Fame. The former is a simple story based on a of Sex in the City format mixed with a dependable formula of Devil Wears Prada. A dreamy future fashion designer in flowing dresses, an energetic sportswoman who always laughs too loudly, an aspiring businesswoman from a rich family, and an ambitious film narrator, who just got a job as an assistant in a prestigious fashion magazine: four friends from the spectacularly shot Shanghai, their first professional achievements and love disappointments.
The film, based on the bestselling novel by Guo Jingming, the director of the film, achieved enormous commercial success. It earned over 80 million dollars, despite its plot, predictable like a pair of black high heels, its stereotypical characters, and unsurprising plot twists. The glass walls of the skyscrapers and a parade of luxurious brands turned out to be a good match for the materialistic longings of the Chinese middle class. There is not much sex in the film, the character's relationships are based mostly on romantic gazes and exchanging engagement rings: marriage is still mostly business, as can be seen in the way the mother of one of the rich characters arranges his future relationship. This is also the only time when family has any meaning at all – all the other characters seem separated from their parents, they are self-sufficient, professionally active, and emancipated (at least until a strict boss puts them in their place).
Hao Wu's documentary, on the other hand, tells the story of students of the Artistic Academy in Beijing working on a diploma project - staging Fame with the help of a Broadway director . Transferring a classic American narrative about the obsession of fame to a Chinese setting turns out to be an accurate diagnosis of the situation. The director concentrates on the members of the second cast who fight for being on stage till the very end. This becomes a pretext for showing not only their individual ambitions and emotional struggles, but also for portraying a fairly wide social spectrum. In contrast to Tiny Times, here the protagonists' families are an essential context.
The prestigious Academy, whose graduates include Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, accepts less than 1% of applicants, but the future students represent all social strata. The parents of one of the protagonists bought him a 2-story apartment, with a special room filled with designer shoes. The father of another student, coming from a poor family of farmers, pays his son's tuition by working as a truck driver. All the young dancers and actors are similar in one aspect – they are the generation of one-baby policy, the only children for whom their parents are willing to make great sacrifices. But, at the same time, they also carry an enormous responsibility for the future of their line. Their success has to bring pride to the family, reward the parents and grandparents for the years of sacrifices. It should also fulfill the dreams of consumption, prosperity and individual fame. These expectations clash with the hard reality of the world of media and competition with 300.000 other young actors, dancers, and singers, who dream about great career in China.
The meetings at Udine Festival are not restricted to the layer of plot. It is equally interesting to trace how the generic formulas are used, in more or less successful ways. The Raid 2: Berandal, an eagerly expected sequel of the Indonesian production, was screened just before a Japanese erotic action comedy, Girl's Blood. Though the technical level of both production is incomparable, the structure of the plot calls for an experiment – screening both films on two adjoining screens. I'm sure that the spectacular combat scenes and plot twists, which recur periodically throughout the films, would appear on both screens almost simultaneously. And since in the first film the fighting is done by men, and in the other by women, it would be a pleasantly complementary screening.
Raid 2 is a product of a radically different kind: a visually rich, brutal story about the undefeated Ram, who fights a stream of enemies (often more than one at a time) to put an end to the mafia activities. The story line does not really matter, the key element is the stunning choreography of combat scenes, in which limbs are being beaten, broken and twisted in the most refined ways. The way camera moves among the fighters poses a question of its materiality – placing a cameraman between the colliding bodies seems utterly impossible. Even though, like the previous parts of the cycle, Marantau andThe Raid – Redemption, watching film is a lot like watching someone play a videogame, the picture has the power to draw you in. The fans of the genre won't be disappointed.
Comparing The Raid to a frivolous Japanese comedy can seem sacrilegious, but it shows that a well-constructed generic script can bear even the most bizarre plot ideas and a modest budget. This time the battle is fought by a group of girls from an illegal show called Girl's Blood. Amateurs and professionals – a Lolita in a pink flouncy dress, a goth sadomasochism expert, a sexy nurse, and a karate champion – meet on the net-surrounded stage and fight to please the enthusiastic audience. The future of the team is threatened when it is joined by a mysterious girl in a Chinese dress, followed by her possessive husband, the head of a famous karate clan.
The combat scenes, first between the girls, and later in the defense of the group, are neither technically sophisticated nor very brutal. The camera doesn't move among the protagonists to show their skills, but to admire the female anatomy. The pace, however, is equally dynamic, and the filmmakers don't confine themselves to using the worn out elements, introducing surprising twists, showing the psychological background of the choices made by the women, and their mutual relations, including love affairs. Despite the appearances, the film is more subversive than the conservative The Raid, in which the grave hero, like in Independence Day and other cliched American blockbusters, fights not so much for justice or social order, but for the safety of his wife and son (yawn). The girls from Girl's Blood fight for the survival of the team which gives them independence and is their family of choice, and for the right to decide about themselves and to redefine the icons of traditional culture (the representatives of an undervalued branch of entertainment fight the symbols of Japanese culture, a clan of karate masters). Despite the apparently trifling subject, the story of the fighting girls has a lot of interesting things to say.