When the festival organizers decided to start showing documentaries as part of the Far East Film Festival (historically showing only fiction feature films for the first 15 years), it was under the reasoning that documentaries or the more apropos term nowadays, non-fiction narratives, have the same relevance and impact as their fiction cinematic brethren. This year’s FEFF Doc Sidebar consists of three documentaries that celebrate artistic expression and individuality. Two of the documentaries are cinematic icon-centric – Mifune: The Last Samurai examines the life of perhaps Japan’s greatest actor Mifune Toshiro and his topsy turvy relationship with Kurosawa Akira; Old Days looks back at the making of Oldboy, a seminal film that put South Korea on the map as a cinematic force to be reckon with. The third documentary delves into the lives of OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) living in Hong Kong, who find a sense of community and expression through an annual beauty pageant that gives them a sense of escape and also a sense of home. Mifune: The Last Samurai from Oscar winner Steven Okazaki (Days of Waiting: The Life & Art of Estelle Ishigo) is the definitive documentary on Mifune Toshiro (1920-1997), the greatest actor from the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema who appeared in 170 films. He is best known for his 16-film collaboration (1948-65) with filmmaker Kurosawa Akira in such films as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, and Throne of Blood (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.) Mifune twice earned the Best Actor Prize at Venice Festival for Yojimbo (1961) and Red Beard (1965). Together, they created the genre of the wandering warrior protagonist that would later inspire filmmakers as diverse as Sergio Leone, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas. Clint Eastwood credits Mifune as inspiration for his own iconic Western characters. Old Days, on the other hand, was originally commissioned as new content that would be included in the extras of an upcoming Blu-ray anniversary release of Oldboy. But, since director Han Sun-hee captured so much great content in archive behind-the-scenes clips and interviews with director Park Chan-wook and the cast revisiting old locations in Busan, for example, that the producers felt it was worth it to produce a feature length documentary. They chose wisely because Old Days is an extensive, insider’s trip down memory lane on the making of this seminal film and how a young director and his cohorts would unknowingly make a film that propelled South Korean cinema to unprecedented heights among international audiences. From the humble beginnings of producer Syd Lim walking into a comic book shop and reading the original Japanese manga, to the extricating 16 takes that Choi Min-sik, as Oh Dae-su, had to do for the one-shot hammer battle in the hallway that almost killed him, to Park’s boyish assistant directors who would perfectly be at home in a Hong Sang-soo film, Old Days revisits a moment in Korean film history and how fate and happy accidents collided to make a benchmark film that is truly a genre classic. Finally, Sunday Beauty Queen is a humanist documentary, a slice-of-life of a small community that is unknown to many people. The OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) phenomenon is global, with tens of thousands of Filipinos who work in mostly service or elder care industries. In Hong Kong, many OFWs are live-in nannies for many Chinese families. This is a 24/7 job, and when they do get the time to meet up with fellow OFWs, they are momentary glimpses play and fantasy, including the annual beauty pageant held by Leo, a smiling, affable, go-getter who serves as the queer godfather to many of his women/contestants. What these three documentaries share are individuals who are in an artistic pursuit and attempt to find a tribe that will allow them to attain their dreams. With Mifune: The Last Samurai, it’s the plight of a two-bit contract player who rose to artistic heights and fame through the collaboration of an auteur. In Old Days, it’s the hive mind of the entire cast and crew to deliver only the best for their director. For the OFWs in Sunday Beauty Queen, it is staving off homesickness by finding a community that will provide them with that one night where they can dream of becoming a famous starlet.
Anderson Le