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Italy’s Far East Film Festival: Malaysian Drama ‘Abang Adik’ Sweeps Top Prizes



The pioneering Far East Film Festival (FEFF), held annually in the picturesque Northern Italian city of Udine, continued making history with its 25th-anniversary edition this year. At the closing ceremony on Sunday, Malaysian drama Abang Adikwritten and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Jin Ong, achieved a clean sweep of the highest prizes, marking the first time that a film from the Southeast Asian nation took top honors at the specialty festival.

Abang Adik won FEFF’s first-place Golden Mulberry audience award, as well as the Black Dragon critics’ prize and the White Mulberry Award for best first feature. Ong is a veteran figure of the Malaysian entertainment industry, having worked in the music business and film and TV production for many years (he’s produced well-received films like Shuttle Life, 2017; and Miss Andy, 2020; among others), but Abang Adik is his first film as a writer and director. The movie illuminates the world of some of Kuala Lumpur’s most disadvantaged inhabitants, following Abang and Adi, two undocumented grown-up orphans. While the older brother, a deaf-mute (played by Taiwanese actor and model Wu Kang-Ren), has resigned himself to a life of poverty, his younger sibling (Malaysian actor Jack Tan) burns with indignation against their plight. A brutal accident then upsets their relationship’s fragile balance.

After a totally digital pandemic edition in 2020, a hybrid edition in 2021, and an “almost-back-to-normal” festival in 2022, FEFF had much to celebrate in 2023, ringing in its quarter-century anniversary and welcoming a record number of film-world guests to Udine to celebrate Asian cinema. According to organizers, FEFF 2023 attracted 60,000 spectators with its largest film lineup ever — 78 titles from 14 countries, with 9 world-, 13 international-, 14 European- and 23 Italian premieres. And some 200 guests of honor attended the festival, including directors, actors, producers and other film talent.

FEFF’s other prize winners this year included Korean director Chang Hang-jun’s sports drama Rebound, which won the second-place audience award. Third place went to Japan for Suzuki Masayuki’s heartwarming comedy Yado, a love letter to Japan’s traditional bath houses. The jury for the best first feature prize also gave a special mention to Hong Kong drama Lost Love by Ka Sing-fung. Best screenplay honors went to Taiwan’s Fu Tien-Yu for the Day off, a sweet drama about the life of a hairdresser, which she also directed. And the Purple Mulberry Award, which is selected by users of Italy’s leading film fan platform, MYmovies, went to Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s Mongolian comedy. The Sales Girl.

One of the undeniable highlights of the 25th FEFF was the awarding of legendary Japanese actress Baisho Chieko with the festival’s lifetime achievement honor. Baisho accepted her honor at FEFF’s ceremony in an elegant tulle dress and thanked the audience by breaking into an improvised song.

In a career stretching back to the 1960s, Baisho starred in dozens of Yoji Yamada’s beloved Tora-san films and also served as the inspiration for the lead character of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, among many other cinematic milestones. Just last year, she won acclaim for her heartrending performance in Chie Hayakawa’s dystopian social drama Plan 75, which competed at Cannes in Un Certain Regard. That film actually received its earliest support from FEFF’s industry program, Focus Asia, where Hayakawa participated with her pitch for Plan 75 in 2019. As FEFF steps forward from its 25th anniversary, organizers have identified expanding the event’s positive role as a platform and incubator for the Asian and European film industries — via the Focus Asia initiative, the All Genres Project Market and the Ties That Bind workshop program, and other supporting events — as key priorities for the festival’s future.

“Obviously, it goes without saying how happy we are to have been able to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the FEFF without the restrictions and worries of the last three years,” said the festival’s two directors, Sabrina Baracetti and Thomas Bertacche, in a joint statement “And on the wave of these very positive results, we feel it’s essential to invite the institutions to reflect. We believe that given the long journey it has taken to get where it is today, the festival deserves to continue seeing its potential for growth bear fruit: Are public bodies ready to support FEFF with more funding, transforming it into a genuine hub that connects the East and the West? Will the future of FEFF continue to be that of a major international film festival, or can its network of over twenty-year-long relationships be developed into something more wide-ranging?”

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