Finland’s only festival of contemporary Asian cinema Helsinki Cine Aasia is this year organised already for the fifth time. The festival was established by four experts on East Asian cultures and cinema – Eija Niskanen, the festival’s artistic director, Jenni Peisa, managing director and producers Leena Eerolainen and Johanna Rissanen. Niskanen, Peisa and Eerolainen are still strongly involved in day-to-day organising of the festival, and in addition, there are several other enthusiastic team members helping out each year.
Although the festival’s founding foursome knew each other through various channels even before, the decision to set up Helsinki Cine Aasia was made when Niskanen and Eerolainen bumped into each other at the Tokyo International Film Festival in the autumn 2011.
“We all were passionate about closing the Asia-sized gap in the otherwise diverse cultural scene in Helsinki. We simply wanted to make this happen”, says Leena Eerolainen.
The decision to set up the festival was followed by 18 months of hard work which paid off when the Helsinki Cine Aasia Festival was organised for the first time in March 2013.
“Before the actual event, it was impossible to know whether the audience would find it. But we managed to pull together an excellent programme and a high-quality look. After the first festival it was great to hear from several people that they thought that the event was already more established”, recalls Jenni Peisa.
After the first successful festival Helsinki Cine Aasia has steadily grown its audience and become a fixture in the series of highly-regarded film festivals taking place each year in springtime Helsinki.
Asian contemporary cinema to the center stage from the margins
In its inaugural catalogue, the festival committee defined as the mission of Helsinki Cine Aasia “to introduce its audience to the most interesting new films from Asia and the Asian film culture of the moment.”
“Asia has a mind-blowingly wide-ranging and colourful film industry. The offerings are so varied that without a doubt there is something for everyone to watch!”, says Eija Niskanen praisingly.
Niskanen, Peisa and Eerolainen have all spent time each year in Asia, and films to the Helsinki Cine Aasia programme are typically sourced fresh from large international film festivals such as those in Busan and Tokyo or through direct contacts in Asia.
“It’s a shame that even though Asian film industry is big, interesting and well-developed, it is extremely rare for Asian films to be accepted for general release in Finland. Often the only option to see contemporary Asian films is at festivals”, ponders Peisa.
When the festival was being set up, its geographical focus was limited to East and Southeast Asia, so that there would be enough room in the programme to demonstrate the variety of films from these regions.
“It’s much easier to identify common factors between the cultures and film industry between East and Southeast Asian countries. For example Bollywood films have their own, very distinctive tradition but expansion to this direction has not been ruled out as the festival continues to grow”, Peisa adds.
Warm-hearted comedies and sensitive topics
To date, more than 80 films from 13 different countries have been seen in Helsinki Cine Aasia. In the programme there has each year been both short films and documentaries, but the main focus of the festival is in high-quality, full length fictional films.
Japanese director Shuichi Okita has become the perennial festival favourite and filled auditoriums in three years with his drama comedies full of flavour of life.
In line with the festival’s goals, Helsinki Cine Aasia has each year also shown films from countries in which the film industry is in the early stages of development or undergoing a revival, such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Bhutan.
The screening of Norte, the End of History, the four-hour film by the Filipino auteur Lav Diaz analysing the state of the nation and the lack of vision for the future, at the 2014 festival can even be regarded as an achievement in intransigent cultural activity!
“In many Asian countries cinema has become a key platform for dealing with historically or culturally sensitive topics. The pressure for public debate is often released through films. In often patriarchal societies women have a central role in challenging the prevailing conservative values”, says Niskanen.
Helsinki Cine Aasia festival committee has deliberately made certain, that feminist viewpoints and films directed by women are screened at the Festival each year.
Guests of honour from Asia
Each year the Festival invites as its guest of honour at least one person who is related to the films screened at the festival. So far at Helsinki Cine Aasia, the festival goers have had the opportunity to meet, for example, the Chinese director, Cai Shungjun, who has been awareded the Silver Lion for the Best Director at the Venice International Film Festival, Japanese indie-masters Hirobumi Watanabe and Yuji Watanabe, the young female director Natsuka Kusano and director of many experimental films, Remton Zuasola from the Philippines.
From both the Watanabe brothers and Kusano, Helsinki Cine Aasia screened their first, full length directorial works.
“It is great that we have been able to support these young, raising directors at the early stages of their career,” says Niskanen.
Especially the visit of the Watanabe brothers has stuck in the minds of the festival organisers as one of the highlights of Helsinki Cine Aasia’s history so far. For the brothers, the trip to Helsinki was their first trip abroad, and because they are huge Moomin fans, the destination could hardly have been better. Luckily for them, at the time of their visit, there was a large Tove Jansson exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum, where they bought a lot of souvenirs to take back home!
Anniversary brings a new look to the festival
This year Helsinki Cine Aasia moves to Korjaamo Cultural Factory and has updated its visual concept. Supplementary events at the festival have also been further developed and diversified for example on the basis of the results of the customer survey last year.
In preparation for the programming of the 2017 festival, the festival team visited, for example, Busan International Film Festival in South Korea and Tokyo International Film Festival and Tokyo FilmEx in Japan.
“This year we want to offer our audiences both the experience of identifying with the characters in the films and emotional thrills as well as viewpoints to the Asian societies and cultures and Asian film industry”, says Niskanen.