June 29, 2010

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The New York Asian Film Festival (June 25th – July 8th) is more essential than ever. With distribution companies shutting their doors to Asian cinemas of all types,  there are very few outlets to watch the continent’s resourceful, often brilliant genre cinema on the big screen. For nine years programmer Grady Hendrix and his crew have been filling the void, and for the past few has joined forces with the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema (July 1 – 16th)  to provide the most eclectic and revelatory overview of Asian film in the U.S. It’s a heady mix of spectacle, grotesquerie, slapstick and resolute artistry. Every year you’ll see something you’d never seen the likes of before.

For me, this year’s edition surprised me with its Chinese slate, and specifically the skittish performances of actor Huang Bo, recepient of this year’s redundantly titled  Star Asia Rising Star Award. My knowledge of contemporary Chinese cinema doesn’t extend far beyond the arthouses and underground film clubs that show Jia Zhangke and the documentaries of Zhao Dayong. So getting exposed to Huang in the antic Crazy Racer and morbidly funny Cow expanded my limited horizons.

A squat, frog-faced actor with a quick smile and a quicker temper, Huang plays stubborn fools with a clumsiness and slack-jawed innocence reminiscent of Buster Keaton. Crazy Racer (the sequel to Crazy Stone (2006), which I haven’t seen) is a time-shifting crime-comedy in the Pulp Fiction mode, with Huang’s disgraced bike racer bumping into two bumbling assassins, a Thai drug dealer, the Chinese mob and beatings with a frozen fish. The twisty narrative is imaginative and cleanly executed, and director Ning Hao doesn’t bother dawdling over too much sentiment. Cow has Huang playing a similarly alienated character, but in a completely different context. His Niu-Er is a simple peasant caught up in the Sino-Japanese war. His village gets slaughtered, the only surviving creature a foreign cow donated to give milk to the Chinese troops. Navigating some dramatic tonal shifts, Huang manages to insert a violence into his pratfalls and a resignation in his stubbornness that keeps the film from descending into treacle. He elicits laughs that catch in your throat, inserting a jaggedness to the sentiment that makes the whole improbable set-up go down a lot smoother. Plus the cow is pretty good too.

Revelatory in another sense is SOPHIE’S REVENGE, which is a blatant Sex & the City knockoff produced by and starring Zhang Zhiyi. She plays the Carrie role with an overwhelming barrage of animal-themed hats and cow-eyed stares. While the cartoon-y stylization and wonderfully violent fantasy sequences take some of the sting out of the blatant consumerism of this day-glo contraption, the story suffers from an inert supporting cast and a story too cliched for even the Sex gals to endure. While no great shakes as a film – as a cultural object it’s fascinating, as it creates a photo-shopped super-rich city of chrome and flowers and whimsy where women are sexually independent and the rural poor exist only in the “arty” shots of the hunky photographer.

Moving to Hong Kong, the best film in the festival is the uncut version of John Woo’s RED CLIFF, but I’ve already written about it here at Morlocks and also at Moving Image Source, so I won’t spill more words on it. But I will recommend Gallants, a quirkily nostalgic martial arts film featuring oldsters Bruce Leung and Chen Kuan-Tai. Waiting for their near-ancient master to awake from a coma, Leung and Chen turn the gym into a restaurant, until a callow teen sparks a feud with the high-tech workout joint across town. It’s a pleasant and comfy piece of work, sliding into the normal revenge plot mode with tongue gently pressing against cheek.

Little Big Man, Jackie Chan’s diverting take-off on the series of swashbuckling origin stories (including Red Cliff), finds the cherubic 56 year old actor playing a coward. He plays dead during the heroic battles in order to stay alive, and captures a wounded opposing General after all the bodies fall. Failing to push its subversive premise very far, the film ends up celebrating the same kind of warrior ethos it is ostensibly parodying. But it features a few agile Chan fight scenes, and that should be enough.

The only Korean feature I was able to preview was the loopy romantic comedy, Castaway on the Moon, which is unable to sustain its whimsy past the one-hour mark, upon which it devolves into standard love story pabulum. Mr. Kim attempts suicide by jumping into the Han river, only to find himself on an isolated island. Not too upset to be cut off from society, he starts living off the land and communicating with a shut-in, Mrs. Kim, who watches him through a telescope at a high-rise apartment. There is some good obsessive work with black bean noodles, bird poop and the real utility of credit cards, but once the separated duo start communicating, invention flags and director Lee Hey-Jun gropes for cliche.

The Japan Cuts program tends to be more reserved and dramatic, leaving the madness to NYAFF, and this year is no exception. The main highlight for me has been Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother, an expertly staged family melodrama starring the superb Sayuri Yoshinaga and Tsurube Shofukutei. They play sister and brother, respectively, with the latter drinking himself into a debauched oblivion. Yamada, now 78, is in perfect control of the medium, setting up familial relations and foreshadowing events through composition and staging. Beginning with a quick montage of recent Japanese history (including clips from Yamada’s own 48-feature long Tora-san series), the film slowly unveils Tsurube as the inebriated black sheep of the family, upending a family wedding with the destructive power of his singing voice.

He prefaces this destruction with a quietly witty shot – a wine glass in the left foreground marking doom. Later, Tsurube’s knee juts up into the middle of the frame, another subtly amusing jibe at his need to be the center of attention. But this isn’t a comedy of reformation. Yamada never allows Tsurube to be judged so simplistically, eventually offering a subtle critique of the middle-class values that would attack his particular kind of independence. If you need more reasons to see it, David Bordwell is a fan and wrote about it briefly here.

The festival started on June 25th, but there’s plenty more to see. And while it’s likely you won’t catch them in cinemas again anytime soon, many will be available at your local Chinatown on DVD, and will be for sale at on-line retailers like YesAsia.

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