THE 2011 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL AND JAPAN CUTS

June 28, 2011

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If you’re suffering from the summer blockbuster blues, there’s no greater pick-me-up than the New York Asian Film Festival, an invigorating potpourri of the finest in creative Eastern bloodletting. It marks its tenth decadent year with 45 features from nine different countries, unspooling at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from July 1st – 14th. 11 of those films are co-presented with Japan Cuts, the NYAFF’s more studious (if no less ambitious) five-year-old sister festival, held at Japan Society from July 7th – 22nd. Including the 21 other titles in Japan Cuts, there are 66 Asian movies hitting screens in July, most of which will never receive distribution in the United States (although many will be obtainable at Asian DVD retailers).

Surveys of national cinemas are usually funded by state organizations (i.e. Rendezvous With French Cinema at Lincoln Center is “supported by” the French embassy’s Cultural Services department), turning them into bland diplomatic exercises. The movies selected veer toward middlbrow arthouse or sophisticated-seeming romantic comedies – presenting how these countries want to be seen. The NYAFF and Japan Cuts buck this trend by culling movies from every genre and budget size, from popular hits (Reign of Assassins) to 4 1/2 hour indie experiments (Heaven’s Story).

NYAFF is funded by a gaggle of cultural services and corporate sponsors (scroll to the bottom of the home page to see which ones) but beholden to none, while Japan Cuts is underwritten by The Japan Foundation, a government-created cultural exchange entity that became an independent administrative institution in 2003. These benefactors continue to give ace programmers Grady Hendrix (NYAFF) and Samuel Jamier (Japan Cuts) space to select titles both lowbrow and high, sketching a more wide-ranging portrait of Asia than you’ll likely read in the newspaper.

It’s impossible to cover everything on display (including a great Tsui Hark mini-retro), but most of the revelations in this year’s slate came in the NYAFF sidebar, “Sea of Revenge: New Korean Thrillers”, so I’ll focus there. Park Chan-wook re-invented the ax murder in his wildly popular vengeance trilogy, but it wasn’t until the runaway success of Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008) that a new cycle of revenge films got kicked off in Korea. The only inkling we’ve received stateside of this wave was the release of Kim Jee-Woon’s fantastical sadism duel,  I Saw the Devil (2010, Magnolia Pictures), earlier this year. The titles in the sidebar are perversely pessimistic thrillers that repeatedly take aim at Korea’s governmental institutions. It is no coincidence that the cycle began in 2008, the year which ushered in our continuing economic crisis (almost all the others landed in 2010).

The Chaser stars the plump and harried Kim Yun-Seok as Jung-Hoa dirty ex-cop who runs a second-rate prostitution ring that is bleeding cash. Two of his girls have fled, and another has quit, so he forces a feverish Mi-Jin (Seo Young-hee) out on a job. Then he notices the address, which is the same location where he sent the two girls who disappeared. His vestigial detective instincts kick in, and he begins a frenzied investigation into the john, Ji Young-Min (Ha Jung-Woo)who is soon revealed to be a mild-mannered serial killer.

The tone begins as grimly comic noir, as Jung-Ho’s short-tempered capitalist pursues the mystery out of base self-interest. He initially believes Ji has merely sold his whores, and becomes a P.I. only to save his business. When the extent of Ji’s crimes become clear, his focus sharpens and his defensive cynicism falls away. He literally runs down clues through the streets of Seoul as Na’s jittery camera struggles to keep up. The pace relentlessly carries the film through its operatically tragic conclusion. The few moments of humor are reserved for the incompetent police force, who are occupied by a protestor who threw shit in the mayor’s face (hapless Keystone Korean Kops are a recurring presence in the series). Hoarding its resources into handling that PR fiasco, sad-sack Jung-Ho is tasked with being a hero, a role he is ill-suited to execute.

Na followed this up with The Yellow Sea, NYAFF’s closing night film and a selection in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. It’s bigger and bloodier but equally swift and despairing as his boffo debut. He takes on the phenomenon of the “joseonjok“, Chinese citizens of Korean ancestry who illegally sneak back into Korea to get work. Na reverses the actor polarities from The Chaser: this time Ha Jung-Woo plays the beaten down anti-hero (Gu-nam) and Kim Yun Seok is the  mercilessly violent Chinese gang boss Myung-Ga. Gu-nam borrowed 60,000 yuan to get his wife a visa to work across the border, and he hasn’t heard from her since. Hassled by loan sharks and fraying at the seams beneath a stoic stone-face, Myung-Ga offers him a mountain of cash if he kills a man in Korea – while also giving Gu-nam the opportunity to track down his wife.

In the opening voice-over, Gu-nam speaks of his childhood. In his village, a dog infected with rabies killed its mother. Later he saw it wobble toward him and die from malnourishment. The village elders ate the corpse, and the disease spread throughout town. It is an original sin of a sort, his people cursed because of the desperation brought on by poverty. Gu-nam spends the film in atonement for this sin, enduring unspeakable physical abasements, although there is no transcendence on the other side.

With terse efficiency, Na depicts the Gu-nam’s journey across the Yellow Sea in a junk ship, hiding in a hull with the other illegals, dumped like netted lobsters on the Korean coastline. The scenes in which Gu-nam cases his mark’s home are object lessons in creating tension through narrative withholding, as we are restricted to his POV as he wordlessly pieces together the routines of the building. The aftermath of the murder opens up the narrative scope, as the POV expands from Gu-nam up to the corporate and criminal leaders who ordered the hit. He becomes merely part of a tapestry of corruption.

The cops, as in The Chaser, are comically inept, this time to a Keatonian level. In Gun-nam’s escape after the killing, he evades hundreds of police offers on foot, carrying a knife. The scene, with police cars flipping past him and baton-wielding ninnies yelling at him to stop, is a direct descendent of the Keystone Kops. It’s a spectacularly sarcastic scene, one with echoes throughout, including a cowardly local cop who accidentally shoots his partner. There is no faith in official institutions – everyone is on the take or just stupid.

I should also note the heavy use of blade violence [the following has been updated after a colleague alerted me to South Korea’s gun laws]. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle, mostly by Myung-Ga – and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity. Somehow this is getting released by 20th Century Fox, release date unknown.

The other major director in the sidebar is Ryoo Seung-Wan, a cheerier exponent of vengeance whose films have a pulsating rhythm. Represented by City of Violence (2006), The Unjust (2010) and Troubleshooter (2010, which he produced but did not direct), Ryoo churns out sleekly absorbing actioners with more self-reflexive panache than Na. City of Violence pits childhood friends against one another, pivoting on shady real estate deals (two years before the crash!), climaxing in fight scenes of comic-book abstraction. Clearly influenced by the ironic japery of Kill Bill, its centerpiece blowout is an exuberantly over-the-top homage to The Warriors. With The Unjust  he gets serious(er). A twisty, multi-layered corruption drama, it squares off a power-hungry detective and a power-hungrier prosecutor as the entire Korean justice system is jauntily sketched out as on the make. The detective, Captain Choi (Hwang Jung-Min), is tasked to frame a fall guy for the murder of a young girl, after the main suspect was unjustly killed by the police. The prosecutor (Ryoo Seung-Bum, the director’s brother) finds out, and thus begins an escalating game of blackmail that spreads throughout the city. Ryoo finds expressive uses for the slow zoom, moving from micro crimes to macro institutional corruption in one shot.

Kwok Hyeok-Jae helmed Troubleshooter (2010) which Ryoo produced and co-wrote. A hectic menage of the Bourne films and Hitchock’s The Wrong Man (or less hyperbolically, The Fugitive), it frames P.I. Tae-Sik (Sol Kyung-Gu) for murder, and he has to outrun the cops and prove his innocence before he gets his head blown off. Set to a backbeat of corruption news on his car radio, he dons disguises and endures betrayals with a breezy disregard. The busy visuals, a lot of screens within screens and flash editing, is tiresome after a while, but Sol is an amiable and ably physical performer, and the pace never flags. As for the other entries, The Man From Nowhere is a passably diverting Eastwood gloss, and I didn’t have time to watch Bedevilled.

Japan Cuts is studded with gems of its own, although the spurting bodily fluids they elicit comes from the tear ducts rather than the jugular. The most ambitious is Heavens Story, a four and a half hour labor of love for director Takahisa Zeze, the former “King of Pink” (Pink films are the softcore porn of Japan). An independent project that took him five years to make, it follows a group of characters dealing with the aftermath of a series brutal murders. It reminded me most strongly of Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka (2000) a similarly epic reckoning with grief, although their approaches are much different. Aoyama’s B&W long take naturalism is a far cry from Zeze’s blunt symbolism, but both reach to evoke the stasis induced by unutterable emotional pain, that netherworld between grieving and living. Zeze’s clumsy DV framings often fail to reach the heights he’s groping for, but there are plenty of striking images that blaze through, including an existential death match in an abandoned mining town, and the magical closing Kabuki performance that offers an escape from the cycles of violence. Another, more assured multi-character tale is Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City (2010), which documents the decline of an industrial port town in intersecting vignettes. Its highly detailed soundscape of clanging bells and alarm clocks seem to be counting down to the city’s demise.

One of the biggest surprises is Masahiro Kobayashi’s Haru’s Journey, a gentle drama about aging starring the legendary old lion Tatsuya Nakadai (High and Low, Ran et. al.). Kobayashi had been a maker of challenging festival films, including Bashing (2005) and the remarkable endurance test that is The Rebirth (2007). But here is his ode to Tokyo Story, a mainstream melodrama about Nakadai and his granddaughter, asking each of his siblings if he can live with them, and repeatedly being rejected. It’s a showcase for Nakadai, who is charmingly irascible throughout, his demeanor embodied in his lame leg, giving him a herky-jerky walk that is a warning to fellow pedestrians.  Kobayashi’s visuals are calmly controlled, often using extreme long shots to evoke this family’s emotional distance, proving he can handle melodrama with aplomb. Haru’s Journey is a lovely and bittersweet, anchored by Nakadai’s resolutely unsentimental performance.

Another unexpected departure is A Boy and His Samurai (2010), in which NYAFF and Japan Cuts regular Yoshihiro Nakamura diverts from his comic-paranoiac mode (as in the punk rock apocalypse of Fish Story (2009)) into a sweetly satisfying family film. Yusa is an overworked single mother whose child, Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki), is suddenly visited by an inadvertently time-traveling samurai named Kajima (played by Japanese TV heartthrob Ryo Nishikido). Without a clue how to live in the modern age, Kajima stays inside and becomes a super-dedicated housemaid, and eventually a world-class pastry chef.  With its gentle fish-out-of-water humor and its unassuming investigation of gender politics, it’s a preposterously entertaining  and intelligent movie.  It’s all wonderfully absurd, and put across with conviction by the engaging cast, especially the cherubic Fuku Suzuki, who just might be the cutest kid on screen since Jackie Cooper.

Considering the evidence on display, Asian cinema is as resourceful and inventive as ever, with an especially vibrant genre scene happening in Korea.  With I Saw the Devil pushing the revenge genre toward self-reflexiveness and closer to parody, the last stage in any stylistic cycle, it’s possible the next creative spurt has already started elsewhere. Maybe the exploitation action movies of the Phillippines and Thailand (like this year’s wondrously chaotic BKO: Bangkok Knockout) are hiding even more treasures.  I’ll have to wait until the next NYAFF and Japan Cuts to see what develops.

THE NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL & JAPAN CUTS

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.