June 28, 2011
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-Ho, a 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.