Now in its 11th edition, this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is a little lighter than usual on the fanboy-baiting genre material, such as martial arts, horror, action, and the outré Japanese sex and gore imports, its usual bread and butter. But to this critic’s mind, that is all to the good, in terms of the impressive eclecticism of this year’s line-up, which does indeed contain films that fit solidly within their respective genres, whether it be martial arts, Dragon (Wu Xia), gangster films (Nameless Gangster), or historical epics (Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale). However, there are many more films that aren’t as easily classifiable. The result is a festival with a variety that is consistently, and rewardingly, eye-opening, offering singular diversions that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else this summer.
As the NYAFF has grown in popularity and stature over the years, the festival has attracted ever more high-caliber guests. Perhaps its recent association with Lincoln Center has more than a little to do with this. This year, the event has landed perhaps its biggest guest star yet with Donnie Yen, the actor and martial artist who in recent years has exploded in popularity, most notably in the Ip Man biopics, where he plays a real-life martial artist who is best known for having trained Bruce Lee. Highly in demand as an action choreographer as well as an actor, his recent performances have been as impressive as the rapidity of his kicks and punches.
Yen is represented by three films in this year’s festival, including one slated for an upcoming U.S. release, Dragon (Wu Xia), Peter Chan’s somber and self-consciously philosophical take on the martial arts genre. Chan’s film contains homages to classic Shaw Brothers films, especially The One-Armed Swordsman. Yen plays Liu Jinxi, a seemingly mild-mannered papermaker living a peaceful life in 1917 China with his family. But of course, such an idyllic existence can’t last, and Liu’s bubble of contented domesticity is violently burst with the arrival of two bandits and wanted killers passing through town on their way to their latest robbery.
When they attempt to rob Liu’s paper mill, he fights them both, and they end up dead. Liu becomes a village hero, but arouses the suspicions of detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who immediately suspects that Liu is not the man he appears to be. As the film progresses, the layers of Liu’s dark past are revealed, and a few questions emerge: whether one can truly escape a violent past, how much our actions define who we are, and how to balance impartially enforcing the law with instincts of compassion.
Wu Xia is decidedly light on actual combat, which has disappointed some viewers, but the battles are suitably impressive, with Shaw Brothers legends Kara Hui and Jimmy Wang Yu (star of The One-Armed Swordsman) along for the ride, acquitting themselves with skill that belies their ages. The film’s philosophical concerns are somewhat deemphasized in the shortened version (by about 12 minutes, recut by Chan himself) for the North American release by the Weinstein Company. This editing makes for a slightly faster moving picture, but at the expense of fully allowing its themes to resonate.
Another big star guest of NYAFF this year is Korean actor Choi Min-sik, best known for his larger than life, tour-de-force performance in Park Chan-wook’s violent, ornate revenge tale Oldboy (screening at this year’s festival). Choi specializes in outsized, imposing characters that are as likely to tug at the heartstrings as chew the scenery. Some of his best films will screen this year, including Song Hae-sung’s Failan. It’s less known but contains one of his finest performances, and is a personal favorite of Choi’s. Here he plays a petty gangster who must settle the affairs of a recently deceased Chinese immigrant (Cecelia Cheung), whom he has never met, but married on paper in order for her to acquire legal residency papers. This unlikely romance between two people who never meet is Korean style melodrama par excellence, but it exercises unusually tough-minded restraint. The result is even more poignantly heartrending than it would be otherwise, and earns every tear it elicits. This is a rarely screened gem of early 2000s Korean cinema, and one which you owe it to yourself to try to see.
Choi’s latest is Yoon Jeong-bin’s Nameless Gangster, a recent South Korean box-office hit that takes a page—more than a few pages, actually—from the Gangster Movie Bible, Book of Scorsese. Yoon clearly has more than a passing familiarity with GoodFellas and Casino; one scene replicates almost exactly the fate that befalls Joe Pesci in the latter film. Nameless Gangster charts the passage of Ik-hyun (Choi) from a customs officer taking kickbacks to a mover-and-shaker in the gangster world of 1980’s Busan, South Korea. The film duly notes, as if following a checklist, familiar gangster lore, to the point of being almost ho-hum: violence, gangster life glamour, backstabbing and betrayals, the rise and inevitable fall. However, several things save Nameless Gangster from the irredeemably routine: the historical and cultural specificity of the period Yoon depicts, which he nails unerringly, no doubt because he sets his film in his native city. South Korea’s dictatorial, repressive governments were on their last legs by the 1980’s, just as surely as the old-school gangsterism we see on display; Yoon strongly suggests there was a definite connection between the two.
Another fascinating aspect of the film is its insight into clan-based nature of much of Korean society; Ik-hyun’s family memberships and clan connections are what allows him to rise in gangster society and manipulate everyone around him to achieve his own ends. His little black book of contacts is a powerful talisman that gives him protection and gets him out of a few sticky predicaments. Also elevating Nameless Gangster well above a mundane reiteration of generic tropes are its performances.
One valuable aspect of NYAFF is its emphasis on the popular cinema of Asia, in other words, what regular folk plunk down their cash to see in movie theaters, rather than the darlings of the critical intelligentsia. This definitely appeals to the armchair traveler, who, in this way, is able to get a glimpse of the pop culture of many countries. The NYAFF each year places a special focus on certain national cinemas, and this year it includes the section “Warriors and Romantics: The New Cinema from Taiwan.” Taiwanese cinema has experienced a commercial renaissance in the past few years, emerging from the film industry doldrums of being mostly known as the home of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, auteurs much more celebrated abroad than at home. However, in recent years, young and talented directors, often with government support, have created films, like the music-themed romance Cape No. 7 and the gangster film Monga, that have attracted local audiences in droves. These films have derived inspiration from Taiwan’s unique history and culture to offer innovative, even visionary movies.
This year’s festival provides some fine examples, such as 2011’s massive box-office hit You Are the Apple of My Eye, Giddens Ko’s 1990’s high-school romance reminiscence based on his Internet novel. Giddens looks back on his high school and college days with raw, autobiographical honesty, uproarious and irreverent humor, as well as rueful regret over the girl that got away. The girl in this case is prissy and uptight Chia-yi (Michelle Chen), a model student and the object of affection of a group of boys in her high school. The guys, who go by such evocative monikers as Cock, Boner, Groin, and Fattie, are the friends of Ko Ching-teng (Ko Chen-tung). He’s placed under Chia-yi’s tutelage by their teacher after he is caught indulging in a wildly inappropriate activity in the back of class (I won’t spoil it here).
In familiar romantic comedy tradition, their mutual dislike eventually turns to attraction, but Ching-teng’s immature notions of macho coolness prevent him from fully admitting to his feelings. The vicissitudes of their years together and apart are rendered with endearing sensitivity, and what could easily be unbearably saccharine in other hands is undercut by its distinctly male-oriented humor and its refusal to indulge in cheap, happily-ever-after fantasies. The young actors are engaging and easy to watch, and Chen, especially, gives wonderful shadings to her character who, as is often the case, is far more mature about life and love matters than her male counterpart.
Another impressive Taiwanese selection is Lien Yi-chi’s somber, mournful Make Up, a film with the superficial trappings of a murder mystery, but is really a meditative look at lost love. A mortuary make-up artist, Min-hsiu (a melancholically beautiful performance by Nikki Hsieh) is a shy, withdrawn woman much more at home among the dead than the living. Her solitary life is upended when one of her corpses turns out to be Chen Ting (Sonia Sui), a music teacher at her high school who was her secret lover at age 17. The cause of death is officially listed as suicide, but a suspicious detective (Bryant Chang) believes that it may actually have been a murder, with Chen Ting’s husband as the prime suspect. The film travels back and forth in time, detailing how Min-hsiu’s first love shaped who she has become, and the intricate connections between all the characters gradually become more apparent in Yu Shang-min’s clever script. Languorously filmed in moody blue tones (the present) and glowing golden colors (the past), Make Up finds exquisite grace in its rather morbid subject matter.
A somewhat less resonant Taiwanese selection is Chen Hung-i’s Honey Pupu, which attempts to find poetry in modern life’s ephemera of social networking and rapid obsolescence. It grounds its sci-fi, and vaguely cyberpunk, premise in a real-life phenomenon, the disappearance of bees due both to global warming and disturbances caused by the signals from our wireless devices. The beehive becomes a potent metaphor for the relationships, both virtual and actual.
In the future-is-now Taipei depicted here, people and places are disappearing just like the bees. Vicky (Peggy Tseng), a radio DJ haunted by the disappearance of her boyfriend on New Year’s Day, desperately searches for him by using his contacts on the social website he frequented. The sci-fi of the premise comes into play in the conspiratorial theory that all these disappearing people and objects are slipping into a parallel universe. Honey Pupu is quite visually busy, with jagged jump-cuts and computer derived animated imagery that mirrors the restless youth that jump, run, and float throughout the film. Chen certainly makes full use of the tricks he learned as a commercial and music video editor, but he is so concerned with everything looking cool and being cool that any real emotional content is drowned by the layers of images.
As usual, the NYAFF will also partner on some screenings with the Japan Cuts festival (July 12-28). Some of this year’s best films are co-presentations, such as Keiichi Sato’s animated film Asura, an apocalyptic Buddhist parable whose hero is a feral cannibal child. The story of the Unabomber is the inspiration for Toshiaki Toyoda’s spare yet richly allegorical Monsters Club, about a young man in angry retreat from society haunted by both his own demons and the ghosts of the dead.
Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and attendant nuclear disaster have elicited a number of cinematic responses, and a few of them grace both festivals. One in particular I’m eagerly looking forward to is Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Potechi (Chips), NYAFF’s closing night film. Nakamura, a NYAFF veteran who will be represented here for the fourth time—and who directed last year’s audience award winner, the wonderful A Boy and His Samurai—combines humor and heart in his films like no one else.