The city’s premier showcase of the latest and greatest from international film festivals, the New York Asian Film Festival (screening through July 9) celebrates its 15th anniversary by continuing what it does best. That means providing its savvy and eager audiences the multivalent richness to be found in Asian cinema, an unfailingly reliable alternative to the usual bombastic domestic summer offerings, as well as a rebuke to other local festivals that continue to ignore these films (talking to you, Tribeca).
Besides the usual suspects of Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan, this year’s festival focuses on the relatively less seen areas of Southeast Asia, with a number of intriguing offerings from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Notable among these offerings are two acclaimed films from the Philippines.
Mario Cornejo’s lovely and languorous Apocalypse Child is set in the sun-drenched beach environs of Baler; the title refers to this town where the surfing scenes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now were shot. One of the mythologies put forward in the opening is that Coppola fathered a child with an underage girl during the making of that film. Or so single mother Chona (Ana Abad Santos) has been telling her son, Ford (Sid Lucero)–named after his supposed father–all his life. Ford has never really believed her; the closeness of ages between him and his mom (she was only 14 when she gave birth) has him treating her more like a peer than a parent.
He whiles his days as a professional beach bum, giving surfing lessons, and spending his copious free time drinking, lounging, and cavorting with his much younger girlfriend, Fiona (Annicka Dolonius). The arrival of Ford’s childhood friend Rich (RK Baggatsing), now a congressman, and his fiancée, Serena (Gwen Zamora), violently disrupts the chrysalis of calm Ford has carefully constructed around himself, bringing up old family secrets and complicated love triangles. Despite all the drama, Apocalypse Child moves with a seductive, delicate flow that envelops the viewer in its compelling atmosphere, graced with fine turns by Lucero and Dolonius.
Ralston Jover’s Hamog (Haze) immerses the viewer in the grit and grime among the young kids who inhabit the mean streets of Manila, and in particular one group of friends who operate as a ragtag criminal outfit, distracting and then robbing motorists while they’re on the road. Teri Malvar, one of the festival’s Rising Star honorees this year, impresses as Jinky, the sole female in this band of mini-thugs. Malvar, a talented young professional actress, successfully blends in with the rest of the cast, mostly non-professionals and actual street kids.
Hamog strives for lyrical profundity with two voice-over readings from the poem that lends the film its title. Instead of overt anger or weepy sentimentality, the director opts for a rather coldly detached neorealism, which tends to flatten out our emotional response to events, even a tragic one when one of the kids is struck and killed by a car. Therefore, it becomes difficult to discern what the point of it all is, other than providing yet another spectacle of poverty and misery for audiences to gawk at from the comfort of a movie theater seat.
Hamog is not without its virtues, however. Besides Malvar’s justly celebrated performance, its depiction of a Muslim family is remarkable for its rendering of them as fully rounded characters, free of the rank stereotyping that is far too prevalent, both in movies and presidential campaigns.
From Japan comes A Bride for Rip Van Winkle by Shunji Iwai, recipient of the fest’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Iwai adapts his own novel into a magisterial, meditative three-hour opus. He elevates his themes of online self-image making and the seductive spider webs of social network communities into the realm of Shakespearean tragedy. Iwai’s hapless protagonist is Nanami (Haru Kuroki), a young woman and teacher whose painfully diffident personality and soft-spoken demeanor gets her bullied at school by students and fellow teachers. She tries to find salvation in life as a docile housewife to a husband she meets online, but when her hiring of a Mephistophelean fixer (Go Ayano) to hire fake guests to her wedding becomes exposed, it thus begins her inexorable downfall and decline.
Slow yet enthrallingly suspenseful, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle injects the style the filmmaker established in his earlier stylish weepies (April Story and Love Letter) with a cynical bite and pointed commentary on Japan’s rigid social norms and its harsh ostracizing of those who don’t fit in.
Currently sitting atop Japan’s box office charts, Kankuro Kudo’s Too Young to Die! turns the story of a high schooler’s first-love pains and all the attendant slings and arrows of adolescence into a heavy metal musical extravaganza set in a wild version of Buddhist hell. Seventeen-year-old Daisuke (Rynosuke Kamiki), along with many of his classmates, is the fatal victim of a bus crash that sends the other students to heaven, but Daisuke ends up in the other place due to some petty offenses and a clerical error that lists his death as a suicide.
Hell in this movie’s conception is lorded over by a loud metal band, whose leader plays guitar with the borrowed arms of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Daisuke becomes convinced that the crash’s one survivor is Hiromi (Aoi Morikawa), the girl he’s been pining for all through high school. He undergoes the tortuous process of recurring reincarnation to return to the land of the living to find her. The loud music and gags come fast and furious, and though the structure gets somewhat repetitive over its two-hour-plus running time, it’s all spirited and fun.
South Korea, as usual, provides a number of superior offerings. One of the finest this year is E J-yong’s heartbreaking, sensitively told The Bacchus Lady. This film is crowned by a graceful and heartrending performance by veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung as So-young, a woman in her sixties who works as a prostitute plying her trade in a public park in the Jongno area of Seoul. She lives alone and struggles to make ends meet, even more so when a case of gonorrhea puts a serious crimp in her ability to earn money.
The director depicts this real-life phenomenon–one result of the state’s failure to adequately care for its elder citizens–with a penetrating gaze devoid of exploitation and full of empathy. E also expands his inquiry to include others who are marginalized in Korean society, such as Southeast Asian migrant workers, the disabled, and transgender people. Often cast-off, scorned, and discriminated against, they form a supportive network that does its best to counteract the harsh cruelty of the larger society. Eschewing the tendency of this sort of material to devolve into syrupy melodrama, E powerfully depicts those striving to live out their autumn years with self-respect and dignity.
Korean director Lee Joon-ik is justly celebrated for his sumptuous, finely acted and conceived period pieces, such as The King and the Clown and Blades of Blood, and this year’s festival includes some of these, of which The Throne stands as one of his greatest achievements. This film explores the oft-revisited notorious historical episode involving 18th century Joseon monarch Yeongjo (Song Kang-ho), who had his own son, Crown Price Sado (Yoo Ah-in), put to death by locking him in a rice chest without air, food, or water for eight days.
The compelling, intersecting lines of palace intrigue, political maneuvering, and murderous jealousy don’t divide people in neat categories of heroes and villains. What emerges with powerful and poignant force is the idea that the real villain here is a system that emphasizes ritual and rote memorization of rigid Confucian principles over human beings. What’s more, it turns family members into potential enemies and political rivals to be eliminated. Lee sees these attitudes persisting into the present day, making the piece not a distant costume piece but an intensely urgent and angry statement. The finely nuanced performances by Song and Yoo as the tragically at-odds father and son, as well as the brilliant supporting cast, drive these points home with honed, visceral precision.
The gritty, rough-hewn adult animated creations of Yeon Sang-ho (The King of Pigs, The Fake) are relentless in their pointed political commentary, and Seoul Station is no exception. The difference this time is that there is much literal bite to his social criticism. Korea may be a relative newcomer to the zombie movie genre, but Yeon rips into it with considerable gusto. Set in large part among the homeless denizens of Seoul’s main subway station, a zombie epidemic spreads like wildfire due to the ostracism and neglect of society’s perceived castoffs. That the most sympathetic characters (at least initially) are a pimp and a prostitute forced into the profession is its own telling statement.
These, and the rest of the lineup of more than 50 films, confirm why the New York Asian Film Festival remains an essential destination for hardcore cinephiles and casual movie fans alike. There has been much talk lately about the need for greater diversity on our movie screens. For 15 years now, and hopefully many more, NYAFF hasn’t just talked about it, but has consistently and passionately been about it.