Aaron Kwok, center, in Port of Call (Film Society of Lincoln Center)

Aaron Kwok, center, in Port of Call (All photos: Film Society of Lincoln Center)

We’re right in the thick of summer, and usually what that means, as far as movies go, is Hollywood throwing billions of dollars at us in bombastic Dolby surround sound, 3-D, and outsized spectacle at the multiplexes. But here in New York, if you’re willing to look beyond the realm of dinosaurs, revived Terminators, and fake earthquakes, you’ll find at least one place that offers both well-crafted spectacles and fine adult dramas that put Hollywood to shame, and that’s the New York Asian Film Festival.

Now in its 14th edition (screening from June 26 through July 11), and once again hosted at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the NYAFF continues to be a one-stop shop for some of the best and most provocative films coming out of Asia, many of which have been featured at Cannes, Toronto, Rotterdam, Busan, and other major film festivals. The NYAFF also boasts a wide array of filmmaker and actor guests for Q & A discussions and award presentations, as well as retrospectives that add to the typical embarrassment of riches this festival offers.

The NYAFF this year has once again landed a major Asian star, the Hong Kong actor Aaron Kwok, who began his career in the 1980’s as a model and a burgeoning actor with some promise, and went on to become a massively popular Cantopop singer in the early ’90’s. But in the last decade or so, he has matured into an impressively versatile performer with a number of fine films under his belt. He’s being awarded with the festival’s Star Asia Award this year, and he’ll be represented in the program with the 2012 hit Cold War and the opening night film, Philip Yung’s Port of Call.

Based on an actual 2008 Hong Kong case, the film features Kwok in one of his most impressive performances to date as a detective investigating the murder and dismemberment of a teenage prostitute in a tenement building. Kwok hides his matinee idol looks beneath a frumpy wardrobe, salt-and-pepper hair, and oversized spectacles. The film offers an unrelentingly bleak vision of Hong Kong, with disaffected youth, stone-eyed murderers, and struggling adults. Shifting between three distinct time frames and boldly breaking the genre rules of police procedurals, Port of Call is bolstered by its fine visuals, the work of ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who renders the port of Hong Kong as a gauzy, waking nightmare.

Another major Hong Kong icon making a presence at the festival is director Ringo Lam, who made such classic ’80’s and ’90’s films as City on Fire (1987), famously and allegedly ripped off by Quentin Tarantino for his 1992 breakout Reservoir Dogs. City on Fire and Full Alert (1997) will screen this year. (Lam will attend and receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.)

This year marks the end of NYAFF’s eight year partnership with another major New York festival, Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, which follows right on the heels on NYAFF and slightly overlaps it for a few days. NYAFF’s own Japanese programming is as strong and diverse as the festival in general, ranging from Sion Sono’s hip-hop musical Tokyo Tribe to the two-part high-school mystery Solomon’s Perjury and through the erotically-charged melodrama Kabukicho Love Hotel. Its young star, Shota Sometani, will receive this year’s Screen International Rising Star Award.

Director Daihachi Yoshida is the subject of a three-film festival spotlight, which includes his latest, Pale Moon (2014). Set in 1994, shortly on the heels of Japan’s economic collapse, it features a sensational performance by Rie Miyazawa as a bored and sexually unfulfilled housewife-turned-bank employee whose affair with a younger college student sets her on the path of embezzlement and her liberation from society’s moral strictures. Based on a novel by Mitsuyo Kakata, Pale Moon ultimately trades moralistic finger-wagging for a more slyly subversive questioning of socially-imposed mores.

A scene from Taksu

A scene from Taksu

Another fine film in the Japanese program is Taksu, actress-producer Kiki Sugino’s second feature as a director. Set in Bali, the film follows two couples—Yuri and Chihiro (Yoko Mitsuya and Takumi Saito), Kumi (Yumi’s sister) and Luke (Sugino and Tom Mes)—who spend time at a vacation house. The holiday is strained, however, by Chihiro’s terminally ill condition and his self-pitying tirades. His wife, Yuri, soon drifts off to explore the island on her own, eventually succumbing to the ministrations of a local gigolo. Sugino creates a beautifully mesmerizing and melancholy mood, which is given a strong erotic charge by the scenes of Yuri indulging her sexual passions.

Moving on to South Korea, NYAFF features a focus on Myung Films, an important production company led by its namesake, the female producer Shim Jae-myung. Shim was instrumental in the late ’90s/early 2000’s revival of Korean cinema that introduced names that are now familiar to festival and art-house audiences, such as Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk. Myung Films spearheaded the discovery of new talent and facilitated the exposure of directors with innovative and uniquely provocative visions. Two examples are in this year’s program: Kim Ki-duk’s still shocking The Isle (2000) and Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang (2005), which turns the 1979 assassination of president Park Chung-hee (the father of South Korea’s current president, Park Geun-hye) into a caustically irreverent political farce.

Myung Films also has brought us the work of talented women directors, two of whom will attend NYAFF. Yim Soon-rye, one of Korea’s finest filmmakers, is represented by a double bill of her 2001 film Waikiki Brothers and her latest, The Whistleblower. Inspired by actual events, the latter film follows a TV newsmagazine reporter (Park Hae-il) and his efforts to expose the fraud of a stem-cell scientist (Lee Gyeong-yeong), who has evidence against him indicating that he’s faked his research. It’s as thrilling as any suspense movie and vividly depicts the uphill struggles of those who expose cons and false heroes in the face of a gullible and blindly patriotic public.

Another impressive female director is Boo Ji-young, who follows up her debut feature Sisters on the Road (2008) with Cart, a feminist labor drama, based on a real case, in which the workers and cleaners of a Walmart-like big-box retail store get together to form a union and go on strike, occupying and shutting down the store. The conflict plays itself out in sharply gender terms: the workers are all women and management all men. It’s a rousing and inspiring story, one which will push all the right buttons of any self-respecting progressive.

The Taiwanese films in this year’s program are highlighted by two very different youth movies. Chang Jung-chi’s Partners in Crime marks a stylistic about-face from his previous debut feature, Touch of the Light, a gentle tale of the friendship between a blind pianist and an aspiring ballerina. Partners in Crime is much darker, detailing three boys’ involvement in the amateur investigation of a young girl’s suicide. Lies, bullying, and social media-generated gossip converge in tragic ways. Chang successfully sustains a dreamy yet melancholy mood, powerfully depicting youthful alienation.

On the other hand, Chiang Chin-lin’s Café. Waiting. Love is an endearingly sweet, magical-realist romance that comes from the fertile imagination of beloved novelist-filmmaker Giddens Ko, whose own film You Are the Apple of My Eye was a delightful highlight of the 2012 edition. Ko wrote the screenplay of Café, based on his novel. The film features charismatic performances by fresh-faced newcomers Vivian Sung (as a brash college girl) and Bruce (as a lovelorn laughingstock forced to roller skate everywhere dressed in a bikini because he chronically loses bets). This is a world where sausages and bowls of tofu pudding can be pulled out of the air, and where ghosts can become objects of romantic longing.

If you’re weary of the contemporary world, and prefer some classic cinema, NYAFF’s got you covered. This year it features tributes to two iconic Japanese tough guy actors who passed away last year: Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara. A sidebar honoring them is called “The Last Men of Japanese Film,” and features some of the films that put these actors on the map. Takakura was a classic gangster icon, and he’s represented by Wolves, Pigs, and Men (1964), Nihon Kyokaku-Den (aka Tales of Chivalry in Japan, 1964), and Abashiri Prison (1965).

Bunta Sugawara had a much grittier, more violent screen persona; his ’70’s films dispensed with the honorable gangsters of the past and introduced the much more ruthless yakuza. The highlight of the Sugawara program is the New York premiere of the 2K digital restoration of Kinji Fukasaku’s seminal 1974 film Battles Without Honor and Humanity, which reinvented the Japanese gangster movie and kicked off a five-film series (The Yakuza Papers) that rivals The Godfather or The Sopranos. Other films featuring Sugawara at NYAFF are Cops vs. Thugs (1975) and The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979).

Films such as these, and so much more (54 films this year), are the reason the New York Asian Film Festival should be a permanent fixture on any self-respecting cinephile’s landscape. It’s also a great alternative to the summer’s multiplex bombast. The brilliant work one is exposed to year after year at NYAFF will no doubt have viewers echoing the sentiments of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s revived Terminator: “I’ll be back.”