SAMURAI FLASHBACKby David Wilentz
Subway Cinema, the group that stages the annual New York Asian Film Festival, began when the last Chinatown movie house, the Music Palace, closed in 1998 (coincidentally, just a year after Hong Kong was handed back to China). With the loss of this outlet for over-the-top genre movies, Subway Cinema took up the mission of providing an antidote to an influx of Asian art films. Despite the charms of Hou Xioa Xian or Hirokazu Kore Eda, at times we still need to abandon the cerebral and return to the catharsis of flying kicks and rubber monster suits.
I volunteered at this year’s festival. During orientation meeting I asked the other volunteers which of the 30 or so titles they most wanted to see. The majority said Godzilla: Final Wars, the 28th installment in the series, directed by Ryu Kitamura (Azumi and Versus). Others were, like me, looking forward to Seijun Suzuki’s latest, Princess Raccoon. It’s the first Japanese film to feature Zhang Zhi Yi (in order to maintain her Universal popularity she’s now officially changed her name to the westernized Zhi Yi Zhang).
Suzuki gives us a psychedelic look at the future: Asia is taking over. Multiculturalism is exemplified by Zhang, who delivers her lines in Mandarin and sings in Japanese. _Racoon _is an operetta based on a Japanese folktale about a raccoon that transforms into a beautiful princess (Zhang) and falls in love with a handsome prince.. Despite the story’s original tragic overtones – raccoons are looked down on and the young couple’s love is forbidden—Suzuki instead produces a gleeful celebration of individuality, largely his own. For Zuzuki, the operetta ain’t over until the fat lady raps. It’s all bravura set pieces and sight gags with a bizarre original soundtrack. The chances of this adorable madhouse achieving arthouse distribution seem slim.
Ironically enough, for the first week of the festival, which was held at Anthology Film Archives, a Hou Xioa Xian Ozu Tribute, Café Lumiere, _was playing downstairs. _Lumiere, with its still frames and neorealist pacing, provided a stark contrast to Subway Cinema’s presentation of the other side of current Asian movies. Japan is back with a vengeance._ Survive Style 5 +, t set the basic tone of films that seem weird for the sake of being on the fringe, for being automatically shelved in the ‘cult/midnight’ section at the video store. The _mise en scene is a delirious Pop Art explosion and hip star Tadano Asanobu plays a man who can’t seem to keep his wife dead, no matter how many times he kills her. For all its visual madness, it made no lasting impression.
While none of the films at the festival were overtly art house fare, the best proved more bittersweet than phantasmagorical or cultish. The perfect middle-ground between the slow, artsy films and the just plain whacky was this year’s Audience Award winner for Best Picture, A Taste of Tea. This languid picture about a family living in the countryside hints at an homage to Ozu. But Ozu never had trains coming out of people’s heads or synchronized musical numbers about mountains.
Knowing that Josee, the Tiger and the Fish _was about the romance between a young college student and a woman crippled from cerebral palsy, I was prepared for schmaltz. But _Josee _never panders to or manipulates its audience, instead offering a refreshing kind of naturalism. The terrific performances by the two leads, Satoshi Tsumabuki (from _Waterboys) as Tsuneo and Chizeru Ikewaki as Josee, help make this a realistic and moving coming of age drama.
Veteran director Shunji Iwai’s meditation on adolescence that started with All About Lilly Chou Chou is continued in Hanna and Alice. _While the former originated as an interactive internet novel, Iwai’s newest had its beginnings as an online short film. Ballet and amnesia weave together a story about the friendship between two high school girls that is strained when a boy enters their lives. Iwai’s ethereal style allows him to examine social and emotional phenomena without pretense. Thankfully _Hanna and Alice is less somber in tone, and features genuine comic moments.
Arahan, a Korean action comedy, features martial arts masters flying around Seoul in a desperate attempt to rid the world of evil ‘chi’. Crying Fist features the star of Old Boy as a boxer who makes his living by going out on the street and taking beatings in exchange for money. The two Hong Kong films, Crazy n the City and One Night in Mongkok, while not remarkable, were enough to whisk one back to an afternoon at the Music Palace. Both were cop flicks, the former a comedy about everyday police on the beat, the latter a gritty police procedural in which the murderer is more morally sound than the cops on his trail.
The summer was capped off with two events that further helped resurrect that lost Music Palace thrill: “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” – BAM Cinematek’s tribute to Shaw Brothers, and Film Forum’s “Samurai Summer.”
The all-first-run Shaw Brothers theatre I used to frequent is as long gone as the studio itself. But since Celestial Pictures acquired the Shaw Brothers’ film library a few years ago, we’ve been treated to annual celebrations of their classics. These once mainstream films have been been subsumed by the hipster realm, and thus deemed cool and even artistic.
There were only a handful of Shaw films but those included the quintessential kung fu film,_ The 36th Chamber of Shaolin_. Liu Chia Hui plays the Shaolin monk San Te who must endure grueling training before he can take revenge. Imagine hauling a bucket full of water in each hand up a staircase with your arms outstretched, knives affixed to your elbows to prevent you from faltering. 36 Chambers demonstrates the true meaning of kung fu – obsessive commitment to a physical regime until the practitioner absolutely becomes one with the activity itself.
King Hu, the director who revolutionized the ‘wu xia’ (heroic chivalry) genre and inspired Ang Lee’s, Crouching Tiger, was represented by Come Drink With Me (1966). Hu deftly uses majestic framing and a sweeping camera. Nineteen year old Cheng Pei Pei stars as a woman martial arts expert out to rescue her brother from unscrupulous bandits. A petite female who’s cold as steel and kicks everyone ass may not be completely feminist, even in the context of an Asian period piece, but she certainly is liberating.
This year also featured The One Armed Swordsman, directed by kung fu movie maestro Chang Che. His films were always violent, full of machismo and defined the term, ‘heroic bloodshed’ (John Woo worked as his assistant director early in his career). There’s probably no better example of an underdog than the fighting disabled hero. Perhaps this was a nod to Japan’s blind swordsman, Zatoichi. These two characters actually later paired up in a Hong Kong/Japan co-prod.
Despite the banner of this mini fest there were also some non-fu titles like the period piece musicals, The Love Eterne (1963) and The Kingdom and the Beauty. The respective stars, Betty Le Dai and Linda Lin Dai (not related) were considered classic Chinese beauties and both committed suicide (Le was 30, Lin 31). In both cases the motive a philandering husband and the cruel gossip that ensued. Whether Le and Lin were driven to the brink by a broken heart, loss of face or both, their lives formed a camera obscura of sorts, as events mirrored the tragic melodramas both often appeared in.
With all the samurai films that played Film Forum this summer, we’ve come full circle. Samurai festivals in the old days consisted mostly of Kurosawa, Zatoichi, other mediocre titles and maybe another of the too-often told Chushingura. Film Forum’s series was pretty amazing, and was timed to coincide with some of their films being released on DVD.
As Repertory cinemas prove a dying breed, long-lost titles are appearing on DVD. Wong Kar Wai’s vision of the future as seen in 2046 is actually the 60’s (and really big hair as well). 2046 is a perfect cinematic implication of how we now constantly look back to the past as the far-off world circles ever nearer. Asia is no longer on the other side – they’ve crept up right next to us. Ang Lee and Zhang Yi Mou have reinvented the wu xia film. They’ve filled the gap left when the Western died for the second time (when Heaven’s Gate pounded in the final nail). Naturally, the recently opened IFC Center starts off with Ozu instead of Zatoichi – blind swordsmen remain fit only for Saturday morning on IFC’s television network. Even so, IFC is bringing some of the Film Forum Samurai epics to Saturday morning later this month.
_David Wilentz is a writer based in New York City. _
David Wilentz dreams in color.