Over 40 films from across Asia.
June 25 - July 8 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater
July 1 - July 4 at Japan Society
Midnights June 25/26 & July 2/3 at IFC Center
A few years ago Subway Cinema, the group behind the New York Asian Film Festival, considered expanding their role as New York’s avatar of wondrous Asian cinema with a distribution arm. Realizing it would be impossible to stay afloat in what proved to be the most difficult time ever for foreign films, they nixed the plan. (The Tribeca Film Festival realized a similar mission this year, but they have the advantage of copious funding. Subway is still just a handful of impassioned film fanatics.) It’s a shame because Subway Cinema has forged a distinct brand based on their festival selections. It would have been a very cool DVD label.
There are three basic irrepressible categories that codify the diverse films at NYAFF every year: the hysterical, often of the cult/midnight movie variety; the emotional/touching, both of the sentimental and understated type; the dark and disturbing, often in an unflinchingly realistic manner that offers frightening glimpses at the creepiest aspects of mankind. Within these parameters fall the stalwart genres, from fantasy and sci-fi to horror and martial arts.
What should be the sleeper of this year’s festival is a perfect amalgam of much that defines the Subway brand. Chaw is a Korean horror film about a wild boar that threatens a small mountain village, a twisted, thrilling, and hilariously metaphorical rollercoaster. Forget about Jaws, this has a much more misanthropically savage bite.
Chaw brings to mind The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a fascinating documentary featuring the possessed Slovenian philosopher iek. iek explains that to get at the “aboutness” of a horror film, you simply remove the horror bits and the true meaning is revealed. iek’s example is Hitchcock’s The Birds, and how it is really about a mother who feels threatened by the alluring new woman in her son’s life. The killer birds are a visceral manifestation of mom’s reverse oedipal rage.
The village in Chaw proclaims with signs that it is a “crimeless village.” There may be no muggings, but the residents prove despicably amoral. The police force is made up of bungling cowards ruled by a megalomaniacal wimp of a chief. The mayor wears an idiotic smile that does little to conceal his conniving greed. Two villagers leave the scene of a hit and run, throwing the victim in a ditch, more in fear of being arrested for drunk driving than having a murder on their conscience.
In steps our protagonist, Kim, a disgruntled police officer from Seoul who feels stifled by the pesky, morally bankrupt citizens he encounters on the traffic beat. He is transferred to the village just in time to help out with a rash of murders caused by a monster boar on the loose. Kim comes to town with his pregnant wife and his mentally ill mother. In a strangely reflective sequence, one of the first villagers Kim meets is a young homeless orphan dominated by the village madwoman who thinks she is his mother. What’s with the lunatic mommies? Well…
If we remove the boar from the plot, we are left with an extremely dysfunctional society in severe denial. The way people treat each other is more frightening than the feral beast. The horror element is Mother Nature’s revenge on man. At the film’s opening a newscaster states over a montage of vicious hunting, “Wild animals are distressed. With not enough food, and poachers on the rise…” The amorality of the Chaw universe proves as comical as it is tragic.
The gleefully schizophrenic cinematic experience of Chaw exemplifies the breadth of the festival. When a seasoned hunter explains what a drop trap is, an animated diagram appears on the screen, a moment as incongruous to the film’s style as the super-sized wild boar is to this otherwise realistic portrayal. Distracting cinematic innovation such as this, a cornerstone of the NYAFF, is the driving force of another Korean film, Castaway on the Moon. The pseudo-dark, fantasy-romance cinema of films like Amelie, Love Me if you Dare and Korea’s own My Sassy Girl ignited a trend of Asian films in which depressing themes are conveniently resolved through cinematic spectacle. Castaway follows a handsome, down-on-his-luck businessman whose suicidal jump off a bridge lands him on a desert island. Our Robinson Crusoe’s only hope for salvation is a shut-in, a woman who hasn’t left her room for three years (another castaway of sorts), but manages to spy him through her telescope. Convinced she’s discovered an alien, she leaves her house in efforts to communicate with him. Fantastical? Yes. Charming? Maybe? Does sentimentality rear its insipid head despite the desperate plight of its characters? At times, sure. Castaway veers between the compelling thrills of a strange reality show and the clichés of a manga-like love story, but for sheer inventiveness alone, it’s a likely crowd-pleaser.
As the festival gets swankier, moving up to Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre, the films display an increasing sophistication of craft. Who would have thought we’d see a Chinese combo of Guy Ritchie and the Cohen Brothers, only with a refreshingly grittier, and decidedly Chinese, comic sensibility. Director Ning Hao’s insane caper film Crazy Racer features Huang Bo (a special guest at the festival), perfectly cast as a Chinese country bumpkin patsy. Huang plays a bicycle racer who gets the gold, but is quickly disqualified, ending up with the silver instead. He’s then duped into a scheme that bans him from racing forever, causing his coach to have a stroke. Jump ahead two years as an ornery cross-dressing Thai outlaw absconds with a cache of drugs, which he then sells to a team of gaudy Taiwanese gangsters. Meanwhile, the greasy opportunist who swindled our racer hires two bungling would be hit-men to kill his overbearing wife. This is just the first 15 minutes! All these storylines collide in what turns out to be the most hyperkinetic comedy of manners you’ve ever seen. Throughout the picture the head Taiwanese gangster and the main hit-man admonish others for their lack of etiquette or scruples, while their own transgressions keep piling high. Ning ingeniously ties in Chinese funeral customs and a drug deal gone awry in a mind-numbingly complex and uproarious series of coincidences.
Japan’s Golden Slumber is equally impressive in its intricate plot and frenetic pacing, though its triumphant optimism feels trite, especially compared to Crazy Racer. Golden Slumber is the latest from director Yoshihiro Nakamura, whose Fish Story, (about how an obscure punk rock song saves the world from Armageddon), won the Special Award for Best Pop Culture Rush at last year’s festival. Both films are based on novels by author Kotaro Isaka. Golden Slumber refers to The Beatles song, which somehow ties together a bizarre conspiracy plot in which a 30-something everyman is framed for the murder of Japan’s prime minister and must prove his innocence a la North by Northwest. Themes of burgeoning mid-life existential crisis are woven beneath what is essentially a wild postmodern tribute to blockbuster action cinema.
Japan also offers an unassuming revelation in 8,000 Miles. The title is a reference to the distance between the U.S. and the dreary Tokyo suburb of Saitama (the original title is SR–Saitama Rappers), as well as the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile. We follow a small group of Japanese hip-hop rejects who are part of the “freeter” generation—Japanese slackers who work part time jobs and seem to lack any career ambitions. Their only goal is to make it with their rap group Sho-Gung, but the closest they get to a gig is performing for the local town council, who could not be more less the band’s demographic. The “show” is followed by an illuminating Q & A session in which local businessmen and a perplexed councilwoman try to understand how rap can substitute for joining the work force. Director Yu Irie effortlessly encapsulates the weird juxtaposition of pop-culture obsession and suburban ennui in a deliriously deadpan vérité-like style. The way our sincere, yet misguided heroes take hip-hop culture at face value is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. The festival also features the follow up 8,000 Miles 2: Girl Rappers in which our heroes meet up with female counterparts in another suburban region, Gunma (how many Japanese localities will this possible franchise go through?).
Korea delivers what could be the most depressing film of the whole line-up, Animal Town. Exposition is exchanged for a brooding, moody atmosphere as a story of an ex-con trying to reform is paralleled with that of a gloomy man who owns a printing company. We gradually learn the horrible truths about each man’s existence and their connection. Animal Town recalls Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Deliberate, real-time chronicles of each man’s quotidian lifestyle and shocking moments of violence elicit the pure dread that plagues the two main characters. Beneath it all lays a subtext of dire economic strife. When the ex-con can barely get enough work at his construction job he becomes a cab driver, where he is told business for cabbies these days is pretty dry. While a film like Chaw takes a pessimistic look at society, Animal Town’s bleakness is devastating.
David Wilentz dreams in color.