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From one perspective, the big news at the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival is the American premiere of Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK. L'Amour Fou, Korean style, is the gist of this romantic comedy pairing an institutionalized kleptomaniac with a foxy, fully loaded cyborg. Expect oodles of clever mise-en-scéne, even if Park's latest is reportedly a change of pace from the hyper-violent pulp fictions that made his name. Having promised myself after Lady Vengeance to ignore all future developments by this fraudulent virtuoso, I can't say for sure.
But that's just me. To their credit, Subway Cinema, the organization behind the NYAFF, were ahead of the curve on Park, whose grandiloquent pulp fictions are representative (if not exemplary) of the festival's crazed, capricious, super-freaky mega-mix of art house and grindhouse.
Takashi Miike makes himself at home in bothand always deranges the furniture. Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, and Zebraman are top-notch head-scratchers from Japan's most outrageously prolific and prolifically outrageous filmmaker. Zebraman concerns the adventures of a grade-school teacher whose private habit of dressing up like an obscure TV superhero becomes a public necessity when a horde of slimy aliens get their invasion on. Rather more somber, if just as nutty, the wildly abstract Big Bang Love deconstructs a Genet-like fable of murder and seduction. Set in an unlikely prison (of the mind?) adjacent to (why not?) a rocket ship and a Mayan pyramid, the narrative takes second stage to mad Miike's cosmic visual imagination. The title isn't a reference to jailhouse orgies but the origin of the universe; the picture makes a beguiling use of negative space, everything pitched, literally and metaphorically, at the edge of some fathomless void. Big Bang Love joins Gozu and Izo in the Miike pantheon of hard-edged ontological essays pushing at the limit of representation. And at a mere 84 minutes, it's one of his less punishing works.
The Japanese contingent is especially strong this year. Last seen at the NYAFF with his superb brain-twister Doppelganger, Kiyoshi Kurosawa metes out new cerebral creeps with Retribution. Leave it to Kurosawa, notes the festival synopsis, "to dredge up the bloated, waterlogged corpse of the J-horror trend from the bottom of the river and to chop it up into something evil that slithers into your brain like a maggot worming its way into your brain." Shades of J-horror infect Nightmare Detective, an uncanny new thriller from Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: the Iron Man) in which a newbie cop pairs with a jaded psychic (Ando Masanobu) to investigate a sequence of ambiguous suicides. Abundant weirdness ensues, though it's got nothing on the quasi-satirical Exte, a film about diabolical hair extensions.
If extravagance is the keynote of the NYAFF, Dynamite Warrior bangs its face on the piano. Jone Bang Fai stars as a rocket-riding freedom fighter bust- ing Muay Thai righteousness in 19th-century Siam. Director Chalerm Wongpim piles on the crazy in a beyond-erratic scenario involving cattle raiders, black-magic wizards, giant cannibals, enchanted henchmen, evil industrialists, and a beautiful virgin whose menstrual blood saves the day. Goofy, charming, and totally berserk.
Next up, the masters of Hong Kong. Following the recent Film Forum engagement of Election and Triad Election, Johnny To's gangbuster year continues with a peek at Exiled before it opens later this year. This decadent, witty riff on the Hong Konggangster flick is so playful and confident that the plot is capable of turning, quite literally, on the toss of a coin. Macao provides a lush backdrop for dueling gangster contingents, spectacularly self-conscious set pieces, and neo-spaghetti-western stylings.
The festival honors its elders with a 15th-anniversary screening of John Woo's classic 1992 action extravaganza Hard-Boiled, the sine qua non of double-barreled Chow Yun-Fattitude. Patrick Tam breaks a 17-year directing hiatus with After This Our Exile, an epic, Malaysian-set drama photographed by the unparalleled Mark Lee Pin-bing. A seminal figure of the '80s Hong Kong new wave, Tam was a decisive influence on Wong Kar-wai and an occasional editor of genius; rumor has it the famous coda to Days of Being Wildwas his idea.
I'm guessing Yo-Yo Girl Cop isn't big in the idea department, but if it's half as sweet as the title, job well done for sure. Directed by Kenta Fukasaku, son of Kinji (Battle Royale), this "trash-tastic guilty pleasure" pits the eponymous heroine against a high-school conspiracy of lesbian suicide bombers. Arigato, NYAFF! Not Your Average Film Festival, indeed.
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