By now a programming institution in its eighth hyperactive annual episode, the New York Asian Film Festival is one of American film culture's most invaluable resources—a Silk Road to Asian pop reflexes that are usually considered too culturally specific to sell to Western eyes. Of course, that marketing supposition has been proven wrong over and over again, in large part thanks to the fest. The Korean New Wave (from Park Chan-wook's bloody valentines to Hong Sang-soo's romantic subversions) got its Stateside start here, as did directors Ryuichi Hiroki (Vibrator), Katsuhito Ishii (A Taste of Tea), the first post-Ring floods of J-horror and K-horror, the reincarnation of Japanese master Seijun Suzuki, and the remake-ready Infernal Affairs cycle (which became The Departed).
This year, the choices are symptomatically wacky, if a bit short on first-classers—perhaps the NYAFF has been the victim of its own success, selling the big names (especially the Koreans) to the theatrical marketplace. Still, what we've got is a long open bar, and there's no way you can drink everything. Of the man-size serving I chugged, here are the ones I can't forget.
Symbol (2009) If you thought 2005's Funky Forest: The First Contact left Earth for ether-realms unknown, you were right, and Hitoshi Matsumoto's preposterous spiritual odyssey gives it a run to the chalk line, paralleling a sleazy Mexican wrestling match with the travails of a schmuck (Matsumoto, who's mostly a comedian) waking up in an inescapable white room, from the walls of which protrude hundreds of tiny alabaster angel genitalia, which, when pressed, deliver objects and obstacles into said room, and . . . The eventual confluence between the two "narratives" is holy-shit priceless. Exhilarating, as only an unprompted slap in the face can be.
Annyong Yumika (2009) Equally difficult to fathom, Tetsuaki Matsue's film is an uncomfortably obsessive personal-doc meditation on the career of a late Japanese porn actress (elegizing her as if she was Garbo, really) and the provenance of one rare, strange soft-core triviality she made in Korean with an imported Korean crew. Shot amateur-fast and intimately, it's apparently irony-free, and offers a creepy window on exactly how mainstream masturbatory media has become in Japan. Also on the lineup is Matsue's Live Tape (2009), a desultory one-shot feature following a growling folk singer as he wanders through a web of Tokyo alleyways and marketplaces. No alabaster angel genitalia, but just as fresh an ordeal.
Boys on the Run (2010) Judd Apatow dick-comedy done Japanese-style, Daisuke Miura's comedy of sexual disasters can overplay its jerking-geek cards, but the saga of a late-20s nebbish trying against all odds to finally establish a romantic relationship for himself is stuffed with evocative details, along with the usual surplus of Japanese penis gags. Squeaky-voiced, one-named You (who played the mother in Kore-eda's Nobody Knows) charges things up as a friendly hooker.
Golden Slumber (2010) Yoshihiro Nakamura returns to the cosmic Rube Goldberg of his sublime Fish Story (2009), beginning with a slackjawed dope getting framed for a political assassination, and then sprawling out as a kind of reinvention of the JFK shooting from Oswald's perspective. Surprisingly, the gears of the conspiracy itself are of little interest to Nakamura; instead, the complex focus is on exactly how the plot must be battled by an array of eccentric supporting characters. Stirring and sweet.
Crazy Racer (2009) A Tarantino-/Ritchie-inflected Chinese farce on pro–bicycle racing, as much Kill Bill as Balls of Fury, Hao Ning's Crazy Racer depicts its subculture as a Wacky Races shitstorm of ludicrous crime bosses, switched identities, assassins, evil pharma charlatans, doubling coincidences, digital wipes, and "Triad-style" funeral catering: "Cool like gangster!"
Castaway on the Moon (2009) Lee Hae-jun's loopy rom-com begins with yet another depressed nowhere man, as he attempts suicide and ends up stranded on an island in a city river, unable to swim off or get rescued. His half of the film may be a risible version of J.G. Ballard's "Concrete Island," but then a shut-in girl in a high-rise spots him with her telescope, and love is in the air.
A Little Pond (2009) Coming out of left field for us, this historical 2009 Korean scorcher, starring a phalanx of Korean stars, chronicles in grueling detail the notorious No Gun Ri Massacre, in which American forces in 1950 simply mowed down 300 villager refugees in South Korea. The incident was covered up and still remains a rabid yes-you-did-no-I-didn't controversy, but director Lee Sang-woo doesn't fuck around, even when giant humpbacks magically fly across the sky. The randomness of the cast's decimation is genuinely upsetting—if you're not up on your midcentury Korean history, it's a unique shock when what begins as a refugee jeremiad becomes a blood-drenched, limb-scattered meat market.
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