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2012's New York Asian Film Festival: A Pop Explosion

Zombies, jerk-offs, and transcendence

It's a new year for the city's favorite attack of the imported irrational—as the original publicity byline put it, Asian Films Are Go!!!—and as always, the New York Asian Film Festival lays out a pungent banquet of popness, psychotronica, and pulpitude. In the day, "art films" by Hong Sang-soo could make it onto the docket, but mostly the fest has been devoted to the sometimes-lunatic indigenous sweetmeats ordinarily left to the Asian home crowds.

The sugar highs and crashes are still exhausting, as with Jeong Yong-ki's Couples (2011), a whatsit that begins as a sugary rom-com full of sad-sack heartbreak, and then, by revisiting the same window of time, escalates into a five-lane highway of parallel narrative, dripping with coincidences, robberies, accidents, gangster heists, and backstabbings. It's a dose of Korean Coen-ness, just as Yun Jong-bin's Nameless Gangster (2012) is a Busan-set Son of Scorsese (centered on Oldboy's Choi Min-sik as a crime-lord dumbass). But Yeon Sang-ho's The King of Pigs (2011) is the stronger meat, a cheaply animated saga of public school tribulation, bullying, and blood sacrifice so vicious it feels dystopic.

The Japanese sprouts on view are odd but modest—Toshiaki Toyoda's Monsters Club (2011) hangs with a Unabomber manqué in an isolated cabin haunted with memories, and Hitoshi Matsumoto's Scabbard Samurai (2010) stretches a skit scenario—a grizzled old samurai has 30 chances to provoke a smile from the shogun's little son or else perform seppuku—to challengingly unfunny lengths. (I can't decide if I should have expected something more or less strange from the director of 2009's utterly demented Symbol.)

The Hong Kong entries cover the waterfront, from DIY silliness to literate epic, but without a humdinger: Y.K. Kim and Park Woo-sang's woeful Miami Connection (1987) is notable only as an '80s-camp diversion, Pang Ho-cheung's Vulgaria (2012) is a self-consciously crude 'n' rude farce about a low-rent film producer (whose personal nadir is being forced to fuck a mule by a Chinese gangster/wannabe financier), and Peter Chan's Wu Xia (Dragon) (2011) is a lavish, mezzo-brow period detective thriller with a dusting of martial arts, plot elements lifted from A History of Violence, and Takeshi Kaneshiro as a supercool proto-Columbo investigating murders in 1917 China and uncovering villager Donnie Yen's well-kept secrets.

From Malaysia comes another self-referential DIY farce, Namewee's Nasi Lemak 2.0 (2011), which impishly tracks the writer-director-star's struggling chef hero through a John Waters–in–Kuala Lumpur landscape in search of the perfect titular recipe in order to save the orphanage (restaurant). Namewee made his indie hit by virtue of his notoriety as a rapper, which is also the story behind Apisit Opasaimlikit's Dead Bite (2011), a cheesy slice of Thai exploitation in which the rap-star/newbie director's crew is roped into an island gig that strands them and a bevy of bikinied models on an atoll populated with Thai-brand vampire-zombies. The funny stuff often isn't, but the doses of raw amateur energy can still leave a rash.

Surprisingly, the stars of the show this year are from Taiwan, though we're not talking about Giddens Ko's You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011), a teen comedy that begins with an impromptu jerk-off tournament during class. Demanding more serious attention, Wei Te-sheng's two-part Seediq Bale (2011) clocks in at more than 4.5 hours, but it moves like a runaway herd through the story of "the Wushe Incident," the bloody 1930 uprising of Taiwanese tribes against the occupying Japanese forces. It's a fresh slice of crazy history to us (I didn't know that Taiwan had so many loincloth-wearing headhunter clans deep into the 20th century), and Wei moves methodically, from the 1895 invasion and subsequent years of uneasy coexistence, to the eventual explosion of jungle combat (axes hack, heads roll, blood rivers flow) and the subsequent retaliation by Japan. The robust Seediq tribespeople all look like hunky members of Powers Boothe's extended family, and the film is daffy about the Seediq "rainbow bridge" mythology, but the unrelenting battles are shot and cut with breathless intensity.

But Chen Hung-i's Honey Pupu (2011) might be this year's favorite, a teen-generational elegy that's rueful, lyrical, and filthy with resonant metaphors: Just as the bees are disappearing, so are the protagonists' teen contemporaries, and hexagonal-hive motifs arise everywhere, like weeds. Everybody, including a young Yoko-ish waif looking for her runaway boyfriend and a triangle of post-nerd-punk lovers, searches for patterns and answers in defunct technology and on the Web, where swatches of metaphysical yearning are launched and lost. Perhaps a little too oneiric at times, Chen's lovely, quiet film captures something mysterious about the present electro-cultural moment, when vanishings are ubiquitous, and nothing is permanent.

The New York Asian Film Festival begins June 29. For more information, visit subwaycinema.com.

 
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