Life Beyond J-Horror at Asian Film Fest
Forget about kung fu pandas and get smart: There's more to summertime at the multiplex than mediocrity—the New York Asian Film Festival, for one. Subway Cinema's seventh annual extravaganza of demented pop curiosities both highbrow and low- returns with its largest lineup and juiciest cherry pickings yet. Among the 43 new features are an Indonesian noir-thriller (Kala), '20s-set Vietnamese actioner (The Rebel), a flashy doc about mistreated South Korean stuntmen (Action Boys), two from beloved Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To (Mad Detective and Sparrow), and fanboy icon Takashi Miike's nutty, newly condensed spaghetti eastern (Sukiyaki Western Django), which can't even be called his "latest" since the hyper-prolific director is already a few films beyond it and has probably shot another in the time that it took you to read this far.
Django, one of the several Japanese titles to dominate this year's schedule, will be co-presented with the Japan Society's concurrent "Japan Cuts" fest—and easily the finest of NYAFF's offerings exist within the programming overlap. A case in point is Satoshi Miki's Adrift in Tokyo, a comic stroll that is indeed aimless, but consciously, introspectively, and out-of-left-field hilariously so. Nervous college slacker Takemura (megastar Jô Odagiri) finds himself in a bad spot, threatened by impulsive, mullet-haired debt collector Fukuhara (former '70s heartthrob Tomokazu Miura), who makes a strangely generous offer to his debtor: Walk with him across Tokyo for as long as he demands, and the slate will be wiped clean—but why? Fukuhara's cathartic reasoning (which you'll never guess) is revealed during this odd couple's ode to the city—a leisurely adventure of observational banter and random high-weirdness that includes a 66-year-old costumed hero leaping from a building to his all-white motorcycle. As linear as a road movie but uniquely structured to veer off the map, Miki's bizarre vision is sweet, not saccharine, and too modest to boast its cunning.
Veteran actor Ittoku Kishibe turns up repeatedly in the film as a meta-version of himself known to bring good luck. Between his memorable 2004 performance as a father hypnotized into becoming a bird in Survive Style 5+ and Miura's appearance that same year in the wonderful whatzit The Taste of Tea, Adrift in Tokyo seems to have found its footing in a growing trend of quietly oddball, stream-of-consciousness Japanese dramedies—or, God help me, "J-quirk." Among its brethren at this year's NYAFF is janitor-turned-director Yosuke Fujita's debut Fine, Totally Fine, a haphazardly romantic, deadpan comedy about two late-twentysomething brothers who fall for the same clumsy girl. One bro, a part-time park keeper, is entirely fixated on building the world's scariest haunted house. The other is a straitlaced hospital administrator, and no further character description is needed because the film digresses so far and frequently that its leads become supporting characters, plotlines mutate, and the only thing left to anchor it all is the pathos of growing older, learning from one's humiliations, and still retaining a heartfelt optimism for life. Even funnier and more outlandish than Adrift in Tokyo, the film's most surreal jokes linger long in the mind, such as the giant gum bubble that knocks a kid over, and the aforementioned klutz embarrassing a jumpy porn-buyer with her dreadful inability to open a box of tissues.
The J-quirkiest of the lot, hands down, is Dainipponjin, or Big Man Japan. I hurt myself laughing at this amazingly inventive mockumentary, and because it's so good, I refuse to give away much more than an insistent recommendation. A long-haired, sad-sack government employee, Dai-Sato (Hitoshi Matsumoto), has somehow inspired a documentarian to follow him around as he eats lunch alone and extols the virtues of umbrellas (he likes anything that expands). In long takes that cut like early Jarmusch, the first half hour rambles on with downbeat wit before dropping a boulder of truth on our heads about the unlikely hero's job, why everyone in the city hates him, and how it involves electricity surging through his nipples and extensive CGI. Read nothing else about this film.
If midnight madness ain't your bag, hope is not lost. Japanese new waver Kôji Wakamatsu, now 72, will blow your mind and unsettle you to the bone with his brilliant, brutal, three-hour-plus docudrama United Red Army. More on this definitive account of the '60s college activists who (d)evolved by the early '70s into a frightening band of paranoid extremists in next week's issue.
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