The vast majority of imported Asian films are unambiguously feel-good, middle-class, semi-Westernized Miramaximations, while an occasional few are critic-acclaimed art-house big dogs. Subway Cinema’s annual Anthology series fills in the potholes, spigoting out otherwise unscreened mainstream comedies, infernal exploitation, and delusionary genre hybrids. Although Hollywood rip-offs are common, it’s their bughouse particularities that make these movies both beautiful and impossible to sell to a sociocentric America.
The Japanese movies on the docket are dominated by the shaggy-dead-dog presence of Takashi Miike, whose concurrent Anthology mini-retro includes his butcher-block musical The Happiness of the Katakuris. The fest features his new Graveyard of Honor, but what may dent the stateside forebrain most deeply is Ichi the Killer (2001). Miike at his most bubble-card Sadean, Ichi is an all but nonsensical duel of bloodletting between a suicidally masochistic hit man and a homicidal masked avenger. The torture-garden set pieces are as brie-ish as the emotional thrust. In a sense, this is what the Woo-Tsui Sino-noirs have mutated into; there’s no mistaking the sexual subtext rising like intestinal steam out of the twisted characters’ plaintive need for each other’s pain.
Gunplay is universal, but then there’s Fumihiko Masuri’s Ping Pong (2002), which fleshes out a rah-rah Karate Kid scenario around the world’s fastest sport—too fast to film, it seems, without digital assistance—and Masato Harada’s Bounce Ko Gals (1997). Forgoing formula hyperbole, Harada’s chaotic odyssey follows a gaggle of harried teenage hookers—who stun-gun suckers, turn tricks in their school uniforms, and peddle their soiled underwear—through a single, nasty night of Tokyo man-baiting. Harada likes to shoot his characters from a distance, as they navigate crowds, and the upshot is queasily convincing.
The most distinctive of the HK films on view, Lam Wah-chuen’s rough indie Runaway Pistol (2002), plays Madame de . . . with a WWII surplus revolver that gets passed from one hyperventilating criminal to the next, itself narrating to us along the way its dismal take on humankind. Dastardly ironies proliferate as the ubiquitous TV news vomits preposterous tragedy and doom. The gun itself admits that, thanks to a habit of misfiring, it has never actually killed anyone. People kill people after all.
Wholesale bullet-spray also preoccupies Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002), an Indian mobster epic whose sweaty shoot-outs outnumber musical numbers four to one (but the songs rock), and Yuthlert Sippapak’s Killer Tattoo (2001), the sole Thai film on display and a jujube-colored, Bangkok-in-2011 splooge that also thieves the old Tsui Hark syntax of hysterical crossfire and architectural vertigo. The Taiwanese entry, Chen Kuo-fu’s Double Vision (2002), is a brooding riff on Seven, with FBI guy David Morse and Taipei nihilist Tony Leung Ka-fai morosely inspecting the corpse path left by a serial killer who doesn’t seem to be quite human—a notion that, in this Taiwan, gets straight-faced consideration.
Unsurprisingly, the Korean movies, with their infectious visual sophistication, faith in mundane behavior, and lust for absurdity, rule. Even Ahn Byung Ki’s The Phone (2002), a shameless replay of Ring—this time, it’s a haunted cell-phone number—is crafted with a cool, uncanny knack for goose pimples, and a knotted plot that involves the discomfiting psycho-possession of a five-year-old girl. Likewise, you could slam Jang Sun Woo’s Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002) as a Matrix leech, but it’s closer to a tommy-gun reprise of Tron, in which a nebbish gets lost inside a video game (complete with intermittent menus) and eventually wins by initiating Armageddon. The action is already fast, cheap, and out of control (with Jin Xing, a famous Chinese transsexual, as an acrobatic, disco-dancing hit woman) when a virus hits the game, turning the titular heroine into a psychopathic mass murderer.
Ready for an Adam Sandler buy-up like so many Korean comedies, Jang Hang Jun’s Break Out (2002) may be too frenzied and too witty for Hollywood, pitting an archetypal sad sack against a hapless gangster on a rocketing train full of trouble, all for the sake of a disposable lighter. But the fest’s best films inhabit that odd Korean nexus between contemplative art film and blood-boiling pulp. Im Jong Jae’s My Beautiful Days (2002) is a superb portrait of lostness, a demi-Graduate that dallies with rom-com conventions but instead opts for a heartbreaking void. Slyer if not wiser, Park Chan Wook’s epic Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) follows the horribly falling dominoes nudged over by a young deaf-mute metal worker who, seeking only to obtain a donor kidney for his dying sister, decides to kidnap a preschooler. It’s composed and shot with a diamond-cutter’s eye and fisherman’s patience, and may be some kind of sad masterpiece.
What can one say about Park Jin Pyo’s Too Young to Die (2002)? A gentle, meta-film in which an elderly couple play themselves—fucking, arguing, fucking, singing, fucking, massaging, fucking some more. The fuel here is intimacy and loyalty, not lust, and for that this mini-movie is a leveling counter-charge to pop culture’s cartoonization of sex. Scout’s honor: Seniors with dates will be admitted free.