In this year’s edition of the city’s favorite volcanic pulp-film festival, the bar for pure Asian movieness seems to be both higher and lower than it used to be—the top-shelf megahits intended for international consumption are conspicuous, while the low-boil ratio of past breakout wonders like Pistol Opera, One Fine Spring Day, or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is somewhat disappointing. But that’s the satellite-photo view—film by film, virtually every jones is answered. And when better than during the multiplexing dog days of digital sequel anomie?
Chief among the programming coups are a suite of three entries in the vintage Zatoichi series, starring Shintaro Katsu—all from 1963—to herald the coming of Takeshi Kitano’s remake via Miramax, and of course, Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002). Already feted, Oscar-nominated, and reaping pots of money, Zhang’s lavish, Lean-sized epic owes its opportunities to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the films share a computerized aura of paint-box landscape lyricism (lemon-yellow forests, blood-red meadows, etc.). In thrust, however, Wong’s Ashes of Time might be a clearer—and more damning—reference point. Hardly abstruse, this Warring States period fantasy pivots on assassination tales told and retold and parsed by way of wuxia pian honor codes and levels of martial mastery, and it’s all strung together with such schematic, crowd-pleasing skill no one can be surprised that it’s a Miramax pickup. There are arresting visual strokes (a glimpse of walking-on-water combat seen from underneath, for instance), but the glare from the sheen can make you both suspicious and a little numb. For one thing, is the lovely, digitally overconditioned imagery (Christopher Doyle, doing it again) cinematography or something else?
The ubiquitous invasion of flawless CGIs into the martial arts universe may seem discouraging to those who fondly remember the fast cutting and in-camera skylarking of the 1970s–’80s HK heyday, but the demon is loose, and popular. From Japan (source of more than half of the fest’s films), Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi (2003) is a prime example, a kind of Buffy the Warlord Slayer in which a petite, miniskirted assassin and her friends venture out into the world to prevent war by taking down the warmongers. Blood flies like water-park spray (or hangs in the air as animated bloblets), and the characters weep sugar tears. Likewise, the Hong Kong bubblegum-noir Running on Karma (2003) is filled with wacky combat buttressed by digitals, but they’re used tastefully, and we are blessed with the welcome sight of star Andy Lau (as a male stripper–cum–ex-monk) hustling through the hootenanny in a hilariously semi-convincing muscle suit.
Where’s the authentic, unpasteurized Asian-ness? Yojiro Takita’s When the Last Sword Is Drawn (2003) is an old-fashioned Japanese genre bulldozer that traces two doomed 19th-century samurais’ blood feud through the years as the Shogunate vanishes in the Meiji Restoration. Opulent and dead-serious, it at least outgraces Tom Cruise’s aspirations toward swordsmanhood, but it’s also quite Western in its spectacle. Infernal Affairs (2002) is the HK high-speed knockoff factory in fifth gear: In this conglomeration of a dozen different Hollywood films, two undercover “sleepers”—one a cop in the mob, the other a gangster in the police force—are ordered by their clueless higher-ups to root out themselves and each other. Two sequels have already been released, but Miramax owns only this one—let’s hope it actually sees theaters, unedited, before being remade by Brad Pitt’s production company.
The remake-nuts studios have also swooped down on Juon: The Grudge (2003), a virtually context-free shock-fest about a viral haunting that is actually the third in a rambling series that began as straight-to-video cheapies. Constructed in overlapping, achronological chapters, it still boils down to a by now familiar but still resonant sense of creeping quotidian dread. The series’ other contributions from the Asian horror craze are radical departures: Hideyuki Kobayashi’s Marronnier (2003) is a ghastly home-video undergrounder about dolls and human body parts, while qualm-meister Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Doppelgänger (2003) is actually a nervous comedy—shades of Grosse Fatigue—that observes robotics engineer Koji Yakusho’s life crumble when his evil double shows up demanding equal time. Ricocheting from one uncomfortable idea to another like the KK version of a discarded Buñuel scenario, the movie jumps rails in the third act, but never loses its joie de cinema (particularly given the head-smackingly inventive use of split screens).
The Thai film Macabre Case of Prom Pi Ram (2003) isn’t a genre skin-crawler, but a clumsy true-crime look at a 1977 murder that unfolds, chillingly, into a portrait of backwater inhumanity. Predictably, the fest’s standout films defy categorization, like Kazuyoshi Kumarkiri’s Antenna (2003), which coolly documents the family fallout from a child’s disappearance—a process that includes primal-scream masturbation visits with a soothing dominatrix—and Sabu’s Drive (2002). A howlingly funny voyage of deadpan predetermination, Drive pits a neurotic migraine victim against a group of moody bank robbers against ghosts against bad luck itself, and it screams to be distributed stateside. Not so broadly commercial but supremely mature and empathically merciless instead, Ryuichi Hiroki’s Vibrator (2003) traces the ersatz romance between a lonesome bulimic girl and a sweet-natured truck driver. That’s all it does, from the inside out (Hiroki’s use of interior-voice intertitles is stunningly simple and effective), and because it refocuses your attention on your fellow humans, it’s one of the best films to play the city this year.