Count our blessings. No sooner does the screaming summer-movie emptiness begin to envelop the city than Subway Cinema’s annual fest of new East Asian pop cinema uncorks a refreshing cataract of psychotic invention, genre excess, and meditative derangement—often in the shape of movies that have no chance of distribution or a slot in a tonier local venue. Who knows what chances the fresh Seijun Suzuki film has under any other auspices—Princess Raccoon is a self-mocking operetta whose song styles range from Nippon-ized Jacques Brel-ishness to ’70s album rock, set on deep-dish-Dada ballet sets that are regularly subsumed by digital mythopoeia and headlong design nuttiness. Some kind of Snow White fable with Kabuki accents—let’s not care about content, because Suzuki doesn’t—it’s a movie unlike any other ever made by an octogenarian. With its 2-D stiffness and trite songmaking, it’s not Pistol Opera, and yet any ambivalence about Princess Raccoon‘s “success” has to be reckoned against Suzuki’s insurrectionary resilience and his nearly half a century of movies that, though nattering on about assassins or prostitutes or princesses, speak in their own unique visual tongue.
A safer bet, at least for distributor Lions Gate, would be Three . . . Extremes (2004), a pan-Asian, neo-Night Gallery trilogy fashioned by Takashi Miike (a J-horror ditty turned incestuous psychodrama), Park Chanwook (a gear-locked revenge hellfire—natch—that provides a hilarious running commentary on the Korean film industry), and Hong Kong indie breakout Fruit Chan, whose hair-raising segment involves dumplings and abortions—you don’t want to know more—and may be the most viciously conceived piece of social satire the continent’s seen since Iron Man. Also potentially newsworthy: Onir’s My Brother Nikhil (2005), the first Bollywood film about AIDS and set in the mid 1980s, when testing HIV-positive was grounds for arrest; and Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004), a brisk Chinese adventure epic, shot on location in the eponymous highlands and in high-contrast saturation, about volunteer troops battling antelope poachers in the vast wilderness. Sixth-gen director Lu Chuan has an unerring eye and a knack for remorseless realism, and it’s one of the most harrowing movies about landscape ever made.
The Japanese entries may dominate the field with explosives, from Go Shibata’s tasteless yet resonant handicapped-serial-killer indie Late Bloomer to Gen Sekiguchi’s post-Guy Ritchie, Good & Plenty-hued La Ronde comedy Survive Style 5+, which mixes up the entropic fates of a game-show hypnotist, an advertising exec in mid-flake-out, a brace of idiot burglars, an angry living-dead wife and the husband who killed her, and a visiting British hit man (Vinnie Jones).
Masaaki Yuasa’s anti-anime Mind Game— a crazed, psychedelic odyssey to the embrace of an irreverent God and back again—chop-shops virtually every animated style you can think of into a feverish gout. A relative oasis, Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea plops down amid a rural family passing life contentedly amid giant doppelgängers, ghosts, teenage lovesickness, recreational hypnotherapy, go playing, and so on. The deadpan characters (including a laconic cousin played by Tadanobu Asano, who also shows up as the wife-killer in Survive Style 5+) are each generous, unpredictable, and occasionally preposterous, and the film, at almost two and a half hours, is more like a social gathering than a narrative. Ishii, best known here for his anime segment in Kill Bill Vol. 1, has the live-action patience and light touch of Rohmer, garlicked up with a buoying sense of acceptable absurdity.
The Korean films have always been the NYAFF’s trump cards, and the fest has been pivotal in recently putting Korean cinema on the urban-American map. (That Oldboy skipped out and went straight to buzz-crazed release is kinda Subway’s own fault.) Gong Su-chang’s R-Point goes all K-horror on a troop of grunts in Vietnam; save for a few chest-gripping images, the tropes are overworn. Better is Lee Jeong-cheol’s A Family, a soapy melodrama about father-daughter estrangement that manages to make your eyes sting even despite the gangster subplot, and Park Chul-soo’s amazing Green Chair, a riff on the Mary Kay Letourneau syndrome, as an impulsive thirtyish woman (The Isle‘s Jung Suh) and a romantic teenage boy (Shim Ji-ho) persevere against convincing odds—including jail time, public prejudice, and self-doubt—with a rapturous, sexually exhaustive romance. Oozing with integrity, ambivalence, and hold-your-breath character creation by Jung, it might be the most gratifying love story I’ve seen in any language this decade.