All annual film festivals have their tics, slants, and degrees of squirreliness, but for five years now the New York Asian Film Festival has been consistent to an ethos better expressed by its original moniker: Asian Films Are Go!!! More—or less—than just a regional roundup, the series has always erred on the side of popness, psychotronica, and pulpitude. No Jia or Hou films are sought out; even the elusive structuralism of Hong Sang-soo has proven too rarefied. Routinely leavened only by whip-smart Korean romances, the dockets have been devoted to the sometimes psychotic indigenous sweetmeats ordinarily left to the home crowd. The sugar highs and crashes can be exhausting, but the ethnographic gains can overshadow the most rigorous realist art film.
Of course, international success closes that cultural window in an inexorable fashion, and so the Korean films show signs of courting world favor. Song Il-gon’s The Magicians is the exception, a single-take digital psychodrama about ex–bandmates gathered in a bar somewhere in the snowy woods, drinking, reminiscing, having flashbacks, and being obliviously haunted by the ghost of their ex–junkie suicide of a guitar goddess. The material is predictable, but taken as an entry in the newborn editless subgenre, it’s hard to look away.
Otherwise, the Koreans are all grandly winged and CGI spiffy: Kim Dae-sung’s Blood Rain is a forensics mystery set in 1808, while Park Kwang-hyun’s postcard-sunny Welcome to Dongmakgol treats the ethical morass of the Korean War to a bubble bath, as MIA soldiers from both sides find themselves in a secluded mountain village that’s wholly ignorant of the conflict and couldn’t care less. More stylish, Lee Myung-se’s Duelist transposes the standard cops-and-crooks-in-love policier template onto post-medieval romance, in which the semi-androgynous female cop and boy assassin meet, cross swords, battle balletically, and seethe pheromones. (Indeed, an epic courtship fight is spoiled by a glimpse of cleavage.) Overripe with post-production gimmickry but shouldering the weight of classic melodrama, the film all but abandons dialogue and could be seen as a dance film.
India is represented, ironically, by the urban-warfare crime sagas of Ram Gopal Varma (full-on Bollywood films too flashy/vulgar?), while Malaysia contributes Bade Haji Azmi’s Gangster, a crazed genre exercise that’s all video game p.o.v., dance beats, muddy cinematography, and mad drag racing down the vast, empty freeways of Kuala Lumpur. We also get one Chinese film: Gu Changwei’s Peacock, a somberly paced—almost arty!—provincial family tragedy set during the post–Cultural Revolution ’70s and divided into a triptych, one section for each of the abused, unhappy teenagers forced by tradition, poverty, and prejudice to make their own way in the world. Chen Kaige and Zhang’s Yimou’s best cinematographer, Gu builds his movie almost exclusively out of lyrical moments, with little connective tissue between them, but the grace notes can be leveling, from the simple porch dinner all three protagonists remember first to a one-shot act of punishment involving the actual poisoning of a pet goose.
The Japanese contingent is another animal altogether: frenzied loony-toon nuttiness, in a culture where anime and manga have pushed popular entertainment into realms of hallucinatory unease. The non-sequitur-titled Funky Forest: The First Contact is essentially a free-associative blackout sketch film with three directors that makes absolutely no sense, rarely stoops to comedy, and is often centered upon prosthetic life-forms cross-pollinated from the corpus of David Cronenberg. And the inevitable Takashi Miike entry, The Great Yokai War, is hardly a step toward sanity: A young boy is marshaled into helping the natural spirit world (an all-analog zoo of Sid & Marty Krofft–style monsters) against the forces of Matrix-style technology, but the metaphysical rules in play are too impenetrable and the creatures are too distractingly wild to say for sure.
Terra firma is refreshing, even if it’s in the satiric mock doc Ski Jumping Pairs: Road to Torino 2006, which posits a fictional Olympic sport that, in mid-flight, has the all-digital rear skier’s nose buried in his partner’s ass crack. Kenji Uchida’s A Stranger of Mine is a poignant yakuza-inflected comedy with a Tarantino-esque sense of replay, but forgive me for preferring Ryuichi Hiroki’s It’s Only Talk. Though not quite as meticulously conceived as Hiroki’s Vibrator (2003), this fend-for-yourself portrait of a manic-depressive (Shinobu Terajima) is resolutely focused, but Hiroki has a Renoirian knack for evoking a huge, messy world in the smallest details. Unlike pulp, by definition, it’s involving and empathic and sublime.