It’s back! Everyone’s favorite pan-Asian cinematic WTF smorgasbord returns for another face-stuffing binge of robot penises, severed fingers, child sex slaves, introverted sci-fi, Malaysian meta-movies, gay pastries, Catholic panty photographers, and Kim Jong-il doppelgängers. Having oozed up from its original home at Anthology Film Archives to infest the swanky precincts of the IFC Center and Japan Society, the eighth New York Asian Film Festival takes one more mighty kung fu leap toward its implacable apotheosis as Gotham’s most demented film festival.
Thank Vishnu for this antidote to all those deathly dull national surveys clogging uptown institutions with their tiresome, state-sponsored snooze-fests. I don’t think I speak for just myself when I say I’d trade a decade’s worth of Spanish Cinema Now for one festival that selects Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl as its centerpiece.
Opening night brings us the world premiere of Johnnie To collaborator Wai Ka-fai’s Written By. I’m assuming this Hong Kong “yuppie fantasia” warrants pride of place. Asian cinema may be “go!!!,” as the festival motto puts it, but my screener was FAIL.
In any event, this isn’t a Hong Kong year at the NYAFF. Japan owns the selection. Towering over the rest of the program like a defrocked colossus in Hello Kitty panties, Love Exposure unfolds a supremely bizarre love triangle over the course of four hours. Directed by Sion Sono, last seen at the festival with nefarious hair-extension horror flick Exte, this unhinged epic contemplates sex and sin vis-à-vis Japanese Catholicism and a cult of upskirt photography.
Seduced, then abandoned, by a hysterical woman in search of God, a kindly Catholic priest grows humorless and severe, triggering a rebellious bid for love from his son, Yu. In hopes of lifting his father’s spirits by appealing to his newfound fundamentalism, Yu commits “sins” and rushes to confession—to no avail. And so, in his estrangement, Yu falls into the orbit of a pervy guru devoted to the art of photographing girls’ panties on the sly. Yu masters ninja pinwheel maneuvers and other upskirt methodologies before striking out on his own with a crew of dim-witted disciples, but his quest for redemption (or whatever) is soon complicated by the appearance of a mysterious broker in fake religious artifacts/part-time lady coke dealer who stalks Yu in the company of her sassy posse. But things go truly bonkers—this synopsis has barely covered the first half of the picture—upon the arrival of Yoko, a self-contained beauty who responds to the abuse she received at the hands of her father by castrating him after he falls into a coma, and generally devoting herself to a hatred of men, typically expressed by randomly fucking up people on the street. The Yoko/Yu meet-cute transpires at one such brawl, a spontaneous kung fu freakout replete with hilariously exaggerated whu-cha! sound f/x. Except that Yu just happens to be there in his drag personae, Miss Scorpion (don’t ask), leading to much confusion and TWO MORE HOURS of gender-bent, ceaselessly inventive rom-com insanity.
A Korean love triangle, or hexagon, or something, takes shape in Antique, a chipper comedy about the goings-on in an upscale pastry shop featuring a Paris-trained master of deliciousness who is also a “Gay of Demonic Charm.” Transactions of a more bitter variety are investigated in Children of the Dark, a squirmy grindhouse number masquerading as a social-problem exposé about black market organ harvesting and child sex slaves. At once turgidly sincere and totally lurid, this pseudo-investigative procedural proposes, among other things you don’t want to know, that it is possible to buy a prepubescent boy with AIDS using a Visa card.
Happier days are recalled in Fish Story, a sweet, structurally complex tale of a proto-punk Japanese band that’s slightly too clever for its own good, but, like the NYAFF as a whole, plenty crazy enough to win you over.