Ah, the pungent odor, the fermented esprit, the sulfurous insanity of the New York Asian Film Fest! It’s a new year for the city’s favorite attack of the imported-irrational, and as always, the jejune state of the late-spring/early-summer box office gets a shot in the ass.
The pulp is especially ripe this year, particularly from Japan, where manga-ness seems to have gone from a national pastime to a mass psychosis. There’s precious little other explanation for Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s Milocrorze (2010), which begins as a flatulently silly, fluorescent-candy-colored romantic fable but then unapologetically drops one narrative and style for others, indulging in music-video seizures like a Japanese variety show on 78 rpms and evolving into a parody of samurai romanticism, including a sword battle through a brothel that is equal parts hyper-bullet-time and Buster Keaton slapstick. In the end, you tell me.
The retro-farce Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2011), reincarnating a ’70s TV kiddie series that helped foment the Power Rangers aesthetic, is just as willfully cockeyed and just as inappropriate for little kids, but the minions of Tarantino will hardly be able to resist a movie with both a Diarrhea Robot (!) and a Bulldog Car Robot (!). The frothy, clichéd Ninja Kids (2010) and A Boy and His Samurai (2010) are actually suitable for tykes, and tykes only, while Yasuomi Ishito’s Buddha (2011), proudly adapted from a comic by manga-Dickens Osamu Tezuka, tells the Siddhartha story in a spirited bid for Miyazaki greatness, with a lot more Gladiator-style hand-to-hand than Hermann Hesse ever had in mind.
Eiji Uchida’s The Last Days of the World (2010) begins as yet another disaffected teenage quasi-comedy, but then takes flight as the dead-eyed kid in question grabs a girl, steals a car, runs over pedestrians, and then runs until he runs out of land—all because he has hallucinated an apocalyptic message from a three-inch God. Takahisa Zeze’s Heaven’s Story (2010) is another order of caprice and lunacy altogether, a four-hour sprawl of doom, psychopathology, and rue that follows two men (a widower bent on revenge and a semi-disturbed ex-cop working as a hired killer) in the wake of an underage murderer, but the weave of the freewheeling narrative stretches in many—maybe too many—directions. Sometimes crassly staged and shot, it remains the fest’s most fiery gauntlet.
As for China, Ocean Heaven (2010) is a Rain Man melodrama that gives Jet Li the opportunity to act his age and lets newcomer Zhang Wen go full retard, but stronger is Li Yu’s Buddha Mountain (2010), a restless, gritty generational-anthem about three lost post-teen friends in Chengdu that delivers on its hyperrealism ambitions and can’t take its eye off waif star Fan Bingbing. The Koreans are back, but in more mainstream mode than usual: the wink-wink genital-and-dildo comedy Foxy Festival (2010), the ambivalent-yet-unsubtle Scott Brothers–style crime thriller The Unjust (2010), and Jang Cheol-soo’s Bedevilled (2010), a visit to a heinously patriarchal island village where one woman, raped her whole life, finally snaps and righteously takes her sickle to every throat in sight. Strangely, I preferred Anna Lee’s The Recipe (2010), an utterly sentimental mushfest in which a TV producer compulsively traces the origins of a particular doenjang stew flavor (a famous serial killer was caught intoxicated by it), unfolding stories of love and transcendent salt and cricket-thrummed fermentation.
Only the Thai-kitsch-mad could go for the cheap teen kung-fu actioner Bangkok Knockout (2010); for a guaranteed kick-ass thrall, seek out the Tsui Hark sidebar, featuring the movie that practically invented modern Hong Kong: Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain (1983). But as you may’ve heard, Malaysia is where the shit’s happening now, as evidenced by the fresh sprout of modernism in Yeo Joon Han’s marvelicious Sell Out! (2008), a ceaselessly inventive excoriation of modern industry and reality-show media that begins on a TV interview with the boring director of popularly boring Asian art films, trips through a thorough rip of Dilbert-style corporate Catch-22s, and very often bursts into infectious song (“Mone-e-ey! Why don’t you like poor people?”). “Malaysia’s first Manglish so-called musical!” is how the fest tagline puts it, but it’s also a loose, rich, beguiling, sometimes sophomoric Godardian triumph, and deserves a distributor with walnuts to take it on the road in this country.