Film

This Year’s Asian Film Festival Is Restrained, but Only by Its Standards

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Fourteen years ago, when this redoubtable Subway Cinema fest first appeared (as, indelibly, Asian Films Are Go!), the Korean New Wave was just cresting, Japanese pulp didn’t seem to have yet swallowed its own tail, and the headlong cinema of newly China-controlled Hong Kong was only just becoming respectable. Since, the crazed ookiness of Asian pop cinema — the house party for the world’s largest ticket-buying audience, to which we in the West are rarely invited — appears to have grown more self-conscious and less risky. I can’t be the only one to miss the pre-CGI stunt-string salad days of old Tsui Hark, the eviscerating profaneness of old Takashi Miike, and the iron-maiden extremities of old Park Chan-wook.

Assault yourself with Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle.

This year’s lineup reflects the more temperate climate, with a characteristic spray of mass-audience epics, homegrown daffiness, sincere way-we-live-now melodramatics — and the occasional showstopper. The biggest bulldozers are Chinese: Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades is a brawling, intrigue-heavy wuxia saga set during the Ming Dynasty, when even the imperial assassins (led by Pacific-rim überstar Chang Chen) are vexed by politics, strapped for funds, and haunted by obligations. As down-to-earth as it is, the movie’s ripping action owes way too many visual debts to Assassin’s Creed — cutting-edge multimedia homage or style deficit?

Relatively, Tsui’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain bustles with the demi-master’s trademark quick-and-cheap mise-en-scène, but the material is something else: essentially, a post-WWII-set piece of comic-book Maoist agitprop, as a heroic squad of PLA soldiers battle local warlords funded by the Kuomintang during China’s civil war, a preposterous conflict that oscillates between gun battles (on skis!) and manly treacle, and sometimes looks more like an episode of Game of Thrones than a piece of history. Self-importance kinda squelches the fun.

Postwar history also haunts Wang Xiaoshuai’s Red Amnesia, a gritty contemporary indie in which a stubbornly independent septuagenarian (a defiant performance from vet Lu Zhong) navigates life in a decidedly untraditional Beijing, while she is haunted by stalkerish hints of payback for her family’s actions during the Cultural Revolution. The textures are right (although Wang could be given a tripod next birthday), but the Caché-like backstory feels beside the modern-generational point.

The biggest Korean hit also dives into gray-panther pathos: Jin Mo-young’s My Love, Don’t Cross That River is simply a doc portrait of a December-December romance (he’s 98, she’s 89) in which, decades after their children died young, the two lovable coots have only each other. However orchestrated, the devotion and joy on view is undeniable, and South Korea turned the film into one of its biggest homegrown hits of the new century. Similarly, Im Kwon-taek’s Revivre limns the crushing emotional torque on a near-retirement executive with a dying wife and fading future; clearly, Korea is sensing the ache of a population aging on the horizon. Both films prove more pertinent and unpredictable than Yim Soon-rye’s The Whistleblower, an obvious journo-procedural exposing flimflam in the country’s burgeoning biotech arena.

This year the fest’s selections are Venn-diagrammed with sidebar-style programming, honoring, among others, Korea’s female-led Myung Films, veteran action stars Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara (amounting to a nice Kinji Fukasaku yakuza retro, including the not-common Wolves, Pigs, and Men, from 1964), and Hong Kong old-schooler Ringo Lam. This may or may not be suggestive of the slim pickings to be had from the contemporary scene, but it provides an opportunity to assault yourself for the first time (once is always enough) with Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle (2000), still arguably Subway Cinema’s most notorious Molotov and the feature presentation in everyone’s fishhook nightmares.

In the new films, a sugary kind of teary rom-com-ness — albeit often coupled with bathroom humor only Asian teens might really appreciate — is common, beginning with Nobuhiro Yamashita’s La La La at Rock Bottom, a disarmingly jokeless Japanese comedy about an ex-con thug who’s beaten into amnesia and is thereafter recruited as the yowling frontman in a local band. Unfortunately, his past comes leaking into the rather charming let’s-make-music mechanics, and things get icky. A multi-flavored lollipop written by mush-master Giddens Ko (in many ways the Taiwanese version of Richard Curtis), Café. Waiting. Love opens with a monster turd joke, but quickly goes young-love-mythic, hovering around a legendary-concoction coffee shop, and lingering over when its hentai-faced coed heroine (Vivian Sung) will realize her freaky idiot of a best friend is her destiny. Plenty of invention, and a touch of My Blueberry Nights yarning, but high-wire silliness subsumes all.

Not that the Malaysian spree Banglasia, directed by Namewee (he of the fondly remembered Nasi Lemak 2.0), is to be outdone for nonstop manic nonsense, genre scrambling, and supersonic caterwauling, little of it terribly funny. The surprise is reserved for the two features from the Philippines, where being broke means coming up with new ways to make a movie anyhow. The 48th by digi-vision speed racer Khavn, Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal and a Whore stars Tadanobu Asano and Mexican minx Nathalia Acevedo (of Post Tenebras Lux) as lovers on the run in Manila, in a self-knowing genre riff executed in four days with almost no dialogue, tons of anything-goes camerawork, and a salmagundi sample-laden soundtrack that makes it all feel like a feature-length music video for the nuttiest album Merzbow never made.

Dodo Dayao’s Violator is another spend-less genre cover, an apocalyptic creep-out as heavy with atmosphere and portent as a doomsday sermon. It is the end of the world, or so it seems to Manilans, as a monster typhoon bears down, ghosts proliferate, suicide catches on, birds die, and in a flood-secluded police station, the haunted cops on duty arrest a possessed teenager. Fragmented, inconclusive, and deft at conjuring optimism-killing images out of very little (one shot of a janitor mopping a filthy cell, overtaken by shadows, shouldn’t be, but is, disquieting), it’s not a market-engineered horror retread but a genuine, and impish, expression of the past poisoning the present, and bad things coming back to roost.

New York Asian Film Festival 2015

Through July 11, Film Society of Lincoln Center

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