It’s both celebratory and rote to mention that the New York Asian Film Festival is still crazy as hell in its fifteenth-anniversary edition. Where else will you discover cinematic provocations about quadruple amputee yakuza debt collectors (Kiyamachi Daruma), demonically manipulative landlords in Taiwan (The Tenants Downstairs), or a traumatized Korean photographer trying to escape his own tortuous, Christopher Nolan–esque nightmare (Alone)?
The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Subway Cinema are presenting 51 features from all corners of the East, cutting a wide and weird swath from the arthouse to the grindhouse. As an added bonus to entice you away from the comic-book summer crud and your beloved Roku box, the NYAFF has invited thirty-plus guests, from comedic Chinese actress Jelly Lin (The Mermaid) to influential auteur Shunji Iwai (All About Lily Chou-Chou), the latter introducing three of his films (including his new probing of modern love and technological isolation, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle) as the fest’s first Japanese recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award.
The world premiere of Kazuya Shiraishi’s decades-spanning crime drama Twisted Justice headlines the opening gala, a duly representative choice that continues the two-fisted, honor-disrupting tradition of Kinji Fukasaku’s rebellious oeuvre. Inspired by a memoir and true-life police scandal, the film stars Go Ayano (whose fiery performance will be exalted by way of a Screen International Rising Star Asian Award) as a judo champion who is recruited by the Hokkaido police force in the late Seventies. Over too much whiskey and the companionship of cooing hostesses, the nervous rookie is quickly taken under the wing of an immoral senior officer, who toxically advises that hitting quotas by any means necessary is the key to law enforcement: “As long as people exist, the world will never be safe.”
Cut to 1984, when Ayano’s rogue investigator, Moroboshi, has become Sapporo’s cock of the walk: a swaggering, horny boozehound whose name is known on every street corner — he’s regarded with the cowering reverence accorded a territory kingpin. Warrants be damned, he casually busts entryways and lowlifes’ heads to score arrests, a company man doing exactly what is expected of him within a point-based system. But if crooked cops and institutional corruption aren’t exactly fresh cinematic themes, there’s at least a fascinating angle in how this lone wolf was both cultivated and crushed by his own wild pack. Moroboshi isn’t punished for his sins until the early Aughts — after years of “keeping guns off the street” by buying them from local gangsters or, counterintuitively, trying to import them from Russia with money made by dealing speed — and Ayano’s long-form transformation is impressive. As a gritty, post-Scorsese gangster epic, the film is an above-average entertainment that doesn’t glamorize its debauchery, yet also never shows the critical remove to justify its misogynistic treatment of every (underwritten, ogled) female character.
Savvier in its state-of-things fury is King of Pigs director Yeon Sang-ho’s exciting and unexpectedly humanist Seoul Station — unexpected because it’s an animated Korean zombie action-horror peppered with chatter about universal healthcare and economic downturns. It’s like a preamble to Land of the Dead (George A. Romero’s gut-munchers represented the underclass in the only summer movie that coincidentally mattered in 2005), the outbreak beginning after railway commuters completely disregard the plight of a sick homeless man who suddenly dies…. As the undead horde grows, largely a pissed-off population of the dispossessed, the story focuses on a trio of socially alienated protagonists: a strong-willed runaway girl (and reformed sex worker), her ineffectual live-in boyfriend (and pimp), and the gruff father looking for her. With its naturalistic, even understated animation style — blurring to signify kinetic movements, environmental watercolor gradients to make the foreground pop — the film isn’t traditionally scary, perhaps because it’s not trying to reinvent Romero’s zombie allegories. Yet the third act reveals a jaw-dropping twist that transmutes the story into shocking emotional horror, and the somber fallout demands empathy for your fellow man…or at least, a young woman.
Among the plentiful NYAFF delights is What’s in the Darkness, a dour procedural thriller set in rural China during the early Nineties, in which a police officer as absurdly inept as those in Memories of Murder hunts a local killer, the hook being that the film doubles as a sexual coming-of-age tale for the cop’s doe-eyed teen daughter, who is obsessed with the case. And in the uneven but ultimately potent omnibus 10 Years, five filmmakers work through the near-future scenario of Hong Kong under a dystopian Chinese regime; this Best Picture winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards had a five-figure budget yet still outgrossed Star Wars: The Force Awakens on its home turf.
This year, NYAFF’s programmers have also shrewdly made a point to showcase the underrepresented films of Southeast Asia, like the fest’s lyrical centerpiece, Hamog (Haze), a bittersweet Filipino street-urchin drama from Brillante Mendoza’s former screenwriter Ralston Jover. Jagat (Brutal) suggests Satyajit Ray’s earnest compassion among Tamil immigrants in Malaysia, as a young kid is torn between the paths of his disciplinarian dad and his gangster uncle. And thanks to Heart Attack, a downbeat Thai comedy about a graphic designer’s life as an overworked freelancer, we now have the wired-generation gag of the year: when our underslept hero asks a monk during a funeral for a Wi-Fi password before plugging in his laptop next to the casket. Deadlines are deadlines in any language.
New York Asian Film Festival
Through July 9, Film Society of Lincoln Center and SVA Theatre