The 2021 New York Asian Film Festival Brings the Goods — and the Cliches

Gangsters, torture, Fruit-Loopsy-kitsch, hillbillies, accidental immolations, and black-market turtles


Nineteen years old and counting, the NYAFF returns, like a prodigal college student resolving to abandon their roof-jumping keg-party frivolousness and embrace the grown-up responsibilities of studying for a future. That is, anyway, my impression, having vivid memories of the series’ initial manifestations, which were distinctively outlandish, grotty and inhomogenous. 

Always emphasizing genre, the fest aimed at films that were not otherwise marketable in the US (though some were, thanks to critics’ raving), and it used to also glory in distinctive auteurness: the first year, 2002, frontloaded a disgusting Takashi Miike (Visitor Q), a violative Ishii Takashi (Freeze Me), Seijun Suzuki’s penultimate berserker (Pistol Opera), and, as a tonic, Hur Jin-ho’s lamenting One Fine Spring Day. (Plus, two new Gamera sequels and the Thai historical war epic Bang Rajan.) The South Korean New Wave was just breaking, and Thai film was emerging as an arthouse force. The programming hunt was for the most radical and offbeat of the continent’s culture, not the prototypical, and very little happened halfway.

 Times have changed — has Asian genre cinema become calcified (hardly), or has its sparkier entries become distributable (Bong Joon-ho is, after all, Oscar-sanctified), or has the fest itself slid into institutional convention? (The original programmers, Subway Cinema, split in 2018.) There are peaks and valleys this year, but the will to transgress, and to resist cliche, and to carve out a unique voice, is harder to come by. It’s not a strain, for instance, to mistake one corrosion-hued hyperviolent gangster saga for another, with modulations in tough-guy posturing, torture gore, lowlife caricature, and feints toward grizzled despair. From Japan, Oudai Kojima’s Joint is distinguished by its yakuza hoods raising funds by way of stolen personal data and phone scams, and by the fresh-from-prison hero’s decision to launder money through a tech start-up — which becomes his passion project. 

For some reason, the warring mobsters are given famous-auteur names (Imamura, Oshima, Ichikawa, Kobayashi), but otherwise it could be happening down the hall from Kazuya Shiraishi’s Last of the Wolves, a decidedly more violent clan-war screamer, spearheaded by a tetchy psychopath (Ryohei Suzuki, kind of a Japanese Michael Rooker), whom neither crime family knows how to control. Credulity-crushing in its action — cops get shot and stabbed and are back to work the next day — the film eventually wears you out.

The Hong Kong crook entries are gentler: Chan Kin Long’s Hand Rolled Cigarette is a sentimental cascade of angry beatings and deals gone bad (one is dope, the other is… turtles) that coasts on cliches until late in the game, with a climactic, single-shot Park Chan-wook-ish set-piece that ropes in brawling turnabouts, torture, and accidental immolation. Glenn Chan’s Shadows has instead a double-whammy of far-fetchedness: a psychic shrink (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) probes the subconscious of a murder suspect, which leads her to another psychiatrist, who may be encouraging his patients to “embrace” their “dark side” with Ayn Randian mantras. A Lecter-like serial killer in the second half might be the least contrived figure around.  

On the sunnier side, nothing is as pop as Asian pop, and the Fruit-Loopsy-kitsch side of the cultures sport their own, usually unfunny cliches, as in Kazuaki Seki’s Office Royale, a Japanese riff on office girls forming cartoony gangs and routinely brawling at lunch break. It’s self-knowing and mega-ironic, but that’s not the same as being clever, and the acting is kid-TV crude. Chen Hung-I and Muni Wei’s As We Like It, from Taiwan, takes the poppiness into the stratosphere, packing Shakespeare’s basic plot with tame jokes but rendering its entire cast so androgynous the gender-switching in the original is essentially moot. 

The world of Tan Bee Thiam’s Tiong Bahru Social Club, the only Singaporean film on hand, feels like a rainbow-hued, enforced-happiness dystopia at first, until you realize that the clueless young hero (Thomas Pang) is in fact taking a job at a newfangled retirement community, in which the employees’ give-and-take happiness quotient is monitored and graded. Eventually, disillusionment sets in, and a grumpy cat-lady senior cuts the saccharine with a little salted vinegar.

On the other hand, Yernar Nurgaliyev’s Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It, the first NYAFF film from Kazahstan, is a sort of revelation, a raunchy, tasteless farce that plays half Coen, half Herschell Gordon Lewis, as a milquetoast schmuck (Daniar Aslshinov) with a very pregnant wife fucks off for a faux fishing trip with his two moronic buddies, and ends up tangling with a redneck family on a revenge mission, and with a superhuman, one-eyed serial killer on a spree. Rather Aussie-flavored, perhaps, and overflowing with running stunt gags, deft (if excessive) comedy violence, and jeweled timing, the movie gets such mileage from the crazy-hillbilly trope you realize it might be a comic currency for every culture on Earth.

As for serious “issue” films, the stand-out is Ryoo Seung-wan’s Escape from Mogadishu, a tense and thorny docudrama that shows us what happened when competing South and North Korean diplomats became stranded in the Somalian city once it fell to rebels in 1990. Shot in Morocco, often Oliver Stone-ish (think ‘80s-‘90s Stone), and hard-nosed about the mundane, sometimes absurd work of diplo drudgery, the film doesn’t skimp on the mayhem, on Somali characters, or on the Koreans themselves, who are simultaneously near-comic figures and seasoned professionals.

The issues get mushy from there, from Chen-Nien Ko’s The Silent Forest – lots of fuming teen Taiwanese angst when a bully-ridden school for the deaf uncovers a long legacy of sexual abuse — to Yu Shen’s The Old Town Girls, a Chinese YA drama riven with mopey teens that’s brightened by the appearance of its heroine’s irresponsible, uncomfortably glamorous Mom (Regina Wan), who left after giving birth and now returns with gangster debt in tow. Things get bad, off-screen, but at least bullying turns out to be a side issue, not like in Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance, a strangely diffuse Japanese drama in which a dogged freelance doc filmmaker (Kumi Takiuchi) investigates a teacher-student sex scandal resulting in suicides, even as her own father, a teacher, is revealed to have impregnated a student of his. The real crime is the public and virtual shaming/bullying — a vital concern for a society as wired as Japan — that destroys the lives of everyone concerned. At over 2.5 hours, it ranges all over the place, but is salvaged by Takiuchi and her character’s wicked recalcitrance.

Even more earnestly, Li Joon-ik’s The Book of Fish, from South Korea, follows an aging bureaucrat (Sol Kyung-gu) exiled to a fishing island during the 1801 Catholic Persecution, and becomes fascinated enough with ocean life and the locals’ expertise to want to write the nation’s first marine biology text. It’s not much of a plot, and Li knew it, injecting anachronistic feminist and justice-struggle elements into the islanders’ lives. 

Cao Jinling’s Anima, conservationist enough to be co-produced by China’s Dept. of National Forestry and Grasslands, is richer in story, following two brothers of the animist Evenki tribe, on the northeast border with Mongolia, as they face modern times and the moral crisis of logging the old-growth forests they grew up in. The concern for the old gods hits the background once a woman comes between them, creating a familiar set of melodramatic concerns, but Cao has a yen for the painful moment (that bear cub trying to nurse on its dead mother’s hide), and the epic cinematography, by Hou Hsiao-hsien cohort Mark Li Ping-Bing, converts everything into legend.

Chang Yaosheng’s A Leg might be the oddest film on the docket, a Taiwanese romance in which a dead man’s surgically severed leg gets lost within the hospital system, and his grieving wife sets out to find it. She’s grieving, it turns out, not for the dead man so much as the failed marriage itself, but once she’s waist-deep in the “specimen” storage basement, hunting through bags of discarded body parts, the film’s jaunty romantic tone seems to be about something else altogether.

Two opposing animations flesh out the NYAFF’s conflicted nature pretty well: on one hand, you have Yee Chih-yen’s The City of Lost Things, a Taiwanese sub-Pixar kids’ film about an Oppositional Defiance Disorder boy who finds himself stranded in the titular city — an alt-Taipei in which garbage and inanimate objects are sentient, like Sid’s monstrosities from Toy Story. Grand effort is paid to make everything, even plastic bags, cute, and though on one hand it could be seen as a ripe way to dissect a crazed consumerist culture, the plot, involving attacks by giant vacuum trucks, which the learning-to-be-nice boy must try to fend off, seems to be making a case against trash collection. So maybe it’s better not to big-picture the thing at all. 

Far better, and the most fun I had with the fest’s films, Takahide Hori’s Junk Head is a hypnotic blast, a full-on 100% stop-motion-animated dystopian farce, in which a futuristic motley society of clones and mutants underground is visited by a cyborg from the surface — his head’s detached in a crash, so they outfit him with a body of scrap junk, and give him a job, while occasionally being regarded as a god and being hunted by the catacombs’ various worm-monster predators. (The dialogue is complete gibberish, subtitled as if it were language.) Shot on twos (two or more frames per image) by Hori in the old-fashioned Gumby way, handcrafted within an inch of its life, and smelling sulfurously of Eraserhead, Blade Runner, Jan Svankmajer, and Henry Selick, the film mixes sci-fi gloom with fabulous visual yocks (I really appreciated the porn-like pixelation around the defecating monster anus) and keeps inventing things, within a fully realized world all its own — ’til it drops dead.   ❖

New York Asian Film Festival: August 6 – 22

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