The New York Asian Film Festival celebrates its 10th Anniversary this year. We invited a handful of our contributors to weigh in on selections from the fest, including this year’s special sidebar tribute to Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark.
BKO: Bangkok Knockout plays Saturday, July 2 at 12:15 and Saturday, July 9 at Midnight
Co-directed by Panna Rittikrai and Morakot Kaewthanee, BKO: Bangkok Knockout sports an astronomically high ratio of ass-kicking to storytelling. The set-up is simple: a team of martial arts experts wins a contest to be in a movie which–to their misfortune–turns out to be a snuff film. Drugged and dumped in a large warehouse, the group must fight to survive a gladiatorial deathmatch as an audience of filthy rich gamblers place bets on their iPads. The story is nothing new (The Most Dangerous Game, Surviving the Game, The Hunger Games, et al.) and the screenplay has little interest in the camaraderie of its characters or the drama of their betrayals. But it is very interested in their stunt capabilities, and in that area, BKO excels. Summarizing the action would spoil the surprisingly inventive choreography that takes advantage of every nook, cranny and concrete wall in the warehouse. By the end, it’s a wonder that anyone or anything—including the building—is left standing. Rubble has rarely been so much fun. – Cullen Gallagher
Battle Royale plays Friday, July 8 at 9:15 at Japan Society
A graduation-as-apocalypse parable to rival the Season 3 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mixing fetishistic violence with adolescent catharsis, this early “Asia Extreme” prototype became the subject of much public soapboaxing in its native Japan. In his final film, director Kinji Fukasaku—an exploitation-flick crusader of the Sam Fuller school—contrives to set a class of 42 uniformed 9th-graders on an uncharted isle, where instead of an end-of-school-year-trip, they’re offered up to the imperatives of genre (wearing a threadbare dystopia get-up) and given 72 hours to kill each other off until one classmate’s left standing. Cliques break up, in close-quartered Uzi shoot-outs; crushes are confessed, as the lovelorn bleed out; and one teen, like the boys of American Pie, just wants to get laid before it’s all over (he’s stabbed in the nards by Chiaki Kuriyama, who a predictably impressed Quentin Tarantino nabbed for Kill Bill; Q.T. also wanted Kou Shibasaki, the class weirdo turned eyelash-crimping, sickle-swinging seductress-killer). Blood gushes out in deep, CGI-enhanced reds as kids die young and beautiful to strains of Verdi, Strauss, Schubert, and Bach. It’s as histrionic as any yearbook inscription, but far more gratifying. -Mark Asch
Bedevilled plays Wednesday, July 6 at 8:45 and Sunday, July 10 at 7:00
After witnessing a brutal crime, heartless bank clerk Hae-Won (Seong-won Ji) refuses to testify in court. Harassed for this decision at her office, she strikes back at a co-worker and is ordered to take time off, so Hai decides to visit the remote island where her grandfather lived. There she discovers that her old friend Bok-Nam (Seo Young-Hee) is trapped in an abusive marriage. Once again a witness to violence, Hae-Won struggles to remain neutral as tensions on the island escalate to a bloody climax. Director Jang Cheol-Su is a former assistant to Kim Ki-duk and follows his mentor’s path with this unflinching exploration of the uncomfortably violent and perverse aspects of society. At times, the island’s open acceptance of domestic abuse seems overly schematic, but a shift in narrative perspective in the final third gives the story added depth. Diverging from other South Korean revenge fantasies like Oldboy, Bedeviled doesn’t doesn’t aestheticize its brutality. From incest and rape to a well-deserved decapitation, Jang doesn’t let you forget how twisted this violent world is, and how not dissimilar it is to our own. -C.G.
Spotlight on NYAFF Special Guest Tsui Hark
Nathan Lee, Alt Screen Contributing Editor: The yelping prodigy that is the New York Asian Film Festival hits double digits this year, and for its 10th year celebration reaches back to its roots to celebrate the quintessential NYAFF auteur. Recipient of a festival retrospective in 2001 and this year’s Star Asia Lifetime Achievement award, Tsui Hark perfectly embodies the NYAFF ethos. Insanely productive, wildly imaginative, as devoted to cinematic finesse as he is to inexplicable wire-fu zombie freakouts, Hark’s singularly delirious movies are paradigmatic of Hong Kong high/low fusion at its best.
The filmmaker will be on hand for screenings of three triumphs: the groundbreaking fantasia Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain, the grunge wuxia The Blade, and his recent return to form, the voluptuous spectacle Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame. I asked Grady Hendrix, NYAFF majordomo a simple question:
“Why is Tsui Hark so fucking awesome?”
Grady Hendrix, NYAFF Head Programmer: Tsui Hark rocks, and he rocks hard. His movies are like the distilled essence of cinema, boiled down, filtered and refined so that seeing one of them is like getting a straight shot of the hard stuff after a lifetime spent drinking Lite Beer.
His women are tougher, his heroes are more tragic, his colors are more intense, his action flies faster, his stories are more primal and his heartbreak is more devastating than anyone working in film today. He’s smart as hell, and has spent a lifetime producing, writing and directing hundreds of movies and he’s got a mission: he wants to speak to Chinese people and show them why their culture, their history and their heroes are awesome. The result of this is that you have a director with no patience for BS, no tolerance for short-cuts, who makes movies with the passion of a firebreathing evangelist and who has honed his technique for so long that it’s razor sharp.
More than anything else, he wants to show audiences something NEW. How many times have we sat through a movie where we know where it’s going and what’s going to happen next because of the way it’s cut or shot or scored? Tsui Hark has been there, he’s done that, and he’s committed to finding a new way of showing us the familiar, of making it strange again. When I saw my first Tsui Hark movie I remember feeling like my heart and my brain just had 50,000 volts shot through it. It changed my life. And if you give it a chance, it’ll change yours. Tsui Hark does not mess around.
The Blade plays Monday, July 11 at 6:00
Tsui Hark reworks the 1967 martial arts classic The One-Armed Swordsman into a tough, revisionist dirge. Set amongst a guild of sword makers and the bandits who fuck with them, the premise is your basic revenge saga kaleidoscoped through a neurotic love triangle and mise-en-scene of ceaseless invention and surprise. A supremely textural movie, alternately parched and soaked, The Blade has a wondrously elemental devotion to dust, mud, iron, sweat, and straw. Contemporary with Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, it partakes of the same introversion and splintered temporality before climaxing in a final smackdown that marshals every molecule of Hark’s prodigious kinetic mastery. “It took forever to find this 35mm print,” notes the festival organizers, “and the rights holder is not allowing any more screenings after this one.” -N.L.
Buddha Mountain plays Sun, July 3 at 9:10 and Tue, July 5 at 1:30
Li Yu’s whimsical slice-of-life story follows three friends ‘Fatso,’ Nan Fang and Ping Bo (Fei Long, Fan Bingbing, Wilson Chen) as they wander through city streets, bop out in karaoke bars, and slowly swelter to death in their rent-controlled, un-air-conditioned apartment. After being evicted, they move in with Madam Chang (Sylvia Chang), a retired Opera star theatrically grieving the death of her adult son. If you’re able to bliss out to leisurely long takes of a cargo train moving through mountain tunnels, then this is probably the most pleasant 105 minutes you’ll find at NYAFF. A jarring switch to news footage from 2008’s memorably disastrous earthquake acts like an imperative to live for the moment and stay comfortably numb to life’s tragedies, but the overall message here is way more upbeat than Yu’s previous Lost in Beijing. -John Lichman
Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame plays Monday, July 11 at 8:30
China, 7th century: Plans are well underway for the erection of a colossal Buddha statue to celebrate the impeding coronation of Empress Wu when a rash of spontaneous combustions threatens the proceedings. Enter the unflappable Detective Dee and a vortex of intrigues, hidden agendas, fire turtles, ambiguous albinos, ventriloquist deer, acupuncture transmogrifications and saucy whip virtuosos. Lushly produced and gracefully executed, Hark’s return to the action fantasy mode is blockbuster moviemaking at its least burdened – a swift, congenial pastiche of mystery, period piece, an old-school wuxia. – N.L.
Machete Maidens Unleashed plays Saturday, July 2 at 10:15
If you’ve ever thought that many documentaries could be improved by bikini babes with dueling machine guns or schlock-tastic jungle monsters, then this is the doc for you. Directed by Mark Hartley (Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!), Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) explores the world of exploitation filmmaking in the Philippines that exploded in the late-1960s before finally fizzling out in the early-1980s. Inexpensive labor and a government willing to court film productions (and loan them military helicopters) made the country ideal for producers like Roger Corman who turned out sensational pictures fast, cheap, and lurid. Some representative titles: Beast of Blood, Women in Cages, One-Armed Executioner, and For Your Height Only (a midget James Bond spoof). This fond tribute to a bygone era smartly avoids fanboy fanaticism, and its sharp cultural analysis gives the films the attention they deserve without making too many lofty, pretentious claims. As one filmmaker observed, the stories behind the movies might be better than the movies themselves. -C.G.
The Man From Nowhere plays Thursday, July 7, at 6:15
A stunning fusion of noir thriller and revenge spectacle, The Man From Nowhere has enough grit to stand toe-to-toe with Memories of Murder and enough action to satisfy fans of Oldboy. Reclusive pawnshop owner Tae-Sik (Won Bin) befriends a young girl whose mother has stolen a large delivery of heroin. When the dealers are unable to collect, they repossess the little girl and plan to harvest her organs on the black market. Won Bin, best known for his portrayal of the simpleton murder suspect in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009), here reveals himself to be a charismatic (but still brooding) leading man equally attuned to the nuances of drama and knife fighting. Shifting into hero mode, he gets a slick crewcut, puts on a fancy suit, and singlehandedly takes on both the local police and the drug cartel. Though this is only director Lee Jeong-beom’s second film, he displays a stylistic bravura that’s both confident and tasteful. With The Man From Nowhere, Lee seems poised to become an international sensation equal to compatriots Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. -C.G.
Milocrorze: A Love Story plays Friday, July 1 at 9:00 and Sunday, July 10 at 8:00*
A bizarre narrative edifice, tacking on new wings with garish disregard for structural cohesion, all to house the Tokyo-pop creations and love-stinks gags of TV sketch comedy veteran Yoshimasa Ishibashi. (Imagine a Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode talked through by fewer smart people.) Leading man Takayuki Yamada plays variations on a theme over the course of three long-form comic sketches: sporting green-on-green argyle and an orange go-go wig as the heartbroken loser who bookends the film; in bowl cut and Tony Orlando-ruffled shirt as a respect-the-cock-and-tame-the-cunt love guru surrounded by fly honies (id at its freakshowiest, he punches out a line of gyrating ladies in a supermarket, parodying a motif Ishibashi’s only just invented); and, in a segment that burns through half the 90-minute running time, a salaryman turned ronin, who goes back in time in search of a lost love (he finds her at the end of a super-slo-mo scrolling one-against-the-world fight scene, like Zack Snyder shooting Sword of Doom as Old Boy). There’re some inspired quick-release bits within the constant, antic oddness—if nothing else, this’ll make you curious to know more about Ishibashi, and the context for his outré inside jokes. -M.A.
Ringing In Their Ears plays Thursday, July 7 at 9:00* and Monday, July 11 at 1:30
This fresh and innovative Japanese ensemble film paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of an underground band and its orbit of fans (and about-to-be fans), all in the week leading up to the Big Show that might just make them stars. The sprawling cast of characters includes a band manager (Tsurugi, played by Mikito Tsurugi) tempted by money to turn the band into a commercial sell-out, a high-school girl (Michiko, played by Fumi Nikaido) rebelling against her parentally planned career as a pro-chess player, and an aloof 5-year-old (Ryota, played by Tatsuya Sakamoto) threatened with expulsion because of his laptop-addicted fandom. Thankfully, there’s no grand plot design neatly connecting all the dots, just a shared love for rock ‘n’ roll and a climactic concert that brings everyone together, whether on stage, in the crowd or listening to the live webcast. (It’s sort of like Magnolia, but way less pretentious.) And unlike most made-for-movie bands, the rockers of Shinsei Kamattechan are legitimately awesome, as seen in the hell of a show they put on for the big finale. -C.G.
Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain plays Saturday, July 9 at 1:30
Perhaps a demented wuxia remake of Thomas Mann’s high-modernist bildungsroman? Perhaps! Because seriously, who knows. This masterpiece of under-motivated f/x hysterics, impromptu wire-fu shenanigans, and sustained ZOMG WTFism shrieks across the screen like a banshee unleashed from the cinema’s Id. Hark smashes narrative propriety as gleefully as he abandons the laws of physics, and seems to have invented a mode of storytelling predicated on sheer uninhibited forward momentum. A game changer and brain re-arranger, Zu rewrote the rules of Hong Kong action, dazzled French mise-en-scene nerds, and showed John Carpenter how to put the big in Big Trouble in Little China. – N.L.
The New York Asian Film Festival is playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center and Japan Society July 1-14.