Friday, July 08, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011: The First Dispatch

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—[This was originally supposed to go up on Wednesday, but thanks to extenuating circumstances like a dead hard drive that needed to be replaced on my computer, I'm only getting around to posting this now.]

There are film festivals all year round in New York, but the one currently going on right now may be the most sheer fun of them all.

The New York Asian Film Festival is back in town, celebrating its 10th year of showcasing some of the best, brightest and craziest in Asian cinema, new and old, popular and art-house, from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia, among others. This is the kind of festival that is bold enough to include films about transforming robots, porn stars and kiddie ninjas in its lineup; this year even features whole sidebars focused on Korean revenge thrillers and wu xia martial-arts extravaganzas. And all of this, for the past two years of its existence at least, has taken place in the stately—some might even go so far as to call it stuffy—institution of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.

The first 10 minutes of the very first film shown at this year's festival, a Malaysian film called Sell Out! (2008), could function as a mission statement of sorts for the festival. In it, the film's director, Yeo Joon Han, casts himself as an acclaimed art-house filmmaker who has just completed an award-winning digital short. As he's prodded by a TV interviewer about why he makes such purposely inert films, full of long takes with haltingly delivered dialogue in which nothing much happens, gunshots are suddenly heard around them, and we see civilians being randomly gunned down and fresh, bloody corpses shoved into our faces. Finally, Han explains the method behind his slowness: Life is boring, he declares, and he wants us all to share in his despair.

The film that follows this opening comic volley, however, wages a defiant fight against the art-house trend of "slow" cinema, finding endless invention amidst bleak material. It's as if Han was giving internationally acclaimed art-house auteurs like Cristi Puiu, Jia Zhang-ke and others a long, sustained middle finger.

In many ways, that's what the New York Asian Film Festival is all about, at least within the realm of movies from Asia: shining a light on the kind of fare that doesn't usually make it to international festivals; restoring a sense of worth to the popular hits of these countries; fighting the kind of art-house ghettoization that can happen when festival tastemakers decide, however unintentionally, which kinds of films from individual countries get wider exposure and which don't. Hey, I like Jia Zhang-ke as much as the next guy, but surely there's room for American audiences to see something like, say, the wacky and wildly stylized three-story feast Milocrorze: A Love Story (2011). Chances are, you might get more sheer pleasure out of a film like that than, say, yet another drably miserablist Romanian drama.

Plus, the audiences I've sat in for New York Asian Film Festival screenings have been among the more enthusiastic and receptive as any I've sat in at other festivals I've been to—perfect for something like Duel to the Death, Ching Siu-tung's 1983 Hong Kong martial-arts classic, the kind of film which almost demands a crowd to share one's excitement at the death-defying wonders before one's eyes.


Here's a brief round-up of some of the films I've seen so far at this year's festival:

Lest anyone get the impression that Hollywood is the only national cinema in the world that greenlights lavish big-screen revamps of vintage television shows, witness Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2011), Noboru Iguchi's exuberant modern update of a popular series from the 1970s, one featuring a vengeance-driven civilian hero named Yutaka Daimon (played in his younger incarnation by Yasuhisa Furuhara) and his sidekick, a robot who can transform into a motorcycle, among its many other talents.

Transform? Yes, that's right. I haven't seen the past weekend's big U.S. box-office attraction, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, yet; in fact, I haven't seen any of the Transformers films yet. But if many of the reviews I've read suggesting that those films—based on a beloved toy line that eventually spawned comic books, television series and other films before Michael Bay got his hands on the franchise—are basically soulless rah-rah spectacles of special effects and machinery are to be believed, then Iguchi's film offers a welcome corrective, offering genuine wit and soul to a film that could have come off as just another campy nostalgia machine. Its opening 15 minutes of set-up comes perilously close to suggesting otherwise, featuring as it does a scantily clad female cyborg, robots with oversized lips that kiss people in order to suck out their energy, and the hero making all sorts of Bruce Lee-style noises as he kicks villainous ass. But then, the plot begins to unfold, and Karate-Robo Zaborgar becomes more serious (relatively speaking) and involving.

Iguchi's method is to pile on a host of emotional and thematic complications atop standard plot elements. Daimon, of course, has a vengeance-driven personal stake in bringing down the film's main villain, the half-cyborg Dr. Akunomiya (Akira Emoto), having seen his own father killed in front of his eyes at the hands of the doctor—but we see glimpses of that father-son relationship, and it is not a harmonious one, to say the least. (This is a thread that will eventually come full circle in the film's second half, in ways I won't spoil here.) And Dr. Akunomiya's female henchmen, the aforementioned cyborg oh-so-creatively named Miss Borg (Mami Yamasaki), turns out to have a feminist streak that leads her not only to occasional derail her master's plans, but also develop romantic feelings toward the idealistic Daimon. Iguchi's plot also veers into moral dilemmas, topical and political commentary, and, in its second half, themes of aging and family—and, thankfully, all of it is played without distancing irony. The robots become almost secondary to the human dramas that play out in this big-budget, CGI-heavy extravaganza.

Human drama takes more of a backseat in Duel to the Death; in fact, as a story, it's near incomprehensible. It has something to do with a contest held every 10 years among Chinese and Japanese martial artists to determine who will dominate the field in the upcoming decade; the focus here is on one Chinese fighter, Ching Wan (Damian Lau), and his Japanese nemesis, Hashimoto (Norman Chu). Though opponents, they are eventually forced to team up when they uncover an attempt to rig the contest...but that is not to say that Hashimoto has forgotten the fight they are supposed to have. Traditions are traditions, after all...

From one scene to the next, characters change locations without so much as a transition to explain how they got there; storytelling coherence, in general, barely seems to be of any concern to Ching Siu-tung, making pretty much a hash out of the various reversals that supposedly happen. And yet, just look at what this choreographer-turned-director puts on the screen as far as wu xia action goes, and it almost doesn't matter. Ninjas burrowing underground like moles and popping out to surprise their enemies; combatants being imprisoned in an endless void by spiderweb-like nets; a giant ninja that turns into a lot of human-sized ones: The laundry list of feverishly inspired, gravity-defying visions goes on and on, briskly working its way toward an awe-inspiring climax atop an ocean-side cliff in which Ching Wan is forced to finally do battle with Hashimoto despite having lost the will to do so. For all the exhilarating stunts and wire-work on display in Duel to the Death, does Ching Siu-tung go so far as to suggest a possible anti-violence message at the end? It's fitting that the film ends not in the flush of victory, but with two bruised, battered and maimed warriors looking out into an uncertain future, a sense of triumph remaining elusive even as the film ends with an obligatory Hong Kong pop song.

Such stealth subversion exists, I would argue, in 13 Assassins (2010), Takashi Miike's recent remake of Eiichi Kudo's samurai classic from 1963 and screened at the New York Asian Film Festival in a director's cut that is about 17 minutes longer than the international theatrical version. It exists not only in the seemingly eternal length of its climactic battle sequence—exhilarating at first, but then the initial excitement drains away as the dead bodies start piling up on both sides—but in its unflinching look at a dying way of life: that of the samurai, with all of its out-of-vogue customs and codes of honor. But it's not only callous Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) who, in his own ruthless way, looks ahead to a way of life beyond that of the samurai; his counterpart on the side of the 13 assassins is Koyata Kiga (Yusuke Iseya), the wild man of the group who seems to take perverse pleasure in beating up on Naritsugu's minions in the climactic battle, and is constantly heard cracking wise about how samurais are "no fun." At least Naritsugu has his own personal principles driving his cruelty; Koyata doesn't seem to have any principles to speak of.

The one lengthy new scene in the director's cut of 13 Assassins is a rather crude and ill-placed scene of "comedy" that is meant to emphasize the parallels between Naritsugu and Koyata, one that negates the genuine pathos Koyata betrays in the previous scene as he wistfully recalls a woman he once loved long ago. Then we see him fucking a lot of women, to the horror of the village elder, who eventually gets ass-raped by Koyata's "spectacular member." Yes, folks, you read that right: anal rape is featured in this extra scene, and it's played for laughs. Sure, that is not objectionable in and of itself, but not only does it break the generally serious and sorrowful mood of the film surrounding this scene, but it also seems to be aiming for a vrai-Miikeian mixture of sickly funny and disturbing that the rest of the film fails to build all that much upon—and so the scene end up merely sticking out like a sore thumb. The other additions in the director's cut are mostly character-building moments; they're interesting but inessential. The rest of the film, thankfully, still holds up quite handsomely.

Those who know Miike's vast body of work, though, will recognize 13 Assassins as relatively restrained for him. One of his latest films, Ninja Kids!!! (2011)—which received its world premiere Sunday evening at the New York Asian Film Festival—however, just about bursts wide open with mad bits of comic invention—not enough to fully sustain its 100-minute length, but still, when it hits, it hits.

As the title, with its three whopping exclamation marks, suggests, this is a lighthearted kids' fantasy, more along the lines his 2005 film The Great Yokai War than his more notoriously violent Audition (2001), Ichi the Killer (2001) or Gozu (2003). Much of the film is given over to a relentless barrage of gags parodying genre clichés, with the bulk of the satire put in the hands of the titular kids, all of whom are attending a school to train to be ninjas. Miike and cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita employ a bright color palette to give the proceedings an appropriately surreal, cartoonish bent (the film is based on a popular anime series, after all). And the spirit of the film is appropriately playful and childlike: Miike pretty much throws whatever images and gags comes into his head onto the screen, from a recurring joke about dog shit to a fancy musical number that offers character backstory in entertaining fashion. In short, Ninja Kids!!! is a very unruly movie, and for about an hour or so, it coasts on sheer blast-from-the-id creative energy. Like most unruly kids in real life, though, it gets frankly exhausting after a while, especially losing creative steam once Yoshio Urasawa's script decides to finally drag in a not-particularly-compelling plot in its last half hour. I'm not usually bothered by movies that don't foreground plot, but in this case, I do wonder if an actual story might have made Ninja Kids!!! more tolerable; as it is, there's very little to latch onto emotionally, so that when it does try for pathos at the end, it completely fails to come off.

Thankfully, two of the New York Asian Film Festival's opening-night selections featured more enjoyable blasts of what-the-fuck cinematic ingenuity, one of them also from Japan.

As I briefly mentioned above, Yoshimasa Ishibashi's Milocrorze: A Love Story features three stories packed into one brightly colored pop confection, with none of them having anything to do with one another, at least on the surface. It begins as a whimsical kids' tale about a young boy with the tongue-twisting name of Ovreneli Vreneligare who falls in love with the titular dream girl, to the point of spending beyond his means just so he can provide a roof over her head with him by her side. But their relationship hits an inevitable rough patch, leading Milocrorze to leave him for another man, and leaving poor Ovreneli heartbroken. That, however, is when Ishibashi suddenly thrusts us into Story No. 2, revolving around Besson Kumagai (Takayuki Yamada, in one of three roles he plays here), whose claim to fame is giving hilariously chauvinistic advice to lovelorn youths and also, apparently, randomly dancing around like Michael Jackson. And then Story No. 2 gives way to Story No. 3—set in a more familiar samurai-movie landscape—which follows Tamon (Yamada) as he risks life and limb to rescue his long-lost love from the iron grip of a geisha house. (The highlight of the latter story—the one that gets the most screen time, by the way—is a swordfighting sequence in which Tamon demolishes bands of samurais in super-slow-motion.)

Milocrorze: A Love Story only seems random. In fact, unrequited love is the overarching theme that binds all of its wacky digressions together—and it all comes full circle in its epilogue, with a now fully grown Ovreneli—still smarting from Milocrorze's rejection as an adult—randomly running into his childhood sweetheart again, the encounter producing a less-than-desirable outcome. It is in this epilogue that Ishibashi's film reveals real depths to its surface playfulness: a rather profound wisdom about the ways we all have a tendency to deceive ourselves when it comes to the game of romance. Maybe, in a sense, the whole middle portion of the film separating the opening and closing sections could be seen as Ovreneli's own fantasies borne out of his heartbreak: pop-inflected expressions of his deepest desires and his self-loathing.

Even Milocrorze's narrative experimentation, however, can't help but pale just a tad next to the even more reckless imagination at work in Sell Out!, the best thing I've seen at the New York Asian Film Festival so far, a concoction so savagely hilarious, so overflowing with stylistic creativity and so rich in ambition that it takes a while for the full weight of its misanthropy hits you in the gut like the bullets that spray those anonymous innocent bystanders in its opening sequence.

Yeo Joon Han's grand subject is no less than capitalism itself and the ill effects it inspires within a entire society: how it chokes off innovation in the race for higher profits; how it turns people into corporate drones who may well come to believe that being a corporate drone is the be-all and end-all of their lives; how it encourages callousness and inhumanity; how it creates wide chasms between rich and poor. In the world Han creates in Sell Out!, corporate head honchos punish an employee (Peter Davis) for being ambitious; a cutthroat TV personality (Jerrica Lai) thinks nothing of exploiting people's deaths for entertainment; and even bored department-store employees would rather run away from customers—in a throwaway scene Han turns into the equivalent of a game of hide-and-seek—than actually help them.

All of this is pretty pessimistic stuff, to be sure, and a more serious-minded director—someone like Michael Haneke perhaps—might have mined this material for mere finger-wagging. Han, however, seems to have said at the outset, "We know all of this selfishness exists in the world; why not have some fun with it?" And so, Sell Out! sells its generally unredeeming view of humanity in an invigorating mishmash of genres, styles and running gags; Han seems to be working from his gut the same way Ishibashi seems to have worked from his in Milocrorze and Miike worked from his in Ninja Kids!!! (What other movie have you seen that features a faux-karaoke sequence in the middle that actually invites us to sing along?) There's constant comic and aesthetic elation to keep its pessimism from becoming oppressive; it may not offer much in the way of answers to the problems it explores in the end, but damned if Han doesn't have an irreverent blast elucidating those issues in the first place.

Films like Sell Out!, Milocrorze and much of the rest of what I've seen so far at the New York Asian Film Festival once again remind us of what those Cahiers du cinéma boys in the 1950s discovered as they wrote about all those Hollywood films and filmmakers many in the U.S. took for granted: that some of the most fascinating of artistic visions could be glimpsed not in the respectable prestige pictures, but in "disreputable" genre offerings, where filmmakers were often free to cut loose and express themselves more freely, whether within those imposed genre boundaries or without.

The festival runs until July 14; I can't wait to see what other crazily inventive wonders are in store for me in the coming week!

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