From June 28 to July 11 the New York Asian Film Festival offered 70 productions from prolific Asian filmmaking countries like South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as selections from Thailand and the Philippines. A unique entry was CONRADE KIM GOES FLYING, the first feature film from North Korea ever shown in the United States. As in past years the festival screened several productions from the JAPAN CUTS festival which was held at the Japan Society through July 14. Unlike established New York film festivals such as the New York Film Festival, New Directors/ New Films or Tribeca, the NYAFF and JAPAN CUTS festivals do not attempt to provide the most innovative and artistic feature films. Rather the programming philosophy is defined by providing a solid overview of recent productions from Asian countries including comic-book adaptations, current and recent block busters, outrageous comedies, horror films as well as the traditional homage to martial arts films. The selection includes the Asian equivalent to art house and independent films, but it is not its guiding rationale. Most films have been produced last year and are US premiers unlikely to get into theatrical release here. Ever since its establishment in 2002 in New York’s down town screening venues the NYAFF has established a loyal following. Several years ago the festival moved from its down town location to Lincoln Center without changing its programming approach. Though the Walter Read Theater is certainly more upscale than the Anthology Film Archives the NYAFF did attract some of the traditional Lincoln Center audience and played many of its 2013 selections for a sold out house.
I’M FLASH, Japan, 2012, Toshikai Toyoda An outstanding element of the film is the commentary with a philosophical and poetic strain offered by the charismatic and attractive young leader of a religious sect. Contrary to the cult’s name ‘Life is Beautiful’ Rui Yoshinoful, its leader is obsessed with the beauty of dying and less with the meaning of life and survival. In its persuasive structure the film has paralleling narratives, on one hand Rui discoursing with a woman whose sister committed suicide as a guru follower on the other images of his fate over several days as played out in his temple and the seaside until killed by hit men on his mother’s orders since he wants to dissolve the sect. The original and rather unusual idea for the film was prompted by the death in July 2011 of the director’s close friend Yoshio Harada. Most actors in I’M FLAS are associates of Harada.
HELTER SKELTER, Japan, 2012, Mika Ninagawa Based on a manga series by Kyoko Okazaki this feature film is an attractive though sometimes chaotic black satire on the contemporary Japanese plastic surgery industry and its consequences. Centering on the supermodel LiLiCo it features the perpetual construction of beauty, including virtually all parts of the body, and the addiction to manufactured beauty by female youth, the press, advertising, and visual media. There is a contextualized dissection of the image and human body industry serving a rich and influential audience and setting the visual frame for the rest of the population. Sex, narcissism and mean actions prevail in that world. Pushing the story to the extreme, the cosmetic surgery clinic uses illegally obtained organs, skin, and other body parts for its clients addicting them to expensive rejection suppression drugs for the rest of their lives. If they cannot pay they suffer from severe side effects. Even LiLiCo cannot escape the recurring blemishes on her skin the surgery prompted. Once her story breaks there is media frenzy, criminal investigation of the clinic given the suicides among former clinic clients and numerous law suits. Yet the investigation is hampered since most of the clients came from prominent political or corporate families.
A WOMAN AND WAR Japan, 2013, Junichi Inoue This is probably one of the best films selected for the 2013 edition. Set in Japan during the waning months of World War II, it presents through careful scripting and excellent acting the fate of three characters and the impact their past biography had on physical intimacy. We meet Yoshio a one-armed army veteran who is traumatized by his war experience in China that forced him into unspeakable acts of violence and who can no longer experience emotional closeness, thus expressing his self through numerous acts of murder and rape. Nomura is a failing writer who has escaped the draft and has no illusions about the future and finds solace only through obsessive sex with a former prostitute. She was forced in comfort station serving the Japanese and resumes that activity after the US victory and decides to live with Nomura though numbed to any satisfaction by her work. She seems to awaken however during a choking act when Yoshio rapes her. Nomura kills himself since he cannot face the uncertainty of the new Japan or “its layers of lies and corruption”. Yoshio is arrested for murder and states that his war crimes in China were the result of an imperial order and that the emperor was spared. The appalling narrative is told in a subdued manner, a kaleidoscope of contrary and psychopathological relations prompted by the experience of war.
BEIJING BLUES China, 2012, Gao Qunshu Qunshu presents a surprising docu-dramatic reflection of the urban landscape of Beijing as seen through the eyes of a Beijing undercover agent who is handling mostly street crimes. The frequently under class offenders are shown in their everyday life and interaction with the detective and his crew. There is a veritable parade of small time petty criminals, scam artists, street hawkers and swindlers, some of whom speak their minds pointing out that the rich take from the poor all the time without punishment, that people are hanging on to survive and that the police should not focus on them. This film provides a moving and very convincing visualization of Beijing’s street life without adornment or condemnation.
FENG SHUI, China, 2012, Wang Jing This film depicts dynamics of family relation in a small drama format in the Chinese socio-political setting of the 90s. Li Baoli is an aggressive working class female rarely showing sympathetic emotions and full of venom for the other sex. Her husband Xuewu is a low keyed yet warm man who works as a union official in a factory but cannot meet her material needs. After an argument Xuewu requests a divorce and sets in motion the breakdown of their family, his eventual suicide and the emotional disconnection of his son Bao from the mother. Ten years later after Bao finds out as a teenager that his mother prompted the father’s death he disowns her totally and continues living with his grandmother while his mother moves in with a petty criminal. Feng Shui depicts a powerfully played social drama of the decomposition of a family with a superb acting performance of Yan Bingyan as the coldly detached and well armored Li Baoli.
COUNTDOWN Thailand, 2012, Nattawat Poorpirita In this feature we have several young Thais living a never-ending party in New York as supported by their parents. The two female and one male teenager come across as shallow hedonists focusing on drugs and sex only. Yet the plot is packaged within a grizzly suspense story which takes place on New Year’s Eve. Trying to purchase drugs they open the apartment to a drug dealer who, although funny and charming at first, turns into an exterminating angel. For close to an hour we observe torture, murder of a visitor and two teenagers, attempted rape, destruction of the apartment, etc. The hellish inferno ends with the constant admonition by the intruder that the teenagers should confess their worst sins and recite Buddhists commandments. As admitted, they have been living with lies and theft and one had fled Thailand with the support of her prominent political family after she killed a family of four with her car. COUNTDOWN ends with a transformation of the teens.
CONFESSION OF MURDER, Korea 2012, Jeong Byeong-Gil We follow an intriguing crime drama where a serial killer publishes a detailed description of his crimes after the statute of limitations has expired, thus he cannot be prosecuted. Rising to media prominence the attractive killer becomes the center of public attention, though the detective handling the case 20 years earlier raises doubts about his identity. Falling for the detective’s ruse the true killer reveals himself and is cornered with a recording indicating that the statute of limitation had not expired by several hours. He escapes and is killed by the detective who is jailed subsequently for the man- slaughter
THE LAST TYCOON Hong Kong /China 2012 Wong Jing, Director This action oriented biographical feature of one of Shanghai’s most prominent legendary gangster tycoons Du Yuesheng covers a period o more than 20 years depicting in faithfully rendered settings his rise to power , relation with Shanghai’s two other crime bosses and long term involvement with the opera singer Joyce Feng. Moving back and forth in time, the film excels with its a fast moving well paced narrative providing violent clashes and war scenes as the background for his romantic involvement. The film has political overtones in its depiction of conflicts with the Japanese occupying Shanghai. Du Yuesheng becomes part of the resistance leading eventually to his death. This ending is a biographical modification of Du Yuesheng’s true life story since he had to flee to Hong Kong after the Communist victory due his having been a major financial backer of their opponents the Kuomintang. THE LAST TYCOON is a well enacted and staged block buster film.
DRUG WAR, Johnnie To, Hong Kong, 2012 Shot on the mainland, this film is an exceptional crime thriller. It is centered on a drug cartel boss who is forced to works as an informer for an undercover police team to avoid execution for his involvement in manufacturing drugs. In this well scripted and exhilarating production we have the realistic violence Hong Kong films are known for. Tommie Choi the former cartel boss forms an uneasy alliance with the police captain Zhang during the 72 hours the film covers, the time needed to destroy the cartel. Zhang perfectly assumes the role of a major drug dealer initiating a large transaction with another cartel while his crew successfully deciphers the cartel’s phone codes. Choi who seems to be as adept in his maneuvers as Zhang survives a huge shoot out between police and drug gangs and is condemned to die. His attempt to escape execution fails, thus the criminal gets his deserved punishment as Chinese film censors expect. Drug War was filmed in China respecting the censors’ guidelines, to wit no positive depiction of immoral behavior, of sex or corrupt police officers. Yet with its gritty neo-realistic approach it has become the most successful crime film ever shown in China.
There is no question that JAPAN CUTS and the NYAFF have attracted a growing loyal audience through their eclectic and renegade programming approach and belong to the most appealing film festivals New York offers.