When I first covered the festival numerous years ago at the downtown Anthology Film Archives, I was struck by several features not encountered in any of the other established festivals. The organizers of the festival performed antics on the stage before the films and threw presents like videos and books into the audience. They were greeted by an adoring and enthusiastic crowd who seemed to be familiar with directors and principal characters of the films screened. In short an audience addicted to the program of popular Asian movies in all genres and to the organizers of the vent.
Now in its 9th edition, the festival was organized by ‘ subway cinema’, a film programming collective fostering Asian popular film, and staged from June 25 – July 8 with 60 productions in the program , including 12 short films and a nine feature, The Japan Cuts* selection mainly screened towards the end of the festival at the Japan Society. Midnight Screenings were also held at the IFC Center. The biggest change was a new location. The festival has moved uptown to a well-known established venue and is organized now in cooperation with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The society is better known for presenting upscale high brow features with claims to artistic value, as clearly shown in the programming of its prestigious New York Film Festival. By holding the festival at the Walter Read Theater, subway cinema seemed to have sold out, yet what I observed at the Anthology still held. The 2010 program had a superb selection of old and new kung fu films, blockbuster films known for their commercial success, thrillers, blood and gore and specifically this year Japanese independent and underground films characterized by “unhinged insanity”… with “deranged film makers unleash[ing] hell on unsuspecting overseas audiences” (program notes).
The invitation to hold the festival at Lincoln Center is probably tied to the film society’s attempt to broaden its audience base and the additional screening facilities it will have this fall. As informal surveys before screening sessions of the NYAFF seemed to show, a significant part of the audience has never been to the Lincoln Center, thus the festival did not lose its core audience of young and off beat individuals. Another important characteristic has not changed either, the original founders/directors of the festival; Grady Hendrix, Goran Toplaovic, and Marc Walkow are not making a living running the festival. The festival has no paid employees but is run by the founders and others volunteering their work. What seems to be new is the festival’s rapidly expanded roster of Asian directors and actors who were invited, probably tied to more fundraising success as prompted by the new location. Hopefully, the new venue and larger funds will not lead to a decline of the festival’s populist orientation.
According to expert friends the programming of blockbusters like IP MAN 2 (Wilson Yip, Hong Kong, 2010) and BLADES OF BLOOD (Lee Joon-lk, KOREA, 2010) as well as of four films by Sammo Hung also known as the Big Brother of the Hong Kong kung fu film industry provided highlights for the festival. Hung’s film, included the rarely screened classic EASTERN CONDORS (1987), a Vietnam war black humor film with torture sessions, female kung fu freedom fighters, Russian roulette , tiger cages, and a ferocious ‘dirty dozen’ overcoming the Vietnamese army including its sadistic communist general who also excelled in kung fu skills.
Apart from the kung fu films, there were numerous noteworthy productions, COW (Guan Hu, China, 2009) recreates the rural countryside of the late thirties immersed in the struggle with the Japanese and focuses on a peasant entrusted by his village with a superior cow when the Chinese army is retreating. This intriguing film is based on a true story and depicts a man animal interaction under stressful and comical circumstances. The actor Huan Bo, who is actually a Chinese superstar, suggested that this acting job was the greatest challenge he ever faced and that it was much more difficult to work with a fellow animal actor than with humans. He has decided to decline offers to work with animals in other films.
CRAZY RACER (Ning Hao, China, 2009) ranks among the most enjoyable gangster screw ball comedies I have seen. It provides a set of original characters including the leads played by a disgraced bike racer, a freeze dried transsexual assassin, a plot with multiple mistaken identities, and a charade of weird petty gangsters. CRAZY RACER is a send off of traditional cops and robbers films and has turned into one of the most successful commercial releases in China.
TIAN AN MEN (Ye Daying, China, 2009), is for the Western viewer probably a classic example of a massive communist film in the agitprop (agitation / propaganda) tradition. In this massive super staged film a unit of the People’s Liberation Army is cleaning up happily and rapidly Tianemen square for Mao’s inauguration of the People’s Republic on October 1. 1946. Red is the predominant color with perpetual smiles setting the tone. The film is an apparent commercial success in China. The Japanese production ANNYONG YUMIKA , 2009, by Tetsuaki Matsue, a third generation Korean living in Japan is a non-linear documentary reconstructing through interviews with her lovers , friends and associates the meandering life of Annyong Yumika a famed Japanese porn star who died at the age of 35 in 2005. Matsue’s obsession with Yumika guides his inquiry in her multifaceted character and her ‘true’ identity. He reveals in the process cultural differences in Japan and Korea in representing sex by dissecting her obscure Korean Japanese film, Junko: Story of a Tokyo Housewife.
CASTAWAY ON THE MOON, 2009, by Lee Hey Jun from Korea is a thought provoking charming romantic feature with two parallel connected stories. A businessman is washed up on a small river island facing the sky scraper of Seoul after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Nature bound he survives Robinson Crusoe style and is discovered through binoculars by a young woman who lives as a ‘shut in’, an agoraphobe, in a skyscraper across the river. She communicates with unknown parties through the internet and interacts electronically with the outside world, her parents, never leaving her room. Robinson and the virtual recluse exchange messages in English since they have abandoned society with her sending notes in bottles and him responding with words written on the island’s beach sand. Both actors provide outstanding performances based on a most original script. This is the first Korean film dealing with agoraphobia.
A LITTLE POND by Lee Sang-Woo (Korea, 2010) depicts in a seemingly detached manner the slaughter of hundreds of Korean civilians by the US Armed forces in June 1950. Farmers have left the village since they fear being overcome by the war, yet when seeking refuge are strafed by US planes and machine gunned by GIs. This incident is among the more than 200 documented cases of civilians, mostly refugees, ordered to be killed by US forces. The cast of the film includes some of the best known Korean stage actors directed by Sangp Woo who has a theater rather than film background. This may account for the absence of an overt emotionalization of the tragedy. What happens speaks for itself and no foregrounding of one actor is necessary. Also of note are some original shorts shown. I would single out Kun Seuk_Hwan HIS NAME IS TREVOR on a young adult who has never left his home since his knees are fused to his chest, Jung- Yu-Mi’s DUST KID about the strange obsessions of a four-inch tall women, and JoSung-Hee’s DON’T STEPOUT OF THE HOSUE on two kids left home alone who are confronted with three deranged teenagers who seem to have escaped an insane asylum, a truly macabre and scary story.
*Japan Cuts will be reviewed in a separate article