New York Asian Film Festival: A Scalding Wind from the East

The summer's most invigorating movie series offers mind-blowing treats from the pop cinemas of Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and beyond

  • Share
  • Read Later

“What’s so wrong about selling some dope to the Japs?” says the corrupt customs official who’s stumbled onto a huge stash of heroin in the South Korean melodrama Nameless Gangster. “How many years were we slaves to those f—ing monkeys? Thirty-six years, to be exact. Honestly, it would be a disservice not to export this, let them get high and f— themselves up. This is patriotism!”

It is also intra-Pacific politics, pop-cinema style, as resplendently on view in the 50-film selection of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. Now halfway through its two-week run at the Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center, before spinning off some of its entries at the Japan Society from July 12 through 15, the NYAFF offers blessed relief from a sweltering Manhattan summer. The Walter Reade is comfortably air-conditioned, but some of the movies are hotter than Hell and just as searing.

(READ: Corliss on the first New York Asian Film Festival)

Launched in 2002 under the ginchier title Asian Films Are Go!!!, the series is the brainstorm of Subway Cinema, a Brooklyn-based collective of guys who were eager to share their informed love of Hong Kong and Japanese films in the horror, gangster and just-plain-crazy genres with New Yorkers who didn’t frequent Chinatown theaters or Kim’s video stores (now, sadly, all extinct). With encyclopedic scholarship and fanboy enthusiasm, Grady Hendrix and his Subway coconspirators have by now unearthed a few hundred movies for its attendees’ admiration and outrage. That the Hendrix gang has found a home in the cathedral center of New York high art is one of the great acts of summer subversion.

(READ: Corliss on the 2006 New York Asian Film Festival)

Far removed in tone and toxicity content from the stately dramas that art-house regulars identify as the cream of the Asian crop, the NYAFF movies typically take their cue from the most vigorous old Hollywood movies, where psychopathy runs wild and, as in Nameless Gangster, nothing is more highly prized than a good set of bad manners. The new films take the venerable B-picture template, heat it on a hibachi grill and brand it onto the adventurous viewer’s brain.

(READ: Corliss on the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival)

The implicit promise of past NYAFFs was that it was the festival that showed movies no “real” festival would dare to. But as some film festival programmers have caught up with the Subway Cinema sensibility, more NYAFF movies are imports from Cannes, Locarno and other European film confabs. The Taiwanese historical epic Seediq Bale (Warriors of the Rainbow) played at Cannes last year; the NYAFF is showing the film in its full four-and-a-half-hour version. Cannes 2011 also hosted Peter Chan’s splendid martial arts tale Wu Xia (Dragon), which’s Mary Corliss praised as “a treat for the spirit as well as for any moviegoer longing for a well-made film involving brave heroes and dreadful villains.” Showing Monday evening at Lincoln Center, with star Donnie Yen in attendance, Dragon will be released later this year by The Weinstein Company.

(READ: Mary Corliss’s review of Wu Xia / Dragon)

Nameless Gangster, which could be a Mario Puzo novel of South Korea’s high-roller and lowlife underworld (the last word in the movie is “Godfather”), has already been laureled on this website. TIME’s Jacob Templin called it “the Korean mob movie Scorsese would be proud of.” Zigzagging through 11 years of South Korean social, political and criminal history — all incestuously interlinked — director Yung Jon-bin stuffs most of the country’s 1980s scandals into a big black hole of sadism, where a lighted cigarette is used as amateur dermatology, a bitch slap is what an insolent male gets from a female yakuza, and the customs official turned mob brain (Choi Min-sik, from the similarly rabid films  Oldboy and I Shot the Devil) is disciplined by being beaten, dumped in an open grave and peed on. In other words, negotiation, Korean-movie-style.

(READ: Jacon Templin’s review of Nameless Gangster

Acknowledging its newly acquired senior status, the 11th NYAFF is presenting retrospectives of some prime Hong Kong fare, including the carnographic kung-fu classics Five Fingers of Death, The Boxer’s Omen and The Iron Monkey. Most notable is a double feature of Infernal Affairs, the 2002 cop-crime drama that Martin Scorsese remade (with less gusto) as The Departed, and its sequel-prequel Infernal Affairs 2. In the knotty tale of two men on a collision course with their principles — a good cop (Tony Leung Ka-fai) as a secret agent inside the Mob, and a mob comer (Andy Lau) who’s wormed his way into the police hierarchy — the camera is ever on the prowl, like a cat burglar casing his victim’s digs. The relentless pace of Infernal Affairs provided lessons for Hollywood in how movies can move, and how mature an action movie can be. Put simply, it’s better than the movie that the Motion Picture Academy declared the best picture of 2006. If you can’t see Infernal Affairs at the NYAFF, then you are hereby obliged to get it on Amazon or Netflix.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Infernal Affairs by subscribing to TIME)

The fun of the NYAFF is walking blind into a movie that frack-blasts your expectations. But here are quick pointers on three of the tastiest entrées from this season’s banquet, all served in style and favored with arsenic.

Monsters Club, Japan, directed by Toshiaki Toyoda; at the Japan Society, Sun. Jul. 15

A man’s hands carefully craft and fill a box the size of a toaster. The sender’s name on the package is “Ichiro Suzuki” — the world’s most renowned Japanese ball player. The carved initials: MC, for Monsters Club. The package is one of a series of deadly bombs handmade by Ryoichi (Japanese TV personality Eita), and the movie is an Asian bio-pic of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, as told from the inside. The spawn of a family with a history of suicides and fatal car crashes, Ryoichi quietly rants against the system and follows the advice of a ghoulish ice creature who instructs the young man to “Turn your wishes into poetry… Bring the world to its knees.” Filming in a series of lateral tracking shots as eerily obsessive as the mind of his protagonist, Toyoda has fashioned a reptile-cool Taxi Driver for his own country and our time.

Scabbard Samurai, Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto; at the Japan Society, Sat., Jul. 14

Westerners know the samurai warrior: he’s the imposing Toshiro Mifune in such Akira Kurosawa films as The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. But the “scabbard samurai” Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) is no Sanjuro: he’s a worn-down veteran in horn-rimmed glasses who threw away his sword after his wife died in a plague and now wanders the land in the company of his young daughter (Sea Kumada) pursued by three bounty hunters, including Gori Gori the Chiropractic Killer. Arrested and imprisoned by a local warlord, Kanjuro is condemned to commit ritual suicide — unless, in the next 30 days, he can bring a smile to the lord’s sullen young son, whose mother died in the same plague. Each day, Kanjuro tries a new trick, such as swallowing a red and a black goldfish and promising to regurgitate the one chosen by the little prince. The daily events, now the prime entertainment for the region’s citizens, become bigger and more desperate, like those of a performance artist who will try anything to secure an arts-council grant. Except that Kanjuro is performing for his life, or a more honorable way of death. Director Matsumoto, a reigning comic on Japanese TV, manages a balance of farce and impending tragedy that would win the approval of the grouchiest child. Along the way, Scabbard Samurai creates an enthralling new genre: kamikaze Buster Keaton.

The King of Pigs, South Korea, Yeon Sang-ho; Lincoln Center, Sat. Jul. 7 and Sun. Jul. 8

If the recent U.S. documentary Bully was a report on the abuse that kids heap on other kids, this is the same brutality replayed as a nonstop nightmare. Yeon’s animated feature, which was shown in the Directors’ Fortnight series at Cannes this year, depicts a Korean middle school where teachers and supervisors are rarely seen; the upper-class “dogs,” as in top dogs, mete out their own drastic, smirking discipline on their victims, the “pigs.” The film is told mostly in a flashback 15 years later by two men irrevocably scarred by their school experiences: a frustrated writer and a businessman who, in the first scene, has just killed his wife. Together they exhume dark memories of the sadists who hounded them and an outsider student — a Molotov-cocktail mix of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Christian Slater in Heathers — who could be their personal savior or Satan.

Unlike some of the splatter techniques in the lovably grotty old Hong Kong horror films the NYAFF showed in its infancy, the stylized physical and psychological violence in this movie is the real thing. The King of Pigs is as painful, poignant and hard to shake as a childhood trauma.

(READ: Corliss on Hong Kong horrors at a Subway Cinema retrospective)