The New York Asian Film Festival, now in its 11th giddy edition, provides a yearly education in the varieties of bodily fluid expulsion. With a gleeful disregard for good taste, the NYAFF presents a wide-angle view of genre films throughout Asia, from bile-drenched gross-out comedies to the arterial geysers of martial-arts films. It has something for every deviant taste, even sumptuous art-house fare, for those more into tears than blood and sweat. Having previously tipped statesiders to the work of Johnnie To (Exiled), Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), and Bong Joon-ho (The Host), the NYAFF has become an essential place to spot the next great genre stylists. Once again disgracing the honor of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, this year's edition booked over 50 features from ten countries, including a retrospective sidebar of beloved Korean actor Choi Min-Sik (who will appear at the fest), as well as mini-surveys of recent Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema. (Eleven of the entries are co-presented with Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema, which runs July 12-28 at Japan Society.)
A spate of nihilistic Korean corruption dramas graced last year's NYAFF (the highlight: Ryoo Seung-wan’s whip-smart The Unjust), and that continues in 2012 with Nameless Gangster, set during Prime Minister Roh Tae-woo’s war on organized crime in the early Nineties. Choi Min-Sik plays a bribe-imbibing customs official who rides his mouth up the mob ladder. It devolves into a sluggish family drama, but Choi is a marvel, an antic manipulator whose bowling-ball physique turns to puff pastry as he eases into decadence. It’s his third comeback film after retiring from the screen in 2006, in a protest of the shrunken quotas for Korean productions negotiated in the free trade agreement with the U.S. Mainly known in the West for his vengeful goth in Oldboy (03, also screening), the revelatory sidebar shows that he had been working on the persona of a blue-collar striver. These characters are small-time athletes and crooks eager to become entrepreneurs, but as Choi's burnt-out boxer Tae-shik says in the devastating male weepie Crying Fist (05): “My brain is filled with shit."
Tae-shik is still living off the faded glory of his silver medal from the 1990 Beijing Games. Flat broke from bad investments, his wife and kid are about to leave him alone with his debt. Desperate to make money, he stands in the middle of a shopping district and offers himself up as a human punching bag. “Knock out all your stress with one punch," he yells, and the sad-eyed office workers oblige. Director Ryoo Seung-wan splits the film in half, between Choi’s sad sack and another loser, a young thief (Ryu Seung-beom) who learns the sweet science in prison. They are entirely separated by the plot until their climactic match, joined previously only in the parallel editing sequences outlining their mutual corners of desperation.
Choi’s character in Failan (01) recalls Nameless Gangster: a low-level hood with delusions of grandeur, although this time he is far more childish, living a filthy bachelor lifestyle with his porn-dubbing roommate. It is another bifurcated tale, splitting off to follow Failan (Cecilia Cheung), an illegal Chinese immigrant who pays Choi to marry her for a work visa. They never meet in person, and director Song Hae-sung contrasts the grubby decadence of Choi’s surroundings with the spartan poverty of Failan’s. As the film builds to inevitable tragedy, their lives become tightly entwined, and Choi enters the more contemplative spaces of Failan’s world, forcing him to reflect on his own existence, which has ended up like his brain in Crying Fist.
The Sword Identity (11) is equally concerned with hermetic spaces as Failan, although set in a martial-arts training district during the Ming dynasty. A startling directorial debut from novelist Xu Haofeng (who also wrote the script for Wong Kar Wai’s upcoming The Grandmaster), The Sword Identity is an action film that keeps most of the action off screen. Xu was trained in martial arts at the wushu clubs in Northern China, which teach a thrusting style of fighting, and Xu adapts his compositions accordingly, so that the blade thrusts punch through the edges of the frame. Bodies are largely absent from the visual field, registering as threatening forces on the periphery. They become present only in death, tumbling forward into the fixed view of the lens. This highly idiosyncratic and forceful shooting style is tied to a cutting humor about the martial arts tradition: a prostitute with a wooden scabbard defeats the whole city of “masters." Strikingly original and elusively strange, it’s the one film from the festival I want to watch again right now.
Popular Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto is another weird one: his last film, Symbol (NYAFF ’10), was about a man in a bowl cut and pajamas stuck in a white room where cherubim privates would poke out of the wall. When he pressed them, a series of unpredictable and world-historical events would occur. Impenetrable, tedious, and occasionally uproariously funny, it is an impossible act to follow, so his latest work, Scabbard Samurai (11), doesn’t even try to top it. Instead it’s a modest joke-delivery system that is his most approachable, least ambitious feature to date. Matsumoto plays an imprisoned samurai in the Edo period who has to make the local lord’s depressive son smile, or else be forced to commit seppuku. It’s a setup for Matsumoto to do his standup routine as part of the plot, with the bits getting larger and more absurd as the movie progresses. I prefer the deadpan gags, such as “Solo Sumo," in which the stone-faced Matsumoto staggers around in his underwear, to the gigantism and sentimentality that take over by the end.
East Meets West 2011
Completely lacking sentimentality (or common sense), Jeff Lau’s East Meets West 2011 is a comedy of non-stop non sequiturs in which a group of Hong Kong nobodies find out that they have the power of the gods. Lau basically invented his own genre of the “nonsense comedy” and indulges his inner Dadaist whenever he’s not collaborating with Wong Kar Wai (he was a producer on Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, and Fallen Angels). East Meets West is certifiably insane and pointless to synopsize, but it includes bird flu jokes, buckets of vomit, face replacements, and a villain who can do two haircuts simultaneously. It is invigorating and exhausting in equal measure, a style that seems better suited to the compressed chaos of a half-hour sketch comedy show than to a 100-minute feature.
Dragon (11, aka Wu Xia) was another minor disappointment, a Donnie Yen vehicle that starts as a promising fight film and ends up as an ungainly whodunit and morality play. Japanese dreamboat Takeshi Kaneshiro pops up as a Sherlock Holmes figure convinced that Yen is a psychotic gang member hiding out in a turn-of-the-century country town. Director Peter Chan (Warlords) is unable to balance the multiple genres he’s mashed up here, ending up with just mush. For an undiluted experience of Donnie Yen’s quick-twitch athleticism, see Kill Zone (05, aka SPL), part of the Hong Kong sidebar. Yen and Sammo Hung obliterate a nightclub in one of the most physically demanding and viscerally overwhelming brawls ever put on celluloid.
War of the Arrows
The breathlessly paced chase film War of the Arrows (11), a Korean box-office topper, also packs a visceral rush. Park Hae-il (The Host) hunts down the Chinese Qing Army with his trusty bow and arrow after they cross the border, trash his town, and kidnap his sister. He tracks them up mountains and through valleys, paring their numbers down with gruesome guerilla tactics. At times it resembles a survivalist thriller like The Grey, with the Chinese as the wolves, although War of the Arrows is blessedly free of that film’s macho philosophizing. Director Kim Han-min has an innate sense of timing and geometry, with the final showdown occurring in a rapidly diminishing triangle, but he is too enamored with Hollywood-style shaky-cam, goosing the action when clean lines would have better established the arcs of all those death-dealing arrows.
Rapper Namewee (real name Wee Meng Chee) made the sloppiest-looking film in the festival, Nasi Lemak 2.0 (11), but it is also the most subversively entertaining. A popular Malaysian rapper, Namewee so enraged the government with his satiric version of their national anthem (making pointed critiques of police corruption and shoddy public services) that in 2007 the Home Minister issued a gag order to publications to cease reporting on the controversy surrounding the song. With that notoriety in hand, but no government support, Namewee wrote and directed Nasi Lemak 2.0, which is both a moving celebration of Malaysian diversity and an amateurish lowbrow comedy filled with dick jokes. Namewee plays Hero Huang, a Malaysian chef trained in a Chinese school (visualized as a mountaintop aerie recalling the 1983 Tsui Hark film Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain) who enters a competition to win the head chef job at a struggling restaurant. But then he tastes the local specialty nasi lemak (rice cooked in cocoanut milk) from a local street vendor and is desperate to learn how to make it. The vendor sends him to all corners of the country, where Namewee indulges in vulgarly funny parodies of Chinese ghost stories, Bollywood musicals, and Hong Kong martial arts films. After the super-happy ending, Namewee leans in to kiss the lead actress, but instead turns to the screen and yelps: “Don’t look, we might get censored!”
Luckily the New York Asian Film Festival doesn’t censor a thing, granting every CG blood spatter and cannibalistic kid cartoon (the gorgeous if vapid Asura ) the same screen space as art-film festival hits like Ann Hui’s A Simple Life (11). This no-brow programming philosophy is increasingly rare, but more necessary than ever, as distribution companies continue to reduce their slates and international genre films become the stuff of message-board rumor rather than big-screen reality.
The New York Asian Film Festival runs June 29 to July 15 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Japan Cuts runs July 12-28 at Japan Society.