Entering its 13th year, the New York Asian Film Festival is no longer a brazen upstart. Now it’s something of an institution, having migrated from the dank cinephilic swamps of Anthology Film Archives to the rarified air of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, where this edition runs from June 27 to July 14. But it has retained its proselytizing spirit, stumping for disreputable genre titles past and present and giving them the gala treatment. Its programmers were also the first to give substantial stateside retrospectives to the likes of Tsui Hark and this year they honor the life and career of producer Run Run Shaw in an eight-film sidebar (with four screening in 35mm: Killers on Wheels, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, The Magic Blade, and Seeding of a Ghost). The fest’s 60 features run the gamut from tear-jerking dictionary-editing dramas to gonzo yakuza bloodbaths, sharing a common vibrancy no matter the subject matter.
If there’s a theme to this year’s festival, it’s surveillance. Almost all of the big-budget blockbusters on display are post-Snowden artifacts, in which police work is a matter of having enough eyes in the sky. The Korean thriller Cold Eyes remakes the 2007 Hong Kong hit Eye in the Sky, about a Special Crimes Unit surveillance team that is tracking down a ghostly team of heisters. The unit is like an all-seeing organism that circulates through the city streets ever expanding its vision, its anonymous members valorized as silent sentinels of justice. The opening is a corker, thrusting the viewer into a near-wordless tracking operation that wends its way from subway car to street to café. It’s not even clear who is following who—the fun lies in following the eye-line matches to suss out the tracker from the prey.
Kenneth Bi’s Control is more skeptical of the modern surveillance society. A Mabuse-like villain in a futuristic Chinese metropolis has seized operation of the city’s security cameras, and forces a randomly selected ordinary citizen, an insurance salesman, to do his dirty bidding. Even dirtier is Andy Lau’s cop in the bombastic action spectacular Firestorm 3D, who uses and abuses the surveillance tools at his disposal. The outrageous final-act battle rivals Commando for sheer body count.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
In Sion Sono’s propulsive Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (which is co-presented by Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema), it’s not the law that’s documenting your every move, but the DIY film club called “The Fuck Bombers.” This group of ne’er-do-well teens in the Japan suburbs hangs out at their local shuttered movie theater and dream of making the next martial arts masterpiece. Consumer-video cameras constantly whirring—film is a luxury they desire but can’t afford—they try to turn their lives into their art, and they succeed when they get stuck in the middle of a bloody yakuza war. It’s a mournful, madcap, and cartoonishly violent ode to 35mm and the guerrilla filmmaking spirit, one that collapses the distance between filmmaking and film loving. It is as wild, joyful and unpredictable as his upskirt-photography epic Love Exposure (08), and will receive a theatrical release later this year from Drafthouse Films.
The other big name Japanese auteur on display is Kiyoshi Kurosawa. After four years of inactivity following his art-house drama Tokyo Sonata (08), he directed the television series Penance, and in 2013 made two features. The first, REAL, was an inert lump of psychical sci-fi, but NYAFF selection Seventh Code is a slender and delightful tale of Japanese spies in Russia. Only an hour long, and starring pop star Atsuko Maeda, it’s his most unusual feature since Bright Future (03). Maeda plays Akiko, a seemingly heartbroken girl who follows the dashing Mr. Matsunaga (Ryohei Suzuki) all around Vladivostok in order to win him back. It soon becomes clear that Matsunaga is involved in shady dealings with Russian mobsters, with Akiko hiding secrets of her own. The film then shifts under your feet from sad-sack romance to conspiratorial spy film. With all its open-air game playing, it recalls Jacques Rivette’s debut Paris Belongs to Us, and hopefully represents a creative reset for the enormously talented director.
The cheekily titled Apolitical Romance is the romantic comedy which Seventh Code initially appears to be. A satisfying take on the nerdy guy/wacky girl formula popularized by Jae-young Kwak’s My Sassy Girl, it throws together Taiwanese Gundam nerd Chen (Bryan Chang) with aggressive Mainlander Chin (Huang Lu), who is searching for her grandmother’s first love. The Taiwanese production gets a lot of mileage out of the political tensions, with Chin repeatedly calling Taiwan a “province” and singing a children’s song about Mao in front of a statue of Chiang Kai-shek. Nicely balancing the abrasive and the sweet, including several tender portraits of the elderly Taipei community, Apolitical Romance shows that the genre still has some life left in it.
The same could be said for two well-mounted dramas, the coming-of-age film Au revoir l’été and the middlebrow tearjerker The Great Passage. Plotwise Au revoir l’été is the standard-issue wayward-teen drama, but it works on atmosphere and the central performance of wide-eyed loner Fumi Nikaido (also essential to Why Don’t You Play in Hell?). Setting the story in a podunk seaside town, director Koji Fukada captures the grimy plasticine look of a “love hotel” as well as the cozy nooks of a bourgeois academic’s home.
Au revoir l'été
The Great Passage, an irresistible drama about the editing of a dictionary, was engineered to win prizes, and it dutifully swept the Japanese Academy Awards. A sage old editor wants to make a dictionary “of the moment,” one that captures a language in development, with all the slang and argot that is heard on the streets. An epic undertaking that is also constantly shifting with the times, the book absorbs the lives of its obsessive editors and researchers. The movie hits all the expected beats, but director Yuya Ishii (who also made the wonderful Sawako Decides), gets fine, underplayed performances from his cast of curmudgeonly character actors. And it performs the remarkable feat of making five rounds of proofreading into one of the tensest sequences of the festival.
No Man’s Land is more shocking than any typo. A pessimistic neonoir set in the desert provinces of China, the film was shot in 2009 and shelved by the country’s censors. Perhaps because actor-director Ning Hao has become very popular in the interim, it was finally released into Mainland theaters in 2013, and was a sizable hit (for more on the film’s circuitous path to theaters, see Grady Hendrix’s Kaiju Shakedown entry). One can see why the authorities objected. Ning Hao’s relentlessly cynical portrait of capitalism run amok follows a slick lawyer into the Northwest borderlands, where he gets mixed up with a sociopathic falcon poacher and a demented family of gas-station extortionists. Each successive character is more reprehensible than the last, cutting out their pounds of flesh until there’s nothing left but cash and bones.