City on Fire
Nearing its 15-year anniversary, the New York Asian Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center has established itself as a cultural subverter. Eschewing the art-house fare that populates the prestige fests, the NYAFF promotes the artistry of genre, giving slots to martial-arts badminton movies (Full Strike), hip-hop musicals (Tokyo Tribe), and classic Hong Kong bullet ballets (City on Fire, with Ringo Lam in town to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award). These are the types of films promoted in NYAFF’s promotional trailers and that have driven its continued success. But hidden within this year’s 54-feature lineup are a group of serious-minded, adult-themed dramas that were some of the strongest titles available to preview—the kind of films it’s now difficult to make in Hollywood. These are movies too mainstream to premiere at Cannes and too tame to appeal to the VOD/DTV market, and therefore unlikely to get distribution beyond their borders.
La La La at Rock Bottom is the latest bittersweet drama from Japanese director Nobuhiro Yamashita, a wry chronicler of wayward youth. Best known for the girl-band adrenaline spike Linda Linda Linda (05), he has been capturing the empty, in-between moments of extended adolescence since Hazy Life (99), in which his aimless protags spend their time copying amateur porn onto VHS tapes. Yamashita has edged closer to the mainstream with each film, adapting popular mangas (like A Gentle Breeze in the Village, 07) without losing his talent for depicting indecision. La La La at Rock Bottom concerns an amnesiac with a killer voice (J-pop idol Subaru Shibutani) who is nursed back to health by a young recording studio manager (Fumi Nikaido). The scenario by Tomoe Kanno could easily have devolved into schmaltz, but Yamashita never softens the characters’ hard edges. The duo doesn’t get romantic, but instead bonds over their mutual depression, agreeing that the only way to stave off the darkness is to get on stage and perform, night after night.
There is no hesitation or uncertainty in Cart, Boo Ji-young’s powerful 2014 drama about a group of female short-term employees who unionize and go on strike at a big box store, just as they are about to be fired and replaced by outsourced labor. Based on a real 512-day strike in 2007 against the Homever chain, it maintains a relentless pace as it documents the year-and-a-half long struggle, from the communitarian highs of unionization to the long, hard grind of the strike itself.
Cart is screening in the sidebar for “Myung Films: Pioneers and Women Behind the Camera in Korean Film”, singling out the efforts of producer Shim Jae-myung, the leader of Myung Films, to give opportunities to female Korean filmmakers. Also included is The Whistleblower (14), directed by Yim Soon-rye, a ripped-from-the-headlines procedural about the 2006 hoax when Seoul National University scientist Hwang Woo-suk claimed to have cloned human embryonic stem cells.
Pale Moon (14) is another intriguing social-issue drama, set against Japan’s economic collapse in 1994. A banker (stage actress Rie Miyazawa) gets tired of the glass ceiling at work and her milquetoast husband at home, and begins embezzling money to fund her affair with a young college student. It’s adapted from a novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, who writes best-selling novels about the role of middle-aged women in Japanese society. Though the story can meander, it is anchored by Miyazawa’s delicately graded performance, registering the shift from middle-class respectability to white-collar criminality through the tremors in her lips.
If you are attending NYAFF for pure genre kicks, the centerpiece should be Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe (14), a film beyond the realm of taste or good sense. Performed almost entirely in rap by the film’s baby-faced cast, Sono’s latest is a hip-hop spin on The Warriors with a splash of Escape From New York, with Tokyo split up into separate districts lorded over by warring gangs. It explodes with cartoonish violence as tribes led by Buppa (who looks like a boiled Burger King mascot) and Merra (a nearly nude psychopathic Adonis) join forces to dominate the city. It’s up to the Masushinu Saru gang to unite the remaining tribes and avoid being ruled by maniacs. I was lulled by its smoothly weaving Steadicam shots through an enflamed postapocalyptic Tokyo, and continually bemused by the choppy rhythm of its mix of professional and nonprofessional rappers. It is rap as exposition, not art, but some of its singsong quality will stick in your head and not let go. Much like the rest of this irresistible monstrosity.
The badminton martial-arts movie Full Strike was not available for preview (alas), but the other sports film of note was Second Chance, an appealing by-the-numbers tournament film—the sport of choice being nine-ball. Billiards is the second-most-popular sport in Taiwan (next to baseball), so it was only a matter of time before local studios tried to capitalize. This redemption story follows former nine-ball champion Feng (Wen Yang-shi, from Taiwanese rock band Mayday), as he drags himself up from an alcoholic stupor to train his talented niece Shine (Peijia Huang) to win the women’s world nine-ball tournament and save their family’s pool hall. It’s an enjoyable take on the formula that evinces a real love for the game, and features cameos by various female pool legends including Allison “The Duchess of Doom” Fisher.
One of the great doomed characters in Asian cinema is Chow Yun Fat in Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (87). Chow is at his most charismatic as an undercover cop stuck in the middle of a botched jewelry heist. He is a swaggering, light-footed prankster who seems to have equal sympathy for cop and crook alike. The geometry of Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong keeps imprisoning him in shootouts until it squeezes the last drop of blood out of him. City on Fire ought to be just as famous as Reservoir Dogs, which took Lam’s film as its model. Lam is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s festival, and his first film in 12 years, Wild City, will be released in China later this summer (and has a U.S. distributor, Well Go USA).
The Taking of Tiger Mountain
The New York Asian Film Festival contains multitudes. Too much, anyway, for one person to take in. I haven’t even mentioned the 3-D screening of Tsui Hark’s swashbuckling spectacle The Taking of Tiger Mountain, which came out here only in 2-D (in a blink-and-miss-it January release). But one must choose anyway, and the path I wandered took in a number of strong dramas for adults—the kind of thing U.S. critics constantly pine for when they review the latest in blockbuster gigantism. If you’re interested in a summer break from superhero spandex, NYAFF is there for you.