10 Must-See Movies at the New York Asian Film Festival
by Howard Feinstein, Indiewire
Asian Films Are Go!!! was the name of the first successful festival of Asian cinema in New York, which launched in 2002. Produced by Subway Cinema, a lowbrow moniker for a shoestring-budget enterprise organized by five hardcore Asian-film buffs, the annual event filled the unbearably hard wooden seats that were then in service at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. Each program began with Grady Hendrix, a founding member and presently president of the board, darting onto the stage in a bright pink jacket and — like a seasoned carnival barker — rousing the youthful audience with a raffle and some enthusiastic words about the film about to screen. The unbridled performance transitioned the viewers (myself included) from the messy streets outside to the illusory and often bizarre worlds of these mostly generic movies.
A decade ago, the subtitle for the event was the New York Asian Film Festival. By 2004, the Subway fellas — and they were and are all men — dropped the funky primary label. “Asian film distributors did not take us seriously with that title,” explained Goran Topalovic, another founding member and currently executive director. The biz-friendly name has suited NYAFF’s gradual upward mobility toward its current home, Lincoln Center’s comfy Walter Reade Theater (Japan Society has always been a second venue). But the colorful intros and infectious zeal persist.
The selection this year (June 28 – July 15) is diverse. The 63 features come from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines (Manila Chronicles: The New Filipino Cinema is a special section). Among the festival strands is one that exemplifies the core of Subway’s agenda: Taiwan Pulp: Tales of Gangsters, Female Avengers, and Ninjas. Its focus is Black Movies — violent and sexually explicit exploitation films that were all the rage in Taipei from 1979 to 1983.
“Eungyo” (Jung Ji-Woo, South Korea)
In this masterful melodrama, an honored poet in his seventies is reclusive, save for the thirtyish male protégé who cooks and cleans for him. The latter becomes infuriated when his mentor hires as his housekeeper a beautiful, vivacious, and innocent 17-year-old high-school girl, the titular character. Abused at home, Eungyo welcomes the kindness and attention of a parental figure. His attraction, however, is chiefly sexual. He channels the love scenes he fantasizes into feverishly writing a sexually explicit short story, which he hides. Envious of his mentor’s output and the new employee’s fondness for him, the young man, a no-talent, proves to be a shameless opportunist.
“Ip Man: The Final Fight” (Herman Yau, Hong Kong)
The third installment of the “Ip Man” series begins in 1950 in a beautifully shot, unapologetically artificial Hong Kong, where Wing Chun Master Ip has arrived from the mainland nearly penniless. At the martial arts school he opens, his proteges treat him like a god. (Bruce Lee was a pupil of the real-life Ip Man.) Anthony Wong is perfection as the aging, Zen-like wise man, who is fearless when necessity demands his participation in brawls, expertly choreographed, between his students and their rivals. Yau honors Hong Kong’s volatile political history with major sequences of violent union strikes and demonstrations.
“I’m Flash” (Toshiaki Toyoda, Japan)
The Japanese are well-versed in religious cults and yakuza, which are intertwined in this stunningly photographed, crisply edited film. Scored with heavy rock, this oh-so-cool movie centers on handsome Rui (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the womanizing guru of a scam cult founded by his grandmother. Flashbacks of his killing a cyclist while driving recur throughout the film, not gratuitously, but because the trauma has provoked his decision to quit. His greedy mother and sister refuse to allow him to abandon the lucrative position. His advisor, fiercely loyal to the mother, hires three enforcers as his bodyguards, but they blow with the wind, which starts to blow against Rui.
“The Last Supper” (Lu Chuan, China/Hong Kong/Taiwan)
An exquisitely stylized drama about treachery, revenge, and the falsification of history, the film begins in 195 B.C. and recounts the defeat of the barbaric Qin dynasty at the hands of an army overseen by the ambitious Liu (an astonishing Ye Liu). He moves into the palace, anoints himself emperor, and begets the Han dynasty. His life story is revealed in flashbacks filtered through the delusional memory of a senile, increasingly paranoid old man. He becomes more and more controlled by a wife as ruthless as Lady Macbeth.
“Feng Shui” (Wang Jing, China)
Happiness is not to be found in this brilliant but grim melodrama. A phenomenal Yang Bingyan plays Li Baoli, a shrewish wife and mother whose aspirations echo China’s economic rise in the 1990s. Set in Wuhan, the film begins as she, her husband, and their only child move from a tiny slum apartment to a high rise across town. Li relentlessly berates her meek husband and pushes her prodigy of a son to the point at which she risks losing them both. Her ostentatiously nouveau-riche best friend is the only person she doesn’t scream at. She changes her job from salesperson to yoke-bearer, a menial job that pays significantly better — but at a high price.
“The Lady Avenger” (Yang Chia Yun, Taiwan)
This 1981 Black Movie is the rare title of the genre directed by a woman, one who shoots frequently from the POV of a female reporter seeking justice for an actress whose wealthy rapist got off in court. After she is herself gang-raped and loses her fiance, she goes for blood. The style is low-budget noir (Sam Fuller meets the Abel Ferrara of “Ms. 45”), with amplified sounds effects, extreme expressionist lighting, and shock cutting — ideal for an m.o. that requires a meat hook, a crane, a bear trap, and a razor blade.
“The Concubine” (Kim Dae-Sung, South Korea)
The camera work is sumptuous in this cynical tale of Machiavellian intrigue in the royal palace during the early Joseon dynasty. After the king dies under mysterious circumstances, a merciless battle for power ensues between the vicious Queen Mother and the new queen, a gorgeous concubine who bore the late monarch a male heir. The only selfless person is the child’s real father, now a palace eunuch. So much blood and torture, yet the colorful sets and imaginative costumes appear strikingly clean.
“Cold War” (Longman Leung, Sunny Luk, Hong Kong)
This thought-provoking if fast-paced cop thriller has strong political overtones. After a police van and five officers mysteriously disappear, two deputy police commissioners — one cerebral, the other visceral — vie for control of the titular operation to free them. These men become suspected of feeding secret information to the kidnappers. Extraordinary aerial shots of Hong Kong and such inventive scenes as a fireworks display during a shootout distinguish “Cold War” from other films of the genre.
“Double Xposure” (Li Yu, China)
In China, big-eyed Fan Bingbing is not merely a superstar: she’s an event. Her presence complemented female director Li Yu’s vision twice before, but here it upsets the balance. The film’s first half is a powerful thriller in which Fan’s Song Qi strangles her husband’s lover. A non sequitur, the second part — an incomprehensible Freudian exploration of the childhood memories that increasingly undermine her sense of reality — is filmed as if the camera were merely a tool for Fan-worship. The conceit here is that Song Qi is a plastic surgery expert whose mutable mental state echoes the physical makeovers she designs for others.
“Behind the Camera: Why Mr. E Went to Hollywood” (E J-yong, South Korea)
This self-reflexive mockumentary will satisfy both academics and aficionados of subtle comedy. Telling them that the project will help him break out in Hollywood, director E, playing himself and directing by internet link from Los Angeles, has arranged for techies and well-known actors to work for two days on a 10-minute Smartphone promo about making a film. Cast and crew members are initially apprehensive, then confused once the set erupts into chaos, and ultimately so angry that they mutiny — or so we think. The film depicts both the painful details of production and the special affection the players feel for one another.
For ticketing and other information, visit the NYAFF site.