For the past five years, the collective known as Subway Cinema has been bringing films from Asia for both fans of such fare, and for more casual observers looking for an alternative to the vast cultural wasteland of the multiplex. The New York Asian Film Festival, which runs from June 16 through July 1 at Anthology Film Archives and The Imaginasian, is now five years old, which, coincidentally, is the same age as that other New York film festival which recently ended, the Tribeca Film Festival. Despite not having the media presence or the Hollywood star power of Tribeca, this festival has consistently proved that bigger is not necessarily better. Simply put, the overriding philosophy is to bring a selection of quality films, surprising, shocking, tender, cruel, and unclassifiable films that deserve a larger audience. Just good films, without the paraphernalia of publicists and mercenary careerism. What a concept!
Among the baffling shortcomings of Tribeca was its meager selection of films from Asia, which continues to be a major presence at practically every other major international film festival currently. The selections at this year’s edition of the New York Asian Film Festival demonstrate this in spades. I’ll begin with what so far is to me the most gorgeous of this year’s selections, Lee Myung-se’s masterpiece Duelist. Lee is best known in the U.S. for Nowhere to Hide, which enlivened its cops-and-criminals story with its wall-to-wall visual arsenal of silhouettes, impossibly vibrant color and kineticism, and the elemental forces of wind and rain. In Duelist, released six years after Nowhere to Hide, Lee ups the ante considerably, reducing narrative to a bare minimum, concentrating on exquisite color, balletic swordplay, wind, rain, and leaves, and the pursuit of its lovers/antagonists throughout the film. Like Nowhere to Hide, Duelist is also a detective story, set this time in late 19th century Korea. The detective Nam-soon (Ha Ji-won) and her older partner Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) are in dogged pursuit of Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won), an elusive, androgynous figure who is the henchman of Minister of Defense Song (Song Yeong-chang), who is amassing power by counterfeiting currency. That’s about it as far as plot goes. However, most of the negative public and critical reaction to the film, contributing to its meager box office, which generally ran along the lines of the lament “There’s no story!”, seem to me to be beyond missing the point. The film’s press materials contain this statement by Lee, which point to the proper way to approach this film: “I thought of two words – movement and rhythm, and two paintings – ‘Dance’ by Matisse and ‘Manhattan’ by Mondrian.” Those who insist that films are all about narrative and character development are blinding themselves to the thrilling experience of pure cinema that Lee offers in Duelist. In much the same way that Matisse and Mondrian sought to liberate painting by using their materials to portray pure movement and color without insisting on verisimilitude, Lee utilizes the plasticity of the film medium – sound, color, music, motion – to liberate cinema from the shackles of 19th century notions of narrative derived from literature and drama, highlighting the reasons cinema is indeed a distinct art from either. The ultimate theme of Duelist is transcendence and transgression, of boundaries, borders, and gender roles – Nam-soon is as tough and violent, if not tougher, than her male colleagues, at one point going undercover in male drag, while Sad Eyes is all flowing robes, long hair, and soft features. Duelist is in essence avant-garde cinema thinly disguised as genre cinema, and given the emphasis he puts on color and its relation to the physicality of its nature to the material of film itself, Lee seems to be positioning himself as Korea’s answer to Stan Brakhage.
A different sort of filmic experiment, this time making use of digital technology, is Song Il-gon’s The Magicians, a 95 minute film shot in a single take. Song, currently one of Korea’s most interesting filmmakers, was educated at Lodz Film Academy in Poland, whose alumni include Kryzstof Kieslowski and Roman Polanski, and this undoubtedly contributes to his very distinctive style of filmmaking. Song previously made two digital features, Flower Island and Git (Feather in the Wind, also screening at this year’s festival), in both cases exploring the possibilities inherent in the medium rather than as simply a cheap way of filming. The Magicians was originally a 40 minute short (titled “Magician(s)”) included in the omnibus “Digital Shorts By Three Filmmakers,” an annual project of the Jeonju International Film Festival, in which three Asian filmmakers are invited to make short films using digital technology. The 40 minute version, while impressive technically, never quite shook the sense of being a show-offy stunt. However, as a feature, it gains depth and emotional resonance, transforming into a moving, and despite its somber subject matter, ultimately an uplifting meditation on memory, spirituality, and the coexistence of the past and present.
The Magicians is set in and around a bar in a wooded area far from the city, where the three surviving members of the rock band Magician gather, as they do each year, for a memorial for their female guitarist Jae-eun (Lee Seung-bi), who committed suicide three years earlier. The bar is run by her boyfriend Jae-sung (Jung Woong-in), who created this remote retreat as a way to deal with his grief. The bass player and female vocalist (Jang Hyun-sung and Kang Kyung-heon) also reminisce and are still shaken by the loss. Jae-un herself is a ghostly presence, hovering unseen among her living friends. Within the film’s single take, flashbacks before Jae-eun’s suicide and the circumstances leading up to it are handled with boldly theatrical techniques: music cues, lighting changes, and a character’s movement out of the bar or up a staircase takes us back into the past. The natural setting, and the presence in the film of a fifth character, a monk leaving his monastery and looking for a snowboard he left at the bar, suggest the spiritual presence suggested by the title of the piece. By using the digital medium to meditate on the past, The Magicians shares similarities to another groundbreaking digital film, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which traveled through centuries of Russian history. Song’s film is much more intimate, observing the connections between a small group of people who will never escape their past, and we are left with the suggestion that this is not necessarily a bad thing. For better or worse, our relations with others, whether happy or tragic, are part of who we are, and it is folly to attempt to hide or run from it.
Memory and the influence of the past on the present are themes also illuminated in Peacock, a sensitive and moving debut feature by Gu Changwei, a cinematographer who has shot films for fellow Chinese filmmakers Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Jiang Wen, as well as Robert Altman in the U.S. The description of the film in the festival press notes takes some jabs at certain tendencies of Chinese art house films – “chic nihilism and long boring shots of people riding around in trucks”- and while I can’t completely subscribe to that characterization, it is nevertheless true that Gu’s film, set in a seven-year period immediately following the end of the Cultural Revolution, while depicting difficult lives, is not quite as pessimistic as in films by Jia Zhangke (Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World) or Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle, Drifters, Shanghai Dreams), who also cover similar terrain.
Peacock focuses on the Gao family, who live in a small, poor village in Anyang, a county south of Beijing. The film’s three sections follow the lives of three siblings: youngest daughter Weihong (Zhang Jinghu), eldest brother Weiguo (Feng Li), and middle brother Weiqiang (Lu Yulai). Each of the sections is punctuated by similar shots of the family eating on a terrace outside their apartment. Weihong, a headstrong and often overly dramatic girl, dreams of escaping her mundane life of menial jobs and struggle. She glimpses a way out when a handsome army paratrooper drops from the sky in front of her, inspiring her to attempt to join the army, an effort that fails, creating a romantic ideal that remains elusive. However, this leads to the most arresting visual sequence in the film, in which she races down the street with a blue parachute tied to her bike. The mentally challenged and overweight Weiguo is an object of ridicule among coworkers and strangers, and a source of shame and jealousy to his siblings. Ironically, Weiguo turns out to have a brighter future than his sister or brother. Weiqiang, who provides the film’s voiceover, is dissolute and lazy, eventually feeding off his singer wife.
Gu’s film, over the course of two and a half hours, is as engrossing as a great novel. There is much symbolism to be found (including the film’s title, which is explained in the film’s very last scene), but it is never forced or unduly called attention to. The film’s performances are uniformly excellent, especially Zhang Jingchu who gives a remarkable, and multifaceted life to Weihong; she is a newcomer to films, just like the actors playing her siblings, all students of the Beijing Central Academy of Drama. As befits Gu’s previous experience as a cinematographer, the camerawork by Yang Shu is perfectly suited to the story, investing all its settings -factories, apartments, a strikingly lush forest area – with authenticity and thematic resonance. Peacock won the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, a prize richly deserved.
Another vision of the past, this time in 1958 Tokyo, is suffused with a nostalgic golden-hued glow in Takashi Yamazaki’s Always – Sunset on Third Street, which makes extensive use of CGI to recreate post-war Tokyo. Based on a popular manga by Ryohei Saigan, Always charms with its collection of colorful characters and incident. This film, shot on Toho’s soundstages, presents a world, that while evoking the optimism of a country slowly recovering from a horrible war and beginning an economic upturn (represented by the under-construction Tokyo Tower), is essentially a fantasy world that recalls Japanese cinema of the period. While the storylines often tip over into sentimentality which glosses over the harsher realities of the time, the genial and light tone becomes infectious. References to post-war Japanese films abound, from the opening “Tohoscope” logo to references to films such as Ozu’s Good Morning (kids in the film eagerly anticipate a new television set), and Record of a Tenement Gentleman (a character finds himself saddled with the unwanted responsibility of caring for an orphaned child).
Two period Korean films, Park Kwang-hyun’s Korean War-set Welcome to Dongmakgol and Kim Dae-sung’s Chosun-era murder mystery Blood Rain, take opposite approaches to presenting their respective time periods. Welcome to Dongmakgol, based on a popular stage play by major film director Jang Jin, was a smash success last year, becoming the fourth top-selling Korean film of all time. Park’s film is a magical-realist fantasy that creates an oasis amid the tragic circumstances of the Korean War, and is filled with a beautiful, humanist spirit. The film’s scenario concerns the collision of the surviving members of a North Korean and South Korean regiment, along with a downed U.S. pilot in the titular village, who are completely unaware that there’s a war going on. Park’s previous short “My Nike” exhibited the same bracing humor and love for characters that is in abundant evidence in his debut feature. In keeping with the spirit of reconciliation and transcendence of borders, along with the theme of the coming together of North and South, there is also Japanese influence. Joe Hisaishi, who has contributed scores to animator Hayao Miyazaki’s films, provides a beautiful score, and the film’s visuals owe a debt to anime, for example in the village festival scene, and the most striking scenes of the film: a popcorn rain caused by a grenade exploding in a corn storehouse, and the hunting of a wild boar. The performances are excellent all around, especially Kang Hye-jeong (from Old Boy) as the village “crazy girl,” Shin Ha-kyun (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) as a South Korean deserter and Jeong Jae-yeong (Someone Special) as a North Korean captain.
Kim Dae-Sung’s Blood Rain, on the other hand, has a much darker tone, its noirish visuals lending a creepy atmosphere of dread to its narrative concerning a series of gruesome murders on an isolated island in the early 19th century. Shamanism and the persistence of evil run throughout, as the investigator (Cha Seung-won) sent to solve the murders finds out that his own family history is implicated in the crimes. A major shift of gears from Kim’s last film, the romantic fantasy Bungee Jumping of Their Own, Blood Rain‘s ornate, intricate plot, authentic period costumes, and evocative setting confirm this director’s remarkable versatility.
Another eclectic Korean filmmaker is Kim Jee-woon, whose latest film A Bittersweet Life is an ultra-violent gangster film which is all moody chiaroscuro, chilly colors, and martial-arts action, featuring at its center a taciturn hit man, Sun-woo (Lee Byung-heon), put through the ringer due to his rivalry with gang boss Baek (Hwang Jeong-min, in a chilling performance) and his failure to “take care” of his boss’s girlfriend (Shin Min-ah), who is cheating. Kim’s previous films exhibited a great talent for genre-hopping, from absurdist black comedy (The Quiet Family), to a comic underdog tale (The Foul King), to a David Lynchian Moebius-strip thriller (A Tale of Two Sisters). A Bittersweet Life is his attempt at a gangster noir, the ghost of Jean-Pierre Melville combined with the specter of Old Boy. As consistently impressive as the film’s visuals are, they fail to hide the void at its center, the central character of Sun-woo. As outlandish as Old Boy‘s scenario was, Choi Min-shik’s performance lent a raging powerhouse to the proceedings, providing powerful emotional counterweight to the violence. Kim’s film takes the opposite tack, opting for coolness and entomological detachment, to the film’s detriment. It doesn’t help that Lee Byung-heon remains a blank cipher throughout, contributing to the film’s ultimate superficiality.
Japanese films are heavily represented in this year’s festival, comprising about half of this year’s selections. For the most part, the films on display are quite strong. Kenji Uchida’s A Stranger of Mine is an entertaining, Pulp Fiction-esque comic com-game caper involving a man and a woman jilted by their respective lovers, a private eye, a cool femme fatale and her yakuza boss boyfriend. While all the performers inhabit their roles with infectious gusto, the film’s flat visuals, slack pacing, and self-conscious cleverness make it a decidedly minor film. Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda is another film in a minor key, but in this case that quality works to charming effect. Yamashita adopts a laconic, deadpan approach to its story of a high school girl rock band working to get themselves ready for a performance at a school festival on the last day of school. Linda Linda Linda is considerably enlivened by the touching and funny lead performance by Bae Du-na as a Korean exchange student drafted to fill in for the lead vocalist who has quit. Many of the film’s funniest moments revolve around her character, most notably when a smitten boy nervously declares his love for her in Korean. It’s Only Talk reteams director Ryuichi Hiroki and actress Shinobu Terajima, who last collaborated on the brilliant Vibrator (which screened at the festival two years ago). The film’s title proves quite apropos, as dialogue plays a major role in enhancing our empathy for Terajima’s character, the thirty-something Yuko, a manic-depressive struggling to keep her condition under control, who passes the time taking photographs and trolling Internet chat rooms for sex partners. Evoking Rohmer in both its extensive conversations and its sensitive and meticulous character portraits, It’s Only Talk, while not quite the revelation that Vibrator was, is a tragic yet beautiful affirmation of the value of survival in the face of despair.
Lest you get the impression that the festival is all sensitive character study, there are plenty of opportunities to get your geek on, none more so than with cinematic enfant terrible Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War, which carries the anarchic spirit of such previous films as Audition, Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer to a children’s film which represents Miike’s answer to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. The Great Yokai War utilizes the yokai (goblins) of Japanese folklore to spin a fun, dizzying tale of a young boy who transcends his difficult family and school life to become the world’s savior. Filled to bursting with inventive and lively creatures, Miike invests his fantasy scenario with a delirious sense of wonder.
Other potential highlights include a mini-retrospective of Indian producer and director Ram Gopal Varma, Katsuhito Ishii’s surrealist Funky Forest: The First Contact, his follow-up to A Taste of Tea, which screened at last year’s festival, and the extreme Thai horror film Art of the Devil 2.