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Takeshi Kaneshiro (#110 of 4)

New York Asian Film Festival 2012: Doomsday Book, Monsters Club, Guns N’Roses, & Wu Xia

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New York Asian Film Festival 2012: <em>Doomsday Book</em>, <em>Monsters Club</em>, <em>Guns N’Roses</em>, & <em>Wu Xia</em>
New York Asian Film Festival 2012: <em>Doomsday Book</em>, <em>Monsters Club</em>, <em>Guns N’Roses</em>, & <em>Wu Xia</em>

Since its relatively humble beginnings at Anthology Film Archives (not to mention the long-defunct ImaginAsian), the New York Asian Film Festival has emerged as quite possibly the most sheer fun of all the major New York film festivals. Go to just about any one of its screenings—especially any one introduced by Grady Hendrix, one of its founders and still its official voice—and you’ll immediately be startled by its proudly rowdy spirit, a far cry from the usual buttoned-up “official” nature of most other film festivals. Plus, there are the prizes that Hendrix and his fellow Subway Cinema cohorts often give out at screenings.

Above all, though, it’s the selection of films—with a marked emphasis on genre pictures and other sorts of unabashedly commercial entertainments—that distinguish the NYAFF from other film festivals of its type, especially in New York. In its desire to encompass a wide range of cinema in China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and other Asian countries, the festival is unafraid to juxtapose popular cinema with artier fare. Freed from the shackles of what programmers deem worthy of passing through the festival circuit, the folks at the nonprofit organization Subway Cinema present a more varied and complete view of the kinds of movies being made in these countries. If you thought, for instance, that the only kinds of films coming out of China or Taiwan were the kinds of slow-paced, long-take-saturated dramas by the likes of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, and others, then one should make a beeline for this year’s Independence Day screening of the complete two-part Taiwanese epic Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, a grand spectacle in the mold of executive producer John Woo’s own Red Cliff. Either that, or give Giddens Ko’s highly successful (at the box office, at least) romantic comedy You Are the Apple of My Eye a shot.

The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

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The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai
The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

Jason Bellamy: “When did everything start to have an expiration date?” That’s a question posed by a lovelorn cop in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express, and in a sense that line is a snapshot of what Wong’s films are all about. In the 20 years and change that Wong has been directing, he’s developed several signature flourishes that make his films instantly recognizable—from his striking use of deep, rich colors, to his affinity for repetitive musical sequences, to his judicious use of slow motion for emotional effect, and many more—but at the core of Wong’s filmography is an acute awareness of passing time and a palpable yearning for things just out of reach. In the line above, the cop in Chungking Express is ostensibly referring to the expiration dates on cans of pineapple, which he’s using to mark the days since his girlfriend dumped him, but in actuality he’s referring to that failed relationship, to his (somewhat) fleeting youth (he’s approaching his 25th birthday) and to the deadline he has created for his girlfriend to reconsider and take him back. In the cop’s mind, at least, whether they will be together has as much to do with when as with why. Or put more simply: if timing isn’t everything, it’s a lot of it.

That theme pops up again and again in Wong’s films. Roger Ebert zeroed in on it in his 2001 review of Wong’s In the Mood for Love when he observed of the two lead characters, “They are in the mood for love, but not in the time or place for it.” While that’s particularly true of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, it could readily be applied to almost all of Wong’s lead characters. In this conversation we’re going to discuss Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007), and over and over again we’ll see characters united by emotion but kept apart by timing. So I’d like to open by asking you the following: Do the recurring themes of Wong’s body of work strengthen the potency and poetry of the individual films or water them down? Put another way, are Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express enhanced by In the Mood for Love and 2046 or obliterated by them, or are they not significantly affected one way or the other?

Red Cliff and Red Cliff 2

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<em>Red Cliff</em> and <em>Red Cliff 2</em>
<em>Red Cliff</em> and <em>Red Cliff 2</em>

If we’re to believe the military general in Red Cliff 2 who muses, “The times makes the hero,” then somebody ought to tell Magnet Releasing, the American distributors of Red Cliff (John Woo’s records-shattering period war epic set in 208 AD), that they’re the villain. Just like British distributors before them, Magnet is releasing Woo’s five hour, two-part epic as a single film in America, callously lopping off 140 minutes of footage because they simultaneously want to cater to a broad audience as well as to Woo’s established fanbase. The times, it seems, when “Asian cinema” is sold as either exotic genre fodder for geeks or high-end Art for the culturally advanced, are against Magnet.

With its sweeping pageantry and spectacularly choreographed battle scenes, Red Cliff falls neatly into both categories, making the temptation to sell it both as a cultural event and tempting junk food understandable though hardly commendable. In doing so, Magnet is only cutting out the legs from underneath either of their respective target niche markets. (South Korean, Singaporean and Japanese distributors released the film in two parts, suggesting that the “international cut” is only tempting to Whitey.) And while the ghettoization of foreign film in America is hardly new news, it particularly reeks here.

Appreciation: Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels

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Appreciation: Wong Kar-wai’s <em>Fallen Angels</em>
Appreciation: Wong Kar-wai’s <em>Fallen Angels</em>

A kaleidoscope of alienation and longing, Wong Kar-wai’s 1995 film Fallen Angels remains one of Wong’s least discussed and least appreciated films. Of course, compared to the sheer beauty and maturity of his latest work—his intimate In the Mood for Love (2000); his majestic 2046 (2004); even “The Hand” (2004), his relatively brief yet masterful contribution to the omnibus film Eros—-earlier films like this one and Chungking Express (1994) come off as energetic though show-offy stylistic exercises.

But Fallen Angels is no mere exercise. In some ways, it is almost as important a film in Wong’s oeuvre as Happy Together (1997). If Happy Together represented a stepping stone, an emotional deepening of Wong’s usual themes of love, loss and desire, Fallen Angels represents both a look back and a look forward for one of cinema’s most important current directors.

Wong’s first feature film was a gangster flick titled As Tears Go By (1988), a Mean Streets ripoff that seemed to take its emotional cues from the popular Hong Kong action films of the time (such as John Woo’s 1986 gangster melodrama A Better Tomorrow). Tears may have been derivative and at times even dated and cheesy (on hearing the film’s Cantopop rendition of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” a friend said, “And I thought the original was bad enough!”), but it had an operatic power, and more importantly, it laid out some of Wong’s stylistic signatures, including exaggerated neon-tinted lighting, the use of pop music to underscore moods, and pixillated slow-motion action scenes.