New York Asian Film Festival 2012: Doomsday Book, Monsters Club, Wu Xia, & More

The New York Asian Film Festival has emerged as quite possibly the most sheer fun of all the major New York film festivals.

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

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.

There are about 50 movies at this year’s festival, its 11th edition. Having seen only a mere handful of films in the lineup so far, I can’t say that, as of yet, I’ve discovered anything on the same level as, say, Kwak Jae-yong’s My Sassy Girl, Katsuhito Ishii’s Funky Forest: The First Contact, or Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, among other of the more memorable hidden Asian-cinema treasures this festival has brought us stateside. But the festival is so vast that, really, there’s something for just about everyone to discover.

In that regard, one of this year’s Centerpiece films has just about something for everyone in the span of one feature-length film: Doomsday Book, a long-in-the-making, three-part anthology film from South Korea positing different end-of-world scenarios. Yim Pil-sung directed the two outer segments, and though the scenarios are wildly disparate (a zombie apocalypse resulting from pollution in “A Brave New World,” a meteor in the shape of an 8 ball in the closing “Happy Birthday”), they’re rather similar in style and theme: near-schizophrenic juxtapositions of comedy and horror (rather like how Bong Joon-ho approached the monster movie in The Host); extended jabs at shamelessly sensationalistic news media; and perhaps most importantly, emphases on interpersonal/family dynamics (a family breaking apart in gruesome fashion in “A Brave New World,” another family coming together in “Happy Birthday”).

Plopped in the middle of these two comic/horrifying segments is “The Heavenly Creature,” a meditative bit of sci-fi from Kim Jee-woon. In his vision of doomsday, Kim imagines a robot-heavy future in which one particular robot, named RU-4, has found what few humans have been able to achieve: enlightenment. Does this make it a threat to humanity, as UR, the company that built the robot in the first place, seems to believe? Kim’s filmmaking adopts an appropriately meditative air, as the atmosphere is generally quiet and contemplative and the pace deliberate. There’s some suspense around whether a robot repairman (Kim Kang-woo) will defy his corporate superiors and help save RU-4 from extermination. Mostly, “The Heavenly Creature” scintillates as an intriguing exercise in cerebral style; Kim’s control is so impressive—especially after I Saw the Devil’s marathon series of stylistic tricks and shock effects—that it doesn’t matter whether the ideas, such as they are, are profound enough to measure up to the approach.

Toshiaki Toyoda’s Monsters Club offers up another dose of slow-paced filmmaking, though this time at feature length (72 minutes) and to psychological rather than philosophical ends. The central character in Toyoda’s film is human rather than mechanical: Ryoichi (Eita), a mad Unabomber type who’s withdrawn from modern society and lives out his days in snowy woods, mailing package bombs to various targets he deems worthy of his contempt. Within the first 15 minutes, we hear Ryoichi, in voiceover narration, setting out his society-decrying manifesto on the soundtrack over a montage of his mundane daily habits.

But then cracks start to pop up in his solitary existence—beginning with the cream-smeared monster he suddenly begins to see in his cabin, then with the ghosts of his two dead brothers, one of whom committed suicide for reasons perhaps similar to the ones that drive Ryoichi to isolate himself from society. Monsters Club eventually develops into something of a character study, tinged with moments of eerie poetry and a sense of haunted stillness that pervades throughout the entire film. Though Toyoda gives us glimpses of the kinds of familial traumas that might have fueled his current state, he’s ultimately not so much interested in offering up a neat psychological profile as he is in capturing a frame of mind, as well as suggesting Ryoichi’s impossibility of completely escaping from the society he so abhors. Whether the film’s final image suggests hope or defeat is something that’s left tantalizingly wide open. (Monsters Club, by the way, is playing not at Walter Reade Theater, but at Japan Society as part of a weekend of co-presentations with “Japan Cuts,” that organization’s annual survey of contemporary Japanese cinema.)

Consider those two the artier yin to the festival’s more typical yang of rousing genre fare—like Guns N’Roses, Ning Hao’s period action epic that’s the other big Centerpiece presentation this year. The film—detailing, among its many plot threads, the attempts of a band of Chinese freedom fighters to banish the Japanese army from Manchuria in the 1930s—plays like a Chinese variation on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, complete with sadistic Hans Landa-like Japanese opportunist colonel and moments of cinematic self-reflexivity. For Hao, it’s a departure from the likes of gentler, more intimately-scaled films like Mongolian Ping Pong, and it comes on the heels of his last film, 2010’s No Man’s Land, which ran afoul of Chinese censors and remains unreleased to this day. Perhaps this near-propagandistic spectacle was what he needed to get back into the government’s good graces, and certainly filmmakers like Jia Zhang-ke have managed to sneak in critical elements into their films despite official approval. Does Hao succeed in doing something similar with Guns N’Roses? I’m not so sure. Though the film evinces a bracing anti-capitalistic bent in its early stages, ultimately it’s the story of a callow thief (Jiayin Lei) who gradually, through his dealings with the freedom-fighting group (led by a glamorous film actress, played by Tao Hong), develops the properly nationalistic political consciousness. By the film’s high-voltage climax, this former hustler is mowing down scores of Japanese soldiers in an ostensibly thrilling display of rah-rah might. Though Guns N’Roses ends on a slightly regretful note, overall one looks in vain for the subversive streak Tarantino brought to his wish-fulfillment World War II epic.

For a more rewarding bit of genre entertainment, one ought to turn to Peter Chan’s Wu Xia, at least in the 114-minute version I saw in preparation for this piece; the New York Asian Film Festival, however, will be screening a shorter 98-minute version that carries the title Dragon. The longer version, at least, plays as a detective-procedural-cum-character-study—a kind of Eastern take on A History of Violence with Donnie Yen playing Liu Jinxi, a former gangster trying to escape his brutal past as a member of the 72 Demons. The audience, however, mostly sees Liu through the eyes of Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the detective trying to dig into Liu’s past after he heroically foils a store robbery and kills two wanted criminals in the process. Much is made of the fact that Xu—after a childhood trauma that put a damper on his faith in humanity—deliberately depresses the nerves that allow him to feel empathy. As a result, Wu Xia develops a surprising psychological edge: Xu wonders whether Liu is truly a reformed man, and we, in turn, wonder whether Xu will hold fast to his cynicism about human nature.

Chan’s film certainly has its share of impressive action set pieces (Yen himself conceived of the fight choreography, which has all of the high-flying delirium one would expect from the genre), but the film’s most conceptually and cinematically inventive moment comes early on, as Xu revisits the store in which Liu foiled that robbery and methodically tries to recreate the sequence. What was merely a cool-looking action sequence earlier in the film is now lovingly deconstructed, CSI-style; it gives one an idea of the level of ambition Chan has on his mind in the film. (Whether one gets a full measure of that ambition, though, in the 98-minute version is something I’ll have to discover for myself.)

And I haven’t even touched on the various sidebars (including one devoted to South Korean actor Choi Min-sik, whom non-Korean audiences might know from films like Oldboy, which is to be screened at this year’s festival with Choi in attendance, and the aforementioned I Saw the Devil) and vintage titles (Chung Chang-Wha’s 1972 landmark Five Fingers of Death and a 10th-anniversary screening of Infernal Affairs among them) that have become integral to the New York Asian Film Festival experience. From crazy camp (Grandmaster Y. K. Kim and Park Woo-sung’s so-bad-it’s-good The Miami Connection from 1987) to art-house class (Ann Hui’s excellent drama A Simple Life), there’s something for just about everybody.

The New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 29—July 15.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a film and theater critic, general arts enthusiast, and constant seeker of the sublime. His writing has also appeared in TheaterMania and In Review Online.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Review: Magic Mike

Next Story

Review: Neil Young Journeys