There’s a degree of expectation when it comes to the New York Asian Film Festival and its assortment of genre-bending films, which have a larger range than most would give them credit for. The festival, running from June 25 to July 8, has a few central themes (kung fu, the obligatory Takashi Miike film) to attract the majority of genre kiddies. But NYAFF is traditionally about surprise and opening up your boundaries when it comes to Asian film. Essentially, come for Yatterman but stay for the print of Eastern Condors, which you’ll likely never see in theaters again.
The opening-night film, Ip Man, is the most representative of NYAFF’s allure. Donnie Yen is the titular Wing Chun master, who can furrow his brow and wax poetic koans with the best of them. Everything else is fairly simple: Master Ip doesn’t take students, is wealthy, everyone respects him, local gang comes to promote their kung fu, beats everyone, hears of Ip Man, challenges him, Ip Man politely declines but changes his mind once he has his wife’s approval. There’s nothing shocking or surprising, aside from the incredible kung fu choreography.
Then the Japanese show up and China is thrown into a militant state where kung fu isn’t practiced, but thrown against Japanese karate in brutal matches. Ip is forced to work and questions what good he can do when all of the Chinese people are defenseless. It’s almost like you can see the light bulb go off over Yen’s head when someone literally spells out the whole “you are a master of martial arts and we’re getting our ass kicked daily” to him.
But let’s be fair: Ip Man and its sequel—the first parts of a trilogy, or quadrilogy, if Wong Kar-wai clears his schedule—aren’t here for the engaging plot. Sammo Hung’s choreography (he even picks up acting and directing for the second film) is simply mesmerizing. It’s shocking to see how fluid this can be when wires, CGI, and flowing black trench coats are forsaken for talent. There’s even a minor question of family, since Ip does everything possible to ignore them until he’s allowed to fight for them. Then they suddenly matter. Then again, his wife and child may as well be two sackcloths with googly eyes glued on for all the audience cares. These are films about Donnie Yen kicking ass.
Likewise, Gallants is the third film at NYAFF that takes wuxia tropes and repackages them in this age of Jaden Smith-headlined martial-arts films. From the boisterous narrator proclaiming nicknames to the pop-art freeze frames that introduce us to Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai) and Tiger (Bruce Leung, aka the Beast from Kung Fu Hustle). Whereas Ip Man is a slick ode to the wuxia genre, Gallants is packed with grindhouse nostalgia—even acknowledging that the stars are no longer as young as they used to be.
The training montage and weak protagonist, who shifts from a bully into a whipping boy, aren’t that interesting. But when Gallants celebrates the trends that the Chinese studio system grinded out, it rewards fanboys for their continued devotion. It all gets summed up when Meng (Jin Auyeung) asks what the point of a match is when his kung fu school wins a publicized tournament. “It’s the tradition of the thing,” scolds his master.
Symbol is also a film that’ll fill seats due to Hitoshi Matsumoto’s Big Man Japan and an audience expecting something similar. That’s good, since they’ll get deadpan humor that’s left to simmer in an otherwise absurd situation. But around the 20-minute mark, after the walls ripple with alabaster cherubs sticking their dicks out, awkward laughter is replaced by a kind of metaphysical awe. Symbol’s plot can easily be explained by that Toy Story 3 meme, but even that can be simplified: Symbol is about life. How’s that for a head-scratcher?
Shifting between two plots (a luchador, Escargot Man, preparing for a tag-team match that could be his last and a man, played by Matsumoto, in a white room), the film is an exercise in perfectly plotting a red herring. Matsumoto embraces his weirdness throughout the white-room segments, which play out like Wile E. Coyote stuck in an ACME factory. But Symbol’s greatest strength is tricking the audience when it comes to which story we’re supposed to follow, when in fact everything is laid out in a perfect three-act structure.
If you’re less inclined toward linear narratives, Cow might be up your alley. Niu Er (Huang Bo) is the ragged caretaker of the titular cow left behind by the Chinese army. After that, director Guan Hu shoves us through a narrative that handles time with a loose grip, constantly shifting around an otherwise brief story. The chemistry between Bo and his cow transcend kitsch into a weird kind of buddy comedy, as if A Boy and His Dog were set during the Sino-Japanese War, with a little less rape and no audible psychic connection.
Cow demands a lot, yet consistently hides behind the concept that it’s a zany comedy that just happens to be set against a brutal war that ravaged the people. Shifting appearances is a common occurrence in NYAFF selections, just to make sure that an audience is never satiated by extreme gore or boner jokes.
Luckily, Boys on The Run is simple enough. Based on the manga by Kengo Hanazawa, the film is a fantastic attempt at topping the stunted emotional makeup of Greenberg, Frownland and Cyrus. Tanishi (Kazunobu Mineta) is a 27-year-old loser who, after a company drinking party, slumps his way into a telephone club to watch porn and pick up anyone who’ll have sex with him. When it’s a big girl who obliges him, Tanishi performs the most awkward act of cunnilingus since Greenberg; ultimately, he can’t deliver and happily plans his escape. The girl, pissed off that he’s smiling, proceeds to beat the crap out of him until Tanishi is racing through the streets to get away from her.
Everyone in Boys on the Run is a sick pervert, from the office girl of Tanishi’s dreams to the slick competitor (Ryuhei Matsuda, Japan’s number-one bishonen) who sucks away everything from Tanishi’s life. Everything is awkward and gross, from disturbing smiles punctuated by a thumbs up to snot pouring down a man’s face while he begs an ex-girlfriend back in front of an entire wedding—part of which involves an explanation about a prostitute giving a handjob.
Mineta may just be the most awkward person on the planet, but he definitely succeeds in not one, but two of the most awkward scenes of cunnilingus caught on film. In order to gain the confidence he needs, the office drunk offers to teach him boxing. Again, Boys on the Run breaks new ground by having the world’s most pathetic fight with the conclusion that when worse comes to worse, shed all dignity and keep running.
Speaking of quiet breakouts, Actresses is My Dinner with André but filled with some of the most talented actresses Korea has ever seen. That also happens to be the film’s worst problem, since a majority of the public won’t recognize them. Hardcore auteur E. J. Yong may recognize Ko Hyun-Jung, and fans of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst may be able to identify Kim Ok-Vin, but names like Youn Yuh-Jung will leave most scratching their head.
This meta narrative/doc is part exposé on the nature of an actor and confessional for women who are forced to keep a face up to the public without ever letting their guard down. Actresses is the breeziest 104 minutes of the festival, as make-up tips and drunken ramblings set against a Christmas Eve photo shoot are more fun than a giant mutant turtle hellbent on destroying Japan.
Actresses is a departure from Dasepo Naughty Girls, but pure pop sugar that sees the actresses playing versions of their “public” personas until a makeshift dinner speech tears that idea down. There’s no great truth found or moment of discovery, but this is probably the dark horse of the festival due to its premise alone.
If you’re more inclined toward the weird side of NYAFF, calm yourself: Death Kappa is about a giant mutant Kappa that goes through buildings; Mutant Girls Squad was the product of a night of drinking between some of the best gore hounds in Japanese cinema today; all five hours of Red Cliff will be shown on July 4th, while The Ancient Dogoo Girl will be screened at Anthology Film Archives; and then there’s a Takashi Miike film, Yatterman.
The 2010 New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 25 to July 8.