The 17th edition of the New York Asian Film Festival comes to a close this Sunday, and as usual the program offers a massive, sprawling slate that we’ve tried to navigate selectively. Our first of two dispatches from the fest focuses on five titles from NYAFF’s “Main Competition,” and includes one film from China, one from South Korea, two from Japan, and one from Hong Kong. Check back next week when we look at some of the more high profile titles at NYAFF this year, including a new film from recent Palme d’Or-winner Hirokazu Kore-eda and China’s latest domestic box office juggernaut.
Chinese cinematographer-turned-director Dong Yue’s very, very rainy neo-noir The Looming Storm seems, for a while, like it may be doing something pretty impressive. While the film bears a great deal of resemblance to Diao Yinan’s 2014 slow-burn thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (and in fact the two films share a producer), Dong’s twisty, small town murder mystery puts more emphasis on its late-’90s period setting. The bulk of the film unfolds in early 1997, a time in which China experienced not only the effects of a domestic reform project that recast state-owned factories as private ones — resulting in massive layoffs and closures — but that also reflected the expectations of the coming Hong Kong Handover. Many characters in The Looming Storm express a desire to leave, to flee their life-long home in Hunan province for Hong Kong, or to “wake up from a dream.” But none of this seems to faze Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong), a security officer at one of the town’s struggling local factories who, after being given a Model Worker award by his superiors for catching some petty thieves, channels his irrepressible confidence into investigating a recent spate of unsolved murders. Dong calibrates his film to the single-minded obsession of “Detective Yu” (as the local law enforcement mockingly call him) by casting his procedural against a backdrop of never-ending rain, which makes for at least one stylish set-piece: a footchase that navigates sopping-wet factory scaffolding and a muddied rail yard. But what’s really intriguing about this parallel is the sense that Dong means to conflate the fundamental transformation of Chinese industry with the unmooring of Yu’s identity. Unfortunately, a series of increasingly ridiculous plot developments toward the end muddle that concept, and suggest that Dong’s less interested in a politically provocative Chinese cinema than he is a cheaply ambiguous kind of entertainment. Sam C. Mac
Jeon Go-woon’s debut feature Microhabitat offers a conceptually ambitious and thematically rich premise: a young woman named Miso (Esom) — who leads a simple, balanced life of work (cleaning houses) and pleasure (daily cigarettes and whisky, as her budget allows) — finds her calibrated existence upended when the new year brings inflated costs for rent and her allotted vices. At its best, Microhabitat proves both lively and poignant; Jeon is formally playful, utilizing wonky angles and bouncy camera movement to emphasize the screwball influence on his narrative. Rather than sacrifice her beloved smokes and Glenfiddich, Miso instead chooses to embrace temporary homelessness and use the opportunity to visit (and crash) with her college bandmates in exchange for cleaning and cooking (and, as it turns out, unexpected emotional support). Philosophically informed by a Kierkegaardian absurdist streak, with Miso’s particular ideology in consistent conflict with her generation’s methods of measuring personal and professional success, the film asks for a reconsideration of societal values. Yet despite its isolated strengths, Microhabitat suffers from an overall tonal inconsistency, its bid for pathos undermined by a broad approach that often borders on farcical. Jeon’s conviction is blunted by an unfortunate inelegance of execution. Luke Gorham
A transfer student targeted by classmates in her small, rural town exacts hyperbolically gory vengeance in Liverleaf, Eisuke Naito’s adaptation of a cult-horror manga by Rensuke Oshikiri. Haruka (Anna Yamada) endures the relentless cruelty of a group of girls, led by the orange-bobbed Taeko (Rinka Otani), with quiet resignation until their antagonism escalates to an act of arson that leaves Haruko’s parents dead and her younger sister clinging to life in the ICU. Though Naito has made a career out of his preoccupation with sadistic teens (beginning with his debut, the charmingly named Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club), Liverleaf brings depressingly little insight, psychological or otherwise, to bear on its grim brutality. The film’s broad-strokes setup and methodical pace only stir to life once Haruka re-emerges from grief as a red-clad Lady Snowblood, lending the drawn-out sequences of torture and murder a nasty, exploitative kick. Yet there’s hardly any suspense to be found and little of the sociopolitical subtext of, say, Battle Royale, and since few of the characters are developed beyond a single trait (i.e., one has an abusive father, one longs to escape to Tokyo and become a hairdresser), Liverleaf quickly devolves into a repetitive spectacle of young bodies sliced and impaled and blood spraying across pristine white snow. There’s a surprising interlude, late in the film, that expands on the relationship between Haruka and Taeko (played with nuanced tenderness by Yamada and Otani), but the unsparing nihilism, and the inescapable sense that Naito has reserved most of his creative energy and budget for gratuitous adolescent bloodshed, makes the melancholy moments ring hollow. Alex Engquist
Using the classic yakuza crime-thriller Battles Without Honor and Humanity as a key text of inspiration, The Blood of Wolves tries to peddle tired cliches under the guise of being a ‘throwback.’ Veteran cop Shōgo Ōgami (Kōji Yakusho) is partnered with Hiroshima graduate Shūichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) to solve a missing persons case that may have ties to the several crime syndicates who are currently battling it out for control of the region. The reckless behavior and outlaw attitude that Ōgami utilizes to solve the case — including having intercourse with a witness, instigating fights with suspects, and casually causing property damage — doesn’t sit well with rookie Hioka, who at first hates his elder, but eventually (in a surprise twist, not) learns that his senior colleague actually has a heart of gold and is totally worth the redemption arc the film forces on its audience. There seemingly isn’t a single cliche from the gangster nor the buddy-cop genre that director Kazuya Shiraishi doesn’t regurgitate, while usually adding a hint of violence just to hide the lack of originality. In fact, there’s really nothing here that even attempts to differentiate The Blood of Wolves from its influences — just a lot of brutality that feels pointless in its intention and empty in its execution. Within the first ten minutes alone, a low-level thug is nearly beaten to death before having a fresh pile of steaming pig shit shoved down his throat — which hey, that’s a pretty readymade metaphor for anyone who has the misfortune of seeing this. Paul Attard
Sunny Chan‘s debut film, Men on the Dragon, is about four middle-aged men who work at a Hong Kong telecommunications company and signed up for a dragon boat race (basically an 18-man rowing competition), in order to woo a potential client. Since the company has been laying off workers by the dozen every month, the men feel as if they must participate. In addition to that stress, each also has their own domestic troubles at home — which they naturally work through with teamwork and exercise. One man’s wife and mother are always fighting, another’s wife is cheating on him, and a third (played by Francis Ng, who also produced) has a crush on his neighbor and is a kind of parent to her teenaged daughter, though the woman is still in love with the girl’s absent father. The youngest man on the team is unhappy because his girlfriend pressured him into giving up his athletic dreams (he played table tennis) for a soul-crushing regular job. All the men bond playfully, with humor and manly tears, and the whole thing is sprightly and pleasant, with a little bit of melancholy as well. Everybody learns a valuable lesson, with hugs all around. Sean Gilman