The 17th edition of the New York Asian Film Festival came to a close last Sunday. We already published one dispatch from the fest, focussing on some of its “Main Competition” films. For our second and final dispatch, we look at a handful of other notable selections from this year’s program, including a new film from recent Palme d’Or-winning Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda; Hong Kong filmmaker Dante Lam’s latest, which has become a juggernaut at China’s box office; a South Korean indie that won a pair of prizes at last year’s Busan International Film Festival; and others.
Jeong Ga-young’s Hit the Night has drawn comparisons to the films of Hong Sang-soo, likely because it features a lot of drinking, even more talking, and a relationship between a man and woman that is awkward, ambiguous, and steeped in cinema. The major distinction is that director/screenwriter Jeong stars in her film, as Ga-young, a filmmaker on a night out with a male acquaintance, asking about his history with sex, intimacy, and relationships as a means of conducting research for a new project. The majority of Hit the Night consists of this interrogative conversation, which begins at a street cafe before moving to a more private lounge setting and finally a karaoke bar. As the two progress from soju to self-poured gin and tonics, Ga-young finds her true motivations behind the evening increasingly difficult to conceal — or does she? It’s not much of a spoiler to say that her reasons for wanting to spend time with Jin-hyeok are not purely professional, and much of the pleasure of Hit the Night is in the subtlety of Jeong’s sly performance. Ga-young seems to relish subjecting Jin-hyeok to her inquiry just as Jeong’s camera never tires of watching the unsuspecting young man blush at the casual frankness of her questions regarding (among other things) his frequency of masturbation and favored sexual positions. At one point, he asks her why she still uses an outdated flip phone, which “doesn’t even have messengers.” Jeong may be suggesting that face-to-face conversation, however cloaked in pretense, is preferable to the impersonal communication fostered by smartphones, especially when searching for a love connection. But Hit the Night is no Luddite screed; it’s concerned more with how Ga-young’s lowered inhibitions betray her true intentions over the course of the evening, and how Jin-hyeok’s willingness to play along seems to fluctuate of its own accord (itself a credit to Park Jong-hwan’s understatedly guileless performance). Near the end, Jeong employs a couple of disruptive formal devices that complicate her narrative in (it must be said) a rather Hongian fashion; even so, her clever coda emphasizes how much preparation goes into the appearance of effortlessness, and the way in which searching for fulfillment in love and art can become an ever-repeating cycle. Alex Engquist
From the title alone, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s follow-up to After the Storm is unlikely to elicit the usual comparisons to Ozu; broadly speaking, The Third Murder is another family drama, but its focus is the murder of a factory owner by an aging worker, Misumi (Kōji Yakusho), who was previously convicted for two long-ago killings. Shades of Rashomon emerge as defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) navigates the particulars of the case and slowly gets drawn into the web of Misumi’s ever-changing recollections. Interview scenes between the two are genuinely unsettling, a credit to both Yakusho’s frightening opaqueness and Kore-eda’s formal precision. Throughout, there’s a procedural focus that’s unusual for this director, although his penchant for staid tastefulness ultimately prevents a full reckoning with the material’s sinister core. (One wonders what Kiyoshi Kurosawa, say, would do with this material.) But the film’s final shift to full-on courtroom drama — and its series of collusive glances, unspoken understandings, and ominous high-angle framings — is eminently fascinating, particularly in the way that Shigemori’s pursuit of truth strains against the practically predetermined outcome of the narrative. Conceptually dense, if also lacking the necessary ambiguity, The Third Murder makes a compelling case for future such departures for Kore-eda. Lawrence Garcia
Operation Red Sea, Hong Kong director Dante Lam‘s latest military epic and follow-up to 2016’s Operation Mekong, is also loosely based on a true story: The evacuation of hundreds of foreigners and Chinese citizens from Yemen during the Yemeni Civil War. But the similarities to reality pretty much evaporate right away, in favor of a completely unhinged, totally jingoistic action extravaganza that’s about as deeply offensive as it is thrilling. Lam’s action extensively fetishizes the hardware on display, never missing an opportunity to show a cool gun doing its thing, resembling nothing so much as the Chinese Michael Bay. As such, he’s created a work of nationalism that’s downright silly and that’s also a blistering military action film. It’s pointlessly bloated, certainly racist, and gleefully violent, and there’s virtually not one single Western war picture from the last 20 years that it doesn’t crib from. But the last 45 minutes are an almost non-stop parade of RPG fire, bloody squibs, histrionic sacrifice, fireballs, and oh yeah then there’s a tank fight. At its best (especially its final moments), it’s like Starship Troopers done completely in earnest. Bananas. Matt Lynch
Wrath of Silence’s ominous title serves as both a reference to the violent prowess of the film’s mute hero, Zhang Baomin (martial artist Song Yang) — who pummels just about anyone who gets in the way of finding his lost son — and also means to communicate the horrible effects that a certain kind of complicity can bring. The film is essentially about how doing nothing to disturb a wretched status quo carries responsibility for the resulting pain and devastation. This idea is represented in the form of Xu Wenjie (Yuan Wenkang), a lawyer whose work with gangster Chang Wannian (Jiang Wu) helps to perpetuate a plan that Chang uses to take control of every mining company throughout an unnamed Northern region of China, and that seems to afford Xu a rise in his social status. The inclusion of this B-plot helps director Xin Yukun’s third feature expand its ambitions beyond that of a simple revenge-tale, allowing Xin to enter various socioeconomic zones, from the desolate mining town that Baomin hails from to the large city that Chang and Xu do their corrupt work in. The stories’ of these three intertwine through a series of moral conflicts that escalates in bleakness. And though Xin threatens to dilute the power and meaning of Wrath of Silence with pulpy genre elements like an overly-despicable villain and convoluted plot twists, the film remains grounded in the realities of its socioeconomic conflicts enough so as to mount a grand critique of modern-day corruption in China. Paul Attard
The visual style of young Taiwanese director Huang Xi’s debut film, Missing Johnny, bears resemblance to the once-prominent New Wave movement established by his countrymen Hou Hsiao-hsien (who’s credited as executive producer here) and Tsai Ming-Liang, with long takes and beguilingly subtle pans that explore space and give a sense of the characters’ experience of alienation and dislocation in a bustling modern Taipei. The same can’t be said for Huang’s writing, which tends to spell out its themes in the most leaden of ways, as when loner foreman Feng (Lawrence Ko) pontificates, to the romantically frustrated Hsu (Taiwanese-Lebanese model Rima Zeidan, who won Best New Performer at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards last year), that “this is what happens when people are too close…they forget how to love each other.” Even worse, Huang’s writing — and the vagueness of a plot that threads Feng’s and Hsu’s narrative with the barely connected story of an autistic boy named Lee (Yuan Huang) — relies on so many dubiously undeveloped metaphors, including a series of mysterious recurring phone calls that ask for a man (“Johnny”) who may or may not exist, that even the lush cinematography starts to feel a bit ponderous and empty. There’s about a 10-minute stretch near the beginning of Missing Johnny that makes for a terrific self-contained short film: an adorable Caique parrot escapes, a recapture plan is hatched, and there are some ravishing soft-focus shots of an opulent red roof. Ultimately, though, that sequence doesn’t really have much bearing on the rest of Huang’s diffuse and uninvolving film. Sam C. Mac