The New York Asian Film Festival is currently in the midst of its 15th year (it kicked off on June 22nd and will run until July 9th). As per usual, the festival represents one of the densest screening schedules of upcoming and repertory Asian cinema in the country, with a heavy emphasis on genre filmmaking: This year’s program includes the latest from Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hong Kong martial arts legend Sammo Hung (directing his first film since the late ’90s), not to mention Shinya Tsukamoto’s seminal 1989 cyberpunk fantasia Tetsuo: The Iron Man and a mini retrospective of works by Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai. With the possible exception of Sion Sono (sadly absent here), no filmmaker seems more appropriate an avatar for NYAFF than Iwai, whose films prize youthful exuberance and a spirit of experimentation. This year, NYAFF’s risk-taking manifests in a program that, despite the marquee names, is generally heavier on unknown quantities—first-time directors and films from far flung reaches of the Asian diaspora. For our coverage, we sampled banner and obscure films alike, but as usual for this sprawling fest, many from both columns escaped our attention. In addition to those written about below, these also seem worthwhile: Lee Chung’s The Laundryman, Yoji Yamada’s What a Wonderful Family, Kankuro Kudo’s Too Young to Die, E J-Yong’s The Bacchus Lady, Ralston Jover’s Hamog, Cheng Wei-hao’s The Tag-Along, the Johnnie To-produced Triviṣa, Hong Kong Best Picture-winning omnibus 10 Years and Iwai’s latest three-hour opus, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. While many of these have already screened, some are set for later this week. You can find the full lineup of this year’s NYAFF here.
After last year’s tepidly-received Journey to the Shore proved a curious misfire, Kiyoshi Kurosawa chose to return to the familiar motifs of his most successful crossover work: the procedural, impotent detectives, and psychological abstraction. This naturally, and unflatteringly, places Creepy alongside some of Kurosawa’s strongest works, in particular Cure and Charisma. But where those earlier works probed deeply—Charisma’s metaphor-bound contemplation of the individual’s place in a rapidly modernizing world and the shared psychosis of predator and prey explored in Cure—Creepy is instead content to float lazily by on its surface intrigue, offering a solitary, comically half-baked psychological conceit as its only bid for differentiation. It’s telling that, after a decade-plus run as the near full-creative force behind each of his films (including several near-masterpieces), three of Kurosawa’s past four films have been based on novels, and have employed co-screenwriters. Creepy feels texturally like Kurosawa, but it’s empty of his usual substantive characters, intelligence, and style—which makes the nature of its creative causality feel pretty clear. Luke Gorham
Martial-artist and filmmaker Sammo Hung, responsible for some of the greatest films in the genre’s history (Eastern Condors, Pedicab Driver, Encounters of the Spooky Kind, and numerous others) returns to the director’s spot for the first time since 1997 with this sweetly melancholy actioner. Old Ding (Hung), a retired soldier/bodyguard, is slowly going senile, mired in regret and shunned by his family over the disappearance many years ago of his granddaughter. Of course he finds redemption when he gets wrapped up in a gang war on the Chinese/Russian border, particularly after becoming attached to a little girl whose father (Andy Lau) is trapped working for the triads. My Beloved Bodyguard works best as a bittersweet semi-fable about memory, aging, and regret, but the sparse action sequences (for some, probably the entire reason to see this) aren’t quite what they could be, full of extraneous cuts and shot mostly in close up, often to mask Hung’s somewhat depleted agility as a performer. Certainly it’s unreasonable to expect the man, now in his mid-60s, to be the same lightning-quick athlete he was in his prime, but it’s still something of a drag to watch one of the fastest guys alive get slower, even if the change blends nicely with this film’s themes. Matt Lynch
Mr. Six is a Chinese fusion of John Wick and Taken that’s also director Guan Hu and star Feng Xiaogang’s Gran Torino: Spurred on by the abduction of his son and the killing of his pet bird by a bunch of pampered rich kids, an aging ex-gangster (Feng) draws on his history of violence to teach the disrespectful youth a lesson. Ripe for parody, this set-up instead convincingly locates moral rot in contemporary China, forging melodrama from exaggerated oppositions of young and old, ignorance and wisdom (a divide so deliberately drawn that, at one point, the two generational sets are positioned directly across from each other, separated only by a slow-thawing lake). Guan’s melodrama helps sell his fervent moralizing, while his streetwise social realism grounds his cultural commentaries (including one all-too-believable scene in which a crowd of young people mindlessly record a suicide attempt on their smart phones). At over two hours, the balance isn’t always sustained—and a faithfulness to northern Chinese values makes women an exception for respect under its masculine code. But Mr. Six benefits from its brashness when compared to, say, Diao Yi’nan’s stiffly arty Black Coal, Thin Ice, China’s other recent working class crime epic; and from the Chinese icon in its lead role. Feng is a commercially successful comedy actor, director, and screenwriter whose choices have become more interesting with age. His performance lends Mr. Six an Eastwoodian gravitas, perfectly paired with Peng Dou’s stately, brass-heavy score. Sam C. Mac
Focusing on the daughter of well-known Edo-period Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, the episodic, contemplative anime biopic Miss Hokusai gingerly examines young O-ei’s growth as an artist in her own right, how she reconciles her work with her father’s, and the demands of a gradually modernizing Japan. Initially content to assist a womanizing, often indifferent dad with his projects (sometimes completing them for him), a series of mostly unconnected events begin to shift O-ei’s point of view and her identity in directions society and her father initially find uncomfortable. Much is made of her interactions with clumsy suitors who generally ignore her talents, and even more time is spent on her caring for a blind half-sister whom Hokusai refuses to acknowledge. Lyrical sequences in Keiichi Hara‘s film, like the one in which a medium reveals O’ei’s ghostly powers during a seance—her hands forming ghostly tendrils that drift through the city, observing everything, while O-ei wonders what might happen if they were lopped off—reveal subtly feminist underpinnings, while deliberate anachronisms (contemporary colloquial dialogue and a sometimes distractingly modern score) tie the past directly to the present, especially in a final shot juxtaposing 18th-century Edo with modern-day Tokyo. Partly reminiscent of the great Yamada Yoji in its light melancholy, and of Shunji Iwai (appropriately, considering his retrospective at this year’s NYAFF) in its playful dodging of expectations and its depiction of young women. ML
Love in the Buff screenwriter Luk Yee-sum aspires to normalize the conversation around young, female sexuality through a recognition that, as with any other interaction, the healthiest self-expression is one of honesty. The three teens sharing a Hong Kong apartment in Luk’s directing debut, Lazy, Hazy, Crazy, struggle with this truth, and their denial manifests itself in needling jealousies and quiet resentments. Alice (Fish Lieu) was left with no parents and an apartment to make rent on from a young age; she’s comfortable with her “part-time job” as a sex worker, as is her friend Chloe (Mak Tsz-yi), who’s newer to the business and who welcomes WeChat picture-posting advice from her more experienced peer. Chloe’s best friend, Tracy (Kwok Yik-sum), is the outlier of this group: she’s a virgin who’s made noticeably uncomfortable by her friends’ frank displays of sexuality, while at the same time she feels envious of the agency it affords them. Tracy has a crush on a cute basketball player at school, but the boy’s attentions are more often won by her two outgoing and flirtatious friends. Tracy’s personal frustrations push her to experiment past comfort, causing an upset in the three girls’ interpersonal dynamic that leads each of them to a consideration of their own relationship to sexuality. That turning point steers Lazy, Hazy, Crazy away from pure sex-positive advocacy, but it also allows for the film to take on a sense of maturity: Luk neither judges nor makes insinuations as to a proper behavior, instead letting his characters each decide what’s right for them. Likewise, Luk’s film is unbound to any one means of expression—by turns sexy and sad, confident and confused, Lazy, Hazy, Crazy is a fittingly fluid evocation of youth. SCM