by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

New York Asian Film Festival 2017 – Dispatch 1

July 4, 2017

The 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival (June 30th – July 16th) started its two-week run on Friday, and we’re putting together our beefiest coverage ever: three lengthy dispatches posted throughout the whole sprawling schedule. In Dispatch 1, you’ll find NYAFF’s more characteristic, genre-oriented fare (Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s Extraordinary Mission, Leste Chen’s Battle of Memories), but also several serious-minded dramas (Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay, Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse, Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath), off-kilter comedies (Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius, Chen Yu-Hsun’s The Village of No Return), a documentary (Jero Yun’s Mrs. B, a North Korean Woman), a porno (Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind), and a pinku film remade as “arthouse pablum” (Kazuya Shiraichi’s Dawn of the Felines). In other words, what we have here is a good representation of the fest’s undervalued eclecticism—and there’s still lots more to come. 

MandalayThe title of Myanmar-born, Taiwan-based Midi Z‘s fourth fiction feature, The Road to Mandalay, conjures Kipling-esque Orientalist visions of the far east. But this starkly rendered yet poetic film offers the exact opposite, focusing on characters forced to navigate the merciless present-day realities of national borders, law-enforcement corruption, and rampant exploitation. It’s billed as a “romance,” which initially seems like an odd description, given that a love affair would seem a remote possibility for the two central characters. Lianqing (Z regular Wu Ke-xi) and Guo (Taiwanese dreamboat Kai Ko) meet while being smuggled across the Mekong River from Myanmar into Thailand. Lianqing—all ruthless, steely resolve—is a young woman who’s the Malcolm X of undocumented Burmese immigrants; she’ll get those fake papers and a decent job by any means necessary. Guo has naively romantic notions of marrying and returning to Myanmar after earning money. Lianqing and Guo’s divergent life goals violently clash, literally so in the conclusion, which may seem like an out-of-nowhere shock-ending, but is in fact the logical endpoint of the slow violence of dehumanization done to the undocumented—by no means only in Thailand—which Z so meticulously and powerfully depicts. Christopher Bourne

Bad GeniusThe high-stakes world of standardized testing may sound like a punchline, but that’s essentially the setup to Nattawut Poonpiriya’s NYAFF-opening Bad Genius. The film follows Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), a gifted student who enrolls at a prestigious high school despite her single father’s financial woes. After befriending Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan), a charming but academically disinclined peer, and her boyfriend Pat, a rich kid focused on all the ease money can afford him, Lynn finds herself caught up in an increasingly expansive con to cheat the system and help her classmates ace their exams in a bid to get out from under her oppressive poverty. This narrative framework boasts most of Genius’s weaknesses, as the stock plot, its contrivances, and the various implausibilities are fairly obvious. What’s surprising is how confident Poonpiriya’s direction and strength of voice are, his impeccable technical craft elevating the film’s generic origins, and resulting in what is essentially a hyper-stylized ‘heist’ film. As we jump from one extended planning-and-execution sequence to the next, Bad Genius’ thrilling sensibilities continue to heighten its relatively negligible stakes (these are test scores, not diamonds), resulting in a film that feels far fresher and more exciting than anyone would expect. Luke Gorham

Wet Woman in the Wind feature“YOU NEED TISSUES FOR YOUR ISSUES” reads a woman’s shirt near the start of Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind, the director’s second film from 2016, after the bubbly and earnest Lifeline. Or maybe what you really need, the film seems to suggest, is some good old-fashioned titillation: The woman, Shiora (Mamiya Yuki), brazenly strips off her shirt, to the surprise and chagrin of Kosuke (Nagaoka Tasuku), a nearby napping playwright whom we later learn is in a state of self-imposed celibacy. One of five films commissioned by Nikkatsu to revive the studio’s popular ‘Roman Porno’ line from the 1970s, Wet Woman in the Wind is unabashedly nonsensical, a veritable barrage of animalistic pleasures that attempts no less than to strip down the intellectual pretensions of both its protagonist and its audience. That it attempts to do so using both its primal, sexual imagery and the more ingrained approaches of contemporary arthouse cinema creates a fascinating, frustrating tension—one which the film’s selection for last year’s Locarno Film Festival certainly attests to. It’s an unusual, imperfect amalgam, but one that, given the tradition Shiota’s working in, seems almost pointless to criticize. (The strange, whiplash-inducing treatment of rape, however, is much more questionable.) “Bodies don’t lie,” Shiora tells Kosuke as she attempts to seduce him. And whatever your response to the film, it’s hard to argue with that. Lawrence Garcia

Dawn of the FelinesReconfiguring a classic pinku film as a somewhat more tasteful modern-day indie melodrama seems like a terrible idea, and guess what, it is. Kazuya Shiraichi‘s Dawn of the Felines takes its title directly from Noboru Tanaka’s little-seen but influential Night of the Felines, and both concern the travails of a set of Tokyo sex workers. Tanaka’s original was almost completely devoid of any conventional ideas of dramatic structure, instead consisting mostly of gorgeous scope softcore sex, humming along nicely with regular pinku themes of transcendence and self-actualization through degradation and submission. Tough subject matter for most audiences, to be sure. Dawn, on the other hand, is a crushingly banal series of hoary melodramas concerning the lonely, unfulfilled lives of these young women, occasionally interrupted by barely explicit sex scenes that seem to have no interest in either titillation or comedy. Basic arthouse pablum, all filmed in standard docudrama handheld, entirely lacking in imagination or style. Matt Lynch

Extraordinary MissionAlan Mak and Felix Chong, two-thirds of the team behind the very good Infernal Affairs series and the prime movers of the mediocre-at-best Overheard trilogy, team up again for Extraordinary Mission, a routine actioner about an undercover cop working against powerful heroin traffickers. Like last year’s Operation Mekong, the film represents a patriotic valorization of the PRC’s war against drug smuggling in the Golden Triangle, with some impressive action sequences—notably, a final shootout-turned-car chase. Mekong had some compelling, if clichéd, men-on-a-mission group dynamics;   Mission follows the undercover-cop-in-too-deep template. The cop (Huang Xuan) gets forcibly addicted to morphine almost exactly halfway through Extraordinary Mission, and the film shifts focus to its main villain (Duan Yihong), and to a backstory involving another cop (Zu Feng). Despite all these actors’ charm, none of this naked plotifying and flash-backery is the least bit interesting—and a side-story involving the film’s lone woman is insultingly superficial. It’s increasingly apparent that the success of Infernal Affairs had more to do with the pulp lunacy of co-director Andrew Lau than it did Mak and Chong. Sean Gilman

Battle of Memories

China retrofit its communism with capitalism, so why shouldn’t it augment an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-indebted premise with the procedural plot points of Minority Report? Well, because of the nationalist limitations of Chinese sci-fi filmmaking, for starters: Movies set in a future China are strictly prohibited from suggesting a time during which the communists’ power might be diminished, and so any kind of dystopia is usually off limits, as would be Philip K. Dick-ian systemic critiques. That makes the satire of Battle of Memories, which presents a world wherein a person can have selected memories scrubbed from their brain, rather innocuous: After an intriguing scene that cites the potential insidiousness of this mind-altering technology (“The original motivation for these surgeries is good,” says a representative for the Master of Memory organization, “But the key lies in the user’s intentions”), the film becomes a much less interesting mystery-thriller of personal sin. A novelist looking for an emotional release from his draining divorce (Huang Bo), winds up implanted with the memories of a serial killer, and must search his various, newly interiorized crime scenes for clues. Director Leste Chen‘s aesthetic actually resembles less Gondry’s whimsy or Spielberg’s showmanship than the psychological intensity of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. And that provides enough anchoring for an affecting morality play—until the film’s last act array of plot twists muddles the emotion, and reminds that the title of Chen’s film has an unintended meaning. Battle of Memories feels like a move with too many competing influences, and a self-defeating one because of it. Sam C. Mac

Blood of YouthIn Blood of Youth, a convoluted tale of revenge by Chinese director Yang Shupeng, a young man (Yan Haoqi) suffers a traumatic injury defending a girl (Chen Wenqi) at his orphanage. Ten years later, a preposterously complicated scheme to take revenge is enacted… on some people whose importance only becomes apparent later. Various narrative threads coalesce on a rickety, over-cluttered boat that serves as a fitting metaphor for the film itself. The girl sends flirty texts to an orchestra conductor, who happens to be the unfaithful husband of the doctor treating the young man; a heist is foiled leading to a high-speed chase; a corpse is dug up; and flashbacks are recounted—all in scenes of performative intensity, handsomely shot by DP Cheng Siu-keung in his trademark shadowy style. There are many examples of this kind of network crime story in recent Chinese cinema, but movies like The Coffin in the Mountain, Port of Call or Chongqing Hot Pot are much more satisfying, their coincidental connections bounded by a basic rationality of action and reaction. Blood of Youth is unmoored from any kind of reality, its phantom epiphanies merely tedious. SG

The Long Excuse“Life is others” writes the central character of The Long Excuse, Sachio (Masahiro Motoki), near the end of the film. And How Sachio goes from being an exceedingly selfish bastard to arriving at this realization forms the engrossing and beautifully executed journey of the film, perhaps the strongest to date from one of Japan’s finest directors, Miwa Nishikawa. Based on Nishikawa’s own novel, Excuse was inspired by the 3/11 natural disasters, although this isn’t made explicit (there’s only an oblique suggestion, represented by the small earthquake that occurs at one point). Instead, Nishikawa explores the broader subject of grieving over lost loved ones, and the film contrasts the opposite reactions of two men who lose their wives in a bus accident. Sachio learns of his wife’s death while in bed with another woman, and acts relatively unmoved, while Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), who’s suddenly rendered a single dad, is unconsolable. The men are brought together by their wives’ friendship, and Sachio, through his ever deeper involvement in Yoichi’s life—including becoming a kind of surrogate dad to his kids—uncovers facets of his late wife’s existence he ignored through his self-centeredness. Though the film’s middle section flirts with sentimentality, Nishikawa offers nothing as anodyne as a simple tale of redemption, especially as she ambiguously raises the possibility that all of these events are meant as fodder for Sachio’s latest novel. That level of richly novelistic detail and psychological acuity vividly illustrates Sachio’s key observation: the ones who truly suffer from death are not the dead, but those they leave behind. CB

The Truth Beneath“I don’t give a shit about politics or elections” screams Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) at her husband, Jong-chan (Kim Joo-hyuk), near the halfway point of The Truth Beneath. This works twofold: it communicates her obvious frustration with her husband—a nominee in South Korea’s presidential race—and his lack of interest in their missing daughter (Shin Ji-hoon), and it betrays director Lee Kyoung-mi’s apparent interest in the subject. Written by five people (including Park Chan-wook), Beneath feels scattershot as it tries to be a political thriller and a family mystery before settling on revenge drama. Commentary on national media feels undercooked and shoehorned, as if added for relevance’s sake (the film was released right before President Park Geun-hye was impeached), being too broad to be biting and playing too little a role overall to matter. Once the movie shifts to vengeance, the material works, and Son’s increasingly unhinged performance helps to escalate the tension. There’s the usual hallmarks of Park present (obviously there has to be torture), but the film relieves its narrative and stylistic growing pains by the end with a grand reveal. Paul Attard

Gangster's DaughterIt doesn’t even seem possible that Jack Kao’s played aging gangster roles for more than 20 years, but here we are. The frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien star (A City of Sadness, Millennium Mambo) wasn’t ever actually a gangster (tattoos covering his back in many a film are merely the work of make-up artists), but he did hang around with them; Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye is based on some of Kao’s stories. The actor is perfect for The Gangster’s Daughter, the fiction feature debut of director Chen Mei-juin, a Taiwanese documentarian based in Los Angeles. Ally Chiu plays Shaowu, a junior high kid who goes to live with her estranged father, a gang leader with a heart of gold, after her mother dies and she gets into trouble at school. Infatuated with the romantic nature of gang life—learned almost entirely through movies and pop culture—Shaowu idealizes her father. Chen at least in part demystifies that adoration; she plays this story to its inevitable, innocence-shattering conclusion of bloody and senseless violence. But the father-daughter relationship is warmly performed, highlighted by some lovely, terrible dancing. This is a film that’s at its best in the margins, exploring particularities of Taiwanese culture, its deities, rituals and the ordinance-infested landscapes of its small-island setting of Kinmen. SG

Japanese Girls Never DiUsing the cinematic approach of a Grimes video, Japanese Girls Never Die presents a glossy and hyperactive aesthetic, but little in the way of substance. Following several groups of young hoodlums through the streets of Tokyo, director Daigo Matsui bluntly inserts behaviors of casual sexism that persist throughout Japanese culture, as well as aimless artists trying to “find themselves,” and the common willingness to break the “system”—all with no sense of what his film, overall, should really represent. Japanese Girls has a kind of identity crisis that results from a lack of focus in terms of narrative structure and a hesitation in terms of developing characters beyond a certain set of traits (the unmarried girl who wants to find love, the good guy who goes bad, etc.). There’s no sense of progression toward an end goal; scenes are seemingly edited at random to create a free-flowing effect, but instead only muddle an already lacking vision. PA

mrs. BYou wouldn’t know what to call Mrs. B. if the title of Jero Yun‘s film didn’t tell you. The lengths gone to keep the specifics of the main subject hidden silently emphasize the restrictions placed upon immigrants in China and South Korea. Which isn’t to imply that Mrs. B. and her husband(s) don’t explicitly address these nation’s desiccated channels of bureaucracy; these are people who, after a decade (give or take, the chronology is never quite clear), are all too familiar with the realities of human trafficking. Yun’s filmmaking compliments this awareness with shots that seem always to be in transit, only stopping when inactivity is necessitated—at which point the stillness is excruciating. Mrs. B, a North Korean Woman features narration of bits and pieces of the woman’s life since leaving North Korea, and depicts fragments of her return to her family in South Korea; it’s only 70 minutes long, but it’s made clear that even that much footage was hard enough to get. Eric Barroso

VillageA fanciful period piece set just after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Chen Yu-Hsun‘s The Village of No Return may have an ominous sounding English title, but it is in fact a crowd-pleasing Chinese New Year movie, with humor as broad as a ten-lane highway. Centering on the denizens of the very colorful Desire Village, the film bursts with frenetic action and incident, including beatboxing/doo-wop-ing bandits; a bicycle-riding, scythe-wielding postwoman/bandit leader; a Taoist priest/conman; and a “Worry Ridder” tricked-out helmet that removes painful memories when placed on the head. The film is also pretty much a shapeless mess, with a plot that lurches along awkwardly along from one silly scene to another, with only a distant relationship to logic—and that isn’t nearly as funny as it so desperately tries to be. That leaves only an exquisite Shu Qi to give us anything truly worth watching; as a woman trapped in an unhappy arranged marriage, pining for her true love, she lends soulfulness and a bit of depth to a movie well beneath her talents. CB