by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

New York Asian Film Festival 2017 – Dispatch 2

July 11, 2017

The 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival (June 30th – July 16th) is now nearing the end of its two-week run. Our first dispatch included films from Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, China, and North and South Korea. Dispatch 2 skews more extensively Chinese, including two films that were actually already released in theaters in the U.S. (Han Han’s Duckweed and Derek Tsang’s Soul Mate) and several first-time filmmakers (Wong Chun with Mad World, Derek Hui with This Is Not What I Expected, and Liu Lin with Someone to Talk To). You’ll also find in this dispatch a Japanese murder mystery (Kei Ishikawa’s Traces of Sin), a small-scale South Korean comedy (Zhang Lu’s A Quiet Dream), a Philippine horror movie (Jet Leyco’s Town in a Lake), a film from a director who’s last feature we really hated (Eiji Uchida’s Love and Other Cults), and a Vietnamese movie that’s about, among other things, Kentucky Fried Chicken and cannibalism (Le Binh Giang’s Kfc). Check back next week as we wrap up NYAFF 2017 with thoughts on a new film from Japanese master Takashi Miike and a South Korean midnight movie from this year’s Cannes, among others.

DuckweedDuckweed is a Chinese Back to the Future with quite a bit of Capra in it. Celebrated novelist (and rally car driver) Han Han rebounds from 2014 road movie The Continent, his disappointing first foray into filmmaking, with an altogether lighter, more unabashedly sentimental comedy, one in which the writer’s sociocultural concerns are rooted in an anachronistic, 1998 setting that gives the film a fish-out-of-water earnestness. The opening even serves as a self-aware acknowledgment of Han Han’s tendency for narcissism: Tailang (Deng Chao), a world champion rally car driver, suffers a life-threatening humiliation and is sent back to reevaluate his life, as well as the lives of the parents that he’s never understood. The bulk of Duckweed unfolds as an evocation of male camaraderie and close-knit community, with an emphasis on the interplay of relationships across generations of fathers and sons. The humor here may be too culturally specific for some (one funny, and in its own way quite moving, passage involves the founder of QQ, which will go right over the heads of most non-Chinese viewers), but this is a crucial transition film for one of China’s most discussed contemporary writers, finally translating his appeal to the film medium. Sam C. Mac

Mad World 2Like a Hong Kong version of Lodge Kerrigan’s indie, sorta-classic Clean, Shaven, Wong Chun’s debut, Mad World, plunks recently rehab-ed, bipolar disorder sufferer Tung (Shawn Yue) back into polite society and creates tension from his inevitable slide back into old meltdowns. Flashbacks inform us why this handsome former investment banker traded a comfortable married life for the rubber room (he took care of his incontinent, dementia-stricken mother while his siblings and father jumped ship). Eric Tsang, as Tung’s baffled, also-suffering father, is the MVP here, embodying a shrugging, half-considered fatherliness fully ill-equipped to properly deal with his son’s illness. A reasonably diverting melodrama, Mad World eventually takes a turn for the maudlin, as Tung’s tear-streaked abandoned wife (Charmaine Fong) too literally, in flashback, diagnoses his woes. The film is at its worst with dialogue like “It’s a mad world out there…”; it’s at its best portraying Tung’s pettily judgmental former acquaintances and colleagues, who callously Snapchat his best man speech breakdown. Justin Stewart

Traces of SinBuried within Kei Ishikawa‘s artfully moody debut feature, Traces of Sin, are two intriguing narrative strands. The first involves the long-lasting effects and indelible scars of physical and sexual abuse committed by a family member—an act that impacts this film’s two main characters, crime reporter Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and his sister Mitsuko (Hikari Mitsushima), who’s been jailed for severely neglecting her child. The other strand of interest here, which is explicated through investigative flashbacks, concerns the realm of Japan’s hierarchical social elites, who determine people’s access and success in the academic and corporate worlds. This latter subject is crucially pertinent to an unsolved case that Tanaka is investigating, which involves the murder of an entire upper-class family. Alas, the murder mystery itself does Traces of Sin no favors, well-acted and technically accomplished as it is. Ishikawa’s preferred storytelling method, the withholding of key information, is as crude and ultimately predictable as his visuals are elegant. Christopher Bourne

SoulMateDerek Tsang’s Soul Mate seems an odd choice for a Summer 2017 festival; it was already released in both China and the U.S. as recently as last fall, to much acclaim and considerable box office. Still, it’s hard to fault anyone for programming this decade-spanning melodrama of friendship, which centers on two young women (Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun) whose lives diverge after forming an inseparable bond in adolescence. Tsang’s film boasts stellar lead performances and a precise, lived-in sense of time and place that keeps the more shameless tearjerking grounded. Zhou and Ma shared the Best Actress prize at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards last year, and each invests her character with a rare richness and complexity, while delivering all the raw emotive power demanded by Tsang’s predilection for close-ups. It’s thanks to these actresses that Soul Mate’s narrative rug-pulling works; their portrayal of Qiyue and Ansheng’s friendship represents an immediately credible tug-of-war between opposite personalities that complement one another even as they push each other out of their respective comfort zones and into strange new territories of adulthood. Sweet but never cloying, always emotionally astute and irresistibly moving, Soul Mate would be a highlight of any fest’s slate. Alex Engquist

This Is Not What I ExpectedRecalling the softer screwballs of the 1930s—or, more specifically, modern imitations of those classics—This Is Not What I Expected is essentially You’ve Got Mail—except with the two leads communicating not via email, but through food. Takeshi Kaneshiro plays fastidious foodie Lu Jin, a buyer and seller of hotels who checks into a Shanghai inn and finds all of the food lacking, with only one exception: a magical soup made by Gu Sheng-nan (Soul Mate star Zhou Dongyu). Lu Jin refuses to meet Gu Sheng-nan, so instead the two are left to bond through their respective preparation and consumption of elaborate meals. But when Lu Jin extends his stay, he and Gu Shang-nan repeatedly clash with each other, in a series of semi-slapstick sequences. (Highlight: Gu Shang-nan drunkenly falls from a roof and germaphobe Lu Jin stuffs her into a suitcase.) Eventually the two unmask each other, and Lu Jin practically moves into Gu Shang’s apartment—in an attempt to figure out what’s so appealing about her food. Naturally, they fall in love, which happens during an incident when the two accidentally eat some hallucinogenic blowfish. This Is Not What I Expected is Derek Hui’s directorial debut, but it’s full of crisp, bright images that put televised food porn to shame with their sense for color, texture, and the sounds of cooking. Sean Gilman

Town in a LakeDeeply atmospheric and tonally akin to a variety of nefarious pseudo-procedural Asian imports of the past two decades (The Cure, Memories of Murder, The Wailing), Jet Leyco’s Town in a Lake opens with darkly gorgeous cinematography of headlights penetrating the periphery of a forest, all while an insidiously silent kidnapping takes place. Leyco slowly unfurls the next 80 minutes, introducing us to a variety of locals, most ambiguously invested in this crime (which is reinforced as an anomaly for the typically quiet town). Building tension through carefully lensed, still shots, largely showing little but implying much, Town in Lake bears all the hallmarks of a well-crafted, disconcerting horror—until its payoff. While Leyco’s film concerns itself thematically with our communal notions of fear and our penchant for attributing evil to the outsider, habitually refusing to believe certain dangers lurk amongst us, the final fifteen minutes devolve into a far cheaper, largely groundless supernatural abstraction, effectively undermining the success of the film’s realistic notions of terror that so thoroughly unsettle up until that point. Luke Gorham

KfcWhile initially scanning like an ultraviolent take on Richard Linklater’s freeform Slacker (early scenes find the camera roaming Vietnamese streets in search of heinous acts), Le Binh Giang’s Kfc unfortunately soon settles into a more traditional narrative, focusing on the crimes of a particular street gang and the shared past that’s rendered them monstrous. From here, the film continues in its base pursuits: the recurrence of a half-baked thread in which Kentucky Fried Chicken is vaguely linked to cannibalism seems meant to color the film as a diatribe against the influence of global markets but instead plays like empty provocation, just like the gross-out torture scenes that make up most of the film’s incident. Detached from any sort of trenchant ideological viewpoint, none of these torture movie cliches ever manages to actually disturb. And by the time the film gets to its cannibalism, Kfc has already run the gamut through beheadings, teeth pulling and necrophilia, further dulling the impact of the cheap shocks of its final scenes. Chris Mello

A Quiet DreamZhang Lu’s chatty, relatively plotless A Quiet Dream, for the most part, non-judgmentally observes the interactions between bar-owner Han Ye-ri and her three regulars, film directors Yang Ik-june, Park Jung-bum, and Yoon Jong-bin—all of whom are infatuated with her. As in the films of Hong Sang-soo, character “development” is minimal, and most of the action is centered around seemingly pointless conversations. Each scene is its own closely observed vignette, which results in pleasurable moment-to-moment viewing, even if it makes for a shapeless whole. There’s a sense that this film was made mostly to amuse Zhang’s friends, but there are great moments here and there, like the quartet’s visit to the Korean Film Archive, where they stone-facedly watch a cliche “arty” film of a guy glumly eating ramen and painstakingly peeling hard-boiled eggs. To their credit, the three actor-directors fully commit to their roles of played-upon cucks, with Yoon convincing as an epileptic and Yang an asshole. A Quiet Dream is a small marvel of episodic, humanistic filmmaking. JS

GodspeedTaiwanese director Chung Mong-hong’s Godspeed starts like any number of other gangster pictures: a mysterious man is led by other mysterious men into a room for a tense and bloody encounter. We then see the same man, in a calmer state, discussing sofa maintenance with a crime boss. The man is sent on a mission, apparently as a killer for hire, or some other kind of mob underling, and the cab that picks him up is driven by Michael Hui—one of the great comedy directors and stars of the past 50 years. Hui’s series of hits in the 1970s and ‘80s helped revive the Cantonese language in cinema, a missing link between the classical American comedy tradition and the nonsense films of Stephen Chow. Hui’s presence in this Taiwanese film alone is enough to destabilize it—and he does, playing one of his trademark characters, a sad-sack cheapskate hustler. This oddball brings out the absurd in gang movie clichés, while the moody suspense and violence bring out the melancholy in Hui’s everyman struggles. The resulting film is too shifty to grasp, moody and ephemeral, grippingly bleak and cruel, yet sad and somehow weirdly hopeful. SG

Someone to Talk ToThe motivating concern of Liu Yulin’s Someone to Talk To is suggested by the film’s title, and repeated endlessly throughout; it’s the idea that lonely people tend to find communication with another person to be difficult. The screenplay—adapted by Liu Yulin’s father, Liu Zhenyun, from his own award-winning novel—is about a man whose wife is having an affair, and who responds to this fact with a wide range of expressions, indulging a murderous rage and the desire to learn to cook his wife her favorite meal. Nothing seems to make him feel better, however, and neither his lonely older sister nor his adorable young daughter can help. Liu’s film is a strictly bland melodrama; at its best it recalls Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, except with all the poetry and mystery drained out of it. Where the director excels is in capturing the compromises and failures of life in working class China, a side of the nation we only see in small independent films, whereas the mainstream national cinema is all glossy adventure and period pieces or fantastical displays of globalist wealth. The strain of trying to get by, both on families and on individual souls, is palpable, as is the sense of separation from the fantastical world of capitalist successes. But when combined with the dreary repetitions of the title sentiment, the film becomes merely oppressive. SG

Destruction BabiesTaira (Yuya Yagira) leaves his hometown and his little brother, Shota (Nijiro Murakami), and goes off on a journey to get into fights with just about anyone he sees. He’s joined by misogynist video gamer Yuya (Masaki Suda), who uses Taira’s crusade as an excuse to hit women. Together, they kidnap Nana (Nana Komatsu) and hit the road, all while Shota searches for Taira. That’s about all there is to Tetsuya Mariko’s Destruction Babies, a film characterized by brutality filmed in unfussy long takes and a general disinterest in narrative momentum. The result is a drab experience in which one dull fight scene leads to the next, at least until Yuya takes center stage. And then the film’s mostly just vile. Destruction Babies does occasionally contextualize its repetitive violence within a cultural tradition that prizes strength and aggression, most notably during a festival that features combat via portable Shinto shrines. But these moments can’t help but feel like cheap moralizing in the face of the film’s dour, nihilistic procession. CM

Love and Other CultsAfter directing what may have been the worst film screened at last year’s Japan Cuts, director Eiji Uchida bounces back with the much more nuanced character drama Love and Other Cults. The bulk of this narrative concerns abandoned school-age girl Ai (Sairi Itoh), and the various cults and families she becomes a part of to feel like she belongs somewhere. But there are various, wayward supporting players here, and their own desires to join gangs as a means to finding friends and a sense of purpose feeds into rather than distracts from, the theme of Uchida’s film. The ending of Love and Other Cults suggests something far wackier than what proceeded it, but otherwise there’s generally little here that feels unnecessary (save maybe for some of the heavy violence). Uchida’s film tries to make sense of why people fall in with who they fall in with, and it creates an appropriately volatile space to explore that concern. Paul Attard

Suffering of NinkoNinko (Masato Tsujioka) is just a dedicated monk who desires to live out his days committing himself to the teachings of Buddha. The only problem? Women (and some men) keep throwing themselves at him. The arthouse-spin on this familiar premise in Suffering of Ninko is perhaps best represented in one 10-minute sequence of a woman twisting and contorting herself around the sullen monk as he tries to collect donations. First-time director Norihiro Niwatsukino sets a modest goal for his narrative; the film never strays too far from its central premise and it wraps up neatly at around the 70-minute mark. Suffering of Ninko is a briskly told story of old-world religious discipline butting heads with a more modern sexuality. PA