by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

New York Asian Film Festival 2017 – Dispatch 3

July 19, 2017

The 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival recently ended its two-week run. We’ve already published two dispatches from the fest—for our third and final one, we have a few quick-takes on some exciting new Japanese films, including another entry in Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno reboot (Isao Yukisada’s Aroused by Gymnopedies), a project which we wrote about in our first dispatch from the fest; the latest film from the very prolific Takashi Miike (The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio); and a deceptively grim psychological horror effort from divisive cult auteur Sabu (Happiness). You’ll also find a Cannes 2017 midnight movie (Jung Byung-Gil’s The Villainess), a trio of Hong Kong genre films (Yan Pak-wing and Chiu Sin-hang’s Vampire Cleanup Department; Andrew Wong Kwok-Kuen’s With Prisoners; and Lawrence Lau’s Dealer/Healer), a “formally placid” Filipino thriller (Mikhail Red’s Birdshot), and a few other selections from South Korea and Malaysia.

The VillainessThe Villainess, Jung Byung-Gil‘s demented take on La Femme Nikita,—or, alternately, any number of female-driven Hong Kong action flicks—has a number of eye-popping set-pieces that are as literal an interpretation of the term “motion picture” as you’re likely to come across. The first of these comes right at the top: a seven-minute sequence featuring heroine Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) mowing down dozens of burly guys in a meth lab as a deliriously violent scene, stitched together in an illusory single take and filmed to resemble a first-person shooter video game. It throws down a bloody gauntlet. Other bids for action-film immortality include a motorcycle chase/gun battle in a narrow tunnel; a bloody geisha room showdown; and the jaw-dropper of a finale, which has Sook-hee slashing away at her mortal enemy/former lover (Shin Ha-kyun) while on board a speeding bus. If Jung had stuck to showcasing his talent for these kinds of inspired, outlandish sequences, he would’ve had a consistently exciting (if derivative) and scrappy little movie. Instead, he ill-advisedly opts to muddy the waters with a convoluted, melodramatic narrative that makes for an unstable marriage with the outrageous action. This also undercuts the film’s female empowerment potential by having Sook-hee’s actions almost entirely determined by her maternal instincts and the men in her life, whether they be father figures, lovers, or in one case, both. Christopher Bourne

The Mole Song 2For anyone who missed The Mole Song: Undercover AgentTakashi Miike’s first adaptation of Noboru Takahashi’s manga series, Mogura no Uta—the opening minutes of its sequel don’t fill in the blanks much. Sans any context, Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) dangles, naked, from a cage—one carried by a helicopter that’s traveling at full speed through the skies of Tokyo. A record-scratch and a freeze-frame suggest the opportunity for Miike to catch us up, but instead we get some hasty, convoluted backstory, with editing patterns cranked to 11, all packed into five minutes. Things slow down once The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio’s main story (centered around a human trafficking ring) and its various players are brought into focus. There’s newly minted police chief Kabuto, a hardline yakuza-hater; the Sukiya-kai, Japan’s most powerful yakuza clan; and the Dragon Skulls, a Chinese gang that’s taken in a number of rogue yakuza members. Mixing zany action, cartoonish violence and bawdy humor, Miike’s film tracks Reiji’s bumbling, sex-fueled (sex-frustrated?) misadventures. The mix is enjoyable and at the same time downright exhausting, depending largely on one’s taste for ridiculous genre excess and Ikutawa’s committed antics. No matter what one’s predilections, though, with Miike, one thing is certain: There will be more. Lawrence Garcia

HappinessIn the latest from Japanese cult actor/director Sabu, a stranger named Kanzaki (Masatoshi Nagase, perhaps most familiar to American audiences from Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train) arrives in a morose village with a device he calls a “happiness helmet,” which allows the wearer to instantly recall their happiest memory. Public demonstrations quickly win over the townspeople, provoking everything from joyful tears to spontaneous dancing, but Kanzaki has less than altruistic motives. Nagase is a master of understatement; his reserved lead performance doesn’t betray an iota of Kanzaki’s true agenda until the film reveals it via a lengthy and horrifically violent flashback sequence. From there, Happiness takes a flying leap into grim revenge-thriller territory, leaving the gently eccentric tone of the opening scenes a distant memory. Insights abound concerning the destructive malaise afflicting Japanese society, most pointedly with regard to the older generation’s fear and envy of the young: a “youth counselor” slaps three young men across the face for attempting to steal Kanzaki’s happiness device yet most of the happy memories that revive the older villagers originate in childhood. “People here are spiritless,” a local official says to the mayor. Sabu evokes this mundanity with a drab palette that recalls Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s similarly elusive Creepy. Though his ideas about the symbiotic relationship between joy and suffering are made explicit late in the film, his lingering on graphic violence detracts from their resonance, and they’re never expressed more clearly than in an early montage of the villagers experiencing the effects of the device, tears streaming down their cheeks, faces frozen somewhere between ecstasy and unspeakable pain. The power of Happiness lies in Sabu’s suggestion that as vivid as a memory can be, recalling it inevitably becomes a reminder of its distance from the present. Alex Engquist

BirdshotMikhail Red’s formally placid Filipino thriller Birdshot parallels the stories of a young girl, who mistakenly shoots an endangered bird on protected land, and a cop who’s recently been transplanted to the country, and is investigating the disappearance of a group of farmers. It’s all very accomplished but entirely expected, neatly tying the two plot strands together while hitting all the right thematic buttons. Adolescent angst and burgeoning self-actualization come face to face with entrenched corruption and widespread violence…you wonder if it could all be a metaphor or something. But even while this doesn’t do much to separate itself from the dozens of stoic-crime-thrillers-that-double-as-thinly-veiled-social-statements from countries all over the world, its deliberate pace and sudden violence prove effective. Matt Lynch

With PrisonersStreet thug Fan (Neo Yau) lives fast as a hooligan with little regard for authority or his own life, regularly dealing with crooks and lawbreakers. After getting arrested by a dirty cop, however, he has to deal with the most immoral people he’s yet dealt with: guards at a juvenile corrections center in Hong Kong. With Prisoners is a standard reform drama wherein evil authority figures make the lives of mislead teens at a prison a living hell. Already crippling the film from the get-go is the poorly developed Fan, who has exactly two modes: he’s either blatantly rude towards everyone he encounters or he’s a people-pleaser with a heart of gold. Writer/director Andrew Wong Kwok-Kuen adds an undercooked side-plot about one of the nicer guards, Ho (Kelvin Kwan), and his failing marriage, but there’s so little in terms of logical progression that the drama which plays out feels forced—making both sides of this story unworthy of emotional investment. Paul Attard

Dealer HealerTelling the “true” story of murderous, drug-addicted Triad heavy-turned-sober, prolific rehabilitater of young gangster-addicts Peter Chan Shun-chi, Lawrence Lau’s Dealer/Healer belongs to that most enervating of sub-genres: the wannabe epic. Toggling back and forth between the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and the present, it certainly covers enough chronological ground to qualify as “sprawling.” But at 100 minutes, nothing is given enough time to take shape to allow the entirety to congeal into a satisfying generational saga. Besides Lau, potential culprits for this failure are the fact that Chan himself executive produced, and that the production company is Sil-Metropole, which is Hong Kong-based but Mainland China-affiliated, and thus surely helped neuter any “appeal” within the first half’s druggy violence. Lau Ching-wan is pleasantly morose as protagonist Chen Hua, leader of the 13 Warlocks gang in the rough Tsz Wan Shan public estate (the sprawling houses of which have been awkwardly CGI’d into the background of several shots). The film’s first part follows Chen and his various colorfully named cronies (Cat, Bullhorn) as they stake out turf and tussle with rival leader Harley (scene-stealer Louis Koo) in repetitive fights scored to bad, digitally-processed instrumental rock. Chen also falls in love with Carol (an overwhelmed Jiang Yiyan), loses her to his coke habit, then finally embarks on the dry rehabilitation that dominates the large part of the film. Lau attempts to inject some edginess with random freeze frames, slo-mo, and jump cuts, but it’s not enough to make Dealer/Healer as fun or ambitious as it wants to be. Justin Stewart

A scene from MRS K, screening at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 5-19, 2017.

Ho Yuhang, a key filmmaker of the 2000s Malaysian New Wave, previously specialized in beautifully made and deliberately paced art films, ones that often dealt with alienated youth (like Rain Dogs and At the End of Daybreak). Ho’s latest, Mrs. K, represents a fairly radical break from these earlier films; it re-teams Ho with his Daybreak actress Kara Wai (a ‘70s and ‘80s Shaw Brothers action heroine), for what by all accounts functions as the swan song of her action career. Wai, the titular Mrs. K (or so we assume—but neither she nor any other characters are named), has settled into a quiet domesticity with her husband and daughter, one that’s broken by a number of figures from her past (one of which is played by a grizzled, neurotic Simon Yam) who bring the roosting chickens of her previous violent life to her door by kidnapping her daughter. A Jackie Brown-meets-Kill Bill-meets-Taken, set in the tropic environs of Malaysia, Mrs. K proves an enjoyable watch, with a droll wit that enlivens its approach to its action movie beats. It’s a film inspired as much by spaghetti westerns (especially the score) as by Hong Kong martial arts flicks. And if it sometimes loses the focus on its central heroine, by introducing a few too many additional characters and subplots, it still remains an affectionate salute to, and potent update of, its beloved genre forbears. CB

Vampire Cleanup DepartmentAn action-comedy in the jiangshi (hopping vampire) tradition, Vampire Cleanup Department concerns Tim (Babyjohn Choi), a nerdy loner who is bitten on the ass by a vampire and subsequently recruited by his rescuers, the clandestine government agency from which the film takes its title. On his first real mission, Tim meets the beautiful vampire Summer (Lin Min-chen) and, unable to properly dispose of her, he hides her in his home, inevitably later falling in love with her. But in actuality Summer scans more like a pet than a romantic interest; she doesn’t speak a single line and her spacey, vampiric otherness repeatedly infantilizes her. By saving and keeping Summer, Tim domesticates her, and renders her harmless. (Their initial, underwater kiss, which restores a sliver of Summer’s humanity, also results in the loss of one of her fangs.) This chauvinistic narrative is slightly complicated when Summer saves Tim—during a fight scene that’s directed, like the rest of the film, with only mild competence by Yan Pak-wing and Chiu Sin-hang. But when the ending plays like a joyous, supernatural riff on the climax of Marc Webb’s indie romance (500) Days of Summer, the film seems to double-down on its familiar wish fulfillment fantasies. Chris Mello

Aroused by GymnopediesNikkatsu is in the process of rolling out a new crop of “romantic pornography” (or Roman Porno) films—a throwback to their heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the studio went “pink” in an effort to compete with television. As then, the only real guiding precept is that there’s a ton of sex (four or so acts per hour was the old minimum); otherwise, filmmakers are free to play, and to explore their own ideas. Aroused by Gymnopedies is Isao Yukisada’s contribution to the Roman redux and there’s lots of sex, but it’s all of the messy, inappropriate, and anguished variety. Itsuji Itao plays softcore director Shinji, who proceeds from one furtive sex act to the next with a hangdog expression and the joylessness of an addict. Each encounter is preceded by Erik Satie’s title song piping into the soundtrack, a theme that grows funny with repetition. “The budget is low but the film is high-minded,” Shinji tells an actress, a line indicative of Yukisada’s keen self-awareness, marking this as something like his 8 ½ (or to move a little nearer to the gutter, the horny trick-films of France’s impish Jean-Claude Brisseau). Apart from the sex, there are funny skewerings of film world grievances like inane post-screening Q&As and aggro, fact-spewing fanboys. Though about the specific agonies of a Japanese porn director, Aroused smuggles in truths applicable to anyone. JS

JaneA deep, perceptive empathy towards some of the most marginalized, vulnerable, and exploited members of society—here, transgender people and teen runaways—is the most remarkable and valuable aspect of Jane, Cho Hyun-hoon‘s feature debut. But the strength of the film’s performances is also a great benefit—especially Lee Min-ji, as runaway So-hyun, and Gu Gyo-hwan, as the titular Jane, a transgender nightclub performer. Where Jane falters is in its over-ambitious blend—or deliberate confusion—of fantasy, reality, truth, and lies. So-hyun is established at the outset as a character who can’t be trusted to be entirely truthful about her experiences or even the originality of the words she uses to express them. Jane’s narrative thus becomes much more of a sometimes-frustrating puzzle than it should be; a more straightforward and grounded approach would have better enhanced the film’s strongly emotional elements, rather than obscuring them beneath layers of ambiguity. Also, the unreal aspects of the Jane character—who despite the film’s title is not its central figure—are somewhat problematic: Jane often functions as whatever you’d call the transgender equivalent of the magical negro. Despite these serious flaws, Jane does retain some considerable value and interest in the context of a Korean cinema and society that’s still taking relative baby steps toward fully incorporating LGBT people and issues. CB

Fabricated CityPark Kwang-hyun’s Fabricated City seems at first to play its premise straight: Kwon Yoo (Ji Chan-wool) uses a popular MMO game to escape from the growing problems he faces due to unemployment. After about 10 minutes, though, things change wildly: our protagonist is framed for murder and rape, gets convicted, and is sentenced to life in prison. Kwon is assaulted brutally by his cellmates, and Fabricated City becomes unrelentingly grim. It never strays from this dour tone—even when Kwon escapes and meets up with fellow gamers to clear his name. Cathartic moments of friendship are countered by over-the-top torture scenes, all empty shock value. PA