by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

New York Asian Film Festival 2019

July 16, 2019

The 18th annual New York Asian Film Festival ended on Sunday, and we’ve prepared one dispatch from the festival this year, with some notable titles: the fest’s opening selection, Candyman director Bernard Rose’s Samurai Marathon; the latest from Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden, Jinpa; a comeback of sorts for outspoken Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong, in Oliver Siu Kuen Chan’s Still HumanMr. Long, one of two films at this year’s fest from the iconoclastic, mononymous Japanese auteur Sabu; one film from NYAFF’s “main competition” slate, Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s Ma; and several others.

The sixth feature film from Pema Tseden is a dream-inflected, almost Rashomon-like take on a road movie that uses the barren hills of the Kekexili plateau — which runs along Qinghai-Tibet — as if the landscape were analogous to the ‘Old West’ of classic Hollywood movies. Balancing the silence and near desolation of the region’s environment with a lighter deadpan comedy, Jinpa tells of two men who are — coincidentally, or not — both named Jinpa. One (played by an actor who is also named Jinpa, and who Pema collaborated with before on 2015’s Tharlo) is a sardonic, worldly but spiritual truck driver who likes to listen to a Tibetan cover of “O sole mio”; the other Jinpa (Genden Phuntsok) is a traditional, sword-wielding member of the Khampa minority who’s out for vengeance against the man who killed his father. Tibetan-minority cinema is somewhat unique in the domestic Chinese landscape — highly textured and often genre-driven, it draws on the deep well of the Buddhist religion and philosophy to inform its image-making and the actions of its characters. Jinpa recalls, for example, another recent Tibetan film, Soul on a String, in its shared style of the Western and subject matter of father-oriented revenge plots. (It’s not hard to see why Wong Kar-wai’s Jetone production company would sign up to finance a work possessed of such enigmatic and highly intentional poeticism.) The two Jinpas are clearly established as opposites to one another in a circular plot: one man is modern, the other looks backward; one is observant of religious practices, the other casts them aside; one is respectful of the life in all things, the other wishes to end somebody else’s. Yet the meaning of all this is somewhat unclear — as the film reconciles these elements in its daydreamy and trancelike closing scenes. Shot in academy ratio, Jinpa is full of striking images, deliberate framing, and otherwise bold decisions, from a wordless opening fifteen minutes to static shots that capture the light refracted in typically colorful Tibetan cloth and glass in beautiful ways, to hazy shifts in visual language that denote journeys into black-and-white memory or sepia-hued dream. In all these ways, Jinpa is more a film to be experienced for the sensation that the images offer the viewer than it is a narrative feature to be enjoyed for the comprehensive nature of its plot. The scene of a room with a lover that’s all color and shadow will impress plenty visually, even as the finer points of karmic dreamstates will likely leave one confused. Matt McCracken

Shockingly similar to both Les Intouchables and its Americanized remake The Upside, Oliver Siu Kuen Chan‘s Still Human is an empathetic social-realist drama with a welcome sense of humor. It is also numbingly familiar, rife with cliches, and it contains one of the worst musical scores of recent memory, seemingly determined to bludgeon the audience into forced emotional catharsis. Cheong-Wing Leung (played by the great Anthony Wong) is a disabled man living in public housing in Hong Kong. He has just been assigned a new domestic helper, a Filipino woman named Evelyn (newcomer Crisel Consunji, who gives a winning performance here). Of course, they are an odd couple at first, replete with language barrier jokes and Wong really leaning into wide-eyed, exasperated guffaws at how “stupid” his helper is. Chan does some interesting work in these early scenes, the camera emphasizing the cramped, claustrophobic confines of Cheong-Wing’s small apartment. Evelyn is constantly cramming herself into the frame, a fine visual metaphor for her awkward intrusion into Cheong-Wing’s life. Chan also deploys closeups sparingly, saving them for maximum impact and using them to link Cheong-Wing and Evelyn visually — they are both prisoners of a sort. But for every interesting choice on display here, there’s another that rankles, from pat observations about the meaning of life to a constant barrage of platitudes about following one’s dreams. There are a couple of hamfisted dream sequences, and an egregiously lame ending that you can see coming from a mile away. Worst of all, despite the relative uniqueness of a Hong Kong film willing to really delve into the domestic helper situation (there’s something like 400,000 foreign workers there, subjected to virulent racism and few if any employment rights), a variation of the dreaded ‘white savior’ trope rears its ugly head. Here, Evelyn is allowed to become a fully actualized human being — thanks to the altruistic benevolence of a man. Still Human has its heart in the right place, but good intentions aren’t enough. Daniel Gorman

Samurai Marathon, NYAFF’s opening night film, is a rather odd bird. It’s a Japanese jidaigeki period-piece from British director Bernard Rose (Candyman, Immortal Beloved) and British producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor, Thirteen Assassins), with composer Philip Glass and costume designer Emi Wada adding to the illustrious talent behind the camera. This apparent clash of cultures is appropriate to the particular era that’s being explored here: the film is set in the 1850s, and in the opening scene, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry (Danny Huston, in full stentorian mode) comes to Japan’s shores to open up the isolated country to the West, bearing guns and Kentucky bourbon. This prompts Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa), sensing a national crisis, to get his samurai into shape for whatever is to come from this new, foreign influence. To that end, Itakura institutes the titular marathon, a 36 mile race, the winner of which will be rewarded anything that he desires. Infiltrated among Itakura’s men is Jinnai (Takeru Satoh), a spy for the shogun who misinterprets this contest as a plan for rebellion, sending a secret message to the shogun ordering that warriors quell this threat. When Jinnai realizes his mistake, he scrambles to stop the potential carnage that he’s set in motion. Which is to say that, while this film is ostensibly about the marathon, it has significant pacing problems thanks to its introduction of numerous characters and subplots, all in rapid, haphazard fashion — and in the first 20 or so minutes. There’s also a wobbly sense of tone, awkwardly vacillating between a sub-Shakespearean comedy of errors and a serious drama with bloody battles and gruesome beheadings, a callback to Rose’s horror movie roots. Once the pace slows down a bit, and the multiple narrative strands become more easily discernible, Samurai Marathon settles into an entertaining pastiche, honorably respecting its cinematic forbears, albeit with less resonance than earlier examples of its chosen genre. Christopher Bourne

Defying categorization in nearly every conceivable sense, Japanese director Sabu’s Mr. Long may initially suggest itself as an actioner, if one were to look at its poster or read descriptions of its premise. Long (Chang Chen), a silent assassin for the Taiwanese mob, fails a Tokyo mission and hides out in a small town to recover from injuries sustained on the job. The opening ten minutes of Mr. Long even evoke the likes Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, as Long kills rival gangsters in a savage knife-fight, then moves through the neon-lit streets and architecture of Kaohsiung, all scored and shot esoterically. Yet following the failure of the Tokyo job, Mr. Long’s ambitions balloon immensely, as the film becomes equal parts situational comedy and high-key melodrama. Long slowly accumulates hangers-on, from a young boy (Shô Aoyagi) and his drug-addicted Taiwanese mother (Yi Ti Yao) — who themselves have their own connection to the mafia in Japan — to a largely elderly group of supportive Japanese neighbors, who help Long establish a makeshift noodle shop. It’s an unconventional mix that might understandably be trying for those who come to the film with the wrong impression, yet Sabu’s command of the material is assured, the comedy coming off appropriately absurd and the melodrama suitably tragic. Regardless, once these distinct tonal registers reach a points of exhaustion, Mr. Long’s initial, genre-adjacent mode returns, and the film delivers a shocking juxtaposition: a conclusive massacre, as the mob finally track down Long and his various acquaintances. For fans of unconventional genre fare — or for anyone who wishes to see Chang Chen give a performance that evokes something of Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro by way of Buster Keaton — Mr. Long is just the ticket. MM

Ma opens with patient dolly shots gliding over a green canopy and through the lush foliage of a forest, eventually coming to rest on the center-framed image of a young boy working at something unseen. The camera cuts to show his concentrated efforts at digging a pencil into the innards of a decomposing raven (an on-the-nose aviary choice). This tonal slackness – the suggestion of eerie, natural solitude displaced by the immediate macabre intrusion of a small child’s morbid fiddling with a dead, maggot-covered animal – proves a consistent strain on Kenneth Lim Dagatan‘s debut feature. The convergent narrative threads of Ma involve the paranormal encounter that a young boy, Samuel (Kyle Espiritu), has with a sentient, talking tree inside a cave that he stumbles upon; and the progressing pregnancy of a local woman (Anna Luna) whose husband has just committed suicide after discovering her infidelity. The film cursorily explores themes such as guilt and the cost of holding onto the past, while its rural setting allows Dagatan to demonstrate his formal instinct for horror compositions: dimpled and lantern-lit cave walls have a visual fire-and-ice effect, the dread of the deep grays upset by the washes of orange that here frequently portend the sinister. But Dagatan also liberally indulges in cheap horror shocks, such as the family cat lapping up blood sputum or graphic dream sequences that exist more to enact the director’s desire for genre iconicism than to meaningfully develop character or psychology. At only seventy minutes, Ma betrays its unhurried opening sequence, and instead proceeds with haste to its intended carnage. With restraint, Dagatam perhaps could have reconciled his antipodal instincts by allowing a crescendo to build through his two, emotionally-tortured principals. Instead, he attempts to short-cut through all requisite development of meaning, leaving us with a toothless exercise in gore that is only barely recognizable as the loose fusion of J/K-horror and New French Extremism that it wants to be. Luke Gorham

There’s something to be said for good, old fashioned stories, told simply and told well. Furie isn’t breaking any molds; it covers well trod ground, the tale of a mother going after her missing child (outside of a tournament set up maybe, one of the most familiar plots of the action genre). It’s a testament, then, to both the skills of actress Veronica Ngo, as rampaging mother Hai Phuong, and director Le-Van Kiet that Furie is as satisfying as it is. It’s a modest 90 minutes, with a few flashbacks that set up Hai Phuong’s past: born into a martial arts family, falling in with the wrong crowd, getting pregnant and running off to the big city, being disowned by her parents. A few scenes show Hai Phuong’s current occupation as a debt collector for a small time gangster type. When her daughter is kidnapped by organ thieves, she springs into action, tracking them down and fighting anyone who gets in her way. It’s straightforward stuff, with tight, clean fight choreography and crystal-clear editing. Kiet, fight choreographer Kefi Abrikh, and action director Yannick Ben all play to Ngo’s strengths, using her slight build to emphasize speed and agility over brute force. The action is largely conceived for a horizontal axis, mimicking the widescreen, ‘scope image; the camera glides to the left and right, following along with arms, legs, kicks, and throws to create an elegant, unified sense of space. Furie isn’t a perfect movie; despite its brief running time, parts still drag, and some of the fights seem to end just as quickly as they began. There’s a start-stop-start quality here, a failure to work up a sustained head of steam. The first half of the film plays almost like a realist drama that just happens to have a few fight scenes in it. Still, whatever its flaws, ultimately, the film delivers, and it will be interesting to see what this talent pool comes up with next. DG

China’s major animated film of 2019, White Snake, unsurprisingly, takes on the legend of its titular figure — which, roughly, tells the tale of a snake spirit who over millennia of reincarnations seeks enlightenment, the ability to change physical forms, and ultimately, immortality. This ambition is upset when she falls in love with a human and tragically ends up trapped under a pagoda near Hangzhou’s West Lake. It’s a story that has been adapted for film many times, most notably by Tsui Hark, with his live action Green Snake. But here, directors Amp Wong and Ji Zhao give the tale a more conventional, Americanized spin. There’s a talking dog, a war between the spirit world and the humans, a chief government minister who hunts snake spirits to channel their powers to his own menacing ends, and assassination plots aplenty. As a whole, the looseness of the adaptation appears to be an attempt to appeal to contemporary sensibilities, and maybe even foreign audiences, for whom the comedic and action-oriented conceits will no doubt be familiar (e.g. the conclusion here strongly evokes the scale and beats of any modern blockbuster). However, White Snake still shows the latent differences of a medium being put to use to visualize a different cultural imaginary, often providing for some slightly kinkier moments than is commonplace in animated features, as well as the representation of action or natural vistas typically unimaginable in a foreign (or at least Western) mindset. Yet, all told, there’s a little bit too much of everything, courtesy of the attempt to balance basic fidelity to the myth (and the famous early ’90s TV show that this is actually a backdoor prequel to) alongside the contemporary domestic aspiration to produce animation that looks like America’s. It’s curious that a desire to deliver something conventional could result in a film that simultaneously borders on the structurally avant-garde (there’s an unprecedented number of fades to black and narrative and visual ellipses), but such an impression arises less as a result of any particular artistic decision and more likely because it’s also difficult to avoid the sense that, in the end, the filmmakers simply haven’t got the project anywhere near under control. MM

Kazuya Shiraishi‘s Dare to Stop Us is something of a biopic on late Japanese filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu, who, with films such as The Embryo Hunts in Secret and Go, Go, Second Time Virgin in the late 1960s, and Ecstasy of the Angels, in 1972, combined the “pink film” sexploitation genre with radical Leftist politics to create potent, energetic anti-establishment art. Instead of focusing on Wakamatsu directly, however, Shiraishi explores three years (’69-’72) in the life of Wakamatsu Productions, but as viewed through the lens of another character: Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki), apparently the sole female presence on the production side during this period. A fan of Wakamatsu’s films, she’s brought to a film set by a friend, and introduced to the director himself (played by Arata Iura). Megumi’s first days at Wakamatsu are a pretty rough trial by fire, as she’s subjected to the auteur’s gruff, demanding ways. Slowly, though, she learns to navigate the internal and external politics that affect Wakamatsu’s company, most notably the philosophical split between Wakamatsu — largely concerned with keeping the company financially afloat — and his screenwriter and chief collaborator, Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto), who’s more purely dedicated to making politically committed work, regardless of box office results. Megumi eventually gets to make a short film of her own, but this is hardly a feminist portrait of triumph. Instead, Shiraishi has created a work much more confused in its intentions. It’s a film featuring a radical artist that’s not the least bit radical in its form, and a film with a female character at its center in which the men emerge victorious, while the woman becomes a tragic figure. These factors, along with the one-dimensional flatness of most of its characters, hold Dare to Stop Us back from being the truly illuminating portrait of its time and place that it could have been. CB

Twenty years ago, police inspectors Tam (Patrick Tam) and Fong (Jade Leung), along with a squad of elite Hong Kong police special forces, are involved in a violent shootout with gun-runners in Macao. Fast forward to present day. Tam and Fong are returning to Macao to escort the Hong Kong police superintendent on a ceremonial appearance to the island. Both officers are haunted by the incident, suffering from PTSD, still mourning the loss of their friends and the Hong Kong government’s refusal to acknowledge the covert operation and pay restitution to the slain officer’s families. If this sounds like the plot to a hard hitting Johnnie To film or a timely drama exploring the tensions between Hong Kong and Macao, you’d be wrong on both counts. The Fatal Raid is a ridiculous, incredibly stupid action flick that plays like an early 2000s music video. Director Jacky Lee is a supreme hack, chopping up shootouts and (very limited) kung fu fights with hideous, hyperactive fast cutting, constant slow motion, unmotivated digital color filters, a complete lack of spatial coherence, and a leering eye for ogling scantily clad young women. The film veers wildly from the dramatic to the spastically comic, and back again, almost daring the audience to try and keep track of what’s happening onscreen. An insane, nonsensical plot isn’t particularly strange or out of place in a Hong Kong flick, nor are bizarre character motivations or outlandish twists. But these have got to be tethered to some kind of anchor, like, say, a superior performance (think the smoldering charisma of a Chow Yun Fat or Tony Leung) or top notch action. We certainly forgive Jackie Chan for all sorts of goofball comedy and shameless mugging for a glimpse of his physical prowess. Regardless, The Fatal Raid doesn’t have any of this going for it, nor does it have a good script or competent direction or cinematography. It is a cheap looking piece of shit, and should be avoided as such. Daniel Gorman