Credit: NYAFF/The Cord of Life
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

New York Asian Film Festival 2023

July 25, 2023

Nomad (Director’s Cut)

One of the finest films of the Hong Kong New Wave, Patrick Tam’s Nomad (1982), plays at this year’s NYAFF in a new restoration, advertised as a “Director’s Cut.” As near as I can figure, the only real difference between this version and the one that was initially released, as well as the one I watched on DVD ten years ago, are a few extra shots in some of the sex and violence scenes. Otherwise, the film remains unchanged: There were, at one time, rumors that Tam initially had a different, even bloodier finale in mind, but it would appear perhaps that this was never filmed. The films of the New Wave are ripe for (re-)discovery, as for too long the only ways to see them have been poor quality DVDs, VHS ports, and other detritus scrounged up on private trackers.

Emerging in the late 1970s, the Hong Kong New Wave was a loose collection of young directors who jumped from television to independent film, most after having spent some time studying and working abroad. Like most international New Waves, these directors brought a new immediacy to their home cinema, filming realistic stories on real locations with live sound. Unlike most other New Waves, though, the Hongkongers’ films remained firmly within the genre system that defined their colony’s commercial cinema, not to subvert or parody genre conventions (as in certain films in the new generations of French or Japanese or American cinema), but to explore and complicate them. Partially this was a matter of commercial pressure: there was very little space for true “art house” movies in Hong Kong. But it’s also, one suspects, simply a key part of their artistic vision. Tam’s debut, The Sword (1980), for example, is not much different in plot or style than the kinds of wuxia Chor Yuen and Chang Cheh were making for Shaw Brothers at the same time. The difference is in the tension between the immediacy of Tam’s realism and the constructed-ness of his images, as carefully designed and framed as the work of Antonioni.

These tensions are most apparent in Nomad. For the most part, this is an ambling romantic comedy about a quartet of directionless young people who pair off into two couples. Leslie Cheung, on the brink of superstardom but not there yet, plays Louis, a wealthy introvert who meets Tomato (Cecilia Yip), a vivacious woman with a complicated romantic past. Pat Ha plays Louis’s cousin Kathy, who embarks on a primarily physical relationship with poor kid Pong (Kent Tong). Tam fills this section of the movie with awkward encounters, teen hijinks, and extended riffs on how difficult it is to find a place to have sex when you live in a tiny apartment with your parents and siblings (the solution: the top of a double-decker bus, of course). There’s a sadness underlying it all, though, emanating primarily through Cheung’s melancholy performance (mourning his dead mother by listening to old recordings of her radio show and posing forlornly against the beautiful walls of his parents’ home, a space occupied by his step-mother but not his father). But also the fact that none of these kids, full of life as they are, seem to have any hope for the future. No jobs, no prospects, no real interests outside of each other and looking cool. The characters, like Tam’s images of them, seem to have sprung to life from a fashion magazine. But once alive, they have no idea what to do next.

Action comes, finally if not mercifully, in the form of a Japanese man. One of Kathy’s old boyfriends is a refugee from the left-wing terrorist group, the United Red Army, named Shinsuke (Yung Sai-Kit, AKA Stuart Ong, who played another Red Army vet in 1988’s In the Line of Duty III). Shinsuke is in hiding, and Kathy stashes him on her boat: if his former compatriots find him, they’ll force him to commit seppuku as a deserter, and there’s a gallery curator with ferocious bangs on his trail. The violence, when it comes, is highly discordant, fracturing Nomad’s world of gorgeous apathy with a visceral horror — like if you’d tacked the climax of Lady Snowblood onto the last reel of Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee. Tam wasn’t alone in turning slice-of-life stories of Hong Kong’s youth into stories of sliced-up-lives. Yim Ho’s The Happening, which preceded Nomad by a couple of years, turns a rambunctious teen car comedy into a horrific nightmare of bloody revenge, while Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounters-First Kind, also released in 1980, sees the indolent, futureless youth as a source of mayhem, bomb-throwing and animal-torturing nihilists acting out against everything they see. Tam’s vision is slightly different, though; his youths are much more appealing, in both their attractiveness and that of their surroundings, and the violence they encounter is visited upon them through no apparent fault of their own. In Yim’s and Tsui’s films, the kids are the perpetrators of violence, though the root cause is found within Hong Kong’s position as a colonial outpost of laissez-faire capitalism. In Nomad, the kids are just as hemmed in on all sides with just as little hope for a meaningful future, and they respond to it not with anger or cruelty, but by looking cool and falling in love. But inevitably, violence does come for them, and in the most absurd and unexpected way possible.  SEAN GILMAN

Credit: NYAFF/Back Home

Back Home

Few locations are more central to the scares of a haunted house film than a basement. Perpetually underlit, unfinished underground spaces make for strong centers of spectral activity. They are foreboding places, usually descended to on a creaky staircase, each landing threatening to snap with every footfall and every gap between steps exposing ankles to unseen dangers. As the genre often operates as a metaphor for domestic trouble, a scary basement is an easy, fitting suggestion of trouble in a home’s foundations. Going into the basement, dredging up what lies beneath, disrupts the domestic sphere above, and is a necessary climactic step in a haunted house horror film’s arc, a moment of confrontation with the entity. Back Home, actor-turned-director Takumi Saitoh’s latest, is indeed a haunted house film with another unnerving basement that refracts familial trouble, but neither its basement nor the film’s form are typical.

The basement in question is that of the Kiyosawas’ new Magic Home, a sleek smart home designed and sold on the promise of perfectly temperate air at all times. There are vents in every room, and they all lead back to the claustrophobic basement space that controls the air conditioning. Apart from the darkness and the low ceiling, it’s not a particularly creepy basement, but it has an immediately ominous effect from the moment that Kenji (Masataka Kubota) steps into the model at the realtor’s office. He has a panic attack and passes out with only the hazy memory of someone kicking him repeatedly. While Saitoh does not indulge in the usual scare tactics of a ghost movie — there are no slamming doors or objects flung across rooms — it’s clear from the moment the Kiyosawas move in and that there is something wrong with their home. Their new baby seems constantly disturbed, and visitors report seeing ghosts themselves.

Like their home, the Kiyosawas’ idyllic family life is hiding deeper secrets too. Their realtor describes them as the ideal family, but Kenji is unfaithful to his wife, Hitomi, and has a strained relationship with his brother, who suffers from mental illness rooted in a traumatic past. As the film progresses, Hitomi becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the house, more certain that it is haunted, while characters on the periphery of Kenji’s life start turning up dead, each successive victim hitting closer to home. Eventually, this leads to an investigation and a satisfyingly creepy dramatic reveal of what’s really going on in and around the Magic Home. But as the end creeps closer, this film also begins to become less fulfilling.

Saitoh deserves credit for his patient directing, never succumbing to easy tricks or genre tropes. Back Home is confident work, conjuring up a few novel images when it needs to scare — like an apparition reflected in the eye of a child — but otherwise letting the material unfold naturally. This relative lack of traditional horror elements and reliance on offscreen might make the film feel bold for a while, but eventually, it starts to feel a little flat — and by the time its climax starts to fizzle out, Saitoh reveals that he was saving his cheapest shock for last. While compelling for a good while, Back Home is ultimately one-note, even if that note is mostly a welcome one.  CHRIS MELLO

The Cord of Life

“Gang gang.” “Ice cream so good.” You can listen to these words while buttering toast (the voice belongs to Pinkydoll). You can gamble online while bending to brush a fleck of faded paint from a balustrade. Neon lights illuminate walls that were laid centuries ago. To be modern is to collapse these figurations of hyper-futurity into an old world that still surrounds them; stirring sugar into coffee. When dissolved, we can taste them. The Cord of Life, Qiao Sixue’s debut, makes an often compelling, albeit uneven, attempt to surface these contradictions. But it’s not the only framework that the film places upon itself. Alus (Yider) is an electronic musician. His mother (Badma) suffers from Alzheimer’s. Yearning for her homeland in the grasslands of the steppe, Alus assumes the responsibility of returning with her.

There’s a social dimension to the ravages of memory loss, a forgetting that is both public and private. The language we use is telling; how someone “holds” memories, as if we are all an archive, or perhaps its custodian. Qiao attempts to interweave the public and private experience of memory loss through the relationship between mother and son, but as much as their tragedy is their own, the aperture is widened, gesturing toward a broader social fabric. Signifiers of differentiation — old world and new — come thick and fast: a horse that canters down a city highway; laptop and iPhone versus morin khuur and accordion; sleek city trainers and sturdy woolen boots; the chalk pictures that the mother draws, of trees and hillsides, on her bedroom wall. Material culture and intangible cultural heritage both play a role in structuring Alus and his mother’s reintegration with the grasslands, but it’s here that the symbolism feels overburdened by the more ambivalent emotional relationships that are held between mother and son, past and present, tradition and modernity.

In The Cord of Life’s final third, Alus, his mother, and his new love interest embark on a journey into the heartland of the steppe, searching for a “half dead, half living” tree — one that appears in a photograph hung on the family home’s wall. It’s here that Qiao introduces a motif that folds in gleaming wind farms, electricity pylons, buzzing drones — modern infrastructure and technologies that inhibit and distort the “natural” world of the grasslands and its communities (the drone is used to deter Alus from crossing a shepherd’s land, while fences block the way). Unlike other dissonances Qiao introduces, these elements work quite organically, never seeming too heavy-handed, and instead existing simply as part of the “landscape.”

In recent years, an increasing number of films alight on the vagaries of neurodegeneration; works like Gaspar Noe’s Vortex and Mia Hansen-Love’s One Fine Morning. Detailed therein is the slow snapping of a thread that holds between parents and their children, inverting the relationship of care. The Cord of Life, too, enters into this moment, and does so in a way that is often very human, and humane, though it rarely peers too closely toward the dissociative. We see almost entirely through the eyes of Alus, unlike Noe’s cleaved-in-two screen — the fragmentation that this wrought.

There are moments of sublimity here, one of which is reminiscent of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003); a mother and son sit in an abandoned auditorium, staring into the emptied void of the stage. Later, there are moments of mild estrangement, and we “see” the world — glimpsing — through the mother’s eyes. But these moments feel too infrequent. Instead, for the most part, The Cord of Life does all the things contemporary arthouse films are supposed to do. There is lightweight camerawork; shot counter-shot. We are always very close, in mediums. The differentiation is extended — cleverly — with the use of light and shadow. The city apartment is murky, lights running to cold blues and queasy greens, while in the steppe, a softness and brightness returns. It’s unclear if Qiao is suggesting that a bucolic “return” — into/toward nature — might compensate for the iniquities of suffering; that urbanism itself might agitate against the idea of wellness.

In The Cord of Life, Qiao attempts to balance two narrative structures (and sometimes more) that jostle together. There is Alus and his journey in life; there’s his mother’s illness; there’s a love interest; there’s the relationship between past and present, and the tension between urban and rural. But in execution, these elements often part ways when it feels like they should be holding hands. Elsewhere, their presentation can seem cloudy and ill-thought-through; this is specifically true of Alus’ music, a detail that seems broadly irrelevant for much of the film, except to provide a knowing inflection of variance that holds between metropolitan and steppe life. At one point, as Alus is showing off his electronic music to his new love interest, his mother arrives with his old morin khuur; he handles it, for a moment, before returning it roughly to its box. It’s a moment that feels a little too studied, too self-aware in its symbolism. Rather, The Cord of Life is at its best when mother and son sit in the cinema, quietly, an invisible bond drawing between them.  OWEN VINCE

Credit: NYAFF/Mad Fate

Mad Fate

“Hong Kong auteur Soi Cheang is a modern B-movie master whose works have dipped into an assortment of subgenres. Cheang’s aesthetic language is in constant flux, and has undergone drastic reformulation across his filmography. For instance, his early horror masterwork New Blood (2002) and more recent martial arts hit SPL II: A Time for Consequences (2015) share a passion for visceral and audacious images, yet their means to this end are completely different. In Limbo (2021), Cheang’s Hong Kong is an inner-city swamp built from overflowing heaps of garbage and disembodied limbs. The city becomes a festering wound, shot in ghostly, digital black-and-white, and jam-packed with visceral olfactory imagery. Now comes Mad Fate, which reteams Cheang with frequent Jonnie To collaborators (To himself also produces) for a film that’s semantically similar to Limbo yet syntactically antithetical. Inevitably, Mad Fate steps into the shadow of Limbo; both films are violent serial killer stories, assembled with a crossover cast and crew, and both premiered at Berlinale, two years separated. But while Mad Fate offers some tonal revisions to Cheang’s aesthetic approach, those come almost entirely in support of a less singular and nuanced work…”  RYAN AKLER-BISHOP

[Full review originally published as part of 2023 Berlinale festival coverage.]

A Light Never Goes Out

Handover Syndrome is a phenomenon wherein critics, mostly Western critics, read into every Hong Kong movie produced in the period between the Joint Declaration in 1984, when it was announced that the colony would be returned to the Mainland, and 1997, when the Handing Over took place, some kind of statement about the, often very real, anxiety over that process and the future it promised. We’re in a similar place right now, as ever since the crackdown on the mass protests of 2019-2020, seemingly every Hong Kong movie, and every Chinese movie made by Hongkongers working within the Mainland system, can be read as a statement on the relationship between the two entities. Partially, that’s just the nature of film: it’s easy to manufacture a political reading of just about any movie, and Western critics tend to know very little about Hong Kong and Chinese politics, so their reading tends to be about the One Thing they do know (the colony was handed over to China; the police cracked down on demonstrators). But just because a reading is obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t true. A lot of Hong Kong films made between 1984 and 1997 are about anxiety over the Handover. And a lot of present-day Hong Kong films are about anxiety over Hong Kong’s increasing integration into the PRC system. Many of these take a sidelong approach to the subject, evoking nostalgia for Hong Kong as it used to be. A Light Never Goes Out is just such a film.

On its surface, this is a straight-forward narrative about the dying art of neon sign-making, about the transformation of Hong Kong from a chaotic mass of colors and lights and people into a sleek modern city of chrome and glass. It doesn’t take much imagination though to read this as a story of life under the PRC. Where once was a laissez-faire paradise where art flourished alongside and within even the most garish of commercial interests, there is now a tamed, structured metropolis, indistinguishable from any other major city in the world, ruled by the interests of organized capital and the State. The sign-makers’ art is almost dead because it has been legislated away: no more massive marquees hanging over the sidewalk (they are dangerous), the signs evolving (devolving) from incandescent neon to computerized LEDs (not unlike the move from 35mm film to digital cinema) because they’re cheaper and easier to mass produce. There’s no room in the film for counter-argument: that LED signs can be art just as well; that neon too was once the new technology replacing an older, more humane one, such as sign-painting (the commercial art practiced for 40-plus years by my father-in-law, incidentally). This is one clue as to the film’s true purpose: there’s no room here for nuance, for the long view of history, or for reasoned consideration of the other side. This is nostalgia with a purpose: are we on the side of light, or are we on the side of grayness.

One key to the modern Hong Kong nostalgia film is the use of older stars, and A Light Never Goes Out has two of the best in Sylvia Chang and Simon Yam. Chang plays Mei-hsiang, Bill’s (Yam) widow, mourning her husband’s death and remembering him in flashbacks interspersed throughout the film. She and his former apprentice, played by young actor Henick Chou (who also appears at this year’s NYAFF in Vital Signs), spend most of the movie trying to first figure out and then fulfill what was the sign-maker’s dying wish: to recreate one of his past signs that had since been torn down. In the process, this film touches on a number of issues: the grief of a woman who has lost her husband (Chang won the Best Actress Golden Horse award for her performance); the disconnect between the older generation and the younger, embodied in the fraught relationship that Mei-hsiang has with her exasperated daughter, played by Cecilia Choi, who is on the verge of emigrating to Australia; the difficulty of making a living and affording housing in contemporary Hong Kong (the apprentice, a high school dropout, is squatting in Bill’s old workshop); and the process of making neon signs: drawing designs, bending glass, making light. But mostly, this is a movie about how the past is disappearing all around us, and the beautiful things we’re losing because of that. Director Anastasia Tsang, making her feature debut, uses, as interludes, archival footage of old Hong Kong, the vibrant neon signs hanging over the busy streets seemingly embodying the life of the city. These fade into shots of the same streets as they appear today, with all the life drained away from them. And over the final credits, she introduces us to a number of still-living sign-makers, with images of their work and information on when it was destroyed. Commercial art is, by its nature, compromised and ephemeral. Hong Kong is no different: always corrupt, always changing. Tsang’s polemical nostalgia gives us an idealized view of that past, and someone to blame for the degraded present: told that the old neon signs are no longer possible because of all the new laws that have been adopted regarding construction and public spaces, Chang’s character shouts “Your new laws are illegal!” A sentiment that could have come from any student demonstrator over the past decade.  SEAN GILMAN

Credit: NYAFF/Redemption with Life

Redemption with Life

Redemption With Life is a story of corruption and redemption — a “classic” rise and fall tale set within the anodyne world of finance and investment. It plays in a similar vein to its director Zhang Wei’s earlier Factory Boss (2014): both are “social realist” films that attempt to sketch the contours of work and exploitation, both opting for the hard-and-fast thriller as the vehicle to do so. We’re far from De Sica, but there are bikes.

One suspects — in the portrayal of murky business dealings here, centered around three old friends — that Zhang Wei is nudging us to think of Succession. There are also parallels to be drawn to Citizen Kane and certain Christian Petzold films. Redemption With Life veers chaotically through parties, bike garages, business meetings, and glitzy apartments, but the film frequently falls flat, the camerawork ambivalent to the film it seems Zhang is trying to deliver and the story he is trying to tell. The color grading is anemic, the blocking confused. There are scenes in which bikers prowl along motorways, where you can see the lens adjust — spurts of focus that shouldn’t be detectable to the eye. It should be incredibly difficult to empty the image of a motorbike growling through a city of its sexiness, but Zhang manages the feat. The languorously weird motorbikes of Easy Rider and Suzhou River and Hou Hsiao-Hsien have taken their place in cinematic history. This film takes another road.

It’s not that Redemption With Life is itself without redemption. It does an artful job of making gruesome the sterile non-places of hotels, offices, and conference halls — plastic banners emblazoned with shiny advertising slogans, a kind of gory shimmer of red and brown and beige. But these moments, including the tearing apart of an office by angry investors (an especially good scene, at least in an abstract sense), are deflated by the use of jittery slow motion. The same slowing is used to draw awkward attention to moments of narrative inflection, often accompanied by interstitial fades — and aural booms — that hurry us from scene to scene. It’s enough to make one wonder whether these showy and bloodless techniques are an effort to capture the shallow ostentation of new money and the corruption that pools around it, but such a reading is overly generous.

The film’s dialogue is often just as heavy-handed. “Profit’s all that matters,” remarks Jianhua, one of the film’s central trio. “Your line of work may bring fast money, but it’s way too risky,” counters his friend. We never really learn about the relationship between Redemption With Life’s hot-shot financier and his biker friends — except for a final act flashback that feels almost satirically on-the-nose — though there’s an actually quite good montage in the first third of the film, which introduces us to their differing lifestyles: corporate offices, spreadsheets on screens; bike garages; grungy warehouses. Here, the camerawork grows in confidence, a little, trading plosive zooms for something more glacial and winking. The Big Short comes to mind.

Elsewhere, we’re introduced to EDM-blasted nightclubs. We’re in restaurants and offices. People are eating steak, pushing it around on plates, and holding wine glasses at 35-degree angles. Everybody is blasting cigs. Anxious that we don’t read Jianhua’s business partner as a wolf, we watch him tuck into a steak and a glass of red shortly before a fat suitcase of cash is dramatically flung open. When we see him next, another steak and glass of wine are upon his table (this scene actually follows a scene during which Jianhua and his friends are also dining on steak – and wine). Is it possible to experience gout by association?

Frequently, this effect borders on the uncanny, as is the impression during a fight scene in a nightclub that has the look and feel of a drunkenly recorded iPhone video. Reflecting later, the bikers drop another heavy-handed object lesson: “You fought knowing you’d lose. With that kind of judgment, you shouldn’t be in finance.” Money corrupts!  Bet you’ve never heard that one before.

As Jianhua later remarks: “In life, some debts must be repaid.” The message gestures toward redemption — it’s in the title, after all — but the attempt feels too anxious to avoid moral ambivalence, to steer clear of ambiguity. There’s also a lot of fighting. Friends will lunge at friends; investors will topple moneymen; bikers will chase thugs. It’s impossibly hard to keep up with all the steak and flying fists and suitcases of cash as the plot grinds and then blasts its way around the screen, subjected throughout to frequent flashbacks and flashforwards that feel like they’re really just trying to fill narrative holes. I felt dizzy. I’m also temporarily off steak.  OWEN VINCE

Mayhem Girls

It’s strange how quickly time flies. Looking back, the surreal and challenging days of the pandemic may appear merely a distant, vague memory to the mind. Those years of global lockdown and uncertainty seem to be entirely behind us — or, at least, for now — but its signs and effects still manifest themselves, sometimes quite randomly, in new films. Set in an all-girls high school in a present-day Tokyo governed by various health protocols, Shinichi Fujita’s Mayhem Girls follows a group of students who are apparently lost and confused in this bizarre situation while restlessly dealing with their mundane dilemmas and discomforts. On the one hand, we see the girls’ everyday obsessive engagements with smartphones and social media; on the other hand, these engagements are all entangled in a world constantly marked by the presence of masks, sanitizers, and social distancing. 

Right before the film’s strange situation gets even stranger, the bewitching but timidly aloof Mizuho (Mizuki Yoshida) suddenly realizes that she has, through her adolescent hormonal changes, unintentionally developed supernatural powers. But unlike in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Mizuho doesn’t have to endure this alone, as she is eventually accompanied by three other schoolmates who all have manifested singularly peculiar powers. The seminal idea here is obvious and simple: Mayhem Girls, first and foremost, is the depiction of sorority bonds amidst imposed social alienation, as well as a statement on the importance of young girls embracing their womanhood as a magnificent gift and means to personal liberation. At least, that’s what it is before the final turn of events, where the foursome are forced to contend with the old moral chestnut: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

From an artistic standpoint, Fujita’s low-key and minimalistic style speaks to an effortless attention to imagery that’s so familiar in many contemporary Japanese films. In its early going, Mayhem Girls plays as a typical, lo-fi work of realism, with unadorned visual compositions and overexposed natural daylight, reminiscent of simple videography. But it’s actually after that, in parallel with the film’s narrative development, that Fujita withdraws more and more from this realism as the characters become attuned to their eccentric abilities. From this point, Mayhem Girls revels in a certain carefree kitsch, completing its evolution from the first stretch’s situational cringe-comedy origins. Mayhem Girls treats viewers to an uneven hodgepodge of low-budget VFX, visual lyricism, and B-movie sentiment, all imbued with a cartoonish atmosphere (likely derived from anime) and even some tender moments punctuated by the film’s ambient soundtrack), with even occasional and thoroughly unexpected winks to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes

The main problem with Mayhem Girls, then, lies in its thin screenplay, which easily devolves into repetition by the midway point, both in terms of its aimless narrative — the girls spend an inordinate amount of screentime trying to explain their powers to both one another and the audience — and cheap visual gimmicks, mostly comprised of scenes where the girls are shown hovering or flying through the air. It’s hard to deny the easy appeal of Mayhem Girls’ playful spirit, but it’s all spread too thin across the film’s 98 minutes. The final product ultimately feels like an overextended short, which in turn lowers the ceiling on Fujita’s attempt at zany entertainment and prevents the film from fully unleashing its own potential power.  AYEEN FOROOTAN

Credit: NYAFF/#Manhole


“There is little build-up to the opening of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s latest thriller, #Manhole. Within the first five minutes, unfortunate salesman Shunsuke Kawamura (Yûto Nakajima) awakes at the bottom of a decrepit manhole, after a night of celebration on the eve of his wedding. Not only is Shunsuke’s leg bleeding profusely from a deep wound caused by the fall, but the ladder up to the exit is rusted and partially collapsed. At first, Shunsuke believes that he drunkenly slipped and fell down the hole, but over the course of #Manhole it’s slowly revealed that something else might be at play. While the concept of a man simply being stuck down a manhole might seem threadbare for a 100-minute film, in execution, Kamakiri presents a surprisingly riveting and economic thriller that manages to inject a pleasant level of satire into its absurdist conceit.”  OLIVER PARKER

[Full Review originally published as part of 2023 Berlinale festival coverage.]

Kitty the Killer

Of all the John Wick knockoffs that I’ve seen over the last decade, Lee Thongkham’s Kitty the Killer is almost certainly the first one that has come from Thailand. For good and bad, we’ve seen more movies about assassins working within shadowy, often nonsensical organizations loaded with back story and lore doing their best to survive against an army of anonymous enemies in black suits aided by nothing other than the skills of their stunt workers and the ingenuity of their choreographers, dispatching said enemies in an orgy of flashy camera movements and splattering of computer-generated blood. It must be said that this era has been a drastic improvement over the last one, when every action movie aped the dull gray tones and incomprehensible editing of the Paul Greengrass Bourne movies. While that era did give us a few gems (the works of Neveldine and Taylor stand out, in particular), the average action film of the last decade is surely better than the average one from back then. (Note here that the biggest blockbusters of the 21st century, your MCUs and Batmans and Worlds Jurassic, are not action films but rather disaster movies: their pleasure comes not from seeing elaborate stunts performed by skilled professionals, but rather ever more elaborate displays of destruction, usually of phony environments, in either mass explosions or, at best, vehicular chase sequences.) Sure, there are a lot of annoying tics (black and neon pink color schemes, cutesy humor, substitution of subpar CGI work for practical make-up and stunt work), but by and large, we’re in… if not a golden age of action cinema, then at least a bronze one.

Kitty the Killer is a middling example of the contemporary action film. It’s about a shadowy organization of assassins wherein the killers are all young women and girls called “Kitties,” all of whom have some variation of a “-na” name: Tina, Mina, Nina, Rina, etc. Our hero is an assassin named Dina (Ploypailin Thangprapaporn), who has been tasked by her handler, “Gray Fox,” with stealing a box with a magic rock inside of it from a member of a rival organization. She gets the rock, but that causes inter-agency struggles and leads to Gray Fox’s own bosses turning against him and sending their top assassin, Nina the Faceless, after him. He dies, but not before passing on the mantle of Gray Fox onto a goofy young insurance salesman named Charlie.

By this point, Kitty the Killer has been a pretty entertaining action movie, with cool ladies slicing heads off and bodies open with katanas while wearing masks and black leather. But the next chapter slows everything down for a long sequence of comic relief and world-building, as the goofball guy is trained and integrated into the system, and introduced to Dina’s companions. This all takes way too long, given how much it relies on Denkhun Ngamnet’s cartoonish performance as Charlie, all wild eyes and screaming and just generally being annoying. There are some interesting side stories with some of the women (one with Dina’s health problems, another about Tina’s alienation and loneliness), but these tend to get lost in all the strained silliness.

All that would be bearable if the action was truly inspired, or the world as unhinged as something like the recent straight-to-video gem Mutant Ghost Wargirl. But alas, Kitty the KIller settles for the merely competent. The most memorable part of the fight scenes, to be honest, are the costumes (the aforementioned masks and leather) and the eclectic mix of cultural influences (Japanese and American and Chinese and Thai). None of this is bad, and as tedious as some of the comic bits can be, even those never get as gratingly obnoxious as something like Gunpowder Milkshake. But sadly, neither is Kitty the Killer ever as inspired as the likes of Baby Assassins or Veronica Ngo’s Furie movies. It’s content to be merely okay, and that’s firmly where it lands.  SEAN GILMAN

Credit: NYAFF/Bad Education

Bad Education

“What is society’s ratio of good people to bad people?” This is the question a police officer puts to his partner at the beginning of Bad Education, Taiwanese actor Kai Ko’s directorial debut, written by Giddens Ko (who directed Kai Ko in his 2011 acting debut, You Are the Apple of My Eye, and was originally slated to direct this film). It’s an interesting question, one well worth exploring in depth. Unfortunately, Kai Ko and co. fail to accomplish this task in the space of a breezily paced, “one crazy night” romp that clocks in at a mere 77 minutes. In fact, that breeziness is a considerable part of the problem, with the moral questions posed never explored with more than surface-level depth. Combined with a flippantly casual approach to the subject of the sexual assault of women, one is left with a bad taste that lingers well after the closing credits. 

Bad Education opens on a rooftop where three high school friends, Chang (Berant Zhu), Han (Edison Song), and Wang (Kent Tsai), are boozing it up post-graduation. Chang proposes forging a lifelong bond between the three of them to offset their impending separation. Rejecting the idea of cutting themselves for a blood oath, Chang instead suggests that they each divulge their darkest secrets. Chang and Han then spin lurid tales involving Chang raping and impregnating the developmentally disabled daughter of a school official and Han murdering a homeless man. When Wang can only counter these shocking revelations with the feeble story of discovering his father’s affair, the other two spur him on to commit a crime of his own that night. This results in Chang and Han pushing Wang to attack a street gangster by splashing him with a can of paint and smashing his head with a beer bottle. Thus ensues the madcap chase that occupies the bulk of the film’s narrative, with the gangster’s crew in hot pursuit of the newly deviant boys.

Figuring prominently during this chase is the sexual assault of another woman, the barely drawn character of a party girl who is assaulted by her taxi driver — the same taxi commandeered by the boys in their attempt to evade the gangsters chasing them. This occasions the most egregiously offensive aspect of the film, wherein the scenes that come in the aftermath of the woman’s sexual assault are largely played for laughs, as she vomits on one of the boys and later drunkenly performs a religious ritual. This all culminates in a final act set in a seafood restaurant, where the wayward trio confronts a gang boss (actor-director Leon Dai) who gives them the titular “bad education” about actions and their consequences. 

There’s potential for this material to be rowdy but edifying entertainment exploring interesting moral and ethical issues, but instead, Bad Education only registers as a sourly cynical work, one that completely undercuts its moral dilemmas with the revelation early on that Chang and Han’s crime stories were totally made up. Kai Ko, for his part, proves to be a competent, if far from dazzling, director, aided by some nicely atmospheric cinematography courtesy of Chen Ta-pu. Alas, Bad Education ultimately proves to be disappointing at best and troubling at worst, and is far from the ideal showcase for its budding filmmaker’s talents.  CHRISTOPHER BOURNE

Vital Signs

Cheuk Wan-chi is an accomplished director, screenwriter, and stand-up comedian in Hong Kong. She co-wrote Sylvia Chang’s excellent 2004 film 20 30 40 and Pang Ho-cheung’s not-as-good 2007 one Exodus. As an actress, she starred as one of the doomed minibus passengers in Fruit Chan’s apocalyptic 2014 masterpiece The Midnight After. That same year, she also wrote and directed the delightful real estate comedy Temporary Family, with Sammi Cheng, Nick Cheung, and the once-ubiquitous Angelababy. She’s finally followed that up with Vital Signs, her first feature in nine years. But it seems the last decade of events in Hong Kong has sobered Cheuk up. Vital Signs shows none of the comic flair of her earlier work, and is, in fact, a downright dour melodrama about a widower EMT (the always-ubiquitous Louis Koo) who’s trying to emigrate to Canada with his adorable moppet daughter while also dealing with an ambitious young colleague on track to get promoted ahead of him. It presents a sad vision of present-day Hong Kong, where all the energy is devoted to either climbing the bureaucratic ladder for no reason other than that it’s there or simply toward getting as far away from the former colony as one can.

Koo is, as usual, terrific in the lead role; he’s always been charming, but there’s a weariness to his performance here befitting his age, unlike his action-hero work in last year’s sci-fi epic Warriors of Future. A remarkably consistent thread through all Koo’s work has been the disintegration of his body: in film after film, the former model suffers an endless array of ailments, maimings, and other physical misfortunes. Koo, like Hong Kong itself, is always falling apart, and Vital Signs is no exception. Here, he plays Ma, who’s plagued by a bad back caused by a form of spondylitis that, without the surgery he can’t afford, limits his ability to do his job and diminishes his chances of being approved for emigration. Ma is a simple, competent man: all he wants to do is save people’s lives and hang out with his daughter, but events far outside his control are conspiring to prevent him from doing either. The parallels to life in a city scarred by a decade of political instability, recurring pandemics, and a net population loss are unmistakable.

This being a Hong Kong movie, there are, of course, action scenes. They’re of the EMT rescue variety, but by the standards of films like Dante Lam’s recent The Rescue (2020) or even a run-of-the-mill episode of ER, they are pretty tame and uninvolving. Koo’s Ma saves people with his calm, clear-headedness, and then moves on to the next rescue. His partner Wong Wai, played by Neo Yau Hawk-Sau (Ten Years, No. 1 Chung Ying Street), is a new variation on the strivers we’ve seen in many a Hong Kong film over the years (often played by Michael Wong or a Michael Wong-Type). Obsessed with advancement, he’s shot up the EMT ranks in record time, his goal only to achieve the kind of desk job that Ma, devoted to the work of rescuing people, has always eschewed. Working with Ma, though, humanizes him, as does a budding relationship with Ma’s cousin-in-law, Miffy, a foul-mouthed nurse played by Angela Yuen (Chili Laugh Story, The Narrow Road). Yeun brings the most spark of any of the performers, but even the young people’s relationship, which should be a source of hope for the future, is premised on the fact that neither of them wants children (though they both adore Ma’s moppet). Vital Signs sees no future in Hong Kong, just the slow dissolution of the past and a resigned hanging on in the present.  SEAN GILMAN