In this month's column, we take a look at some of the Asian films that played at this year's edition of Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.
CHINA / HONG KONG
Let the Bullets Fly is rousing, blockbuster-style entertainment. It's easy to understand why it currently stands as the all-time box office champion in China; it's filled with colorful characters, memorable action sequences, a healthy amount of humor, and a dollop of pathos.
Chow Yun-Fat plays Huang, a local crime boss and drug dealer who holds the community of Goose Town in his tight fists. He's a charming, magnetic villain, the kind you love to hate, and Chow has great fun reveling in the man's evil. Though he's top-billed, he actually plays a secondary role. Wen Jiang, who also directed the film, stars as "Pocky" Zhang, a well-known bandit, known for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. He and his well-trained band of thieves derail a train and discover that the "Governor" on board is actually an imposter, a con man named Tang (played by the veteran character actor Ge You) who is preparing to take his thieving ways to Goose Town, where he planned to assume power and rob the people for as much money as possible. Pocky decides to take on that role himself, employing Tang as his counselor.
What follows is an escalating stand-off between Pocky and Huang that is, at once, very much like a comic Spaghetti Western. With a running time exceeding two hours, it plays a little long, but it's full-scale entertainment of a type that is sure to find a receptive audience when it opens in the U.S. in early 2012, courtesy of distributor Well Go USA.
Of all the cruel, evil, nasty, repugnant, and vile pictures that I've seen at Fantastic Fest since 2006, Revenge: A Love Story certainly ranks right down there with the best of them -- or should that be, the worst of them? Director Wong Ching-po masterfully manipulates emotions, wrenching and twisting viewer loyalties to the point of exhaustion.
Juno Mak, who is credited with the original story, stars as Chan Kit, the suspect in the fiendishly brutal murder of two pregnant women. A veteran police officer was also killed by the same man, and when Chan Kit is brought in for questioning, the detectives are astoundingly cruel in their interrogation. That seems to be in response to the incredibly bloody murder scenes: the fetuses were ripped from the bellies of the women, and the cop was tied up and boiled alive in a shower.
As Chan Kit's life is threatened during the interrogation, he spits out: "This isn't the first time you've tried to frame me!", which causes the cops to pause and this viewer to say: "Whoa!" We proceed to a flashback in which we see an entirely different scenario than we might have imagined, starting with Chan Kit as an innocent-looking young man working at a bun shop, and nursing a crush on the extremely pretty Cheung Wing (Aoi Sola).
From there, the story veers between sweet romance and depraved, extended brutality, on its way to a climactic scene that I found wholly repugnant. Needless to say, Revenge: A Love Story is not for the squeamish. For those who make it to the end, it's a punishing experience that is very well crafted. It's a study of extremes, building to a morality lesson that will not soon be forgotten.
Though Fantastic Fest only screened two new Chinese-language productions, the program included four retrospective screenings that provide a key to the roots of modern Hong Kong cinema and where it may be.
The retrospective screenings, enthusiastically hosted by nattily-dressed Grady Hendrix of the New York Asian Film Festival, ranged from the martial arts extravaganza Dreadnought to the crime / sex drama A Day Without Policeman to the grotty horror of The Eternal Evil of Asia, plus one more film whose title cannot be revealed due to legal issues. The prints, rescued from "the gates of Hell," as Hendrix put it, through the good graces of the American Genre Film Archive (another entity associated with the Alamo Drafthouse), looked terrific, and the audiences were demonstrative and highly enthusiastic. That's another hallmark of Fantastic Fest: engaged audience members who express their appreciation when they see something they like.
Even with a title like Invasion of Alien Bikini, a story that features two people talking in a room for a long stretch of time, and a reported budget of less than $5,000, the movie still holds a number of surprises and proves to be delightfully weird. The hero is a chicken-legged man wearing a yellow rain slicker with a very bushy (and very fake-looking) mustache plastered to his upper chin. He marches around Seoul, South Korea, disposing of trash and coming to the rescue of damsels in distress. He describes himself as a "city protector," though it's perhaps more accurate to say that he considers himself to be The City Protector, a superhero with no super-powers, ready and willing to defend the weak and protect the innocent.
One night he sees a young woman come under attack by two men, and he springs into action, battling the men to a standstill and hustling the young woman off to a hiding place for her own safety. (Never mind, for the moment, that one of the men who attacked her was able to stick his entire hand into her back with little ill effect to the woman.) Our hero and the young woman, who calls herself Monica, talk briefly before the beguiling lass strips to her underwear and makes it clear that she would like to engage in sexual intercourse with him. Our hero, however, has taken a vow of chastity, and insists that they must wait until they are married before making love. Instead, oblivious to the fact that she is an alien, he offers to play Jenga with her. Meanwhile, other groups are searching for the alien, some to defend and some to annihilate her.
Alternately silly, sweet, sexy, and surprisingly bloody, Invasion of Alien Bikini is 100% inventive, and belies the limitations of its reported budget. This would be an ideal title for video on demand, where word of mouth could help the film find its audience, one that reveres little indies from other countries.
Other films from South Korea playing at Fantastic Fest: Blind (mainstream thriller mixing comedy to a Wait Until Dark formula), Haunters (visually arresting serial killer thriller), and The Yellow Sea (highly-acclaimed crime drama).
The films of Yoshihiro Nakamura are gifts from the cinematic gods. Not that they're lofty-minded in any way; to the contrary, they're exceptionally down-to-earth portrayals of human behavior that is universally-relatable. After all, we've all known a time-traveling samurai, haven't we?
Nakamura previously gifted Fantastic Fest with Fish Story, in which music saves the world, and Golden Slumber, in which genuine friendship defeats a paranoid conspiracy. The both mixed lighthearted comedy with dramatic insights, and Nakamura's latest, A Boy and His Samurai, does likewise, tweaking a conventional "woman's picture" with grace and charm. Despite the title, the movie really revolves around Hiroko Yusa, a 30-something woman struggling to maintain a balance between raising her young son Tomoya and furthering her business career. Into her busy life steps Yasube Kijima, who claims to be a samurai from the Edo period, circa 1830.
Hiroko really doesn't have time for this nonsense, but Tomoya takes a liking to "Uncle Yasube," and the young man seems harmless enough once he puts away his samurai sword. Besides, he offers to care for all the domestic duties in exchange for the hospitality that Hiroko has extended, she sure could use the help, and it would be nice to have a man around the house for Tomoya.
A Boy and His Samurai
is deceptive, in that the story feints to the left and then manages to catch you off-guard with a right uppercut. It's gentle and moving, funny and delightful, and it's rounded off in a rousing, unexpected way. It also played spectacularly well on the closing night of of the festival. It's a gift that should be opened as soon as possible. (See also Jacob Hall's article
, "The Eight Most Shocking and Surprising Moments of Fantastic Fest 2011.")
Other films from Japan playing at Fantastic Fest: Body Temperature (romantic drama about a young man's affair with a life-sized sex doll), Boys on the Run (an awkward romantic comedy about awkward people), Karate Robo Zaborgar (bizarre comedy), Milocrorze, A Love Story (bizarre fantasy / love story), Smuggler (gangster comedy with torture porn), Underwater Love (sexually-explicit musical romantic comedy for adults), Versus (yakuza vs. zombies), Yakuza Weapon (action comedy), Zombie Ass (more bizarre, bloody comedy).