Lincoln Center -- that legendary hub of the metropolitan fine art scene -- is not the kind of place where you expect to see a grown man dressed in a cow costume (complete with an oversized bell clanking around his neck) emphatically introducing a new movie in a speech comprised entirely of the word “Moo.” And yet, for two weeks every July, that sort of thing is par for the course at the world’s most sophisticated cultural institution, because the New York Asian Film Festival defiantly marches to the beat of its own drummer (and that drummer has completely lost his mind). Founded 10 years ago by a small cadre of movie-loving maniacs, the New York Asian Film Festival has since blossomed into one of the country’s can’t-miss events for cinephiles, or whatever you call someone for whom a movie titled Horny House of Horror sounds like a Tuesday night well spent.
Free of pretension and completely committed to bringing their rabid audiences only the most fun and satisfying films they can find, NYAFF -- while still a small festival that survives on a wing, a prayer, and a lot of really over-worked credit cards -- is now host to a wide array of world and North American premieres alike. They provide a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see rare films on the big screen, offer a preview of the stuff that will go on to be the buzz of bigger events like Toronto and Fantastic Fest later in the year, and do it all with the wild enthusiasm of some kids who found themselves with the deed to the candy shop.
This year’s fest saw as jarring and off-kilter an array of films as ever, from Takashi Miike’s Ninja Kids!!! (a daffy and deliriously dull story about kids who are ninjas), to a film in which a bi-polar Buddhist monk tries to reconcile his job with his undying love for hardcore noise-rock (Abraxas), and everything in between (by “everything in between” I mean “Ocean Heaven, a sentimental drama in which Jet Li plays the suicidal father of a young autistic man”). It was, as usual, enough to send me into a state of cinephalactic shock, and dread the next 50 weeks of not having a new NYAFF event or three to look forward to each night.
But for those of you who were unable to make it, here are the five films from this year’s fest to seek out and see whenever possible, however possible. NYAFF may be dark for the next eleven months or so, but so long as people are getting excited about these flicks then the whole thing doesn’t seem that insane after all.
5.) A Boy and His Samurai
Yoshihiro Nakamura (Fish Story) has quickly established himself as a filmmaker with a fluency in several genres and a whacked flair for the operatic. His Hitchcock-inspired Golden Slumbers is still traveling the festival circuit, but Nakamura already had something new to offer to this year’s line-up, a sweet and wholesome morsel in which a time-traveling samurai teaches a fatherless boy in contemporary Tokyo about the joys of cooking.
This fish-out-of-water tale sticks to the recipe famously mastered by venerated classics of the genre like Jungle 2 Jungle, but Nakamura mines rich emotional moments from such uncharacteristically safe fare. While the young boy’s mother is as conventional an overworked Disney parent as they come, the relationship she shares with her son is unusually nuanced and sedate, a dynamic which anchors the light physical comedy in a charming and cozy reality (the samurai thinks a ringing phone is an evil demon or something! Hilarious!). As a result, Nakamura’s film feels genuinely motivated by the actions of its characters, a rarity for an odd genre in which the screwball premise typically does the driving. And somewhere amidst all the epic baking sequences -- the boy and his samurai spend the last 20 minutes of the second act making a giant recreation of Edo castle out of chocolate -- a moving story of the proto-nuclear family is cooked to perfection.
4.) Milocrorze: A Love Story
You know how this story goes: A 7 year-old boy (named Ovreneli Vreneligare) with a demonic cat and a hole in his chest falls in love with an impossibly gorgeous adult woman named Milocrorze, who agrees to live with him in unpronounceable bliss. When Milocrorze leaves our pre-pubescent hero for another man, the film tosses him aside in favor of a demented life coach named Besson, who reminds his wimpy male clientele that they’re all losers before repeatedly breaking into a manic song-and-dance number (complete with backup dancers) that will rattle around your head until the day you die. Cue vehicular manslaughter, a samurai with a gambling problem, and a 6-minute fight sword-fight scene captured in a single shot that uses speed-ramping to such deliriously effective ends it shames Zack Snyder even more than a Zack Snyder film.
This is Milocrorze, a film that finally answers the question: “What?” Five years in the making, Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s episodic head-scratcher is a brisk and blissed out rush of blood to the head, a heedlessly entertaining film unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Its four stories are ostensibly connected by the theme of unrequited love (and the performance of Takayuki Yamada, he of 13 Assassins fame), but each moment is so whacked and narrowly compelling that it’s difficult to keep track of how subsequent shots relate to one another, let alone find the abstract parallels between entirely different plots. Regardless, Milocrorze is such a delight for the senses that you’ll be excitedly bungling the title to your friends for months afterwards.
3.) Buddha Mountain
Take the ennui of a Jia Zhangke film and raise the cheekbones a bit and you’re within spitting distance of Li Yu’s Buddha Mountain, a portrait of three disaffected Chinese teens in a country with which they share a mutual disinterest. There’s the generic, soft-spoken leader of the bunch, his buoyantly rotund friend, and the lanky wild girl with the subtle, runway ready features (shooting star Fan Bingbing) who completes the trio. That each of them is an instantly recognizable archetype of some kind is only noticeable for the first few scenes, as the actors’ uninhibited, lived-in performances and the searching restlessness with which Li frames them makes for a film that feels both calculated and alive all at once.
The plot, such as it is, finds the group subleasing a room from a retired opera singer (the legendary Sylvia Chang, essentially playing the female version of Jackie Chan’s character from The Karate Kid), a shut-in who teaches them how to enjoy life and vice-versa. Okay, that sounds painful, but Buddha Mountain is handled with such unforced verve and quiet grace that it resonates almost in spite of itself, the lack of urgency eventually revealing itself as the great threat to the lives of these aimless but compulsively watchable characters. Thick with laconic style that eventually congeals into substance (think long passages of attractive folks sitting atop an open-air train as an ambient industrial tune clanks along on the soundtrack), Buddha Mountain is the kind of film you can see once and kick around forever.
If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then the forces of the underworld must absolutely cower before a woman scorned, raped, and all but held prisoner on an barely civilized island for her entire life.
Jang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled (the second “L” is for “licentious”... or not) begins a lot like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, and takes you somewhere much, much worse. Hae-won is a prim and pretty bank clerk in Seoul who has little time for other people and even less for herself. After a particularly nasty incident at work in which she denies a loan to a little old lady (natch) and attacks a co-worker, Hae-won heads to the remote island on which she spent her youth for some much needed rest. Upon disembarking from the little tugboat that putters her onto the rugged shores of her childhood home, Hae-won is reintroduced to her old friend Bok-nam, the only fertile woman of the island community that has rendered her a domesticated Colonel Kurtz waiting to be pushed over the edge. Reluctant to help Bok-nam escape her horrible circumstances, Hae-won soon finds herself embroiled in the ultimate test of her selfish passivity, a good samaritan parable by way of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
A remarkably assured directorial debut pocked with psychosexual undertones straight out of Hitchcock, Bedevilled is a brilliant and blood-soaked addition to the canon of grisly psychological thrillers that have characterized the Korean New Wave. And if the penultimate shot is a bit on the nose for some, it’s a fierce reminder that Mother Earth is one chick who has very little patience for misogyny.
1.) Heaven’s Story
Ambition and pornography aren’t the most typical of bedfellows -- porn is the ultimate in utilitarian cinema, explicitly designed not to challenge its audience, but rather to please them. But Takahisa Zeze, one of the “Four Heavenly Kings of Pink” (referring to “Pinku eiga,” a style of Japanese softcore filmmaking, the products of which are often artistically credible enough to earn a theatrical release of some kind), has never exactly seen things that way. Zeze’s creative impulses were never stifled by the narrow demands of his industry, a stubborn streak which resulted in unusually complex softcore films with names like Dream of the Phoenix (which the distributor retitled “High Class Bathroom Sex Technique”) and End of the World (released as “Lots of Dirty Stuff”). With that in mind, it may not come as much of a surprise that -- after a brief and tragic period of blockbuster filmmaking -- Zeze returned to the world of micro-budget indie cinema with something like Heaven’s Story, a 4.5 hour opus about life, death, and the infinite complexities of divine justice.
Moving, unforgettable, and as messy as any of the murders that fray its dense narrative tapestry, Heaven’s Story is like a thick Russian novel churned through the meat-grinder of contemporary Japanese jitters. Two sets of murders affect the residents of a suburban apartment complex, and Zeze chronicles the emotional fallout over the decade that follows, interlacing their lives in ways that would make Robert Altman blush. Most of it works, some of it doesn’t -- individual episodes are euphorically brilliant (two chapters set in an abandoned mining town are among the great set pieces of millennial cinema) -- and the film’s ultimate catharsis is a jarring reminder that the narratives which bind the world together are of our own deign, and always ready to be rewritten.
And if that’s not enough, you just can’t deny a 278-minute movie that ends with a plot song with verses that cover almost everything that happened in the film.