The New York Asian Film Festival is primed to once again take its annual spot among New York City’s signature summer events. There is a distinctly different feel about it, with a slate of films that finds several directors turning inwards, and favoring smaller scale, tensely wound dramas over large scale bombastic thrill rides and effect-laden sensory smorgasbords,. Many look at conflicts experienced at the individual level; stemming from differences heightened in today’s society – of class, gender, generations; By looking at how these struggles ensue at a more local level, there is an overarching theme of seeking truths about what makes us tick as human beings, which in turn leads to insights of how people interact globally.
This year’s festival feels like a refreshingly forward-thinking edition, with scant few nostalgic screenings of works from years past, and a greater emphasis on new talent both behind and in front of the camera. There is overt interest in representing LGBTQ voices, and a new competition sections that will bestow an honor on one of seven productions by new talent. The salvo from each country’s offerings also seems geared to confound. From Japan, iconic characters of pop lore are all but absent as are supernatural thrillers. In their stead are solidly helmed dramas and tales focused around real life crime, at times grizzly, and often tinged with introspection and societal concerns. From South Korea, languid dramas stand out amongst the expected nail-biting thrillers that its industry has rapidly expanded from. Mainland China is represented with more of the sort of explosive action films largely associated with Hong Kong, while that renowned territory’s standouts are more heartfelt interpersonal dramas. While audiences of previous years have enjoyed pulpy genre gems from Thailand, this year the country serves up a crowd pleasing topical suspense yarn based around extremely intelligent teen protagonists, with a conscience to boot.
Here then are ten offerings, which are unique, challenging, and
certain to leave an indelible mark on your summer movie going experience.
BAD GENIUS (Thailand)
A movie for and about teens, though easy for all to appreciate. Laden with colorful bursts of digital communications and set to a fast paced genre-spanning score, BAD GENIUS tells a story of kids too cool and too smart for school, who work their way into a college entrance examination scandal of increasingly epic proportions. Its first trick perhaps is making the seemingly mundane act of test-taking an edge-of-your seat spectacle that will have viewers feeling the beads of sweat dripping off the protagonists’ noses. The second is gaining our empathy for characters engaged in actions that most would easily classify as immoral. At its core is a conflict between haves and have-nots, yet it also delves headfirst into the often times challenging predicament of doing what is right versus what is profitable. Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, who plays Lynn (and is making her debut here) emits inner turmoil masterfully. Though its ending clips short what could have been an emotionally charged, idea-filled exchange, this is the sort of high wire act that is rare to behold and not to be missed.
BATTLE OF MEMORIES (China)
This murder mystery from China has an alluring Sci-Fi premise that feels right at home in our Black Mirror obsessed society, with an eye for technology that could have deep social ramifications, and doesn’t seem that distant a reality. Memories can be removed and restored at a facility that is something akin to a top secret research facility crossed with a high security bank. When someone discovers they’ve left the facility with memories that were never their own it opens a world of intriguing possibilities. Stylishly shot in alternating warm and metallic different tones, the film is rife with confusion that fuels the viewer’s intrigue rather than frustrate. The film’s momentum is also stoked by its tackling of social issues by way of its dealing with cases of domestic abuse unflinchingly, all the while delivering on the suspenseful build fans of crime thrillers desire.
What looks like it could be an austere and static portrait of the ways of an indigenous people turns out to be an engrossing indictment of political corruption and self-assured exercise in white knuckled suspense, set around a cast of a modest few players. Groups from two distant worlds are hurtled along a path to crash violently into one another: On one side the caretaker of a nature preserve and his adolescent daughter, whom he teaches to hunt a rare eagle valued highly by the nation’s government; on the other, a pair of cops fresh off being assigned to a gruesome homicide case, one a jaded veteran who has long ago fallen in line with a system that is corrupt to the core, the other idealistic and eager to pursue justice in earnest even as it puts him at odds with his peers. The systemic flaws that lead to the tension between the story’s principals are never overstated. Writer/Director Mikhail Red simply sets forth the well-paced unfolding of a situation devised to perfectly encapsulate these maddening realities, recalling incendiary works like Graceland that have come before.
DESTRUCTION BABIES (Japan)
The haunting effects of watching this daring and confrontational film have as much to do with its form as the content. Starting out with what will strike some as an all too familiar trope of movies about Japanese ‘yankis’ (delinquent youth often caught up in gang activity), a young man wanders the street lashing out violently at those he comes in contact with, taking beatings in stride with the assaults he unleashes. This goes on for a seemingly interminable stretch, until it slowly dawns we are not looking at depictions of wanton youth positioned to seem cool. Violence escalates as a few other local teens factor into the equation, and discomfort is heightened with the viewer experiencing something akin to being taken hostage on a ride both quesy and compelling. Director Tetuya Mariko allows things to play out with an air of distance, recalling Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. While interested in studying the dynamics of violent incidences among disaffected teens, he does not shy away from steering the course. It is a jolting ride comprised of turbulence that gives way to occasional calm. Named for a single by seminal 90s noise rock band, Number Girl, DESTRUCTION BABIES may very well take influence from that band’s strident sound. The bassist and main force behind their sound, Shutoku Mukai was in fact charged with the film’s soundtrack. It’s a mostly incidental trail of occasional cacophonous bursts until the end credits, for which Mukai has created a smoldering slow burn of a song, like the embers of a once blazing flame that is finally coming to a rest.
Two distinct archetypes of underworld tales are interlaced in GODSPEED, which shifts its focus between a pair of old school gangsters with a tried and tested relationship, and an unlikely duo of a low level gangster making a drug delivery and a lifelong hustler that serves as his makeshift driver. Both duos engage in verbal exchanges indicative of a dry wit and apparent joy taken in the art of storytelling by writer/director Mong-Hong Chung. Tales that speak of hardened gangster morality chill to the bone while the road trip that ensues is filled with awkward hilarity. The end results suffer slightly from never truly paying off one mode or the other. However, writer director Mong-Hong Chung’s vision is more meditation on the paths individuals than soon-forgotten entertainment. It cannot be stated enough that the film is a visual paradise for lovers of dilapidated landscapes, including but not limited to the rundown bowling alley turned gang headquarters in the middle of rural obscurity.
LOVE AND OTHER CULTS (Japan)
Prolific director Eiji Uchida has a creative flair that has a lot of parallels to the path blazed by Sono Sion. Like that now infamous director, Uchida has spawned an array of narratives touching on various genres. He has been developing a knack for creating compelling sagas for characters occupying society’s fringes. This has included intensely spirited female protagonists and antagonists, damaged by some aspect of their upbringing. LOVE AND OTHER CULTS is a small scale epic centered around Ai, a girl raised in a cult who tries to adapt to a normal life once its leader has been arrested and the organization broken up. The off-kilter narrative picks up an odd assortment of characters along the way and grows increasingly endearing as it carries them forward. At once a story of true love and an exploration of how all groups, from cults to gangs to families, develop their own set of norms and rules of conduct, Uchida’s narrative veers away from straightforward progressions, instead approaching things with a Zen-like philosophy of positive and negativr evening things out in turn. It makes for one of the more unique and memorable stories told in this year’s lineup.
Dealing with homicide investigation, the forging of new relationships, and recovery from past trauma, Sang Il Lee’s sprawling tale is unapologetically confusing, especially given its spanning of time and place (which moves abut a cross section of islands in Okinawa) without clearly indicating where we are in in the narrative. One would be wise to not get too stressed over the details and let emotional logic take over. Like his previous film Villain, RAGE is a writhing livewire of passion, threatening to burst into a shower of sparks on contact. It is filled with strong performances from its cast, which includes powerhouses Ken Watanabe, Chizuru Ikewaki, and Satoshi Tsumabuki. As the details of each story blur, a unifying theme of trust and the challenges that come with it echoes throughout each. There is an undeniable sense of the heavy weight afflicting each character’s decisions. Even as the brain puzzles the pieces together, a strong sensation of catharsis is guaranteed.
SOUL MATE (Hong Kong)
This breathtaking tale of a complicated relationship begins with the writing of a serialized online novel that gives an account of a friendship forged between two girls in elementary school carried on through adulthood. From the outset they are shown to have very different lives, starting with their family structures. Yet an undeniable attraction between them follows as they go about their inevitably different paths. It is smartly scripted, with every line of dialogue fraught with meaning. While not a work of obvious feminism, it speaks of the trials experienced by women in earnest. As Judy, the friend with an ostensibly more supportive family life recalls her mother’s words ‘we are guaranteed to suffer’ the audience finds itself powerless to agree. The film also speaks of universal truths about maintaining what our apparently paths versus wanting to escape what is destined. Equally thought-provoking and heart wrenching, this is a dramatic work of immense proportions.
TRACES OF SIN (Japan)
Herein lies a leisurely tour of a particular brand of hell as a reporter revisits the scene of a grizzly murder. He speaks with a young women implicit in carrying it out in a holding cell where she has been incarcerated, then moves through individuals she is connected with in school, mainly those who attended a prestigious college. While spinning off in seemingly arbitrary directions among individuals who don’t always seem significant, a bleak picture is formed, one that is not without some very ugly surprises and one that speaks of an intense sensitivity over social and economic class differences. With his first feature film Kei Ishikawa allows characters to indict themselves with long volleys of densely packed dialogue that are revealing without feeling unnatural. It is a quietly mesmerizing descent into an affecting nightmare.
A QUIET DREAM (South Korea)
This is a pleasantly low key drifter of a slacker comedy that commands attention by drifting along airily, springing unexpected and delightful moments of humor as three late bloomers wander their sleepy town, mostly circling around a young woman of Chinese heritage who runs a small local tavern. While an object of their affection, she is just as much part of the group, deflecting their awkward displays of charm with an equal measure of obtuseness. Each seems to hold an albatross keeping them grounded. For her, it is being charged with caring for her now wheelchair bound invalid father. It’s monochrome tones convey the notion of being stuck in a hazy dream. And though it seems like the unglamorous troop may be missing out on something, A QUIET DREAM makes an understated proclamation of the value of the sort of true friendship they hold.