The New York Asian Film Festival returns, setting phasers to slay

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On June 29th, The New York Asian Film Festival will return, reliably, to the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center to thrill, dazzle, and vex adventurous movie-goers.  Its unique cinematic offerings, are culled mostly from the realm this and the previous year’s theater releases of Asian countries being represented, along with a handful of premieres.  One can look forward to 2 – 3 screenings each evening (more on the weekends) until things slide downtown to the SVA theater from the 13th – 15thfor a stacked conclusion.

Some things will be familiar to long-time attendees. An award for astounding action cinematography in the name of founding festival organizer Daniel Craft will once again be given, this time to Hong Kong cinema stalwart Dante Lam.  As well as a lifetime achievement award to a veteran figure of Asian cinema, here being Japan’s Harada Masato, and a Rising Star award recognizing vibrant new talent.

Some recently launched innovations, such as a gallery exhibition, this year’s theme being “Safe Imagination is Boring”  and a jury competition for best film, reserved for new directorial voices and now called the Tiger Uncaged Award, continue to take root. Ever changing, the festival will unveil some new features, such an HBO sponsored Free Talks series. Taking place at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center’s Amphitheater, across the street from the Walter Reade, offering a chance for audiences to engage in lengthier dialogues with directors and performers in the movies being shown.

As for the films themselves, they again represent a significant range of countries both with film industries recognized globally, such as China, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, and those with less (or somewhat less) worldwide exposure: Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand. The Philippines has taken on a steadily stronger presence, and this year really has a foothold in the proceedings with the number and quality of films being shown, as well as guests on hand. Deeming this year it’s “Savage Seventeenth” and touting an unofficial slogan of “not (being) your average fucking festival, ” the mostly young crew is staying steadfast in bringing a challenging selection of films, downright confrontational at times, and often with something significant to say.

There is no way I could dream of taking it all in. So here I present a sampling of films I’ve been able to preview that made an impression.  Numerous other films round out the fest, so be sure to visit the NYAFF homepage as you make your plan of attack.

DYNAMITE GRAFFITI (Japan, 2018) directed by Tominaga Masanori

BLOOD OF WOLVES (Japan, 2018) directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD (Japan, 2017) directed by Shinichiro Ueda

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB (Japan, 2017) directed by Daihachi Yoshida

THE THIRD MURDER (Japan, 2017) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

RIVER’S EDGE (Japan,  2018) directed by Isao Yukisada 

MICROHABITAT (South Korea, 2017) directed by Jeon Go-woon

MIDNIGHT BUS (Japan, 2017) directed by Masao Takeshita

WRATH OF SILENCE (China, 2017) directed by  Xin Yukun

LOOMING STORM (China, 2017) directed by Dong Yue

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© Enbu Seminar

Mondo Porno: The Roman Porno Reboot films @ the 2017 NYAFF & Japan Cuts

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One of the more exciting features of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is its presentation of 3 of the films comprising 2016’s Nikkatsu Roman Porno Reboot project. And a bit later into the summer, sister film fest Japan Cuts will be featuring one very pointed film from the project. Referencing anything titled as such is bound to produce a range of reactions, from excitement to indignation to utter confusion, so some context is in order. 

Roman Porno refers to a mode of soft core pornography produced under the umbrella of Japanese film industry mainstay, Nikkatsu, when the studio was threatened with bankruptcy in the early 70’s. They put forth a modest amount of guidelines: have a scene of simulated sex occur approximately every ten minutes, produce the movies on a shoestring budget and shoot them within a week’s time. Casual and more ardent fans of Japanese movies alike will know them for their outlandish English titles, grouping together words with little or no regard to what seems conceivable. One is probably aware of the movement’s place in many a more established film director’s filmographies. The most famous instance perhaps being Yojiro Takita, director of the Academy Award winning film Departures, whose early career is peppered with them.

This revival project appeared in time for the 45th anniversary of those early films’ launch, with the selection of 5 directors to each helm a film following the same guidelines as those described above. Between the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts, four of these films can be seen in New York this summer, with the fifth piece of the puzzle (directed by horror maverick Hideo Nakata) maddeningly absent – one can let their imagination ponder over the reasons why. It is a curiously diverse quintet indeed. Most recognizable to overseas audiences will surely be Sion Sono (who is the mastermind behind the lone offering of the set to be shown at Japan Cuts) and, among the 3 presented by the New York Asian Film Festival, Kazuya Shiraishi, whose last two features, The Devils Path and Twisted Justice, were both selected for NYAFF (the former as a co-presentation of both NYAFF and Japan Cuts). The two other films’ directors have achieved no small level of commercial success in Japan, with works that are not altogether unfamiliar to NYAFF’s annual festival-going audience; Akihiko Shiota’s filmography includes fantasy adventure hit Dororo, for one. And Isao Yukisada’s entry features the instantly recognizable Japanese everyman Itsuji Itao, who’s graced the screen in festival hits such Scabbard Samurai and Hanging Garden, to name a few.

Giving attention to this project, aside from maintaining a degree of edginess, serves as a celebration of Japan’s very unique cultural landscape. Can you imagine, for just a moment, a cross section of 5 American directors both veteran and young, successful in the realm of both commercial and independent productions, and widely known being invited to create films of an explicit sexual nature? It just wouldn’t happen. It speaks of a singular sort of compartmentalization in Japanese society, which is by no means renowned for openness of expression, where numerous forms of cultural product are made and consumed by just as many audiences; what is deemed unfit for some is left to its audience, allowed to remain in relative obscurity without being the target of national scrutiny.

The results, which I will unpack a bit herein, are varied in approach and content, filled with self-reflexivity, and all worthy of one’s attention.

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Kazuya Shiraishi’s DAWN OF THE FELINES, may bear the most fruit for discussion, while it is also arguably the most problematic of the bunch. Set in a metropolitan red light district, it tells the stories of three women working for an escort service, or ‘health express’ as it is referred to throughout the film. While aspects of the industry as it is has taken shape in Japan are intimated throughout the film (there are apparent loopholes that allow such business to operate undisturbed by the law, and while direct sexual intercourse is officially off limits, it is not entirely off the table) it is mainly an account of key experiences of the three women that illuminate each of their personalities and the details leading to their taking on this kind of work. Needless to say it involves some precarious situations, but it does not merely dwell in incessant gloom. It is easy to suppose this will be a cautionary tale, and be disappointed when events play out otherwise. There could be some understandable outrage at say the proportion of storylines involving the women aspiring to fall in love with their clients, claiming this is in direct opposition of empowerment. Yet when considering Japanese society is one in which forming new relationships outside of rigidly structured situations is out of the norm, it does not seem strange for feelings to develop in these intimate encounters.

Because of its subject matter, sexual scenes do not feel tacked on, nor are they as much the attraction as in the other films in its ranks. Sometimes they necessarily advance storylines, while elsewhere they are part of the backdrop. There is only one blatantly out of place sequence, rather ill-timed to be near the film’s ending, leaving a baffling off note in one’s mind as it concludes. Another sequence in which two of the characters are totally keen on participating in as the subjects of live BDSM performance seems a tad too convenient, and also does little if anything to advance any part of the story. But for the most part the scenes jibe with the overarching aesthetic of the film.

Shiraishi deals with an ambitious number of plots, with no one taking obvious precedence over the others. The first of the main characters we meet begins to form a relationship with one of her clients, a misanthrope and hikkikomori (a social condition considered epidemic in Japan wherein individuals refuse to step foot outside their home, or do so as little as possible). Her colleague, whose complicated personal life has led her to this career, finds popularity with an elderly customer and begins to feel a bond due to her apparent part in helping him to cope with his emotional duress. The third of the ‘feline’s stories is as much about her pursuit of a personal relationship as the apparent physical abuse dealt upon her elementary school-aged son. A difficult line is walked in telling these out-of the-norm stories while representing routine aspects of this escort industry objectively. And so it seems almost by design that some turns of events feel contrived. But, perhaps owing to the director’s experience directing true crime dramas, he adeptly maintains an objective voice in the mix. There are several points where one might expect a course of actions to lead to a cliché outcome to find that this is not the case. For the most part, however eventful occurrences may be, they leave a city largely unchanged, their impressions lingering in the air, much like the hypnotic film score that begins and ends the film (and is itself worthy of spending time with the film).

I revisited this film a lot. In some ways it feels as though it doesn’t quite transgress the more somewhat simplistic and exploitive movies of its kind. Yet seen in a different light, it is a rather honest portrayal of a phenomenon, steadfast in its unwillingness to lead the viewer to make certain judgments, and creates an impeccable mood and tone. Ultimately I admire the film for its very human presentation of its often marginalized subjects, presenting hardship while resisting the temptation to present them as victims.

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WET WOMAN IN THE WIND stands as a nice contrast to FELINES’ complicated terrain. In addition to being free of much of the moral quandary attached to the aforementioned, it has a startlingly straightforward plot. You could easily say this is the film of the bunch that most sincerely embraces its form. It finds a successful playwright, who has sought refuge from distractions in a quaint rural retreat, ambushed by an enigmatic woman, just emerged from the bay. A self-described ‘love hunter’ she sets out to incur his adoration, while he spurns her advances in hopes of reconnecting with his creativity. Aside from some interludes involving the arrival of (at least one of) the writer’s romantic interest and fledgling members of their acting troupe, this is the mode of the film; save for the important distinction that once his attraction is kindled the ‘Wet Woman’ is determined to embrace his advances only once they occur on her own terms. Here is a refreshing diversion from the norm, in which female players are often characterized as submissive objects of desire. In this Reboot the titular character is very much the aggressor, and played with a gleeful mischievous energy by actress Yuki Mamiya (who will be in attendance of the NYAFF screening along with director Shiota).

The director’s statement on sex is a positive one. After several comic follies, in which the meeting point between the creative process of directors and actors are fair game, the final third of the narrative is a veritable race between three makeshift couplings toward an eventual (ahem) climax. Across these cases, sex is show to be an answer to frustration, an awakening, and a cathartic experience. Of course the main event amidst this three ring circus is that of the ‘Wet Woman’ and the playwright. It is filled with clever visual stunts and overflowing with energy. For those that want a pure and uncomplicated tribute to the genre, this is the film to be sure to watch.

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AROUSED BY GYMNOPEDIES also feels like a throwback of a film aimed expressly at titillating its audiences. From its acid-trip title harkening back to Nikkatsu movies of old to its surreal affront of an opening sequence that finds a topless woman standing outside an archetypal suburban home waving cheerily at the main character (played by Itsuji Itao, as an ill-reputed film director), nostalgic eroticism would seem the express goal. But under the surface there is much to consider as well. While not wont to push topical buttons in the way DAWN OF THE FELINES does, its depiction of sex is most likely to offend, if given a straightforward read.

The plot deals with another creative figure, this time a director of just the sort of prurient fare representative of the Roman Porn output, who has a reputation in some circles as being an autere of extraordinary talent. The events we see, however tell a rather different story, as the director’s latest production is suddenly halted due to an uncooperative lead actress and a sudden freeze on funds. He resorts to all manner of depravity to try to collect the funds to get his production back on track, while at the same time experiencing occasional pangs of remorse for a romantic partner now hospitalized and kept alive by life support. The depths to which he sinks makes for the blackest of awkward comedies. I felt something very reminiscent of Lowlife Love, a drama by Eiji Uchida screened at last year’s Japan Cuts, in its characterization of independent film directors and their thespian hopefuls. Yet as a sendup, GYMNOPEDIES comes across with a lighter touch and more piercing barbs.

It may occur to audiences that its plot doesn’t necessitate any sex scenes at all, a notion that I do not feel is lost on director Isao Yukisada in the slightest. Rather, his adherence to form seems to be a pointed reference to the reliance on such exercises as a little more than a crutch, and tired tropes of film in general. After a point the main character’s sexual escapades make like a list of softcore clichés: actresses he has worked with, a student taking his college class, and if not blatant enough, a nurse in the hospital room where his incapacitated wife lays. And while initially subtle, at different points will it dawn on viewers that these scenes are increasingly arbitrary. The meaning behind the title will also hit viewers at different points in the film, to those not offended hilariously so.

GYMNOPEDIES may just have its cake and eat it too. While playfully commenting on its tropes, its required sex scenes are no less seriously rendered. So it goes, a scene like that in which (one of) the director’s exes concedes to subject herself to an S&M session with a stinging wire (its intended purpose connected with set design), it can be a hard scene to watch, even if it is in the spirit of self awareness. Some will no doubt be offended while others will find it hard to dismiss the precision with which the sequence is put together. The art of it is impossible to dismiss.

As in WET WOMAN IN THE WIND there are inventive, often funny, though definitely outrageous visual gags. While it is not going to win any accolades for being progressive in nature, it is a wryly funny production that cannot help but revel in the excess it is afforded.

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It is pretty clear once one gets into infamous provocateur Sion Sono’s that his ANTIPORNO is an altogether different work from the rest of the pack, making its appearance in an altogether different festival seem perfectly logical. While probably the most anticipated of the pack for many (I would not have caught wind of the Reboot project earlier this year if not for Sono’s participation), it is, unsurprisingly, poised to surprise. Although its title may suggest a play on the Roman Porn’s seeming European influences, it is actually strikingly straightforward: This is Sono making a movie that is against porn. The renegade director is no stranger to this sort of subversive act. It calls to mind his somewhat recent and more difficult to obtain movie ‘Real Onigokko’ (or ‘Tag’ as it was titled for the foreign market) which appeared to be an official chapter in a franchise of slasher thrillers that turned the premise on its head and served as a bleak statement in condemnation those very movies.

As in other Sono films, it is set against a backdrop of vivid swatches of paint, making every frame a work of art to behold with colors indicative of a mood – alternating red’s and yellow’s are its main motifs. Nudity is so much the norm it loses most of its allure, and the film’s imagery conjures feelings of insecurity, physical disgust, and outrage within the main character. Set in the midst of a softcore porn film shoot it shares an element of reflexivity with some of its brethren, as well as painting those in charge of in with a rather unflattering brush. The star of the production within the production, and in effect Sono’s production itself, speaks knowingly, in one instance addressing the 1 sex scene per 10 minute rule it is meant to abide by. It is interesting to consider whether here Sono is presenting a form of mea culpa, he has been known to include copious amount of female nudity and scenes of an explicit sexual nature in some of his work. Or perhaps it is drawing a line in the sand, distinguishing his work from the Romans as delving into such areas for sound reasons as opposed to including it merely to gain commercial success. As in all of his works, it makes for fascinating discussion. More will be said about ANTIPORNO closer to its screening for Japan Cuts, but be assured it is as captivating a provocation as the best of his films.

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WET WOMAN IN THE WIND is being shown at the Walter Reade Theater on July 4 at 8:00 PM with director Akihiko Shiota and actress Yuki Mamiya in attendance to do a Q & A as part of the 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival. Click here for tickets and information.

DAWN OF THE FELINES is being shown at the Walter Reade Theater on July 4 at 10:30 PM as part of the 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival. Click here for tickets and information.

AROUSED BY GYMNOPEDIES is being shown at the SVA theater on July 14 at 10:30 as part of the 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival. Click here for tickets and information.

ANTI-PORNO is being shown at the Japan Society on July 22 at 10:30 as part of the 11th annual Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film. Click here for tickets and information.

The article Nikkatsu Roman Porno Reboot Project by Karen Severns for FCCJ was references for the writing of this article. 

http://www.fccj.or.jp/news-and-views/dispatches/item/841-roman-porno/841-roman-porno.html

MC 1.5: HEART ATTACK aka FREELANCE @ NYAFF ’16

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One of this year’s two Thai imports on the New York Asian Film Festival slate has a very special something with potential to be a runaway audience favorite. The modern-feeling HEART ATTACK is clever, with razor sharp witty dialogue (if any nuance was lost in translation then the original Thai script must be a sheer brilliant act of word play), yet emotionally moving to such a degree that hearts will ache for its young crestfallen characters.

At its center is Yoon, a hopelessly withdrawn workaholic firmly set in a realm of freelance graphic designers. He represents a figure of legendary status among his peers. He narrates his journey, at first extolling the virtues of going days without sleep, and along the way decrying unnecessary obstacles to his career path such as a diet varied beyond his favorite 7-11 shrimp dumplings or shopping for clothes (his wardrobe is a consistent rotation of 90s grunge band t-shirts.   If played straight such a lifestyle could cause awe and consternation, but Yoon emits a playful, wide-eyed charm as he stubbornly holds fast to his folly.

With nothing impeding Yoon’s single-minded commitment to completing jobs, his body finally revolts by producing pock marks at an increasingly alarming rate. Doctor visits would appear to be futile in bringing about any positive change save for a fortuitous public clinic pairing with a little-experienced doctor who Yoon finds attractive.

The unexpected promise of human interaction, perhaps even romance, with a compatible peer gives Yoon reason to change but this self-preserving drive is still at odds with his hardwired habits. Which force will prevail becomes a major question of the narrative. Humanity surfaces in all kinds of disarming and amusing ways as the clever protagonist struggles to break away from what he has always done, even as he realizes it is what is best.

The telling of Yoon’s tale is one of the things that makes this film stand out. It moves quickly, hits an even balance of the main character’s lighthearted reproachful behavior and more serious heartbreaking failures to connect. Different energetic background music clues you to the mode of each scene, but also playfully stops midway to show an awareness that a subtle manipulation is taking place. One cannot help but notice the striking similarity between the free jazz percussion that scores Yoon’s trip into isolated work obsession and a certain anti-superhero film that won all kinds of awards in 2015, but otherwise the score feels refreshingly progressive.

That HEART ATTACK isn’t just a film that compels us to see if the guy and girl get together, but shows the potential of positive change to occur in even the most hardened cases, making it a universal winner. Though not all that concerned with the superficiality of an increasingly touch-up image conscious society, it is an incisive look at obsession with productivity. It is a sly turning the tables on the usual notion of slackers being flawed in the face of earnest hard workers.

Looking at the history of NYAFF Audience Award Winners, filled with countries of origins that have considerably widely established film scenes – Japan, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan – wouldn’t it be a remarkable for this year’s champion to be from Thailand? It would seem the perfect finishing touch for this 15th anniversary edition of the festival, never resting its laurels on what has worked before, and giving a significant focus to films South East Asia.

HEART ATTACK (FREE LANCE) is being screened at the Walter Reade Theater Sunday, July 3, at 6:30 PM. Visit the Subway Cinema website for details and tickets.

 

MC 1.4: JAGAT/Brutal @ NYAFF ’16

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The screening of Malaysian drama JAGAT at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is yet another feather in the annual cinematic summer happening’s plumage of rare and unusual imports to New York City. Past standouts have been the propaganda-laden feel good story COMRADE KIM GOES FLYING from North Korea and SELL-OUT, a musical comedy with audience participation sing-along, (hailing from a far more metropolitan Malaysia.

What JAGAT brings to the screen is a by now classic story of youth learning hard life lessons, the kind that lead to dark futures difficult to acknowledge. However, at times the story’s telling is so far removed from narrative sensibilities familiar in areas with prominent movie industries (as well as those influenced by them), it promises to leave some viewers feeling something askew. No doubt lending to the singularity of the film is its being helmed by a first-time director in Shanjhey Kumar Perumal.

The film first sets its focus on Appoy, a likable and thoroughly relatable middle school aged child who sways to a very different rhythm than his traditional teachers and working class father (a truly imposing figure) who espouse strict old school values. It is the stuff of stories from the good old days, with the resourceful child angling a mirror so he can watch his favorite crime dramas on the family television, and dad coming home in a poster-ripping rage when the absent minded son cannot remember what he did with a work ID card.

At the same time, another narrative unfolds involving some of Appoy’s uncles who are connected to gang that runs increasingly afoul of criminal activity. Pointed conversations suggest a running internal conflict within the Tamil immigrant characters between living modestly and seizing power by more ruthless means.

A combination of experiences that find his creativity unwelcome by those in position of authority, and the influence of those he looks up to reveling in roguish activities sets off a change in Appoy, one the viewers are left to ponder as the movie comes to a close.

A barebones production is made up for by impassioned performances and a clever script; one in which Appoy’s antics often induce laughter and the subtle threat of violence among the older characters occasionally unsettles. The movie’s unique allure includes a remote small town setting presented without any polishing up and music baring the influences traditional influences that together with scenes of local rituals creates a stormy psychedelic effect.

Where JAGAT proves a bit bewildering is an uneven narrative path, including a rather abrupt montage that advances parts of the story a bit too inscrutably. One can also infer cultural and/or government restrictions coming into play, as there is virtually no onscreen violence save a few afterschool scuffles between Appoy and neighborhood bullies. The realism in these scenes do prove to add a surprisingly unnerving element, though.

Despite, and sometimes because of its rough patches, JAGAT is an absorbing blend of classic tale and unconventional storytelling. Seeking it out not only supports a new, compelling voice in cinema, but is also a nod of approval to the New York Asian Film Festival’s continued commitment to bringing unique and far flung programming.

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The New York Asian Film Festival continues its run through July 9 at the Walter Reade Theater and SVA theater. Visit the Subway Cinema website for more information and tickets.

 

 

MC 1.2: Twisted Justice/日本で一番悪い奴ら(NYAFF16)

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© 2016 TWISTED JUSTICE Film Partners

#mistercriminal

By the time we reach the end of TWISTED JUSTICE’s convoluted police corruption tale spanning the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, it might be difficult to remember just what was the first link in the chain of immoral acts. It all starts with a young judo competitor named Moroboshi Yoichi being recruited to the Susukino (a crime ridden entertainment district) branch of Sapporo’s police force because it will bring their team a coveted championship. When the dust has settled, the ripple effect of this seemingly innocuous transgression is astounding.

The true impetus for the spiral out of control comes when a crooked senior cop (played by Pierre Taki, whose performance one again leaves a frighteningly indelible mark in a Kazuya Shiraishi film) begins to mentor the novice after taking a liking to him. Or perhaps not so much taking a liking to as receiving a rub to his ego by keeping him in his company. One striking element of the narrative is the virtual absence of any pure friendships, as everyone expresses a perceived financial or psychological benefit from the relationships they forge. A well intentioned ex-convict and hallucinogenic drug user describes how becoming Moroboshi’s subordinate on the wrong side of the law makes him feel like he can become a big deal. A fledgling female police officer who later joins the police force enjoys a boost to her self-esteem by being with Moroboshi at his most swaggering. And in one of several scenes of depraved sexuality, Moroboshi excites himself to climax by crying out how his love connection will bring him acclaim and help his star rise.

TWISTED JUSTICE is director Kazuya Shiraishi’s second feature film to take on the true crime genre and is evidence of an artisan thriving in his element. In a departure from the mood of slow creeping dread established in previous film THE DEVIL’s PATH, this is by design a lopsided, sprawling affair. The film’s off-kilter funky middle east tinged tune is puzzling when it first hits the ears but soon comes to perfectly suit the eccentricities. Rather than build an intricate plot piece by piece, Shiraishi sets up a landscape of lunacy gone unchecked with Moroboshi’s part in it taking center stage.

It is full of local color: The tacky flashiness of chinpira suits, giant crabs feasted on straight off the shore, and steaming bowls of curry create an appealing sort of low rent decadence as Moroboshi’s foraging into Sapporo’s underground leads to unlikely territory involving Pakistani nationals and hot car lots.

The often flailing occurrences of interagency conflict and blatant disregard for law and decency reach absurd heights as plans are made in Moroboshi’s department to purchase firearms so they can be reported found, giving credit to their agency. It is a display of the cost of results being pursued at any means that cuts as deep as the best of The Wire. Things become so far gone that when the bottom finally falls out, it is a shock to the senses.

Go Ayano plunges into the lead role, pulling off a riveting on screen transformation, from tepid ‘yes man’ to swindling operator and beyond. When Moroboshi is humbled to cowering in a life or death situation, the acclaimed actor’s (who was invited to the NYAFF for the screening to be bestowed with a Rising Star Award) depiction calls to mind Choi Min Sik’s unrestrained emotional performance in past NYAFF highlight NAMELESS GANGSTER. And the movie is a similarly jaw dropping character study, yet all the more curious for its anchoring in reality.

In this time of Asian film when director’s names are becoming more numerous but output less consistent, it is encouraging to see a director hitting his stride with uncompromising gritty celluloid visions.

TWISTED JUSTICE (or NIHON DE ICHIBAN WARUI YATSURA) received its World Premiere screening at the New York Asian Film Festival and is now playing in theaters throughout Japan. For more information about the New York Asian Film Festival’s programming, visit the Subway Cinema website.

MC 1: Japanese Perspectives @ NYAFF 2016

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#modestclamoring

The New York Asian Film Festival has long been offering a sliding door peek into distant cultures and landscapes by way of programming rare and adventurous films from distant shores. Perfect for New Yorkers to get a dose of exotica without leaving city limits, one can get a quick blast by way of a day at the movies or really immerse oneself in salient aspects of a country’s culture as well as trends in its film output with repeated trips to the festival’s home of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (June 22 – July 5) and new digs the SVA Theater (July 6 – July 9).

Gaining insight into Japanese culture is unavoidable after even a little time spent with its films, and this 15th anniversary edition of the NYAFF gives plenty of opportunity to do so. Below is a preview of some of the Japanese movies being shown along with some impressions. For a list of all of the movies as well as offerings from South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South East Asia, visit the SUBWAY CINEMA website.

1.CREEPY

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CREEPY is a psychological thriller from Kiyoshi Kurosawa that has more than a little Hitchcockian flair for suspense. Its biggest reference point, though, is probably early Kiyoshi Kurosawa with the director going back to the kind of off kilter takes on seemingly familiar terror (CURE and KAIRO) head scratching affairs that made singular lasting impressions . This return to form is all the more riveting for casting popular actor Hidetoshi Nishijima as its brooding yet fiery lead and Teruyuki Kagawa, a reliable everyman of Japanese cinema who plays the far more fun villain with maniacal glee. The film’s score dances along a highwire, sending waves of tension down the viewers’ spines. All the while, an equally accomplished sound design makes for a thorough sense of dread and foreboding. The film has its fair share of awkwardness, it is Kiyoshi Kurosawa after all, so prolonged sequences of horrid acts may cause discomfort. It is as though the director is subjecting us to the same notion of being helplessly trapped by circumstances as its flailing protagonists. Like Kurosawa’s other thrillers, CREEPY brings out existential questions of free will and the entanglements of social structures, as well as more local issues of community and the notion of being a good neighbor.

 

2. WHAT A WONDERFUL FAMILY

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Don’t let the charming façade of WHAT A WONDERFUL FAMILY fool you into thinking it is entirely innocuous. The film similarly pokes and prods at traditionally accepted institutions of marriage and family life. The vehicle here is a light comedy focused around an increasingly rare three-generation household, whose eldest figures threaten divorce. While peppered throughout with a gentle zaniness that may seem antiquated, it slyly raises questions over values as family members’ true objections to the split are exposed. The main event is a protracted family meeting scene, which manages to be both no holds barred and civil. Everyone in the cast is on point but Hashizume Isao stands out as the family’s foible-filled patriarchal figure. He is delightfully incorrigible and a joy to watch throughout.

 

3. A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE

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Rougher going is the nearly 3 hour BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE, the latest from iconoclastic director Shunji Iawai (who will be honored at the festival with a lifetime achievement award). It is an odyssey of sorts for its wide eyed protagonist, whose transformative journey, along with the help of a peculiar ‘fixer’ (played by Rising Star recipient Go Ayano) takes her from lonely soul in need of salvation to a savior figure. Far less subtle in its skewering of society, Iwai takes on everything from narrow minded parents to the wastefulness of a population that frowns on recycling old goods. Interesting for its strange straddling of the line between realism and storybook logic, as well as its steadfastly independent production, it can be a tough slog due to some overly long static scenes, in particular those between the main character and one played by COCCO, an actress and singer whose own real life nuances makes for compelling onscreen viewing.

4. KIYAMACHI DARUMA

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Faring less well is the more straightforward genre exercise KIYAMACHI DARUMA. Its title a reference to an ill-fated yakuza member’s limbless state, the mostly plodding narrative only occasionally engages viewers in his unthinkable plight. Although initially suggesting off color humor at the main character’s expense, the proceedings largely maintain 1 sustained note of gloom and denigration. It doesn’t help that the movie’s look is lacking in innovation, reminiscent of video nasties from the 90s (remember Guinea Pig anyone?) that lacked any substance beyond their shock factor. A few points for not pulling any punches, but this story of betrayal amidst a backdrop of criminal activity mostly shouted through by its assorted lowlife characters failed to stir much interest.

 

5. TETSUO: THE IRON MAN

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In honor of its 15th anniversary, the festival is screening a few favorites from the past, including an appropriately slotted 11 pm showing of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN. For those more interested in a visceral experience without the societal context, this was the world’s introduction to Tsukamoto Shinya’s wild imagination. It is a short blast of roughly hewn metallic imagery accompanied by a clanging and banging industrial soundtrack that tells the tale of individuals warped into industrial strength iron clad monstrosities drawn to destroying each other or the world, whichever comes first. With nods to the over the top transformation sequences in Akira, it has been recognized as a pillar of the body horror subgenre, but truly nothing has looked like this before or since. For those uninitiated, the opportunity to see the film that launched hundreds of thousands of passions for Japanese cinema, my own included should not be taken for granted.

For more information about the NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL, visit the SUBWAY CINEMA website.