LOOMING STORM (NYAFF 2018)

THE LOOMING STORM STILL 12
Courtesy of Enjoy Pictures

A strong moody atmosphere-driven crime drama is also an entry into this year’s Tiger Uncaged competition, and for good reason; it is an extremely accomplished first feature for one  Dong Yue. Here again, setting is a crucial element of the story, with a city to the far north, built around its factories, on the verge of staggering depression in the years from 1997 to the early 2000’s. Its gray monoliths to production cast a dreary enough spell, but Yue also depicts a landscape besieged by harsh weather. This is the stage of a series of ghastly murders, which a revered security officer and unofficial sleuth, Yu, is compelled to get to the bottom of.  The film deftly handles a variety of themes. With the overarching dread of economic collapse ever present, THE LOOMING STORM represents struggles that look inward; obsession with achieving a goal and preoccupations of not measuring up. Duan Yihongas Yu eschews both a sense of  naïve pride and being haunted by self doubt.

A kindred spirit to the great BLACK COAL, THIN ICE and even South Korea’s supernaturally leaning THE WAILING, a murder case may seem to be the main plot,  but it is exploded outward, abstracted even, to deal with bigger issues and ideas. While a bit difficult to construe at times, the beautifully shot drear makes for an absorbing cinematic experience.

THE LOOMING STORM is being screened at the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Monday, July 9th, at 9:30 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Director Dong Yue will attend the screening for a Q & A. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

THE LOOMING STORM STILL 29
Courtesy of Enjoy Pictures

 

WRATH OF SILENCE (NYAFF 2018)

Wrath_of_Silence-_SONG_Yang_as_ZHANG_Baoming_4
Courtesy of Bingchi Pictures Co., Ltd.

The first of two very dark and powerful suspense crime dramas from China (which are being screened together on the same night to make for a powerful double feature, WRATH OF SILENCE is only the second feature of  Xin Yukun, but its sweeping cinematography and lurid interiors suggests a visionary at work. The backdrop of a desert landscape, peppered by sparsely populated villages of miners and their families, is integral to the story.  Characters are moved into this minefield by motivations that speak both of their integrity and where their lot in society lies: finding a missing child, building a monopoly on work sites. Yunkun uses aggressive behavior as another way of defining characters, their weapons and manner of striking out extensions of who they are, be it the utilization of anything of nature within a grabbing range, or a polished and apparently expensive bow and arrow set used for hunting its owner’s quarry.  It is a fantastic instance of strife arising from worlds colliding.

Wrath_of_Silence-_JIANG_Wu_as_CHANG_Wannian_4_.jpg
Courtesy of Bingchi Pictures Co., Ltd.

Violence is often jarring, and can downright brutal when making a point,. Visuals are left lingering in the viewers’ mind. Yunkun’s navigation of calm and calamity  make this one of the strong picks of the festival.

WRATH OF SILENCE is being screened at the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Monday, July 9th, at 6:30 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Director Xin Yukun and actor Jiang Wu will attend the screening for a Q & A, and Jiang will be presented with the NYAFF 2018 Star Asia Award. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

Wrath_of_Silence_-_Song_Yang_as_ZHANG_Baomin_3
Courtesy of Bingchi Pictures Co., Ltd.

 

MICROHABITAT (NYAFF 2018)

 

MICROHABITAT STILL 9
Copyright © M-Line Distribution
From South Korea, a patient film straddling the line between drama and black comedy centered around a young woman who has ditched her current living quarters in order to get by. Miso is a great character; her justifications for giving up what common sense would dictate to be basic necessities is amusing and endearing. She is both strong-willed and woefully vulnerable.

The film follows her as she seeks temporary room and board from former bandmates whom she once made music with in her younger years. She visits each one in turn, with varying results, but each time the interaction reveals some societal problem or highlights a kind of ‘Us VS Them’ difference in values. Often these are associated with aging, raising conflict within Miso, who has no desire to change. Even as the film slyly digs beneath the surface at some darker themes, it is funny throughout, even hilarious at times. With a poignant conclusion, MICROHABITAT evokes a range of emotions and is a great candidate to win this year’s Tiger Uncaged competition.

MICROHABITAT is being shown on Tuesday, July 10 at 6:30 pm as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival, and will be screened with an appearance and Q & A by with director Teon Go-woon and actor Ahn Jae-hong. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

MICROHABITAT STILL 5
Copyright © M-Line Distribution

THE THIRD MURDER (NYAFF 2018)

THE THIRD MURDER STILL 3
© 2017 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION All rights reserved.

Drawing instant intrigue for fans of director Hirokzau Kore-Eda, acclaimed director of numerous works showing understated and often obscure views of family dynamics; how would his mark be made on a genre-fied courtroom drama by way of a murder mystery? It may not seem like as drastic a mark as one might expect. But there is an understated feel to it, even as that crucial testimony is called for in a courtroom on the verge of a decision. There are also some deep moral and philosophical quandaries being dealt with, putting the film in good company with its festival peers (such as SCYTHIAN LAMB).  The film is anchored by the very solid performances of Koji Yakusho, as an inscrutable suspect who hides myriad realities behind sad and searching eyes, and Masaharu Fukuyama as cocksure and morally flexible defense attorney, a character type of great familiarity.  Fukuyama’s character stands to change the most, and does so engagingly as complications in his own family life bear impact on his dealing with the case. There is a very Kore-eda esque feel to gently chiding interactions between him and his father, which are a bit meandering and very natural. A solid drama with a bit of arthouse subtlety, which leaves plenty of mental matter to consider afterwards.

THE THIRD MURDER is being screened at The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday, June 30th, at 12:15 PM. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

THE THIRD MURDER STILL 47

 

RIVER’S EDGE (NYAFF 2018)

RIVER'S EDGE STILL 4
© 2018 River’s Edge Film Partners / Kyoko Okazaki / TAKARAJIMASHA

An exquisitely filmed downer from Japan, which may be mistaken for a cautionary tale on the ways of today’s wayward youth. A few hints show this to be a scene set in the 90s, like the absence of cell phones and a reference to going to see a Flipper’s Guitar concert in Shibuya. But this drama about adolescents with experiences way beyond their age shares some common themes with other tragic Japanese tales of teenagers (including one in this year’s lineup, LIVERLEAF, which falls short of RIVER’S EDGE): classrooms run by the kids where teachers are all but absent, intense clique-forming and bullying of individuals, parents mostly in the dark about their children’s social lives. There are scenes of sexual aggressions, drug use, and violence that are quite difficult to bear. So too are the main figures’ impassiveness at all that takes place around them. Every so often ire is raised, mostly that of Haruna, the loosely connected group’s central figure (played by an always fascinating Fumi Nikaido whose languid expressions are easy to get lost in). They can be accused of being vapid characters, written to lack depth. But the film is interesting in its way of cataloguing their trials with an air of neutrality, holding back from casting judgment. It feels like we are viewing these situations from the teenaged protagonists’ untaught and in many ways damaged points of view. It is apparent that, as coolly as they may react, these trials are more than they are equipped to day deal with. Their lack of change begins to feel like a condition of being trapped in their roles, and this makes it possible to empathize. While its cataloging of brutality feels merciless, it is beholden of a strange beauty; definitely worth viewing.

RIVER’S EDGE is being screened at The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Tuesday, July 3, at 9:15 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

RIVER'S EDGE STILL 2
© 2018 River’s Edge Film Partners / Kyoko Okazaki / TAKARAJIMASHA

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB (NYAFF 2018)

still_main_for ONLY printed publicity
© 2018 “The Scythian Lamb” Film Partners ©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

This singular drama from Japan opens over a somber landscape in a quiet coastal town. It holds many provincial features, such as a festival meant to appease an evil spirit carried on year after year by an alarmingly superstitious populace, and a tendency for gossip. Tsukisue, a civil servant is sent to pick up 6 individuals and bring them into town. He is also charged with helping them integrate into their surroundings. Soon after, we learn that this is part of a social experiment; the new arrivals are inmates serving time for violent crimes, their sentences commuted so that they can be rehabilitated in a new environment. This sets the stage for a story rife with moral and philosophical conundrums, to be debated and explored.

While the unwitting official is left with responsibility over the lives of the ex-convicts (which proves to be a varied group), he also deals with relationship woes, magnified by the suffocating small town atmosphere. In all, he has quite a lot on his shoulders.

If the premise sounds as though it would make for a great mini-series, extended over several episodes, we are on the same page. In fact it is based on a manga, a format perfect for stories to sprawl outwards. And with all of the potential character interactions laid out, sprawl is exactly what the story should do. While off to a promising start, things begin to line up a little too conveniently. Characters take on developments or newfound interests that seem rather abrupt. It as though a linear conclusion is being raced toward, with all of those moral intricacies crumbling away to carve a path.

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB STILL 7
© 2018 “The Scythian Lamb” Film Partners ©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

While the development of story does not satisfy through and through, there are aspects of it, in addition from its potential-laden premise, that are praiseworthy. Sound design, credited to Tatsuo Yamaguchi, is used to great effect. At times, electronic effects plod forebodingly. There is something akin to big drops of water falling into deep wells and causing ripples of foreboding that disrupt the calm. Then there are the jams forged by Tsukisue and his two friends, who reform a noise rock trio from their past to practice. (this would not be the first time that reliving or recalling one’s former band as a way to reconnect with the past surfaces as a theme in the festival) They forge propulsive sonic rumbles, something like a therapeutic cleansing of the air around them. While Scythian Lamb doesn’t hit the mark completely from beginning to end, it has enough going for it to make it interesting viewing.

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB is being screened at 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Thursday, July 5, at 9:15 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

 

BLOOD OF WOLVES (NYAFF 2018)

BLOOD OF WOLVES STILL 5
© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Kazuya Shiraishi has been something of a ringer for the New York Asian Film Festival, churning out a steady, reliable stream of hardboiled hits every time one of his films is brought in. Starting with the dark peek into the working of a grizzly murder case in THE DEVIL’S PATH, followed up by the convoluted tale of a corrupt cop’s rise and undoing in TWISTED JUSTICE, and topped off last year with the more simmering NIGHT OF THE FELINES, a low-key entry into the Nikattsu Studio’s Roman Porn Reboot series. This time at bat, the director with a knack for true crime dramas takes a big swing, and connects with BLOOD OF WOLVES. Deserving of the term period piece, Shiraishi’s production manages to convincingly evokes an 80s Yakuza crime drama. While of a mostly different look and feel, I am reminded of the great South Korean crime drama NAMELESS GANGSTER (which played a past NYAFF) and how thoroughly that film embraced a time period. I also cannot help but draw parallels between that film’s Choi Min Sik, and similarly revered Koji Yakusho featured here as a detective in lates 80s Hiroshima, specializing in dealing with the Yakuza.

To picture Yakusho here in his role as Detective Ogami, think of his ‘wildman’ persona in KAWAKI. Switching effortlessly between seething quietly and recklessly lashing out, seemingly unable to be contained. The well-worn trope of the odd couple is played to the hilt, as he is paired with the straight-laced Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka, who shows a great deal of depth in his portrayal of inner conflict).

As warring Yakuza factions edge closer and closer toward an escalating gang war, a multilayered story of corruption also unfolds. Acts of violence go to some teeth-grinding uncomfortable lengths, and Shiraishi’s storytelling has a karmic sensibility.

Ogami describes his situation of oft-compromised morality as ‘walking a line,’ and the film seems to do so too, not tipping its hand as to which way is right – upholding ethics at all costs or using questionale tactics to get results. A selection in this year’s Tiger Uncaged jury competition, and one that could easily walk away with it for its unrelenting intensity.

BLOOD OF WOLVES is being screened at The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Monday, July 2, at 9:15 PM. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

BLOOD OF WOLVES STILL 3
© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee