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Not Just For Fanboys: The 2007 New York Asian Film Festival

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By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore

IFC News

[Photo: Park Chan-wook’s “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay,” Moho Films, 2006]

Roaring into town to punish evil-doers and please all lovers of the esoteric, the weird and the wonderful, the New York Asian Film Festival returns with a line-up of films from Korea, Japan, China, Pakistan, Thailand and Hong Kong. Now in its sixth year, the NYAFF remains a reliable touchstone for what’s going on in Asian cinema, skipping the usual festival fare for pop and fringe films that push the limits of what you’ve seen before on screen (take scatological Korean animated sci-fi film “Aachi & Ssipak”) or what you’d consider a mainstream blockbuster (see Japanese haunted hair extension flick “Exte”). As always, familiar names like “Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook are mixed in with lesser known festival favorites like Tetsuya Nakashima, and “extreme” films are mixed in with sentimental heartwarmers. The festival runs from June 22 to July 8, and below are initial reviews of select films, with more to come as it goes on. For more on the festival (including ticket-buying info), visit the official site.

The Banquet (2006)

Directed by Feng Xiaogang

Somehow, the historical martial arts epic has become the Chinese answer to the Merchant Ivory film, steeped in prestige, crafted for international consumption, and skipping over complicated contemporary issues to revel in an earlier time period when people wore prettier, more complicated clothing. “The Banquet,” directed by Feng Xiaogang, is a Gertrude-centric “Hamlet” transposed to tumultuous 10th century China and cut through with generous dollops of balletic, wired-assisted fight scenes. It’s a categorically sumptuous film — from cavernous palace halls to the elegant unfurling of blood in forest stream, there’s no chance at visual extravagance passed up. It’s not enough to make up for the film’s almost complete lack of vitality, but it sure is nice to look at.

“The Banquet” has more than a little in common with Zhang Yimou’s “Curse of the Golden Flower” — both are focused on women furiously manuevering for their own survival in the viperous, gilded courts of ancient China, and both were supposed to star Gong Li, who passed on “The Banquet” due to scheduling conflicts. In her place is Zhang Ziyi, who seems more like a kitten playing at being a big cat as Empress Wan, once a court maiden in love with Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), but chosen as a bride to the emperor instead, causing the unhappy Wu Luan to leave the court to immerse himself in theater and music. At the film’s open, the former emperor has been murdered with the “Hamlet” poison of choice (ear!), and Wan has taken up with his murderer, the new emperor (Ge You), in order to protect herself and Wu Luan. Various machinations and assassination attempts follow as the prince arrives at court, culminating in a midnight banquet at which everyone’s agendas are bloodily revealed.

The famous choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (the man behind “The Matrix” films as well as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and dozens of others) put together the action sequences, which director Feng shoots in slow motion so luxuriant it’s hard not to giggle. Poetic? Sure. Silly? Totally. When a genre is shoulder to shoulder with self-parody, it might be time to give it a rest. Nevertheless, Zhang and Wu have excellent thwarted chemistry, even expressed via a loving swordfight. Zhou Xun (of “Suzhou River”) gets the best (if also, in retrospect, most foolish) death scene in a film heavy with them as the Ophelia character. —AW

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay (2006)

Directed by Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook (mostly) trades in the vengeance for offbeat romance in “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK,” a love story set in the most adorable mental institution in all of Korea. Lim Su-jeong plays Young-goon, who’s committed following a possible suicide attempt after she’s convinced herself that she’s actually a cyborg and therefore does not need to eat. Pop star Rain is Il-sun, who suffers from the delusion that he’s disappearing and that he also has the ability to steal aspects of people’s personalities. It’s meant to be fanciful, but Park both engages the fact that little sympathy or understanding is given to those suffering from mental illness in many parts of Asia — Young-goon’s mother doesn’t understand why her daughter can’t just act normal enough to not disturb the customers at their family-owned restaurant — while displaying no particular understanding of mental illness himself. The craziness of everyone in the asylum has a direct cause, whether it be parental abandonment, societal pressure or just a particularly traumatic event (however you choose to define that — in one case, it’s failing an audition for the Edelweiss Boys and Girls Choir, which would be a dire blow to us as well).

Park is a prodigious pop filmmaker, and while “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK” doesn’t zip along like his earlier work, it offers a snappy, sun-soaked view of the shelter from an unkind world that group delusions have provided the institution’s residents. The film would be slight even without the failings mentioned above, but Lim, wafer thin and capable of producing some decidedly uncutesy rictus expressions, does manage to find flashes of genuine sadness in her character’s suffering. Park, meanwhile, having gotten his chirpy jollies out, will next move on to vampire movie “Evil Live.” —AW

Hula Girls (2006)

Directed by Lee Sang-il

It’s hard to imagine something as quaint as hula dancing being seen as a scandalous act, but that’s exactly what it was in 1960s northern Japan, when a bunch of woman in the mining village of Iwaki became hula dancers as part of a Hawaiian theme park designed to help the town’s flagging economy. I associate hula dancing with kid-friendly tourist attractions, but to the elders of Iwaki it’s a dead serious offense; Elvis on Sullivan multiplied by a thousand.

“Hula Girls,” directed by Lee Sang-Il, depicts this true story of lovable losers with heart and humor and with plenty of inspiration from other films about lovable losers with heart and humor. The film is more than a little like “The Full Monty” (with more than a little “A League of Their Own” sprinkled in). Still, it would take an even more jaded critic than me to resist the film’s heart-warming charms. The dancing’s great too, and I’ve got to admit: some of those hip-shaking moves are saucy enough to make me think those 1960s Japanese parents may have been right. —MS

Big Bang Love: Juvenile A (2006)

Directed by Takashi Miike

You hear “Takashi Miike made a gay prison love story” and you think… well, we’re not sure what you think, but we imagine it’s probably blood splattered, sexually incomprehensible, and includes someone cackling maniacally in the background. Of course, the only thing you can really generalize about Miike’s films is that he sure makes a lot of them; “Big Bang Love: Juvenile A” (more literally translated as “4.6 Billion Years of Love”) comes on the tail of “violence across the ages” epic “Izo,” an episode of “Ultraman Max” and fabulous, traumatic children’s film “The Great Yokai War,” which screened at last year’s NYAFF. “Big Bang Love” is, unlikely enough, a pensive, symbolism-laden art film that regards its delinquent protagonist pair with rueful tenderness and bemused sorrow.

Shiro (Masanobu Ando) is, at the film’s outset, dead — strangled — and Jun (Ryuhei Matsuda), who was found with him, immediately confesses to the crime. From there the film stutters back to when the two arrived at the prison, blood-splattered from the respective murders they’ve each committed and eyeing each other as they’re stripped and processed. Shiro is all rage and violence, while Jun is remote and affectless, and Shiro falls into protecting Jun from the other inmates. It’s no “Oz”-style relationship, though, and it’s not, despite the heated pans down Shiro’s tattooed form, physical; the two have an immediate and unspoken understanding of each other expressed through the sweetly vulnerable conversations they have in their few moments alone. The world of “Big Bang Love” is otherwise cold and methodical, from the sparse, abstract sets that recall Lars von Trier to the circling investigation into Shiro’s death that shapes the film.

Looming outside the prison are a rocket ship and an ancient pyramid. One is a way to space and the other supposedly leads to heaven, we’re told — they’re the most overt instances of the film’s reoccuring application of astral imagery to emotion. It’s as if in “Big Bang Love”‘s desolate setting science is the inadequate sole language available to describe human connection, and the damaged young men experiencing such things are as foreign and incomprehensible as alien beings. —AW

Aachi & Ssipak (2006)

Directed by Jo Beom-jin

You know where you stand with this movie from the first two lines of narration. “The world has run out of all forms of energy,” a solemn voice intones. Okay, with you so far. “People built a new city,” it continues, “by making a new energy with their excrements.” All right, I — wait, wha habba?

Yes, in this truly demented piece of Korean animation, the world of the future is shit out of luck. The populace must now crap into special toilets to fuel their society, and they are rewarded for their obedient deposits with a highly addictive laxative called a juicybar. Our amoral heroes Aachi and Ssipak are involved in the juicybars black market for these and become mixed up in a wild misadventure that involves a cyborg supercop, a crew of blue-skinned, juicybar-craving mutants called The Diaper Gang, and a woman with a magical anus.

The tone is crude, the jokes unforgivably infantile, and the idea downright disgusting. But damn if the visuals aren’t sublime, running the gamut from silly to truly, fluidly exciting. All the best and most exciting moments involve Geko, the government’s unstoppable enforcer, who flies through the air, dual handguns blazing, like the unholy love child of Chow Yun-Fat and RoboCop.

I’ve basically never seen anything like this, even though “Aachi & Ssipak” has one of the longest and weirdest lists of pop (or is that poop?) culture references of any movie in history; I mean, “Temple of Doom,” sure, but “Hard-Boiled,” “The Matrix” and “Battleship Potempkin” all in a single scene? And did I really see an “Ishtar” shout-out?

“Aachi & Ssipak” is animation at its most pointedly unDisney-like — offensive, frenetic, and absolutely NOT kid-friendly — which can be a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood. This thing is so aggressively lewd (magical anus, anyone?) that it will almost certainly never see any sort of release in the States, so kudos to the NYAFF for sharing it with us. —MS

Exte (2007)

Directed by Sion Sono

So, Sion Sono’s “Exte” is a film about haunted hair extensions, but it isn’t a parody of the declining J-horror trend and its nonstop parade of droopy-locked ghost girls. With its hirsute spectral source taking a back seat to a vampishly cruel older sister and a goofy hair fetishist, it’s not exactly a serious endeavor either. Like Takashi Miike’s less successful supernatural cell phone horror pastiche “One Missed Call,” “Exte” keeps a straight face through a wacky set-up, and comes up with, if not quite scares, at least imaginative and impressive death-by-tress sequences, including one in which a victim gets up close and literal with the expression “being given the hairy eyeball.”

Sono made a name for himself among the fanboys both here and in Japan with 2002’s “Suicide Circle” (semi-sequel “Noriko’s Dinner Table” is currently playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York), a film that used horror conventions to explore the country’s high suicide rate. “Exte” doesn’t have such social satire in mind — central character Yuko (played by Chiaki Kuriyama, best known as Gogo Yubari) is an apprentice at a salon and approaches her chosen career with all of the ganbatte spirit a plucky drama heroine can be expected to muster. The town’s police force has discovered a dead girl secreted in a shipping crate filled with hair extensions. They speculate that she was killed so that her organs could be sold on the black market, but before they can investigate further, her corpse is stolen by a morgue worker who’s enchanted by the way her hair continues growing even in death. He pawns her postmortem locks off on Yuko’s salon, and customers start finding out the hard way that they’re infused with the dead girl’s vengeful spirit.

The ghost may do all of the heavy lifting when it comes to killings, but its Yuko’s slatternly bully of a sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi) who’s the more frightening figure. Striding into Yuko’s nascent independent life unannounced to paw through her things and drop off her unfortunate, abused daughter for a few days while she goes out to party, she carries with her an implicit history of Yuko’s dismal family life. Kiyomi’s power to harm may not be otherworldly, but it’s considerable — Yuko scrambles in her wake while her salon coworkers look on, unsympathetic. —AW

Death Note, Death Note: The Last Name (2006)

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

This series of authentic Japanese blockbusters (the first film knocked “The Da Vinci Code” out of the top spot at the box office charts back in 2006; the second was the number one grosser in Japan for a month straight), features teen hunks with boy band good looks battling over a powerful book in a none-too-subtle debate over the morality of the death penalty. Based on a 108-chapter manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, “Death Note” and “Death Note: The Last Name” — it’s really a two-part mini-series rather than a movie and a sequel — examines Japan’s generational divide, the nature of justice, and the importance of fine, manly hair care over the course of four and a half hours.

A law student named Light Yagami (Tetsuya Fujiwara) finds a magical notebook that lets you kill a person simply by writing his or her name within its pages, just as he’s become fed up with the inadequacies of the Japanese judicial system. Soon he sets out on a one-man war against crime under the pseudonym “Kira.” His extra-curricular activities excite Japanese youths and infuriate the older establishment, including his police chief father (played by “Chairman” Takeshi Kaga from “Iron Chef”), who is forced to team up with a mysterious young detective named L (Kenichi Matsuyama) to discover who is behind the mass killings.

Light and L are equally brilliant, and the first “Death Note” is a snappy and well-paced cat-and-mouse thriller with a Sherlock Holmes vs. Moriarty in the Internet age vibe. That leaves you hyped to watch “The Last Name,” where Light infiltrates L and the police chief’s elite Kira crackdown unit, but part two languishes through some endlessly drawn-out subplots (taken directly from the manga, as I understand it) and gets bogged down in at least half a dozen too many rules from the Death Note’s user’s manual. A promising first half and a disappointing second equals, at best, a qualified recommendation. Also, what’s up with the totally inappropriate Chili Peppers song over the closing credits? —MS

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima

A middle-aged woman is murdered by the river. There’s no one to mourn her — she lived alone in squalor, barely removed from homelessness. Her neighbors knew only that she smelled bad and sometimes screamed to herself at night. Her 20-year-old nephew Sho (Eita), who had no idea she even existed, is enlisted by his father to clear out her apartment, where, sorting through the remnants of her life, he learns that the woman, Matsuko (Miki Nakatani), bounced from terrible relationship to terrible relationship, was disowned by their family, worked as a prostitute and served time for murder. All in all a pretty wretched life, but what makes the self-proclaimed “fairy tale tragedy” “Memories of Matsuko” so good, even a little great, is that Matsuko refused to accept so, and accordingly, the film is both a musical and a brilliant whirl of stylized, candy-colored visuals, “The Life of Oharu” by way of a neon “Amelie.”

Like Mizoguchi’s miserable heroine, Matsuko was once ensconced in a respectable life. In flashbacks, we see her first in her early twenties, working as a middle-school teacher and being wooed by a handsome coworker. She’s thrilled by the promise of romance, but the love she really yearns for is paternal — her solemn father has always favored her sweet, invalid sister and scarcely given Matsuko any attention. When she’s forced to quit her job after a misunderstanding when one of her students steals some money on a field trip, her troubles at home come to a head, and in shame and rage she leaves, forever, as it turns out.

From there, she falls into a relationship with an abusive, alcoholic writer, and then on to one with his married rival, whose attacks turn out to be emotional. Then on to a soapland, and, more degradingly, out of the soapland, no longer in fashion and unwanted, and into the arms of a pimp, and onwards toward an ending we already know. This is, under its giddy appearance, unrelentingly grim melodrama — every fresh start arrives hand in hand with dread at what will come next. Matsuko’s no martyr; she has no sense of self-worth, she makes awful decisions, is more than a bit pathetic, and embraces her role as a human punching bag, but she maintains an unwavering faith in the belief that happiness can and must lie only in other people, and when each tragedy has her declaring her life is surely at an end, each new man has her singing again. She’s a holy fool — she can’t not love completely and selflessly without judgment or discrimination. Her devotion is so total that it’s frightening, even ultimately repellent to the men she’s involved with, and it leads her to believe that no one will ever love her back, because no one is willing to love with her reckless total commitment.

Director Tetsuya Nakashima last chronicled suburban subculture malaise in the enjoyable trifle “Kamikaze Girls,” and here that fanciful visual style kaleidoscopes out to encompass an entire world of magic in the mundane and the woeful. The film’s most indelible image is one of an amusement park on the roof of a city department store, a setting of impossible wonder when first glimpsed in a childhood memory, and later the more prosaic, bittersweet backdrop to a grown-up confrontation framed by a Greek chorus of stage performers. Almost as memorable is the dreamlike, starlit grassy field in which Matsuko meets her end, and in which the film finds in its foreordained tragedy an unexpected and well-earned moment of grace. —AW

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