NYAFF 2012 Preview: The Usual Unusual

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
The summer months roll around and much of the world is cooling off in the dark of the theater with the likes of brooding vigilantes, rebooted wall-crawlers and vampire hunting presidents. This is all well and good, or at the very least, distracting, but what the city of New York, via way of Subway Cinema and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, has to offer is nothing short of spectacular. Wait, that should be Spectacular. That capital 'S' matters, for this is the giddiest, most peppermint-fresh, truly, exceedingly gonzo kind of Spectacular! Because, lets face it, even in their lighter, less world premiere heavy years, the New York Asian Film Festival is able to give us a few gems we're bound not to find anywhere else this side of the Pacific. And yeah, while a vampire hunting president does sound like it'd fit comfortably into a Sushi Typhoon showcase (which is not happening this year by the way) you can bet yer robot tittie katanas that NYAFF will give you something even better -- something with just as much heart as well as... err... just as much heart. Bloody, exposed, and still beating, of course.

Starting tonight and running through NYAFF's finale on July 15th, Team Twitch will be bringing you all the coverage that is the most fittingly unfit to print. Now to get us going, below, you'll find 13 capsule reviews of films playing at the fest. That's 13 out of 54 films though, so consider this just a taste. A yummy taste we hope though.

In the coming days be on the lookout for a plethora of reviews, interviews, a full-on look at Choi Min-sik's career by Pierce Conran, and perhaps a surprise or two...


Vulgaria_nyaff.jpgVULGARIA (Hong Kong) | Friday, June 29 @ 8:30pm, Walter Reade Theater

Like many R-rated Hollywood releases in recent years, Pang Ho-cheung's Vulgaria wraps its raunchy humor around a core of reassuring sentimentality, even, in this case, "family values." Indeed, the extent to which it concerns itself with its movie producer protagonist's struggles with his ex-wife over their young daughter, and his quasi-shame over the latter's perceptions of his career, well, those might just be the most shocking things in the film. To be sure, star Chapman To does a very nice job navigating between absurd sex jokes, Ed Wood-like travails in making his new picture, and more earnest moments. Still, I feel that there's an edge missing here that would have transformed Vulgaria into the full-on exploitation movie that it seems to aspire to. Am I being unfair, given the cultural/political constraints in Hong Kong filmmaking these days? Perhaps. But I am cautioning certain U.S. audiences to expect less of an offensive assault on their sensibilities, despite the film's constant references to bestiality and dining on animal genitals, and more of an "outrageous" comedy that talks the talk more than it walks the walk. For me the best part of Vulgaria is its satirical lecture-hall framing story--I could see Hong Sang-soo enjoying himself at its skewering of academic filmmaking--and I particularly loved how this narrative device concludes things in a way that is both exceedingly clever and satisfying. I just wish I'd gotten that same feeling from the main narrative itself. - Peter Gutierrez

Nameless Gangster_nyaff.jpgNAMELESS GANGSTER (Korea) | Saturday, June 30 @ 9pm, Tuesday, July 3 @ 1pm, WRT

Of those films that I've seen in this year's NYAFF lineup, this is one of the few undeniable must-see's... especially if you're a fan of Korean gangster movies like I am. No, don't expect star (and festival guest) Choi Min-Sik to show up in ruthless, larger-than-life alpha-male mode. In fact, the opposite is true, as you might have guessed from the title, which actually might reflect the story better if it were "Anonymous Gangster" since its protagonist is a master of under-the-radar machinations during his rise to power.  In a performance mesmerizing for its subtlety, Choi delivers the kind of character study whose subject is-- well, you honestly can't tell if he's an opportunistic weakling, or if he's "crazy like a fox" and is in reality the most ruthless of all the lowlifes on screen. Choi's perfectly complemented by the always-good Ha Jung-Woo, who uses his sleepy-eyed menace to best effect. Not an action thriller, not a legal thriller, but a "crime drama" in the best, deepest sense of the label, Nameless Gangster is the kind of smart genre pic that you just can't take your eyes off of. Every scene is just so well crafted, each a self-contained mini-drama, that you don't want the overall saga to end, but to continue on and on. A real triumph. - PG

you_are_the_apple_nyaff.jpgYOU'RE THE APPLE OF MY EYE (Taiwan) | Sunday, July 1 @ 6pm, Monday July 2 @ 6:30pm, Monday, July 9 @ 12:30pm, WRT 

Even more so than Vulgaria, this film flirts with daring material and then withdraws to a far, far safer place; unlike the Hong Kong film, however, this Taiwanese production takes nearly all its entertainment value with it in its abrupt retreat into the highly conventional. Opening with a startling series of school-set teen comedy episodes that include a couple of buddies masturbating right in the middle of class, novelist Giddens Ko's first feature is not the envelope-pushing coming-of-age tale one might take it to be at first. Initially self-aware to a disarming degree, You Are The Apple of My Eye almost seems to use its intelligence as an attention-grabber that it can then dispense with once it's assured that the audience is hooked. For example, we're introduced to one character as the "fat" friend because, as the script explains, all such stories of course need a fat comic relief figure... and it's hard not to smile at the way the film is deconstructing itself... until gradually we come to realize that this character, and most of the others, are used merely to provide some colorful antics here and there. No question that leads Michelle Chen and Ko Chen-tung display a lot of charisma here, but the film as a whole barely manages to escape being a glorified calling card for their talent and good looks. One also admires the way that You Are The Apple of My Eye does not shy away from some of the downbeat romance that worked so well in, say, (500) Days of Summer, but undermining all its dramatic substance is a very off-putting sense of self-importance--the music swells, freighted looks and sighs ensue, we get flashback montages to incidents that feel like they occurred only five minutes earlier, and so on. The result is a polished film with a handful of nice moments but a far cry from the bittersweet exercise in nostalgia it's apparently shooting for. - PG

Starry-Starry-Night_nyaff.jpgSTARRY STARRY NIGHT (Taiwan) | Tuesday, July 3 @ 3:30pm, WRT

Aiming for nothing less than dramatizing the redemptive powers of art and imagination, Tom Lin's acclaimed drama doesn't exactly explore new territory--the universal themes are part of its strength--but does so with a combination of intensity and lightness that make it a unique achievement. In fact, the whimsical and the heavy are so intertwined that each imbues the other with something of its quality, creating a work that's unlike most other treatments of early adolescence. Think My Neighbor Tortoro but with older kids... plus marital discord, death, and lots of bullying. Superb acting and more-than-memorable animated sequences highlight a production that's notable for its intelligence and meticulous design throughout. Want an example? In the background of one shot we see a print of Magritte's famous painting "The Son of Man" while resting on a table off to the side in the foreground is a bowl with the same kind of green apples--thus suggesting the porous boundary between life and art that is Starry Starry Night's central conceit. Yes, this film is getting a New York release in July, but here's your chance to beat the lines then, and get an early jump on enchantment. - PG

couples_nyaff.jpgCOUPLES (Korea) | Tuesday, July 3 @ 6pm, Wednesday, July 4 @ 1pm, WRT 

Couples
is one of those films that doesn't seem like much on the surface. A romantic comedy with three intersecting stories and no remarkable features to speak of, and yet, it is one of those surprisingly effective middle-of-the-road genre pics that Korean cinema seems so adept at producing. Not all of the elements in the interconnected stories work but those that do more than make up for it. While the structure of the film owes much to the recent popularity of romantic omnibus films such as Love Actually and Valentine's Day, it is handled well here and rather than feel hackneyed and passé, the filmmakers, as well as the cast, handle the proceedings with a fresh spark. What's more they seem to be enjoying themselves and that good humor is passed on to the audience.
 
Director Jeong Yong-ki is an established studio hand (Marrying The Mafia II & III; Once Upon a Time) whose work has never really impressed me but here he seems to have brought together all the best elements of his craft and finally has something worthwhile to show for it. Granted, this is no My Sassy Girl but if you like to dip into romcoms from time to time you could do a lot worse than Couples. - Pierce Conran

seediq_bale_nyaff.jpgWARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE I & II (Taiwan) | Wednesday, July 4 @ 6pm, WRT

With comparable screen time devoted to the Seediq (Taiwan's indigenous people) indulging in both massacres and bracing acts of self-sacrifice, Wei Te-Sheng's film manages to be one of those hard-to-pull-off war movies that are both appalling and rousing. With the exception of an unfortunate postscript that literalizes a spiritual concept that had previously been metaphoric (for the audience, that is), the presentation here is very much a thinking-person's action/adventure film. With echoes of everything from John Ford movies and Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans to Avatar and even the Rambo flicks, Warriors of The Rainbow unleashes 4+ hours of bloody spectacle that creates something fresh and moving out of what might first appear to be pretty stale ingredients. How does Wei pull this off? For starters, you'll rarely see an epic that is less lazy. With incredible attention paid to both the quiet scenes and the kinetic set pieces, the film demands respect even when you're not quite sure where it's leading you. What's more, the production design, stunt work, editing, and similar technical elements are all, I'm guessing, among the tops you'll see this year. For these reasons, and for its grand yet complex mythologizing of warriorhood, you'll be forgiven if you see echoes of Kurosawa and Lean in it. Yes, the approach here is less "literary" in flavor than what those filmmakers are known for, but you'll get caught up in the sweep of the battle scenes just the same. Sure, there are some problematic issues and themes that deserve scrutiny, but the bottom line is that if you're a cinephile, and especially one when it comes to Asian cinema, this is a film you won't want to miss catching on the big screen. And with NYAFF offering a deal that allows you to see both parts 1 and 2 for one price on July 4th, you'd be crazy not to celebrate the holiday by experiencing this cinematic war of independence. - PG

honey_pupu_nyaff.jpgHONEY PUPU (Taiwan) | Thursday, July 5 @ 1:30pm, Sunday, July 8 @ 10:30pm, WRT

I find it odd that for whatever reason most contemporary films have largely disregarded the way social networking and web 2.0 technologies have played a role in our lives. And usually, if they do touch base on this with any weight or awareness, it is out of concern, fear, showing how alienated, how petty, how narrow-minded, and how superficial people become because of it. IE how dangerous this all can be. It is with a rather sweet, creamy dollop of elation that I am hear to tell you that Chen Hung-I's Honey Pupu is not one of those films, though it does not disregard the dark side of the digital age.

There is a phosphorescent glow to the ever-changing urban-scape of Taipai here that may remind one of the early collaborations of Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle, though one should also treat that as a passing notion on influence for nearly any filmmaker under 35 these days. Really, Chen's film is comparable to just about everything under the audio/visual sun, owing as much to Goddard and the French New Wave as to Salvidor Dali and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Although the best way to describe Honey Pupu might be of a slightly more literary route. Let's say it's like if Miranda July translated/transplanted a Haruki Murakami story to the West, and then adapted it for film and re-set it in the East. That is saying in the most roundabout of ways then that it is Chen's film through and through. And that'd be a mesmerizing account of now, of youth dealing with the disconnect in the connection of realities. Under the guises of net names like Cola, Assassin, Money, Playing, and Vicky, they live in the moment anticipating the end, finding a world pre-internet, finding a world post-internet, speaking in number and letter combos, witnessing industry coming and going, raising and collapsing, missing people that never disappeared.

Honey Pupu is a vital film because it gets the whole picture of where we live now both online and off, yet goes well beyond just distinguishing these two sides, because there is no longer a distinction really is there? Especially for the under-30 set. It is a film then that is at once frenetic and meditative, fragile and robust; a picture full of lust and despair, charm and mystery. It brims over with the most romantic of notions, arriving with a sense of absolute wonder in the most tragic of places. It is a must-see at this year's NYAFF, yessiree. - Ben Umstead


scabbard_samurai_nyaff.jpgSCABBARD SAMURAI (Japan) | Friday, July 6 @ 3:30pm, WRT, Saturday, July 14 @ 1pm, Japan Society

In 2011 we were holding out with bated breath that funnyman-turned-filmmaker Hitoshi Matsumoto's latest would have its bow at NYAFF. Alas this wasn't meant to be. It's darn well beyond swell then that the film is having its North American premiere at this year's fest. Starting off with a few notes that coulda' been lifted right out of a classic Masaru Sato score
, Matsumoto's take on the samurai picture remains consistently committed to an old school formula yet is also decidedly fresh, funny, and despite a few fumbles on the way there, pretty daring -- even if it may seem far more conventional than either Big Man Japan or Symbol. Though for any keen observer of Matsumoto's work, one knows that under the Looney Tunes-esque gags the man is assessing and reassembling any notion of art, and an audience's relation to it, with rather great gusto and just as much philosophical musing. When does tradition become pastiche? How do we relate to the incessant silliness (IE desperation) of entertainment, and in turn, how does the performer feel about all this? The tale of a disgraced and widowed samurai who is forced to make a grieving Edo prince smile by coming up with comedic set pieces or else commit seppuku is ready to answer all these questions. And for the most part, minus a lag in the middle due to the film's inherent structure around these gags, Matsumoto succeeds in answering them in a rather sweet, and yes, very uplifting way. Ultimately the film is about creation, the camaraderie of creating... and ain't that kind of a gosh-wow wonderful thing? - BU


dead-bite.jpgDEAD BITE (Thailand) | Friday, July 6 @ 11:10pm, Wednesday, July 11 @ 3:50pm, WRT

If you see only one aquatic zombie/killer mermaid/hiphop/action-adventure/exploitation flick from Thailand this year, then--well, you know the rest. But what you might not know, or rather expect, is that the direction, by star JoeyBoy, is surprisingly strong, and that despite being billed as chock full of bikini babes, that description really only applies to the first 20 minutes or so of Dead Bite. After that it's basically one big, desert island-set fight-and-pursuit sequence, and it works quite well on those terms; indeed, there's an unstructured, one-damn-thing-after-another feel to the proceedings that I suggest you just go with.  Well-executed gore effects alternate with broad comedy, which itself alternates between the genuinely amusing and the groaningly goofy. In short, this is a film that many New Yorkers will not have even heard of, but which now provides them with a chance for a big screen experience that they'll always remember (simply because it's impossible to confuse Dead Bite with anything else)... which kind of makes this the quintessential NYAFF movie, doesn't it? - PG


The King of Pigs.jpgTHE KINGS OF PIGS (Korea) | Saturday July 7 @ 3:30pm, Sunday, July 8 @ 8pm, WRT

Admirable for its unflinching look at the vicious and violent cycle of school bullying (and the   terrifying residual effects it has on adulthood), Yeun Sang-ho's film isn't all that compelling beyond the intent of its subject matter and the fact that it is animated. It's a dark picture from the very first frame, bleeding over with psychopathic visions of hate; one full of such angsty brooding as to become, at times, unintentionally goofy. Although perhaps that has to do more with the fact that teenage boys here are voiced by women. The picture plods along with the weight of its outcast teens, to what is an inevitable, trite and vaguely insulting conclusion. Recommended for those who are animation aficionados, and especially fans of Satoshi Kon, though this is with hesitation. - BU
     

miami_connection_nyaff.jpgTHE MIAMI CONNECTION (USA) | Saturday, July 11 @ 11:15pm, WRT

If you're of a certain age you, like me, may have grown a bit weary of both '80s chic and the so-bad-it's-good aesthetic in general. If so, have no fear, because Grandmaster Y.K. (L.A. Streetfighters) Kim's jaw-dropping 1987 Tae Kwon Do actioner will cure you of your jaded ennui, and may even put a smile on your face for the rest of the week. Part music video, part martial arts how-to guide, part gory ninja flick, The Miami Connection might just provide the best seen-with-a-live-audience experience you'll have in a theater this year. Indeed, someone at Alamo Drafthouse Films has apparently figured this out, as the film is slated for a limited U.S. re-release later this year. My tip: don't wait until it comes to your favorite theater then, but become one of the initiated now... and then initiate all your other friends when it surfaces again. - PG


dragon_wuxia_nyaff.JPGDRAGON (aka WU XIA) (Hong Kong/China) | Monday, July 9 @ 7:45pm, WRT

For its first half an hour or so, Wu Xia sent me into a state of the purest popcorn bliss of any film in a long, long time. Since it features Takeshi Kaneshiro, one of my favorite living stars, yes, Wu Xia had me primed from the get-go, and pairing him with Donnie Yen to form a kind of mind/body dynamic duo struck me as inspired on more than one level. Even better, Yen's character is not just a fighter here but seems to be living a double life of sorts, which forces him to be wily, and while Kaneshiro is a cerebral, Holmesian investigator, he's one that specializes in the physical. Which means that all the potential dualities are criss-crossing and thereby even more intriguing--so far, so good, right? Plus: cool fight scenes, eye-popping visuals, and a deep, dark mystery tantalizingly hinted at. But in the second act's explication of that mystery and the third act's overly ambitious quest to explore the nature of capital "e" Evil itself, all that early promise is squandered. Simply put, Wu Xia goes off the rails badly, with an amputation scene that is meant to be operatic but comes across as contrived and vaguely insulting, and at one key point an otherwise impressive Jimmy Wang Yu uttering an animalistic cry that provoked chuckles in the screening I attended. In short, both director Peter Chan and screenwriter Lam Oi Wah just try waaaaay too hard, and after a while one gets the sense that they're attempting to top themselves every five minutes or so. Still probably required viewing for hardcore martial arts aficionados, Wu Xia is, sadly, not the classic it easily could have been. - PG


asura_nyaff.jpgASURA (Japan) | Thursday, July 12 @ 6:30pm, Japan Society 

Based on George Akiyama's manga classic, Asura (voiced here by 72 year old Masako Nozawa, known for her work in Galaxy Express 999 and the Dragon Ball series) directed by Keiichi Sato makes the North American premier at this year's NYAFF and JAPAN CUTS. Talk about bleakness. Asura, born in impoverished medieval Japan, survives from fiery death and being cannibalized by his own starving mother in the beginning. He grows up to be an axe-wielding cannibal with no human connection. After killing the local landlord's son by biting off his arteries- vampire style, Asura is taken in by an angelic farm girl, Wakasa. But the flood wipes out the year's crops, all villagers can't pay the taxes to the lord and are near death from starving. Unrelentingly brutal it its depiction of depravity and human survival, it's in the same vein as with Grave of the Fireflies and Ballad of Narayama. - Dustin Chang

For full info on the entire NYAFF 2012 line-up, just click this line!


Around the Internet:
  • Joshua Chaplinsky

    Can't believe this is my fourth year.

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