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NYAFF 2011 Coverage by Michael Wells - PART 1

Michael Wells of the Everyone Likes Movies blog has graciously offered to cover the 2011 edition of the New York Asian Film Festival (Called NYAFF by friends and intimate acquaintances) for, and we’re posting his text here on Damn You, Kozo! This is only Part One of his mult-chapter, super verbose look at the fest and its movies, so check back in the coming days for more on this week-long fest. Also, be sure to visit Everyone Likes Movies for more of Michael’s movie musings.


By Michael Wells

It’s a sign that you’ve arrived when the press gives you your own set of cliches. So, in celebration of this year’s bigger-than-ever 10th annual edition of the New York Asian Film Festival, here goes: Kung fu monks and giant robots and violence and sex and body fluids. Cheeky defiance of the staid art-cinema norm of film festivals. Scrappy four-man team makes it all happen. They’re not culture big shots, they’re just regular fans like their audience. They charge it all to their credit cards! Don’t they know how hard it is to get credit these days? Crazy! And that guy with the red hair and the loud suits who shouts a lot before the movies? Crazy! Also there are three other guys. And they’re not even Asian! But now they’re almost respectable (they get actual Asians who make movies to fly over for the festival and they show movies at the Lincoln Center Film Society right across the street from the Metropolitan Opera and NY Philharmonic) but not quite, because they still raffle off prizes to the audience and still kung fu monks and giant robots and blood and slime and only in New York!

But seriously, I’ve been following the guys of the Subway Cinema film programming collective since they started out with a one-weekend festival of seven Milkyway Image/Johnnie To movies in the fall of 2000, up through last year’s NYAFF when they moved to the venerable and starchily respectable Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, showed 43 movies and included Sammo Hung and Simon Yam among their guest appearances. So watching them reach the position they have is a little like sending a kid off to college, except I didn’t have to do any actual work in raising it, I just showed up once a year to give presents. A lot has changed, of course, including some of the guys running the fest, but the core goal remains to put on a damn good show, which they have never failed to do.

On opening night, anti-pretentious as ever, they admitted onstage to giving out awards just so actors and filmmakers will show up, right before handing out an award to the actor who had just showed up. Takayuki Yamada got a nice plaque commemorating his “Star Asia Rising Star Award,” which no one had the heart to point out to them has the word “star” in it twice. He displayed the self-effacing modesty and slightly embarrassed, shoe-gazing demeanor that even big Japanese stars seem either to possess naturally or to fake very convincingly. It’s refreshing either way. It was certainly a contrast to Yamada’s charismatic flamboyance in the film that followed, Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s MILOCRORZE: A LOVE STORY (Japan, 2011), which starred Yamada as a trio of wildly different characters: a preening, absurdly macho, white-suited relationship counselor given to bursting into funky song-and-dance routines; a young man turned swordfighter/gambler in the course of his search for a lost love; and a heartbroken sad sack with a blazing orange bowl haircut, searing-green sweater and the name Ovreneli Vreniligare.

You can probably see already why I’ve been staring with furrowed brow at my keyboard and trying to figure out how to describe MILOCRORZE. It resembles nothing so much as FUNKY FOREST: THE FIRST CONTACT, which was a big hit at the NYAFF a few years back: the episodic, criss-crossing structure; the cocktail of surrealism, sketch comedy, genre parody, musical numbers, and eye-popping cartoonish visuals; the well-blended tone of the arch and the heartfelt. FUNKY FOREST is both stranger and more accomplished (in fact, maybe one of my favorite movies of the previous decade), but Ishibashi’s film is amazing in its best passages and never less than a hoot. The director revealed in the post-screening Q&A that the movie took five years to make, and every minute of that effort is onscreen, down to the colors that he carefully enhanced scene by scene until I could have sworn I heard them give off a humming noise in some shots (this is the sort of movie that can make instant converts to digital projection, the format used at this screening). A vast fight scene in the second act may by itself earn MILOCRORZE a cult following - a single five-minute shot that pans through several rooms as Yamada wreaks slapstick chaos in ultra-slow-motion (the shot is slowed down twenty times, according to Ishibashi). On viewing it, I was sure there must be some digital trickery to the image or editing - it was so intricately staged and perfect that there was no way I could actually be seeing what I thought I was seeing. I was.

Between MILOCRORZE and Takashi Miike’s 13 ASSASSINS (Japan, 2010), the fest featured, within two days, what must be two of the greatest swordfighting action sequences in years, both involving Takayuki Yamada, who was onstage again to introduce ASSASSINS. Many others have already said plenty recently about Miike’s samurai blockbuster (including me at my sad little “weblog,” as they are known), especially about its skull-rattling, 45-minute finale, so I won’t dwell long on it. Mostly, I should note that it was the first American screening of the full-length cut that the Japanese kept for themselves, with about 20 more minutes than the “international” version released around the world. The additions were mostly welcome bits of character development, particularly around the psychopathic villain Lord Naritsugu. Actor Goro Inagaki gets a remarkable little aria of bad table manners wherein he pours all his dinner onto the table, mashes it up like a two-year-old, starts eating it like a dog, then pauses to instruct an underling, “Tonight bring me two women.” Here we get more in less than a minute about the character’s boredom, childish self-indulgence and hunger for chaos than we get in the entire rest of the movie. On the other hand, a restored comic scene involving one of the heroes’ marathon session at a brothel struck me as a little ugly and quite out of tone with the surrounding material. Still, the opportunity to revisit this glowering and sorrowing classic-to-be just a few weeks after I first saw it was welcome.

Another tale of elite warriors battling and sacrificing against injustice, Benny Chan’s SHAOLIN (Hong Kong, 2011) followed immediately after, and its blunt, hyperbolic melodrama suffered a little by comparison with the simmering tension and beautifully controlled mood of ASSASSINS. Our faithful webmaster has already reviewed it, and his assessment is mostly the same as mine, so why don’t we just link to it here? Ah, there we go. Which is not to say it isn’t fun, or delicious eye candy. It was particularly a pleasure to see Jackie Chan finally agreeing to age gracefully, and settling comfortably into a wry, mostly non-action supporting role (as opposed to, say, giving his nuanced opinions on democracy in the Chinese-speaking world. Sorry, I couldn’t resist - is everyone else over it?).

I got the real revelation going into my third movie in a row, Mark Hartley’s MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (Australia, 2010), a jaunty documentary on the 1960s-1980s phenomenon of American producers coming to Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines to shoot low-budget exploitation flicks for U.S. grindhouses and drive-ins. It’s a subject full of subsidiary subjects waiting to be unpacked like overstuffed suitcases - the globalization of entertainment, the politics of dealing with dictators, the weird finances of the film industry, and on and on. Hartley mostly deals with it by not worrying about it, giving each of them a frank, if not always profound, look, while keeping things fast and fun. He unleashes a tidal wave of almost-too-crazy-to-believe clips from jungle action movies and women-in-prison movies and the like; the glimpses of older horror opuses like TERROR IS A MAN and the BLOOD ISLAND trilogy are particularly fascinating and open up a whole new section of my “to see” list. Interspersed are more-often-than-not humorous interview clips with performers (including John Wayne’s son and Robert Mitchum’s son, carrying on their fathers’ proud legacies) and filmmakers, especially Roger Corman, John Landis and Joe Dante, as well as their Filipino collaborators like Eddie Romero and Cirio Santiago. Some disturbing undercurrents do bubble up through the general aura of goofy geniality - the contention that an APOCALYPSE NOW set design included some actual corpses of dubious origin is particularly haunting. And the interviewees don’t quite convince when arguing that there was feminist content in the numerous movies that dwell queasily on women being stripped, assaulted and tortured, although MAIDENS does make a respectable case that some of them opened up more possibilities for women (and African-Americans, for that matter) as action leads. All that said, nobody, as it turns out, asks John Landis about his helicopter-wrangling skills (Sorry, I couldn’t resist - Is everyone else over it?)

Naturally, this had to be followed up by an example of the cinema we had just learned so much about, so the midnight show was RAW FORCE (Philippines/USA, 1982) by the unnoted auteur Edward D. Murphy, whose name is too perfect not to be a deliberate homage to that other Edward D., last name Wood. This was the perfect nightcap for a brain on the edge of collapse after seven or so hours of virtually nonstop moviegoing - like most “so bad it’s good” treats, it has long passages of torpor that invite zoning out, and since none of it makes much sense and probably wouldn’t have been any better if it had, it didn’t matter if I missed large chunks of plot. Said plot, for the record, involves the Burbank Karate Club going on a cruise more ill-fated even than Gilligan’s, tangling with jade smugglers, hooded cultists, living-dead martial artists, and headsnapping non-sequitur dialogue. Oh, and boobies. Also, Buster Keaton’s grandniece is in it. With her boobies. For all that, it seemed relatively tame compared to some of the clips I’d just seen, which didn’t stop the exhausted-yet-energized audience from bouncing off the walls at thrilling action highlights like a table laden with tropical fruits tipping over in slow motion.

Next entry: some more actually good movies, including pastry-making samurai and guitar-smashing monks.

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