July 14th, 2011
If you haven’t been paying attention, have simply had better things to do, longtime Asian Cinema fan Michael Wells of the Everyone Likes Movies blog is contributing coverage of the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival here on Damn You, Kozo. This is Part Two of his three-part effort - Part One can be found right here, while Part Three is likely to drop sometime in the next few days. Also, be sure to visit Everyone Likes Movies for more of Michael’s movie musings.
By Michael Wells
The NYAFF programmers say they’ve been wanting for a few years to show Yeo Joon-han’s SELL OUT! (Malaysia, 2008), a low-budget indie musical comedy satirizing corporate capitalism in general and Malaysia’s ethnically-Chinese, “Manglish”-speaking yuppie elite in particular. I would bet they made that decision as soon as they saw the opening: a filmmaker who has just won the Kryzhindangzhongbushaus Village Far Eastern Film Festival Young Oversea-Chinese Women New Director’s Honorary Mention Award is interviewed for TV, proves as pompously impenetrable as the drying-paint minimalist drama he directed, lambastes popular genre cinema and all who make it, and then is killed along with most of the other people in the room when a post-robbery shootout spills through the door. It’s virtually a one-scene manifesto - and a very funny one - for the festival’s sloppy, smoochy embrace of pulp movies and their bored distaste for stereotypical festival art cinema.
But then there’s all sorts of contradictory meta-stuff happening. SELL OUT! drips with disdain for lowest-common-denominator popular taste, viciously lampooning an ambitious young TV presenter who finds success with a reality show recording dying people’s last moments, and siding with stubborn people who want to stand apart from it. At times it’s almost as perversely snail-paced as the award-winning movie-within-a-movie from the first scene. And Yeo’s movie as a whole is an example of how the NYAFF stretches well beyond its signature kung fu monks and giant robots to showcase to a wide variety of unclassifiable oddities. The director/screenwriter/producer/editor/composer doubled down on these contradictions in the post-screening Q&A when describing the hell of trying to get it released in Malaysia - claiming that distributors lost interest when they learned that it had won a film festival award and assumed it was a boring art film.
It actually is kind of boring, if intermittently clever - Yeo has an ear for bitchy comic dialogue and some of the tunes are catchy (I’ve been walking around humming “Money/Why do you like rich people?” for days), but the deadly pacing and painfully amateur cast kill the screwball energy the story desperately needs. Still, it’s impossible to dislike entirely, given its scrappy non-conformity, especially after hearing Yeo and lead actor Peter Davis describe the travails of bringing it to the world. And as a writer, I’m just grateful to have a nice, ready-made metaphor the NYAFF’s own between-two-worlds position peddling work with massy entertainment values to a more or less elite, cult/festival audience. See what I did there? Damn, I’m good.
Yoshihiro Nakamura’s A BOY AND HIS SAMURAI (Japan, 2010) is simpler to talk about. It’s a cute, low-key comedy-drama about a seriously old-school samurai mysteriously time-teleported to modern Tokyo where he befriends a divorced working mom and her young son and learns to cook pastries, do housework, express his feelings a little and not be such a chauvinistic pig. It’s odd, only a few days after watching 13 ASSASSINS and its attack on samurai mythology, to see bushido principles of discipline, respect for elders and self-abnegation presented as a partial solution to the dysfunctions of harried 21st century life.
Refreshingly, though, the movie doesn’t go where I’d feared it might (”Lonely Single Mom Just Needs an Old-Fashioned Real Man”), although it flirts with that cliche only to gently upend it. In fact, the movie does everything gently, rarely straining for its laughs or its sniffles, but earning a fair amount of the former and a few of the latter. Conventional but skillful, it’s a very slight letdown after Nakamura’s previous two movies, NYAFF favorites FISH STORY (2009) and GOLDEN SLUMBER (2010), both of which took his sweetly optimistic sensibility to astonishing places with ingeniously structured takes on, respectively, the sci-fi disaster movie and the conspiracy thriller. But when a guy make two movies in a row that surprising, I guess it’s a bit much to expect him to top them right away.
For something that’s both conventional and a real letdown, there’s HAUNTERS (South Korea, 2010), the directing debut of THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY screenwriter Kim Min-suk. The premise holds out the offer of rich, buttery popcorn - a young sociopath who can psychically control the minds of other human beings goes on a deadly crime spree undetected, until he encounters a blue-collar joe who is mysteriously immune to his powers, setting up a showdown between a schlub hero and a supervillain who can turn the whole city into his minions. There are crazy-cool passages, such as the one where the bad guy stimies the hero by threatening to make the entire population of an apartment complex leap to their deaths from their balconies. But noisy, MTV-flashy direction and a weirdly ill-judged streak of goofball “comic relief” keep interfering with the tension and atmosphere, even before the incomprehensible ending. The puppetmaster (besides bearing a distracting facial resemblance to Brad Dourif, who’s typecast in exactly this type of role in Hollywood) is more silly than creepy with his semi-goth outfits and hair, especially around about the fortieth or fiftieth closeup of his glowing eyes.
On the other hand, OCEAN HEAVEN (China/Hong Kong, 2010) far surpassed my expectations. I mean, you try to imagine a (partially) HK drama combining terminal cancer and autism, starring an action icon making his non-action acting debut and appearing on the poster in a homemade sea turtle costume, and try not to gag. But first-time director Xue Xiaolu (according to the fest catalog, a film scholar who has worked extensively with autistic children) creates, against all odds, a gracefully restrained and largely non-exploitative gem. Jet Li anchors it with a rock-solid performance as the father who knows he will be gone in a few months and strives to prepare his son, who can’t even understand that he’s going, for life without him. As a kung fu hero, Li has naturally put his exquisitely trained and controlled body at the center of his performances, and that doesn’t change here - his deeply kind and deeply shy character carries a ton of grief and anxiety wordlessly in his hunched shoulders. It also wouldn’t be fair not to mention newcomer Wen Zhang’s (to my inexpert eye) authentic and uncondescending turn as the son. “Jet Li doesn’t kick anyone in the face in this movie,” said the fest volunteer who introduced the screening, “but this movie will kick your heart in the face.” It did. OK, I cried, and I still respected myself in the morning. And I don’t care who knows, dammit.
Adults, of course, have very different ideas about how to take care of kids in the late, lamented Kinji Fukasaku’s almost-great, legend-in-its-own-time BATTLE ROYALE (Japan, 2000), which finally has a U.S. distributor in Anchor Bay Entertainment and got a sold-out sorta-retrospective screening (at the Japan Society, where the NYAFF is doing some co-presentations with Japan Cuts, the Society’s annual series of new Japanese cinema). If there’s any Asian film of the past decade that doesn’t need another online rehashing, it’s this one. So I’ll simply note how much more it plays like a comedy when you watch it with a packed, excited house, as opposed to the first time I watched it on DVD years ago. All it takes is a couple people to laugh at a 14-year-old confessing a crush to a classmate while bleeding to death from a gunshot wound, and it sets off a chain reaction of hilarity.
While watching it, I found myself musing on the more earnest and less powerful lament for humanity’s inhumanity I’d seen the night before at the Japan Society, OSAMU TEZUKA’S BUDDHA: THE GREAT DEPARTURE (Japan, 2011). If the hero had been able to see BATTLE ROYALE, he might given up in despair and not bothered to sit under that bodhi tree. Fortunately for Buddhism, that didn’t happen. So we have this blood-and-thunder epic anime by Kozo Morishita, based on “father of manga” Tezuka’s famous multi-volume biocomic of the eventual dashboard accessory.
A blood-and-thunder epic about the Buddha? Yes, this is the action Buddha, concentrating largely on his pre-enlightenment youth as Prince Siddhartha and the endless series of wars that lead him eventually to seek a better way for humanity. It doesn’t even try to avoid the obvious contradictions of a crowd-pleasing action-fantasy entertainment on this subject, and simply embraces them with spectacular gusto and some really gorgeous imagery - in its most interesting moments, it resembles a ‘50s Hollywood Biblical movie on LSD. In terms of story and character, it’s got all the pitfalls of the high-minded religious epic genre - the galumphing pacing, the reams of expository dialogue and philosophical lecturing. Still, it’s diverting enough that I might eventually check out the next two movies of the planned trilogy, assuming they get made.
I’m not sure how Siddhartha would have reacted if you’d shown him Naoki Kato’s ABRAXAS (Japan, 2010), although he might have despaired then too at the evident failure of transcendent, revealed religion to address the basic pain of being human. The protagonist is an ex-punk-rocker turned small-town Buddhist monk (played by real-life rocker Suneohair) who still struggles with the crippling depression and general malaise that led him to embrace such a radical life change. He decides that the answer might just be to pick up his ax and scream into a mic again, to the mostly tolerant bemusement of family, fellow monks and townspeople alike.
Although as I write this, there are a couple movies to go, this seems unbeatable as my favorite new work in this year’s fest. And don’t tell the programmers, but it’s almost-kinda-sorta (whispers) an art film. The deceptive simplicity of the script and characters, the slow, gentle rhythms and understated humor allow a roiling undercurrent of raw emotions and brain-tickling ideas (such as the affinity between Buddhism and punk rock in their efforts to annihilate self-consciousness and reach an ecstatic higher state) to bubble up in an unforced way. ABRAXAS rarely makes any obvious reach for the heartstrings, but I spent the last half-hour or so in tears or close to it (still don’t care who knows it - shut up) and walked out in a bit of a daze. For all of the BUDDHA anime’s straining to move the audience, not a second in it approached the power of a lonely man, head shaven, wrapped in his robes, standing on a rock at the seashore, pounding away at his electric guitar, sending a screaming wall of sound at the breaking waves, the implacable sea and the glittering blue heavens.
In our next and final installment: Live from New York, it’s TSUI HARK!