Thursday, June 30, 2011

The NYAFF starts tomorrow or 22 films reviewed in a post that's way too long (including some of the Best of the Fest)

The New York Asian Film Festival starts tomorrow. After tonight we'll be hip deep in the festivities as we try to see as many of the films as humanly possible. While Mondocurry, Eden and myself sit in the darkness and only come out to briefly report, Unseen Films will still be giving you a film a day every day which will have nothing to do with Asian film.

The big problem with this year's festival (well it's not really a problem) is that it's FULL of good films. For the most part everything they are running is a good or great film. (And even the one I really didn't like is well made, but stupid)

The original idea was to run long pieces on all the good films we saw before the festival started. Unfortunately the sheer weight of good films have kept us from doing that. We simply don't have time to write up another 17 films fully in time for the festival. (We've seen 30 of the 46 films and we're already exhausted.) The only way we can hope to get word out on what we've seen is to put them together in one giant capsule review post.

Before I get to the 17 new capsule reviews I should point out (once again- sorry loyal readers) the five reviewed prior to the announcement of this years schedule.

Reign of Assassins was on the best of the year list for 2010.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has gotten three reviews here at Unseen Films. It's an amazing movie that I said was one of the best films I've seen in 2011 when I saw it on the big screen at Tribeca. (The big screen really helps since it just missed the best of 2010 when I saw it on import DVD.

13 Assassins is one of the best films of 2011. It absolutely MUST be seen on the big screen, especially in it's uncut form.

Raw Force is a blast and a perfect midnight movie (More so when it follows the incredible Machete Maidens Unleashed)

Riki-Oh The Story of Ricky is another must see midnight movie. Just be prepared for lots of over done blood and guts.

Now I give you capsule pieces on the remaining films from this year's festival that we've seen, but not fully reviewed.

I want to start by saying the NYAFF is running two films by one of the co-directors of Rign of Assassins, Su Chao-pin. These are real hidden gems of the festival.

Sadly I suspect that the one time midday screenings will be rather empty, as most comedies screened at off times tend to be passed over, but based on past years that's where the real treats hide. Believe me, you want to make the effort to go see both The Cabbie and BTS: Better than Sex while you can.

With The Cabbie the screening is an especially big deal. Trust me, this may be your only opportunity to ever see this in English because while it is out on DVD overseas, there is only one edition and it's only in Chinese and only has Chinese subtitles.

Don't listen to the NYAFF write up there is more to the film than what it says. The write up is wildly incomplete since it only mentions the cabbie's romance with a cop which starts about an hour in (That leaves two thirds of the film to be about other things). The truth of the matter is this is the story of the cabbie, his fares, his friends, romances and assorted other bits.(Though be warned the film is gruesome in a few spots since one character is a medical examiner- which it results in a unique meet cute incident.)

I really liked this film a great deal. I know some people dislike Chinese comedies because their sensibility is very rooted in the culture, but that's not the case here. This is great little film that would be funny no matter where it was. I think that if you remade it here in the US it would pretty much work as written. It's just a great comedy never mind where it's from.

Do yourself a huge favor and go see this film. If you want to see something really off the radar that's really good, and one you can be damn sure almost no one else has seen see this film. I would love to see it again but I can't get out from my day job. I loved it so much I ordered the non-English version just to have it. One of the finds of the festival and the year.

BTS: Better Than Sex is a good smutty little comedy. I don't think it's as good as The Cabbie, but it's still an enjoyable film about a cross section of characters, one of which is obsessed with sex, or porn.

While the film is decidedly NOT for the kids, adults should have a good time with it, especially once it starts to connect things up. Yea, this is one of those films with lots of characters, all of whom seem unrelated, but who come together at one point in time. I would love to really try and explain the plot, but it's so convoluted that I would have to tell you the whole thing for it to make any sort of sense and I'm trying to be brief(it took me about 40 minutes to have the film click).

I liked the film. While I don't think it's as good as either of the other films by Su Chao-pin that are screening (it's poorer for the comparison), I still think it's worth trying. One piece of advice, stay with it to the end. As I said the film takes a while before the various character lines start coming together and until that happens the film feels terribly scatter shot (which is the reason the film is the weakest of the three, and the reason I just like the film and I don't love it.)

By the way the title refers to a couple of things with in the context of the film, but mostly it's about finding love and friendship.

ZU: Warriors from The Magic Mountain

Tsui Hark's ground breaking game changing martial arts epic was the point at which Hong Kong Cinema became what we know today. It's the story of a group of super warriors (played by a collection of super stars) taking on a great evil in order to save the universe. Its an often told story that was done on a scale and with such a style that it shook up the film industry first in Hong Kong and later the world. Forget the plot, its the visuals and the action that are important here. Its an amazing piece of film making and the fact that you actually have a chance to see this on a big screen is a rare one that should be jumped at.

One of the portals to hell opens in the Forest of Resurrection with the result that demons and zombies are crossing over and battling well armed gangsters. I know many people who absolutely love this bloody action film (even to the point of buying each new special edition). I'm not a fan of the film finding it loses the little plot it has not long after setting it in motion with the result that its two hours of bloody action. If you like well done action sequences uninterrupted by plot give this film a shot. Actually my DVD reservations are minor with the thought of seeing this in a theater with a large audience who really love this sort of a thing.

Officially unreleased in the US since its release eleven years ago this story of a future where each year one class of school kids is randomly put on an island and told to fight to the death. The film is an underground classic. It's a kick in the pants, which sadly may not seem like the game changer it was when it first was released (it's been ripped off so many times since- just think of the up coming Hunger Games -that it's lost some of it's power.) Finally the film has a US distributor and it's coming to a theater near you. Until that happens you should get your butt down to the Japan Society where I'm sure all hell will break loose when people who've worn out their bootleg/import tapes and DVDs get to see a modern classic on the big screen for the first time. The screening is going to be insane- probably almost as insane as this movie. One of the must attend events of the festival.

I think this is the only real horror film of the festival (Horny House of Horror is something else entirely)

You'll either love or hate this film (it was a big hit in several film festivals). I really dislike the film a great deal. The plot of the film has a put upon bank officer, with a run of really bad luck, taking up her childhood friend's offer to visit for a while. The friend lives on the island where she summered with her grandfather. Now the population has been reduced to 9 people and the its all one big abusive family. As the friends become reacquainted, the abuse continues, this time against the new comer as well, until it all explodes in a nasty round of violence.

I'm not the audience for the film which does it's best to unsettle the audience by having the women abused (physical, emotional, sexual verbal)for over half the film before there is an explosion of "cleansing" violence in the final 45 minutes. I don't see the point and find it little more than really unsettling torture porn. If you want to feel bad this is the film for you. As I said some people I know LOVED this film so I leave the choice to see it to you.

A film that changed the Korean film industry when it came out to the point that every film seems to be compared to it.

The plot of the film has a dirty cop turned pimp, trying to figure out where all his girls have gone. He thinks they have run away or were sold to someone else. The reality of the film is much worse, they have all gone out with the same guy and he's a serial killer...and our hero has just sent the last of his girls into his clutches.

Brutal violent and darkly funny this is a film that opened the door for a good number of similar films (I don't know if we would have gotten I Saw the Devil with out it.). It's a modern classic of a sort. It's also the kind of film that really should be seen on a big screen with it's rich compositions and frenetic style crying out to be seen on a big screen (Yea I know you may have seen this on DVD but you haven't experienced it until you see it on the big screen)

Cop goes home for the funeral of a boyhood friend. Things don't seem right and he begins to investigate. Sometimes you can't go home again. Funny, witty (we should all be this this clever) and full of violent action this is a nice little distraction of a movie. You may not come out saying it's the best film you've ever seen, but I'm pretty sure you'll have had a great time at the movies. (and yes this too is on DVD but it is sooo much better on the big screen)

SHAOLIN (2011)
I mentioned this film back in February when I saw it sans subtitles. I've since seen it twice with subtitles and quite frankly it's even better the each additional viewing.

The plot has Andy Lau playing one warlord among several battling for control of China in the ear;y 20th century. After a run in with the Shaolin monks Lau's fortunes change as one of his aides turns against him. With no where else to turn he ends up seeking refuge with the monks. When the civil strife he helped foster comes crashing at the door of the temple he and the other monks have to come up with the plan to help the people caught in the middle.

Forget the Chinatown DVD's that are missing as much as 15 minutes of the movie, you need to see this on the big screen where the widescreen vistas and great action set pieces will be even more impressive then they are on home video. One of the must see films of the festival.

It's so good that I'm going to try to see it, but as of right now it's a film slot I'm leaving as optional- I've seen it three times and the film there are so many other choices....You on the other hand need to go see this.

Osamu Tezuka's Buddha: The Great Departure (2011)
This opened a month ago in Japan and is a highly anticipated bit of anime in the US as well on the basis of the questions I'm getting. I've seen it, and a full review will be coming when the film premieres at the festival by some one other than myself (Eden is making a special effort to see and review the film).

The reason I'm not reviewing the film is that I'm too close to the source. Osamu Tezuka's Buddha is one of the milestone novels of my life. It's a story that radically changed how I thought and saw the world. Fifteen minutes into the film I realized I was not the audience for the film. I found the paring down of the narrative too extreme (this is the first of three films that is trying to compress roughly 3200 pages in 8 volumes into say 6 hours of screen time) and the characters are more typically anime in style with only the barest hint of Tezuka's artistic style.

Does the film work? For me no. But I'm the wrong person to ask. I have personal issues which is why I'm having some of the other people here at Unseen Films take a run by it. That said I am very curious as to how the second and third film will play since the film finally feel focused in the closing moments. (If and when you see it I would be curious to hear what you have to say)

Its a world premiere about a high school kid who gets a message from god and decides to go on a wild,sometime violent spree. I've seen the film, and Unseen will be running a review once it premieres (Eden is going to tackle this one), however I should put out that the film is less a Ha Ha Funny comedy then a meditation on what someone might do if they think the world is ending. There is dark humor but it's not strictly speaking a comedy. (I liked it but I'm not sure what I make of it)

Mysterious fellow connects with the the outsider young girl living his building. When the girls mom gets caught up with some gangsters she's kidnapped and it's up to the mystery guy to rescue her. It's a good, if slightly over long action film. I like the film but outside of a killer finale I'm kind of puzzled by the attention the film has gotten in America (It got a well publicized DVD release this past February). Definitely worth a look if you haven't seen it.

Messy story about three friends who move in together in the flat of an older woman who is feeling terribly lonely. Their clashes with each other and with life is the film. Sorry I'm being intentionally obtuse. I was not a fan of the film finding the three young leads likable jerks. I also have lots of other problems. It's an okay film but nothing special nor a must see film. On the other hand a large number of people who attended the press screening really loved it, and since I know and trust their taste (I've seen several rave reviews for the film elsewhere) so I'm taking a neutral stance (I may write up a full review later when I see it again on DVD.)

THE BLADE (1995)
Tsui Hark's legendary film finally plays NYC in a real honest to god film print. If you've seen the film and love it comes see it for the first time. This film has never has an official home video release even in Asia (according to Marc of the NYAFF) until a recent restored version showed up in France. Trust me if you've ever seen this in one of the myriad of piss poor bootleg releases from Asia you've not seen this film before. (Trust me I own a couple of them)

This is one of Hark's favorites of his own films, but it's largely under appreciated by most film audiences- including myself. Sorry guys, I find this film to be a real mess. Sure it was great to see it complete on a big screen, but the film is wildly over the top, disjointed, and weird. I laugh at it more than with it. Sure the weirdness is explained away by the sting in the tail ending, but until you get there this film is an endless string of WTF moments.

On the other hand this film has a strong vocal following (everyone at the NYAFF LOVES it) so you may want to try it, especially since this film NEEDS to be seen on a big screen. If you do understand this is largely a form over content film where plot is optional.

NINJA KIDS!!! (2011)
This is one of the best films of the film festival, and the only reason I haven't done a full bore review is Mondocurry wants to write it up. (It will be up this afternoon)

Takashi Miike's adaptation of the anime series is one of the best anime to live action films as you'll ever see. Keeping the weird designs of characters (many have distorted facial features) the film has the feeling of a cartoon come to life. The film follow Rantaro, the son of an ex-ninja now farmer as he goes to the ninja academy.

Its a kids film for real kids since it's full of jokes about farts, snot and dog poop. There is also a level of unreal cartoon violence that may freak out parents (I spoke with someone from the New York International Children's Film festival who said he liked the film but wasn't sure how parents would react.)

Not only one of the best film of the festival it is easily one of my favorites of the whole year. Mondocurry said to me after the screening that if I said anything other than I loved the film he would have called me a liar. I loved the film. If you can score tickets see this. I'm trying to figure out how I can see both of the screenings and still have time to eat.

A Must See.

Donnie Yen, Bridgette Lin, Maggie Cheung and a boat load of other big stars star in this Tsui Hark martial arts epic. On the surface this is the story of a small band out to stop a power crazed eunuch (Yen), the film is actually an excuse to show off spectacular fight scenes (with tons of wire work)and witty dialog.

For many this is the pinnacle of martial arts epics of the 1980's and and 1990's right before public taste and studio budgets shifted toward urban crime dramas. Its a dizzying achievement that should be seen on a big screen where the Oh Wow factor will be even higher.

Personally I like the film but I don't love it. It's purely the matter of too much form over content in the fights (which get way out and really silly, something that killed the genre when done elsewhere). Still it is a classic and a must see.

Darkly comic look at war and it's stupidity. During the medieval period in Korea the Emperor sets in motion a war between states with a promise of additional land for the winner. Once the wheels are set in motion the film shifts gears and we are thrown into the trenches of the warring armies, most of whom have been forcibly conscripted and just want to go home. While the generals and a few crazies dream of glory, most of the men dream of just staying alive.

It's a funny film, but considering the state of the world, it's one where the laughs often catch in your throat. I've read reviews that have compared it to the work of Terry Gilliam, and on some level it's true. Mostly it's it's own dark little animal...and a very good one at that.

I'm not going to lie, I like the film, but at the same time it left me feeling rather uneasy and unsettled. It took me three tries to get through it (I have the import DVD), since the first time I was called away before I got very far, and the second time I had to pause because the film wasn't what I expected (a straight on comedy). Its a funny film but the under currents and the absolute displeasure toward anyone other than the low man is rightly bothersome.

For now that's it. 30 films down, and another 16 or so to go- plus the short films , plus repeats, plus...

If you're in New York over the next two weeks do try to get to the Lincoln Center and the Japan Society since they are screening some great films you may not see any other way.

If you want to see all our coverage from the New York Asian Film Festival simply click on the NYAFF 2011 tag below or in the side bar.

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