Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Missed Connections, Landed Punches: New York Asian Film Festival day 3 part 1

Monday was my third day at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival (the 4th actual day of the festival) and it is shaping up to be a different experience than in past years.  Usually the festival takes the form of an intense stew of new films that push various genres to their most unexpected extremes.  Those new films will hit me in a deluge when the next weekend rolls around.  For now, though, it`s been a smattering of retrospective b-horror and action movies a and couple of new releases, orbiting around a primarily Choi Min-Sik-centric experience.  Had someone asked me which actor I would most like to see brought to the New York Asian Film Festival, I would have named him hands down, so it is no wonder I am putting priority on all of his activity at the festival these past few days.  That does not mean that my moviegoing experiences have only been old and familiar, not by a longshot.  Aside from OLDBOY, I had not yet seen any of his other movies screened at the fest -- the recently released NAMELESS GANGSTER and the two earlier dramas shown Monday, FAILAN and CRYING FIST.  Below is an account of seeing those movies, along with something from the NYAFF sidebar on new Taiwanese films, MAKE UP.  

MAKE UP is an interesting movie, one that combines disparate modes in a way that other films try to blend together, but often make a mess of.  Here the results work out surprisingly well.  It is part slow and picturesque look at an unconventional romance, and part murder mystery along with chases and a building suspense.  The romance involves a high school music teacher and a female student.  While this might set off a powder keg of charged reactions in some audiences, the facts of their large age gap shared gender is brought up subtly and not used to the end of adding any kind of shock value.  When the now grown student, who works as a make up artist for the recently deceased before their funerals, comes across her one time teacher and companion as the subject of her work, it sets off a series of memories documenting their relationship and, simultaneously, a pursuit to find the truth behind what was at first deemed a suicide.  The quietly emotional scenes of the teacher and student forming an intense, secretive bond are beautifully shot and set to a portion of classical music that repeats throughout like a coda.  Contrasting this serenity is an uneasy present day exchange between the deceased teacher`s former student and her psychologist husband.  Both of them offer support and hospitality to one another`s face while, never laying all their cards on the table, while they search for the true nature of their relationship with the former loved one they both shared.  A cop who is portrayed as the stereotypical hotshot, at odds with his department is interested in the case.  His character, while at first coming across as out of place, serves to bridge the two modes of the story, and also make some social commentary emerge in the story.  Through his activity, we are taken for a momentary walk through the world of clubbing, depicting a young generation of Taiwanese as lonely and seeking escape through loud droning electronic music and numbing drugs.  All in all, it is a compelling drama and mystery with characters that have questionable motivations and share connections that seem harmless at first, but have rancorous substances flowing under the surface.          

Next I watched FAILAN, followed by a much needed break and a stroll to recover from the raw emotion of that movie, to return later for another powerful dramatic performance by Choi Min-Sik in CRYING FIST.  The films share some interesting common ground.  In Both, Choi Min-Sik’s character shares an intense exchange with another lead character whom he rarely (and in the case of FAILAN, it could be argued, never) actually interacts with.  In FAILAN, Min-Sik gives voice to those that at the clinging to the bottom rung of society. While not aggrandizing or glorifying the low level gangster he portrays, who suffers from lack of ambition, poor decision making, and an inability to command respect from his younger peers, he makes us keenly aware of his humanity.  After watching him fumble through the first third of the film, we learn of Failan (Cecilia Cheung) and her slight, graceful, and tragic life as a Chinese immigrant drawn to South Korea in search of family.  A routine illegal profit-making action on the part of Min-Sik of giving his identity as her husband (arranged by others in the criminal organization) allows her to stay in the country.  However, illness, loneliness, and isolation are obstacles to her survival.  This is a film about the magic of small acts that, unbeknownst even to those that carry them out, can lift a downtrodden spirit or save a soul.  Yet, this takes place in a very tragic reality, one where fate can be so cruel as to bring people to the edge of togetherness before ripping them apart before their eyes.  

CRYING FIST, directed by the pretty much always on target Ryoo Seung Wan (CITY OF VIOLENCE, THE UNJUST) casts Min-Sik alongside the director’s real life brother Ryoo Seung Bum, as boxers who leading parallel struggle-filled lives that eventually lead them to face off against each other in an amateur boxing competition.  The story, apparently based on the real life stories from Japan, starts with a scene that plants itself firmly in the brain.  Choi Min-sik, wearing boxing gear while bearing a crudely designed cardboard sign, stands in the middle of a crowded city square, barking into a megaphone that he will let all comers hit him to exorcise their demons.  This is how the one time olympic silver medalist is trying to make ends meet as he looks back on a distant athletic career.  Meanwhile, Ryoo Seung Bum appears as never before, cloaked in dreadlocks, knocking around local kids and committing violent crimes.  The usually garrulous actor is here a brooding storm of directionless young adult angst with little hope of a bright future.  After landing in prison, family tragedy and some persistently positive guiding forces help him turn his aggression toward boxing.  After long, harrowing looks at the very real to life situations of both individuals, we get to watch the most difficult kind of movie boxing showdown there is: one where both sides desperately need and very much deserve a victory.  

These two performances find Choi Min-Sik at his most utterly human and empathetic.  These are minor classics that deserve to be revered right alongside his better known work.  And on this night, at least, they received the enthusiastic reception they deserved.  

Another post will soon follow with details on the Q & A’s that Choi Min-Sik engaged in for both movies, hopefully with some audio visual enhancements to help capture our time in the presence of this one of a kind actor.

Me on twitter = @mondocurry

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