Having withdrawn from New York City’s sweltering humidity to take respite in a Pacific island hideaway, I’ve had time for my New York Asian Film Festival reflections to bake, cool off, and gel into my Top 5 favorites list. It's a highly subjective list of favorites from among the new movies shown (the amazing retro film selection assembled for this year’s fest, centered around guests Choi Min-Sik and Donnie Yen, plus the most WTF mind melters the NYAFF programmers could unearth, deserves a look all its own) . Bear in mind there are films I did not get a chance to see and there is also the factor of my tastes leading me to be inclined to prefer certain types of films over others. At the same time, this is a year that I’ve seen more of the films than any previous, in part because of a greater willingness to partake in advance screenings and screeners -- perks of being affiliated with a legitimate online outlet, which has also allowed for a few replays of movies that demanded a repeat viewing to truly absorb. And there was also the great camaraderie among other writers and moviegoers making it a pleasure to stick out long stints in the theater. Anyway, here we go...
1. NAMELESS GANGSTER (South Korea)
This is a big, sprawling epic and totally based in reality gangster related drama. Making use of a historical backdrop of South Korea over the course of the ‘80s and early 90’s, during which the government decided to commit to a massive purge of organized crime, it tells a messy tale of traditional ancestral hierarchy butting heads with the code of gangsters. There are many confrontations that explore the fragile yet explosive male ego as shaped by Korean society. Music is cleverly used to show the timeframe of the story with the ‘90s crackdown marked by a suspenseful score (think the moody beat driven sounds of movies like The Yellow Sea and The Unjust), contrasting a cover (by Chang Kiha and the Faces) of a swirling psychedelic pop tune, I Heard a Rumor signifying the ‘80s. The main attraction is of course Choi Min-Sik’s nuanced performance as a middle aged customs officer one notch above being a grunt, unwittingly brought into the folds of organized crime. At once terrified, and yet too prideful and aware of the potential rewards to walk away from the game, it’s an attention commanding performance. And when the movie does reach its conclusion, set in a distant present day, it does feel like coming to the well earned end of a hard travelled journey.
2. MONSTERS CLUB (Japan)
This film crept up from nowhere and haunted me at an advanced screening. Followed by weeks of various other features, I wondered if it would in fact hold up to my early impressions. But sure enough, all it took was the discovery of a clip of quietly brooding music from the movie to bring those strange, enchanting feelings right back. It is a unique blend of striking images, controversial political messages, and internal struggle. Though abstract in its telling, there is a powerful story about finding one’s way amid powerful and difficult to understand influences bursting at its seams.
3. KING OF PIGS (South Korea)
Having watched this film quite a few times to familiarize myself with its proceedings (to prepare for an interview with its director that I am still sorting through), it almost eluded the list having become something of an academic text. Entertaining, it is not. At least not without some serious psychic damage along with it. A fluid animation with a muted color palette that still manages to pop, it’s a bleak tale of two down on their luck men looking back on junior high school days filled with systematic oppression and resulting tragedy. The choice of animating this tale allows for some tripped out elaborations on its dark themes: humans transform into dogs and swines to represent their status, cats and corpses taunt the living and their powerlessness in the face of more well-off bullies, and Chul, a boy for whom violence is inseparable from his everyday existence, warps into monstrous forms to show his increasingly hate-filled state of mind. This film truly challenges a way of life in a way that is both beautiful and painful to look at.
4. BLOODY FIGHT IN IRON ROCK VALLEY (South Korea)
With a slight now you see it now you don’t presence on the festival’s schedule, I can’t help but try to draw some attention to it. That and I am a mark for some straightforward, yet very well done pulpy action. This film manages to do a whole lot with just a little, and that sense of economy is one of the things about it that won me over. Adorning characters with little more than regular apparel and making great use of a sleepy backwoods town and seemingly abandoned spaces, it tells a tale of revenge against convincingly portrayed heartless men who do very bad things, wrought by a steely eyed loner whose blackened heart allows him to do equally bad things in turn. Along the way, the pursuit of vengeance runs across a corrupt conspiracy and a truly dazzling damsel in distress. It’s minimally packaged into a neat little nail biter of a thriller from a director I am definitely eager to see more from.
5. SCABBARD SAMURAI (Japan)
Picking the final slot was a challenge because at least two other films vied for a position on this list. But alas, no ties allowed, a 5th place film must be named. I chose Scabbard Samurai because it is such an amazingly pure and heartfelt gesture. Watched again, the trials of its reluctant samurai, Kanjuro, work on another level, saying something about entertaining the masses while still carrying the burden of an unfulfilled soul. It speaks of the paralyzing effects of loss, as both Kanjuro and the prince who he has been charged with entertaining both mourn the deaths of those they held dearest to a plague brought into the story through mention only. Kanjuro’s grand gesture to his daughter, passed along in an impassioned performance by a half speaking half singing monk, has the sort of deep significance that could only come through sacrifice. Considering the director’s more trifling early ventures makes this film an even stronger statement.
As the 5th spot was difficult to determine, here are some honors for two other truly remarkable films:
HONEY PUPU (Taiwan) - a densely coded, brilliantly colored blast of alien logic on the impermanence of all things (including us), told about and perhaps for a generation longing for nostalgia but totally fluent in virtual technologies. Abstracted beyond any followable logic, if that bothers you, you’re not likely to enjoy it. If you can let go and enjoy the ride, then strap yourself in and prepare for take off.
VULGARIA (Hong Kong) - a whip smart, low brow assault on good taste, with both inside cultural and universal humor a plenty, that takes shots at the film industry, yet at the same time works as a sincere tribute to those that put everything on the line to make movie magic.
Thank you to everyone on the New York Asian Film Festival team for making this magic happen!
And thanks to friends, new and old, who made the festival an especially good time to be had!!
Me on twitter = @mondocurry