Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival Wrap-Up Roundtable

The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival is done.

It was a year of change. This was the first year where all of the original founders seemed not to be in the house. It was as if in turning 17 the festival headed off into the big bad world to face it on its own. Now with the lights dimmed and everyone heading home it is time to take stock of what happened and ponder where the festival is going.

As he did with Tribeca Peter set up a roundtable discussion for the Unseen crew to take part in. Joe, Nate and myself took the bait and shared our thoughts and impressions. In a lot of way what you are going to read is a version of the discussions that we had been having in the trenches and in personal emails. 

NYAFF 2018 Wrap-Up Roundtable

Participants: Steve Kopian (SK), Nathanael Hood (NH), Joe Bendel (JB). Questions by: Peter Gutierrez


Any big surprises, positive or negative, from this year’s edition of NYAFF?
NH: I was actually dismayed at how weak the main competition slate was. There were many, many standout films this year, but none of them were up for jury competition.

SK: I never liked the idea of competition films where it is only a small fraction of what is being shown. Tribeca does it slightly better; they have their films broken up into sections but I always wonder about the rest of the films. I always wonder why they picked those films in particular.

The one of the big surprises for me was the seeming high number of truly black and depressing films. I don’t think the festival ever went this dark before. Films like LIVERLEAF, AFTER MY DEATH, RESPETO, and bunch of the others (including the superhero riff INUYASHIKI) just depressed me. I know the world is a terrible place, but geeze couldn’t they have found less [dark] films? I wonder if I liked some of the less [depressing] films just because they had a ray of sunshine.

JB: For me, some of the biggest surprises were the films that weren’t here, like THE OUTLAWS and VIP screening soon at Fantasia, which seem very much like NYAFF films on paper. I’m even more surprised neither NYAFF or Fantasia programmed COLOUR OF THE GAME, which is a very enjoyable HK gangster throwback (that just screened in DC). There were still plenty of happy surprises, like ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, which is sort of like the NOISES OFF of zombie movies.

That’s a great way to put it. Perhaps my favorite film of the fest.

SK: You are right about what wasn’t here. I’m curious if it was just the result of not being able to get them or because the taste in programing has changed.

How about non-screening moments that stood out for you—Q&A’s, awards, and so on?
NH: I liked the musical opening for the HOUSE OF THE RISING SONS screening. That’s the kind of stuff I particularly enjoy at NYAFF.

SK: The drum solo intro to HOUSE was unique. It was cool. It was a true NYAFF moment.

This year what surprised me was the quietness of the audiences. In past years it was loud and rowdy. Everyone talked to each other. I mean I’ve made so many friends at the festival simply because we all talked to each other. This year there seemed to be less talking between random people. This year it was almost like any other non-NYAFF festival, except slightly quieter. People didn’t seem to interact as much. Everything was lowkey especially the openings.

I loved that when Jiang Wu got his Star Asia Award he brought in director Xin Yukun and Sam into the mix of photos. It was as if he were sharing it with everyone.

Those positives are great, but what about let-downs in terms of the fest itself? Not the films, but the way things were organized or presented.

JB: This might be a little inside, but there was not a lot of time between the announcement of the films and the start of the festival. We cover a lot of fests, so we want to schedule our coverage in advance, as best we can. For some reason, many fests seem to be waiting longer and longer to unveil their slates, which doesn’t make any sense to me. In book publishing, the preorder period is getting more and more marketing time and attention, but festivals are just counting on patrons buying tickets a week or so before screenings start. Seriously, for a fest like NYAFF, audience anticipation should be one of their greatest marketing assets, but they are not maximizing it.

SK: Short of some of the smaller festivals I run across, the shortest window I’ve seen was this years NYAFF, it was about two weeks between announcement of titles and festival. And this year the festival didn’t officially announce any titles other than OPERATION RED SEA until they did the full slate. I spoke with a number of people, not just writers, who were unhappy because they could only do a night or a day because they announced the schedule so late.

For me the biggest let down--actually the biggest WTF--was the debacle I, you and several attendees had before the BUYBUST screening. Admittedly I didn’t physically go to a lot of screening (the shortness of the schedule going up meant I had things slotted), so I don’t know what happened at other screenings, but after BUFFALO BOYS the theater manager came around and insisted that we had to leave the theater. We could leave our stuff to mark our seats  but we had to go outside. This was after everyone told us we could stay since they simply checked your ticket (like at Lincoln Center). Thrown out we had to go down to almost 9th Ave to get on line to go back in to find your program gone, my bag moved, as was the stuff left by several other patrons. A woman named Fanny had an exchange of words with one guy who was holding or appropriated her scarf. Another woman named Laura was diving down rows to find her stuff.

If you want to mark where the “we are all family attitude” the festival always had went away, this was it.

To me there’s such a simple fix that’s not a rare practice: just make a separate short line for those who were already physically in the theater. Not that they deserve some amazing special treatment, but they shouldn’t be penalized by being sent to the end of a line that formed while they were watching something else they also bought a ticket for. Okay, so next question. Any genres that were particularly strong or well represented—or the opposite?
SK: Do downers count? As I said this year was pretty bleak--or just seemed that way. There also a shift away from some of the crazy genre films that used to fill the slate. Perhaps it’s what was available. Dramas, heavy dramas were well represented. While there were some crazy action films there didn’t seem to be as many. No Korean gangster films. Also only a handful of true genre films.

I especially missed the Korean crime thrillers. Anything else?

JB: I do miss the over-the-top spirit the festival had six or seven years ago. The Chinese, HK, Japanese, and Korean film industries are so prolific, they could easily program a slate packed with action, horror, and cult weirdness without stepping on the toes of Well Go, China Lion, and CJ USA. On the other hand, they were the first NY fest to program MISSING JOHNNY, OLD BEAST, and LOOKING FOR LUCKY, which are important films, either for their sly social commentary or the circumstances surrounding them, so you have to give them credit for that.

One of the things the programming PR does is break things down by country of origin. Any observations or comments about the offerings from individual countries—either in comparison with each other or with themselves based on past years’ offerings?
NH: The Thai films this year were particularly good. I hope the festival continues to expand into lesser known Southeast Asian markets.

SK: It’s not just  lesser known markets--how about India? I don’t remember any films from India running at the festival. While I know the Indian studios can be difficult to deal with, and I know there is a huge influx of Indian films into New York I know there are more to be screened. I’ve read and conversed with Josh Hurtado at Screen Anarchy for years and he is frequently mentioning all the films from India that need to be seen.

We’ve touched on this a bit, but following from that, how did the fest itself as whole compare with previous years?

SK:: How is it compared to other years? Different. Really different. Even more different than what NYAFF was three, five or ten years ago as JB alluded to above. I mean, when the festival came to Lincoln Center it was like the barbarians storming into Rome. The people going to the festival were not the sort of people who went to other festivals and series at the Film Society. There was a glorious sense of fun and the sense of anything-could-happen. A huge part of that was the original founders Grady, Goran, Marc, Dan and later Rufus who were aided and abetted by Gavin Smith at the Film Society. You can see the difference when you go to something that Grady is involved in--say, his all day movie marathons. With Gavin Smith gone and many of the long-time programmers, the FIlm Society’s taste has become less far reaching and more staid and of a type. It’s the same with many of their festivals, which tend to be safe. NYAFF’s sense of anything-is-possible is gone.

I’ve only been to a handful of screenings this year and it really has been lowkey. There were limited prize giveaways which always pumped every one up. They used to be as important as the films themselves This year those seemed to be almost no excitement for them. And there is no madman on stage flogging the crowd into a frenzy even for serious dramas. I’m not referring to just Grady, because, let’s face it, no one can match Grady, but previously we had Rufus with his wickedly dry wit, and some of the other crew trying to one up each other. I mean in the last couple of years have we had a man strip down to his jock strap and put a pair of panties on his head to be the main character in a film? I don’t think so. Okay, yes, the Sushi Typhoon screenings probably went too far (and probably ended the Japan Cuts co-presentations) but there was this wicked sense of fun. Now it’s kind of like going to some random series at the Film Society.

The festival now is Sam’s festival. He is the face and the main influence. I say this because the festival now kind of mirrors when he was doing Japan Cuts. When NYAFF and Cuts overlapped you could tell which ones were really NYAFF-chosen films and which ones were not. The truly insane stuff tended to drop away. You also saw the difference in the first year the overlap and co-presentations stopped. That’s not a bad thing just something that is different, at least as far as NYAFF’s history is concerned.

And of course more and more Chinese and Korean films come into New York on a weekly basis so you don’t want to repeat unless you have a guest. I know there is now a battle between festivals for films. Plus the festival chopped off pretty much all the retro screenings to run as a separate festival. I know why the changes have happened but at the same time… it kind of lost its uniqueness. And that is the sound of me being disinvited to the festival next year…

In my defense let me say that my feelings have been really influenced by the fact that I do so much festival coverage. I mean, anyone who follows Unseen knows that. Coming into NYAFF I had seen most of the Japan Cuts titles and during the course of the festival I was moonlighting with Fantasia so I’ve seen a large number of films that could have played here but didn’t. Clearly I am a frustrated unemployed film festival programmer--then again that’s why I started Unseen, to essentially program a never ending film festival.

Closing thoughts? Anything we haven’t touched upon?

SK: The truth? In a weird way I think I’m going to do much less with NYAFF from here on out. I think on some level I’m maybe done with it as an all-consuming festival. (Of course it will depend on what shows up next year.)

NYAFF was always home for me. It was a festival I stumbled on and fell into and shaped who I am cinematically. It’s a festival that I’ve watched grow and  change. I know festivals have to change to grow but somewhere in the last couple of years I’ve stopped connecting and caring. I’ve started to wonder “Why are they showing this?” about more than just a single film every year. This year I pondered the whole slate of bullying-themed films.

I know that the difference has been the final leavetaking of the old corps and the change in programmers. Which is fine. But I also know that part of my unhappiness is due in large part to the fact that Unseen is covering so many other festivals around the world and I am seeing what the festival might have been. Right now I’m covering Fantasia in Montreal and I could name at least five films playing there that should have been here.

And I think the biggest part of why I’m stepping a little bit away is the change in the feel. The audience isn’t family anymore. The quiet non-talkative audiences where people expressed their thoughts are gone. So many of the familiar faces are gone--now it’s Kristie, Lee and Sean and maybe an occasional other person. I see more of the old regulars elsewhere but not at NYAFF. For whatever reason NYAFF isn’t NYAFF any more, it stopped being special and it’s just another festival.


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