Though the New York Asian Film Festival has traveled far uptown from its humble 2002 beginnings at Anthology Film Archives and the (late, lamented) ImaginAsian, the fancier Lincoln Center digs haven’t tamed its mission to present the weirdest and wildest visions that Asian cinema has to offer—mostly popular, but sometimes art-house. (In fact, this year sees the festival returning downtown, in a sense, in its last weekend at the School of Visual Arts’ Beatrice and Silas Theatres.)
This year’s lineup presents yet another wide-ranging case in point. Alongside the likes of its opening-night selection, Philip Yung’s Aaron Kwok-led, Christopher Doyle-lensed crime drama Port of Call, and Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii’s latest live-action film Nowhere Girl, are festival-circuit travelers like this year’s centerpiece pick, Sabu’s Chasuke’s Journey, and Sion Sono’s gangster rap musical Tokyo Tribe. As usual, however, the programmers at Subway Cinema—the nonprofit organization that has overseen this festival from the beginning—have not forgotten the past in favor of highlighting the present, as evidenced by the inclusion in its lineup of films as recent as Tsui Hark’s 2014 3D martial-arts epic The Taking of Tiger Mountain and as vintage as Teruo Ishii’s 1965 prison drama Abashiri Prison and Kinji Fukasaku’s ultra-violent 1973 yakuza thriller Battles Without Honor and Humanity.
Those latter two titles are part of a sidebar devoted to their respective stars, legendary Japanese actors Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, both of whom died in November of last year. Viewers unfamiliar with either of these icons will find their stylistic similarities and differences interesting to witness. With his star-making performance in Abashiri Prison, Takakura’s basic persona was more or less set: as a prisoner at the titular notorious prison facility trying to curb his hot-headed impulses mere months before he is to be paroled, he was already striking to watch for the mix of stoicism and inner sensitivity he exuded on screen. (Those who know Takakura only through his supporting roles in American films like Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza and Ridley Scott’s Black Rain will hopefully take advantage of the opportunity to see him in that and two earlier 1964 yakuza films, Masahiro Makino’s Tales of Chivalry in Japan and Fukasaku’s Wolves, Pigs and Men.) Sugawara’s brand of machismo is tougher and gruffer, as seen in the film that officially put him on the map, Battles Without Honor and Humanity, in which, amid a deliriously complicated series of gangland hits and double-crosses over the span of 10 years after the end of World War II, he offered the closest thing in Fukasaku’s breathtakingly bleak film to a moral compass.
Back in the present, there’s another sidebar devoted to not a specific star or director, but to a production company: Myung Films, which, under the leadership of female producer Shim Jae-myung, has, from its inception in the late 1990s, blazed an alternative path in Korean cinema from the more internationally known films of male directors like Chan-wook Park, Bong Joon-ho, Hong Sang-soo, and others. It was under Shim’s helm that, among other achievements, Kim Ki-duk was able to cause a stir in world cinema with the physically brutal and emotionally disquieting enigmas of his 2000 film The Isle (thus its presence in this year’s lineup). Most noteworthy of their more recent output is Boo Ji-young’s Cart, a stirring based-on-real-events drama revolving around the efforts of a band of struggling women supermarket employees to unionize and rise up against the corporate bigwigs threatening to toss them all overboard in favor of outsourced workers. What Boo’s film may lack in subtlety and nuance, it more than makes up for in sheer activist passion; Cart frequently recalls other pro-union films like Norma Rae in its sympathy for the travails of the working class, summed up beautifully towards the end of the film in a freeze frame of two co-workers aiming a cart at the police officers spraying them with water cannons.
Arguably the film to beat at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, however, is the aforementioned Tokyo Tribe. Sion Sono is, to some extent, one of this festival’s biggest success stories. Granted, his 2008 film Love Exposure had won a couple prizes at Berlinale before Subway Cinema programmed it at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival—but in many cinephiles’ mind, it was that New York screening one Sunday afternoon at Japan Society in July that not only helped bring Sono’s mind-boggling four-hour epic to a wider audience, but brought to Sono himself long-overdue international acclaim; he has since emerged in recent years as one of the world’s finest living filmmakers.
Tokyo Tribe is perhaps not top-flight Sono; for all its energy, it lacks his usual attention to the kind of emotional and thematic nuances that gave multidimensionality to the melodrama of Himizu, his devastating 2011 response to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and even his raucous 2012 love letter to cinema, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? But this gleeful dystopian mash-up of Warriors-style gangster drama and Beat Street-style hip-hop musical is still a Sono work through and through: unabashedly operatic, cheerfully maximalist, and full of nutty flights of fancy that beggars belief in the crazy imagination that gave birth to such visions (hello, beatboxing girl!). As ever with Sono, though, Tokyo Tribe ultimately adds up to a paean to…well, love, basically, as Love Exposure’s final image of two hands gripping each other in solidarity is transmuted into a concluding rap about the power of love to triumph over male-insecurity-birthed forces of hate.