Until American audiences prove willing to shill out for subtitled movies in blockbusting numbers, the New York Asian Film Festival will continue to be the go-to destination for members of the region-free crowd looking to soak up somewhere else’s mainstream. This year’s fest, the fifth annual, takes over Anthology Film Archives from June 16-25, and the ImaginAsian Theater from June 23-July 1. For complete information on the poppily schizoid lineup, see subwaycinema.com; in the meantime, a sampling…
A Bittersweet Life
Gangster-chic entry in Korea’s ongoing “vengeful bloodbath as film violence auto-critique” cycle; these films, inevitably, are too caught up by the rush of their own brutality for their genre-complicating anti-romanticism to carry much weight, but I’ll take Kim’s stylized polish and metronome structure over Park Chan-wook’s virtuoso sadism every time.
Cromartie High School
Bite-sized manga and anime series about titular Tokyo punk institution populated by delinquents, gorillas, robots, and leather queens (with nary a teacher in sight), goosed to feature-ish length with a space invasion plot. The vibe is Adult Swim illogic: when delayed-release bits pay off, they’re even funnier than they should be, because who could see them coming with all the absurdist punchlines cluttering the screen?
Korean swordcrosser begins in medias res and stays there: a tomboy cop’s pursuit (romantic and adversarial) of an effeminate Man In Black amid unrestful political climes grounds, barely, Duelist’s breathless, taffy-colored flurry of activity. It has the broad tonal strokes and shameless music cues of a something-for-everyone flash job, but Lee’s CGI-aided camera glides and invisible cuts are light to the point of fluidity: it’s pyrotechnics without the sooty residue.
(Bade Haji Azmi)
The number one Malaysian film of 2005 apes, slavishly, the gearheaded vacuity of its imported competition in a triplethreader plot tracing the wasted street lives converged in the opening flash-forward car crash. The fast-and-furious scenes of a hedonistic youth gone wild with nightclubbing and drag racing have the slightly ridiculous materialist rush of a first ecstasy trip, but the dominating tone is of moral reproach. (And a fairly regressive flavor thereof: women are killed or violated for the sins of their men with obsessive-compulsive vindictiveness, and it seems to be the only reason any of them are in the movie at all.)
The Great Yokai War
Filter-free Miike — who never met a post-production effect, gross-out gag, meta-wink throwaway, one-quirk supporting character, or (undercooked) metaphor he didn’t like, then tire of 30 seconds later — makes a “family” movie about the shy kid from the broken home who comes of age via the phantasmagoric adventure, in this case a spirit war. ‘Course, The Neverending Story wasn’t designed for gonzo squick factor on a bluescreen backdrop of post-apocalyptic industrial schlock. Subversive, perhaps, and endlessly inventive — but isn’t Miike’s constant chase of the next thrill just a different strain of laziness?
It's Only Talk
Manic-depressive Yuko (a fully committed Shinobu Terajima) and her equally damaged friends drift through an unfashionable part of Tokyo conveyed with Hou Hsiao-hsienian ambience. Hiroki has such an astonishing eye for detail that It’s Only Talk’s flaws — an uncertain ironic distance from characters who view sex as temporary void-filling, and a finale that feels unnatural in light of Hiroki’s prior neglect of some supporting characters — don’t blunt the acuteness of its observations. It’s rare for a movie to get so many things so right— the tiniest physical and behavioral points on the arc of a mood swing, and the roles food and technology play in interpersonal relationships, to begin with, have a revelatory immediacy.
Linda Linda Linda
Three Japanese schoolgirls and a Korean exchange student throw together a pop-punk cover band in time for the senior talent show; Yamashita’s atmospheric, widescreen-witty direction is far more casual than any number of equivalent movies taking the D.I.Y. route to high school catharsis, but the climactic performance of the (irresistible) title song bests them all for nostalgia-justifying singalong triumph.
Three siblings begin their episodic adulthoods in post-Cultural Revolution China, and Gu humanizes them by humiliating them. (Obese simpleton “Fatty” interrupts his younger brother’s class to bring him his umbrella, only for the agonized sibling to deny his kinship. Then, when Fatty wanders idiotically into the girl’s bathroom and is beaten for being a pervert, his younger brother joins the fray, cries, “he’s not my brother,” and stabs him with said umbrella. I swear this happens.) “Spinach cinema” is too complimentary a term for this kind of deck-stacked misery and tinny uplift: Peacock is straight castor oil.
Dueling-ninjas-with-CGI-superpowers set-filler, with a star-crossed twist (Romeo is played by Jo Odagiri, whose particular brand of translucent immersion isn’t quite comparable to any other movie star persona in the world right now), and charged with greater concerns of capital-D Destiny. Shimoyama’s set pieces are choreographed with clarity of purpose necessary for the highest of stakes, and his palette’s rinsed-out sumptuousness is similarly infused with grandeur. This is the period epic of primal visual enthrallment and moral sweep that certain critics mistook The Promise for; a U.S. release is supposedly in the works, but that’s no reason to wait.