From the humblest of origins, the boys at Subway Cinema have become known to native cinephiles as the purveyors of the city's favorite underdog film festival. Now entering its ninth year, the New York Asian Film Festival is being hosted partially at the Film Society at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. The move is a big step up in the festival's profile and possibly the highest rung Subway Cinema could climb in terms of upscale venues (in this city, at least). The L Magazine sat down with Daniel Craft and Grady Hendrix to talk about some of their favorite movies at this year's festival, from each of the different countries represented.
Daniel Craft: 8000 Miles is something I didn't think I'd like after reading the synopsis. Ten minutes into it, I said, "I have no desire to show this." Twenty minutes in: "This is great." It's affecting, it's genuinely funny, it feels real. That'll be a fun one to watch, especially with a crowd. It moved from feeling amateurish to feeling true.
Grady Hendrix: For me, it's Symbol. Some people in Subway really hate it, really did not want us to show it at all. It's sort of the 2001: A Space Odyssey of J-Quirk, that kind of cinema that's like The Taste of Tea or Funky Forest: The First Contact or Survive Style 5+. It just starts out with parallel plotlines that you have no idea how they're going to come together. One of them is the dude, Hitoshi Matsumoto, trapped in a room with no windows or doors; the other plotline is a kitchen-sink realist story about a masked Mexican wrestler going to fight in the ring and he's too old. You have no idea how they're going to come together.
Parts of the beginning are a little boring, like in 2001, and you have no idea where it's going and then there's the big psychedelic thing at the end. It's 5,000 children's penises, masked Mexican wrestlers and a cameo from President Obama. It's pretty mind-blowing. And it's 90 minutes. Too many movies are too long these days. 90 minutes. It's the meaning of life in 90 minutes. If they can do the meaning of life in 90 minutes, they should've let him do The Karate Kid in 90 minutes.
DC: One of the things I'm glad about our Chinese line-up this year is that you're starting to see with a film like Sophie's Revenge, which probably isn't the greatest film we've ever shown, but it is a fun, frothy, silly romantic comedy that really serves to prove that China finally has a commercial film industry. It really didn't for the longest time. They're capable of making this sort of silly fluff. It's Amelie-esque, I guess, and really plays with the public persona of (actress and star) Zhang Ziyi and it's got So Ji-Sub in it.
Tian An Men (pictured) was also really just an amazing find. I went to the Beijing Film Festival screenings this year, (fellow Subway Cinema programmer) Goran Topalovic and I sat through—oh God, ten or fifteen of these "Sixtieth Anniversary" films about the heroic struggle of the oil workers in the 50s or the founding of the republic, these big high-profile things. Gorgeously made but just bo-ring. Just boring. No real story to them. The founding of the republic—it's just a mystery to me how they couldn't make a good movie out of that.
But Tian An Men is just a nice, affecting, well-acted movie about the poor, lowly work unit whose job it is to decorate the square for the proclamation of the Republic. It's political by its nature but not in any specific way whatsoever. There's nothing in it that's going to offend anybody except perhaps the fact that it takes place in Tian An Men Square. It's really, really good and you end up pulling for these guys. We thought that there wasn't going to be any of these "Sixtieth Anniversary" films worth inflicting on a Western audience, not even as a curiosity. But this actually is a good little film and it manages to be patriotic without being brutishly nationalistic.
GH: Watch Sophie's Revenge and Tian An Men back-to-back and your head will explode. But yeah, I'm going to go with Tian An Men because I agree. No one else is showing it, no one else is touching it and China has a whole film industry that no one ever sees, that most people are too good to look at, which are all the regional studios that keep churning out movies, some of which, or a lot of which, are never even released. Tian An Men is a big special-effects extravaganza because they recreated Beijing in 1949 and I think it's—it is affecting, but it's also got a very over-the-top, campy kind of "God bless socialism" message. The movie itself is so ridiculous in its scope. The big challenges in this movie are, "If our lanterns are too small and unbalance the aesthetic of the gate, we need bigger lanterns." That's the giant conflict in the movie, a decorating challenge. "We need more banners so we can make a filled-out display but there's not enough red dye."
It's crazy the minutiae that it deals with and it's mostly stories from the work unit that actually decorated the Tian An Men Gate. It's not going to get enough attention in the festival but no one's screening movies like this anywhere else. Purely as a cinematic vacation to a land where communism won and to see what communist propaganda looks like with modern filmmaking techniques and special effects and not being too horrible—because everybody thinks of these campy 60s movies and 70s movies and the worker's operas and stuff. This is no more propganda for socialism than, say, Forrest Gump is propaganda for capitalism.
GH: My favorite in the Korean line-up is Chaw (pictured). It's basically Jaws if Joe Dante had directed it instead of Steven Spielberg. It's goofy and it's got jokes in it. The monster moments in it, I think, really work. It's a black comedy about a giant pig terrorizing a town. A lot of shout-outs to Aliens and Predator and Jaws but also, there's something so subversive about it. At the end, the rag-tag group has to go out and search for the pig and it's really great. They get out in the woods and forget what they're dong and enjoy sitting around the campfire. It's like that comparing-the-scars scene in Jaws except extended. They come across horrible remains in the woods and they have to restage coming across them for their videographer.
I also want to remind everyone to see Actresses, which is not going to be to everyone's taste. It's really six big Korean actresses playing themselves. A lot of Americans are going to say, "Well, who are they? I don't get it." It's kind of an amazing stunt. It's filmed in real-time to a large extent. Six huge actresses, I mean really big—this would be the equivalent of getting everyone from Susan Sarandon on down to Kirsten Dunst to be in a movie playing Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst and four other actresses. They send up their images and basically act like the paparazzi paints them as. It's a very girl(y) movie and I think it's going to get lost in our very macho line-up, unfortunately.
DC: Gallants, because it's such a surprise to see Shaw Brothers action stars Teddy Robin and Bruce Leung Siu-Liung and Chen Kuan-tai really going at it in these great long-take, no-wire fight scenes. And then the Ip Man films. Last year, Ip Man was one of the surprise hits (of the festival). Last year, we were sort of shocked at how well it went over, especially considering that the screening went so poorly. It played so much better with a crowd that I thought it would. It'll play especially well with Sammo Hung around for the second one.
GH: I don't think that there's any arguable point about this, but this year, summer blockbusters suck. Movies are really just awful this summer. Everything feels like a commercial. To me, what's cool is that we have this line-up of all these old Hong Kong dudes like Jackie Chan in Little Big Soldier, which is the best thing he's done since Drunken Master II. He's 56! Sammo Hung is 58 or 59. Bruce Leung is 60, I think, isn't he? Chen Kuan-tai is either 59 or 60 in Gallants and there's even Simon Yam, who plays the world's ultimate dad in Echoes of the Rainbow. It's like the grown-ups have come back in the room to say, "This is how you do it." Everything in theaters right now looks like a marketing campaign; it doesn't look like a movie. I love the fact that these old dudes, who are all over 55, have come back. The grown-ups have come back, turned the lights on and said, "We'll show you how to make a movie."
GH: Merantau. People are legitimately excited about it. It's hard to ignore Indonesia turning out their own Ong Bak. It's got great set-pieces. It's one of those movies where I watch scenes from and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The two Euro-trash bad guys: they're terrific! The fight in the elevator is pretty amazing. The whole construction thing is actually a really good stunt and scene. I think at the end of the day because the story's really old hat, you come away being really impressed by the scenes but not really thinking, "Whoa, that movie blew me away!" like Ong Bak did because it was so new.
I kind of feel that Indonesia is doing it and that it's worth showing. The guy in it, Iko Kuwais, is certainly good at what he does and he's a pretty good actor but he's a really good stunt guy and a screen fighter, I think.
GH: Raging Phoenix is only good for the crack factor. "Jeeja" Yaning Wismistananda plays a chick who's abducted because she smells good and her kidnappers want to harvest her smells. She's rescued by a gang of b-boys who teach how to use break-dancing and popping and locking to fight. Then she discovers that an even better fighting style is to get messed up on cheap Thai whiskey and do drunken Muay Thai. Then she drinks some insane amount of alcohol in the end to win. It's really ridiculous in a real psychotronic way.
I would recommend Power Kids (pictured) over Raging Phoenix, though. Power Kids is phenomenal. If you like seeing children abused, this is the movie for you.
DC: And dish it out.
GH: I hope they got paid a lot and I don't think they did. It's got all these goofy jokes and really mean gags in it, like making fun of retarded people, making fun of white people, making fun of anyone who's not Thai and anyone that's different. It's really mean in a Hong Kong from the 80s kind of way. It comes at you so fast and ridiculously that it's hard to get upset. The kids are great. I don't now what they did to make them this good.
DC: The villain is Johnny Nguyen from (NYAFF 2009 featured film) The Rebel. Watching him beat up on little kids is fun.
GH: It's a bit like they combined Bugsy Malone with the ending of Police Story and there's so much glass exploding everywhere. So much stunt glass gets broken with these kids' faces in this movie. It's pretty great.