The New York Asian Film Festival: Mad Detectives, Sad Vacations and Teenage Wastelands 

The seventh annual New York Asian Film Festival, now swollen to a 43-film lineup big enough to trample Tokyo, runs at the IFC Center from June 20-July 3rd, and at Japan Society (kicking off their own Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film, and featuring several co-presentations) from the 3rd to the 6th. A sampling:

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Assembly (Feng Xiaogang) The opening Chinese Civil War battle is all art-directed monochrome and rumble-pack camera, like a 40s-themed first-person shooter game, but cutting every time an extra squibs out. (Proposed: Most first-person shooter games are actually more moral than most war movies — alignment with a single precarious perspective makes for a less distanced impression of one life to lose.) As, curiously, 47 loyal Red Army soldiers hold a fort (curious because 47 is to Japan as 300 is to Greece), Feng calls in the cavalry, godly crane shots and slo-mo bronzing of an atmosphere of last cigarettes and manly gestures. (Nobody actually ever says, “Don’t you die on me!” but in a way, that’s all anybody says.) The Greatest Generation reverence becomes explicit in the postwar second hour, as the post-traumatic sole survivor digs through abandoned mines and red tape for evidence of the valor of his unknown-soldier comrades. A recent-historical Chinese blockbuster, Assembly is never anything but politically correct, so it feels like the “earn this” coda of Saving Private Ryan — only, you know, earned, for its literal unearthing of war’s cost.

Kala (Joko Anwar) Cops and reporters and nightclub singers in fedoras and suspenders and shirtsleeves chase a McGuffin along back stairways and streets lit by gold-glowing street lamps: Indonesia’s the ideal setting for a sunshine noir, even if Kala is ostensibly more of a CGI hellraiser. (Concerning the supernatural as secret history; à la Buffy, our heroes have library cards.) Still, Anwar’s evil-under-the-sun atmospherics are preferable to his beheadings, hordes of bats, piles of dismembered bodies — kept in check, the factory-produced goth stomper over the end credits suggests, only by a meager f/x budget. (Though that doesn’t explain the literal-minded editing, practically Powerpoint.) Also of note is the narcoleptic protagonist, occasioning, for I believe the first time in the history of cinema, an extended close-up of a character struggling valiantly to stay awake during sex.

Mad Detective
(Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai) Before the opening credits, titular bloodhound Lau Ching-wan recreates a recent murder, having his partner zip him into a suitcase and roll him down four flights of stairs; jumping out of the case, he shouts, “The killer is the ice cream shop owner!” Director To can stuff a moment so full of genre resonance that bursts, and outpaces your usual overidentifying profilers by having Lau bury himself in the woods, and order a suspect’s favorite four-course meal until he vomits out insight. The guts-or-nuts promise of the title is fulfilled as Lau carries on a dialogue with the ghostly remnant of his wife (played from his perspective by tough cookie Kelly Lin, rightly cast by Olivier Assayas as the last woman standing in Survivor: Late Capitalism, aka Boarding Gate), and sees through people to the below-the-title cast playing their true selves. More than missionary-position mindfucks like The Sixth Sense and Identity, Mad Detective accelerates — the doubled character configurations are squared, cubed, so that by the time To restages The Lady from Shanghai’s hall-of-mirrors endgame, people are shooting at the glass reflections of each other’s multiple personalities.

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Compartively, To’s Sparrow is a lark, a musical without songs; you can tell a lot about a director from how he treats the art of picking pockets, and Sparrow, like all To set pieces, is pure choreography, its symmetrical plot (each twist turns Simon Yam and his gang successively, variations on a theme) completely free of exposition. Or perhaps it’s a city symphony: along with To’s usual bulging low-angle prostrations at the feet of skyscrapers, there’s Yam’s Man with a Camera snapshots, love notes to Hong Kong in motion.

The Rebel (Charlie Nguyen) Turns out we did kind of win the Vietnam War, if the biggest bankbreaker in an otherwise floundering film culture makes anti-colonial resistance (against the French) the stuff of martial artistry ready for export into the global genre-film marketplace. As fast as fists and feet fly, cuts jump, effectively eliding some scenes down to business while reducing others to their greatest hits. Blink and you’ll miss it, except who can go a whole movie without blinking?

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Sad Vacation (Shinji Aoyama) Dispassionate character student Aoyama, favored by Japanese critics and Americans with region-free DVD players, catches up with the surviving characters from his first feature, 1996’s Helpless, and 2000’s Eureka, taking his sweet-and-sour time before ripping off scabs. Even if you haven’t seen its forbears, Sad Vacation’s Up documentary-style assumption that these people are simply worth spending time with carries affectingly over.

This World of Ours (Ryo Nakajima) Obviously, doctor, I’ve never been a 19-year-old Japanese schoolboy, but when a director working off a script he wrote as a teen associates bullying and academic performance anxiety with terrorist bombings, I’m not convinced he’s even old enough to know how bad life gets. Nakajima’s a former hikikomori, but his insight into his country’s drop-out culture is as teen-angsty as his characters are: scenes of A Graduate wailing face-meltingly about wage slavery and “the frames society puts you in” suggest a very recent familiarity with introspection. Repping for teenage-wasteland nihilism, meanwhile, is a gang-rape party edited in fast-forward and scored to Beethoven’s Ninth, taking place under, can it be, apparently it can, a Clockwork Orange poster. Zit-close digital photography, like a cell phone self-portrait, reveals everything except the world beyond arm’s length.

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