New York’s annual gathering point for the prodigious pop of Eastern national cinemas begins this runs from June 22-July 8 [see page 59 for complete listings]; here, a sampling of this year’s offerings. Check back next issue for a preview of the last leg of the fest, from July 5-8, co-presented by the Japan Society’s Festival of New Japanese Film.
After This Our Exile (Patrick Tam) Shot, with the luminous fluidity of a bead of milk bottle sweat, by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s D.P. Mark Lee Pin-bing, and edited in shifting tempos by Tam (who was a notable Hong Kong director in the 80s, edited Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time, and directs again after spending several years teaching), this melodrama of familial disintegration is pure aesthetic sophistication — in the service of a narrative jumping from runaway mom, to petty criminal rageaholic dad, to subtext-mouthing kid, depending on which character can point the way to a fresh hell, in scene after scene (after scene) compressing deep currents of emotion into ratatat temper tantrums.
The Banquet (Feng Xiaogang) Ziyi Zhang high-kicks and double-talks through glinting armor-plated extras and acres of brocade arranged as a vague Hamlet palimpsest; even the CGI-enhanced blood spurts have their own choreography, though, and the sensory overload is simultaneously overwhelming and numbing, in keeping with the post-Hero generation of Chinese period epics. The way to watch these movies is to think of the emotional displays (ambition, longing, loyalty, duplicity) and plot twists (betrayals, homecomings, suicides) as being, like the color-coded sets and slo-mo contortions of martial artists, formal elements to be patterned and admired for their ritualized sumptuousness.
The City of Violence (Ryu Seung-wan) Korean retrofitter has the premise that keeps on giving — big-city cop returns home for childhood friend’s funeral; finds his adolescent stomping grounds curdled with corruption and his old running mates either drop-outs or sell-outs; conquers nostalgia via vigilantism — flashbacks from 1987 (A Better Tomorrow’s release year), and a villain with a jheri-curl. Ryu’s a polymorphous pasticheur, alternating please-sample-me blaxploitationisms and Morricone throb (and team-spirit costuming a la The Warriors) for two-against-the-world Kill Bill bloodbaths, but his gag edits and single-spaced exposition are more hollow-pointed than a Robert Rodriguez shootout.
Dog Bite Dog (Cheang Pou-soi) Fun with the fallacy of imitative form: Hong Kong grindhouser Cheang’s behaviorist vision of third-world poverty takes the form of an exploitation flic reveling in its own visceral repugnance. People on the fringes of society, you see, live like animals, so Cambodian feral child-turned-hitman Edison Chen (who even looks a bit like Jet Li) is unleashed in Hong Kong for a cat-and-mouse game with bad lieutenant Sam Lee, playing out in basement-level noodle shops and trash-mountain ecosystems, all rendered in Fincheresque stylized squalor — nocturnal scenes are tinted the jaundiced yellow of post-industrial decay; daytime’s a chlorine-saturated murk. Asia Extreme goreporn-fetishizing fanboys can get their (rather orientalist) kicks, and bully for whichever foley artist figured out how to replicate so perfectly the wet crunch of a Mag-lite bashing in a human skull — but, guys, it’s like the WWII-era propaganda poster says: Is your trip really necessary?
Exiled (Johnnie To) The Mission cast reunion (decamped from Hong Kong in favor of Macau) is the action movie as the mail-order catalog version of a male bonding excursion. Lots of stand-and-shoot posing, Leone-style mile-long stare-downs and Wild Bunch “walk things”; the characters can’t even flip a coin without the soundtrack wailing over the grandiosity of it all. But the plot’s emphasis on loyalty among low-level triads (the grunts are led by international cinema’s reigning stoic-in-reflector-shades, Anthony Wong; the boss they defy is hammy megalomaniac Simon Yam) is a genre-movie trope inflated with sincerity, thanks to To’s recently developed sense of tonal modulation, and his decision to burnish every frame with candlelight, amber, mahogany wood stain, sepia, or gold dust.
Getting Home (Zhang Yang) Corpse-walking picaresque: by bus, hitchhiking, cart, and foot, a middle-aged construction (Zhao Benshan, broad but unshowy) worker bears his only friend’s body back to his hometown for burial, and gets a cross-sectional view of contemporary China. It’s a pretty straight story (and based, like Lynch’s quirky heartland pilgrimage, on a last-item-in-the-news-broadcast true story), with episodes ranging in tone from “gentle pathos” to “wry irony.” Get to the end, though, and you start to wonder if maybe the decorousness was a way of softening up the censors for the chair-yank revelation of the final destination.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok (Park Chan-wook) Every shot, cut, and element of production design in a Park Chan-wook movie is a showcase for its director’s virtuosity; this has the effect of turning every shot, cut, and element of production design into a punchline, with the kick coming from the director’s superiority in relation to everything onscreen. This is fine for, say, an opening credit sequence embedding the composer’s name in a factory speaker, the costume designer’s name on the pocket of a work uniform, et cetera; but when the movie in question is a screwball love story between a woman who thinks she’s a robot and kleptomaniac in a mouse mask — played out in the fluorescent corridors of an insane asylum — the product is manufactured whimsy amid a supporting cast of bleating grotesques.
The Show Must Go On (Han Jae-rim) In indie-fied handheld and waterbug-smooth jump cuts, rising Korean writer-director Han scales his sophomore effort around another Stunted Everyman star turn from Song Kang-ho. More so than in his film with Bong Joon-ho, Song’s plus-size mood swings — fumbling between rage, buffoonery, and tenderness — are pointedly out of scale with his surroundings: a middle management-level gangster, he’s an embarrassment to the wife and daughter for whose health and welfare his pariah lifestyle provides. Han’s a deft calibrator of ironies, both at work (in the tar-black crime-world set pieces) and at home (in the tear-stained compromise of the domestic sphere), but one is left wondering if his last reel would have been less forgiving of a protagonist played by someone other than South Korea’s leading box-office draw.