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.
Directed by Marah Strauch
Opens May 22
Consider Marah Strauch’s Sunshine Superman a spiritual sequel to James Marsh’s hit 2008 documentary Man on Wire. In detailing the extraordinary lengths high-wire walker Philippe Petit was willing to go in order to achieve the spectacle of walking on a wire suspended between the tops of the Twin Towers in 1974, Marsh fashioned, among other things, a portrait of an artist as a young daredevil, so high on the sense of freedom inherent in his chosen art that he is willing to risk life and limb to keep topping himself, achieving increasingly greater heights of personal expression. Strauch’s subject, pioneering BASE jumper and freefall cinematographer Carl Boenish, is strikingly similar to Petit in his energetic demeanor and innocent outlook. “There’s no future in growing up,” Boenish is heard on the soundtrack saying at one point, and, all the way until his accidental death in 1984, he remained true to that childlike sense of wonder, here manifested in his developing interest in not only falling from great heights, but photographing his falls as well—in essence, sharing his dizzying exhilaration up there with the rest of the world.
Boenish’s infectious enthusiasm generally tended to spread to the people around him—and damned if it doesn’t get to us as well. Perhaps the sheer preponderance of Boenish’s self-shot footage is key to the effectiveness of Sunshine Superman. It’s one thing to hear Boenish spouting inspirational platitudes about thinking outside societal boxes and following your bliss; it’s quite another, however, to see the man himself putting his philosophies into mad practice, and moreover, to see his own filmed results as thrilling illustration. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much that the reenactments can sometimes be cheesy, the pacing in the second half somewhat lumbering, the hagiography occasionally oppressive. Such doubts are bound to be swept away when faced with the spectacle of real people momentarily suspended in air, engulfed by their surroundings, experiencing the intoxicating freedom of defying the laws of society and nature. Sunshine Superman may not inspire anyone to climb up and fall from a tall building, but the underlying liberating ethos behind such devil-may-care behavior comes across resonantly and passionately.