I’m a big fan of Asian cinema. So much so that I recently made a new tumblr blog, inspired by the excellent Vulgar Auteurism blog but with an Asian auteur theme. This fascination easily makes the New York Asian Film Festival and its sibling, Japan Cuts, my favorite film event of the year in New York City. In an ironic twist of fate, this time around I’ll be spending the majority of July in Hong Kong, meaning that I’ll have very little opportunity to enjoy the great movies on exhibit in NY. This has not prevented me from obsessively perusing the program, however, and in order to feel that my time has not been entirely wasted on self-inflicted torture, I present to you, dear reader, a list of the top nine films not to be missed at this year’s NYAFF.
The Berlin File (Korea, 2013)
A high-octane espionage thriller depicting the cold war between North and South Korea, The Berlin File manages to capitalize on the reinvigorated genre and infuse it with a distinctly Korean flavor. More Bourne than le Carré, the movie quickly leaves the politically charged plot behind in favor of well-shot action sequences and intense fights. The main protagonist is played by audience-favorit Ha Jung-woo (The Chaser; Nameless Gangster), but his otherwise good performance is overshadowed by co-star Ryu Seung-beom (Crying Fist; The Unjust) who plays a relentless and psychotic assassin. The latter’s brother, Ryoo Seung-wan (Die Bad; City of Violence), directs and does a particularly good job with the more kinetic scenes in the movie, showing great skill with flesh and steel in motion.
Bloody Tie (Korea, 2006)
Bloody Tie is a few years old, premiering in Korea in 2006, but it is well worth catching on the big screen, especially since it did not seem to get enough traction on its first go-around in the US. Another violent crime drama, it depicts a cast of character that includes corrupt cops, meth dealing lowlives, aimless prostitutes, and more double crossing than you can shake Gabriel Byrne’s hat at. The film is less gut-wrenching and more darkly humorous than might be expected, but it is full of good action sequences and some stellar performances, including one by the previously-praised Ryu Seung-beom.
The Complex (Japan, 2013)
Director Hideo Nakata started the J-horror wave 15 years ago with The Ring, and with The Complex he’s back to remind us that Japanese horror hasn’t been wiped entirely off the map. While not as strong as his earlier milestone, this new feature is a nicely chilling story told in a languid tempo and with plenty of lingering shots and unsettling performances. Loosely inspired by the Swedish Let the Right One In, Nakata provides us with a fairly sophisticated, if not exactly innovative, plot involving a potentially unreliable teenage narrator and a creepy boy (not entirely unlike the character Toshio from Ju-On). Judging from this film there is not much new under the sun in Japanese horror, but there are nonetheless still chills to be had for those seeking them.
Cold War (Hong Kong, 2012)
Winner of nine Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor, Cold War comes with quite a bit of buzz surrounding it. It is indeed a great and fun film, even if it is a times a little too clever for its own good. Featuring a host of Hong Kong talent, including the ever-present Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, and Tony Leung Ka-fai, who took the award for Best Actor, it deals with the hijacking of a police van loaded with high-tech equipment and five officers. The film then follows the police’s efforts to negotiate with the hostage takers and mount a daring rescue mission, complete with internal strife and plenty of plot twists.
Drug War (China/Hong Kong, 2013)
Johnny To is an incredibly productive man. So much so, in fact, that he has had two major releases so far in 2013. Blind Detective was shown at Cannes, but shortly before that Drug War was released in China and Hong Kong. Now it comes to New York, and it is a movie well worth watching if you’re a fan of To’s incredibly skillful blend of patient procedural drama and gritty crime thriller. It is his first film aimed at the mainland Chinese market, but it is no less brutally honest than previous films, such as the Election series. To veteran Louis Koo headlines the film, this time opposite Chinese actor and former dancer Sun Honglei (Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan; A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Soup).
Feng Shui (China, 2012)
Feng Shui is your bleak character drama of the season. Directed by up-and-coming Chinese filmmaker Wang Jing (Vegetate; Invisible Killer) and based on a novel by Fang Fang, the film portrays a young Chinese woman, played devastatingly well by Yan Binyang (Memory of Love), who lives through the economic boom of the post-Deng Xiaoping 1990s and whose family left bruised and battered in its wake, not least because of her own overpowering ambition, uncompromising strive for betterment, and simmering fury. With its brilliant depiction of the crowded urban landscapes of Wuhan and its laser sharp focus on one individual family, Feng Shui (so named for the unlucky location of the family’s apartment) manages to say more about the social turmoil of rising China, and of the nihilism of life in general, than most other films in its genre.
Ip Man: The Final Fight (Hong Kong, 2013)
Perhaps the best film so far about the martial arts master Ip Man, The Final Fight focuses on the last period of the legend’s life. Set in Hong Kong in the decades after World War II, it is part martial arts tale and part historical drama, spending time on both the personal life of the aging kung fu teacher and on the broader tensions of life the colonial city. Directed by Herman Yau, who was also behind 2010’s Ip Man: The Legend is Born, the film has seen involvement from the Ip estate in the form of elder son Ip Chun, who appears in a small cameo, and Ip’s student Checkley Sin, who penned the story and acted as producer. Hong Kong veteran Anthony Wong (The Mission; Infernal Affairs; Exiled) stars as the titular character, delivering a performance so powerful that it alone puts this one ahead of the other Ip films.
Never too Late to Repent (Taiwan, 1979)
How often do you get to experience an entire historical subgenre that you didn’t even know exited? Unless you’re very good at avoiding old movies, the answer is probably not that often. Well, at this year’s festival one of the thematic groupings is Taiwan Pulp, showcasing a number of films from the wave of Taiwan Black Movies that came out in the 1980s, as well as the 2005 documentary Taiwan Black Movies, which brought international attention to the forgotten genre. While the documentary itself is not that great despite some interesting historical insights, many of the movies themselves are well worth watching. Perhaps none more so than Never too Late to Repent, the title which initially started the wave of grim exploitation films with its unexpected success at the Taiwan box office in 1979. Part crime drama, part social commentary, and part autobiography of the pimp-turned-actor Ma Sha, this one is a low-budget gem full of charm and grit.
The Warped Forest (Japan, 2011)
Finally there is The Warped Forest, the (superior) sequel to 2005’s Funky Forest: The First Contact. It is likely to be the most bizarre, surreal film you will have the chance to see at this year’s festival, and if you enjoy the type of absurdity that only Japanese cinema seems able to deliver, then it is definitely not to be missed. Director Shunichio Miki is a crazy genius with a keen eye for sexy and comedic charm. His films can best be described as a mix of classic fairy tales, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, Cronenbergsk body transformation, and the craziest fantasy animes – The Warped Forest is no exception.