07/02/2010

“I’m Cyrus From New York City! And This Is Mr. Ken From Osaka”: The New York Asian Film Festival 2010 Part 1

by Matthew Hawkins

In this post:
1. Part one of my NYAFF 2010 report!

One of the absolute best reasons to live in New York City, and without a doubt my favorite part of the summer, is back once again. And since I’m somewhat overdue for a NYAFF report, I should really get down to business, but first… As if it needs to be stated once again, things are a little this time around. Here’s a few thoughts regarding the festival thus far…

- I don’t hate the new location (the Walter Reade theater, at Lincoln Center) nearly as much as I had anticipated, but that’s mostly due to how it’s one of the few theaters in Manhattan (perhaps the only one) that has matinee prices. $9 to see a movie may not seem like a bargain to the rest of the country, but compared to $12.50 everywhere else on the island, it is. That being said, aside from having to deal with the inconvenience of the 1 train, as opposed to the A (which is an express train, as opposed to the 1 local, and the 4th Street stop is literally in front of the previous prime location, the IFC Centre), the Columbus Circle area is mostly for rich, old while people, and is far more boring and expensive (especially when it comes to food options) when compared to the West Village.

- Last year’s edition was heavy with Japanese gore content, which unfortunately exposed the genre’s overall weakness, at least the current iteration and at this point in time. Which is how most of it is produced by the same two folks, and how they haven’t managed to top themselves with Tokyo Gore Police, at least not yet. Though it its defense, the movement is still in its infancy, yet perhaps that made the decision behind the spotlight somewhat foolish. Meanwhile, this year’s emphasis has been on kung-fu, which is partly inspired by the Subway Cinema’s overall mission to fill in the shoes of Chinatown’s very much missed Music Palace, and partly to capitalize on the recent resurgence of martial arts flicks in Hong Kong, thanks primarily to the smash success of Ip Man. And thus far, I’ve been enjoying the results! Enough to give at least one gore flick a chance to fill things out.

- I’d say my biggest beef with this year’s festival is that it’s simply too damn short. Normally the action gets rolling around mid June, and ends about a week into July. The wrap date is the same here, but for whatever reason, things kicked off far later, with the end result being a two-week run, as opposed to the usual three week-ish. Furthermore, usually whenever a movie sells out, or if there’s time in the schedule, a repeat showing is added. But not so much this time, and I’m guessing everyone’s hands are extra tied this time around. Hence the tight schedule to begin with; either distributors are asking for more money this time, or the new venue’s not as flexible, perhaps both, along with other factors that we’re all unaware of.

- I’ve also heard many people quietly complain about the overall selection this year, and it’s mostly due to the fact that there isn’t a five star, absolutely must see before you die, life changing experience film like last year’s HOUSE. But hey, those come along once in a lifetime practically, and you can bet that the Subway Cinema team is trying their best to bring forth as many gems on the same level as possible!

… Still, it’s been a fun week thus far (damn, the fest is already halfway over), so let’s get on with the rundown. Thankfully, at least a few of the movies I’ll be detailing have yet to have their second screening:

Ip Man 2

With much of the above in mind, may as well kick things off with the sequel to one of last year’s biggest hits, both in its native land at the NYAFF, and the festival’s opening night film this time. The sequel immediately picks up where the first one left off: Ip Man has left China with his wife and child to start a new life in Hong Kong, to extol the virtues of wing chun as a martial arts instructor, where the business of kicking ass is quite profitable, at least to some. Initially Ip Man sits in his studio, sipping tea all day long, with no one under his wing. Till at long last, some snot nosed punk shows up, claiming that if Ip Man can kick his ass, he’s got a student. And of course that’s just what happens, plus the dude brings his friends to class as well. As most already know, Ip Man is famous for being the man who introduced wing chun to the rest of the world, but his primary claim to fame is his numer one practitioner, and his most famous student, Bruce Lee. So when this aforementioned young man show up looking like him, I figured, okay, this is who the movie will primarily revolve around. Spoilers: not really, it’s just a guy who looks an awful like him (who does make an appearance at one point).

Instead, the movie primarily revolves around Ip Man facing resistance from the local martial arts instructors, which are governed by one guy, played by Sammo Hung. The big boss demands payment for the very privilege of doing business, plus he’s got the local authorities under his thumb. Needless to say, Ip Man is considered a threat by the status quo, especially since his kung fu is better than theirs, and the inevitable face off between Master Ip and Master Hung ensues (yes, Sammo Hung plays a guy named Hung in the movie, which is like the 47th time this has happened). Spoiler #2: it’s just as magnificent as you can imagine, actually more so (Hung did all the fight choreography for the first movie, and somehow managed to top himself). But then a funny thing happens; they sorta become friends? Not really, but the real enemy of the movie turns out to be the foreign element once again. In part one it was the cold hearted and ruthless Japanese, this time it’s the arrogant and disrespectful Westerners, who believe their boxing is far superior to the Chinese equivalent.

Ip Man 1 was a perfect kung fu movie, top to bottom, and I’m afraid to say that the sequel doesn’t quite stack up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good stuff, just not as amazing as part one. Ip Man 2 features all your favorite faces, including a surprise return of a bad guy from before, whose now reformed. Though you also have Ip Man’s brother, who was shot in the head by the Japanese (which didn’t happen in part one, but was inserted during the prequel montage during the start credits, and its incredibly goofy looking). The resulting brain damages creates a loose canon that goes around stealing roast ducks from assorted food vendors and ultimately becomes nothing more a completely unnecessary subplot. It also features just as many amazing fight sequence as before, if not more so, but the context is not as compelling this time around, so the impact is somewhat diminished. Spoiler #3: the fight between Ip and Hung, which takes place early on, is so mind-blowing that the rest of the flick’s action simply pales in comparison. The primary issue is that the story is flat-out not as interesting, plus how… and without giving too much away… the latter part of the film dissolves into Rocky 3 of all things. Like many part two’s, it plays it safe by going through the same motions as before; perhaps there was a desire to do something totally off the wall, but due to the fact that it’s supposed to be based off of real people and events, I’m guessing some options were not available (though the ending is so ridiculous that I have yet to do the research to see how much was B.S.). At the very least, any deficiencies is more than made up via the aforementioned Ip/Hung showdown.

Yet another thing not helping is how I saw it directly after another martial arts flick that absolutely blew Ip Man 2 out of the water, despite that film’s pedigree…

Raging Phoenix

How’s this for a plot. A spunky, hot headed, but ultimately gold hearted chick drummer who almost gets kidnapped by an insidious underground organization that produces an aphrodisiac for the rich and powerful, which is created by pheromones that are extracted from the tears of sad girls, is instead kidnapped by a rag-tag bunch of misfits (there’s four dudes, and three of their names are Dog Shit, Pig Shit, and Bull Shit… the other guy doesn’t have a wacky name, cuz he’s the normal guy/love interest, you see) who all know the fine art of Meyraiyuth, which is a form of hip hop dancing and drunken kung fu combined. And naturally, she wants a piece of the action as well, so they teach her the ways, though her skills unfortunately causes more trouble than good!

I know what you’re saying: gee, that sounds like pretty much every Thai martial arts flick under the sun. And for those of you who wonder why I almost exclusively watch Asian films at this point, its cuz I like how the above plot line is practically routine in such a world. Anyhow, it might be easy to dismiss such a premise (certainly not helping is one of the more generic sounding titles to come down the pipeline) and assume the movie will have decent enough action, perhaps some okay performances, all wrapped in an ambitious production that’s super rough around the edges, leaving you with “what could have been” if the proper elements in place like so much of its brethren. In the end, okay but nothing truly spectacular. But not here; I kid you not, Raging Phoenix is easily of the best martial arts flicks to come from the entire continent of Asia in the past five or ten years, period. In many ways, it actually surpasses Ip Man 1, which most will agree is the current gold standard.

There are countless reasons why the movie is so f’n awesome, but for starters and once again, despite the goofy set-up, the action is about as hard-hitting as it comes. The fight choreography is absolutely brilliant; the fundaments are rock-solid and never boring, sprinkled with moves you’ve never ever seen before. As crazy as it is to hear, the film’s notion of dance and drunk fighting totally works because it’s actually convincing; not only is it on the same level of the only other truly great inebriated martial arts spectacular, Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2, technically speaking, but its in a small way slightly superior since it bothers to explain the psychology behind the idea of getting drunk to fight better. And like I said, no punches are pulled; usually whenever there’s an action flick that stars a woman, there’s always a part that pulls back to show “look, it’s a girl here, so she has to take it easy on some level.” Not so here, and it’s honestly refreshing to see two women beat the shit out of each, like men, even better. The fact that the movie also features an the infection soundtrack, the gorgeous cinematography, a story that actually keeps you interested, and most importantly, superb acting (I’m basically in love with the star, Yanin Vismistananda, who was also in the very excellent Chocolate), is practically gravy, a delicious and utterly satisfying one. I cannot recommend Raging Phoenix enough; it’s a shame that it only got one screening, but at least it’s coming out on DVD later this year.

LA Streetfighters

Whereas Raging Phoenix is one of the best martial arts flicks of this modern era, LA Streetfighter is one of the true, forgotten gems of the mid 80s. Though that’s not to say it’s any good… it’s actually quite awful, yet still very much wonderful. The genesis of the movie, which is sometimes known as Ninja Tuff, is not entirely unique, especially for its time; someone, somewhere, made the realization that no one had yet to craft a movie that primarily features such and such fighting style, in this case Tae Kwon Do. So they got a legit master of the discipline, in this case Jun Chong, and sloppily assembled a movie around the guy. Often these narratives, as well as the star, primarily his acting chops, is shaky and unspectacular. But sometimes there comes a movie that is so profoundly wretched that, as the adage goes, bad becomes good, stupid becomes brilliant, and trash becomes high art.

Where to begin? Oh boy; Chong plays a man named Young, with the irony being that he’s actually noticeably old. Way too old to be a high school student, yet the film opens up with a 40 year old guy acting too cool for school. Almost immediately he befriends Tony, the new student, who instantly becomes part of the gang. Though things are complicated when Tony starts seeing this girl, who happens to be the sister of the rival gang. Or does it? As for Chong, his life is tricky due to the fact that his mom is a drunk that’s always bringing strange white men to their house after a night of boozing it up. But that’s okay, cuz Young keeps himself busy, along with his new be-fry Tony and the rest of the gang, by taking up odd jobs, either for local drug lords or some dinner theater, throw surprise birthday parties, and yuk it up with dudes as they take a shower, which for whatever reason is not locating in the bathroom, but the living room of their HQ or club house, or whatever. Don’t forget getting in fights with dudes with didgeridoo at the liquor store, or getting totally pushed around by hookers. The movie plays out like either a visionary director’s fever dream, or simply the best some poor overworked editor could come up with, given all the pure shit footage that was forced onto his lap. You’ve probably seen countless movies with nonsensical transitions, laughable excuses for lighting, and “what the fuck did he just say?” dialogue, but never in such a combination, I guarantee it. Though despite the celluloid train wrecks, two truths were revealed to the rest of the word: all Korean men are indeed mama’s boys, and we all love bananas.

The film itself is actually not all that forgotten; it’s apparently somewhere in the Neflix library, though I’ve yet to find it, and it regularly shows on Starz as well, though to little fanfare. But I knew I absolutely had to see it on the big screen, since it was clear in the advance that festival’s organizers held the film in the highest or regards (especially with the statement: “What last year’s House did for the horror film, LA Streetfighters does for the 80′s action flick”). And the midnight showing at the IFC Centre was indeed an awesome one, mostly due to the boys at Subway Cinema being totally drunk and in MST3K mode, which was a first in all the years I’ve been attending. Their attire was also choice; it was the same attire as one of the gangs in the flick, the Spikers, consisting of a baseball shirt that’s cut off at the stomach and “CALIFORNIA” splashed across the chest. Who btw was in the movies for a grand total of 35 seconds. In the end, I loled, as did Dave and Joe who came along for the ride. If you ever see the names LA Streetfighter or Ninja Turf pop up on your digital cable channel guide, DVR that sucker!

Crazy Racer

The movie begins with a professional cyclist coming in dead second in his latest race. Hence why it totally makes sense to become the pitchman for some energy tonic, despite how sketchy the person peddling the drink might be, plus he could use the money. But when it?s discovered that the liquid contains elements that is banned in competition, him and his coach are kicked out of the racing league forever (despite the fact that he doesn’t actually use it to give himself an edge). Years later we catch up with Geng Hao, former cyclist, currently a guy that hauls frozen cargo around in the back of his refrigerated truck. He also has to take care of his former mentor and only friend, who suffered a heart attack due to the stress of his disgrace. When the mentor kicks the buckets, Geng decides to get the money for the funeral expenses from the person that is ultimately responsible for all this trouble in the first place, who happens to be doing quite well for himself at this point, enough to hire a bunch of dudes dressed as Superman to peddles his wares. This is plot A.

Plot B involves a gaggle of gangsters, led by a fat dude whose missing two digits. Plot C involves a silent by deadly Thai cyclist, who also happens to be a drug runner and assassin, trying to broker a deal with the aforementioned fat crime boss. Plot D involves two bungling assassins hired by the aforementioned power drink mogul, to kill his portly wife. And thus we have all the primary characters in Crazy Race, which could be best described as a Chinese Guy Richie flick. It pretty much has all the elements from Lock. Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, except everyone is speaking Mandarin; you have the ultra stylish cinematography, the lightening fast cutting, and the same basic character types: a washed-up type trying to outwit a bunch of fast-talking but ultimately dimwitted, back-stabbing tough guys, while simultaneously dealing with shitty circumstance after shitty circumstance. Because it’s par for the course, many of the characters run all over the place, constantly just missing each other, often oblivious of each other’s very existence.

But here’s the problem, or at least my problem: I can’t stand Guy Richie films, and as a result, Crazy Racer was less than impressive. At the very least it doesn’t lazily slide by with the wacky Euro accents, which is a real crowd pleaser for whatever reasons, so you can actually understand everyone this time around… thanks to subtitles of course. And while it also doesn’t try too hard to be quirky like the typical Richie flick, much of the action does come off as contrived, even though everything makes sense. Actually, no it doesn’t; when you have such a whirlwind of events and personalities, the pay-off at the end has to be satisfying, and it most certainly is not, making the whole effort a taste of time. Another minus is the loss of Vinnie Jones, but at least performance of the lead this time around, Huang Bo, is top-notch, so much so that I’m going to try and catch the other movie he’s in, Cow, despite not originally planning to. So yeah, I didn’t love the movie, but perhaps others might.

Confessions

If there’s one thing the Japanese excel at, its crafting tales that demonstrate how vicious and flat-out f’d up kids can be. Case in point: Confessions is all about two middle school students, in the prime of their awkward phase, who for nothing more than absurdly selfish and insane reasons, murder the daughter of their teacher. Never mind the circumstances surrounding her only child and the father; the woman is justifiably devastated. But worst of all is how the law is not on her side; in Japan, minors can essentially do whatever they want, even be ruthless killers, and get away with it scott free. Not helping is how the teacher doesn’t have all the evidence in hand to point a finger, but she knows they’re guilty, deep down in her bones. Hence why she resorts to revenge; i.e. contaminating the killers’ milk with AIDS blood.

What follows is a look at the two kids that did the deed, the events and circumstances leading up to, along with the after effects of the teacher extracting pay back, including those around them. Saying anything else would be spoiling one of the absolute best revenge flicks I’ve personally seen. Though perhaps it’s safe to say that despite the teacher’s hunches being generally correct, the specifics behind the two kids motivations and actions are quite different from what was assumed. But more so than the gripping story and mesmerizing performances, is the intoxicating look of the movie. It basically looks like a music video from the mid 90s, something by Matt Mahurin, but as an entire motion picture. You simply have to see it (as well as be a child of MTV, back when it was actually good) to understand. With as many twists and turns as a summer blockbuster, but replace the CGI special effects with raw emotion, and you have (thus far) the best movie I’ve seen all year. Also, bonus points for having Boris in the soundtrack.

There’s one more screening left, this July 4th, and heartily recommend anyone who can to make their way to the Japan Society to witness it (especially on the big screen). I was seriously blown away, plus Hilary enjoyed it quite a bit as well, and so will you I gather!

Alright that?s it for now, gotta split. For another screening? Actually no; seeing Faith No More in Williamsburg later tonight!

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