06/28/2013

NYAFF 2013: “The Bullet Vanishes” & “The Lady Avenger”

by Matthew Hawkins

So, how was E3 and LA? Great! Unfortunately, the details will have to wait. And not just because I should honestly talk about PAX East, No Quarter, and Comics Vs. Games 2 first. Well, there’s that. Instead, it’s time once again to talk about…

The New York Asian Film Festival is GO. Today was the first day, of the 12th edition no less, though it’s actually been kinda/sorta going on for the past week. In the form of the pre-NYAFF, “Jackie Chan Experience”. And because the NYAFF 2013 trailer has yet to hit YouTube or Vimeo, here’s the sizzle reel for that instead!

It was pretty rad; got to see Drunken Master 2 on the big screen! We’re talking about the uncut ORIGINAL Hong Kong version, with the unmodified audio and aspect ration, all in glorious 35mm. Along with a back-to-back viewing of Project A and Project A2. Both are also Jackie Chan’s absolute best and total must-sees.

But I’m here to detail the NYAFF proper, and there’s a LOT to go over. Starting with…

The Bullet Vanishes

The Bullet Vanishes opens in a Chinese munitions factory, circa the mid-1920s. A young factory girl has been accused of stealing a box of bullets, and the guy who runs the place has gathered everyone else to watch her fate be decided “by the heavens”, which in this case is Russian Roulette. She dies. Two weeks later, bodies starting piling up at the factory left and right, but the bullets responsible cannot be found. How come? Some say it’s the spirit of the deal girl, out for revenge. Enter Inspector Song Dalu, played by Lau Ching-wan (without question one of the greatest HK actors of all time, FYI), who has developed a serious knack for getting to the truth; to determine if an inmate was indeed falsely accused of murdering her husband and that he actually committed suicide she said, Song Dalu hangs himself to re-create the crime, almost killing himself in order to uncover the truth (turns out she’s innocent after all). He gets reassigned to the big city, where he encounters Captain Guo Zhui, aka the fastest gun in town. And these two guys, whose only common strand is the desire for justice, have been given the duty to uncover the truth by the “Phantom Bullet” mystery.

What follows is a whoduntit told with breakneck pacing, brilliant acting, and a level of craftsmanship that is second to none. Which, to be honest, was hardly a shocker; The Bullet Vanishes is yet another reminder that, when it comes to Asian cinema, absolutely no one does it better than Hong Kong (sorry Japan and Korea). It delivers exactly what one might hope for, at least to those of us who love movies from HK to death: a super stylish and turbo charged take on Western film conventions, which in this case are Sherlock Holmes-esque capers, along with 80s buddy cop flicks. On that note, the thing I love about Hong Kong movies the most is how it doesn’t try to deconstruct Western tropes, but instead builds upon them, to make them anew with zest and vigor. Much of the cynicism you find elsewhere gets tossed to the wayside, and the attitude transfers to the viewer; you root for the good guys, not because you’re supposed to, but because you want to. The movie does throw you curve balls, as it’s supposed to; it’s a murder mystery after-all, but not the stupid kind you find in most Western fare. Admittedly the ending is a bit predictable, but once again, the whole point is to follow the numbers, to empower the movie’s underlying subtext. Which in The Bullet Vanishes is echoed by Lau Ching-wan’s examination of why good people do bad things.

I can’t recommend The Bullet Vanishes enough, but unfortunately, the screening I attended was its one and only. And that’s my biggest complaint about this year’s NYAFF; most movies are only shown once. There are 60 films this year, the most ever, so showing everything twice in the allotted amount of time would perhaps been impossible. Still sucks nonetheless. Anyhow, I wouldn’t hold my breathe over the possibility of an international distributor, though the chances of coming across The Bullet Vanishes in the wild is still far greater than coming across…

The Lady Avenger

One major focus of this year’s NYAFF is Taiwan Black Movies, a completely forgotten genre until recent years (in which examples on VHS tapes were found literally in a garbage bag in the Taipei Film Archives). And the very first offering was The Lady Avenger, which was banned in Taiwan, like every other examples of the genre, so pretty much all prints were seized and destroyed by the government. Hence why the copy we watched was shown on Betamax. Good luck trying to find a copy yourself!

The Lady Avenger is your prototypical Taiwan Black Movie. It reminds the audience that its a man’s world and women are nothing more than hunks of meat to be used and abused, until one says enough is enough, and at that point, get the hell out of the way. Things kick off with a woman, Chu, running for life in the middle of the wilderness. Eventually she’s shot in the back, and with her dying breath, she reaches out for… cosmetics? It’s actually a commercial shoot, and a very strange one at that, which ends up with the actress walking off set. She then decides to hitchhike back into town, and is picked up by some playboy in his sports car. Who, surprise, turns out to be a rapist piece of sh*t. Thankfully none of the sexual assaults in the movie are shown, but we do get the lead up and it’s painfully uncomfortable. It’s debatable if the wonky translated dialogue (“I’m going to sample your sex appeal”) lessens the edge or just makes it worse.

Chu decides to go after the rapist, Li, via legal channels. Unfortunately he’s super rich, and also a guy. Chu’s lawyer advises her client to not even bother, cuz she has no chance in hell of winning the case, plus Li’s influence will make sure the media paints him out to be the victim. Chu refuses to back down, but unfortunately, she does end up being humiliated on the stand and Li is set free. This causes Chu to completely lose it, and she attempts to kill Li, but that ends up not working, so she then kills herself. Wan-ching, who is the only reporter to see through Li’s bullsh*t decides to go after the jerk-off even more so and pays the price. She too is raped, by a bunch of Li’s cronies (who at one point swings Wan-ching around like a human jump rope, for whatever reason). Even worse is how she’s dumped by her fiancee immediately afterwards, who becomes embarrassed to be associated with a woman who has been dirtied (when his gal pal was trying to expose Li, he often cited that maybe Chu deserved to be assaulted; the dude’s a real winner for sure).

With every facet of her life destroyed, Wan-ching becomes the Lady Avenger and extracts revenge on Li and his thugs, using meat hooks, blowtorches, plus bear traps. Unfortunately, the version of the movie I saw was disjointed to put it mildly; before getting killed, each victim gets a box containing something, but due to government censorship (I’m assuming), I have no idea what the hell was inside. Our hero is also not quite the bad ass one might have hoped or expected, though it’s perhaps foolish to think that she would have become some kind of bad ass fighting machine overnight. The Lady Avenger is one of the few examples of the genre that is helmed by a woman, so maybe I should appreciate the slight semblance of realism that the film has. Anyhow, like how The Bullet Vanishes, there was just one screening, but there’s several other Taiwanese Black Movies to be found on this year’s schedule, like the somewhat similarly titled Woman Revenger.

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