06/26/2016

NYAFF 2016: “If Cats Disappeared From the World” & “The Mermaid”

by Matthew Hawkins

Time for yet another look at what’s worth checking out at this year’s NYAFF. In this particular case, we’ve got two movies in which stars are not quite human…

If Cats Disappeared From the World

One of the New York Asian Film Festival’s key distinguishing characteristics is how it occasionally highlights movies that, for some, are a bit too much. I’m confident that the forthcoming The Tenants Downstairs will be the next great example of this. Which is why, every once in a while, during a screening you may hear someone in the theater audibly gasp. Either in shock or even disgust. In some rare cases, you may even hear the sound of someone gagging. But not so during If Cats Disappeared From the World; the only thing I could make out was sniffling. Lots of it. The film, based upon a novel of the same name, is about a young man who leads a fairly quaint existence; he loves his job, delivering mail for the friendly residents of some modest suburbia, as well as the cat that waits for him at the end of each day. He also loves feeding said cat and watching movies, apparently one everyday, provided by his best friend at the local video store. To some, the fresh-faced postman’s life is rather boring and mundane, yet he finds immense satisfaction in the simplest of pleasures, hence why he lives for the present and gives zero thought towards the future. Until a mysterious fall of his bike lands him in the hospital, where the postman learns that he has a malignant brain tumor and could drop dead at literally any moment. So basically, he has no future. Since there’s honestly not a whole lot that can be done, and given his priorities in life up till this point, the only thoughts that comes to mind are appropriately silly and inconsequential, like how many more movies will he be able to see before his number is up, and how it’s such a shame that he just stocked up on shampoo. Side note: lead actor Takeru Sato has some amazing hair that I’m legit jealous over.

Anyhow, the postman arrives home from the hospital to encounter… himself? Or someone who looks just like him. This doppelganger claims to be a devil of some sort and tells the postman that he will die tomorrow for sure, but is willing to grant one extra day if something from the world disappears without a trace. Ultimately it’s never the postman’s call and instead the devil simply makes the selection that our lead must simply deal with. The first thing suggested? Phones. The devil points out how they’re just nuisances that robs and squanders everyone’s time and attention, which may be true of cell phones, but all phones? The postman is given the chance to make one last call and it’s his ex. She works at a movie theater, and after work the following day, the former couple have a cup of coffee to reminisce over the good times. Turns out, telephones played a major part in their relationship; before they knew each other, she called his house while he was watching a movie, intending to reach another classmate. But because she recognized what he was watching via the sound alone, since she too is a film buff, they started hanging out. As for their dates, those were fun and all, but because the postman (well, before he was a postman, cuz he’s still in school at this point) is so shy when it comes to face-to-face interactions, he’d rather just talk on the phone. So they’d share these long, intimate conversations, and then both are too sleepy during their actual get-togethers. All of which vanishes once the devil decides to pull the trigger; despite the iffy CGI, it was fun watching the postman freak out, as he runs all over town and witnesses all signs of phones vanishing, like the local cell phone shop transforming into a book store. And because phones never exists, that chance wrong number was erased from history as well, along with the entire relationship that resulted.

And thus we are introduced to If Cats Disappeared From the World’s pattern; once the devil brings up the next everyday object that’s set to vanish, the postman is reminded of how vital a role it played in the story of his life. BTW, after phones are movies. Which aside from sealing the deal with his college girlfriend, are what got him talking to the quiet kid in the back of class in the first place, a huge film nerd and eventual best bud. Who also happens to be portrayed by Gaku Hamada, one of my favorite actors in Japan, and who I was introduced to via the films of Yoshihiro Nakamura, one of my favorite directors in Japan. Nakamura happens to be a flat out genius when it comes to telling tales about the deep human connections made possible via the most seemingly inconsequential of things, and If Cats Disappeared From the World feels a bit like one of this movies, albeit with the wackiness dialed back. Plus the whole notion of coming to terms with loneliness and death is presented in a fashion that’s more commonly seen in Japanese cinema these days, meaning it tries a bit too hard at pulling those heart-strings and is also at times rather heavy handed. Which I normally can’t stomach (as some may have noticed by now, I’m rather harsh when it comes to standards pertaining to movies from Japan), yet it totally works here, as evidenced by the fact that there was barely a dry eye in the house. The credit largely goes to the stellar cast, not just Sato and Hamada but everyone else on two legs, though the performance of those in one four legs is what everyone will gravitate towards the most. As one would expect, on the devil’s list of stuff to get rid off are cats, who played a very central role in terms of the postman’s relationship with his mom and his dad. I’ll say no more, other than I’m supremely confident that If Cats Disappeared From the World will win this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Audience Award. I give the movie my highest possible recommendation; it plays one more time, this Monday, June 27 at Lincoln Center, and if you can be there, then by all means, be there.

The Mermaid

The Mermaid is the latest and perhaps most successful film from Stephen Chow, at least when one looks purely at the numbers; it’s China’s highest grossing film of all time, last I checked (though that Warcraft movie may end up changing those box office records). Some will no doubt be disappointed to hear that Chow’s only behind the camera this time around, but given that he’s the film’s writer, producer, director, and composer (he actually did all that and was in front of the camera for Kung Fu Hustle, and perhaps discovered that it was a bit too much all at once), his presence is felt throughout. Some have also hailed that it as one of Chow’s finest efforts, though not to act like some film snob, but I have to wonder if these people are familiar with his earlier films; I used to claim God of Cookery is his best overall, though it largely resonated with me at the time cuz I was a diehard OG Iron Chef fan at the time, plus it’s been a while since I’ve seen it again. Though there is something I can agree with every other review I’ve read thus far; it’s insane how Sony did little to promote the movie when it first appeared in the US. Get this; The Mermaid actually came out in America earlier this year, with absolutely no fanfare.

The film is about Liu, a filthy rich real estate tycoon who is as scummy as those types tend to be. He purchases some land under the sea known as the Green Gulf, which is protected from any sort of development due to it being a dolphin sanctuary. So he comes up with a plan to utilize sonar technology that causes unbearable pain, as to drive them away, though it harms (actually, flat out kills) all sea life. Cut to the after party where Liu is celebrating and Ruolan, the daughter of one of his rivals, suggests that they become business partners, and well as sexual partners. When all of a sudden they’re interrupted by a party crasher, a young and semi-awkward woman who passes along her phone number to Liu, before getting kicked out. Her name is Shanshan btw and we then follow her home, which happens to be an abandoned oil tanker that’s inside the Green Gulf. There we discover that she’s no ordinary girl but a mermaid! Part of a tribe of merpeople, who are all simply referred to as mermaids, both the men and women, which secretly inhabit the Green Gulf. And who are also becoming ill thanks to Liu’s shenanigans, so the plan is this: once Liu is on a date Shanshan, she’ll just kill him and get their revenges.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the reason why Shanshan can move around above the ground is because her tail got sniped, though it’s still a bit awkward for her to walk, hence why she prefers to get around with a skateboard. Anyhow, Liu does end up calling Shanshan up and their time together is rather awkward since they’re both act like fish out of water. And, as one may have also guessed, things don’t go according to plan due to the assassin falling for her target. Turns out Liu is a nice guy after all, which naturally upsets Shanshan’s people. Especially their leader, who instead of being half fish is half octopus, for mostly comedic effect; he ends up interacting with Liu and his posse by posing as Shanshan’s uncle, and at one point has to heat up and cut off parts of himself while also pretending to be a sushi chef, while tagging along Shanshan’s second date/attempt as assassination. I should perhaps point out that the film is very special effects laden, and I generally can’t stand CGI in most Asian cinema (I hate the overuse of CGI in Hollywood as well, but at least they have the money and resources to do it slightly better). Yet I didn’t mind it here, mostly due to the fact that the visual tricks are pretty essential. The most important thing here, especially given that it’s a Stephen Chow flick, is the humor and The Mermaid doesn’t go overboard with the gags but has just enough of Chow’s trademark absurdist comedy to make fans happy. There’s one scene in which Liu attempts to inform the authorities about the existence of mermaids, and their inability to figure out what half is human and what half is fish worth the price of admission alone. Alas, much like many other Chow flicks, it’s tonally all over the map and gets rather dark near the end, but given that it’s to send a message, one that’s primarily aimed at a country that has a rather checkered history as it pertains to the environment (to put it mildly, though it’s not as if China’s the sole offenders across the globe), it too can and should be excused. If you missed your chance to catch The Mermaid the first time around, which we all did, your next opportunity is Saturday, July 2 at Lincoln Center.

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